Review: Rebecca Stott – “In the Days of Rain: A Daughter, a Father, a Cult”

‘I was raised in a cult,’ I’d say, and then I’d recoil, embarrassed by the melodrama of the words I’d used. Were the Brethren a cult? I didn’t know. What was the difference between a sect and a cult? Was there a point on a spectrum where a sect became a cult? ‘We wore headscarves,’ I’d say. ‘We weren’t allowed to cut our hair. We weren’t allowed television, newspapers, radios, cinemas, holidays, pets, wristwatches.’ The list of prohibitions always seemed endless. I’d watch people’s eyes open wider. They’d look at me askance, then compete to ask questions, and I’d think, Oh no, not this again. ‘We weren’t allowed to talk to the other children at school,’ I’d say. ‘They told us that everyone outside the Brethren was part of Satan’s army and they were all out to get us. They called them “worldly”, or “worldlies”. If you didn’t do exactly what they said, they’d expel you. Then your family wouldn’t be allowed to speak to you ever again. People committed suicide. People went mad. Yes, this was Brighton. Yes, this was Brighton in the sixties. Yes, during flower power. In the suburbs. During the sexual revolution. Yes. It’s hard to explain.’ ‘You were raised Plymouth Brethren?’ people would say. They would have heard about the Plymouth Brethren. Some might even have read Father and Son, Edmund Gosse’s beautiful memoir about growing up in a nineteenth-century Plymouth Brethren assembly. And I’d hear myself reply with a hint of superiority, ‘We weren’t Plymouth Brethren. We were Exclusive Brethren.’

This is, mainly but not wholly, due to the author’s style, a very special book on life inside of and having left a cult. Rebecca Stott’s father was high up in the hierarchy of this cult, and tells of it, her parents, their parents, her father’s life with her, and of his dying, while packaging it all in a very exquisite and personal fashion.

If she would have written this in a less interesting style, I would not have thought much of it, but thanks to it, this book borders on getting a 4/5 grade.

She is not a martyr, nor a person who tries to state that the life she has lived is extremely noteworthy. To me, that’s a relief. She can even laugh at herself, and ridicule the life she has led, but simultaneously put weight behind value and words, and thus, this tome is laudable.

At times, this book is nearly poetic in style.

My family hadn’t belonged to the Brethren, we’d been caught up in them. Caught up like a coat catching on thorns. Caught up in a scandal. Caught up in the arms of the Lord. Whichever way you phrased it, it meant you didn’t get to choose, and that there was no getting away.

There was one particular line I’d listen out for in my father’s preaching, a line that had especially beautiful rhythms. An important Brethren sister from the early Ireland days had once said, ‘Let us put away our playthings for the world is in flames’ – and that line, dark and poetic, had been passed down among Brethren over the years. My father loved it. He wouldn’t just use it once; he’d repeat it for effect. When I was six years old I watched him repeat it five times. I whispered each of the words along with him under my breath, anticipating where he was going to put the next stress, or the next long pause, keeping a close eye on my grandfather down in the front row opposite me to see, from his expression, if my father would get away with it.

It’s often quite startling to read of how watched and brainwashed the cult members, called “Brethren”, were.

Brethren were expected to live in detached houses as near to the local Meeting Room as possible, because detached houses minimised contact with worldly people, and proximity kept the local fellowship close and in sight.

Many ex-Brethren I’ve talked to describe the fifties as a golden age in Brethren life. It was only when Jim Taylor Junior took over as Man of God in 1959 that things went wrong. He ruined it all, they imply. He was an aberration, a monster. He made good people do unspeakable things. But even in the fifties, I can see, there were already serious prohibitions in place: No cinemas, theatres, circuses, music halls. No sports halls. No radios or television sets. Friendships with non-Brethren – tolerated but not encouraged. No trade unions. No sex before marriage. No trousers for women or short skirts. No fashionable clothes. No tabloid newspapers. No thrillers or modern novels. No short hair. Within five years the prohibition list would have grown to four or five times this length. Within ten years it would be at least twenty times as long.

The details do greatly paint the picture:

‘If you talked to a Christian from outside they’d use words that would jar with you,’ he said. ‘Brethren have a vocabulary and a way of talking about things that becomes the truth to you. It’s been worked out over many years. So if somebody else comes in and starts talking about Jesus in a way that’s off-key, it makes you feel ill at ease and out of place, so you’re actually quite grateful to get away from that worldly wedding and back amongst people who speak the same language as you.’ ‘What kind of off-key?’ I asked, though I knew exactly what he meant. People still seem off-key to me out here in the world, even though I’ve lived among non-Brethren more than five times longer than I lived among Brethren. It often feels as if the words I’ve learned to speak since then don’t stretch far enough, don’t describe the things I feel or imagine well enough. The things that crowd the dark, for instance, or flicker at the edges of my vision, have no name. ‘It wasn’t just phrases or ways of speaking,’ my father said. ‘It was ways of dressing and behaving as well. If an interloper got in, say a journalist passing himself off as a Brethren visitor, he’d break subtle rules and codes of conduct so that people would know he wasn’t a proper member of the Brethren immediately. There was a real tribal sensitivity. My father used to say that when he was driving to a Meeting in a strange town, he could spot the Brethren sisters walking along the road. He’d say it was the Spirit telling him, but I always used to think it was their hats.’

