Growing Up With Strictly Religious Parents

International Journal of Cultic Studies, Volume 6, 2015, 16-33.

Growing Up With Strictly Religious Parents: A Narrative Analysis of Second-Generation Memoirs

Terra Anne Manca

University of Alberta, Canada


Religious communities often provide some form of guidance to parents who may understand religion as beneficial to their families. Some religions, however, are socially controlling and can disrupt family practices. Moreover, some people within religious communities that are not socially controlling practice religion strictly. Strict religious practice can impact all members of a community, but children tend to be among those most affected. In this article, I discuss how 10 authors of memoirs, whose parents practiced religion strictly, wrote about being parented. I focus on how the authors presented their parents’ compliance and noncompliance with religious practices and norms that they portrayed as disruptive to child rearing. In most cases, authors attributed any perceived mistreatment to religious demands and wrote lovingly of their parents. Only three authors seemed resentful toward one or both parents for their upbringing. Authors’ understandings of their parents’ actions and the written emotional responses to those actions varied greatly depending on whether the authors represented their parents’ actions as normal in the given circumstances.


For many people, family and religion are mediating structures between individuals and alienating, large-scale societal forces (D’Antonio & Aldous, 1983, p. 15). Although these social institutions can offer various benefits, they have potential for negative influences—such as religiously justified social control and familial abuse. Some religious communities maintain high levels of social control through doctrinal insulation or physical isolation from wider society (Lalich, 2004). Even in socially controlling environments, however, adherents and their families are compliant or noncompliant with specific religious practices and demands. Moreover, families in religions with lower levels of social control can “do religion” in socially controlling ways or even create religious justifications for familial abuse.

Parents may differ in the ways in which they integrate religious norms and practices into their families. Indeed, the ways in which individuals “do religion” can relate to how they “do family.” Religious groups, however, often attempt to regulate the way parents raise their children because parents instill values in children, who form the future of a movement (Bendroth, 1993, p. 101; Wilcox 2004, p. 106). In many religious groups, this concern about parenting results in the socialization and protection of children. Nonetheless, children are subordinate subjects of these organizations and families, and, therefore, extremely vulnerable. Children’s vulnerability is especially apparent in specific religious groups that advocate stern parenting demands, such as extreme uses of corporal punishment geared toward “breaking children’s self-determination” to induce obedience (Greven, 1992, p. 65).

In this article, I discuss how 10 authors of memoirs, whose parents practiced religion strictly, wrote about the role of religion in how they were parented. Each of the authors whose memoirs I analyzed was born into a religious organization and left either late in childhood or early in adulthood. (I explain the specific sampling criteria in the methods section.) These authors are not representative of children’s experiences of being parented within their previous religious communities because I selected them for this project based on very specific criteria. Most importantly, most of these authors wrote about child abuse and/or extremely controlling religious environments in memoirs, which may have been written partly to solidify the authors’ independence from their prior religious affiliation. As such, the vast majority of these authors represented their parents’ religious commitment as having negatively impacted their upbringing. Indeed, only two memoirs lacked evidence of child abuse. Jallen Rix (2010) claimed that, despite the problems he and his family experienced when he came out as homosexual, he had a fairly “normal” childhood. Similarly, Rhoda Janzen (2010) provided evidence that her family was frugal and strict, but also loving and close.

I begin this article with an overview of narrative analysis in relation to my analysis. Next, I detail the sampling criteria that I used to select memoirs. Then, I explain how understandings of subjectivity, cultural contexts, and conceptions of normality affected how authors represented their families’ compliance and noncompliance to religious beliefs. Finally, I describe how authors represented their emotional responses to their parents’ compliance, noncompliance, or abuse and neglect of their children.

Narrative Analysis

Narratives often obscure the complexity of subjectivity by implying that subjectivity has to do with something that people are (i.e., subjective) rather than something that they do (i.e., respond subjectively) (Bloom, 1998, p. 5). Indeed, like religion and family, the self is something that actors perform in relation to their language, various experiences, and social interactions (Bloom, 1998, p. 3). In this way, subjectivities are created and conveyed through social action. Despite this obscurity, narrative analysis allows the researcher to observe nonunitary aspects of authors’ and their family members’ subjectivities (Bloom, 1996, 1998). Subjectivities are nonunitary in that they are inconsistent and often change over time in relation to language, social interactions, and experiences (Bloom, 1996, p. 178).

Narratives reflect personal experiences, which are mediated through narration, memory, and language. Any iteration of experience is an interpretation of one’s past and place through a culturally and historically specific present (Smith & Watson, 2010, p. 31). During narration, individuals actively reinterpret the past, which they unintentionally recreate to reflect genre requirements, which generally include a unitary protagonist; that is, they speak of themselves as if their own character is consistent and unchanging (Freeman, 2004, p. 82; Hankiss, 1981, p. 205). Similarly, narrative analysis enables one to gain unique perspectives about social relationships because the authors’ understandings of these relationships are exposed in narration (Andrews, Day Sclater, Rustin, Squire, & Treacher, 2004,

p. 1).

These narrations, however, are also subject to genre requirements and widespread understandings of common life experiences, which shape authors’ understandings of their relationships (for example, the assertion that children’s current and latter personal stability are based on their parents’—especially their mother’s—nurturance [Andrews, 2002, p. 10]). To fit within a narrative genre, “Autobiographers typically write their life stories within the framework of one or more general plotlines drawn from among the limited number of plausible ones available” (Maynes, Pierce, & Laslett, 2008, p. 78; see also Plummer, 1995, pp. 34–42). Smith and Watson (2010) claim that the motive for telling stories of disaffiliation from family seems “to be scandal, outing, and revenge on a parent for the failure of love” (p. 155). Most authors in this study seemed to seek disaffiliation from their religion rather than their families. For instance, in this study, memoirs conformed closest to disaffiliation genre and plotlines—which included childhood hardships (often mixed with assertions of love for their families), attributing those hardships to religion, and deconversion.

Disaffiliation narratives may involve escaping a “self-sealed” fate, which had operated as an instrument of cultural stability and offset personal responsibility for one’s actions (Bruner, 1995, pp. 161–162). Some religious adherents who view their fate as sealed pursue only activities that they believe to be conducive to their religion. By writing a memoir against a sealed fate, authors claim control over their actions and their escape from the religious power structures.[1] Authors also may have shared narratives for various other reasons, such as overcoming anguish and suffering, claiming autonomy, or offering insights to other survivors (such as the sexual stories that individuals told sociologist Ken Plummer [1983, p. 34], and as seems likely to be the case for Jallen Rix [2010], who’s memoir was a self-help guide for homosexual Christians [see also Andrews, Day Sclater, Squire, & Tamoubou, 2004, p. 104; Smith & Watson, 2010, pp. 28, 219]).

