The Common Experiences of Women Who Leave Extreme Religions

A new book captures the similarities among apostates from a wide range of religious groups.
pheeque flickr mosque.jpg
Flickr / Pheeque

When Cami Ostman and Susan Tive met in a Seattle memoir-writing class, the two women found themselves bonding over their experiences in fundamentalist religious groups. Ostman had spent over 20 years in charismatic Christian organizations, while Tive had converted to Orthodox Judaism in order to salvage a sinking marriage. Both had already left their faith communities and moved on with their lives by the time they enrolled in the class. "How to live in the secular world, with all of its paradoxes drew us together," says Ostman. "For both of us it wasn't just one moment in which we decided to leave, but lots of moments along the way."

Tive says, "It was fascinating when Cami told me about things in her own religion that were so different from my own—yet her feelings about them rang true for me." As the women talked, they realized they wanted to hear from others like them, other women who had lived through these kinds of experiences. The result is the recently published Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Woman in Extreme Religions, an anthology collecting essays by Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu women. "It's true that there were a few sects and cultures we missed," says Ostman. "We had really hoped to hear from an Amish woman, but it didn't happen." Fortunately, they did hear from many others, including a former Roman Catholic nun, a woman who lost her Jehovah's Witness faith and her virginity in the same week, and a lapsed Pakistani Muslim trying to reconcile her mother's devotion with her own post-partum stress.

They structured the book into three sections, called "In the Beginning," "Burnt Offerings," and "I Lift My Eyes," "which roughly correspond to getting in, staying in, and leaving," says Ostman. Both say they wanted to illustrate why religion might be attractive in each of those parts of the process. "We were very clear with our contributors that we weren't looking for scathing takedowns of a faith or a community; we wanted to know about what was going on in their lives, the reality of what it meant to live them day after day," says Tive. "We were clear that we wanted people to tell their stories, and that we realize none of them are the whole story from beginning to end."

Originally, the book was called "Submitted:" "The idea was, did you feel that you had to submit to rules of beliefs of a system and ultimately perhaps felt you lost yourself?" says Ostman. Although the title has changed, that idea has not. At beyondbeliefanthology.com, along with content that often includes an interview with one of the contributors, there is a spot called "Talk Amongst Yourselves" where people can discuss their experiences with extreme religions. "This book, we hope, will open a space both online, and in living rooms," Ostman says.

There's already been at least one funny living-room conversation inspired by the book. Before the book was published, the authors and contributors gathered to practice their readings. "Everyone was nodding and giving those sounds of assent that women give to one another," says Ostman. "And it just turned out that in the particular group that was reading, all of the stories were about how our sexualities had been restricted or co-opted in various ways. Someone said, 'Wow, this is supposed to be a book about religion, but all of these stories are about sex!'"

Ostman and Tive aren't surprised that intense experiences, like sex, came up so often for their contributors. Intense experiences, are, after all, part of why many of the women got into these religions in the first place. For example, during get-togethers, many women from different faiths talked about the music and how it was something that never left them, even long after they'd left their communities—"it was still in their bones and blood," Tive says. "Often women go in to extreme religions for very positive reasons that then become feelings of restriction."

She knows whereof she speaks, since Susan Tive was a "baal teshuva," an adult who chose to enter into orthodox Judaism. "I was very attracted to orthodoxy because I was a young wife and mother in a difficult marriage," she says. "I had found very little support in the secular world; I kind of felt like the odd one out. I was more or less dragged into orthodoxy by my now ex-husband, but in it I found a structure that values children, and values women as wives and mothers. It was so much more nurturing and supporting and meaningful than what I'd had before. For the first time I felt that what I was doing had meaning."

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Bethanne Patrick is a columnist for the Virginia Quarterly Review and author of An Uncommon History of Common Courtesy. She is the founder of the Twitter hashtag #FridayReads.

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