by Lucille Sider
Read the Spirit Publishing, 2019
Hardcover, 275 pages
Reviewed by Anne Linstatter
When I first met Lucille Sider, she was editor of the brand-new journal for Christian feminists, Daughters of Sarah. The year was 1975, and we both were enthusiastic about attending the first conference of a newly founded group, Evangelical Women’s Caucus, in Washington, D.C.
Lucille was smart and friendly, with pale skin, shoulder-length straight brown hair, and wire-rimmed glasses, just beginning a Ph.D. program at Northwestern University in psychology and religion. She was thirty and very hip, living in Chicago, where she and Nancy Hardesty and others produced D of S out of her basement.
What a pleasure to find her autobiography now, years after having lost touch! There is no greater gift you can receive than the secret inner life of a person you admire.
Reading her book, Light Shines in the Darkness: My Healing Journey Through Sexual Abuse and Depression, I was surprised to find that Lucille had been raised in Canada in a small denomination similar to Mennonites and the Amish. Girls and women had to have long hair “to show submission to men,” but it had to be pulled back, wrapped in a bun, and hidden with a little round, white-mesh covering. Women wore dresses only, often with capes to hide the profile of their breasts.
As Lucille explains in chapter one, the idea was that “women have to do what is necessary to keep the men from being aroused.”
Her journey out of the Brethren in Christ, attending Yale Divinity School, and later being ordained in a Congregational church is a major theme in the book, a journey to which some members of EEWC-Christian Feminism Today will relate.
The irony is that in the community surrounding her first church, so devoted to protecting men from women, she was sexually abused twice, once at age 6 and once at age 15. When the first ongoing abuse happened, she was afraid to tell her parents. She did report a physical attack by the same offender, a hired hand on her family’s farm, and her mother demanded that he be fired – but Lucille’s father refused.
In the second case, her older sister’s husband sexually abused Lucille. She was 15 years old, and reported it to her parents immediately—but they did nothing other than “pray about it.”
The emotional and mental impact of this trauma is another major theme in the book, as Lucille suffers depression, two marriages, and two divorces. She also is sexually attacked two more times, once by a therapist and once by a professor at Northwestern. She learned not to report.
Finally, at age 47, Lucille reports her childhood abuse to one of her sisters; ten years later, she tells her brothers and their wives. In 2010, her brother-in-law is arrested when a girl tells her mother, who reports him to the police. He had abused countless young women for fifty years. Lucille tells her sister, his wife, that she, too, is among those he sexually accosted. He is tried and serves time in prison.
One might ask, why read such a disturbing story? I believe it’s valuable to know what dutiful women have endured in church communities over the centuries before we had #MeToo, #ChurchToo, and #WhyIDidntReport. It’s important to know what men have gotten away with and to analyze why they were able to do so. In 1960, in the rural community in which they lived, Lucille’s mother could not call the police without her husband’s approval. Many girls and women today still are afraid to take that step.
Fighting for women to be ordained as priests and pastors is not just for an abstract ideal of equality. It means saving women’s lives. If women have power and presence, then abuse and harassment can be reported more easily, and women who face abuse can avoid years of suffering and even suicide.
Working against groups that preach women’s submission to men in marriage is not just about respect and financial decisions. It means mothers being able to insist that an offending employee be fired or a relative be banished. Husbands must not be permitted to overrule wives. It was an entire theology of men’s power that prevented 6-year-old and 15-year-old Lucille from being heard.
In 1974, EWC began working for women’s equality in church, home, and society. Today, we are also defending LGBTQ rights and working for the equality of non-binary persons. We are aiming for intersectionality in race, class, and other ways people have been marginalized. But still we need to remember the importance of simply opposing white male power as enhanced by patriarchal structures and by male language to refer to the Divine.
Another theme in this book is Lucille’s desire for education and meaningful work. At first, her goal was to marry a powerful man with academic and professional accomplishments; by 1975, she had begun to own those goals for herself.
Lucille also describes the generations of mental illness in her family and how she finally comes to accept herself as a person who needs medication and other therapy. Her mother struggled with depression, at times debilitating; her father indulged in rage, and her grandfather also had depression, but in her church, prayer was supposed to solve all these problems.
There’s joy in this story, too, especially as Lucille joins with other women to testify against her abuser.
“I see in my mind’s eye that we women are standing in a circle, holding hands and singing. The picture reminds me of my feminist days in the ’70s, when we banded together and fought for women’s rights,” writes Lucille.
She also has a mystical experience with Jesus and is surprised to find herself cautiously forgiving her abuser, to whom her sister is still married. Her early childhood sense of being pure and good is restored to her through that experience and through memories of sitting on her grandfather’s lap, loved and cherished, as he sang to her.
Lucille’s story gave me an understanding of a part of women’s experience that I have not had. I recommend it for women’s book groups, especially those connected with a church (there’s a study guide at the end). Lucille also is available for Zoom sessions consisting of a short talk followed by questions and answers.
© 2020 by Christian Feminism Today.
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Excellent review, Anne.