The shadow world of a cult

Review by Vivien Horler

In the Days of Rain in the days of rain(4th Estate/ Jonathan Ball)

Rebecca Stott

If you read through the list of the books historian and novelist Rebecca Stott has written you’ll find two about Darwin: Darwin and the Barnacle and Darwin’s Ghosts: In search of the first evolutionists.

Her interest in Darwin is remarkable because – or perhaps in spite of – the fact that she grew up in England in a fundamentalist Christian cult called the Exclusive Brethren who deny evolution. They also deny their children the right to study science at school.

They deny a lot of other things too, like women’s right to work or speak at the regular “meetings”, people’s right to join unions or professional associations, members’ right to any relationship with non-members, including relatives. Members cannot eat with non-members, cannot go to university, cannot watch TV or movies, cannot listen to the radio or read newspapers, and can read only approved books. Brethren live in a bubble within society of which they are not part.

The Closed Brethren are a sub-set of the Plymouth Brethren, and the sub-group to which Stott’s family belonged have some 46 000 members in 19 countries, mainly the UK, Australia, New Zealand and North America.

Stott was a fifth generation Brethren, and her father and grandfather were leaders in the church. In the 1940s, when Stott’s father was growing up, the Brethren were “strict, fanatical even, but not yet maniacal”, she writes. That came in the 1960s. Stott’s father went to Cambridge, but was one of the cult’s last graduates in the UK.

By the time Stott herself was old enough to go to high school, her father had taken the family out of the cult.

Various people have written about their lives in cults – earlier this year I read Cult Sister by South African Lesley Smailes about her experiences with a cult in the United States – but this book is different.

Firstly it is beautifully, even lyrically written, and second Stott brings a historian’s rigour to her account. But it is also an intensely personal story of her family and herself, how they worshipped, how their lives were circumscribed, how they left the Brethren after the “Aberdeen incident”, and how for a long time the family felt cast adrift in a world where there were no rules and anything went.

For years after leaving the Brethren her father Roger, big, bombastic, larger than life, struggled to write a memoir of his experiences, but when he reached the 1960s, he said, he stumbled into a thicket, a time of muddle, cruelty and madness.

Now he was dying in his mill on the Norfolk fens, and wanted Rebecca to help him finish his great work. So she bought a tape recorder and they set to. By the time he died, six weeks later, they had covered the years between 1960 and 1966. “And what he had to tell me was far worse than I could have imagined. No wonder he got stuck.”

After his death, Rebecca collected all Roger’s papers – sermons, letters, declarations, pamphlets – and some years later Rebecca and her daughter started to go through them. Using her own memories, the papers, the tapes, and interviews with other former Brethren, she pieced together this remarkable and absorbing book.

Roger wanted to call his memoir The Iron Room after the corrugated building where he attended Brethren meetings as a boy. Rebecca says she thinks of herself as the little girl in the red cardigan, not allowed to speak or ask questions. Her own children have been brought up very differently, encouraged to ask questions, to speak up, never to believe in absolute good and evil.

She would like to tell the Brethren, she writes, of how today she can sit under the stars talking to her children and their friends and wonder about her ability to wonder.

“You’ll never build an iron room strong enough or big enough or dark enough to stop that. There’ll always be a crack where the light gets in.”

  • This review first appeared in Weekend Argus in August 2017




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