book reviews, religion

Repost: A review of Sacred Road: My Journey Through Abuse, Leaving the Mormons, and Embracing Spirituality…

And here is a repost of a book review I wrote on October 29, 2014. It appears here as/is.

Those of you who regularly read this blog– and I know there are a few of you– know that I enjoy reading “ex Mormon lit”.  I have a couple of huge lists of books I’ve already read and reviewed which I’ll link to at the end of this post.  I can’t say that every book about leaving Mormonism tempts me, but many of them do.  I especially enjoy reading books about missionary experiences since I was myself a Peace Corps Volunteer.  While the Peace Corps and a Mormon mission are not really the same things, strange experiences in exotic countries can be somewhat universally appealing.

Anyway, I just finished reading Todd Maxwell Preston’s 2013 book, Sacred Road: My Journey Through Abuse, Leaving the Mormons, and Embracing Spirituality.  This book was not about a Mormon mission experience.  I still found it interesting in a “Peace Corps” kind of way because Preston is not American.  He hails from New Zealand, a place I’ve been wanting to visit for a long time for the scenery and the wine alone! 

At the beginning of his book, Preston explains that his parents were not born Mormon; they were converts.  Preston was born March 7, 1973 in Hamilton, New Zealand, the fourth of ten children.  When he was six years old, his family moved to Utah for the first time.  As he grew up in his large Mormon Kiwi family, they would move back and forth from New Zealand to Utah several times.  As I read about the major moves Preston’s huge family made, I couldn’t help but think about the logistics of it. 

I have lived abroad four times in my life.  The first time, when my dad was transferred to England with the Air Force, I was too young to remember what went into making the move.  The next time, I went to Armenia– just me and a couple of suitcases.  Then there were two moves to Germany.  Each overseas move has been complicated and somewhat difficult, despite the fact that each time, there was a job to go to and logistical and financial support.  From what I gathered, Todd Preston’s family didn’t have that.  Perhaps it makes a difference if you have family to help you, but the cost alone would be daunting for family of Preston’s size.  And add in the fact that Preston and his siblings were school aged, I imagine it was a lot of upheaval and confusion for them, especially since one move to Utah lasted only a couple of months!

Making matters worse was the fact that Preston’s father was very abusive and Preston apparently wasn’t one of his favored children.  Consequently, he was treated very badly by his dad, who insisted that Preston adhere to the many strict tenets of Mormonism and used abusive methods to make sure he did.  I got the sense that Preston was a bit of a free spirit being forced to be a square peg in a round hole.

Preston went to school in Texas to become a chiropractor.  He was not the only one in his family to take this route.  Two brothers joined the profession before Preston did and they had a practice together in Utah.  Preston writes of marrying a good Mormon woman and quickly starting to have kids, perhaps before they were really ready for the job.  Though I got the sense that he dearly loves the four daughters he had with his first wife, I also got the sense that going to school, trying to establish a practice, and living with Mormonism was very difficult and stressful for Preston.  It was so difficult, that Preston finally had to let go of the church, along with his marriage and even his career. 

My thoughts

For the most part, I enjoyed reading Sacred Road.  Given that Mormonism is such an American religion, I was curious as to why it would be embraced by people who come from New Zealand.  I’m not sure Preston answered that question for me, but I did appreciate his very personal story of what growing up Mormon and Kiwi was like.  I wish Todd Preston had spent more time writing about his coming of age years and explained more as to why there were so many moves back and forth to New Zealand. 

Preston’s book seems to be mostly about his relationship with his father and how it affected him and less about Mormonism, although I do believe that Preston’s father used the church to abuse his son.  The fact that the church can be used in such a manner is why I dislike Mormonism as much as I do.  I know that many churches can be used in a similarly destructive way, but the Mormon church happened to personally affect me and, more importantly, my husband.  So I have a lot of empathy for people who have been damaged by it, even as I understand that many people grow up Mormon just fine and happily continue to embrace the belief system.  I think it’s great when people find a belief system that works for them, but I know that not every belief system works for every person… and I appreciate people who are brave enough to write about their experiences, especially when what they have to say isn’t positive. 

