Book Review - Trail of Fears: A Journey From Heaven to Hollywood
ICSA Today, 10, (2), 2019, 21
Trail of Fears: A Journey From Heaven to Hollywood
By Ellie Chamberlain
Reviewed by Gillie Jenkinson
Published in ICSA Today 10.2
Sixth Element Publishing, Billingham, UK. 2016. ISBN-10: 1908299975; ISBN-13: 978-190829970 (paperback). $11.07 UK, $6.95 US (Amazon.com). 160 pages.
This is a beautifully crafted book and, as the blurb on the back says, it is both a travelogue and an autobiography—of a former member of the Mormon Church making the journey out into a new world and a new worldview.
As a busy counselor and psychotherapist who listens to many former members, I don’t usually read former-member life stories—they can feel like more of the same. But Ellie kindly sent me a copy, and I thought I would try it.
I was gripped and thoroughly enjoyed the book. I say that I “enjoyed it” with caution because Ellie tells a difficult and traumatic story; but she tells it in her unique voice, with humor, and in an interesting, reflexive, poetic, descriptive way, and this made it digestible for me.
As Ellie introduces us to her life in England and her surroundings (her precult self), it unfolds that, at a vulnerable time in her life, after serious losses, she was recruited into the Mormon Church. She believed in their doctrines for decades, and she describes her life in the Church and some of the beliefs and practices that had such an effect on her life, her sense of authentic self, and her relationship to everything.
This book is set after she made the decision to leave physically, and we accompany Ellie on her journey to leaving psychologically as she travels back to the American desert, where the history and secrets of the Mormons are located. She goes there to find out more facts about the group, its founding fathers and mothers, and its roots back in time. She also aims to reconnect to an area very important to her (she briefly and respectfully refers to Native American Indians and the harm done to them, including by these early settlers).
To embark on this challenging travel adventure, Ellie catches a plane from England to Los Angeles and then a bus to Las Vegas. As she begins a painful and fearful investigation, she paces herself, alternating between withdrawing (to her comforting hotel room) and engaging more and more with the overwhelming reality and illusion of Las Vegas.
This is an unusual journey, but one that worked for her. She highlights that it is vital we find our unique way through the fear and terror of having lived through brainwashing and the resulting assumption that we are the problem, to a place where our authentic unique self is reinflated—where we are able to function again without the fear, guilt, self-criticism that is the end result for so many after such an experience.
We watch this happening to Ellie in relation to eating out in restaurants, something she struggles with greatly at the start but becomes increasingly relaxed about by the end. We see her authentic self reinflating in these simple—but profound, for anyone who has had the challenge of facing life after coercive control and brainwashing—ways. There are also references to the terrible health problems she suffered related to her membership and living in extreme fear.
Ellie helpfully shares, in a creative and metaphorical way, some of the life lessons she learned on her way out. She highlights her changing mind-set from true believer to one who could question and learn from everything, even conversations overheard (in restaurants) on the way.
I appreciated the poetic and metaphorical reflections (set in bold in the book), and I always found them thought provoking and interesting: “How do I change this black and white world into colour?” (p. 36); “Truth lies in deceit; I went to the place where they both do meet” (p.45).
As she ends the book, we hear Ellie beginning to express her opinions more clearly and assertively (e.g., about the British Royal Family). We see her reflect on where she is spiritually—a new and different place; she is clearly becoming her authentic self again and leaving behind the baggage (and the internalized introjects and negative critic) that resulted from many long years of membership.
About the Reviewer
Gillie Jenkinson, PhD, is an accredited counsellor and psychotherapist in the UK and is experienced in delivering counselling both face-to-face and on the telephone and Skype. She served two internships at Wellspring Retreat Center in Ohio and has many years’ experience working with trauma, including with survivors of spiritual, cult, and sexual abuse. She is a regular presenter at conferences and a published author. Gillie was a member of an abusive, Bible-based cult in the 1970s. She has developed an approach to counselling former members—Time Away for Post-Cult Counselling—which is described her chapter entitled “Relational Psychoeducational Intensive—Time Away for Postcult Counselling,” in ICSA’s Cult Recovery: A Clinician’s Guide to Working with Former Members and Families (2017) book. Gillie’s doctoral research dissertation is entitled: Freeing the Authentic-Self: Phases of Recovery and Growth from an Abusive Cult Experience. She has an article published in BACP Therapy Today entitled “Out in the World: Post-Cult Recovery” (March 2019). She is the Mental Health Editor for ICSA Today. Website: www.hopevalleycounselling.com; email: email@example.com; phone: +44 1433 639032.