After reading and watching Going Clear last year, Lawrence Wright’s detailed expose on Scientology, I’ve been fixated on reading about extremist religions, especially those verging on the cultish. Seeing Bill Maher’s documentary Religulous around the same time further fueled this: I loved seeing him use his trademark cynicism coupled with hard, like-it-or-not-styled facts to debunk religious mythology across the spectrum of different groups and beliefs around the world. And interestingly, aside from the kookiness espoused by the likes of Scientologists and Mormons, most religions are more alike at their core than they are different. Yet we keep viciously fighting and killing each over them. Sigh.
As part of this phase, I read Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven, a long-popular narrative nonfiction work about infamous murders within a community of Mormon Fundamentalists. Mormonism has always made me a little uneasy thanks to their eyebrow-raising beliefs (not that the rest of Christianity is any less far-reaching, again, see Religulous for great comparisons) and their fervent embracing of polygamy is the cringey icing on the uneasiness cake. I remember reading something in Krakauer’s book about polygamist sects escaping American persecution by setting up camp in Mexico.
I came across The Sound of Gravel while perusing the Goodreads choice nominees, where it was a finalist in the Memoir category. I read the synopsis and couldn’t get my hands on it fast enough.
Ruth Wariner grew up in one of these Mexican polygamist outposts, born to a diehard believer mother and a father she never met; he was murdered by his brother while she was a baby. Her father was Joel LeBaron, founder of the Church of the Firstborn, headquartered on the Colonia LeBaron ranch in Chihuahua, Mexico. Ruth’s mother struggles in extreme poverty to raise Ruth and her siblings while married to her new total shitbag husband, who does nothing but impregnate her and his other wives, abuse the children and perform shoddy repair work around the colony.
Several of Ruth’s siblings have learning or developmental disorders, and it falls to Ruth and her brother Matt to care for the always-growing towheaded brood, while trying to navigate their own childhood stresses like sporadic schooling, malnutrition, hunger, and the lack of steadying familial connections from a reasonable, loving extended family. Reasonable meaning: not an overflowing anthill of half siblings and cousins in a technologically impaired, impoverished, isolated religious colony.
I was continually stunned at how much Ruth’s mother loved her and her siblings, and yet simultaneously, how horribly she neglected them. It was thanks to her choices, her adherence to extremist religious beliefs, that these kids grew up in extreme poverty, separated from loving grandparents, suffering the effects of malnutrition, abuse and trauma. Despite their belief that the United States was a sinful Babylonian empire doomed to impending collapse, the family travels monthly to Texas for food stamps and government benefits, their only income and means of survival. Despite these limited means, already stretched precariously thin considering the number of mouths to be fed plus special needs kids requiring care they’re unable to provide, Ruth’s mother and her aforementioned shitbag husband keep having children, eventually pulling Ruth out of school to help her mother raise them. It was infuriating. And then comes tragedy after tragedy, like a storm that won’t let up.
I can’t sugarcoat it, and Wariner certainly doesn’t either – this is hard stuff to get through. Sometimes I read with a lump in my throat, afraid I’d burst into tears on the subway. As I mentioned, I cried when I finished, because as uplifting as Ruth chooses to make her life, her story, and her siblings’ future, they go through a lot of rockiness getting there. It’s scary, painful, and heartbreakingly sad to read about, and I think it’s human nature to try to make sense of it, to understand something – unfortunately, it’s just not possible to fully comprehend.
Ruth’s strength, energy, vision for the future, and unlimited love are the positive takeaway messages, the rest is the sad remains of what religious extremism is capable of. She’s an effortlessly emotional writer, yet still with the remove and careful consideration that comes with time and maturity. She writes such rich detail and description of her siblings that they become familiar, people we know and feel for, and it’s hard to follow along with what they are subjected to.
I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that had me thinking about it so much during the time I wasn’t reading. I burned through it in every spare moment over the course of two days, and cried when I finished. I’m so sorry that anyone had to live this life. No one should have to endure what Ruth endured, but she’s an inspiring survivor. On her website, I clicked through photos of her and her siblings, Ruth on her wedding day – and she’s beautiful and shining, her smile radiates – I was just moved to tears. She’s so positive, so loving despite admitting that her mother could never teach or show her how to love because she didn’t know how herself. Ruth becomes the glue that holds her family together, and in the intense final passages of the book, she’s the impetus that propels them out from their troubled beginnings to a better life back across the border. Incomparably inspiring, despite so much grittiness.
The Sound of Gravel: A Memoir
by Ruth Wariner
published January 5, 2016 by Flatiron Books