Trigger warnings for discussion of childhood sexual abuse and sex trafficking.
Introduction: why I need to review this book.
From the ages of 17-21, I worked at a Christian bookstore that eventually was bought out by Lifeway. (That’s right. This atheist was once employed by LIFEWAY.) At the time, I was considered the resident CCM expert and Christian fiction guru, and I helped introduce a lot of people to a lot of Christian pop culture in the mid-2000’s. Ask me to tell you stories sometime. I have a few.
A friend introduced me to Francine Rivers’ writing one summer through her Mark of the Lion series (which, if there’s enough interest, I can re-read and review here as well). The bookstore where I worked had a policy at that point where employees could “check out” books to read, then bring them back for sale when we were finished. So when I saw the mysterious-looking cover and the familiar author, I jumped at the chance to read it. I’d loved the Mark of the Lion series and her popular book, Atonement Child, so I just knew that I would love this book, too. I was probably 18 at the time.
Redeeming Love changed and defined my life for the better part of 8 years.
I read it once or twice annually, from the time I first picked it up at 18 until my public deconversion at age 25. It instantaneously became my favourite book, second only to LM Montgomery’s The Blue Castle (which yet remains my favourite book of all time).
In my mind, I was the main character, and the story was an allegory I used to describe my life. I can’t tell you how many times, like Angel’s mother, I silently cried, “Mea culpa, mea culpa, I did this to myself.” Or how many times, like Angel, I’d scrape my skin raw in an attempt to feel clean, only to sink to my knees when I realized there was no hope for my cleansing. It was in such a fit that I wrote probably the best — and worst — poem I’ve ever written.
What I’m trying to say is that stories are important. I’ve written about that before. As I said then, the stories we tell each other, the stories we tell ourselves, the stories we accept as truth define us. And oh, did this story define me — for far, far too long.
Stories don’t exist in a vacuum. Redeeming Love wasn’t written without the influence of an entire worldview. I didn’t accept it as an allegory for my life without outside influences, outside stories, telling me how to think of myself and the world around me. The story was written as an obvious retelling of the biblical book of Hosea. Clearly Francine Rivers and I had a similar understanding of how to interpret that book — and it’s an understanding that negatively affected my life for many years.
So why am I reviewing this book? In part because Samantha Field‘s readers wanted her to review it*, but she chose to review Tim LaHaye’s How to Win Over Depression as it was a book she already owned and strongly felt the need to deconstruct. (Check out her writing and be sure to become a Patron — she does really important work!)
But by and large, I’m doing this in-depth multi-part Redeeming Love review because of the years it defined my life. I need to exorcise a few demons this book helped feed, and I’d like to do it publicly for the benefit of others like me.
So…let’s get started.
A few things to keep in mind.
I’ll be reviewing the book in sections rather than by chapter. It’s broken apart into rather obvious sections, so I think it’ll flow a bit better to do it that way. Also, I think going chapter by chapter would just prolong any PTSD reactions I may have to its contents. This way I can read a large section of the book, then write about it, shortening my exposure. As much as I need to review the book, I also need to take care of myself.
The first section I’m reviewing here is the prologue, and I think it sets up the book (and therefore helps me set up my review) rather nicely.
Obviously, I’ll be coming at this staple of conservative Christian fiction from a far different standpoint than I did when I was myself a conservative Christian. Being a liberal atheist, I obviously differ from Rivers’ beliefs very strongly and fundamentally. However, I’ll do my best to keep my criticism of Christianity itself to a minimum, focusing instead on the messages communicated by the book itself.
I’m also going to be upfront with my overall review from the get-go: this book, while well-intentioned, tells dangerous stories about the nature of love and can be downright toxic for survivors of sexual assault who come to it for hope and healing.
I’m coming to this book and these reviews as a survivor of both childhood and adult sexual abuse, topics this book explores in uncomfortable depth. For this entire series, there are major trigger warnings for frank discussion of childhood sexual abuse, rape, sex trafficking, and incest. I’ll do my best to be sensitive, but I will also be as forthright as needed when addressing how Rivers’ depicts this violence and her characters’ reactions to it. I’ll put specific trigger warnings at the beginning of every post, so that other survivors can decide for themselves whether the review is something they want to handle on a particular day and so they’re aware of what they’re getting into.
Overview: the Prologue.
Rivers opens the book with a simple sentence: “To those who hurt and hunger.” It’s obvious through this introduction, the telling of the entire story, and the author’s notes at the end of the book that Rivers desperately wants to provide hope to hurting women. In a strange way, she did give me hope for those years that I held this book in the highest of regards. But I think even in the prologue, it’s clear that her goal falls flat.
