I’m always interested in a good memoir, especially one that explores how a woman’s life journey interacts with faith and spirituality, both for better and for worse. Chasing Eden is just such a book: a memoir about a young woman growing up in a family controlled by a father who constantly moved his family around in search of the ideal, Edenic place in which to wait out the End Times – hence the title. Along the way, a few things got neglected, like giving the four kids any stability, security, regular meals, electricity and running water, a social life with kids their own age, a sense of community and — most painful for the eldest child Cherie, the author of this book — any formal education.
As is sadly all too common among off-the-grid, survivalist, often religious-extremist families who pull their kids out of the “corrupting” influence of public (and sometimes even Christian) schools, Cherie and her siblings were told to tell people they were being homeschooled. But there were no homeschooling texts (and precious few books at all, it seems) in their home, no curriculum was followed nor was even the most rudimentary attempt made to teach the kids anything except some housekeeping and manual-labour skills. The fact that Cherie not only managed to eventually get a GED but became the articulate, thoughtful writer of this engaging and compelling memoir must be almost a literal miracle when you realize how huge the gaps in her education were.
It’s impossible not to compare this book to Tara Westover’s Educated, and many readers have done so. Here’s a relevant paragraph I wrote in my review of Westover’s book:
Westover’s family are Mormon. If there’s one thing Mormons have in common with Seventh-day Adventists (apart from being mid-19th century American religious movements founded by prophets, not drinking coffee, and often being confused with each other) it’s that while the majority of church members live fairly mainstream lives indistinguishable from most middle-class churchgoing folks, there’s something in the religion that leads a tiny fringe element to go off the grid and off the rails. I never met any of these types of Adventists when I was growing up in Newfoundland, but we heard legends of them in other parts of the country and sure enough when I ventured out of my small and cozy world I ran into SDAs who were anti-government, anti-vaxxing, anti-everything homeschoolers who were prepping for the End Times by stocking their basement with canned goods and whatnot. So it’s easy for me to understand how the wider (and much more mainstream) Mormon community as depicted in this book simply accepts the Westover family as being a little extreme but still basically OK-ish, without anyone probing too deeply into what’s really going on out in their remote rural junkyard.
Cherilyn Clough’s family were Seventh-day Adventists, as I am, and what happens in the book when they attend local Adventist churches and (briefly) schools is exactly what I described above, and exactly what happened to Westover’s family within the Mormon community. Nobody recognizes how dysfunctional the home situation actually is, partly because the parents are very good at teaching their children to cover up, and partly because of the “Well, some people are just a little more extreme in their beliefs” culture that prevails in both the SDA and LDS communities. “They’re a bit crazy, but they’re still our brothers and sisters in the Lord” seems to be the attitude that often leads our communities (and probably other conservative religious communities too) to turn a blind eye to neglect and even outright abuse.
It’s often painful to read this book and see how neglected these children were and how many opportunities for a better, more stable life were thrown away in service of their father’s relentless pursuit of his religious ideal. It’s even more painful to see the genuine love and warmth young Cherie had for the mother and father who were perpetrating this neglect and abuse — how desperately she wanted to please them. There’s a thread I’ve seen in several memoirs I’ve read about these kinds of family dynamics: the dad is extremely controlling; the mom is initially seen as the more loving and connected parent who is on the side of the kids; over the years the mom’s unwavering loyalty to the dad and her refusal to stand up to him or get the kids out of the situation begins to seem as abusive as the father’s more overt abuse. It’s such a sad cycle to watch play out, whether in a memoir or in real life, and it’s well delineated here.
But this is also a memoir of survival — Cherilyn Christen Clough’s blog, which gained quite a following long before her book came out — is called Little Red Survivor, and the book’s focus, like the website’s, is on resilience and overcoming. It’s the story of a girl who used what she calls her “superpowers” of remembering the past and telling the truth, to escape a situation most of us can’t even imagine.
Chasing Eden doesn’t tell the whole story. It leaves Cherie at the threshold of a new life, ready to step out into adulthood on her own. But at that point in the story, the rest of her family, though certainly not actively supportive of her move, are willing to accept the direction she is taking.
As her blog and her extensive writing about narcissistic families makes it clear, the road forward from that point was by no means easy. When someone finally breaks away from an abusive, controlling environment, they can’t expect to be welcomed back in with open arms — especially when they start telling the truth about what went on at home. Just as intriguing is the question of how a girl from such a background managed to make her way in the outside world, a question left unanswered in the closing pages of Chasing Eden. I hope both those topics will be addressed in a sequel — one that, hopefully, will be as compellingly readable as Chasing Eden is.