I notice that some reviewers have panned Sacred Road because they think Preston confuses his father’s abuse with church abuse.  It’s true that even if he hadn’t grown up Mormon, Preston very likely would have been abused by his father.  However, Mormonism made an effective tool for abuse, particularly since Preston’s dad seemed hellbent on rising through the ranks and attaining status and power within the church. 

While I’ve never been LDS, I have discovered through several different sources that it’s really hard to rise to the higher echelons of the church if you’re a convert, which Preston’s parents were.  But that doesn’t stop people from trying.  Mormons are expected to do a lot, give a lot, and pray, pay, and obey a lot.  Those who can’t or won’t get with the program are definitely subjected to pressure.  Add that to the stress of living with an abusive parent and you have a very difficult situation which leads to trouble down the road.  And indeed, Preston does write about his trouble– a failed marriage, a crisis of faith, temporarily losing his career and the financial stability that comes with that, and, I suspect, damaged relationships with his children and other family members.  The book ends before readers find out what’s at the end of Preston’s “sacred road”, though a note at the end of the book reads that he moved back to New Zealand, remarried, and had at least a couple more children.

I think Sacred Road could have been better than it is, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t like the book or get anything of value from Preston’s story.  I think it helps to know something about Mormonism before you read this, since I don’t think Preston really explains much about what Mormons believe, nor do I think he explains enough about why being Mormon factored into his journey.  Overall, I would recommend this book to interested readers.

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book reviews, religion

Reviewing Sins of the Father: The Long Shadow of a Religious Cult by Fleur Beale

Alright… so I’ve had my nap and finally finished Fleur Beale’s fascinating book, Sins of the Father: The Long Shadow of a Religious Cult. Neville Cooper, who died of cancer at age 92 in 2018, was the founder of the Gloriavale Christian Community currently located on the West Coast of New Zealand. Many people regard the Gloriavale Christian Community as a religious cult. I had not heard of it until recently, when I got a message from a lawyer in New Zealand who invited me to write about it. This book, originally published in 2009, is about Phil Cooper, one of the sons of Neville Cooper, and his first wife, Gloria.

I recently reviewed Daughter of Gloriavale, which was written by Lilia Tarawa, one of Neville Cooper’s granddaughters and one of Phil Cooper’s nieces. Before I get going too far into this review, I have to explain something. Due to a revelation Neville Cooper got from God, he later went by the name “Hopeful Christian”. Many of his followers have also changed their original names, mostly to adjectives that describe a “Christlike” quality. For instance, Neville has children named Hope, Faith, Miracle, and Charity. Lilia Tarawa is one of Miracle’s daughters. Sins of the Father is about Phil Cooper, who is Lilia’s uncle, and six of the children he had with his first wife, Sandy, who was later renamed Prayer. Sandy/Prayer also has another daughter by Phil. Her name is Cherish, and at the time the book was published, Phil had never met her in person. Phil also has a daughter named Jess by his second wife.

Phil Cooper was born in Australia in 1962. His parents moved him and his then ten siblings to New Zealand in 1967, when he was five years old. At the time, Neville Cooper was a traveling preacher who had developed a following and was invited to speak around the country. However, his teachings were at odds with mainstream Christianity. He was considered a fundamentalist. So Cooper decided to start his own community at Haupiri, located on New Zealand’s West Coast. He eventually named the community Gloriavale, in honor of his first wife, Gloria, who had predeceased him by many years. At this writing, several hundred people still live in Gloriavale. The women wear long blue dresses with white headdresses. The men wear blue shirts and blue trousers. The women of the community do what’s commonly considered traditional women’s work– cooking, cleaning, childcare, teaching, and the like. The men work in Gloriavale’s businesses or do manual labor such as farming or construction.

As he got older, Phil Cooper decided he wanted to leave Gloriavale. He chafed under his father’s oppressive rules, as well as his narcissistic and controlling behaviors. When he was sixteen years old, Phil ran away from Gloriavale, eventually landing in Australia. He had nothing, but managed with help from kind strangers. At one point, having landed in Brisband, he met Mormon missionaries who helped him out by giving him a ride. He ended up converting to the LDS religion, knowing that his father would disown him if he knew. Neville Cooper considered Mormonism as “false religion”. But as a sixteen year old, free from the compound, Neville wasn’t that worried about temporarily being Mormon. He bought himself a tape player, something that was forbidden in Gloriavale, and became familiar with the contemporary music of the late 1970s. Eventually, he was tracked down by his sister, Charity, who tried to talk him into coming home. Although he didn’t want to go home, he realized he missed his family, and he returned to Gloriavale to face his father.

