This book review appeared on my original blog on November 10, 2018. I am reposting it as is.
Some time ago, I joined Duggar Family News: Life is not all pickles and hairspray, a Facebook group that is mostly dedicated to discussing the Duggar family, but also delves into other topics of religion and conservative politics. I don’t participate in that group very often. Mostly, I just lurk. Sometimes, I find good book recommendations there.
I’m not sure if I found Linda Kay Klein’s 2018 book, Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free, in the Duggar group. I might have found it after downloading a similar book about American evangelicals and the purity movement. In any case, I just finished reading this very substantial book this morning. It took me longer than I expected to get through it, although it wasn’t because I didn’t find the subject matter interesting. It was more that Klein included so much information about young women who grow up going to evangelical churches, submitting to extreme rules and social mores about their sexuality. To be frank, that kind of upbringing has a way of really messing up people.
Linda Kay Klein, who was raised in an evangelical Christian household, spent years interviewing other women like her. These were the products of the white, evangelical Christian culture that really came to a head in the 1990s. When I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, I don’t remember ever hearing about events like “purity balls”, where young girls attend fancy dances with their fathers and pledge their sexuality to their dads until they transfer it to their husbands on their wedding days. I don’t remember purity rings being a thing. I did know some of my peers were religious, but most of them were the garden variety protestant types. There were only a few who attended the local Assembly of God church and literally wore their Christianity on their sleeves in the form of religious t-shirts.
When she was in high school, Klein broke up with a boyfriend because she thought God wanted her to, and she feared being labeled a Jezebel. The youth pastor at Klein’s church was convicted of sexual enticement of a minor– a girl who was just twelve years old. It was then that Klein began to question her church and its teachings about purity, morality, and shame. She started to think about her experiences growing up in a culture where girls are taught that it’s their responsibility not to tempt boys. She spent over ten years interviewing women, compiling their stories, and turning it into a groundbreaking book about the purity movement.
Religion is more polarizing than ever these days. I know a lot more atheists today than I knew in the 80s. I also know a lot more religious zealot types. In her book, Klein explores how growing up in a hyper Christian culture affects young women. She includes a lot of stories, some of which are pretty graphic and involve frank discussions of sex. She writes heartbreaking anecdotes of young women who felt deep shame for being sexual and having sexual feelings. Some of her subjects discovered that they were lesbians or transgendered, and struggled with the aftereffects of that in a very religious culture shrouded in secrecy. While God should have been a comfort to these young women, the church represented an authority that made them fear for their very souls.
I am not a very religious person myself. I grew up a mainstream Presbyterian in a church that was pretty low key, religiously speaking. My dad was in the choir and my mom was the church organist, either at the church I grew up in, or at another church that had hired her. My sisters were grown by the time I was in middle school, so I often sat by the wife of one of my dad’s choir member friends. Although my pastors knew me, I never had to answer to them about my purity or anything else. I hated church, but my church didn’t scar me… except for putting me in contact with a few bullies, that I also knew from school.
Given that I had that upbringing, I’m not personally familiar with the “purity culture”. I am, however, married to a man who is an ex Mormon. He and his ex wife joined together and my husband’s daughters were raised Mormon, largely without his influence. I don’t really know my husband’s daughters and I have spent a number of years actively disliking them, mainly due to the way their religion and their mother’s toxic influence has caused them to behave toward my husband. It’s because of them that I started to explore Mormonism, another culture that prizes sexual purity, particularly among its young women. I have met some wonderful ex Mormons and read some hair raising stories about what it’s like to grow up Mormon.
Klein does include some commentary about Mormonism in her book, mostly in passing. For instance, she writes about Elizabeth Smart, who was taught as a young LDS girl the importance of saving her virtue for her husband. Like many young LDS women, Smart was given an object lesson involving a treat that was somehow defiled and then offered to another person. They message was that no one wants a “licked cupcake” or a “chewed up piece of gum”. When Smart was repeatedly raped by Brian David Mitchell, the man who kidnapped her and forced her to “marry” him”, she began to think that no one would value her because she was now akin to a chewed up piece of gum. It was a damaging lesson she had learned in her church.
Besides doing a lot of interviewing, Klein also did a lot of reading. She mentions Jessica Valenti’s book, The Purity Myth, a book I also read about ten years ago. Valenti’s book was a shorter, less interview heavy, and more caustic and rabidly feminist version of Klein’s book. I remember appreciating and valuing the message, but not enjoying Valenti’s book very much, mainly due to Valenti’s tone. However, Valenti’s book was somewhat groundbreaking in 2009 and I think Klein was right to reference it in her own work, which seems to show more of the aftermath of having been raised in the purity culture.
I’m not sure if the purity culture is as popular today as it was ten years ago. A lot has changed since those days. In 2009, the Duggar family was respected by a lot of people. I remember a lot of my friends, themselves lighter weight Christians, really admiring the Duggars and their enormous family. But then, in 2015, that very wholesome Christian facade split violently when it came out that Josh Duggar, the oldest child in the massive Duggar brood, had molested several of his sisters and a babysitter. And then, to add insult to injury, it came out that Josh had also cheated on his wife, Anna, multiple times. However, even if the culture is less popular now (and I don’t know that it is), there is still a generation of young women who grew up in that culture and are dealing with the aftermath.
What I like about Klein’s book is that the overall tone is hopeful and comforting. Yes, it took me a long time to get through every part of this book, but the writing is engaging, kind, and informative. I could tell that she was gentle and empathetic with her subjects, some of whom revealed very personal and heartbreaking stories to her. I think, for some readers, this book could be very healing. I definitely recommend it to those who are interested in this topic. I think it would also be good reading for a book club, particularly because Klein includes resources for club discussions.
If I were rating this on a five star scale, I think I’d award five.
As an Amazon Associate, I get a small commission from Amazon when sales are generated through my site.