Matilda Reviews: Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape by Jenna Miscavige Hill


Jenna Miscavige Hill was raised to obey. As the niece of the Church of Scientology’s leader David Miscavige, she grew up at the center of this highly controversial and powerful organization. But at twenty-one, Jenna made a daring break, risking everything she had ever known and loved to leave Scientology once and for all. Now she speaks out about her life, the Church, and her dramatic escape, going deep inside a religion that, for decades, has been the subject of fierce debate and speculation worldwide.

My Thoughts:

Thanks to a religion class I took in college, I knew a bit about Scientology beliefs and practices going into this book; I had a pretty solid outsider’s view of the controversial religion. But this memoir does what the title says: it takes you inside the life of a young girl who was born and raised in the cult of Scientology—and it’s even more horrific than I expected it to be.

What struck me most about Jenna’s account of her childhood, adolescence and young adulthood was the absolute lack of freedom she had. As a child of parents in the Sea Org (a military-like faction comprised of the most dedicated Scientologists), her strictly regimented days were scheduled down to the minute with extreme manual labor and Scientology studies. The very structure of Scientology makes it impossible to think for oneself or to question Scientology in any way. Doing so results in swift and harsh punishment, including restricted access to food and even banishment to the Rehabilitation Project Force, where one is essentially a prisoner who works and studies all day and is refused contact with the outside world, including very restricted communication with one’s family. Even when she got older, Jenna’s life was completely at the whim of the Scientology higher-ups: they told her where to live, what her job was, and with whom she was allowed to associate. She had extremely limited contact with her parents, and when she got older, the church controlled even her dating habits, refusing to let her marry her boyfriend and punishing her harshly when it became known that the two had had premarital sexual relations.

In my opinion, the criticism of the church of Scientology should be focused not on their actual beliefs but on the way the organization operates and how badly it treats its members (even those who have sacrificed everything, including family, for the church). I don’t think it’s my place to judge what they believe about how humans came to be, or in what supernatural entities they believe—but I definitely take issue with their disconnection policy, for example, wherein they refuse to let current members communicate with their family members who have left the church; or with the fact that they control every single aspect of the lives of their most dedicated members.

Jenna struck me as an individual with a strong sense of self. It’s remarkable that someone who knew nothing about the world beyond Scientology could find the strength within herself to question the church and to fight against the authority figures within it. I was entirely rooting for Jenna, and I loved the parts of the book where she finally started to recognize the hypocrisy within the church, to stand up for herself and to fight back (often physically!).

My only criticism of this book would have to be the writing style and the lack of proofreading. Jenna has such an unusual and fascinating life experience, but the prose is so flat and straightforward. There isn’t much character development (possibly because in real life, Scientologists aren’t really allowed to develop character or individuality). And, worst of all, there are so many typos! The compulsive proofreader in me could not believe that so many typos, missing punctuation marks and even missing words got past whoever was supposed to be proofing that book. I mean, everyone misses something now and then, and it certainly wasn’t unreadable, but sometimes there were several errors per page! Yikes.

But please, if you have an interest in this book, don’t let the typos put you off. It’s still a fascinating and valuable book that sheds light on an extremely controversial and abusive organization, and that’s very  important.


Matilda Reviews: Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson


Lia and Cassie are best friends, wintergirls frozen in matchstick bodies, competitors in a deadly contest to see who can be the skinniest. But what comes after size zero and size double-zero? When Cassie succumbs to the demons within, Lia feels she is being haunted by her friend’s restless spirit.

My Thoughts:

For those who have read other works by Laurie Halse Anderson, you’re well acquainted with her propensity for writing about adolescents facing serious issues. Wintergirls is no different. It delves deep into the psyche of an eighteen-year-old girl struggling with a very serious case of anorexia nervosa.

I’ve read other books about girls with eating disorders. All of them worked their way under my skin, but not all of them truly upset me like this one did. Wintergirls is not for the faint of heart or stomach. Protagonist Lia’s disturbed thoughts and disordered behaviors are laid out in great detail, including her frightening visions of her best friend Cassie, who suffered a terrible death due to bulimia and who seems to have returned from the grave to tempt Lia to succumb to her anorexia and join her. As I was reading, I vacillated between appreciating the horrific, but honest, details—because anorexia truly is a horrific disease—and being very upset by them. Sometimes I wondered if they were too much. Ultimately though, I think that the grittiness of the story is necessary in truly impressing upon the reader the direness of Lia’s illness.

