2021, Convergent Books, New York

From the way, we celebrate Mother’s Day every year and as the celebration became as commercialized as Christmas, the assumption would be all mothers are kind, loving, and nurturing. Unfortunately, not all mothers are saints.

In this shocking memoir, Philip Yancey reveals disturbing events about his childhood and growing up years. The book started with the death of his father, a fundamentalist pastor, from poliomyelitis which was a pandemic at that time. Yancey’s father was on an iron lung in the hospital as polio had paralyzed his respiratory muscles. In accordance with his belief, Yancey’s father discharged himself from the hospital and removed the iron lung believing in divine healing. He died, leaving behind a young widow with two very young sons.

The family fell into hard times. For many years, they lived in a trailer and were considered ‘white trash’ by the racially biased South. The mother supported the family by offering bible study in their very Southern Fundamentalism church. She also brought up her sons in that strict and rigid tradition. We were given glimpses of these fundamentalist churches in Yancey’s books such as “Where is God when it hurts”, “What’s so amazing about Grace”, and “Church: Why Bother”. In this book, Yancey went in-depth into various events, pain, and suffering in his own life that he hinted about in his other books.

Memories can be malleable with time. Two incidents seem to stand out in this memoir. The first is that after the funeral the young widow laid face down over the freshly filled earth over her husband’s grave and ‘gave her two sons to God’. Due to her strict unyielding Southern Fundamentalist way of parenting, she was estranged from both her sons. In hindsight, she tried to form her sons in her image instead of in God’s. The elder son became a rebel, especially against authority. The younger son, Philip, withdrew into a shell. The second incident occurs when the elder son decided against her wishes to leave their Fundamentalist bible college to study at Wheaton College (which she thought was liberal). Apparently she ‘cursed’ her son for defying her and prayed that God will break his elder son and make him lose his mind.

This curse remained in the background of the narrative. Like many young persons from a repressed religious home background, the elder son adopted a countercultural life in college. It was the era of the hippie movement in which he embraced free sex, alcohol, music, and LSD. He had a meltdown and became suicidal. The elder son continued to live a broken life with bouts of alcoholism, and two failed marriages. He left the Christian faith. The mother and son were not able to reconcile for more than twenty years. An unspoken question in Yancey’s narrative is what kind of a mother will curse her son?

Philip Yancey survived her mother and their church to become a bestselling author on suffering and grace. This book gave a disturbing glimpse of what he lived through and what birthed his books and writings. Parents play an important role in shaping the character and faith of their children. What Yancey has shared with us in this book is what a domineering mother with a toxic religion can do to her children.

Alex Tang

09 May 2022