Book review: In the Days of Rain, by Rebecca Stott
“No one would guess that I was raised in a Christian fundamentalist cult or that my father and grandfather were ministering brothers in one of the most reclusive and savage Protestant sects in British history.”
Rebecca Stott is the daughter of Roger Stott, a minister turned defector of the Exclusive Brethren, England’s branch of a separatist Christian cult. This memoir is her attempt to make sense of her childhood in the cult and her father’s paradoxical behavior, both as a member and after his defection.
Much of the book is written from her child’s perspective, with its accompanying confusion and dreaminess. The project stemmed from Stott’s presence at her father’s deathbed. He gave her the beginnings of a memoir manuscript he’d tried writing, and asked her to finish it.
So she tells his story, using historical timelines he’d assembled, fleshing out her family’s place within this oppressive, controlling organization that grew increasingly isolated under the control of an alcoholic, delusional egomaniac. We’ve heard this story before, about so many cults and extremist sects, but I feel it’s worth pointing out every time, because history repeats and repeats and repeats and yet many don’t seem to notice or learn.
“How had so many clever, good people been led into such a cruel system? How had men like my father allowed themselves to become extractors and interrogators, bullying people into confessing imaginary sins?”
Father and daughter developed a strange but strong connection over their lifetimes; although she didn’t speak to him for a long period, they eventually became close, bonding over a love of literature and theater, artistic pursuits and entertainments that for so long were denied them under the strict, isolating rules of the Brethren.
This paradoxical behavior and feeling is a constant idea as she tries to establish who were family was, and by extension, who she is, especially considering that past. “I felt like a cuckoo in the nest, an interloper, the child who didn’t fit. But then I was also often certain that none of us did fit.” The family sometimes cheated on Brethren rules, aside from her mother. Transgressions included use of technology like radios or cameras, going to the cinema, reading nearly anything non-religious including the comics her brothers hid under their beds, and talking with “worldly” people, meaning secular, outside the Brethren.
Her mother refers to their time in the cult as being “caught up” in it: “My family hadn’t belonged to the Brethren, we’d been caught up in them. Caught up like a coat catching on thorns. Caught up in a scandal. Caught up in the arms of the Lord. Whichever way you phrased it, it meant you didn’t get to choose, and that there was no getting away.”
She uses the tool of questioning from a child’s wondering, curious perspective to try to make sense of what she experienced and was raised to believe was normal. It’s countered with her adult questioning about her place in the secular world, having come from an ancestral line that was so deeply entrenched in the Brethren: “After a while it was impossible to tell what was authentic and what was performed, what you believed and what you merely said you believed. You began to wonder which parts of you were true anymore.”
In her childhood, she heard voices and saw nightmarish visions in the dark; it seems such imagery was deliberately planted by the Brethren, even in adult minds. A Brethren friend confides what his father told him about the secular world: “Outside the door, son, there is only darkness.”
After a strongly written, emotional opening, the narrative continues into a historical description of the Exclusive Brethren, their separation from the Open Brethren, and the paths that Stott’s ancestors took, eventually resulting in her immediate family’s existence. It was necessary backstory, but came across a bit boring.
The narrative is jumpy, in places and time, and sometimes focuses too much on simple details and simplistic statements without pulling back to show the bigger picture, leaving the reader somewhat lost. I think the effect was meant to show the mental trauma and anguish one experiences for a lifetime following such a background. It’s understood well enough from the passages where she describes this in her own powerful words.
On the positive note, the inclusion of excellent historical photographs alongside the text was wonderful – this illustrative aspect helped when the history turned dry.
The strongest element is the bond Rebecca and her father forged through their shared loves, and how his presence helps guide her, even after his death, inspiring her to tell true stories as an insider. It’s clear that an important part of Stott’s experience were the changes and choices she and her father made simultaneously in response to the shock of leaving the Brethren and merging with the rest of the world.
“There are counselors now who specialize in treating ex-cult members after they’ve experienced long periods of mind control…They used to call this process ‘deprogramming’…I’d call it decompression. We’d been a very long way down to the bottom of some kind of sea. There was no easy way back up without getting the bends.”
The combination of personal dreaminess and reflection with stark history of a secretive, dangerous organization (member suicides were not uncommon) makes a mostly engaging, often emotional read.
In the Days of Rain: A Daughter, a Father, a Cult
by Rebecca Stott
published July 4, 2017 by Spiegel & Grau (Penguin Putnam & Sons)
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for review.