Today, I’m on the Waterstones blog, in happy anticipation of Thursday’s paperback release of Amity & Sorrow, talking about the role of women in faiths – and cults. In an era when women are being told to “lean in”, just how equal do we want to be? Here’s the link to the Waterstones blog:
Posts from the ‘Amity & Sorrow’ Category
Amity & Sorrow came out in the US on the 20th anniversary of the siege on the Waco, Texas compound of the Branch Davidians, or Students of the Seven Seals as leader David Koresh wanted them known. The seven seals are to be broken at the end of the world, according to the Book of Revelation, and the community was prepared for it. They had been waiting for years. When the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms turned up with a search warrant, looking for the stash of guns that local sheriffs said, years earlier when Koresh took the leadership by force, had numbered “more than a Vietnam patrol”, gunfire broke out and both sides blamed the other. They still do. A fifty-day standoff began.
I was inspired by events in Waco and America’s history of intervention in faiths and cults. In a nation founded by religious radicals, our constitution values the separation of church and state, but they are rarely separate. God is on our money; faith is in our schools, courthouses and senate. Any presidential candidate ignores prayer at his electoral peril. The Puritans and Quakers who founded the first colonies came in search of religious freedom, prepared to fight for it. Guns and God go hand in hand. We expect authorities to defend our right to worship, but we also expect them to protect the vulnerable. How can the government know which faiths to defend – and which to raid? What happened in Waco was a tragedy, but it shouldn’t have been a surprise. It was there in the church’s name – Ranch Apocalypse. After the siege and fire, the new director of the ATF, John Magaw, was highly critical of the raid. New training manuals were put into place for recruited agents. In future, “dynamic entry” would only be planned “after all other options have been considered”.
Fifteen years later and 400 miles down the road would be the site of the next raid on a religious compound, the Yearning for Zion Ranch, home to 700 polygamous families and the followers of the FBI’s Most Wanted, Warren Jeffs. As the Branch Davidians are a splinter sect of the Seventh Day Adventists, so these fundamentalists split from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the LDS Mormon church proper. These two contemporary faiths are all that survive of America’s Second Great Awakening, the early 19th century boom of ecstatic, evangelical Protestants.
The lessons learned in Waco would affect the choices made in the YFZ raid. This time, there would be no stand off or protracted negotiations with the leader, already in prison. There would be no psychological torture, no barrage of lights, music or helicopters as in Waco. This time, authorities simply swooped in and removed their children. All of them. The people had been raided before, sixty years earlier in Short Creek, Arizona. It taught the FLDS that the government took children and could not be trusted. Unlike Waco, there was no violence, no siege or fire, but there could have been. Perhaps it is a blessing that the bulk of the community was young and female; it is why the ranch was raided, of course, but in a faith where girls aren’t trained to use guns it meant the faithful didn’t use the huge caches of weapons, everything from bows to assault rifles, that were hidden in their Temple annex. Had the faith not banished their young men, or had a more balanced ratio of male to female, the raid on YFZ might have ended very differently.
Both Koresh and Jeffs led isolated and eschatological faiths, anti-government and fully armed. Both faiths practiced polygamy in the face of government opposition and public distaste. In FLDS culture, three wives are necessary to attain the highest level of heaven. Jeffs currently has 78 wives and is serving a life sentence for sex offences with minors. David Koresh took twenty wives, but said God told him to take another 120. We shouldn’t care if plural wives give their consent. The problem is with the age of the women, young women. Both Koresh and Jeffs took underage brides of fourteen, thirteen, twelve. They believed themselves appointed and anointed by God; they believed these to be holy marriages. They had to be holy, of course, to make them “acceptable” to their own followers.
