The Gert’s father was a very quiet man. He was either absent for months on expeditions or else sat reading books in foreign languages, occasionally growling in his throat if any of the subject matter went against his beliefs. Sometimes our mother said to us accusingly, ‘You know, your father’s a genius.’ Meaning what? ‘You don’t appreciate him?’ ‘You’ll never be as clever as he is, especially if you don’t do your homework?’ We would have loved his approval, but as we were all hopeless at Maths, there was no hope of that.
But if our father was also religious and a regular church goer, he lived his own life, he didn’t try to control us, and in the end, it was apparent his religious beliefs gave him spiritual sustenance and helped him to spend his last days in peace.
Not so the father of Rebecca Stott. Here was a man, larger than life in every way. Six feet four inches tall, twenty stone, loud-voiced and, for the first eight years of Rebecca’ Stott’s life, a member of a highly controlled Christian religion. When we meet him in the last days of his life, he wants to watch all of his fifty-eight Ingmar Bergman films. But he also has unfinished business. He wants to finish his memoir of his time as part of this church community. That time is described by Stott thus,
No one would have guessed that I’d been 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.
And here is Kim Barnes’ father,
He came out of the woods into the circle of our logging camp, his teeth flashing white, his brown hair thick beneath his cap. he held his rifle in one hand, a yearling buck slung across his shoulders. Blood flowed down his arms -the trail of it led back into the shadowing trees. When I ran to him, he slid the gutted deer to the ground and gathered me against his chest so that I, too, might feel the strength there.
Such a potent image. How can you ever forget a father like that? But this father, too, is drawn into a religion that has no truck with outsiders.
Different religions, one in England, and one in America, but both having this in common; men rule, and women are subject to them.
Stott’s book, which won the 2017 Costa Biography Award is the story of her father’s life, and is the completion of his memoir. It is also a history of the church to which her father and grandfather belonged, and which, after a great deal of angry debate, her father left.
Barnes’ book is more about her own life. Her father did not leave his church. Barnes left the family as soon as she finished high school and the story is about her ultimate survival, after her involvement in a toxic relationship with a cruel and dominating man. She worked, drank, and flirted and was then, through the dominance of this man, drawn into dangerous interactions with other men. In the end, she came out the other side and managed to get back to her education and become a writer with a stable life and family of her own. A crucial book for her was Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room.
Some readers were offended by the detail Kim Barnes gives about her own life on the wild side. Writers on the review site Goodreads express dismay at the disclosures about her intimate life, but she creates a vivid image of what it is like to be in another’s thrall.
Rebecca Stott, in her first years at primary school, while her family was still closely involved in the religion, had to excuse herself from lessons like History, and Religious Studies. She found if she got through her maths quickly, she could have time alone in the library and there she discovered. Guess who? Our old favourite, Enid Blyton. In one of Blyton’s favourite themes, some children whose parents are missing are living with unkind relatives, and, with the help of the wonderful boy Jack, escape to The Secret Island That book and her mental picture of Jack, got her through many hard times.
As for her father, he left their mother, drank heavily, went to jail for embezzlement, but still had his children rallying around his death bed and, in her case, finishing his memoir.
What is my point? Perhaps it is that while some fathers are more ‘horrible’ than others, they all have a great effect on us. But hopefully all (or most) are survivable, particularly with the help of books.
I would recommend both of these books if you have an interest in this topic.