Once disseminated through publishing companies, memoirs vary from other narratives because the authors convinced publishers to sell their stories. The memoirs I analyzed were often written with the aid of coauthors and others. Cowriters, editors, and others assisted in the production of these memoirs because of authors’ literacy levels and personal writing experience, and the need to ensure marketability. To market stories, some authors sensationalize their memoirs in various ways (see Plummer, 1983,

p. 57). That said, authors who claim to love their parents are less likely to embellish parental abuses because doing so could further damage familial relationships.

Similarly, the subjectivity of memories influences the creation of memoirs. Despite popular beliefs that human minds access memories on demand (as though they contain an all-seeing, panopticon scanner), each narration can recreate memories (Bruner, 1995, p. 162). Therefore, narratives are not simply a “factual” account (Roberts 2002, p. 57); rather they are “an account of a person’s life as seen by them [sic] at that moment” (Plummer, 1983, p. 57). Memories provide incredible detail of relationships and emotions. Some authors’ understandings of their relationships with their parents likely shifted between the times of their disaffiliation and their memoir writing.[2] The memoirs I analyzed represented memories of subjective experiences that offer insights beyond a description of facts. In fact, memoirs share experiences that research (including this paper) incompletely grasps. As one of the memoir authors, Erin Prophet (2009, p. ix), stated in her prelude, researchers can gain a reasonable understanding, but they often miss the candid assessment an “insider” would provide. As such, rather than the nuanced expertise of an insider that each memoir contains, my article offers a comparison of one aspect of these memoirs.

Despite the subjectivity of narratives, tactics exist to identify general trends from individual narrations about similar social positions (Denzin, 1981, p. 150). Memories of personal experiences contain invaluable information regarding the social, political, and economic ethos in which the authors lived (Andrews, 2002, p. 11). Common occurrences (stock images) emerge during the analysis of multiple stories from a particular social position (Maynes et al., 2008, p. 81). Through analyzing stock images, the researcher can generalize beyond an individual’s subjective experience and understand how narrators from similar social backgrounds represent their social relationships (Maynes et al., 2008, p. 136).


Findings in this article are based on the memoirs of three men and seven women; the memoirs met specific selection criteria. To find memoirs, I conducted extensive searches and skimmed any books that partially matched the selection criteria. I included only memoirs published by companies. Searches began by hand in the Kent Collection on Alternative Religions, my university’s library, and online through Google, and then branched into searches on, in book reviews, and within annotated bibliographies. Searches involved pairing such search terms as biography, memoir, and autobiography with such search terms as religion, faith, or the names of various religious organizations. I stopped searching when I could find only memoirs that I had already analyzed or rejected for analysis. Although I was extremely thorough, it is possible that I missed memoirs that fit my restrictive criteria.

I selected memoirs based on the following criteria. First, the parents of each author joined their respective religious community before they had any children. Second, I included only authors who suggested that their parents practiced religion strictly, by which I mean that they followed the perceived demands of their religious community closely, belonged to a religious community that demanded a lifestyle that authors presented as deviating greatly from lifestyles outside of their community, or both. Third, I selected memoirs written in English by former religious adherents of various Christian-affiliated traditions, with the exception of healing traditions, such as Christian Science.[3] Forth, I focused on North American memoirs because I am familiar with that milieu and because Americans wrote most of the memoirs that met other criteria. Fifth, authors were born between the 1960s and 1980s and published between 2005 and 2010 (although I did not select for publication date).

Historical periods and locations impact the reception of stories (i.e., a woman reporting sexual assault half a century ago was treated very differently then than she would be today [Plummer, 1995, p. 22]). Authors tailor narratives in anticipation of audience response. During the 1960s, Western society shifted ideas, beliefs, values, and behavior patterns, which evoked fears in some people regarding the sanctity of the family (D’Antonio, 1983, p. 81). The 1960s’ experimentations with various familial and religious structures—communal living, hippie movements, and various new religious movements—receded in the 1970s, and older traditional religions resurged (D’Antonio, 1983, p. 90). Many religious organizations, (especially conservative Christians, Catholics, and Jews) were concerned about family issues during the 1970s and 1980s (Browning et al., 2000, p. 1). In addition, after the Jonestown mass murder/suicide in 1978, socially controlling religions (particularly so-called cults) received extensive criticism from the media, public, and some academics (Hall, 2009, pp. xi, 187). I included groups that are supposedly mainstream and cults because I am interested in any strict beliefs, and differentiations between religions and cults can be artificial. Mainstream groups receive less criticism, but their membership can hold extreme beliefs. Sometimes one “converts to an ideology without the presence of an actual group” (Lalich, 2004, p. 16). Some of the parents in this study practiced strict beliefs without a socially controlling religious community. For example, author Julia Scheeres (2005) suggested that her parents practiced their beliefs far more strictly than the norms in her religious community.

In Table 1, I have included a crude overview of the memoirs that I analyzed. My analysis and write-up fail to capture the richness, depth, and subjectivity expressed in each memoir. Instead, I focus on some of the experiences that appear throughout the 10 memoirs, to grasp at common experiences. Any readers who want a true representation of each author’s narration and an enjoyable read should refer to the memoirs in this table.

Most authors appeared to differ from their surrounding communities primarily through their religious practices. Moreover, (aside from Erin Prophet [2009] and Jallen Rix [2010]), most authors either lived in poverty or had frugal parents who lived a similar life style. Five authors (two men, three women) were former members of The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Days Saints (FLDS) (Jeffs, [2009]; Carolyn Jessop [2008]; Flora Jessop [2009]; Mackert [2008]; and Wall [2009]). These five authors write about similar FLDS church officials, events, and occasionally each other (for example, Flora Jessop wrote about Elissa Wall’s court case).

Other authors had left five different religious organizations. Martha Beck (2005) became a sociologist who was raised Mormon in Provo (a

Table 1

The Authors, Their Memoirs

Name and Memoir

Former Affiliation

Family Size

Summary of Relationship With Parents As Analyzed in Each Memoir

Martha Beck. Leaving the Saints (2005)

Mormonism, grew up in Utah

4 brothers, 3 sisters;

2 parents

Parents as most often totally compliant with religious practices. Beck writes lovingly of her parents, whom she also presents as abusive.

Rhoda Janzen. Mennonite in a Little Black Dress (2010)

Mennonite, grew up in North Dakota

2 brothers, 1 sister;

2 parents

Parents as compliant with practices, strict and loving.

Brent Jeffs. Lost Boy (2009)

Fundamentalist Church of Latter Days Saints, grew up in Utah

More than 20 half- and full siblings; 1 father, 1 mother with 2 sister-wives

Parents as initially compliant and loving. Jeffs was the only author who claimed his parents eventually left their religious community in support of their family.

Carolyn Jessop. Escape (2008)

Fundamentalist Church of Latter Days Saints, grew up in Utah

2 sisters, 1 brother, and half-siblings; 1 father, 1 mother with 1 sister-wife

Close to father and stepmother, somewhat distant from biological mother. Biological mother appears as initially compliant, but eventually supportive.