Also, it’s interesting to read of Stott’s hearing of voices from the time when she was a small child, which does not actually indicate mental issues, but is something that comes naturally with brainwashing and mantras:

I heard voices too as a child, sometimes when my head tipped to a particular angle, or when I was falling asleep or had just woken: loud, soft, haranguing, enticing, sometimes in English, sometimes in a language I did not recognise. They were very similar to the voices my father described, though he seems to have heard primarily Brethren mantras and scriptures. Eventually, of course, my father would recite those same words himself when he preached. Repetition of simplified mantras and maxims, social psychologists have proved, is one of the key methods of indoctrination; it affects the physiology of neurological pathways, particularly in teenagers, whose brains are still growing.13 It’s a powerful form of brainwashing. And of course my father’s exceptional IQ and photographic memory made it very hard to silence those voices once they got in his head. In the sixth form my father’s Brethren voices were telling him that Yeats and Shakespeare were a frivolous waste of time, that all the apparent vistas that were opening to him were carnal and corrupt, ‘the pleasures of sin for a season’. He veered from one way of seeing to the other. ‘One was graven on stone,’ he wrote, ‘the other rippled like water. One asserted, the other side sang and whispered, beguiled, suggested, asked questions, claimed nothing, resonated.’

Stott doesn’t paint leaving the cult as something black-and-white; being taught to fear the Devil and to love God at *all* times is not something one can easily just shake off:

A decade later, a long-running story on The Archers finally prompted that conversation. Heavily pregnant Helen Archer had stabbed her controlling husband with a kitchen knife after years of isolation and mental abuse. She was arrested. The audience for the show grew by millions. There were chatrooms devoted to the storyline, and money was raised for support groups for victims of abuse. The whole country, including my daughters, then in their early twenties, seemed to be tuning in. But my daughters didn’t need me to do any explaining when the subject came up. ‘It’s called coercive control, Mum,’ Kez said. ‘They’ve passed a law about it.’ ‘Took them decades to listen to the campaigners, though,’ Hannah said, her eyes bright with anger. ‘Did you know that the law didn’t even recognise rape inside marriage until the nineteen-seventies? Un-bel-iev-ab-le.’ ‘I know,’ I said, trying to be positive. ‘But things are better for women now.’ ‘Mum, you’ve read The Handmaid’s Tale,’ Kez said. ‘You know we can’t ever take feminist progress for granted. They’ll take our freedom away again unless we protect it.’ ‘Look at what’s happening in Poland over abortion,’ said Hannah. ‘Thousands of women had to take to the streets to make the politicians scrap that Bill.’ I knew. I’d been teaching feminist theory and writing for years. I’d given my daughters copies of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as birthday presents during their teens. We’d groaned together about sexist adverts on the television, talked about equal pay and equal rights, and agreed about how important it was to stand up and make a noise when you thought something was unfair. Now they were bringing me articles to read and telling me about documentaries to watch by women of their generation. I was learning from them.

Stott goes into detail on how the leader of the cult, “JT Junior”, abused his power by sexually abusing Brethren wives, but…

In a few weeks Brethren spin doctors had turned JT Junior from a lecherous alcoholic bully to a martyr, prepared to jeopardise his personal honour for the Lord’s Truth and to ensure a final necessary purge before the Rapture began. But then, just three months after Aberdeen, JT Junior died of an alcohol-related disease.

This is a wondrous description of leaving a cult:

Many people assume that leaving a cult like the Brethren must be exhilarating. ‘You had no TV or pop music or cinema,’ they say, ‘and then you did? It must have been amazing!’ But when you see interviews with people who have recently left cults, they describe feeling bewildered and frightened; their eyes dart around, searching for points of reference, metaphors that would get somewhere close to describing the feeling of being lost, not-at-home, without walls. No one, of course, shrugs off years of indoctrination in one go. Many escapees went back to the Brethren after a few weeks, not only because they missed their families – which would be reason enough – or because they didn’t have the skills to get work, but because the world frightened them. You can’t just refuse to believe that the world belongs to Satan if you’ve heard it repeated over and over since you were born. It’s under your skin. People also describe the difficulty of making choices – moral, financial, domestic, professional and emotional – because inside the Brethren there are virtually no choices to make.

Perhaps to conclude, this paragraph is great:

He took me to see a performance of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck at the National Theatre in London. I was sixteen. In the car, he explained Ibsen’s idea of the Life Lie with great care and attention. Life lies, he said, were the lies people told themselves to make life bearable. The Ekdal family in The Wild Duck, he explained – father, mother, teenage daughter, grandfather – were poor but happy. They keep going, he said, because they have delusions. The grandfather thinks he’s a great hunter. The father is convinced he’s on the verge of creating an invention that will make him famous and pay off all the family debts. The daughter thinks her father is a great man. These were their Life Lies. ‘So Ibsen,’ said my father, ‘sends in a visitor, Gregers, an old friend of the father’s. Gregers exposes all their Life Lies, and tells them a few more things they would rather not have known. Then Ibsen makes us watch what happens next. It’s not good, of course. But that’s the point: Ibsen isn’t sure we should make people see how deluded they are.’

Overall, this is akin to the recent “Jonestown” biography, but is far more poetic and existentialistic in nature. A good complement of sorts, even though this is mainly a personal book, and not a how-to-cult manual.

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