book reviews

Reposted: A review of fathermothergod: My Journey out of Christian Science, by Lucia Greenhouse

Here’s another book review I posted on my original blog. I plan to move some of the better book reviews to this site, for those who find them useful. This was originally posted on February 2, 2019.

Last month, I got a cult kick after watching Leah Remini’s show about Scientology.  I downloaded several books about cults that I’ve always found interesting.  Christian Science has always been one of those belief systems that has intrigued me.  The faith, founded in 19th century New England by Mary Baker Eddy, is best known because its adherents do not generally seek medical care from physicians or hospitals.  Christian Science is also known for its excellent journalism; the Christian Science Monitor is a well-respected news outlet noted for its neutrality and accuracy in reporting.  The faith also has thousands of “reading rooms” scattered around the world.

Christian Scientists believe there is no such thing as “sickness”.  It’s an “illusion” that can be cured by prayer alone.  Diseases aren’t physical in nature; rather, they are supposedly caused by a mental error.  Although Christian Scientists are not officially required to avoid medical care, followers of the faith believe that prayer is most effective when it is not used in conjunction with medical care. 

Lucia Ewing Greenhouse published her book fathermothergod: My Journey out of Christian Science in 2011.  Greenhouse was raised in an affluent Minneapolis suburb with her sister, brother, and parents.  Greenhouse describes her parents as looking like Angie Dickinson and Burt Bacharach. 

The family enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle, and Lucia’s parents sent their children to private boarding schools affiliated with the Christian Science religion.  At one point, the family lived in London, where the children also attended Christian Science based private schools.  But beyond childhood vaccinations the children received when they were very young, and prior to their parents’ conversion to Christian Science, Lucia and her sister, Olivia, and brother, Sherman, never officially received medical attention.  Instead, their parents sent them to a Christian Science practitioner who would pray for them… for a small fee, of course.

Lucia Greenhouse writes that her mother, Joanne, had been raised with medical parents.  Her father was a doctor and her mother was a registered nurse.  Her brother, Jack, was a plastic surgeon.  Everyone in Lucia’s mother’s family was all for the medical establishment.  It seemed many of Greenhouse’s mother’s relatives resented Lucia’s father, Heff Ewing, for talking Joanne Ewing into joining the Christian Science faith.  Lucia’s uncle, Jack, was especially upset about the belief system. Jack and Heff didn’t get along very well at all.

Greenhouse grew up among loving relatives, but neither she nor her siblings were allowed to be “sick”.  When they weren’t feeling well, they would be doted on and put to bed, but they were not given any over the counter medicines.  They didn’t go to doctors.  When Lucia was in high school, she made the decision to see an ophthalmologist by herself so that she could get her vision corrected. Her father was very upset that she’d made that decision.  It wasn’t until Lucia was in college that she had her very first physical.

Naturally, as people age, health problems arise.  So it was with Lucia’s mother, who got sick when Lucia was a sophomore in college.  Instead of seeing a physician, Joanne Ewing went to Tenacre, a Christian Science “nursing” center in Princeton, New Jersey.  Mrs. Ewing languished at Tenacre for several months, causing her young adult children great anxiety.  Their father began to limit their contact with their mother, who had a large tumor in her abdomen that was causing her to be bedridden.

As the children watched their mother suffer at Tenacre and heard their father continue to deny her condition, they came face to face with family conflict.  Joanne Ewing’s family was very much for medical intervention, but her husband was against it.  At the bitter end of Mrs. Ewing’s life, she did seek medical care.  She had surgery to remove some of the cancer that was killing her.  The surgery helped her to get stronger temporarily, but still claimed her life in September 1986.  Heartbreakingly, in keeping with the Christian Science tradition when a person passes on, there was no talk of Joanne Ewing at her memorial service.  Those who spoke at her funeral didn’t talk about who Joanne Ewing was or what she did in her life.  They only spoke of the religion and the importance of maintaining the faith. 

Lucia’s father went on to remarry another Christian Scientist.  It was just a year after his first wife died.  Fifteen years later, he too died.  At the end of Heff’s life, Lucia and her siblings were kept away by their stepmother, Heather.  Lucia Greenhouse thinks he might have died of Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS), but she doesn’t know for sure.  He was in his 60s.  At his memorial, Lucia did speak rather tersely about her dad.  She writes that she doesn’t miss him much, although she misses her mother terribly.  I don’t think her feelings are necessarily limited to having been raised Christian Science.  I can’t say I really miss my father, but when my mom goes, it may be much more of a blow to me.

I found Lucia Greenhouse’s story fascinating, mainly because I’ve never known any Christian Scientists.  I was interested enough in her story to read up a little bit on the belief system.  I’d never heard of Tenacre, for instance, and had to look that up.  She made it sound like a tranquil place akin to a college campus, only much quieter and more peaceful.  Christian Scientists have “nurses”, but I got the sense they weren’t nurses like what we’re used to at the doctor’s office.  The faith is more about prayer and spiritual healing. 

Unfortunately, in many cases of disease, faith and prayer simply aren’t enough.  Tragically, that is what Lucia and her siblings discovered when their mother developed a festering bed sore due to poor nursing care and neglect.  It was what Joanne Ewing’s plastic surgeon brother, Jack, discovered when he examined his sister and found that the cancer had eroded a hole between her vagina and her bowel. The “nurses” at Tenacre had claimed that Joanne Ewing and her husband, Heff, had “danced” every night, but Lucia’s Uncle Jack could tell by his sister’s extremely debilitated condition that dancing would have been impossible. 

Faith and spirituality are wonderful things, but science always seems to trump them in the long run.  One of Lucia’s relatives, her Uncle Ham, quit the faith when he realized that so many of its followers were dropping dead in their 50s and 60s.

This is a beautifully written book, and it reveals a lot about what it’s like to grow up a Christian Scientist, although I think I would have liked to have gotten a bit more information about the faith itself.  A lot of what I learned about Christian Science in Greenhouse’s book came about in passing, as she mentioned certain tenets of the faith.  Greenhouse’s story mostly seems about the tragic aftermath of what can happen when a person forgoes common sense in favor of religion.  Lucia lost her mother sooner than she should have and in a way that involved a lot of pain and suffering for everyone.  I think of fathermothergod as kind of a cautionary tale.  That being said, I haven’t seen a doctor myself since 2010…

Anyway, if you’re looking for a good book about Christian Science and the experience of being raised in the faith, you might want to check out Lucia Greenhouse’s poignant tale.  However, I will caution that Greenhouse’s story is just one story.  Some commenters on Amazon have written that they follow Christian Science or were raised in it, and Greenhouse’s family doesn’t necessarily reflect the norm.

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