Flora Jessop. Church of Lies (2009)

Fundamentalist Church of Latter Days Saints, grew up in Utah

More than 300 stepsiblings and half-siblings, 17 full siblings (7 sisters given to incontinent uncle); 1 father, 1 mother with 2 sister-wives

Very distant from father, whom she presents as cruel. Mother as compliant and unable to protect children.

Brian Mackert. Illegitimate (2008)

Fundamentalist Church of Latter Days Saints, grew up in Utah

6 full siblings, more than 24 total siblings; 1 father, 1 mother with 2 sister-wives

Mother as loving and attempting to protect children by seeking marital reassignment from the FLDS. Father as unloving, distant, and abusive.

Erin Prophet. Prophet’s Daughter (2009)

Church Universal and Triumphant, grew up primarily in Montana

1 brother, 2 sisters;

1 mother who had several marriages (1 father,

3 stepfathers)

Mother as loving, but prioritizing role as a prophet over her children’s needs (especially for daughters). Evidence of being close to third stepfather, but focused on mother.

Jallen Rix. Ex-Gay No Way (2010)

Southern Baptist, grew up in California

1 brother, 1 sister;

2 parents

Parents as loving and what Rix considered normal, but initially caught up in church community’s stance against homosexuality.

Julia Scheeres. Jesus Land (2005)

Dutch Reform, grew up in Indiana

2 sisters, 1 brother,

2 adopted black brothers;

2 parents

Parents portrayed as largely uncaring, neglectful, and abusive beyond what Scheeres presented as religious demands.

Elissa Wall. Stolen Innocence (2009)

Fundamentalist Church of Latter Days Saints, grew up in Utah

14 full siblings, 10 half-siblings; 1 father, 1 mother with 2 sister-wives

Parents as supportive and loving, but unable to completely protect their children because of compliance with religious demands.

town in Utah predominantly populated by Mormons). Rhoda Janzen (2010) was from a Mennonite family, which held prominent church positions and followed traditional family roles. Erin Prophet (2009) was the daughter of the messenger (prophet) of Church Universal and Triumphant (CUT), Elizabeth Clare Prophet (1939–2009). CUT combined Christian beliefs with Eastern traditions and New Age spiritualism. Jallen Rix (2010) was the homosexual son of heteronormative Southern Baptists. Finally, Dutch Reform parents raised Julia Scheeres (2005) and her five siblings.

Common themes emerged within these memoirs’ representation of parental behaviors and emotions. Most religious groups in this study regulated families through religious practices, community norms, and widespread compliance to those practices and norms. Some understood their parents through unique cultural tools, which were specific to their religions and lives after disaffiliation.

I anticipated most authors would claim to have experienced abuse by their parents or other religious adherents or both, which they would attribute to religious demands. Nonetheless, I found immense variation among authors’ emotional relationships to their parents, which fit within common themes.

Analyzing Narratives of Subjectivity, Culture, and Relationality

I conducted a thematic narrative analysis of the memoirs, in which I attempted to remain true to each author’s narrative while comparing the narratives’ differences and common themes. First, I read each memoir, compiled a summary, and highlighted initial themes. I then transcribed sections of text about authors’ understandings and emotional responses to what they represented as their parents’ compliance or noncompliance with religious demands. Other important themes pertained to subjectivity and child abuse. My findings were undoubtedly influenced by my assumptions and experiences such that other researchers may have focused on different themes.

Assumptions that I brought to this project were based partly on my previous work on new religious movements (NRMs). For instance, I had expected most authors to present their parents as incapable of questioning religious doctrines. I challenged assumptions by watching for contradictions and alternative representations by parents. I paid close attention to authors’ representations of relationality, nonunitary subjectivity, and cultural influences. These factors were formative in authors’ changing assessments of their familial relationships in comparison to their also dynamic conceptions of a normal family. I use the term normal throughout this article to denote the authors’ conceptions of normality, which are based on their personal and ever-changing standards of evaluation.

People experience the world in dynamic sociocultural and historical contexts, which influence their emotions, interpretations of experiences, and therefore their nonunitary subjectivity (Bloom, 1998, p. 98; Bruner, 1995, p. 163). Authors used their cultural context to interpret events. In religious organizations, this context centers on doctrines and social organization. Moreover, interpretations and emotions interact with identity, which is relational (meaning constructed in and from relationships with others [Eakin, 1999]). As such, the autobiography of the self is also a biography of the other; despite failing to capture fully the complexity of subjectivity, narrative offers immense insight into relationships (Day Sclater, 2003, p. 322; Smith & Watson, 2010,

p. 216).

The author who most openly represented another’s voice and relational identity was Julia Scheeres (2005): “I chose to tell my brother’s story as a memoir because in many ways, our story is the same” (p. 352). Scheeres identified as “we” when describing her life with David, her adopted black brother and best friend. Likewise, Martha Beck (2005) explained her relational identity with her father, which formed during an emotionally repressed “acquaintanceship” in which he raped her (p. 122). Yet, she identified with his physical traits, behaviors, and history of having been sexually abused.

Relationality was central to all discussions of family history and early childhood. In addition to interactions with others, authors rely on narrative inheritances (the stories and myths that families share about events, which are beyond an author’s personal experience). Families construct stories as “one of the chief mechanisms ... for defining who they are as a family, including what they believe, what they value, and how they should act” (Daly, 2003, p. 777). These stories include renditions of family trees and familial histories that each generation may retell, as well as stories that circulate within the family about its current generation. Stories that families construct are always somewhat mythological, “selective, manipulative, and political,” and they often construct a sanitized family void of such complexities as alcoholism and family violence (Daly, 2003, p. 778). The authors’ narratives continue this lineage and provide insights into authors’ relationships with their parents (Craib, 2004, p. 67). Nonetheless, these memoirs may differ slightly due to their fit within the genre of disaffiliation narratives.

Each author’s subjectivity is dynamic and complex beyond what a memoir can represent (Andrews, Day Sclater, Squire, & Tamoubou, 2004; Marcus, 1995, p. 47). Bloom (1998) termed this complexity nonunitary subjectivity. She asserted that claiming an individual is static and unitary “masks the critical roles that language, social interactions, and pivotal experiences play in the production of subjectivity; and ignores the multiple subject positions people occupy, which influence the formation of subjectivity” (p. 3). The “narrator” is, therefore, attached to multiple, mobile, subject positions (Smith & Watson, 2010, p. 63). Even so, Smith (1998) warned, “Any autobiographical practice that promotes endless fragmentation and a reified multiplicity might be counterproductive since the autobiographical subject would have to split itself beyond usefulness to be truly nonexclusionary” (p. 434). Therefore, any recognition of nonunitary subjectivity must be limited enough to grant credence to the author’s text.

