Released: Walking from Blame and Shame into Wholeness

New Memoir, Exposes Childhood Medical Neglect and Finding One’s Agency After Leaving Christian Science

New memoirs of former Christian Scientists are seldom published. There are a few, Blue Windows and Fathermothergod, and now we can add to the list Peggy Cook’s excellent new memoir, Released: Walking from Blame and Shame into Wholeness. This exceptional memoir clearly articulates many of the challenges of growing up in Christian Science. 

Peggy Cook was diagnosed with clubfeet upon her birth. This condition requires many surgeries and procedures during the formative years of a child for the condition to be fully corrected. Born into a strict Christian Science family, Peggy’s father was employed at the Mother Church in Boston and clung closely to orthodox Christian Science views—that prayer and medicine cannot be mixed. After undergoing several castings as a very young girl, Peggy’s parents decided not to continue medical treatment and to fully rely on prayer.  

Childhood Trauma and Medical Neglect 

In the introduction of Released, Peggy writes, as she looked for her baby book and found only empty pages: “I needed proof that I was celebrated despite my clubfeet. Proof of being a cherished infant, not just a burden and someone to constantly pray about. My birth, a joyful event.” (2021, Cook, p. 2)

Peggy then begins her story with her earliest of memories: being terrified as her parents took her to get her legs casted, a very traumatic event for a toddler to say the least. She recalls singing hymns with her parents, although even at an early age she did not find comfort in them at times of intense difficulty. Written in present tense, we are right there with Peggy as she endures the castings, the fear, and the interactions with her parents, who mean well, but do not grasp the trauma inflicted on their young daughter. She articulates how much later as an adult she began to understand why she struggled so much of her childhood—from these early traumatic childhood experiences. 

Different View of Reality in Christian Science

In Released, Peggy gracefully weaves the Christian Science worldview into dialogue as she shares her childhood memories. Christian Scientists believe that the material world is not real, it’s just an illusion. Matter, like our bodies and the world around us, is artificial and not the true reality. Scientists spend copious amounts of time studying the writings of Mary Baker Eddy, the religion’s founder, and denying the existence of the material world around them. They deny the five senses and cling to a theology that only good exists and that everything is God; anything not good is not of God and therefore isn’t real. In Peggy’s case, her reality as a very young girl afraid of having her legs painfully cast and walking incorrectly was met with spiritual gaslighting by her parents. 

“I say, ‘I’m scared.’ My father says, ‘That’s error telling you that you’re scared. That’s not you talking.’ (2021, Cook, p. 13).

In her child’s mind, the only state of mind that made sense, Peggy internalized fear and pain that impacted her entire childhood and into adulthood. The way that she is able to articulate this disparity in her childhood sense of reality as an adult looking in on herself not only gives weight to the traumatic childhood experience she alone faced, it gives voice to many others who have never written about their pain. This is the power of memoir.

Embarrassed by the Failure of Christian Science Prayer

A byproduct of any high control religious group is extreme guilt, embarrassment, and shame. The group makes the rules, often rules including extreme requirements such as no medical treatment, ignoring a situation that needs professional help (either medical, psychological, or emotional), and requiring the follower to adhere to rules that should, if followed correctly, bring about a solution. When the solution (or healing, in Peggy’s case) doesn’t happen, the individual follower is to blame, not the belief system itself. What develops is a deep sense of failure that produces shame and embarrassment. 

To outsiders, who can barely fathom making a child feel responsible for their disability or illness, this seems implausible, even absurd. To insiders working hard to mentally deny the reality of the situation, the suffering goes on and on. Their reality is living each day surrounded by their shame (for Peggy, this was through her daily struggle to walk and endure the constant pain of uncorrected clubfeet). She needlessly endured horrific amounts of suffering—taking responsibility for her own condition (not her fault) and taking accountability for her lack of healing (also not her fault; Christian Science rarely works for most followers). 

“It terrified me thinking about children dying from trusting God. Sometimes I couldn’t sleep, hoping it never happened to my brother of me.” (2021, Cook, p. 18)

A Mother’s Suffering of Cancer Gone Untreated

Part of Peggy’s journey out of Christian Science includes losing her mother to undiagnosed and untreated skin cancer. This experience became the catalyst that propelled her from Christian Science. She endured through the end, similar to other’s stories of watching a loved one endure untreated cancer in a Christian Science nursing facility. It’s unfathomable that this still goes on today, and we know that it does. My grandfather. Your cousin. My friend’s mom. The first reader at church. The list of sufferers goes on and on. 

