‘Rift’ provides a chilling look at the tolls of Christian patriarchy

A cautionary tale from a survivor’s point of view


 When she was 5 years old, Cait West remembers her father telling her to change out of her two-piece swimsuit. In her new book, “Rift: A Memoir of Breaking Away from Christian Patriarchy,” she writes, “I didn’t know what modesty meant then … Most of all, I remember feeling ashamed.”

West will visit Everybody Reads bookstore 2 p.m. Saturday (April 27) to read from the book. She will be joined by authors Dawn Burns and Sara Moslener. An open mic will follow the featured readings.

West’s father controlled every aspect of her life in the name of religion, including her friendships, the books she read, her clothing and, as she became a teenager, her love life.

In essence, dating was forbidden. In its place, her father imposed severe courtship rules, which included no kissing until marriage. She writes about an early burgeoning relationship in which her father read her beau’s letters before she did and had to approve her return letters.

Most of us know little or nothing about the Christian patriarchy movement in this country, but West provides a chilling look at what it is and how it proliferates. Many readers will see elements of it in their own upbringings. Guilt is used to shame and control women through religious beliefs.

“I was taught that patriarchy is the most loving way to live because it protects women from the evil of the world,” West writes.

Her journey to break away from this family relationship was fraught with guilt that delayed her escape until she was in her mid-20s. Meanwhile, her father oversaw her every move and brainwashed her with biblical mania about purity, obedience and masculine superiority.

After reading the memoir, there will be no doubt in readers’ minds that psychological abuse is as evil as physical abuse. The scars are still something West deals with today.

“I write in the book that I sometimes wished my dad would hit me so I would have physical evidence of my abuse,” she said in an interview with City Pulse from her home in Grand Rapids.

Chapters describing the geology and nature of the many areas where she lived with her family are interspersed throughout the book. They act as palate cleansers between the grittier parts of her story.

West began plotting a way out when she realized she had been trained to be a homemaker rather than being educated. She also met an understanding man whom she fell in love with, but not one who was pre-approved by her father. Ultimately, they decided to marry against her father’s wishes. With her father becoming even more verbally abusive, she decided to bolt using money she had squirreled away from teaching piano.

West relocated to Michigan with her husband-to-be to fully escape her father’s reach and began attending community college. She later enrolled at Michigan State University, where she realized she had skills and didn’t have to live her life as a “quiet” and obedient homemaker. She graduated from MSU with a degree in English, giving her the practical skills needed to land a job in publishing.

Before writing the memoir, West had already begun co-hosting a podcast, “Survivors Discuss,” which helped her refine her message about surviving religious abuse.

“We interview survivors of religious trauma who are in recovery,” she said.

In the book, the author rails against her overzealous homeschooling, which she calls “a Laura Ingalls, Oregon Trail, make-your-own-corn-cob-doll vortex” where her parents could keep her from drugs, sex and the teaching of evolution.

However, she found an unlikely friend, Google, which she used to learn about religious abuse.

“I was allowed to have a computer because I could write. I was taught to ‘self-police,’ and my father was not above checking the search history,” she said.

If West’s father made any strategic mistake in his attempt at total control, it was letting her use that computer. The knowledge she gained on the web became her secret power.

Although West doesn’t paint the homeschool movement with a broad brush, she offers a cautionary tale of what can go wrong when it’s paired with white supremacy and religious extremism. She writes, “My Christian history books whitewashed the past, saying that Native Americans weren’t civilized and enslaved persons were blessed by having Christian slave masters.”

She recalls one year of homeschooling when her parents skipped science entirely, saying, “What girl needs science?” She said the COVID-19 pandemic pushed more families into homeschooling with little or no oversight and that she supports state regulation of homeschooling to make it “safer.”

It’s likely that few of us know families that practice religious patriarchy, but West knows from experience that it’s more common than society believes. She hopes her memoir will reach other survivors and help them understand they’re not alone.


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