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In Fleeing Fundamentalism: A Minister's Wife Examines Faith, Cross looks back at the life that led her to marry a charismatic young man, handsome and articulate, who appeared destined for greatness as a minister within the fundamentalist church. Their marriage, which began with great hope and promise, started to crumble when she realized that her husband had fallen victim to the same demons that had plagued his youth.


Publishers Weekly: The religion depicted in this absorbing memoir of falsehood and betrayal is fundamentalism gone berserk.

Kirkus Reviews: A brave memoir.... Eloquent without self-pity.... A long, fraught journey into the light, chronicled with compassion and spirit.


Carlene Cross lives in Seattle, Washington, where she has worked as a college counselor and a producer for public television. She holds a degree in religious studies from Big Sky Bible College, as well as a BA in history and an MA in communications history from the University of Washington.


I phoned Carlene Cross at her office in Seattle during the tail end of a three-day wintry blast of snow and cold, more usual to her childhood home in Montana than to the rainy Northwest. "Could you tell me a little bit about the ranch where you grew up?" "It was a 5000-acre cattle ranch in northwestern Montana, south of Kalispell. My mother kept a garden. We had some horses. We did hay and wheat and harvested all those things.

"I went to Hot Springs High School, with a graduating class of 25."

"Were the other ranchers fundamentalists?"

"No. The people we lived around weren't very religious then, and they aren't to this day. They are very pragmatic and pretty down to earth. All of this fundamentalist stuff just doesn't play with them."

"How did you come to join the fundamentalist movement?"

"My only experience with religion as a child was with Daily Vacation Bible School, and that was only one week out of the year, during the summer. When I got into high school, my mother began reading the end-times prophecy books of Hal Lindsey. She would talk to us about the Rapture and that Jesus was going to come back. I think I came to Christianity more out of fear of being left behind than anything else.

"My mother's desire was that my brother and I go off to Bible College."

"Where is Big Sky Bible College?"

"It doesn't exist anymore. It was an old army base up in the mountains near Lewistown, in the middle of Montana. The government built it in the '50s as a training center for the army.

"There were 250 students when I went there. It was about half male, half female. It's curious to me that so many girls would go to Bible College, because they wouldn't teach women to be preachers or leaders of any kind. I hate to say it, but girls were there to find a husband and to become a minister's wife or a missionary's wife."

"What was the curriculum like?"

"There were a few English classes and a few music classes, but everything else was the study of the Bible, which was really disappointing later on, because the school was unaccredited and I had to start all over."

"What did students do for recreation?"

"They had parties on campus. We had a student union building. Kids would congregate there or play basketball in the gym. A lot of energy was spent being in choir and learning music, too."

"Was dancing frowned upon?"

"Oh, there was absolutely no dancing! We would go into town and go bowling, but that was it. I don't think anyone ever went to a movie, because that was off limits. Mainly we went bowling and ate pizza."

During her freshman year at Big Sky Bible College, Ms. Cross met her future husband, David.

"He was a legend on campus. He was very handsome, had a 4.0 GPA, and was student-body president. He was a great basketball player, and he was the person that everyone wanted to be like. I was in awe of him. He was starting his senior year at the time I was a freshman."

"Looking back on that time, were there any indications of the future problems he would have?"

"Even early on, he was very possessive. We started dating, and then he graduated and came to Seattle to work at Boeing while I finished up. If I mentioned that I had even had a conversation with a guy on campus, he would get angry.

"He was a big fish in a little pond in college, and then he came and worked at Boeing as a machinist's helper, and he was incredibly depressed."

After she graduated, Ms. Cross and David married, and he took a position as a minister in a small fundamentalist church near Seattle. "What was your daily life like as a minister's wife?"

"I attended all of the services, taught women's Bible study, taught children's church, home-schooled the children, and entertained. I was expected to teach the doctrines of the church and to tow the party line.

"At Bible College we were given classes on what it was like to be a good minister's wife. Then, after we were married, we would go to these pastors' and wives' conferences, and they would talk about how, exactly, to act."

"Did the church expect you to entertain and foot the bill for it, or did you get an allowance?"

