Stranger in a Strange (Sexist) Land: A Book Review by Christina Knowles

HeinleinI assumed I would like this book. I mean I’ve been told that it’s critical of religion and conservatism, that it was edgy and relevant. Bah! What a joke! This is literally the worst book I’ve ever read in my life.

Heinlein’s wordy novel is at least a hundred pages too long even if you like the content of his philosophical rant. I’m not going to bother to recount the plot, or more truthfully, the lack thereof, but I will summarize the main premise just so you can understand what I’m talking about. Heinlein’s main character, a human raised on Mars, returns to earth and starts a religious sex cult in which he is the savior. He doesn’t believe in religion, but he thinks it is the best way to get people to live their best lives—and the author actually promotes this view at the same time as denying the truth of religious belief. Sorry, Heinlein, but I’d rather have truth than happy fantasy.

A happy fantasy, that is, if you are a 15-year old boy. While the characters struggle to understand the meaning of grokking, the reader is subjected to countless tedious examples of young male fantasies that would explode the heads of any modern Me-Too-er. Women are constantly slapped on the butt and told they will be spanked in a jovial manner by people they work for or leaders of the cult. Even kindly old male friends love to threaten the corporal punishment for girls that sass or move too slowly. And before you say that he was just a product of the times he lived in, let me point out that Ray Bradbury managed to not be sexist in his 1953 novel, Fahrenheit 451. In Aldous Huxley’s 1931 novel, Brave New World, he managed to criticize the men in his dystopian world who treated the women “like so much meat” (67). Yet Heinlein’s most memorable treatment of women is a line spoken by a woman cult member saying, “Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it’s at least partly her own fault” (511). This was said in all seriousness. I’m not kidding. Even so, the members of the group prance around naked, have sex with each other, share their money, and are never ever jealous. Of course, it’s not all loving acceptance. Although we are exposed to plenty of free love among women, we are told in no uncertain terms that male on male action is just not cool. I guess we know what was going on in Heinlein’s mind in his middle age.

But beyond the repetitive sex scenes, we are forced to endure long-winded philosophical dissertations on living free without jealousy and eating your friends to honor them when they die, and the secrets to living in peace—basically not giving a shit about anyone including yourself. The characters are two-dimensional and predictable. It’s way too long (Really, fifty pages would be too long), it’s preachy, it’s incredibly sexist, and it’s boring. And to all the people out there giving this book four and five stars, I now look at you differently. You’re a little creepy.—Christina Knowles

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Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover Reveals the True Horrors of Religious Fundamentalism by Christina Knowles

Educated

This real-life account of a young woman who grew up in the mountains of Buck’s Peak, Idaho, who was denied a basic education, forced to work hard labor, refused medical treatment for life-threatening injuries, and left unprotected to defend herself against a violent and mentally ill brother, is an intimate look into the world of religious fundamentalism.

Tara Westover, grew up the child of religious fanatics. Her parents, who also happened to be mentally ill, were paranoid and ignorant. Tara’s father refused to allow her to go to school, or to go to the hospital after sustaining a head injury and a debilitating flesh wound, and did not even register her birth. Tara was raised believing the government would send in snipers to kill them at any moment because of their refusal to participate in the great conspiracy.

The reader follows Tara through her eye-opening journey from an ignorant child, who believed everything her parents told her, to a Harvard-graduated Ph.D. We see, through Tara’s eyes, the humiliation of being the only one in her college class who had never heard the word, holocaust, who had learned from her father that it was all made up by the Jews to gain sympathy. To be so completely unknowledgeable about the most common of knowledge was to navigate a sinister world in the dark, armed with nothing but hope.

Tara never gave up. She educated herself, studied on her own, and took the SAT until she got good enough scores for a partial scholarship to BYU, who took “home-schooled” kids with no school records. She went on from there to win a fellowship at Oxford, and then to Harvard for grad school, all while struggling to keep her family’s love. Her family, who believed she was lost to Satan and was possessed, gave her an ultimatum, their world or the real world she was just discovering. After years of abuse, and struggling with her own mental issues as a result of the abuse, Tara chose to let them go, while graciously keeping the door open if they chose to accept her, which is more than I would have done.

This book broke my heart. The fact that children of religious fundamentalism all deal with trying to live in two worlds, while not being given the tools to even distinguish between truth and fiction, is a danger, not only to them, but to the rest of us. But how different is this from any family who raises their children to believe in fairy tales? Any indoctrination of blind faith results in an intellectual disability, the ability to abandon reason, living in a false and tumultuous world that is never truly safe.

While Tara found education, and thus, her escape, she was forever scarred by the experience and still suffers today. Many are not so lucky, even those who had less crazy circumstances. They go through their lives expecting miracles and blaming themselves when God doesn’t answer their prayers. They ignore medical advice, refuse their children a good education by home schooling with books designed to indoctrinate them into a particular religion, they teach their children not to trust science, and to fear those who are different from them. Many are unable to shake off these chains of religious abuse and educate themselves.

I’m glad Tara insisted on her right to find truth and to be educated. We all benefit from the education of all children. Religious belief is a dangerous thing. For example, why follow your conscience and the law if God tells you to go against it? Why take care of this world when God is going to make another one to replace it anyway?

Tara was taught to fear and hate, all based on lies. She had no defense. She came into this world with no other resource for truth than her parents. Even when Tara questioned the beliefs of her parents, she risked losing everything, even her home as a minor child. Religious indoctrination is child abuse, plain and simple.

I highly recommend getting this book on Audible. Julia Whelan, the narrator, gives life to the voices of Tara’s family, especially her father. You will be drawn in immediately. Five out five stars for this one.—Christina Knowles