What of their children, raised in a faith that was persecuted by the government they had been taught to hate? What of the children of Waco who watched their government burn their families on TV? What of the children of YFZ, traumatized by the government’s tests and assumptions, slowly being reunited with mothers who were found to be of age. Will they grow up with the same disdain for the government that their ancestors got from Short Creek or from the government persecution that split their church? Is this where activism will be born? Will we see more militaristic and anti-government Christian mavericks in the future, just as Timothy McVeigh was “inspired” to murder on Waco’s second anniversary? Is this any different to the anger instilled in the children of Islam when their mosques and madrasas are destroyed? We are wrong to interfere in matters of faith that are consensual or to make judgments about others’ beliefs, no matter how repugnant they may be to us, personally. Our constitution grants that freedom; no laws can define what we believe in or how we choose to worship. When we raid churches and take children, thinking we save them, we also do great harm.
Today in YFZ, the followers of Warren Jeffs await the end of the world at his command, from a payphone in the state prison in Palestine, Texas. The world is always about to end. But what is beginning, in other secret splinter sects, among the hidden churches and handmade faiths of America? Are the next young men – for they are surely always men – already hearing voices, the boom of God calling them to fight? Do they watch raids unfold, note the passing of anniversaries that remind us of our deeds and shortcomings, and learn anew to fear and to hate?
Are you on Pinterest? If so, you might like to see the splendid new Amity & Sorrow board, made by the lovely people at Tinder Press. It’s a fantastic mood board with pictures and quotes pulled out from the book. What a lovely thing to have! Do have a look – but careful. If you aren’t on Pinterest, it may become your new and dangerous addiction… Step inside…
‘It isn’t evil,’ Amity says. ‘It isn’t anything. The fields are just dirt, like Mother said.’
A big thank you to author Lori Lansens (The Girls) and to Amazon.com Editorial, for this splendid interview. You can find it on the Amazon site:
Author One-on-One: Peggy Riley and Lori Lansens
Lori: I experienced the story of Amity & Sorrow on a visceral level. It’s beautifully written, poetic, but you also manage to create heart-hammering tension along with startling images, beginning with the sisters bound at the wrist by that “strip of white fabric.” Your characters are bound to each other, and to their faith, and even to their land. Do you think it’s possible to completely sever a tie with your past and the people in it and not feel somehow bound to it, even if it’s by a sense of guilt or shame or regret?
Peggy: We are bound to our lives and our pasts, and it can feel like they are strapped to us, like there is no escape from all we have done and been. I wanted to play with that feeling of being bound by tethering the sisters to each other, as they are still tied to their church and family, the history of its making. Amaranth wants to take her daughters from a faith that has gone badly wrong, but their family was made in that faith. Amaranth talks about how far and fast she’s had to run to try to break the threads that bind her to her husband, but she still feels haunted by the ghost of his judgment, even far away, and her own culpability. The more they all pull away from their past, the more they are reminded of it.
Lori: Amity and Sorrow are raised together in the same community of women but don’t share the same fervor for their father, the leader, or for their faith. Is it because one feels more chosen than the other? Do people who join cults need to believe they’ve been chosen in order to feel validated?
Peggy: There are lots of reasons why people join cults, but most often they are looking for ways to connect and belong, authentically and passionately. Traditionally, cult leaders reward through access and punish through limitation. When followers receive special access and closeness to the leader, they feel more “special” than the others. Sorrow is raised to believe she is holy, that her work is necessary to her father and her faith. She cannot help but believe that she is chosen, while Amity is content to watch and wait. In the world outside their church, Sorrow is unable to give up her status, the power that being chosen gives her, while Amity revels in a land that hasn’t already made up its mind about her.
Lori: How important was the setting? Did you want to distance the story from California in order to not confuse your cult with any other cults, past or existing?