The reader also sees that Lia’s illness affects not only her but her family as well. There is a lot of conflict between Lia and her mother, and between her divorced parents concerning her health. Lia has a young step-sister, whom she loves very much, but who is deeply upset and disturbed by Lia’s struggles. Wrapped in her illness and her own head, Lia spends much of her energy hiding her life and herself from her family.

Wintergirls is a “typical” representation of anorexia cloaked in unique details. Lia struggles not only with her eating disorder, but also with the death of her best friend and with her hallucinations. There is “suspense” in that the reader is waiting to find out how Cassie died and why she called Lia’s phone thirty-three times in the final hours of her life. And there is the constant question: will Lia finally choose treatment and recovery?

Wintergirls will help you to better understand the horror that is an eating disorder. But it’s not an easy book to read. It’s heavy, potentially triggering, and chock full of pain—so read with caution.

Matilda Reviews: The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall


The story follows the life of Stephen Gordon, an Englishwoman from an upper-class family whose “sexual inversion” (that is, homosexuality) is apparent from an early age. She finds love with Mary Llewellyn, whom she meets while serving as an ambulance driver in World War I, but their happiness together is marred by social isolation and rejection.

My Thoughts:

Boy, was this book a product of its time. The title is spot-on in describing the mood of this novel. The Well of Loneliness is a thinly veiled account of the author’s own life as a lesbian in the 1920s and earlier, and it was very depressing.

Don’t get me wrong; I’ve wanted to read this book for a long time, and I’m very glad to have read it and experienced it. But I struggled through it. It was draining.

The main character, a lesbian named Stephen, grows up feeling very different from everyone around her, although she doesn’t have a name for this difference. She begins an affair with a married woman who abandons her, and eventually she falls in love with a woman she met during WWI. The entire book paints lesbians and gay men as social outcasts, sexual deviants, freaks of nature–which is how society viewed them at that time.  Stephen is hyperaware of just how extremely heavy the burden of her “deviant sexuality” is. She is rejected by her mother and by others in her life, she struggles to find friends and to create a social life, and eventually she tricks her lover into ending their relationship with the hope that her lover will marry a man and thus be saved from the difficult life of a lesbian.

This book was immediately banned in many places when it was published, and it almost ended Radclyffe Hall’s career. I think she is remarkably brave for having written it, and I think it does inspire sympathy and increase understanding of the burden that society placed on gay people back then. (One minor lesbian character committed suicide; another struggled with immense guilt because of religious oppression.)

Although I would have loved to see Stephen take joy in her sexual orientation, that is perhaps not realistic for its time. Stephen did the best she could in an extremely oppressive society, even maintaining faith in God despite the way the world treated her.

Matilda Reviews: Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers by Lillian Faderman


Lillian Faderman tells the compelling story of lesbian life in the 20th century, from the early 1900s to today’s diverse lifestyles. Using journals, unpublished manuscripts, songs, news accounts, novels, medical literature, and numerous interviews, she relates an often surprising narrative of lesbian life.

My Thoughts:

I zipped through Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America by Lillian Faderman.

This was a good book if you’d like semi-decent coverage of a fairly large period of lesbian history. It introduced me to lesbians at different times in history and gave me an overarching idea of how immensely lesbian life and attitudes towards lesbians have shifted and changed during the last hundred-odd years in America.

I learned more about romantic friendships between women at the turn of the twentieth century—relationships that existed before anyone even knew the term “lesbian,” and which were accepted and encouraged by society.

I learned about the women—apparently mostly lesbians—who served in World War I. Although they were a great asset to the military, they were spied on and threatened with expulsion if their sexual orientation were discovered.

I also learned more about how lesbians fit into the second-wave feminist movement: creating lesbian communes and choosing a lesbian identity in defiance of the patriarchy.

Faderman did attempt to include the experiences of women of color in her book, although unfortunately, there is not as much information about them as I would have liked. If you want a good overview of lesbian history in America, though, this book is a good choice.