But rather than destroy Peggy, despite the layered trauma of watching a loved one suffer and die in front of her, she finds the courage to pivot. She meets her new nephew shortly after his birth and notices the signs of clubfeet. She says, “I had been praying unsuccessfully for the healing of my clubfeet for 36 years.” (2021, Cook, p. 81)

At 37, Peggy decides to seek out a surgeon who can fix her clubfeet. The process is nothing short of a medical miracle through a devoted surgeon, the hard work of physical therapy, and a new outlook of self-care, humanity, and hope. The memoir is gripping as she dedicates the better part of a year to recovering and finding the use of her new feet, heels, and legs to carry her forward into her future. 

The Human Condition Embraced

As Peggy’s story unfolds, she opens up in a way that is so refreshing and honest. She articulates the language of the Christian Science family in fresh ways that have not been written before. You will likely hear your own mother in her story; you might find your own father there too. 

Peggy’s story doesn’t stop here, it ends with recovery, transformation, hope, relationship, and learning to become human in ways that each of us must learn once leaving Christian Science. While her childhood was marked by avoidance of the human condition, her adulthood, once she decided to leave Christian Science and seek out medical correction for her clubfeet, was marked by transformation. 

Special Role of Christian Science Memoir

There is a special role that memoir holds for those of us who share the experience of growing up in Christian Scientist. Few understand our plight; not many parents could fathom withholding medical care, love, affection, and attention when a child is hurting. What the Christian Science belief system does to most children is incomprehensible, yet memoir opens the gates and allows others in to see what it was like. 

For those of us who have similar childhood experiences, memoir is strangely comforting because there are others who understand, relate, and experience many of the same things we did. Being able to articulate the ways that parents applied Christian Science treatment is both disturbing and moving. Memoir shows us just how similar many of our childhoods were in how our parents often ignored our little boy and girl needs, allowed us to suffer needlessly, and withheld affection and love because they were “holding to the Truth.”

We grieve one another’s trauma as we were not alone, we were one of many children all over the world, for four or five generations, over multiple continents—Peggy’s suffering is our own suffering. Peggy’s suffering was real, and so was ours. 

Our difficulties are not unique, and Peggy’s memoir reminds us that we are not alone. There is hope for recovery, there is growth and trust to be built and experienced again, outside the blue chalk lines. 

Elitism and Religious Superiority in Christian Science

Often, long after leaving Christian Science, the aura of elitism or superiority lingers…

“The time for thinkers has come.” In its Genesis-like proclamation, Mary Baker Eddy reveals her book, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, intended to initiate a new system of higher thinking to overcome all challenges.

“Contentment with the past and the cold conventionality of materialism are crumbling away. Ignorance of God is no longer the stepping-stone to faith (Science and Health vii).”

With this edict, she sets the stage for a brand-new religion that bucks historical Christianity. 

Eddy reveals the keys to undiscovered forces, a special knowledge she claims she was “divinely authorized” to share. With a recipe for successful religious elitism and superiority, Eddy begins with a base of Gnosticism, adds in a heaping amount of mind control, tosses in confusing metaphysical theories, sprinkles in some mesmerism, and finishes with a splash of good ‘ole superstition.

Mind Control: Indoctrination from an Early Age

From the time most of us began attending Sunday school, we were spoon-fed that Christian Science is special and unique. My mother repeatedly told me that “the best gift she could ever give me was Christian Science.” Instead of being told I was special because I was unique, loved, and treasured, I heard the message that I was special because I had been given the gift of Christian Science. From an early age, I was skeptical. In looking around, it didn’t feel like I was all that special to go to an unusual church, not have access to medical treatment, and experience shame around unresolved physical problems when my friends asked why I was at school when clearly, I was sick. 

Every effective cult (or destructive religious group that deviates from religious norms) employs mind control techniques.

In his book, Combating Cult Mind Control, Steve Hassan states, “Information control is the second component of mind control. Information provides the tools with which we think and understand reality. Without accurate, up-to-date information, we can easily be manipulated and controlled. Deny a person the information they require to make sound judgments and they will become incapable of doing so.”  Hassan goes on to argue that “deception is the biggest tool of information control, because it robs people of the ability to make informed decisions.” 

Further, distorting information becomes an essential strategy to hold members in place. Since all Christian Science children are taught that they are a “perfect child of God” and that they have access to a “special system of healing,” it is inevitable for a sense of superiority to creep in. After all, we were indoctrinated to believe that we had special knowledge that was far superior to all our non-Christian Science friends.

Narcissism: Leader, Individual, and Group

Many people, after leaving Christian Science, have noticed or read about Eddy’s narcissistic tendencies. In support groups, we’ve also noticed the thread of narcissism as we talk about our parents and relatives still practicing Christian Science.

The American Psychiatric Association defines Narcissistic Personality Disorder as having the following traits: “Grandiosity, or feelings of entitlement, either overt or covert; self-centeredness; firmly holding to the belief that one is better than others; condescending toward others; attention-seeking. These impairments must be relatively stable and evident over long stretches of time for a person to be recognized and diagnosed.”

