13 Jul

A Cult I Had Never Read about Before: the Independent Fundamental Baptists

Book cover of I Fired God

I Fired God

Book Review: I Fired God: My Life Inside—and Escape from—the Secret World of the Independent Fundamental Baptist Cult by Jocelyn Zichterman

This book has quite the audacious title. How do you fire God? Or, as my boyfriend quipped, “Does she have the authority to do that?” Given the author’s experience with religion, I can definitely appreciate her position. This book is part autobiography and part memoir and part political call to action. Jocelyn Zichterman (neé Janz) recounts her abusive childhood, her attempt to find her place in the world as an adult in the Independent Fundamental Baptist (IFB) church/cult, her subsequent liberation from the IFB, and career as an activist. As someone who just can’t get enough of reading about cults, the people in cults, and people managing their post-cult existence, when I saw this book on the new shelf at the library, I had to check it out.

The opening part of the book deals with Zichterman’s abuse at the hands of her father and, later on, brothers. It is inherently hard to read about abuse for me, especially when it goes into detail about the unpredictable nature of their father, Bart, an IFB pastor and expert misogynist, and the times he tortured animals and beat his children bloody with a dowel. However, I appreciate the impact of these events and how they establish a context for the author’s actions later on. They also make it clear that Zichterman has a real, tangible reason to fear her father, and other people in the IFB who enable his behavior.

I had a hard time getting into the narrative at first because it started out feeling really clunky. The chapters were organized into vignettes and each one had a subheading. It felt more like reading blog posts or journal entries than a cohesive story. But as the narrative progressed, I found my irritation waning. I think that it seemed so difficult to read at the outset because the author was describing events from a time when she didn’t have a full understanding of herself, but the narrative became more confident and mature as the author did. I think it can be difficult to recount events from a time when the mind isn’t fully mature, fully settled. Trying to get into a prior mindset (from childhood, or before a major life change—like leaving your religion-based worldview) makes for awkward tellings, no matter how skilled you are. For comparison, I find that when I try to discuss how I used to feel when I was growing up Mormon, I can’t really articulate myself fully, likely because I have my brain engaged on more levels than I did then.

Zichterman recounts an absurd amount of incidences that indicate that women in the IFB have zero standing. The men who run this cult view women on the same level as children. They also describe the need to keep women under men’s “umbrella of protection,” which means that fathers are responsible for girl-children until they marry, at which point husbands are responsible. The whole cult (I will take Zichterman at her word that it is a cult) seems to be based on giving misogynistic, sociopathic men an outlet for dominating and totally gaslighting women.

The descriptions of how women in the IFB are treated highlight some awful behavior, but the true purpose of this book, and one of the main themes running through it, is that groups like the IFB cultivate an isolationist stance, distancing themselves from government and regulation. This this is a huge detriment to its members and is prohibitive for anyone who wants to leave. Like many religious groups, the IFB does a deplorable job of educating kids. The IFB preaches isolation—public schools will convert your children to Satanists, the government is just waiting to round up fine, Christian folk for execution, and calling the police is a sure way to make God mad—and as such, almost everyone is homeschooled or goes to a private, religious school. Homeschooled kids in this group use study booklets that blatantly ignore basically everything we know about history and science, and instead focus on the fact that the Bible should be our main source of information. Kids are left to work on these booklets independently, with minimal supervision. Sometimes, they aren’t supervised at all, as was the case for Zichterman and her siblings one year.

Another of Zichterman’s main issues with the education system is that these home or private schools feed into IFB “colleges” like Bob Jones University or Northland Baptist Bible College, which Zichterman herself attended. These schools do not have accreditation, so their degrees are literally meaningless. When the author and her husband who had graduate-level degrees from these schools were trying to escape the IFB, they found that her husband couldn’t get a job anywhere because his degrees were unaccredited and completely useless. This means that anyone who wants to educate themselves and get out has essentially no recourse. The cult leaders are actively keeping people ignorant (and making money) by feeding members into this system.

This steady stream of misinformation is, in fact, state-approved. In Wisconsin, where the author grew up, all parents who wanted to homeschool their children had to do was submit a form. These schools and “colleges” also receive federal funding either through voucher programs, or more directly.

Zichterman makes the case that none of this should be legal. I Fired God highlights the profound unfairness of abuse and how it continues to affect the lives of its victims long after the abuse has supposedly ended. Not educating children properly is abusive. It limits their options. Zichterman argues that freedom of religion should also be freedom from religion and it is impossible to free yourself from such a religion when everything you see or do is controlled by it. Everyone should receive an education that enables them to make it on their own if they so choose. Of course, that is what the leaders of cults like this fear. They know that if people were not kept entirely ignorant, they wouldn’t choose to stay in such conditions and live these lives. This book is part of Zichterman’s campaign to fight back.

Ultimately, I did enjoy reading this book. I like getting perspective on how other people live and it is insane to hear about such systemic abuse even within my own country. I really support Zichterman’s cause; I think that having more regulation and robust education for everyone would solve a lot of problems. I sympathize with people in this situation and I hope that change will soon be enacted. If you like reading about fringe religious movements, people breaking out of oppressive systems, or women overcoming hardship and becoming activists, then you will probably enjoy this book.

One other thing that I want to add: if you don’t want to commit to a whole book, this 20/20 episode features Zichterman, her cause, and an expose on the IFB.