As nonunitary subjects, authors were simultaneously influenced by loved ones, religion, and surrounding society. These influences led many authors to depict their parents’ actions were normal within the religion, yet abnormal when compared to wider society. The religion and surrounding cultures acted as contradictory “tool kits,” through which authors evaluated their families. A tool kit “is a dynamic and changing system of meanings and symbols that provides a means for examining the flow of family experience in context” (Daly, 2003,

p. 774). Tool kits also form authors’ standards of evaluation (what one believes to be normal): “In formulating stories that describe their family, people think about how the plot enacted by their family members measures up to what ‘should’ have happened” (Vangelisti, Crumley, & Baker, 1999, p. 338). These standards shift throughout one’s lifetime, especially when one has new experiences (such as exiting a religious organization), which allow for the utilization of new cultural tool kits.

Narratives of Parental Actions and Conceptions of Normality

Andrews (2002) found that some people socially position their parents to offset blame for a harsh upbringing (p. 14). Authors used dynamic standards of evaluation to assess how they believed social conditions confined their parents’ actions. In the remainder of this article, I discuss how the authors presented their parents’ compliance and noncompliance with social circumstances (specifically, religiously based demands and practices) in relation to their standards of evaluation.

Authors often based prior standards of evaluation on religious doctrines and norms because several religious organizations in this study (especially the FLDS and CUT) isolated members from nonmembers and mainstream media. As such, Rhoda Janzen explained that she and her sister had “inferred that non-Mennonites were capable of anything. The world seemed especially hospitable to serial killers in unmarked white vans” (2010, p. 54). Other authors (especially former FLDS members) detailed that they feared outsiders because of both isolation and community narratives that labeled outsiders as evil. For example, Brian Mackert (2008) claimed that he was taught that non-church members “hated us and wanted to destroy us because we were God’s chosen people” (p. 14; see also F. Jessop, 2009, p. 16; Wall, 2009, p. 153).

Nonetheless, authors reevaluated their families after glimpses of the outside world. Mackert imagined his father’s detachment in comparison to the affectionate fictional fathers on television: “If this was the norm, why was it that my own father hardly even acknowledged my existence unless I was in some sort of trouble?” (2008, p. 163). Flora Jessop saw a family camping and prayed that they would adopt her: “I wanted so desperately to see what it was like to have a real family, a family with one dad and one mom. A family who loved each other, who were nice to each other” (2009, p. 94). Likewise, Scheeres claimed her parents were abusive to the extent that she viewed fictional families as more authentic than her own:

When the Brady kids got in trouble, their parents didn’t hit them or tell them they were counting the days until they moved out. They got grounded, not whupped. They got talked to, not threatened. There were no stomach-churning wait-until-your-father-gets-home pronouncements....

...In our minds, they were the real family and we were the fakes. (Scheeres, 2005, p. 266; italics in original)

Scheeres presented her parents’ abusive actions as abnormal given her social environment.

Whether authors understood their parents’ actions as normal based on their standards of evaluation related to their emotional dispositions. For example, Scheeres’s and Beck’s accounts were of parents who were abusive. Yet, Scheeres (2005) wrote of a standard of evaluation that denoted that her parents’ abusive behaviors stemmed from an abnormal lack of love. Whereas Beck (2005) wrote of love for her father because her standard situated him within social conditions that limited and normalized his actions (which she characterized as heinous).

Indeed, many authors represented that abuse and neglect were normal within their religious communities. For instance, Carolyn Jessop explained that she did not inform her father that her mother beat her and her siblings because “It wasn’t considered abuse; it was considered good parenting” (2008, p. 13). Even

her use of the word abuse reflected how her standard of evaluation transformed after she left the FLDS. Similarly, Flora Jessop attested that, in FLDS families, “terrible violence and chaos” was commonplace (2009, p. 21). She emphasized that she sensed that her father sexually assaulting her was wrong, but not abnormal. Elissa Wall explained that life in the FLDS “was the only thing I knew and the only way I could imagine living” (2009, front matter [“The Prophet’s Will”]).

Although families from different religious communities preformed their roles in relation to different social norms, doctrines, and social constraints, all religious organizations in the study (with the possible exception of female-led CUT) either adhered to traditional gender roles or were moderately to extremely misogynistic. FLDS families, for instance, had one father and one or more mothers. FLDS mothers interacted hierarchically, with the priesthood head (father) as the family authority. This hierarchy meant some mothers witnessed their children’s abuse or discipline at the hands of their sister-wives and husbands. Brent Jeffs, for example, stated that his mother used “time-outs and other nonphysical forms of discipline,” but that he and his siblings experienced harsh discipline from her sister-wives (2009, p. 30).

Most authors understood these social conditions and sympathized with their parents, whom they represented as nonunitary subjects. Authors formed complex understandings of how their parents “did family” and “did religion,” which demonstrated their love, despite any parental shortcomings.

Nonunitary Subjectivity and Parental Action

Lalich detailed how individuals respond to the social structure and interpersonal relationships in “cults.” In Bounded Choice, she explained that individuals commit acts that outsiders would consider crazy (such as mass suicide and murder) because the acts are “consistent with an ideology or belief system that they trust represents their highest aspirations” (2004, p. 2). Similarly, I found that all authors provided examples of their parents acting within religious demands, despite apparent contradiction with familial commitments.

High levels of religious commitment imply compliance with doctrines: “…the impermeable, albeit invisible, confines of the structure do not allow for the possibility to ‘act otherwise’ in any significant sense—unless, of course, the person leaves the group” (Lalich, 2004, p. 18). Several authors implied that their parents questioned or did not comply with some religious demands. This questioning and noncompliance demonstrated authors’ beliefs that some parents did “act otherwise” in ways that impacted their emotional disposition (and, occasionally, their overall well-being). Several parents in these memoirs negotiated their social position and “did family” in such a way that risked harsh discipline from the community for minor victories. Although several authors claimed that their parents had acted otherwise in efforts to help their children, only one family did not comply with enough religious demands to collectively leave the group.

Descriptions of compliance and noncompliance were common to all memoirs. One parent at times complied and other times did not with some or all religious doctrines and community power relations. Moreover, some parents’ actions were simultaneously noncompliant and compliant (i.e., some parents did not comply with specific doctrines through other religious mechanisms). Very few acts of noncompliance (and possibly none by parents) transformed power relationships.

I created four main categories of compliance and noncompliance with church doctrines and norms that authors narrated (see Table 2). Accounts of noncompliance occurred either through religious mechanisms or against them, and accounts of

compliance were total or hypocritical. Noncompliance against religious mechanisms involved descriptions of parents’ attempted prioritization of children’s needs over religious demands, such as when parents contacted excommunicated children. Noncompliance through religious mechanisms involved parents who authors claimed sought help from religious authorities in often-futile efforts to protect their children. Authors claimed parents attempting total compliance tried to follow religious doctrines perfectly. Hypocritical compliance involved authors detailing parents who followed some doctrines, but deviated for self-gratification (i.e., drinking liquor or committing adultery). All hypocritically compliant parents—Scheeres’s parents (2005), Flora Jessop’s father (2009), and Mackert’s father (2008)—were presented as neglectful and abusive.