"We were expected to entertain. Our salary was $1200 a month, in the 1980s, with three kids. We would meet new people on Sunday, and David would introduce himself and try to pull them into the church. Every Friday night we would have four or five couples to dinner. I had books and books of recipes where you could make a diner for five or six couples really cheaply. We had a lot of lasagna and Chicken Divine.

"We lived in the parsonage and didn't pay rent, so I suppose that's why they expected so many social events. The house was always open to everyone. Young kids would come through the house on Sunday mornings to go to the bathroom, and everyone felt like the parsonage was their property. As a farm kid growing up in Montana, we had lots of privacy. It was hard for me to move into a place where I had no solitude."

The Cross' marriage became increasingly strained, and David finally confessed to having an addiction to strip clubs.

"That evening, when he came home and confessed and I actually realized what was going on, it was so devastating. I was totally blindsided. I had no idea he had been living this double life.

"When guys like Tim Haggard and Jimmy Swaggart were found out, I know a lot of people thought, 'God, didn't their wives have any idea?' But these personality types are so used to pulling the wool over people's eyes and presenting a perfect image to the public, they are able to pull it off."

With promises of reform and a renewed commitment to their marriage, David insisted that they begin socializing with select couples from the church. Evenings in Seattle drinking and dancing led to late night hot-tubbing and increasingly risqué behavior. Eventually, David resumed his visits to strip clubs, and the marriage dissolved.

"Where did he find the money for strip clubs and drinking?"

"That was one of the things I was furious about. We were living off fumes, and I was doing everything I could just to pay the light bill. The second time I found out, I did so because I started watching the bank, and money would be missing. That is expensive stuff."

"Do you think there is a personality type that is more easily compelled toward or drawn into fundamentalism?"

"I think that fundamentalism offers closed systems and pat answers to very complicated questions. As such, it tends to appeal to people who want those pat answers -- to people who want a system that doesn't force them to struggle with those issues. The minister or the Bible tells them what to believe, and most of the time it's the minister's interpretation of the Bible that tells them exactly which path to take."

"What keeps so many people in the system once they start to see through the cracks?"

"It's fear, I think. You invest emotionally and socially in a system, and all of your friends and family are there. You can't say, 'You know, I don't really believe in that concept of hell anymore.' 'Well, you're out of here.'"

"How have fundamentalism and politics changed by having been married for 30 years?"

"Fundamentalism has had a distinct effect on politics. Back in the '80s when the Moral Majority first began, I was part of that movement. I think the success of what happened was beyond their wildest expectations. They helped put Ronald Reagan in office, but Reagan separated his religion from politics and policy. This last administration has not done that."

"Do you hold much hope that the role of women will change in fundamentalism?"

"I don't, because of their view of the Bible. If you approach the Bible as the literal word of God, it does say that. In I Corinthians 11 and 14, and II Timothy 2 and 9, it says that women are to be submissive. Women are not to speak in church. They are not to hold any roles of authority or leadership because they caused the downfall of mankind. Eve tempted Adam, and through Eve, sin came into the world. In Timothy, it actually says that women are easily deceived and that they are temptresses. It makes it out that women are not very bright and that when you are dealing with a woman, she's a temptress anyway."

"You seem to me to be the poster child for resilience."

"I think I always had a pretty solid idea of who I was as a person. I didn't have religion as a child, and I think for me that was my saving grace. I had a sense of the world apart from religious dogma as a child.

"Even though I did buy into it, there was always a part of myself I held back from this world view. As I matured and grew older, it seemed so angry and unloving to me. As I began to hear the condemnation of the gay community and the subjugation of women, it just didn't sound to me like the love of God."

"Do you still have contact with any of the people from your former life?"

"I gave the book to the woman named Susan, whom I write about. I was afraid that she would be furious, but she has been absolutely wonderful. She's been to several of my readings. She's still a Christian, but a much more liberal one. She left her abusive husband, Robert.

"There is one person that is very angry with me, I've heard through another friend. I knew there would be some who really couldn't take it. I understand that if you're reading about nude hot-tubbing in a book and if you were one of the participants, and maybe didn't want the whole world to know that you were nude hot-tubbing with the minister and his wife, you'd be upset."

Algonquin Books, 2006, 288 pages, $23.95

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