When he first arrived home, Phil’s father welcomed him and he was allowed to return to his apprenticeship. But being on his own had given Phil a bit of an attitude that Neville didn’t like. Phil wore a watch, which Neville considered “worldly”, and he didn’t like that the young man had a tape player and listened to worldly music. So Phil was subjected to his father’s discipline. There he sat in Neville’s room, where 25 to 30 of the community’s men were also gathered. Neville severely chastised his son, demanding that he change his name because he didn’t want to be associated with him. Neville took Phil’s beloved watch and smashed it. Phil didn’t react, so his father got his mother and sisters to lay on the guilt, pressuring Phil to give in to his father’s demands for compliance and obedience.

Neville tried to threaten Phil with stories about how terrifying and dangerous the world was, but Phil had just come from the world, so he knew it wasn’t true. Then Neville told him that God would do terrible things to him and he would die a gruesome death if he didn’t repent. Finally, after hours of berating and extreme pressure, Phil cracked because he was exhausted. And then he took that precious tape player that he bought in Australia and threw it on the floor, breaking it. Meanwhile, Phil’s older sister, Faith, and her husband, Alan, had decided to leave Gloriavale with their five children. Like Phil, they found the community’s rules stifling. Moreover, Neville Cooper was a sexual deviant, who dictated just about everything in his followers’ lives, from who they were allowed to marry, to what they named their children, to what they wore and ate. Unlike Phil, Faith and Alan were successful in leaving permanently the first time they left.

For awhile, after he ran away, Phil became an obedient, model son, working very hard to win his father’s approval. In 1981, he decided he wanted to marry a young woman named Sandy, so he asked his father’s permission and Neville agreed. Phil was 18 and Sandy was 21 when they got married. They had plenty of time to make many children, so that’s what they did. Neville constantly reminded his followers of the importance of being Godly and obedient. However, he and the other men of the community used pornography. Young women who put on weight were forced to fast and were verbally abused. Sandy was fondled by Neville, and some of the girls in the community were forced to join the elders in hot tubs. Children grew up living in one room with their parents and witnessing them having sex.

Neville also believed that once girls hit puberty, they were ready to be married and start having babies. Pregnancy was an opportunity for the women not to work as hard, since they were allowed to rest more when they were having babies. Children in the community were involved with overseeing births, most of which took place at home, unless there were medical issues. Childbirth was considered totally natural and something that should not take place in a hospital unless there was a medical need.

In 1995, Neville Cooper went to prison for about a year on sexual abuse charges. His son, Phil, and some of the girls who had fled the community testified against him. His followers remained steadfast in their loyalty to their leader.

Before long, Phil Cooper was once again at odds with his father’s strict rules and abusive methods. When he was 27 years old, with help from a couple of his brothers, Phil left Gloriavale for good. At the time, he had five children between the ages of eight and sixteen months. After he left, he was told by a community elder that he would no longer have any communication with his children. Phil was heartbroken, so he decided to abduct his children, and his wife, Sandy. Again, he was able to pull off his plan with help from a couple of his brothers. Phil and his family eventually landed in the United States, where Sandy gave birth to Phil’s sixth child, a boy named Andreas. Sandy was never happy outside of Gloriavale, though. She went back twice, despite Phil’s protests, because she didn’t think she could live a Godly life without being in the Gloriavale community. After the second time, Sandy stayed, and later granted him a divorce.

But unbeknownst to Phil, when she left him the second time, Sandy was pregnant with his seventh child. He did not know about his daughter, Cherish, until she was much older, and at the time this book was published, had never seen her in person. One of his other daughters, Dawn, also willingly went back to the compound. The rest remain happily outside of Gloriavale. They have been able to go back a couple of times, but with every visit, there is both the pressure to stay and conform to the community’s culty standards, and careful minding of their visit so that they don’t influence anyone else to leave.