The story begins in 1835 New England with our protagonist, Sarah, meeting her father for the first time. We’re never given her last name. She is about seven years old, living with her mother, Mae, and their servant, Cleo, in a small but comfortable cottage surrounded by beautiful flower gardens.
Her father, Alex Stafford, is a tall, handsome, rich man. His visits are sporadic and short-lived. Usually, Sarah and Cleo leave for a while when he’s stopped by, but this time Mae has decided to introduce them. Sarah is beside herself with excitement, but Stafford is cold and angry. He sends Sarah outside to play, but she sits outside by the window to be as close to her family as she can be.
It turns out that Stafford has a wife and “legitimate” children, but takes care of Mae quietly, providing her house and servant and enough money to live comfortably. He never wanted a child with Mae, and in fact had provided a way for her to abort, which she rejected soundly as it was “a mortal sin” for her to kill her “unborn child.” He resents being forced to meet his daughter, and says that the time spent with her has taken away from the time he came to spend with Mae. It’s implied that Mae was once a sex worker, but stopped working after meeting Stafford. He is angry, violent, intolerant of religious belief, and only interested in Mae for sex.
Sarah hears all of this, of course, and internalizes that she shouldn’t have been born. Her mother sinks into a dark depression after Stafford physically abuses her and leaves. Sarah believes that she is in the way of her mother’s happiness, even going so far as to ask her if Stafford would come back to stay if she were to get sick and die, leaving Mae free of her. Mae is appropriately horrified, but instead of reassuring her daughter, she makes her promise to never speak of such things again.
After months of the silent treatment, Stafford sends word that he’s going to visit again. This time, Mae sends Sarah and Cleo to the ocean for the weekend. Cleo resents having to take care of Mae’s “by-blow,” and makes sure that Sarah knows it. The place they go to stay is frequented by Cleo’s former lover, who terrorizes Sarah and forces her to sit in a cold dark hallway outside their room at the inn while he and Cleo have sex. Cleo is hopeful that he’ll finally admit that he loves her in return, but he leaves after their encounter and doesn’t return.
When Cleo’s lover doesn’t return the following night, she gets drunk and decides to give Sarah “God’s truth” about men:
“I’m going to tell you God’s truth, little girl. You listen good. … All men want to do is use you. When you give them your heart, they tear it to shreds. … None of ’em care. Take your fine papa. Does he care about your mother? No. …
“Your mama told me to take good care of you. … Well, I am going to take care of you. I’m going to tell you God’s truth. You listen and you learn. …
“Your fine papa doesn’t care about anyone, least of all you. And all he cares about your mother is what she’s willing to give him. And she gives him everything. He shows up when he pleases, uses her, then rides off to his fine house in town with his aristocratic wife and well-bred children. And your mother? She lives for the next time she’ll see him. …
“She’s such a sweet stupid fool. She waits for him and falls on her face to kiss his feet when he comes back. You know why he went away for so long? Because of you. He can’t stand the sight of his own spawn. Your mama cries and begs, and what good’s it ever done her? Sooner or later, he’s going to get tired of her and toss her into the trash. And you with her. That’s the one thing you can count on. …
“Nobody cares about anybody in this world. … We all just use each other in one way or another. To feel good. To feel bad. To feel nothing at all. The lucky ones are real good at it. Like Merrick. Like your rich papa. The rest of us just take what we can get.”
As prophesied by Cleo, Stafford withdraws entirely from Mae, leaving her destitute. She takes Sarah and goes to her parents’ house to beg forgiveness and ask to stay. She’s turned away with nothing but a small amount of money her mother is able to sneak to her. She and Sarah end up living on the docks in a shack, where she goes back to sex work. A man Sarah knows as Uncle Rab comes to live with them and help keep them afloat, but Mae contracts a disease she can’t fight and dies. Sarah is 8 years old.
Uncle Rab is a drunk and a thief, but he promised Mae he would take care of Sarah. He asks around and discovers that a man “rich as Midas and way up in government” wants to adopt a pretty little girl. He has Sarah cleaned up and dressed nicely, then takes her to the man’s mansion to drop her off.
They’re met by a well-endowed woman named Sally, who quietly but urgently advises them to turn around and leave. Uncle Rab insists that it’s fine, that everything will be fine, and they’re led to a richly furnished bedroom to wait. He goes through the room and steals what he can fit in his pockets until he’s confronted by Duke, the man of the house. Duke inspects Sarah, who is frightened by him, then pays Uncle Rab. Uncle Rab bursts into a grateful diatribe, and makes the mistake of mentioning the name of the man who referred him to Duke, and is strangled to death in front of Sarah.