Authors acknowledged how social conditions limited parents who were noncompliant or compliant (but not hypocritical), which allowed them to be loyal to their families and religion simultaneously. Alternatively, These parents appeared to have nonunitary subjectivities, authors presented parents who seemed hypocritically compliant, as if their abusive actions resulted from innate cruelty that they could not attribute to social conditions. Authors with hypocritical parents underemphasized their parents’ nonunitary subjectivity and shared few emotions beyond anger.

Noncompliance Against the Religion

Authors presented noncompliance against religion as deeply problematic for most parents. They implied that parental noncompliance was inconsistent or intentionally limited, to avoid discipline from church authority. Noncompliant acts could signify lapses in religious commitment that most religious adherents experience, but “it is the resolution of such crises that pushes the believer to believe even more strongly” (Lalich, 2004, p. 18). These parents appeared highly committed to their religion, despite noncompliant actions (which could represent nonunitary subjectivity and their conflicting roles as parents and adherents). Indeed, according to the memoirs, all parents (except for the Jeffs) maintained their religious involvement while the authors were underage.

Brent Jeffs portrayed his mother (Susan) and father (Ward) as initially compliant with FLDS’s demands (2009, pp. 26–27). Jeffs and his siblings faced hardships because of his parents’ compliance with FLDS norms and doctrines (including alleged sexual assault from his uncle and future prophet, Warren Jeffs). As a result of

Table 2

Four Categories of Compliance and Noncompliance

Noncompliance against religious mechanisms

Actions parents take to prioritize family needs over any religious demands, norms, or practices.

Noncompliance through religious mechanisms

Actions parents take to prioritize their families over any religious demands, norms, or practices through the support of religious authorities or texts. These efforts often lacked success.

Total compliance

Actions parents took to adhere perfectly to religious demands, norms, or practices. These actions were presented as stemming from deeply held religious devotion.

Hypocritical compliance

Actions parents took to deviate from selective doctrines for self-gratification, and that often appeared to harm children.

religious commitment and other issues—including his father’s anger problems and the post-traumatic stress he suffered after military service—Jeffs described his father as loving, volatile, and inattentive, and his mother as both protective and submissive (2009, pp. 9, 38, 49, 80). Jeffs recognized limitations of his parents’ capacity to care for their many children. For instance, he stated that his father, who had three wives and 20 children, “must constantly disappoint, reject, ignore, and/or fail to satisfy at least some wives and kids” (2009, p. 9). Moreover, Jeffs claimed his parents “felt like they had no choice” but to let their eldest son Clayne live with “a young man outside the church” (2009, p. 87) after he had acted out because Ward’s second and third wives wanted him out of the household. Susan and Ward, however, became noncompliant following the death of their granddaughter.

Jeffs’s grandfather (the late FLDS prophet Rulon Jeffs [1909–2002]) asked Ward to prioritize religious demands over his family—specifically to cease contact with his excommunicated son, Clayne, whose daughter had passed away. Ward responded, “I’m choosing my family” (Jeffs, 2009, p. 110). Jeffs argued that this decision was difficult: “…my father and mother were crushed. They had wanted to practice their religion and pass through the gateway to the celestial heavens”

(2009, p. 111). Although the extent of his parents’ noncompliance sets Jeffs’s narrative apart, other authors presented their parents as nonunitary subjects who questioned certain religious demands.

Former FLDS members Elissa Wall and Carolyn Jessop explained that their parents did not comply with some doctrines. For instance, the FLDS often married underage women with much older men. Wall’s father, however, prevented her older sisters from marrying before age 18 (Wall, 2009, p. 41). As such, Wall expressed hope that her father would protect her and love her. She stated, “Seeing him in the evening was the highlight of our day” (2009, p. 30). Likewise, after Carolyn Jessop became an adult, she stated that her mother’s noncompliance exceeded what her standard of evaluation led her to expect. For example, when she told her mother about her husband’s physical abuse, her mother told her to leave him, “which was an extraordinary turnaround for a true believer like my mom” (Jessop, 2008, p. 276).

Similarly, Martha Beck claimed her mother briefly did not comply with Mormon gender roles. Over the phone, Beck’s mother shared knowledge that Beck’s father had sexually abused her, and that his mother (Beck’s grandmother) had sexually abused him. By the end of the conversation, however, Beck stated, “I felt as emotionally battered as if I’d just crawled out of an alley where I’d been raped and tortured. My mother’s reaction was to suggest that I could make the rapist a nice birthday cake” (2005, p. 134). Furthermore, within days Beck recounted that her mother denied the conversation (2005, p. 131). Beck seemed to suggest that church gender norms dictated her mother’s actions. Yet, this deviation demonstrated her mother’s behavioral inconsistencies and nonunitary subjectivity.

Noncompliance Through Religion

Noncompliance through religious mechanisms involved complying with certain religious demands in an effort to avoid complying with others. Authors suggested that parents who did not comply through the religion (with the exception of Rix’s parents) found little relief. These efforts ranged from finding ways to accept a child’s sexual orientation to requesting reassignment (divorce and remarriage to a man whom the FLDS church authority determined). Each of these cases demonstrated role conflict and emotional strain for parents.

Jallen Rix wrote that he was raised in a “stereotypical middle-class, tract-house family” (2010, p. 17). He stated, “My childhood was wonderful,” but provided examples of his parents’ strict discipline and traditional gender roles, which suppressed his sexual identity (2010, pp. 24–26). When Rix informed his parents that he was homosexual, he said his mother responded, “This is worse than when your sister died” (2010, p. 105). Church members pressured Rix’s parents to excommunicate him (2010, p. 206). Rix understood the influence of his parents’ beliefs on their interactions because he had once attempted to become an ex-gay. The ex-gay movement involved Christian organizations attempting to convert homosexuals into either heterosexual or sexually inactive beings.

Yet, Rix stated he always hoped his parents could accommodate their beliefs in order to accept and love him. His parents maintained their religious beliefs, but over the years became more accepting. When Rix’s 12-year relationship fell apart, his mother was supportive (Rix, 2010, p. 218). She said it would have been easier if he had married a woman, but expressed her love: “I was so shocked at what she said that I wasn’t able to absorb the genuine love that she was giving” (2010, p. 219). During one meeting with his father, Rix said he voiced concern that the conversation would become another argument about his sexuality, but stated that his father said those days were over (2010, p. 219).

Wall (2009) shared a dramatic example of noncompliance. Wall’s mother, Sharon, struggled to protect her children without shaking her FLDS beliefs, which dictated that she “keep sweet.” Keeping sweet was a common term throughout FLDS memoirs; it meant “submitting to its rules and leader and through him, God, not grudgingly but happily” (Jeffs, 2009, p. 17). When Wall’s home became tumultuous after her father took a third wife, Sharon refused to keep sweet and talked to the prophet (Wall, 2009,

p. 19). As a result, church leadership reassigned her to a new husband. Wall explained, “I didn’t understand what Mom was trying to do, but I realize now that she was just trying to do the best for her kids” (2009, p. 88). The reassignment, however, diminished Sharon’s ability to protect Wall because her new husband intended to force 14-year-old Wall into marriage with Wall’s first cousin.

