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Religion | BOOK REVIEW

Tracing a Nonbeliever's Journey From Conversion to Disillusionment

THIS DARK WORLD: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost; By Carolyn S. Briggs; Bloomsbury: 310 pp., $25.95

June 15, 2002|RUTH ANDREW ELLENSON

So what do you do with yourself when you've dedicated your life to Jesus at 18, and then, 20 years later, find that a life dedicated to the Lord is not all it's cracked up to be?

That's the question Carolyn Briggs attempts to answer in her elegant memoir, "This Dark World." It is a rare portrait from the vantage point of the believer, and Briggs unflinchingly documents her faith--in its first bloom, when she finds God--and then her growing disillusionment.

She follows her journey of "salvation found and lost," as the subtitle proclaims, with a portrait of the tightly wrapped religious community and an equally heartfelt depiction of how she was suffocated by that world and struggled to free herself from it.

Initially disgusted by a childhood friend who became a "Jesus freak" and tried to proselytize her, Briggs, who was married and had a daughter by the age of 18, found herself opening to her friend's beliefs. Briggs and her then-husband, Eric, a would-be rock star, went from being nonbelievers to fundamentalists after buying a paperback, paraphrased, modern-language version of the Bible at Walgreens.

The teenage couple discovered the joy of God together while living in a trailer on the edge of Des Moines with their baby. "In a split second, we crossed to the other side," Briggs writes of that transformative moment. "There was no turning back now.... We cried. It was the first moment of absolute magic I had ever lived. There was a God. There was. There was."

Eric gave up his life with his band, Renegade, to spread the word of Jesus, and Briggs was freed from the intense isolation she felt as a poor young mother. At the time, she was convinced she had found the only road to eternal life and happiness, and discovered that her sense of purpose in life blossomed: "Every time I looked at my hands, I was conscious that they were Christ's. Every part of my body: his. He was continuing his earthly ministry using my body. It was sobering. It was also thrilling."

The first third of the book sets the stage for her vulnerability: She is the less-pretty sister, the child of divorced parents, the one who longs most for attention, acceptance and love. She finds a perfect replacement for her absentee father in God. Although it might read as the classic setup for a woman destined to succumb to a life she will soon struggle to free herself from, Briggs treads this ground lightly, carefully probing the painful self-exploration that is so fundamental in adolescence and young adulthood.

The book becomes most engrossing when Briggs chronicles her experiences in a 1970s community of fundamentalist Christians. The details are extraordinary: Women are expected to nurse one another's babies; eating of health food is enforced almost as dogmatically as the dogma itself; and women--even when they wear full-length skirts--are condemned for tempting their "brothers," the men of the community, by dressing immodestly. The formality of the gender roles is rigid: Men are the heads of households and women the mothers and caretakers. Though Briggs finds this structure comforting at first, it later begins to smother her.

Her world begins to crumble when she discovers that her 11-month-old daughter, Lauren, has been hit as a disciplinary action by a man in the community. When she rushes into the man's home with her bruised child, she is met with bewildered stares and told brusquely that the child is being taught to obey and that she must mind her own business.

Her break from the community takes place over several years, culminating when she decides, at 34, to take the step of going to college. Outside the religious framework of her community, she comes into her own as an intellectually curious woman, splintering away from the cloistered world in which she has lived.

By the time the veneer of her perfect faith begins to crack, she has had three children with Eric. Briggs mysteriously lets the effect her transformation has on them remain mostly untold. As she comes into her own at the end of the book--earning her bachelor's degree at 38 from the University of Arkansas, enrolling in a master of fine arts program, living in Ireland and writing--her children are beginning to lead their own lives.

As liberating as it may have been for Briggs to shed her cocoon and fully metamorphose into the person she was destined to be, one does wonder how all of this played out in the minds of her children. For such a careful observer of her own story, Briggs remains oddly silent in observing her transformation in them. She may have lost others on the road to finding herself.

*

Ruth Andrew Ellenson writes for the Forward, People magazine, and the Jewish Journal of L.A.

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