book reviews

Repost: Review of Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters by Chesley Sullenberger…

And here is a repost of a review I wrote on September 22, 2016. It appears here as/is.

How many times have you gotten on an airplane, tuned out the flight attendants’ safety briefing, and just took it for granted that you would make it safely to your destination?  I’m sure I’ve done it more than once in my lifetime.  I’m sure that many of the people who boarded US Airways’ Flight 1549 from New York to Charlotte on January 15th, 2009 also took it for granted that they would be taking a run of the mill flight.  There were 155 passengers and crew on that airplane that day.  How many of them had been lulled into a state of complacency?  How many of them are still complacent seven years after their flight landed in the Hudson River, just minutes after take off?

Like a lot of people, I very well remember reading and hearing about Flight 1549 and its pilot, Chesley B. Sullenberger, affectionately nicknamed Sully, who managed to ditch the aircraft in the river after its engines were overcome by a flock of Canadian geese.  This year, the film Sully is being released, with Tom Hanks playing the title role.  I suppose it was the buzz about Sully that made me decide to download 2009’s Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters.  Written by Chesley B. Sullenberger and ghost writer Jeffrey Zaslow, Highest Duty is basically Sully’s life story in book form.  But it’s also the story of what happened on that fateful day in January, when all of Sully’s years of flying and thousands of hours of training came down to one moment when he and his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles, had 155 lives in their hands.

Highest Duty begins at the very beginning, as Sullenberger describes growing up in Texas and being fascinated by flight.  He found early inspiration and training in a local crop duster, who taught him the basics of flight and rented him the use of his plane and air strip.  Later, he went on to attend the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he was trained to fly bigger airplanes, skills he used as an Air Force officer.  I got a kick out of reading about Sully’s training, especially since it turns out he and my dad were stationed in England during the same time.  Sully was at Lakenheath Air Force Base and my dad was at Mildenhall Air Force Base; the two are very close to each other.  Of course, Sully is a lot younger than my dad, so they were not running in the same circles.

After leaving the Air Force, Sully began his career as a commercial pilot.  He writes about how difficult it was, even back before commercial airlines had to contend with the challenges they face today.  There were more pilots than open positions and everything an airline does is based on seniority.  Sully just happened to be at the right place at the right time when he scored his first job.

This man is a hero.

Like many people, Captain Sullenberger fell in love and got married.  His wife, Lorrie, has been along for the ride, coping with Sully’s many trips away from home.  They have two adopted daughters, Kate and Kelly, and live near San Francisco, California, which is where Sully’s first job was based.  As airlines began disappearing, swallowed by bankruptcies or mergers, Sully’s “home base” changed.  In 2009, he was based out of Charlotte, North Carolina, but still commuted from California. 

As he made his way to that fateful flight out of New York, Sully worried about his finances.  I’m sure he never dreamed that he’d one day write books… or be the subject of a major motion picture with Tom Hanks playing him in the starring role.  No… on January 15th, 2009, Sully was thinking about his looming mandatory retirement and the property he owned that had been leased by a Jiffy Lube franchiser.  The franchiser had decided not to renew the lease and Sully wondered how he would pay the mortgage.  Sully’s pension had dwindled down to being worth a fraction of what it once was.  And he lived in a very expensive part of the country.  It’s a feeling many readers will be able to relate to, even before he gets to the story about his historic landing in the Hudson River.

Those who do decide to read this book may want to know that it’s not all about that flight.  In fact, readers are “teased” throughout the book as he mentions the event that put him in the public eye, but writes more about what led up to that moment.  Some readers may find that technique a little tedious and frustrating.  I know I picked up Sully’s book because I wanted to read about how he ditched the airplane in the river, but I now appreciate reading about how Sullenberger became the man and the pilot he is.  Aside from that, he has spent so many years in the airline business that he offers some interesting trivia about it.  In fact, he even laments how sad he thinks it is that so few children are interested in seeing the cockpit anymore.  Nowadays, kids are plugged into any number of devices.  It doesn’t occur to them to want to stop in and see where Sully works.  He mentions that a lot of people seem to think pilots are not much better than glorified bus drivers. 

Anyway… I pretty much hate flying in airplanes and try to avoid them when I can.  But I can definitely appreciate a book about how the airline industry works, especially when it’s written by a man who could be credited with keeping so many people safe when they could have been so easily killed.  Think about it.  It’s a miracle that 155 people were able to go home to their families after Sully ditched their airplane in an ice cold river.  Through his talented ghost writer, Sully even describes how it felt to receive his personal effects months later, after they were found by the company contracted to take care of that.  He muses that most people who receive personal personal effects after a plane crash are the people who have survived the crash victims.  But there he was, receiving a box of his stuff that happened to be on the plane.  Everything was there, save for an $8 tuna sandwich he purchased and never had the chance to eat.  And he was the one to take possession of that stuff, not his wife and children.  It’s amazing.

I think Highest Duty is well worth reading.  I give it a solid four stars.