After attempting to coax Wall to follow through with the wedding, Sharon again attempted to protect her through religious structures:

Now finally she was trying to lobby on my behalf, but as a woman, Mom had no sway with Uncle Fred [her second-husband] or the prophet. Still, it made me love my mother even more to know that she was listening to me when it seemed no one else was. (Wall, 2009, p. 148)

Wall evaluated Sharon’s actions based on her mother’s intentions. Wall narrated about nonunitary subjectivity when she recognized that Sharon’s love and protective attempts were overshadowed by nearly unconscious compliance: “Knowing the strength of my mother’s belief, I guess it never crossed her mind to question whether this church, this life, was right if it forced her fourteen-year-old daughter into marriage” (Wall, 2009, p. 154). Sharon’s meek noncompliance, however, demonstrated that she questioned Wall’s marriage.

Noncompliant actions within the FLDS were gendered. In the FLDS, mothers could not comply in a similar manner to Wall’s mother, but FLDS expectations for husbands to hold power over their wives created different circumstances for men. Thus, a wife’s consultation with church officials was sufficient evidence that her husband had lost control over her (and their children), which could lead to church officials reassigning the wife to a new husband.

Like Wall’s mother, Brian Mackert’s mother sought reassignment (2008). She had discovered that Mackert’s father had sexually abused his daughters. Mackert expressed love for his mother:

You weren’t always there for us growing up, but you have been there for us as adults as we try to reconcile the past.... I, for one, am grateful for the things you’ve done and love you dearly. (2008, p. 8)

The efforts of Mackert’s mother to help her children long after they suffered failed to protect them, but her efforts did encourage Mackert to love her and to understand her conflicting commitments.

Noncompliance attempts involved religious adherence without the individuals protesting power relations. In response to parents’ noncompliance through religious mechanisms, authors expressed understanding. Authors associated protective noncompliance with love, especially if it deviated from their understanding that absolute compliance to religious demands was normal.

Attempts at Total Compliance

Some authors presented parents as unquestioning, submissive, and compliant, but loving. Total compliance to most religious demands involved family sacrifice and appeared to make possible (though not to determine) abuse or neglect. Authors often implied that totally compliant parents prioritized their children’s needs above their own, but beneath their religious community’s demands. Parents placing children in priority beneath religious demands generally conformed to authors’ understandings of normality.

The compliance of Janzen’s (2010) parents impacted her upbringing primarily through gender norms and isolation, which let her fear the outside world. She witnessed her mother assume traditionally feminine activities (i.e., cooking) while Janzen was banned from activities that allegedly promoted sexuality (i.e., dancing). Janzen characterized her parents as lovingly providing a home that deviated from the standards of mainstream society, but not in ways that she portrayed to be threatening or harmful.

Erin Prophet (2009) argued that her mother, Elizabeth Clare Prophet, cared deeply for her children but allotted little time to family because of the demands associated with her mother’s role as prophet to CUT. Furthermore, Prophet’s mother excommunicated two of Erin’s siblings because of “the belief system that allowed us to delete a member of our family in this manner” (2009, p. 129). Erin Prophet demonstrated that her mother’s abandonment of her sister Moira and (temporarily) her brother Sean prevented deviance within the church and helped her mother maintain power. Although her mother dismissed Sean from the church, Erin wrote that she soon permitted his return because of his role in maintaining the church and because “Mother had worshipped Sean” (2009, p. 72). Yet, Erin criticized her mother’s preferential treatment of Sean: “...if the girls in our family acted as he did, nobody would worship us. Mother was not trying very hard to build bridges with Moira” (2009, p. 72). With these contradictions between loving children and religious leadership obligations, Erin Prophet demonstrated that her mother’s actions stemmed from nonunitary subjectivity.

Likewise, some authors stated that FLDS parents abandoned children at the church’s instruction to “Let your children go who won’t follow” (Jeffs, 2009, p. 87). Both Carolyn Jessop and Wall questioned whether their parents’ grief over their children leaving the FLDS was, as Wall wrote, “solely out of love and regret for her sons’ pain or for the dual failure that the situation represented” (2009. p. 67). Carolyn Jessop wrote that after her sister fled the FLDS, “The image my father had nurtured for a lifetime was in smithereens” (2008, p. 55). Carolyn Jessop’s sister returned to the FLDS, but their parents only partially reaccepted her. Wall stated that her parents refused to fully cease contact with her brother Travis: “…we were not prepared to abandon a brother and son completely” (2008, p. 84).

Both authors attested that their love and loyalty for their parents delayed their flight from the FLDS. Carolyn Jessop (2008) and Wall (2009) expressed that their parents’ demonstrated their love for their children primarily through compliant actions. Carolyn Jessop explained, “My happiness, in their view, was dependent on my willingness to do the will of God, no matter how painful that might be to me” (2008, p. 82). (In this statement, they refers to Jessop’s father and polygamous mother, Rosie. Carolyn bonded with her mother’s sister-wife, Rosie: “I loved my mother but always had the conflicting feelings of fearing her anger and abuse. Rosie was different. Her stability enabled me to grow” [2008, p. 44]).

In a few cases, however, authors attributed child abuse to the stress of parental compliance. These authors presented their parents as victims of circumstance who expressed their frustrations on their children’s bodies. These parents’ nonunitary subjectivities allowed them to love, protect, and abuse their children simultaneously.

Carolyn Jessop claimed that, when happy, her mother was “a woman worthy of love,” but that she often regressed into a “depressed and volatile” state during which “She beat us almost every day” (2008, pp. 12, 15). After an incident during which Jessop’s school principal beat his students, her mother was protective:

My mother was outraged by the principal’s behavior and told us that if anyone ever tried to hurt us in school, we were to come home at once. She didn’t make a connection between her abusive behavior toward us and the beating that happened at school. Mother managed to think that she was beating us only because she loved us and was trying to make us live godly lives. She didn’t know that our small bodies were unable to distinguish between the two. (2008, p. 40)

Carolyn stated, “I used to wish she didn’t love me,” so that her mother would cease beating her (2008, p. 13).

Carolyn Jessop also stated that physical abuse within the FLDS was normal: “Whatever my mother’s mental issues were, she was overall a much better mother than many of the women in the community” (2008, p. 16). Carolyn attributed her mother’s violence to feeling powerless within a loveless polygamous marriage (2008, p. 15). She portrayed her mother’s slow transition into a protective and loving mother who fled the FLDS: “When my mother left I felt unbearably alone” (2008, pp. 276, 336). She related to her mother’s eventual noncompliance with affection. Nevertheless, even in some memoirs void of such transformation, authors understood abuse as socially determined and claimed to love their parents.

