Friday, February 6, 2015

Review of Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment

In October of last year, I ordered freelance journalist Janet Heimlich's 2011 book, Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment from  I'm not sure what prompted me to read this book.  I might have heard about it on the Recovery from Mormonism message board or I might have seen it being suggestively sold on Amazon.  It looked like the kind of book that would interest me, given my educational background.  I finally got around to reading it and finished it last night.

So what constitutes religious maltreatment?  Excessive corporal punishment, shunning, terrorizing children with tales of doom and gloom, sexual abuse, isolation, and withholding affection could all be classified as maltreatment in any arena.  Heimlich applies them to religious groups.  She interviewed many victims, religious leaders, perpetrators, and experts as she covered her topic in Breaking Their Will.  I noticed that Heimlich seemed to take pains in not being offensive with her discussions.  I certainly understand that, given how sensitive people can be about religion.  At the same time, she effectively conveys the idea that religious abuse should not be tolerated.  

Heimlich discusses specific cases of religious child maltreatment.  For instance, she writes about sick children whose parents chose to pray for them rather than seek competent medical care.  She covers exorcisms carried out in children whom religious authorities felt needed to have the "devil beaten out of them".  She writes about female circumcision and proponents of corporal punishment, like Michael and Debi Pearl, authors of To Train Up A Child.

Breaking Their Will is a well-researched and rather conversational book about children who are abused by religious groups.  Given my interest in religion, this was relevant reading for me.  Heimlich researched a huge variety of groups-- everyone from fundamentalist Baptists intent on "training up" their children with corporal punishment to Muslims and Orthodox Jews.  Heimlich's book is very comprehensive and readable.  Although she definitely did her homework in her look at religious child maltreatment, she also managed to keep her writing from becoming overly dry and academic.  As a former student, I appreciated that very much.   

I did think Breaking Their Will was perhaps a bit too broad in its focus.  There are so many religions in the world and at times I felt like Heimlich might have bitten off more than she could chew.  However, I think she was brave to write this book because religion is one of those areas where people tend to tread very lightly in order to avoid offending others.  There is no question that a lot of children have been harmed or even killed in the name of religion.  Just visiting a message board like RfM on any given day will turn up multiple stories from people who suffer the damaging effects of religion forced on them during their childhood.  Check and you'll find many memoirs written by people who were negatively affected by religious upbringings.  So, for that reason, I think it's a great thing that Heimlich is addressing this issue with such a comprehensive book.

It took me awhile to get through Breaking Their Will.  It's not the kind of book that makes you want to turn pages because it's research dense, especially in the beginning.  I usually read before I fall asleep and I can say without hesitation that Heimlich's book was not one that kept me up at night.  However, if I were a student researching religious child maltreatment, I would count Breaking Their Will as a valuable and educational resource.  I think it's well worth reading if this subject area is of interest to you.  Heimlich writes well and really offers an expansive view of child abuse perpetrated in religious groups.

I'd give it four stars out of five.


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