Audiobook Review: Devoted, Jennifer Mathieu (2015)

December 21st, 2015 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

Feminism: The radical notion that women are people too.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free audiobook for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program. Trigger warning for misogyny and child abuse.)

Some of my friends tell me my life before I met them sounds like I made it up. Like it’s something from a bad fairy tale where a princess is held kidnapped in a tower until she’s rescued. Like Rapunzel.

Only, no knight in shining armor saved me. I saved myself.

From birth I was part of an extreme religious community—some might call it a cult … when I’m having a bad day, I call it a cult—where women were marginalized, shamed, humiliated, and not given one ounce of autonomy. And why? Because the Lord dictates this is how it should be.

I never went to regular school until I was old enough to go to vet tech school as a legal adult. I didn’t cut my hair or wear pants until I was 18 and I didn’t have a boyfriend until I was 19 and for a long time I didn’t even think it was possible to exist outside of this weird, tightly-controlled world with my dad in charge of everything I did. When I say my dad was in charge of everything, I don’t mean everything like where I went and who I hung out with, although he was in charge of that for sure. I mean he was in charge of what I wore, what I read, what I said, and even what I thought.

I hate my dad for so much, but do you know what I hate him for the most? I can’t even pray to God anymore without hearing my father’s voice in my head.

– Lauren Sullivan, The Great Escape

Though it’s technically true to say that Rachel Walker lives in Calvary, Texas, in reality her world is so much smaller than this already-small town. A member of a fundamentalist Christian community, Rachel spends most of her time at home, or attending services at Calvary Christian Church. Like her nine siblings, Rachel is home schooled, and can only leave the house in the company of a chaperon – to keep her honest and help her avoid the temptations of the sinful, secular world. The family is too poor to afford modern conveniences like cell phones or television sets, but they’d shun them even if money wasn’t an issue: anything that provides a window into the Godless world outside is strictly forbidden. The Walkers do own an ancient computer, but Rachel’s only allowed online to manage her family’s finances. Even then, it’s usually only when Dad’s in the room to supervise.

Whereas her older brothers work in their father’s small landscaping business, Rachel and her sisters are confined to the domestic sphere, cooking, cleaning, caring for their younger siblings, and assuming responsibility for their Bible-based education. Though she’d normally be a junior or senior in high school, Rachel’s own education ended years ago, when her knowledge surpassed that of her mother. Now she spends the school day teaching her brothers and sisters, and learning what she can from the family’s outdated set of encyclopedias – some of the only non-religious books to grace the bookshelves.

Not that it matters, anyway: like all girls and young women, Rachel is training for one thing and one thing only: to be a sweet and responsible helpmeet for her future husband.

A curious and intelligent girl, Rachel is plagued with doubts about her future – a future chosen for her by God, and her parents. A future in which she has little say. As the prospect of her eighteenth birthday – and the expectations of marriage and motherhood it entails – barrels down upon her, Rachel’s anxiety only intensifies. She’s not ready to become a mom yet, and the prospect of ending up like her own mother – having baby after baby, with only small gaps between pregnancies and little one-on-one time to spend with her existing children, let alone herself – terrifies her. Why would God give her these gifts – an inquisitive mind, a love of words, and loads of business acumen – if He didn’t want her to use them?

Then comes a piece of gossip that will change Rachel’s life forever: after a long absence, wayward sheep Lauren Sullivan has returned to town. Lauren ran away from home – and Calvary Christian Church – after her parents threatened to send her to Journey of Faith, a labor/indoctrination camp for sinning youths. Now her name is only spoken in whispers and tales of caution.

Rachel can’t help it: during stolen moments of computer time, she Googles Lauren…and finds her blog. One click leads to another and, before she knows what’s happening, Rachel is emailing with “Butterfly Girl,” the great escapee, the princess who saved herself from a woman-hating cult.

I greatly enjoyed Jennifer Mathieu’s debut novel, The Truth About Alice, and am happy to say that she hit it out of the ballpark with her sophomore effort. The topic had me a little nervous – I’m an atheist who’s inherently suspicious of organized religion – but she handles it with great nuance and sensitivity. Though Rachel and I could not be more different, the character’s written so beautifully that it’s hard not to empathize with her.

Likewise, Lauren is a BAMF, and the girls’ friendship is simply lovely; the epitome of girl power, with one refugee helping another young woman make a break for freedom.

If anything, Mathieu does her job a little too well: some sections of Devoted are incredibly difficult to read. I started listening to the audiobook the week before Halloween, and at the time I likened it to the ultimate horror story: even more terrifying because it’s true. Calvary Christian Church is based on the Quiverfull movement, of which the Duggars are adherents. While Lauren’s father actually hits her, Rachel’s parents aren’t much better; many of the beliefs and practices that govern her behavior are psychologically abusive at best.

Instead of a proper high school education, Rachel and her sisters are essentially domestic servants; time that should be spent studying is instead consumed by household chores. Family members are discouraged from exhibiting negative emotions – anger, fear, sadness – even when warranted; instead, they’re admonished to be “sweet.” Conversations and rituals are carefully scripted, such that everyone seems always to be walking on eggshells. Every aspect of Rachel’s life – time management, wardrobe choices, hair length, reading material – is carefully and diligently policed by her relatives, right down to seemingly inconsequential minutiae like her facial expression. (Frowning is a no-no.) Stray from the path laid out for you, and your community – likely the only family you’ve ever known – will cut you out like a cancer.