Phil and the other children eventually left the United States, having spent some time in the Hutterite Community in Minnesota. One of his children, Andreas, was named after one of the Hutterites who helped Phil. That group was apparently a much nicer one and more Christlike, and they treated Phil and his family with kindness. But they needed to go home and be closer to their family. So Phil and his kids moved to Australia, even though Andreas, having been born in the USA, was an American citizen. They had to get him Australian citizenship.

My thoughts

Fleur Beale has done a fine job with Phil Cooper’s exciting and amazing story of escaping his father’s cult. She’s a good writer, and her style is engaging and interesting. I liked that she included photos, some of which are in color, and is careful to explain some of the more complicated aspects of this story.

Oddly enough, aspects of this story and some of the methods used to get Phil to comply with his father’s wishes reminded me a lot of my husband Bill’s ex wife’s methods. One of the ways Neville would get his children to fall in line was to get other family members to put pressure on them and employ abusive methods like shunning, lovebombing, and group or family pressure. Bill’s ex wife also does this. Younger daughter has said that when she left home, her sisters would call or email her, berating her for being on a “high horse” or being “prideful” and telling her she should humble herself. Incidentally, when Bill was freshly divorced and leaving Mormonism, younger daughter also accused him of being “prideful”. Ex resorted to extreme measures to get her way and always punishes anyone who goes against her wishes. Neville Cooper was like that, too.

Neville Cooper/Hopeful Christian is often described as a very charismatic narcissist. Everything had to be done under his conditions; it was his way or the highway. Bill’s ex wife is the same way, and he has described her as “charismatic”– the type of person who can sell ice to Eskimos. Or, at least she can if they are unaware of the type of person she is.

Neville Cooper sounds like he was the same way, controlling and convincing people to do everything in exactly the way he wanted it done. A wide variety of abuses were employed to keep everyone in line, to include ostracizing members of the community. It’s no wonder Phil Cooper couldn’t stand it anymore. He recognizes that he has some of his father’s qualities, too, although he does his best to temper them. The children who left the compound with him are grateful that he got them out, even though they had to grow up without their mother. Neville Cooper was addicted to power, and he was ruthless in his quests to get it.

This is an excellent book about Gloriavale, and a young man who decided to risk everything to escape it, even though his father was the leader of the cult. Phil Cooper’s story is very interesting, and I think Fleur Beale has done well in writing the tale. I would definitely recommend Sins of the Father: The Long Shadow of a Religious Cult to anyone who is interested in learning more about this community, especially if it’s paired with other books about Gloriavale. It really is an interesting cult– and a reminder that the United States is not the only place where dangerous and charismatic leaders get into power and enslave people.

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book reviews, religion

Reviewing Daughter of Gloriavale: My Life in a Religious Cult, by Lilia Tarawa…

Roughly a month ago, I wrote a post about Gloriavale Christian Community, a religious sect founded by Neville Cooper, otherwise known as Hopeful Christian, and located in New Zealand. That post was prompted by a message I got from a lawyer in New Zealand who is involved in litigation against the community. The lawyer had read my review of I Fired God, by Jocelyn Zichterman. Zichterman was raised in the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Church, but left the church after many years of abuse. The New Zealand based attorney was hoping I would spread the word about a similar situation in his country. At the time, I didn’t think I’d heard about Gloriavale Christian Community, but then I went on YouTube and, sure enough, found a video of a TED Talk done by Lilia Tarawa that I’d seen a few years ago.

I included this video in my previous post about Gloriavale, but it bears repeating here.

Lilia Tarawa also wrote a book about her experiences growing up in a “religious cult”. In her case, it was a church founded by her grandfather, a charismatic man who was born in Australia and came to New Zealand in 1969 to start his movement. Because Tarawa’s grandfather’s name was Cooper, the group was originally called “Cooperites”. But then one day, Neville Cooper had a revelation that all of the sect’s members should change their names to something more “Christian”. So Neville Cooper became Hopeful Christian. Just about everyone else in the group also abandoned the names given at birth and adopted positive “Christlike” adjectives as their names. For instance, one man changed his named to “Fervent”, while another was called “Stedfast”. Another changed his name to “Willing”. Many of the members also changed their last names, as Cooper did. Lilia writes that her parents were high ranking enough that she and her siblings weren’t forced to change their first names, although they did adopt the surname “Just” for a time… until they eventually fled the group.