Peggy: The story itself came from a picture I saw in a newspaper, of a wooden church on a grassy prairie, on fire. I knew the church itself would have to be built on land that was off the grid and far from the government. I’m from California myself, and I was inspired by all the California cults that I grew up with. California cults thrive in the cities, where displaced people come in search of new families and a guru. The preacher in my church travels to cities, to find these displaced people, then brings them back to his isolated place, land it would be hard to leave both physically and emotionally. Even now, shop-front churches and guru-led groups continue to spring up in California’s cities, attracting the attention of authorities, while throughout America new faiths and communities grow in secret.
Lori: Amaranth, the mother, is such a strong character on the page and moved me with her actions and gestures. Did you have inspiration for the character? Did you read other stories of women who’ve left cults or faith-based polygamist communities? If so, was there often a defining moment when most of the women decided to leave?
Peggy: I read and watched survivor and escapee stories and was struck by how hard the women work at staying, how they twist themselves in knots to make sense of their faiths and marriages. They are, most often, genuinely in love with their husbands, men who courted them and told them they were special. In polygamous faiths, women are encouraged to view one another as family, as sister wives, but also believe that each is her husband’s favorite, that each has a special role. But it is a hard life. Once there are children–and they come soon–the women find it much harder to leave. It is nearly impossible for a woman to get away without the other wives knowing, for they don’t want any wife to escape. Amaranth thinks that her doubts in the faith of her husband come from her own inability to believe. She makes herself stay out of love, and it takes a long time for her to see that their faith has turned to something else, something darker. She has to leave, at last, to save her daughters, if not herself.
Lori: The women in the cult potentially gain as much as they lose from making the choice for polygamy, but it’s not likely that such a model would ever become a cultural norm in the United States. Do you think North Americans reject polygamy for its suggestion of antifeminism?
Peggy: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints split over the issue of polygamy and statehood as nineteenth century popular opinion equated polygamy with slavery, and the practice stood in the way of Utah’s becoming a state. Since the split, fundamentalist Mormons continue to practice, and the vision of the Mormon pioneers pushing handcarts to the West, wives grouped around their husband, is embedded in our history. It is said it was a way to deal with surplus women, but that was a myth as there were far more men than women in the West. Polygamy was a tenet of faith in the early Mormon church, and remains so for FLDS members, but it is hard for modern women to look at these marriages and believe that they are genuine or that the women get as much out of the arrangement as the men. What the men get out of it is obvious, but it is actually the faith that gains the most: a surplus of wives means more children can be had more quickly and so grow the faith. The spacecraft Pioneer bore a metal plaque etched with a picture of humans, one man and one wife, America’s default position and ideal. I don’t think feminists should mind polygamy in faiths so much: if the women say they love their sister wives, are adults, and consent to the marriages, it is no one’s business. What I mind is that, on the Pioneer plaque, the man’s hand is raised in greeting and the woman’s hands are at her sides; the man looks forward and the woman gazes down, slightly angled toward the man. Even aliens, upon finding it, will understand our gender imbalance by the messages we send them.
Here is a round up of (and a big thank you for) the recent Blog Tour of Amity & Sorrow, celebrating publication with Little, Brown, Tinder Press & Hachette New Zealand. If you were a winner of any of their blog competitions, the books are on their way to you! Please click on the links and give these hard-working bloggers a follow!
THE LONDON DIARIES: An interview for International Women’s Month
BERMUDA ONION’S WEBLOG: A peek at my mood board and the ideas behind Amity & Sorrow
FOR WINTER NIGHTS: A bookish blog where I attempt to cast Amity & Sorrow
WE SAT DOWN: A blog post about mothers and daughters for mother and daughter reviewers M & Little M
DOG EAR DISCS: On the transition from playwright to author with the lovely Dog Ear, now @utterbiblio
BETH FISH READS: A blog of reading, thinking, and photography
THE LITTLE READER LIBRARY: Wherein I invite you into my writing shed, The Blue House
THE BIBLIOMOUSE: A blog post with books I think you might like, if you like Amity & Sorrow
THE TATTOOED BOOK: Book-loving blog by a lovely bookseller
BOOKSELLERS NZ: An interview with Booksellers New Zealand’s Blog
BOOKING MAMA: A book club blog with a blog post on my book club memories. And a review!
