As if growing up wasn’t already hard enough, Lucia Greenhouse, author of fathermothergod: My Journey Out of Christian Science (Crown Press), grew up encased in a family that didn’t believe in illness. Think about that for a second. The family of Lucia Greenhouse, like many Christian Scientist families, did not believe in illness; rather, they believed that man, made in the perfect image of God, is without error, and that sickness is an illusion—the illusory manifestation of incorrect thinking. Having not known anything about Christian Science before reading Greenhouse’s book—aside from the presence of their reading rooms in just about every city I’ve ever been in—this aspect of the religion came as a complete surprise. To my dismay, I found that what was just shocking for me, was tragic for Lucia Greenhouse.
Fathermothergod tells Greenhouse’s story of her experience with Christian Science and the devastating loss of her mother to a potentially treatable illness, one that remained a mystery until only weeks before her mother’s death. While it may seem relatively simple from the outside, fathermothergod tells a uniquely complex tale of a family torn apart, disastrously so, by a startlingly dangerous faith. Loosely told in the style of a journal, the book dips in and out to specific and important occurrences leading up to the secret sickness the author’s mother bears. Greenhouse (like her siblings, and much of her extended family) is torn between seeking medical help for her mother, and respecting her faith.
Greenhouse is very open about her stance on Christian Science. In an interview on The Leonard Lopate Show she tells Elliot Forest about getting chicken pox when she was a child, an event she details in the book. To her parents, this sickness was a falsehood—something that needed to be prayed for, and corrected in young Lucia’s mind. Eventually, the rash went away, and to her mind, she had done a good thing. However, the virus spread to other children, leading Greenhouse to reconsider what being a Christian Scientist means. Greenhouse and her two siblings all left the Christian Science faith; however, both of her parents remained steadfast to their very sick, and painful, ends.
Greenhouse is very forthright about the fact that fathermothergod tells her account of the family’s history, and hers alone, but even with those balances, the world that Lucia relates to readers is nearly unbelievable. This is through no fault of the storyteller, but rather because in this modern world it seems imprudent to deny someone medical attention for things so clearly curable. Combined with Greenhouse’s website, and various interviews she has done, fathermothergod jumps right past cathartic retelling and into the realm of ideological cause. Lucia Greenhouse appears to be using her book, readings, and publicity to actively speak out, argue, and warn against Christian Science. Given the cacophonous emotions brimming in the book—the shame, arguments, blame, sadness, tragedy, and paralyzing guilt—who could blame her? Surprisingly, a lot of website commenters.
Putting the pieces together, Greenhouse makes a strong case against Christian Science, even tempering her argument with concessions like, “Growing up as a Christian Scientist there is a very positive aspect to the faith. Which is man is the perfect reflection of God, and so therefore cannot be ill, cannot have any imperfections. In some ways made for a childhood where we felt like there was nothing we couldn’t achieve,” and, “I think that in any religion there is a spectrum of faith. And in Christian Science there are some people who follow it to the letter and others who will combine it with medicine,” both of which she brought up of her own volition in her discussion with Elliot Forest—but that’s about as far as she’ll bend in making nice with the faith.
Far more than just a brave “coming out” of her past experiences—the book took her around twenty years to write, which indicates, at least to me, a residue of shame and guilt that might still be plaguing her—Greenhouse’s book is a startling exposé of a widely-heard of, but scarcely understood faith. A captivating, heartbreaking work that will leave readers wondering what else they don’t know about the hidden pockets of the faithful world.
Greenhouse answered my questions via e-mail.
You’ve written the book in the style, more or less, of a diary. Why did you choose this format, and how much of the content is taken from actual journals you kept during that time?
In early drafts I used the past tense to tell my story, but over time I came to feel that the present tense conveyed an immediacy that rang truer. I guess fathermothergod reads like diary entries in part because I drew from my existing journals to write it, but I don’t really think of it as an adapted journal as much as I do the consciousness of the person I was in a particular moment. I started keeping a diary when I first went to sleep-away camp (Hillaway, in northern Minnesota, no longer there) around the age of ten. Since then, I have frequently turned to writing when faced with challenges. The early parts of the book are derived from memory (many of these memories were first written down 20-some years ago when I started working on the memoir). I still have one of my journals from my years at boarding school, and another that I started when my mother became sick. I also have the Week-at-a-Glance calendar from 1986, which helped a great deal with chronology. At some point during my mother’s illness, I began to think it might be important to document what was going on.
