Sins of the Fathers: The Long Shadow of a Religious Cult
Longacre Press, $29.99,
At 27 Philip Cooper left the conservative Christian community ruled by his bullying, monomaniacal father, Neville Cooper. He left behind his wife and five children, the youngest barely a toddler. Neville promised that he would never see them again. With few resources, Philip devised a detailed plan for abduction. When he stole into the accommodation block and woke the children, they calmly went along. Sandra, his wife, stayed behind. From that moment Philip dedicated himself to building a new life for his children, and reuniting them with their mother.
The family tree which opens Sins of the Fathers tells us the current state of affairs: some names, including Sandra’s, and two of their seven children – one whom Philip has never met – are asterisked. The referent reads “Still living in Gloriavale”.
Gloriavale Christian Community is Neville’s second religious community, established shortly after Philip’s departure from the first, Springbank. By Lake Haupiri on the West Coast, it is self-sufficient, even profitable, and its annual “love-gift” concerts are popular with Coasters. Gender equality and freedom of choice are non-existent. Neville’s word, and What We Believe, the text that represents his interpretation of the Bible, rule over all.
Neville Cooper converted to Christianity at 21, married shortly after, and set himself up as a travelling evangelist. When the family moved to New Zealand after Philip’s fifth birthday, Neville could already draw huge crowds. For a charismatic man who sought a conservative Christian ideal, leading a closed religious community was an inevitable step.
As Sins of the Fathers progresses, it becomes clear that Neville’s absolute power has horribly warped his judgement. Neville masturbated his sons and other boys, and undressed and fondled young women, including, in the presence of Philip, Sandra. But Neville’s 1995 conviction for sexual abuse is only symptomatic of his greater corruption, which is perhaps most visible early on in his totalitarian approach to fathering. The story opens with Neville threatening to disown 11-year-old Philip after the latter refused to hand over his hard-earned holiday money for groceries, and Philip remembers harsh beatings with a rubber hose.
Neville’s expertise at planting fear in hearts and minds is apparent in his masterful manipulation of Sandra. Philip removed her from Springbank three times, and at least once she went willingly. But eventually she returned to Gloriavale for good, convinced by Neville that her children would only receive eternal salvation if she remained there. The story is an epic tale of two iron wills: Philip’s inventive, determined attempts to keep his family together, set against Neville’s capacity for self-delusion and ability to intimidate.
What with kidnappings, night raids, abductions, deprogramming, separations, remarriages, depression, poverty, heartbroken childhoods and adolescences, and gradual recovery, there’s enough material here for a dozen memoirs. The book tries to directly represent the experience of every member of Philip’s family, as well as drawing a strong portrait of Neville and other key characters, such as Philip’s pious and gentle mother for whom Gloriavale is named.
This crush of events over many years often results in frustratingly sparse summaries at points when the reader longs to be immersed in the emotional lives of those involved. The rebellious and intriguing Tendy (the only child to now be non-Christian) left home at 16 and went off the rails. Her story alone could fill a memoir, but when she confesses her pregnancy to her father the narrative has room merely for: “That was good, because now she had her family around her again, but bad because, as Christians, they didn’t want her to have an abortion.”
During a stressful drive to Christchurch, Philip dragged the vomiting family terrier into the bushes at the side of the road and shot it, without a word to the watching children. The narrative doesn’t enquire into what this suggested about his mental state or his authoritarian stance towards his own family. Instead, “A vomiting dog was just too much for Phil to cope with”, and the children “were all thinking, Oh my gosh! Where’s the dog?” Given the book’s focus on Philip’s similarities to Neville and his admirable determination not to pass on the legacy of control, this seems a lost opportunity.
When Beale does choose to pause, as when describing three-year-old Tendy mixing up “dried macaroni, instant noodles, vegemite, bread and milk” for a surprise messy breakfast in the dislocated family’s barren house, the story comes alive. So it does during this passage: “The wind caught the plane, tipping it sideways, then it dropped, rose, and lurched its way up to cruising altitude. Israel hung on, listening to his mother praying behind him, her voice high.”
Beale does comprehensively represent the family’s version of events. She clearly carried out many painstaking interviews in which Philip and the children described the labyrinthine plot, including his eldest son’s stress-related stomach pains, the nail-biting abductions, and the experience for the children of visiting a brain-washed mother who berated Philip and appeared to have forgotten, in her religious fervour, that she loved them.
I’d have liked to have forgotten Beale and experienced these events alongside Philip and the Cooper children, insofar as story-telling makes that possible. But the narrative frequently reads like an interview that has been transposed into the third person. There’s a steady beat to the syntax and the narrative eye usually stays at medium distance: “Tendy remembers the dog being sick”; “The children each made their own interpretation of the incident”. Indeed, at times the text comprises paragraphs of direct interview transcript.
Sins of the Fathers originated when Philip and Israel, the eldest son, “decided it was time to tell their story”. The book also operates as a missive to Neville, Sandra, and the two daughters still at Gloriavale. It includes a for-the-purpose letter to Neville from Philip, and several loving, hopeful messages to the absent women and Philip’s unseen grandchildren. To the latter he writes, “Dream big and never be controlled by any man.”
It’s a battle document. Israel’s preface (which follows the family tree and Beale’s introduction – the reader falls on chapter one with relief) sets out an intention and a defence. They aimed to “be as accurate as possible, but we realise that memory is an elusive thing … the details are as true as we could make them.” Maybe it’s this desire to tell an unarguable truth and win back hearts that steered Beale away from using many fictional devices. A ghost-written first-person narrative alternating (for example) between Philip and Israel might have needed to speculate on a few details in order to stay in the moment. However, there are many points when Beale could have reduced the psychic distance without compromising the truth.
It’s not hard to sense Neville Cooper’s adamantine grip on Sins of the Fathers. A man so skilled at engendering fear and doubt would jump on any inaccuracy in order to discredit the book. After all, he retains some control over Philip by holding onto Sandra and the two daughters still at Gloriavale. And because of this story’s inherent power, there are times when a plain voice is all that’s needed. “I bet you wouldn’t like it if you had no Mum,” one daughter writes to the community. However, a risky use of recreated dialogue, more stream-of-consciousness and immediate description, would have greatly increased the story’s impact. Maybe there’s room for another book when years have given more perspective and, perhaps, release.
Susan Pearce is a Wellington writer.