As I mentioned, former Mormon Martha Beck (2005) recognized her mother’s moment of noncompliance, but she dedicated most of her book to her father. Beck attested to loving her father, and she explained that his raping her “wasn’t about lust. It wasn’t even about sex, except as a form of torture or even symbolic death. No, it was all about religion” (2005, p. 208). Despite his emotional detachment and abuse, Beck stressed, “I have no way to judge whether he could have found another path” (2005, p. 297). Beck attributed her father’s abusive actions to his prior experiences in war, his devotion as a Mormon apologist, and his childhood sexual abuse.

Beck (2005) detailed the physical abuse she suffered from her mother less than her father, but she asserted that both parents were abusive and detached because of social conditions:

I both loved her desperately and found her infinitely horrifying, like the Hindu mother-goddess Kali, the source of essential nourishment and malevolent destruction. I didn’t understand that she was probably profoundly clinically depressed, that her behavior was perhaps the result of circumstance rather than innate personality. (p. 44)

Beck attributed some of her mother’s actions to gender norms within the Mormon town of Provo.

Flora Jessop declared that all her siblings who left the FLDS loved and missed her mother (2009, p. x). Nonetheless, she viewed her mother’s compliance as devastating to her family and cautioned, “Blind obedience to evil is still evil” (2009, p. ix). Her mother obeyed demands to give seven of her children to her father’s half-brother, a prominent and sterile FLDS man (who was Wall’s stepfather and Flora’s future step-father):

I would often catch Mom crying silently to herself. She spent much of her time staring into space, a distant hollow look in her eyes. But she never complained. She never spoke against my dad. She never said a word about the seven daughters who had been taken from her. (2009, p. 14)

Flora Jessop explained, “I loved my mom a lot. But sadly, because she was always so depressed and beaten down, she had little positive influence on my life when I was growing up” (2009, p. 25). Instead, Flora said she found love and affection from her grandmother, but that she lacked the much-needed protection from FLDS rules that she and her siblings needed (2009, p. 26).

Flora Jessop provided no evidence that her mother intentionally abused or neglected her children. Rather, she suggested that her mother’s compliance limited her parenting abilities. For example, Flora explained that after her little sister, Ruby, failed to escape the FLDS, Jessop told her mother it was time to change. She wrote that she had heard enough of her mother’s excuses for not protecting Flora from her father raping her (2009, p. 173). She recounted how she phoned her mother on several occasions after she had fled the FLDS and snuck into Colorado City (the FLDS commune) in order to visit her mother (2009, p. 132). Despite her overall compliance, Flora demonstrated her mother’s conflicting commitments. Her mother did not shun her when she visited, warned her when FLDS authorities were attempting to kidnap her back into the FLDS, and even visited her once (2009, pp. 128, 132, 167).

Flora Jessop recognized her mother’s potential to act otherwise in a controlling social environment, and she expected such deviation from what she thought was normal FLDS behavior. Although Flora acknowledged her mother’s role in her abuse, she did not express resentment or blame toward her mother to the extent she did her father. Despite the feelings she expressed towards her mother, Flora’s book presented her father as hypocritically compliant in that he intentionally harmed his children in ways that she suggested were excessive even in her religious community.

Hypocritical Compliance and Detachment

Authors whose parents’ abusive behaviors overshot religious demands wrote about parental detachment. These parents allegedly deviated from beliefs to drink, be adulterous, and inflict excessive corporeal punishment, while they forced strict religious adherence upon their children. In response to these behaviors, authors claimed they felt unloved because their parents provided no protection, showed little affection, and deviated from doctrines to satisfy guilty pleasures. Regardless of their standard of evaluation, all authors expressed that familial love was normal. Therefore, when abuse accompanied detachment, authors rarely expressed forgiveness for their parents’ actions. Julia Scheeres, Flora Jessop, and Brian Mackert wrote about one or both of their parents this way.

Scheeres (2005) held her father responsible for physically abusing her siblings, but she emphasized her mother’s lack of love:

When I was little and teachers had us make Mother’s Day cards in art class and told us to write “I love you” inside, I’d write “no” somewhere near the phrase. I no love you because you no love me. (p. 333)

Scheeres wrote that the abuse in her family resulted from a lack of love, and that children obstructed her parents’ Christian goals. After her parents sent David (Scheeres’s brother) and Scheeres to an abusive Christian reform school, Scheeres envisioned her mother saying, “Now it’s just Jake and me and our dedication to God” (2005, p. 197).

Scheeres argued that this abuse was hypocritical, considering their Christian beliefs. She stated that her parents adopted her brothers, David and Jerome, because “To reject a black baby would have been un-Christian, a sin. God was testing them” (2005, p. 19; italics in original). Even so, Scheeres asserted that her parents mistreated David and Jerome more than their four other children. For example, when David asked whether Jerome would come home for Christmas after he was charged as a juvenile delinquent, Scheeres’s mother said, “Of course not” because she had henceforth excluded Jerome from the family (2005, p. 142). David rebelled by throwing his snow pants—an act for which Scheeres wrote that their father broke his arm: “My throat constricts and it’s hard to breathe. What kind of father would do this to his own son?” (2005, p. 144). Scheeres recalled that her father only once lunged at her, but that he frequently beat and physically scarred two of her brothers (2005, p. 158). As a result, she did not emphasize forgiveness or love for her parents in her memoir: “I thank my parents for bringing me David, but not for the life they gave us” (2005, p. 353). She provided little to no evidence that her parents were nonunitary; they appeared as detached parents and hypocritical Christians.

Similarly, Flora Jessop and Mackert narrated about their fathers’ responsibility for their abuse. Both authors wrote lovingly about their mothers, whose actions they attributed to social circumstance.

Flora Jessop depicted her father volatile and distant: “Even though he was my father, I’d never felt comfortable around him. His temper would flare for no reason, and I’d seen him beat my brothers—one older, one younger—without mercy” (2009, p. 10). These feelings worsened after her father sexually molested and (beginning when she was age 12) raped her repeatedly (2009, pp. 11–12, 41). Flora portrayed that the commonality of this abuse within the FLDS resulted from opportunity rather than socially determined actions. Even so, she craved affection from her father:

Like every child, I wanted to be loved unconditionally by both my parents. Even though my father had committed the worst possible violation of a human being, I still held out hope that someday he would repent and love me as a father should love a daughter. And sick as it seems, he paid attention to me. To a neglected child, even bad attention can feel good. (2009, p. 77)

Flora Jessop’s father never made her feel loved. Although Jessop recognized momentary guilt when he first raped her, she portrayed him as a simple, aggressive, uncaring character whose actions she left unjustified (2009, p. 46).