LINUS’S BLANKET: Food. Comfort. Culture. And Linus’s Blanket’s gruelling 20 Questions!
DEVOURER OF BOOKS: Me, on the attraction of cults
ALISON PERCIVAL: A Q&A on writing, prison, and the lack of love for Sorrow…
BIG BOOK LITTLE BOOK: A blog post written by the fabulous Charlotte Mendelson, my UK editor
KEEP CALM AND READ A BOOK: On my love of indie bookshops
RANDOM THINGS THROUGH MY LETTERBOX: A Q&A on writing & reading
A big, big thank you to Samantha Eades and Miriam Parker for organising this splendid blog tour, and to Little, Brown, Tinder Press & Hachette New Zealand for providing books. Thank you all very much!
Just home from a Great Northern Book Tour with grateful thanks to Tinder Press and to Headline for getting me everywhere I needed to go! We first visited the splendid Scarborough, home of the Scarborough Literature Festival. The line-up promised whisky tastings and events with authors of all sorts. I was there with Tinder Press to run a hands-on writing workshop, with prompts aplenty and pens at the ready, and to sit in on a “How to get published” panel with Headline Publishing Director, Imogen Taylor, and Headline author, Morgan McCarthy. Both events were full to bursting. The Scarborough Festival is Arts Council funded and seamlessly run by charming and tireless librarians for North Yorkshire County Council. If you’ve never been, I urge you to go!
In the morning, we dashed across Yorkshire to the spa town of Ripon, where The Little Ripon Bookshop awaited, a gem of a shop. At the genteel Ripon Spa Hotel we were greeted with tea and coffee, a grand parlour filled with chairs, and a room filled with readers. It was my first solo event with Amity & Sorrow and they were generous with their questions and comments, and we had a great conversation about the themes of the book, everything from God to sex, with only a little farming thrown in for good measure. Ripon seems a splendid town – a spa hotel and a perfect independent shop: what more does any writer want?
A quick trip to Bettys with the promise of cake, we met voracious blogger M from We Sat Down. It was a speedy hour of great book chat, awash with Bettys special blend and an inhalation of macaroon and raspberry cream, as well as the presentation of a handcrafted bookmark, celebrating “sisters” from We Sat Down’s fellow blogger, Little M. A mother-daughter blog is a wonderful idea and, in that spirit, M asked if I would write her a mother-daughter post about Amity & Sorrow and their mother. Here it is, as part of this week’s Amity & Sorrow Blog Tour!
Next stop, Thirsk and White Rose Books and Coffee Bar, a busy, buzzy shop in the heart of the bustling market square. I read for the book group in a little room, tucked away on the second floor, and had tea whilst chatting to owner, Sue, and her staff. It was all capped off with an interview and a book signing. Those who are near enough to shop at the White Rose, whose books are curated, reviewed and displayed with great care, are lucky readers indeed.
A dash down to London, for pre-Book Fair meetings, and then back up to West Cumberland to the market town of Cockermouth, where The New Bookshop awaited, passionate home to “books, coffee and cake”. Hurrah! Two book groups awaited Jenn Ashworth, Sceptre author of The Friday Gospels, and me for readings and a laughter-packed chat about the themes our books share – faith and family – as well as the extremes of the faiths explored in both. The bookshop suffered tremendous damage in the last flood but, in the true spirit of independent bookselling, they made the disaster into an opportunity to gut the building, change the lay-out, and add two-story coffee bar. The new New Bookshop is a marvelous shop, and I’m only sorry I didn’t have more time for book browsing. Alas, it was then time to leave… Many thanks to Jenn, to the owners of the three distinctive and fiercely independent bookshops, to Samantha Eades and to regional sales rep, Gillian Mackay. And now, lucky old me, I’m off to the States!