In the book, during the time that you mother is in the hospital, you worry about the Christian Science community shunning your parents. Did this end up happening at all? What became of your father’s career in the time between when your mother died, and when he started getting sick? I assume that he more or less practiced until the end, as you mention he was “active” at the center in Colorado.
A very good question! I have not researched this (yet) and probably should have, but at some point after my mother died, I learned that my father was no longer “listed” in the Christian Science Journal. I’m fairly certain this happened after he became sick, but well before he moved to Colorado. I know nothing about the circumstances of his “de-listing”—whether this was his decision or the Journal’s—so I cannot speak to the question of whether he distanced himself from the Mother Church or was separated involuntarily. The Christian Science Endtime Center in Lakewood, Coloado (a suburb of Denver) is not recognized by the First Church of Christ, Scientist, which is the official name of the Christian Science headquarters, also known as the Mother Church, in Boston, MA. Likewise, the Endtime Center does not recognize the authority of the Mother Church. I am speculating here, but I think my mother’s death, after a long illness culminating in a month of medical care, was probably a blemish on my father’s resume as a Christian Science Practitioner and Teacher. Nowhere can my father’s name, Frank H. Ewing, CSB, be found on the Internet. Typically, all of the students of a Christian Science teacher meet annually, even after the teacher has “passed on” and there is a record of the existence of the group, called an “association.” I have assumed that that my father was de-frocked, so to speak: that he was no longer recognized by the Mother Church as a Christian Science Teacher. When this type of demotion happens, the students of the particular teacher must undergo training, or Primary Class, again if they are to be recognized by the Mother Church as having been “class taught.” I believe my father’s active support of the Christian Science Endtime Center was largely financial and spiritual, as he was incapable of “activity”. By the time he and his wife Heather moved to Colorado, he was an invalid. I cannot speak to whether my father was shunned by mainstream Christian Scientists or not, because after my mother died, none of the Christian Scientists we knew growing up stayed in touch with me. (I should note here that I did not make any effort to stay in touch either.)
Have you received any backlash from the CS community? Do you perceive them now as a cult? How do you think that CS compares to the current wave of parents who refuse to inoculate their children?
The Christian Science Church has not reacted publically to fathermothergod. If they (the Christian Science Committees on Publication) have actively worked back channels to keep the book from receiving media attention, I wouldn’t know, but would be curious to find out! I have resisted using incendiary terms like “cult,” because moderate Christian Scientists are a group I would like to reach, and using such language would only serve to alienate. The one commonality between Christian Scientists who do not vaccinate/inoculate their children, and those who refuse to for either ideological, political, or philosophical reasons, or concerns about the safety of vaccines with respect to autism, etc, is, (in my opinion) the public health risk both groups pose to the greater community. I do not mean in any way to diminish the concerns of well-meaning parents about the safety of vaccinations. This is a much larger issue, and I think beyond the scope of this interview.
Have you found the need to seek therapy for the emotional scars that this experience (maybe experience doesn’t do it justice, as you’ve been dealing with this your whole life) has caused?
I am a strong believer in the benefits of therapy for anyone who has survived trauma, emotional and physical. I believe in the resiliency of the human spirit and the wonder of forgiveness.
Why did you choose to continue with any religion at all, even if it is a very open and liberal religion like Unitarianism?
I have always found choral music and great sermons to be wonderfully uplifting, and while there are parts of organized religion I have trouble with, there are other parts that I feel fill a very real need in human interaction. The late Rev. Forest Church was known to say that religion is the human response to the dual realities of being alive and knowing we will die, and that sort of works for me. Outside of organized religions, there are not that many places to celebrate life’s happy and trying milestones. The work of ministers and priests and rabbis and other spiritual leaders, to help people as they navigate life, truly is God’s work. I feel most comfortable (so far) in a Unitarian setting, but lots of places of worship are welcoming and in the business of helping people help others. I am okay with where I am in my own spiritual journey. I am less satisfied with the job I’ve done passing any theological literacy on to my children. We do go to church together, when time permits, although I don’t cancel other plans to make time for worship. Sometimes I wish I did. For now, the center of our spiritual journey together as a family is in two places in our kitchen: the table, where we have meals together when we can; and the double doors of our refrigerator, where I post prayers, poems, and Psalms that I want my children to appreciate.
Are you starting another book?
No, I have no writing projects in the works!