Top Ten Tuesday: My Bookish Bucket List

toptentuesdayI love making book-related goals and crossing things off lists, so naturally I couldn’t resist this week’s Top Ten Tuesday at The Broke and the Bookish.

So here are the top ten things on my bookish bucket list:

10. Read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. I’m terrified of this.

9. Read H.P. Lovecraft’s entire oeuvre. I love horror, and Lovecraft is classic horror. I’ve already read a good portion of his works, but I have a long way to go.

8. Along that same vein: read all of Stephen King’s works.

7. Finish all 60 books on my Classics Challenge list by June 21, 2018. I’ve read 8 3/4 of them so far.

6. Read more literary biographies, especially those of female writers, and especially Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, and Sylvia Plath.

5. Attempt to read some lesbian fiction published by small presses. Let’s say, at least 3 novels.

4. Read the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Tao Te Ching.

3. Read the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

2. Meet J.K. Rowling. (I’m determined.)

1. Finish Les Miserables!

What’s on your bookish bucket list?

Matilda Reviews: Between Mom and Jo by Julie Anne Peters


Nick has a three-legged dog named Lucky, some pet fish, and two moms who think he’s the greatest kid ever. And he happens to think he has the greatest moms ever, but everything changes when his birth mom and her wife, Jo, start to have marital problems. Suddenly, Nick is in the middle, and instead of having two Moms to turn to for advice, he has no one.

My Thoughts:

Ever since I picked up Keeping You a Secret when I was about 14 years old, Julie Anne Peters has been one of my favorite authors. I always felt like she just knew me. In my baby-dyke teenage heart and brain, I knew that Julie Anne just got it. I read Keeping You a Secret countless times when I was a teen.

Between Mom and Jo is the first of Julie Anne Peters’s books I’ve picked up in a few years. I’ve been avoiding her books for a while, because I was afraid that now that I’m 24, the magic of her stories would be gone. I was afraid that they wouldn’t speak to me like they did when I was 14, and in a way I was right—reading her books now is not the lifeline it was when I was so young. But that doesn’t mean her books have lost their magic or their realness.

Between Mom and Jo is a phenomenal story about the resilience and strength of family. Thirteen-year-old Nick struggles miserably through his moms’ divorce. It doesn’t matter what gender your parents are—divorce hurts, but there can be happiness and a new sense of unity afterward, even if your family has changed.

My parents got divorced when I was around Nick’s age, so a lot of this book hit home with me. In comparison to Nick, though, I was lucky. I was never prevented from seeing one of my parents, and I didn’t have to worry about the fact that one of my parents hadn’t adopted me and therefore had no rights over me. This is something that families with same-sex parents really do struggle with today. (In fact, just this week in Michigan, a judge ruled that two lesbian parents should be allowed to adopt one another’s children. Huzzah!)

This book rings true on so many levels. It’s both joyous and heartbreaking, and the characters are wonderful—they’re funny, and honest, and they struggle with real problems. It’s a great book for anyone whose family is changing because of divorce, whether your parents are gay, straight or in-between.

Big Books: Love ‘em or Hate ‘em?


I’m currently up to my ears in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, a big book if ever there was one, with most editions clocking in at around a thousand pages. I started reading it on February 16, which means that I’m already more than month in (and about two-thirds of the way through the book). All I have swirling around in my head at this moment are images of Jean Valjean’s white hair, the Thenardiers’ decrepit attic apartment, and Marius’s threadbare old jacket.

That’s the nice thing about big books—they get inside your head. You spend so much time with them that they become a substantial part of your daily life. If you read a couple-nine-ten chapters daily, like I do, then you get to “meet up” with the characters every day, sometimes for a period of weeks (or months? Maybe you like to take your time). By the time you’re halfway through, you’re really rooting for them!

On the other hand, big books slow down my reading-goal progress, since it takes so long to get through them. Furthermore, if I get to a part in the story that I don’t like (usually a historical-background chapter), I often find it difficult to push past it—sometimes it doesn’t seem worth it, especially when I’ve still got 650 pages to go, you know?

But I can see the light at the end of the Parisian tunnel; I’m going to make it all the way through Les Mis, and I’m enjoying the journey along the way.

What are your thoughts on big books? Do you love ‘em or hate ‘em? What’s the longest/best/worst you’ve ever read?