Most of us heard the metaphor that regular Christians had the “kindergarten” version of Christianity; we Christian Scientists had the “graduate school” version. I’ve heard this many times over the years as a means to explain away the vastly different theology that didn’t match up with anything recognizable within mainstream Christianity. This statement is a destructive, false statement that breeds intense individual religious superiority in mass quantities. And, it couldn’t be further from the truth. 

It’s almost as if Eddy injected Christian Science with a recipe for producing a whole group of narcissistic people. We worship her, her theology, her books, and ultimately ourselves in that our grasp of Christian Science and resulting healings from physical problems offer the proof that the whole system works. Whether or not we had actual healings or perceived healings, we stood up at Wednesday night testimony meetings and gave a glorified account of:

  1. How we applied the flawless principles of Christian Science to affect our ‘seemingly’ physical situation,
  2. How we overcame the ‘false evidence’ that told us we had a problem that needed healing,
  3. How we would subsequently gush effusively giving honor and glory to Mary Baker Eddy, our leader, for discovering Christian Science. By having declared that we had a healing, we subsequently elevated ourselves to the same level as the false teacher. We too achieved success, acclaim, and grandiosity. 

For those who didn’t experience “demonstrations,” guilt, depression, and angst often resulted because at its core, Christian Science teaches that its system is flawless; if it didn’t work, it was because your understanding was limited. This is a hallmark of high control groups: the system isn’t flawed, the individual practicing the system is flawed.

“Since the doctrine is perfect and the leader is perfect, any problem that crops up is assumed to be the fault of the individual member. They learn to blame themselves and simply work harder,” Hassan adds in a section on thought control in Combatting Cult Mind Control.

There is an additional kind of narcissism reflected in Christian Science: collective, or group, narcissism. “Collective narcissism is characterized by the members of a group holding an inflated view of their ingroup.” Discovered and documented by Sigmond Freud, called “Freud’s Theory of Collective Narcissism,” he noticed that some groups developed “in-group bias” where they preferred and elevated their group’s thinking and biases above others. For example, fighter pilots’ larger-than-life attitude, sorority, and fraternity members’ superiority complex, and even extreme homeschool families who feel this is the only way to properly educate children. 

Gnosticism: Special Lost Knowledge Revealed

Elitism and religious superiority are the natural results of being taught that we, as Christian Scientists, had a special, unique knowledge available only to us. In the early years of Christianity, the Gnostics rejected widely accepted theology that Jesus Christ was both God and man. These Gnostics had trouble with the Incarnation, or theological premise that Jesus was both fully God and fully man (Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Christians all agree on this point). Gnostics believed Jesus could only be fully human or fully divine–not both. They decided that he was fully divine and with this decision came the split between physical reality and spiritual reality. They rejected everything material, proclaiming that only the spiritual realm was real. This “gnosis,” Latin for knowledge, became special esoteric knowledge. A special club, a group that had unique teachings only a select few could understand.

Sound familiar? 

King Solomon said in Ecclesiastes 1:19, “…there is nothing new under the sun.” His statement continues to stand the test of time. Eddy did not prophesy something new, she repackaged something as old as the story of Jesus Christ himself and presented it as her own creation. In the late 1800s, most likely only pastors and seminary teachers would have known much about the ancient heresies. Medical treatment was very experimental and the average life expectancy between 1860-1880 was approximately 35 to 39 years old. People were desperate for relief from common physical maladies, and a Gnostic repackaging placed on top of a magnanimous narcissistic leader created the perfect storm for a new cult to flourish. 

Christian Science Culture: Lofty and Exclusive

The aura of mystique and air of superiority was evident in Mary Baker Eddy’s writings. Even the big words she carefully chose to use in her writings reeked of lofty education and privilege. She commanded trust, demanded respect, and required utter devotion to her cause. 

Elitism in Christian Science is ‘baked in.’ The very basis of Christian Science hinges on elitist, preferential theology that only the most enlightened understand and select for themselves. Many of us have voiced concerns in the past about not understanding specifics of Christian Science theology. It might be hard to recognize the traits of destructive mind control, but the more you delve in, deconstruct from the harmful and confusing worldview, and understand the specific components of cult mind control, the easier it will be to unpack the ‘coding’ of religious superiority implanted in us. 

When we acknowledge the weaknesses created by the baseless teachings of Christian Science and the narcissism it breeds, we can deconstruct from the views we were raised with and embrace an attitude of humility. Anchoring yourself in the fact that you are human, with an imperfect human mind and body, you can adopt a humble attitude and gradually break the patterns of arrogance and elitism.  Through dedication and perseverance to recovery from religious trauma, it is possible to understand, break habits, and effect change.

For further information on what constitutes a cult, watch the Freedom of Mind (Steve Hassan) BITE Model Video: