A bizarre, but very New Zealand, world, Jonathan Lane

Daughter of Gloriavale: My Life in a Religious Cult
Lilia Tarawa
Allen and Unwin, $37.00,
ISBN 9781760631499

Lilia Tarawa’s memoir, Daughter of Gloriavale, paints her childhood somewhere between an idyllic summer camp in the country and the winged bonnets and forced procreation of The Handmaid’s Tale. Tarawa grew up in Gloriavale, a fundamentalist Christian community nestled in prime moss-growing conditions on the West Coast, subject of a recent set of TV2 documentaries. Gloriavale is managed by male elders, roles defined strictly by gender, and closed off from the world, except for occasional trips to the Gomorrahs of Greymouth and Christchurch. Tarawa is a granddaughter of the original founder, Hopeful Christian, who runs Gloriavale with an iron fist and a disturbing criminal record. 

In this claustrophobic setting, Tarawa skilfully highlights the positive in her childhood. Her family is close, big, getting bigger every year. No-one goes hungry. Tarawa’s parents have positions of influence in Gloriavale. Her father sells sphagnum moss to the Saudis, and brings her back trinkets and stories from exotic places. Her mum “managed the woman’s realm – the domestic organisation of the 500-strong community”. While Tarawa is charged with many mundane tasks in that realm – feeding the 500 production-line style – she is surrounded by many close female friends (including many cousins), and the consolation of a reward in heaven. Plus, she learns computer skills that minimise her time in the kitchens. And there’s fun, too – like the Young People’s Tea, where the parents of Gloriavale, having prepared in secret for months, lavish the children with duelling banjos and shrimp vol-au-vents.

Tarawa, though, illustrates the consequences of a closed society in a way the documentary-makers, with their dependence on the goodwill of the elders, couldn’t. Anna Funder, in her book Stasiland, describes the energy the East German state put into keeping people in: the Stasi constructed a wall inside the state that was as real as the one in Berlin. The elders of Gloriavale exert equal amounts of social control on their flock. Tarawa and her family cop it. Tarawa’s elder sister, Sara, rolls her sleeves up over her arms, and is publicly castigated by the elders for her rebellion. Her brother Sam commits equally serious infractions.  Sarah, then Sam, sneak out, and Tarawa’s parents are vilified. Gloriavale’s 500 has been achieved by natural increase – women have 10 or more children – rather than from new sheep flocking to the fold, so each defection is a loss to the religious and demographic integrity of the community.

Tarawa is more furtive than her siblings, but can’t keep away from the forbidden fruit of the world. She hides a Shania Twain cassette in her drawer and shares it with her fellow insurgent, Grace: “We mouthed the words and sang about wearing men’s clothes and short skirts”. Salem Temple is one of Gloriavale’s Stasi: “Are you submitted to the Church?”, he challenges Tarawa over the crackling of a bonfire. “Have you gotten rid of your pride in the way that you dress and the way you comb your hair? Are you listening to worldly music?” Tarawa crunches Shania underfoot. She’s baptised, and surely on track to be fruitful and multiply within an arranged marriage. But the petty oppressions just multiply. Her parents hatch a plan to escape from Gloriavale and reunite the family, via a staged integration with the world, the flesh and the devil in the lakeside town of Moana.

Tarawa writes in a pacey, accessible way. Most of her descriptions are straightforward and illuminate life in a bizarre, but very New Zealand, world, filled with bonfires, cowpats and water-skiing (albeit in full-length dresses). Each chapter begins with a quote from Gloriavale’s policy document, What We Believe, carefully chosen to reinforce the elders’ constraints: “To be a friend of the world is to be an enemy of God”. She paints some characters, especially her miscreant older siblings and Grace, her partner in crime, vividly. But sometimes the array of cousins –  all the Praises, Cherishes and Willings – meld together. And a minor flaw is some adjective-heavy breathlessness, and clunky reconstructions of inner dialogue – “I forced a weak smile. She can see what you’re doing! You’re going to get caught, the voice in my head screamed.” These create only small bumps in the readability of the story.

The book is, of course, written outside Gloriavale. Tarawa, now in Christchurch, relishes her new freedoms. No more oppressively modest blue frock: “When I put on heels and a tight dress, no one thought for a moment I was an ex-cult girl.” (Whether her freedom to conform to the beauty myths of secular society is totally different in kind from the cloistered role of women in Gloriavale is a question she doesn’t explore.) The anxieties that Gloriavale did its best to inculcate in her take some time to shake loose. But the book ends with her creating a new role for herself as a business mentor, the kind of job that she could never do in Gloriavale.

Tarawa’s book paints, but cannot damn, a vivid picture of a place whose totalitarian levels of social control are slowly negating the community’s genuine closeness.

Jonathan Lane is a Wellington public servant and writer. He was raised in an Open Brethren community in the far north of New Zealand.

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