Girl at the End of the World: My Escape from
Fundamentalism in Search of Faith with a Future by Elizabeth Esther
Convergent Books, 2014; 224 pp
Reviewed by Clinton Crockett Peters
Girl at the End of the World is Elizabeth Esther's memoir about growing up in a fundamentalist, millennialist, evangelical "cult" (her words) in the late seventies and eighties in California. As part of "The Assembly," Esther and many of the children were physically punished from the age of two. There were also other abuses, though these are only hinted at near the end. Esther outlines the brainwashing she received, particularly at the hands of her grandparents, the cult's spiritual leaders.
The arc of this book is predicable enough but with one caveat. The author, after leaving the dangers, strictures, and emotional torment of The Assembly, spends a few chapters exploring how she, of all things, jumped into Catholicism. The book has a Hemingway-esque feel of the play-by-play (a la a post-game report) of Esther's upbringing, schooling, entrance into public high school to convert the masses, marriage, and rupture with her church.
The book, at times, strays into David Pelzer's A Child Called It territory (a memoir that many readers, including myself, believe strays too far into the hyperbolic and fictional). A turbulent life is compressed very economically, with the abuse and character-seeming tormentors in their Made-For-TV-Movie parts taking center stage. Thankfully, Esther doesn't only stay in this vein. The memoir threatens to be one dimensional (Girl is oppressed, girl escapes, readers rejoice), but Esther wisely enters into some self-reflection and the twist back into faith feels satisfying and appropriately non-proscriptive and non-summarizing.
The best part of the book for me is when Esther, post-separation from the church, is sympathetically rendered so socially awkward as to miss the cues of quotidian sales pitches and hooks up with a house-gadget home party thrower Esther thinks is a potential new friend. Belatedly clued in, Esther reflects on the schoolmates she used to try to convert, the passersby that she and her family would condemn and appeal to repent from atop milk crates (the scene in which the book opens).
Esther surmises, "I'd done the exact same thing to people: pretended to be their friend in order to get them to buy something… I'd been a multilevel marketer for The Assembly. I'd been an Independent Distributor of Salvation."
Moments like this do not come often enough in this otherwise zippy memoir.