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religion, videos, YouTube

A Christian diet cult crashes and burns…

Until last week, I had never heard of Gwen Shamblin Lara, or her husband, former Tarzan actor, Joe Lara. I didn’t know anything about their “church”, either– Remnant Fellowship— located in Brentwood, Tennessee. The couple came into my consciousness a few days ago, when news reports broke about how their 40 year old Cessna 501 airplane crashed into Percy Priest Lake in Smyrna, Tennessee, just east of Nashville. They had been headed for Palm Beach, Florida, home of many wealthy people and white Christians.

I didn’t initially pay much attention to the news about the crash. I had heard that Gwen Shamblin Lara’s ministry focused on breaking people out of addictions– particularly food addictions. I had noticed Gwen’s crazy high hair, and realized that she reminded me a bit of the late Jan Crouch, who famously had big pink hair and was seen on Trinity Broadcasting Network with her late husband, Paul. Those factors alone should have attracted me like a magnet to Gwen’s story. But I didn’t learn much about her until yesterday, when I caught Katie Joy’s videos about the Remnant Fellowship. I was pretty gobsmacked by them.

What’s with the hair?
Kudos to Katie Joy for dishing on this couple.

If you are interested in learning more about Gwen and Joe, I highly recommend watching Katie Joy’s videos from Without a Crystal Ball. I know a lot of people seem to have a problem with Katie Joy, but I think she did a good job covering this story. I watched and listened with some shock and disgust as I learned more about this couple, who claimed to be Christians, yet lived in extreme opulence and evidently promoted abuse and eating disordered behaviors.

In one clip Katie Joy provides, the skeletal looking Gwen is wearing a tank dress that is clearly at least a size too big for her. She stands with her hands in the air, the dress shifted to one side and the strap falling off her shoulder. Her voice is thick with a southern accent as she commends one mom for spanking her child. Another mom, Sonya Smith of Mableton, Georgia, followed Gwen’s advice to punish her son, locking him in his room with a Bible for days (starts at 8:20 in the second video). Gwen commends Sonya Smith for not “spoiling” her child.

In 2007, Sonya Smith, and her husband, Joseph, ultimately went on trial for the 2003 death of their eight year old son, Josef. In October 2003, Josef Smith passed out without ever regaining consciousness as the family had gathered in their kitchen to participate in a prayer session over the Internet. When Josef collapsed, father Joseph touched him, noting that the boy was “warm to the touch” but sweaty. He thought Josef was overheating, so he carried him outside to the carport and laid him down on the concrete. When that didn’t help cool off Josef, the family called 911 and Josef was brought into the dining room. Paramedics first encountered the child there; he wasn’t breathing and was without a pulse. They took him to a hospital, where he was determined brain dead. A day later, he was dead.

Medical examiners determined that Josef Smith had died having suffered extreme abuse from his parents. The police stated that the child was frequently locked in a closet and forced to pray to a picture of Jesus. His parents admitted to striking him with a glue stick, although they didn’t think the punishment was abusive. See the featured photo for an example of what a glue stick looks like. The ones in the photo are about a half inch in diameter and 12 inches long, but they come in different sizes and colors. Before I started learning more about fundie Christians, I had never heard of people spanking their kids with glue sticks. I always thought of them as being much smaller and in a plastic push up tube. Even the hot glue sticks I’ve seen were a lot shorter than the ones used by fundies to discipline their kids.

I always thought the “rod” was the gospel, not an actual rod…

Many devout Christians are particularly enamored of the Bible verse about sparing the rod and spoiling the child and take it very literally. I’m not sure if Gwen and Joe were fans of Michael and Debi Pearl’s controversial book, To Train Up A Child, but that book is infamous for its strong emphasis on corporal punishment for the purpose of “training children” to be obedient Christians. It goes as far as advising parents what implements they should use for spankings. It sounds to me like the Remnant Fellowship, which, like the LDS church, claims to be the “one true church”, might be in favor of the Pearls’ teachings about breaking children’s wills to turn them into good little Christian robots.

If you listen to Katie Joy’s video, at around 9:19, you hear Gwen Shamblin Lara preaching about not spoiling children and being sure to “spank” them to show love. But then you look at how she lived. She and her husband had a huge mansion decked out with gilded furniture, and they owned their own airplane… which ultimately led to their demise. And here she is telling her followers not to “spoil” their children, when she herself appears to be very pampered, living a lavish lifestyle on donations from her flock. Ultimately, her privileged lifestyle led to her early death, didn’t it? What a hypocrite!

Sonya and Joseph Smith became members of Gwen Shamblin Lara’s church in 2000. The Remnant Fellowship Church is an offshoot of Gwen’s “Weigh Down Workshop”, which is a diet program she started in 1996. The church is known for its focus on saving souls from Hell and reforming people with addictions to drugs, alcohol, and food. However, according to Katie Joy’s expose, this church’s methods are extremely controlling and abusive and many people have been harmed by it. The Smiths’ case led to authorities raiding and investigating the Remnant Fellowship Church in 2004; the church supported the Smiths in their legal fight.

