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Growing Up, She Feared the End Times

The author of ‘Apocalypse Child’ on her childhood in an evangelical Christian household, and its echoes in our current political moment. A Tyee Q&A.

andrea bennett 20 Jun 2024The Tyee

andrea bennett is a senior editor at The Tyee and the author of Hearty: Essays on Pleasure and Subsistence, forthcoming with ECW Press.

Many of us — if we’re old enough — remember exactly where we were on the night Y2K arrived and we entered the 21st century. I was 16 and in Wasaga Beach, Ontario. The waves of Georgian Bay had frozen near the shore, and the ice closest to me cracked easily when I kicked with the toes of my boots. When the clock struck midnight, someone in town — perhaps the municipality itself — set off rounds of fireworks that rocketed into the night sky before bursting into colourful, expansive blooms.

The news, then, was full of worrisome reports that the world was due to face a cascading series of computer problems due to the fact that a lot of software used two digits, rather than four, to mark the year. But much had been done to combat that bug, and by the time I was standing on the beach, all I felt was a mild frisson of anxiety.

Over 4,000 kilometres west, in Smithers, B.C., author Carly Butler, then an adolescent, was facing a different, broader fear as midnight approached.

Butler, an only child raised by a single mother, had been brought up in a conservative Christian faith focused on the end times. They were convinced the apocalypse was coming — and soon. As soon as midnight, on Jan. 1, 2000.

This belief had led Butler’s mother to move from Montana to Canada, in search of an isolated rural property where they could raise animals and become self-sufficient. It meant Butler’s mother chose to home-school; it meant she sidestepped orthodontics for her daughter — who needs braces when the world is ending?

But of course, the world did not end at midnight on Jan. 1, 2000. Instead, that date marked the moment when doubt began to creep in for Butler. Her memoir, Apocalypse Child, traces her childhood in conservative evangelical Christianity, and the shift in her beliefs through adolescence and adulthood. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Tyee: Your mom chose for your family many of the hallmarks of Christian conservatism we’re seeing again now: home-schooling, naturopaths, distrust of government and investment in gold. I’m wondering: is our current political moment feeling a bit like déjà vu for you?

Carly Butler: It does feel like déjà vu. I started noticing in 2016, when Canadians were getting invested in the U.S. election and we were seeing a rise in Christian evangelicalism turned nationalism that was taking up more ground and building more speed. I think people were becoming more aware these ideas really meshed together.

In 2020, with the global pandemic — that really threw me for a loop. I’d told myself I made it through childhood, I’m married, I have children. I’d tried to be present in that life and trust that it was safe to fully invest myself. And then the world as it was did end.

I've lost a lot of friends and connections. I was still somewhat connected to the church community that I grew up with and that I write about in the book. And then the election of Trump happens, and the 2020 pandemic happens, and I start hearing people say, well, you know, this is all part of God's plan, or we have our God-given human rights to keep meeting in church or to fight back against wearing a mask.

It was becoming more and more vocal that people were aligning their Christianity with looking out for No. 1 rather than protecting vulnerable community members, or being community-minded.

It's been a huge shift in my life. I’ve dug through the beliefs that I grew up with and asked: What is actually true? And what do I actually believe in? What values do I want to raise my children with?

What do you think those of us who were not raised this way should understand about this kind of theology, and how it impacts our culture and politics?

I've already had quite a few people who didn't grow up that way who are questioning me, asking, what is this even about? Where does this come from? Why do people think this way? And I'm still learning and unlearning so many things.

But it seems to me that the common denominator, the root of so much of these beliefs, is fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of being wrong, fear of the afterlife. There's so much at stake. The idea that if I don't live in this exact right way that this deity or this book is telling me to, then when I die, I'm going to hell.

There's a deeper belief, something called eternal conscious torment. And that is where you believe that you're in hell, and you are fully aware of your surroundings, and you feel everything as a human soul. And so that is deeply traumatizing — and deeply motivating, to make sure that you are living according to this exact set of rules. So that you don't end up there. And it doesn't matter who you harm in the process, necessarily, because, well, those people weren't God's chosen people, right?

A lot of Christian people who are afraid of God, or afraid of where they're going to end up if they don't live right, seek to gain as much power as they can. They want to be in government, they want to be in schools, they want to be an influence of some kind, to spread the word to as many people as possible. In schools and in government, this means enacting laws that are Christian-based laws. You view it as: God is watching you do this and He is saying, this is what pleases me. Some Christians even use language like “take the land back for Christ.” Or “take the nation back for Christ.”

And that's kind of how it has been from the beginning. America and Canada were taken for Christ, right? Five hundred years ago, they took the land for the king and for God and the Pope, and they didn't care who they harmed in the process. They believed that they had a right to it.

I'm seeing the fruit of a lot of seeds that I saw planted when I was a kid. And I didn't know what those things were. I just thought that was normal.

I was really struck by the fact that even as some of the religious beliefs you were raised with caused you intense anxiety and religious trauma, it was also members of your church community that helped you over some pretty significant hurdles — seeking education and stable housing, completing important government paperwork — as you began to make a life for yourself as a young adult. Does that feel like a tension or contradiction to you? How do you make sense of those two halves of a whole, looking back?

One of the main families that I'm thinking of were American originally and moved to Canada later on. They had been through the paperwork process, and I think they knew that if something happened to me, I would be in real trouble. Even if I broke my arm I wouldn't be able to just go to the emergency room and take care of it. Because I had no money, I had no doctor, I had no CareCard. I had nothing.