While this is certainly an extreme manifestation of misogyny, it’s important to note that these sexist attitudes aren’t confined to the Quiverfull movement – or even fundamentalist religious groups as a whole. From slut shaming to victim blaming, shades of Calvary Christian’s teachings are evident throughout Western society.

If I had one complaint, it would be that Mathieu sometimes goes a little too easy on Rachel’s parents. Granted, the story is told from Rachel’s point of view, and her feelings are bound to be ambivalent; she loves her parents, even as she doesn’t love the rules they set down for her. Yet the constant insistence that Dad is merely trying to “protect” Rachel and do what’s “best” for her made me feel all stabby inside.

Lauren isn’t wrong when she calls Calvary Christian’s teachings misogynistic and woman-hating. Children are expected to submit to the will of their parents – and wives, their husbands. (Infantalizing much?) Women are not expected to have an opinion, let alone voice one. Conflict – or even daring to question a “superior’s” beliefs – is disobedient. Sinful. Stay sweet, as they say.

Women are treated as inferiors in every way. They and they alone are expected to assume responsibility for the daily drudgeries of running a household. While Dad and the Walker boys do indeed work full-time, at least their workday ends; Rachel and her sisters are busy from the time they wake up until they collapse, exhausted, into bed. At mealtimes, the boys and men are served first; only then can the girls and women eat. After-dinner Bible study is led by Dad, the moral authority of the house. Mom is expected to defer to his opinions in all things – even whether she should receive mental health care after a miscarriage.

So, let’s review. At the top of this hierarchy sits God, then the pastor, then Dad, and everyone else…effectively making Dad the God of his own little universe.

If Dad thinks of his daughters as second-best – and it’s clear that he does – how can he possibly want the best for them? Does not compute.

And protection? Gimme a break! With its emphasis on absolute deference to authority figures – be it Dad, Pastor Garrett, or their (future) husbands – the Walker kids’ parents are practically laying the groundwork for future physical and sexual abuse. Grooming their kids for would-be abusers, you might say. Or turning them into abusers themselves. (Exhibit A: The Duggars.)

Additionally, when wives are not allowed to disagree with their husbands, this kind of throws the whole idea of consent out the window.

It’s also revealing to watch how the ideal of “protection” plays out differently for boys and girls. Whereas “protecting” a girl involves curtailing her freedoms, this isn’t always the case with boys. Take the Biblical principle of modestly, for example. Women shoulder the lion’s share of responsibility for protecting men from temptation; they must dress in such a way (ankle-length skirts – never pants! – blouses with three-quarter length sleeves, bras that should always be worn but never seen) that doesn’t invite lustful thoughts. (Including in their own brothers. Ew, right?) For the protection of boys and men, it’s the actions of girls and women that are restricted. Pretty convenient, innit?

So yeah, I wasn’t too keen on any compassion thrown Dad’s way. (Or even Mom’s, since she wasn’t born into Christian Calvary, but rather chose this life for herself – and that of her would-be children. I’m sorry, but I just can’t with that.) To be fair, by story’s end, Rachel seems to be coming to terms with her parents’ abusive behavior, particularly in her realization that the Walker and Sullivan families are not very different after all. Abuse is abuse, even if done with shame and threats as opposed to fists and kicks.

Finally, a note on the audio version Devoted: Jennifer Grace does a bang up job narrating. Her voice is soft and melodic, yet she manages to convey the unique voices of Rachel, Lauren, Ruth, Dad, and Pastor Garrett with ease. Dad is especially impressive: she’s got the pompous, self-righteous ass thing down to a “t.”

Okay, I lied. One more complaint: Lauren is a vegan, which I loved…until she let slip that sometimes she eats bacon. While this isn’t unrealistic – people who call themselves vegan, but allow themselves a whole host of excuses to eat non-vegan foods, or well-intentioned vegans who sometimes slip up anyway – given the dearth of vegan characters in literature, it sure would be nice to see one who’s actually an ethical vegan, through and through. I’m afraid that Lauren will just muddy the waters for those not already familiar with veganism.

A very strong four stars, with points deducted for Lauren’s flexitarianism and the stomach-churning feeling I got in my gut whenever Dad/Pastor Garrett/the patriarchal voices in Rachel’s head let loose another anti-woman screed.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Rachel and Lauren were raised in a fundamentalist Christian community; Mathieu based it on the Quiverfull movement, of which the Duggars are adherents. Lauren’s father abused her physically, and both girls suffered the psychological abuse that comes with being indoctrinated into a woman-hating, anti-science, isolationist cult.

Animal-friendly elements: Lauren’s a vegan and an animal lover who rescued strays as a kid and now works as a vet tech. But she complains about not being able to find processed vegan foods in her small Texas town (as if we really need Beast Burgers to survive, acht!) and reveals that she occasionally eats bacon (because not even vegans can resist greasy pig parts?).

 

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