As for the Smiths, according to Wikipedia, they were “each charged with four counts of murder, five counts of first-degree cruelty to children, three counts of aggravated assault and two counts of false imprisonment.” On February 12, 2007, which would have been Josef’s 12th birthday, a jury found them guilty on eleven counts: “one count each of felony murder, reckless conduct, false imprisonment; three counts of aggravated assault, and four counts of cruelty to children (two specifically pertaining to glue sticks and others to unknown objects).” On March 27, 2007, Joseph and Sonya Smith were each sentenced to life plus thirty years– the maximum allowed by Georgia law. The case was appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court in 2010, but the original convictions and sentences were upheld. In February 2011, a petition was filed with the United States Supreme Court, asking the justices to review the decisions made by Georgia’s lower courts. The petition was denied.

I would not wish a plane crash on anyone. I’m sure the crash was horrific for everyone on board. Katie Joy said that the aircraft basically “broke” and there’s debris everywhere with no chance whatsoever of any survivors. However, after listening to Gwen Shamblin Lara speak and hearing about Josef Smith’s very sad case, I kind of feel relieved that Gwen will no longer be around to spread her particular brand of “the gospel”.

I’m sure the Remnant Fellowship won’t be going away, but at least now more people know about it and the potential dangers it poses to innocent people. It’s not hard to fall into abusive situations… whether they be abusive relationships with other people or abusive organizations like religious groups or cults. These systems thrive on attracting people who are weakened because they are in trouble. People with financial or health problems… people with low self-esteem or addictions… people who are desperately looking for a way out of a bad situation– these are all examples of folks who might be lured into joining falling into abuse. Sometimes, those situations lead to terrible tragedies involving innocent people like Josef Smith, or plane crashes that kill innocent people, like those who were onboard the private Cessna aircraft with Gwen and Joe.

As I wrote in yesterday’s post about culty churches, Shamblin Lara’s followers were required to close themselves off from other influences. They weren’t allowed to read anything not produced by Gwen or listen to music not made by Gwen’s son, Michael Shamblin. That raises some red flags, right? Gwen also says that her followers should not use antidepressants and they should disconnect from their families. More culty red flags!

For more information about this “cult” of starvation, check out Jen’s Fundie Fridays’ YouTube channel and its lengthy expose of Gwen Shamblin Lara’s “church” and weight loss program that combines religion with anorexic behaviors. This video below was made about a year ago. I wonder if Jan will do another video soon, now that Gwen and Joe are dancing with whatever they found in the great beyond after their plane crashed into Percy Priest Lake.

That hair on Gwen… wow. I like Jen’s style. She has a great sense of humor.

In the above video, I see clips from Gwen’s videos and they all depict her living the perfect, romanticized life, complete with music from Shrek (really?). All of the people are dressed to the nines and there are romantic gazebos and depictions of perfect family living… but that’s all it is. It’s just a facade– a highly staged, manipulated, fantastic facade– that sadly roped in enough followers for the Laras to be able to afford this very anti-Christlike church they promote. It’s obvious that Gwen was idolized by her followers, which is pretty much not what the Bible promotes, right? Idolatry is specifically forbidden, according to the Bible. See below, where it’s spelled out…

Yup… Idolatry is not Christian.

In yet another example of idol worship, Gwen Shamblin Lara even compared herself to Michael Jackson, claiming she was persecuted. But I think it’s fair to say that the criticism she got was warranted. People died following her… a child died! His parents are now in prison for the rest of their lives. She promoted pro-ana ideas, which are extremely dangerous, especially for people who already have tendencies to fall into eating disorders. And frankly, I think her hair was a crime against nature. So, while I don’t rejoice in the death of Gwen and Joe, I am glad that their toxic brand of “Christianity” has been dealt a serious blow. If the church continues, I hope it is run by people who are less dangerous and hypocritical… and culty.

Anyway… a week ago, I had never heard of Gwen Shamblin Lara. And now that I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole, I’m glad I didn’t find her until she was dead. What a toxic load of shit her church is. I thought Teddi Mellencamp’s diet program was abusive and predatory. At least Teddi Mellencamp doesn’t marry dieting with religion. She just charges a lot of money to bully her customers into starving themselves down to a more “acceptable” size.

And she has more normal hair, too. Of course, her weight loss program is also pretty fucked up and dangerous.

In other news… I was successful in getting my second shot yesterday. So far, I feel okay. My arm is a bit sore and I’m a little tired, but otherwise, no sweat. Bill suffered a lot more from his second shot than I have so far. But I hesitate to celebrate too much, since I have heard that the side effects can come on within a day or two. I may be down for the count tomorrow or over the weekend. We shall see. I’m just glad it’s done.

Edited to add: Fundie Fridays posted a new video about a half hour ago (as of June 5, 2021 3:30pm Central European Summer Time)

Very newsy! This video is done by James instead of Jen.
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