What should you read after you’ve finished I Fired God? Here are some things that I’ve read or have been meaning to read that play well with this subject:

  • Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement by Kathryn Joyce. I read this book a few years ago and really enjoyed it. It deals with the Quiverfull ideology, which stipulates that parents should have a “Quiverfull” of children. That means people shouldn’t use birth control and just accept however many children God wants to give them. The IFB subscribe to this mindset and it is another way in which women are subjugated.
  • Write These Laws on Your Children: Inside the World of Conservative Christian Homeschooling by Robert Kunzman. I’ve had this book on my radar for a while, but have yet to read it. Now I want to read it a lot more. This book deals with exactly what Zichterman is concerned about: people homeschooling children with little or no oversight.
  • Escape by Carolyn Jessop. Zichterman recounts seeing an interview on television featuring Carolyn Jessop and realizing, for the first time, that the IFB was a cult. Jessop is a former member of the FLDS (fundamentalist, polygamist Mormons) and her story has a lot of parallels with Zichterman’s. I haven’t read this particular FLDS memoir, but I have read Lost Boy, Favorite Wife: Escape from Polygamy, and Shattered Dreams, which are all written by survivors/escapees from the FLDS sect.
06 Jul

Zimbabwe, America, and the immigrant experience

Book Review: We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

We Need New Names

I can’t quite recall where I first heard about this book, but I have been hearing about it a lot lately. I discovered that We Need New Names is definitely not being over-hyped; it is awesome. This is probably the first work of Africa-related, contemporary fiction I’ve read since Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in high school and it made me feel like I’ve been missing out on something profound and interesting.

This book is beautifully written. It is just full of amazing imagery. I’m not inclined to gush about such things, but as I was reading this book, I just wanted to drink up all the language and become drunk from it because it was so heady. Even though the story is told from the point of view of a child, the language isn’t necessarily puerile. Darling, the narrator, doesn’t use lots of sophisticated language, but her thoughts are really succinct and what she says makes the reader picture everything. For example, when speaking about the heat she says, “The sun keeps ironing us and ironing us and ironing us,” which is something I can relate to with the heat wave happening at the moment.  In another chapter, Darling is watching a funeral and comments of the cemetery:

“[It] is mounds and mounds of red earth everywhere, like people are being harvested, like death is maybe waiting behind a rock with a big bag of free food and people are rushing, tripping over each other to get to the front before the handouts run out. That is how it is, the way the dead keep coming and coming.”

Not all the imagery is morbid, of course, but this example stood out to me because it’s such a mature observation even though it is rooted in kid-logic.

As to the plot (which is, I suppose, what people want to hear about in a review), the book is told from the perspective of Darling, a girl who lives in Paradise—a shanty town in Zimbabwe. Her observations about life are folded in among vignettes of playing with her friends: Bastard, Godknows, Shbo, Stina, and the pregnant Chipo. Darling dreams of moving to America, a place where everyone has enough food and is rich, and she knows that one day she will because her Aunt Fostalina lives there. The second part of the book focuses on Darling’s life in America (specifically, in “Destroyedmichygen”) and how she copes with the reality of living in the US, works through her identity, and relates to others. The result is both a poignant view of life in modern Zimbabwe and of the immigrant experience in America.

The first half of We Need New Names made me realize how little I know about Zimbabwe specifically and Africa in general. From the way the story is told, the reader can gather that Zimbabwe used to be ruled by a king, but then it was taken over by white colonialists. The colonialists were eventually ousted by the native black people, who were then deposed by another group of black people. That is an extremely rudimentary understanding, but clearly this isn’t a book about politics or history; it’s about one person’s experience in Zimbabwe. I feel like I should be able to at least put names on some of these movements or governments, but I don’t have any in my head. I think that reading up on modern African history is definitely going to be on my to-do list.

The second half of the book was, in a way, more relatable, just because I am American and Darling’s experiences were easier for me to digest, even though they were through the eyes of someone new to the country. I briefly taught English as a second language when I was a teacher, so I was able to appreciate some of the observations about learning (or improving, more accurately) English. In one scene, Aunt Fostalina is on the phone trying to order something from Victoria’s Secret, but she is not being well-understood. Darling comments about how you can practice what you want to say beforehand, but the words still come out wrong, concluding “English is like a huge iron door and you are always losing the keys.” This is such an amazing way to conceptualize all language learning, but especially English learning.

Something incidental to the story, but that I really liked, is the concept of a “talking eye.” Essentially, this is when you look at someone in a way that says something, like when a little dog wearing a pink jacket tries to get attention from Darling and she gives it a talking eye that says “No, dog, you don’t even know me like that.” Or you could give a talking eye that says “Don’t even think about it,” or “Get over here.” Bulawayo has managed to name something I didn’t know I needed a word for.

We Need New Names is stuffed with observations about life both in Zimbabwe and in America. I really enjoyed Bulawayo’s take on the world and I feel like my worldview has definitely been expanded (which is the point of reading in the first place). There is a lot more in this book that I haven’t discussed because I know I can’t just talk about a whole book, but if anyone who has read it would like to discuss it with me, I would love to talk about it! I will definitely be keeping my eye out for future works by NoViolet Bulawayo.

What should you read after you’ve finished We Need New Names? Here are some things I am thinking of picking up that have similar themes:

  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie seems to be focused on immigration in a similar way to Bulawayo’s work, but centers on a teenage couple from Nigeria. The woman in the couple manages to immigrate to America, but the man is unable to do so. Adichie won the 2002 Caine Prize for African Writing for one of her previous novels.
  • A Contellation of Vital Phenomena is the debut novel of Anthony Marra. This story is set in Chechnya, another place I don’t know enough about.
  • The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe by Peter Godwin looks to be a pretty solid work on the modern political situation in Zimbabwe. If, like me, you know want to know more about Zimbabwe, this would be a good pick.