A screengrab from Tarawa’s Ted Talk.

In her 2017 book, Daughter of Gloriavale: My Life in a Religious Cult, Lilia Tarawa describes what it was like for her and her siblings to grow up in a very regimented community. Lilia is one of ten children, nine of whom were raised in Gloriavale. Only her youngest sister, Arielle, was not born on the compound. Lilia’s parents were also born in Gloriavale; her mother was named Miracle because Miracle’s mother had been pregnant with her when she, Neville Cooper, and two others were in a plane crash. Truly miraculously, everyone involved in the crash survived with cuts and bruises.

Growing up, Lilia wore long blue dresses and white headdresses. She was not permitted to cut her hair, shave her legs or armpits, or wear makeup. The community had a school and a library, but the books Lilia and her friends and family members were allowed to read were limited and highly censored. Lilia was not allowed to listen to “worldly” music. She and the rest of the females in the community were taught that they were to follow men, specifically Tarawa’s grandfather, who was regarded as a living prophet of sorts.

Once the girls had their first menstrual periods, they were deemed old enough to marry. The marriages were arranged, and the women were expected to have many babies and do what was regarded as “women’s work”– cooking, childcare, teaching, and the like. Females were not encouraged to excel academically or aim for careers outside of the community. The men were expected to work for the many companies owned and operated by the community, or to do manual labor. Everyone read the Bible. The whole community ate meals together, and whole families lived in large, single rooms. When the women had babies, they were mostly delivered on the compound. Childbirth was considered a natural thing, and medical people were not involved unless it was unavoidably necessary. From the age of seven, Lilia was helping women give birth. So were her brothers and sisters.

In spite of what many of us “born worldly” folks might think, Lilia Tarawa grew up thinking she lived in a paradise. Everything was taken care of, and she was surrounded by family and friends, as well as New Zealand’s natural beauty. And everyone wore the same clothes and lived the same lifestyle, so it wasn’t like Lilia missed anything more “normal” kids had. Sometimes, new people would join the community. Lilia’s friend, Graciela, who had been born in Chile and adopted by a white family, came to the group and introduced Lilia to things she had never known about. Lilia couldn’t pronounce Graciela, so she just called her friend “Grace”. Grace and her family eventually left New Zealand for the Elmendorf Christian Community in Minnesota, but Grace eventually returned to Gloriavale. She had a great impact on Lilia’s coming of age. It was through Grace that Lilia first got a taste of the world beyond her grandfather’s artificial utopia.

As she got older, Lilia’s view of the community began to change. She was a smart young woman who did well in school. One day, her grandfather rebuked her in front of the community. He read in her progress report that she had “leadership capabilities”. Hopeful Christian was miffed, since he didn’t think girls should be leaders. Lilia was humiliated as he berated her in front of everyone. Another day, she was in a library and found a romance book. It was forbidden for her to read such a book, since it was considered “worldly”. But she started to read it and became hooked, then smuggled it out of the library. Her brother, Sam, found out that Lilia had taken the book and snitched on her. Musical artists, like Shania Twain, were very attractive to Lilia. But Shania’s music, as well as Justin Timberlake’s, Taylor Swift’s, and Beyonce’s, were forbidden to Lilia. She was still introduced to them by way of friends like Grace, or by chance.

And then there was the shunning. Lilia’s older sister, Sara, and her brothers, Sam and Victor, decided they couldn’t tolerate Gloriavale anymore. They left, and were shunned by the family. Of course, Sara, Sam, and Victor were wholly unprepared for life outside of a religious cult. They had to figure out how to live in the modern world before they were legal adults. There were also other abuses detailed in the book, such as corporal punishment. The group is, not surprisingly, a proponent of not sparing the rod as a way of showing “love” to children.