I criticize the church as a whole for those beliefs that I grew up with, and that I'm seeing still now, but there are pockets of people that genuinely do want to help others. They might think that this way that they're being taught is the best way. They might do some things out of ignorance. They might do some things out of a genuine desire to help. And those people, I have found, I can still stay connected to even today because they have always maintained an open-heartedness, and maybe more of a posture of willing to be wrong about something, or willing to learn something new about someone that's different from them.

There's a whole term and journey that describes those of us who have left evangelical Christianity. It’s called deconstruction; that’s kind of the buzzword for people who leave the church or are sorting through their faith and their beliefs and deciding, “Am I going to hold on to this or let it go?” That's been happening a lot, a lot more in the North American and Canadian church groups that I've seen.

My whole journey has been about learning how to hold everyone and every situation with nuance. I don't see people as 100 per cent good and 100 per cent evil. I think we're all capable of good and of harm. I think those people from my church really cared about me and really wanted to help me and for me that has reinforced the idea that people are complicated. They are capable of holding an ideology that really harms a lot of people. And they're also capable in the same hand of doing good and something that helps somebody else.

I’m a Libra. I’m always looking for balance and nuance. I know that two things can be true at once.

Talking about deconstruction reminds me of the Leaving Eden podcast, which is co-hosted by a woman who left the Independent Fundamental Baptist church, and now sort of unpacks a lot of the concepts and themes she was raised with.

I think it's becoming more and more prevalent that people are talking about the way that they grew up. And these stories are becoming more and more — not trendy, I don't want to diminish it, but just more popular. It's kind of contagious. Someone gets bold enough to speak out, and then it starts spreading to other people.

It’s an interesting moment. There were some really conservative Christian families who opted for the spotlight via TV shows, like the Duggars, as a way of spreading their message in a not super-explicit way. Like: It’s so great! We have so many children. Don’t, uh, pay attention to the Quiverfull movement part. But now some of those kids are adults themselves, and they have their own agency and they’re writing memoirs from their perspectives.

All these home-school families that are like, we need to have as many kids as possible to make little soldiers in the army of the Lord — statistically, about 17 per cent of people are probably queer. I'm very curious about how many out of 19 kids... maybe a decade from now we’ll know even more about that story.

For the Duggars, you’ve got grown-up kids writing a book, and one grown-up kid in prison. Someone might choose to take all that harm that was done to them and harm somebody else.

I just hope for all of the truth to come to light in those families and for people to leave if they need to, and tell the truth and tell their story and heal somehow. Because, yeah, just sitting in that trauma and not actually dealing with it is going to create more cycles of harm. That's something that I'm really passionate about.

In another iteration of a memoir that shared some of the same narrative details as Apocalypse Child, your mother could come across as a bit of a villain. But she really doesn’t in this book. I think that’s a testament to your clear-eyed love for her, and also to her as a complex person, a determined single mother and someone who really seemed to listen to you and respect you as your own person. It can be tricky to balance the way we know someone in real life to the way we capture them as a character in a memoir. Could you talk a bit about the process of depicting her?

That was probably the toughest part. I used to think that I was going to have to water down the story, or I was going to have to wait until she had passed away. And then I would feel free to tell everything.

But a huge part of my growth and my healing was letting go of my mom as God in my life. Because that's who she was to me. She was my only parent, and my only authority figure once she took me out of school. We didn’t even always go to church, because she said, well, they’re not preaching the right things, and we just need to study and listen to God at home. She was very much the only person in my life that I listened to and that I believed. I never thought that she might be wrong about something.

The last 20 years has been me detangling all of that. And seeing her as a human. Not as God.

There are plenty of stories that I wrote about my mom that I personally can't picture ever doing myself as a mom. But that's probably because I don't believe those same things anymore. And I think if you really believe something — if you really believe that your child is in danger, or you really believe that God is telling you you need to do this, what wouldn't you do for your kid? Even if everyone else thinks you're crazy. It ended up being that her desire to protect me from everything exposed me to a lot of other negative things, and that was never her intention, obviously. But that was the impact.

My true desire was to show her not only in the tough times, but also to show that she loves music, she loves to laugh, she loves to read a good story, she loves to create homes out of nothing. She's such a creative mind. And I got a lot of those good qualities from her.

I wasn't trying to make her the bad guy. The bad guy I see is the ideology.

When my mom did read the book, she read it in one sitting. She told me she was really proud of me and even expressed some regret. She hasn't changed the beliefs that she has, but she regretted the way that she handled some things.

It's so lovely to see your full self unfurl over the course of the book, as you let yourself believe perhaps you do have a future — perhaps the world isn’t ending. One of the things you learn about yourself, or accept about yourself, is your bisexuality. I think sometimes in moments of intense political polarization, like right now, anything that can be chucked into a box labelled “identity politics” is treated as something extra, the icing on the cake, rather than a core pillar of political struggle. What do you make of that position?

People call it identity politics, but by marginalizing those identities, you've automatically made them political. Our liberation only comes through resistance and standing up for ourselves. And to do that, we have to find each other and organize. Everything is also incremental. One day you're telling somebody, “Who cares about pronouns,” and then a little further down the road, you can't have books in schools about a kid that has two dads or two moms.

For me, it's inherently political. Some people just think we shouldn't exist at all. That's a political statement. And so even if all you can do safely is put your pronouns in your email, bio or whatever, that's still important. Like, this is who I am. And I'm being public about this. And if you can't even see me as a human, or talk to me about the bigger issues, because I have pronouns in my bio, then you have a bigger issue, right? It’s undermining to simply call it identity politics.  [Tyee]

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