Duke washes Sarah’s face, telling her that as long as she does exactly what he tells her, she’ll be fine. He asks her name, but she’s too terrified to answer. He begins touching her and replies, “It doesn’t matter. I think I’m going to call you Angel.” He tells her he has things to teach her as he begins undressing himself. The prologue concludes with “by morning, Sarah knew that Cleo had told her God’s truth about everything.”
Analysis: tropes abound.
There are a lot of tropes that I noticed reading through the prologue. Some of them are vague nods to teachings within purity culture, but they’re tropes nonetheless and I’m kind of surprised that I never noticed them before.
- Sarah’s father, Stafford, is implied to be a-religious at best, openly mocking her mother’s dedication to God. He embodies The Angry Atheist, who by virtue of his lack of belief is prone to violence against women and incapable of genuine empathy or personal relationships that don’t serve him personally. He also fulfills the Christian purity culture stereotype of a man who’s only interested in a woman for sex and nothing else.
- The obligatory “abortion is murder” belief is espoused (which is unsurprising, considering Rivers’ book Atonement Child is dedicated to the topic). This, of course, doesn’t negate the damage it does to a child to hear they’re unwanted by a parent. Though I would like anti-choice proponents to explain why they think forcing a person to give birth against their will is good for child or parent.
- The entire story of Sarah’s mother, Mae, is a ginormous nod to the Christian teaching that if you “fall into sexual sin,” you’ll lose your family and your health and will die alone and unloved. In fact, this trope seems even worse to me, as Mae genuinely tries to do what is best for her daughter, tries to reconcile with her parents, and remains dedicated to God until her last breath. It seems to fly in the face of the message of the rest of the book: it seems to say that not even God can save you if you make these mistakes. And yet…
- Rivers makes it clear that Mae is Catholic, which in the minds of most Evangelicals will allow them to dismiss her dedication to God because she wasn’t really a Christian, making it easier to accept her death as consequences for her poor decisions.
- Alcohol is repeatedly used to demonstrate a person’s untrustworthiness, irresponsibility, or godless despondency.
- The sexist assumption that women do nothing but pine after men is demonstrated in Mae’s reaction to Stafford’s indifference and Cleo’s reaction to the man she loves discarding her after their night of sex.
- The depiction of sex work as something women only do when they’re desperate and never as a legitimate choice that they make is present here as well, and developed further throughout the book. This doesn’t negate the seriousness of sex trafficking, nor the injustice that many women are forced into sex work in order to support themselves, but it does paint a narrow picture of the trade.
I do appreciate that Duke is depicted as a powerful public figure that can abuse children so openly without the public knowing. I think that’s a really important thing to note: pedophiles aren’t always obvious about it, because they’re often so well-liked by adults that they create an atmosphere of plausible deniability.
The thing that struck me the most, however, was in Cleo’s speech about God’s truth. I think Rivers inadvertently gave us a shockingly unfiltered glance into the fundamentalist and evangelical Christian God’s truth about the world.
The message that all men want to do is use women? That’s a message that purity culture teaches. Of course, it’s present in patriarchy and men’s rights movements as well, but it is a fundamental portion of what Christianity teaches about men and the world. Considering the proliferation of Christianity in the U.S.’s culture and government, it’s a common belief. But it’s directly informed by the Christian God that Rivers spends the rest of the book trying to depict as all-loving and kind and forgiving.
The message that people only ever want to use one another for their own personal gain is another fundamental message of the conservative Christian God (and I’d personally argue a message of the God of the Bible in general). It’s a message that completely denies basic demonstrable humanity and robs people of the dignity of having their loves and relationships and motivations and lives validated — unless they fit in a shockingly small box.
I’m reminded so strongly of the Mother Gothel and Rapunzel’s story arc in Tangled. Mother Gothel raises Rapunzel to believe that the world is “dark and selfish and cruel” — as a direct effort to hide that Mother Gothel herself is the dark and selfish and cruel one. But unlike Tangled, where Rapunzel is able to say with confidence, “You were wrong about the world!” this book offers no such hope. Mother Gothel’s dark, selfish, cruel world exists and really is full of ruffians, thugs and men with pointy teeth. And the only salvation to be found is provided by Mother Gothel herself. And that’s not an accurate depiction of real life, nor is it a world worth living in.