Naturally, Lilia and her family eventually left Gloriavale, or this book would not exist. I don’t want to give away more of the story, since I do think this book is well worth reading if you’re interested in religious communities. Lilia Tarawa writes well, and has an engaging voice. My one complaint is that the lead up to her “escape” is a bit long. Once you get to the escape and her emergence into the world, the book is pretty much ending. I think this book would have been an even stronger account if she’d spent a little more time writing about adjusting to life outside of Gloriavale. But maybe she’s planning a new book for that part.

I did find it interesting to read about how Lilia went from reading the Bible, waterskiing in long dresses, and birthing babies, to clubbing, wearing tight pants, shaving her legs, and drinking liquor. I see on her official Web site, which I linked above, that Lilia is into yoga, public speaking, and writing. She writes of wearing Tommy Hilfiger sunglasses and typing on an iMac, a far cry from the more luddite existence she had when she was a child. Lilia writes that she found herself embracing her sexuality, but it was a shock to get to that point. Even the act of having her hair trimmed and layered was a bit scary for her, although she enjoyed the results. Again… these were aspects of the book that I found intriguing and would have liked to have read more of, rather than stories from her coming of age. Or, at least I think she should have balanced them out a bit with explaining more about what it was like to become of the world. A lot of her experiences seem to be about discovering pop music, fashion, and being a “normal” young person by attending clubs. But as we all know, plenty of “normal” young folks aren’t obsessed with pop music, fashion, or clubbing.

In any case, I’m glad I read about Gloriavale. It is an interesting community, and Lilia Tarawa has offered the world a fascinating look at a group a lot of people don’t know about. I wasn’t as horrified by her story as I was Jocelyn Zichterman’s, but I am glad she was able to leave the community with her family, and they have been able to find peace and joy outside of the cult. And perhaps most tellingly, when Lilia did go back to visit Gloriavale, she listened to her grandfather speak, and realized he was nothing more than a narcissistic charlatan. The hero image she’d had of him when she was growing up was shattered. I think a lot of us can relate to that experience, as we mature and start seeing the world and the people in it through more experienced eyes. It’s kind of sad when that happens, but I think it eventually does lead to more enlightenment and the chance to live a more authentic life. So… here’s to Lilia Tarawa and her family’s new life of freedom and discovery. May they live long and prosper in this crazy, modern world.

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religion

Gloriavale Christian Community…

A few days ago, I got a message from a lawyer in New Zealand who’d read my review of I Fired God by Jocelyn Zichterman. He alerted me to the existence of the Gloriavale Christian Community, otherwise known as the Cooperites, an obscure and isolated Christian group living in Haupiri, on the west coast of New Zealand. The lawyer asked me to write about this group in a means to spread awareness of it.

When I first read the lawyer’s message, I didn’t recognize the name “Gloriavale”. But then this morning, I was reminded of an awesome TED Talk I watched on YouTube a few years ago. I realized the young woman who spoke so eloquently must have been raised in that group. Sure enough, she was.

Fascinating… well worth watching if you’re interested in Christian religious cults. This video was made in 2017.

Lilia Tarawa is an excellent speaker. Thanks to the lawyer’s message, I have ordered her book and will be reading it after I finish the one I’m working on now. I don’t expect my current book will take as long to read as the last one did. It’s considerably lighter material.

It will take me some time to review Lilia Tarawa’s book. In the mean time, I think the above video is an interesting introduction to the realities of life in the Gloriavale Christian Community. It’s hard to imagine this beautiful young woman, so stylishly dressed, strong, passionate and compassionate, being raised in such a community.

Gloriavale Christian Community doesn’t have a long history. It was founded in 1969 by Neville Cooper (hence the group’s nickname “Cooperites”). Cooper, who was also known as “Hopeful Christian”, was born in Australia and invited to New Zealand. Although some people refer to the group members as “Cooperites”, the group members themselves simply refer to themselves as Christians.

I’m looking forward to reading what Lilia Tarawa has to say about her upbringing. I will try to keep an open mind, although I tend to take a dim view of religious groups that employ shunning and other egregious abuses to keep members in line. And, on another note, it really is gratifying to know that people around the world read my reviews and think enough of them to reach out to me and spawn more discussion. Thanks very much to the lawyer who brought this subject to my attention and dropped me a line. Stay tuned for the review!

The featured photo is a screen grab from Lilia Tarawa’s Ted talk video.

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