Mackert explained a literal desire to “kill my father” (“a vile man”) because of “A lifetime of deceit, neglect, and intimidation” (2008, p. 17). Mackert’s memoir recounts his family memories through sessions with a therapist geared toward overcoming murderous intentions. Mackert portrayed his father as a man who abused his children without providing a fatherly figure. The sexual abuse of his sisters was what Mackert identified as the catalyst behind his hatred toward his father. Even so, Mackert expressed how his father treated him: “…my first real memory: being harshly disciplined by a father who generally had no time for me.... Father rarely spoke to me, seldom touched me, and almost never looked me in the eyes” (2008,

p. 44). Mackert relied on his older brothers (including his polygamous half-brothers) to fill roles that he suggested fathers normally fill (such as providing masculine role models).

Mackert explained that his father’s behavior was hypocritical. His father was loyal to the FLDS until his death, but he deviated from many religious practices (i.e., he drank, smoked, and married without consulting the priesthood [2008, pp. 170, 202]). Mackert said that the sexual molestation of his sisters was especially hypocritical: “My heart was chilled! How could he? This was the man who raised me to honor and revere women because they bring life into this world. He taught me to respect them and protect them” (2008, p. 180). Even so, Mackert wrote that he eventually forgave his father after years of hatred and admitted to wanting his father’s love, “And I hated that I wanted him to love me” (2008, p. 201).

Scheeres, Mackert, and Flora Jessop claimed that their parents’ lack of affection led to their resentment. The abuse these authors suffered may not have exceeded that of authors who claimed to love their parents. Even after being abused and emotionally neglected (such as in Beck’s case), most authors claimed to love their parents and attributed abuse to social factors. These authors, however, did not justify hypocritically compliant actions with social factors. In addition, aside from Scheeres’s father who “wasn’t always so distant” (2005, p. 68), memoirs presented detached, abusive parents as unitary characters.


Narratives are subjective and unique, but general trends exist within their pages. These memoirs collectively exposed common experiences of people in similar social positions (see Maynes, et al., 2008, p. 81): “In discussing what might appear to be ‘just personal’ details, they locate themselves politically, economically, and historically” (Andrews, 2002, p. 11). In this article, I have shared my analysis of trends regarding narratives of being parented in families that practice religion strictly.

Similar to the interviewees in Molly Andrews’s (2002) study, I that most authors attributed their parents’ shortcomings to social circumstances. Despite these attributions, all authors identified moments of noncompliance. In their memoirs, they expressed understandings of how parents responded to religious demands, nurtured their children, or committed abusive acts. Rather than resent parents for their compliance, most authors expressed understanding for the nonunitary dimensions of their parents’ subjectivities.

Some religions create environments that encourage parents to prioritize their beliefs over their children’s needs. Even with these priorities, some authors were grateful for their parents’ love. For example, Wall stated, “All along, my mother had been by my side as my anchor, and I needed her desperately” (2009, p. 155). The irony of this support is that the parent also complied with doctrines that created hardship for the author. Rix (2010) and Janzen’s (2010) experiences in comparison to the others demonstrated that strict religious involvement does not determine neglect or abuse. Yet, Rix and Janzen were from Southern Baptist and Mennonite churches, both of which exercised less social control over adherents than such religious organizations as the FLDS and CUT.

Abuse, neglect, or both were central to nearly every memoir. Some adult children may believe that religion positively impacted their upbringing; this is especially so for those who do not feel abused, who remained in their religious organization, or who felt supported and had positive memories of their religious community. Nevertheless, when parents prioritize religion in some religious groups (especially in abusive religious groups), children could potentially suffer twofold: at the hands of their often-loving parents and at the hands of those who abuse their parents. “Doing religion” strictly in some religious groups may not determine abuse, but it does require commitment that supersedes most other responsibilities and thereby impacts how people “do family” (see Lalich, 2004).


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Memoirs Cited

Beck, Martha. 2011 (orig. 1999). Expecting Adam: A true story of birth, rebirth, and everyday magic. New York, NY: The Rivers Press.

Beck, Martha. 2005. Leaving the saints: How I lost the Mormons and found my faith. New York, NY: Crown Publishers.

Janzen, Rhoda. 2010. Mennonite in a little black dress (a memoir of going home). New York, NY: Henry Holt.

Jeffs, Brent (with Maia Szalavitz). 2009. Lost boy: The true story of one man's exile from a polygamist cult and his brave journey to reclaim his life. New York, NY: Broadway Books.

Jessop, Carolyn (with Laura Palmer). 2008 (orig. 2007). Escape. New York, NY: Broadway Books.

Jessop, Flora (with Paul T. Brown). 2009. Church of lies. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Mackert, Brian (with Susan Martins Miller). 2008. Illegitimate: How a loving god rescued a son of polygamy. Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook Publishing.

Prophet, Erin. 2009. Prophet’s daughter: My life with Elizabeth Clare Prophet inside the Church Universal and Triumphant. Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press.

Rix, Jallen. 2010. Ex-gay no way: Survival and recovery from religious abuse. Forres, Scotland: Findhorn Press.

Scheeres, Julia. 2005. Jesus land: A memoir. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint.

Wall, Elissa (with Lisa Pulitzer). 2009 (orig. 2008). Stolen innocence. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.


This project would not have been possible without the quality of memoirs that former members have produced. Immense gratitude goes to all the authors whose memoirs were analyzed or considered for analysis. I would like to thank Dr. Amy Kaler and Dr. Sara Dorow for their guidance and comments throughout this project. Additional thanks go to Dr. Stephen Kent for his guidance and access to the Kent Collection on Alternative Religions, which is housed at the University of Alberta Library. This project also benefited from Robin Willey’s editorial comments. This research was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the Isaak Walton Killam Memorial Scholarship, and the University of Alberta’s President’s Doctoral Prize of Distinction.

About the Author

Terra Anne Manca is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Alberta under the supervision of Professor Stephen A. Kent. Her research interests include the sociology of health, family, and new religious movements. She has published in the following journals: Journal of Religion and Popular Culture; Mental Health, Religion and Culture; Journal of Religion and Health; Cultic Studies Review; and Marburg Journal of Religion. The topics of these publications included the Lord’s Resistance Army, Christian Scientists’ health practices, and Scientology. Her dissertation will discuss medical professionals’ experiences with childhood vaccination uncertainties.

University of Alberta address: Department of Sociology, 5-21 HM Tory Building University of Alberta, Edmonton Alberta Canada T6G 2H4. Email:

International Journal of Cultic Studies ■ Vol. 6, 2015

[1] In a rare example, author Elissa Wall’s court case against FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs upset power relations because Jeffs was charged with conspiracy to rape. The FLDS prophet now operates from a prison cell and has been convicted for subsequent child sexual-abuse charges (see Nye, 2013).

[2] Martha Beck, for example, provided a very different perception of her father in her earlier book Expecting Adam (1999). The dynamics of this account compared to her latter account could relate to various reasons, including the possible emergence of repressed memories. As such, I avoid commenting on the accuracy of her or other authors’ accounts.

[3] A broad range of literature exists regarding former members of religious affiliations. For some background and a thorough bibliography of that literature, refer to Kent and Samaha (2014).