Book Review - Father, Mother, God

International Journal of Cultic Studies, 3, 2012, 74-75

Father, Mother, God: My Journey Out of Christian Science

By Lucia Greenhouse

Reviewed by Rita Swan, PhD

New York, NY: Broadway (a division of Crown Publishers), August 28, 2012. ISBN-10: 0307720934; ISBN-13: 978-0307720931 (paperback), $15.00 ($10.95, 320 pages.

A Family Torn Apart by Dogma

Lucia Greenhouse’s memoir, fathermothergod: My Journey Out of Christian Science, has been widely praised and draws large crowds at her public readings.

The author captures a child’s perception with near-perfect pitch in selected memories. The child’s trust in the religious precepts so important to her parents is juxtaposed with her nagging awareness that something about her world does not make sense. Both parents express a tender love for their children, but that love also is conditioned on the assumption that the entire family will rely on, and will not question, Christian Science for healing all problems.

When Lucia throws up at public school, the school nurse calls her father. He tells his daughter her illness will disappear when she “knows the Truth,” and that she should go back to her classroom.

When the parents see an opportunity to advance the father’s career as a Christian Science “practitioner” or spiritual healer, they move the family from Minnesota to London, England, and put the children in Christian Science boarding schools. They don’t ask for the children’s feelings about their plans, and when the children object, the father tells them to do “[their] part for the Cause.” The children also are enlisted to keep the plan secret from the non-Christian Science relatives and to do “metaphysical work” to protect the movement from “mental malpractice” by others.

In 1985, Lucia’s mother becomes seriously ill. Again, the parents impose secrecy because of the Christian Science belief that disease is a moral issue. Disease is caused by sin, broadly defined to include fear and doubt, either the sins of the sick person or of others whose evil thoughts are mental malpractice. Even others’ awareness of the disease can be mental malpractice that prevents a Christian Science healing. Thus, unlike the Pentecostal faith-healing sects that call upon the entire congregation to pray for a sick member, Christian Science tries to limit awareness of the disease to as few people as possible.

This practice created excruciating conflicts for Lucia and her siblings. Their parents were adult converts to Christian Science. None of their relatives were Christian Scientists. Their mother’s brother was a medical doctor. Yet the siblings were expected to prevent their maternal grandmother, aunts, and uncles from seeing their daughter and sister and learning that she was seriously ill.

Lucia’s mother spent more than six months at a Christian Science sanatorium in New Jersey where unlicensed “nurses” with no medical training encouraged everyone to have a cheerful attitude and expect a spiritual healing. A nurse tells Lucia that her parents dance “sweetly” and “tenderly” in the hall alone at night. Lucia’s father saddled his children with guilt, telling them the illness was their fault for straying from the faith.

Finally, the mother becomes delirious and screams to go to a hospital in Minnesota and be with her parents. The Christian Science administrators absolve themselves of responsibility, saying care is always the patient’s choice. The children talk their mother into agreeing to treatment at a nearby hospital.

There, surgeons find widespread colon cancer. A young doctor lashes out at Lucia asking how she could have let her mother get into such bad shape. Lucia’s uncle obtains the medical records and tells Lucia that her mother has been bedridden for months and could not possibly have danced at the sanatorium. He is furious with her father.

Many features of this narrative will be familiar to ICSA readers: the appeal to the supersensory, denial of reality, guilt, secrecy, impossible demands. The radical nihilism of Christian Science theology with its basic creed that the material body and world are unreal can be used to cruel effect both by charlatans and the sincere faithful.