The Independent (England), Apr. 20, 2003
Rebecca Stott grew up in the Exclusive Taylorite Brethren, a fundamentalist Biblical sect that kept the 20th century at bay. Until, that is, a spectacular scandal opened up their world.
My daughter, Hannah, glimpsed the Brethren family on the ferry to Staffa before I did: a small group of men, women and children pressed against the glass like us, shielding their eyes from the same bright sun. Hannah can spot a Brethren family in any crowd. They look anachronistic, like the Amish: the men in short-sleeved shirts with no ties, the women and girls with long, uncut hair down their backs, headscarves tied at the back of their necks. “Look, there’s some of your people, Mummy – why don’t you go and say hello?”
These had been “my people” once, members of the Exclusive Taylorite Brethren, the austere fundamentalist sect in which I had been raised. But no, I explained to Hannah, I wouldn’t be going over to say hello, though without doubt they would know my name, and remember my father, grandfather and grandmother. For a few strange moments, as one of the women glanced towards my family I felt an odd stirring of shame, suddenly able to see “us” through her eyes: “worldly” would be her judgement.
I was sitting correcting proofs for my book on Charles Darwin. For the Brethren woman Darwin was, as he had been for me as a child, one of the “instruments of Satan”, because his science questioned the sacred truth of the creation story. I wore no wedding ring, my arms were bare and my head uncovered. My daughters were dressed in bright colours, trousers low, revealing sun-tanned bellies. Everything on our table – the children’s books and pop CDs, the copy of The Independent – were worldly. Yes, I was worldly; so were my children.
This family on the Staffa ferry probably had Brethren roots going back to the 19th century, as did my own. The first leader, John Nelson Darby, had preached in the late 1820s that all the established churches were compromised by “worldliness”. His solution of withdrawal made splintering endemic as Brethren numbers grew.
I was born into the most extreme group, the Taylorite Brethren, in the early 1960s. There were thousands of us, in Britain and overseas. While free love and drugs made the West ever more worldly, the Brethren withdrew further. They already banned radio, television, cinema, theatre, trade union membership, cosmetics and jewellery. Now – under the leadership of the American Jim Taylor Jr – Brethren were no longer allowed to eat with outsiders and could not belong to professional associations or attend universities. Eventually holidays, wristwatches, mirrors and domestic pets were forbidden. Brethren women had never been allowed to cut their hair but now they had to wear it loose down their backs, with a small headscarf. Families moved to detached houses in the suburbs.
In the Brighton suburbs, my family attended the Meeting Room several times a week: a windowless building with barbed wire around its outer walls. Inside, the walls were plain; upholstered wooden benches were fixed to the floor in concentric circles. We children sat with the “sisters” on the outer circle for an hour at a time, several times on the “Lord’s Day”, listening to the “brothers preach” spontaneously about the nature of Grace or Mercy, their voices rising and falling in incantation. Women were always silent.
We were in the world but not of the world, we were told. And the headscarf marked that out. At primary school, I sat at a desk in the corridor outside the classroom more often than in it, because my parents had sent my teachers a list of all the lessons or books that I was not to hear. There was something about our old-fashioned clothes and the earnestness of our demeanour that meant my brothers and I were left alone by the other children, not taunted. Illicit overheard conversations in the playground – about television programmes, holidays, cinema – gave glimpses of life “out there”.
Where lapses of faith or practice were found, the guilty party would be withdrawn, splitting families. A man in Andover, Roger Panes, was “shut up” in 1973 and, under a process outlined in Leviticus to treat leprosy, prevented from seeing his wife and children for weeks. Locked in his own house, told that Satan was working away inside his head, he lost his mind. The postman saw his suspended feet through the letterbox. He had axed his wife and three daughters to death before he hanged himself. His suicide note read: “There has never been such a wicked man … bulldoze the house.”
But Brethren suburbia was not joyless. Between Meetings on the Lord’s Day we visited other families in fellowship in Horsham, Tunbridge Wells, Crawley, Haywards Heath. Brethren families are large and family life rich and full. I remember walking in bright, manicured gardens, playing ball games, being taken to see fields of beehives and seeing a shadow theatre in a hay barn in Kent put on by a group of Brethren teenage boys. “Giving thanks” at Brethren dining tables often took several minutes: there was always so much to say.
Mention of “the Rapture” made Brethren eyes moisten. Brethren life is lived in anticipation of the moment when Christ will return to take his people heavenwards, before Armageddon descends to finish off all the non-believers. At night, I listened for storms, news of wars in the Middle East, or plagues, or apparitions.
The trouble was that I was never convinced that I – or my brothers – would be good enough to go. And as the eldest sister I steeled myself for the worst scenario of all – the moment when my parents would disappear and we would all be left behind. I tried to work out how we would get backwards and forwards to school, cook, shop and eat without the neighbours noticing and sending for the social services. I never questioned that I would have to keep my brothers and myself “out of the world”. In a story by Enid Blyton that I read illicitly at school, about a group of children who survive on an island for months without being spotted, I marked out all the passages about storing food, keeping undercover, using camouflage and never lighting fires. I was six.
When Jim Taylor Jr was caught out in a sexual scandal after a day of public drunkenness in 1970 my parents “came out” along with 8,000 other Brethren. We lived a few years in a diluted form of Brethrenism, then the headscarves were put away and I was allowed to cut my long and heavy hair.
By the late Seventies, my father had lost his faith and the family business but he had also discovered a passion for the world, for literature, film, theatre – and roulette. He brought home expensive radio and TV sets – the biggest he could find – and one spring afternoon he took us to see Gone with the Wind. No reassurances on his part could take away the thrill and horror of walking into Satan’s territory with its red velvet seats and curtains. Through the cinema and out into the world – like Alice through the looking glass. Except there was no way back and I wasn’t looking for one.
Fundamentalism leaves infinitely different imprints on children, I suspect. Edmund Gosse wrote of his Victorian Brethren childhood in Father and Son: “I was like a plant on which a pot had been placed, my centre was crushed and arrested, while distorted shoots were struggling up to the light on all sides.”
But some children flourish. I am not now a Christian in any sense that the Brethren would recognise, but I wouldn’t exchange much of that childhood. We learned to read reading some of the most beautiful and suggestive prose in the English language; we learned to daydream through long hours of meetings, without a twitch of a muscle to give ourselves away; we became accustomed to a world full of unexplainable presences and intercessions; we asked big questions. Moving from one world to another taught me a healthy scepticism about claims to absolute truth. I came to see that a radio was just a radio – sometimes what you heard was true, sometimes not and usually somewhere in between. And I came to suspect Charles Darwin wasn’t the instrument of Satan after all, just a little man with a great idea.
Darwin and the Barnacle’ by Rebecca Stott is published by Faber & Faber, pounds 14.99