Q&A with Jennifer Mathieu, author of Devoted
Jennifer Mathieu, author of The Truth About Alice, has a new book published. Think Duggar clan, crossed with Escape from Alcatraz, and you’ll get the idea. Devoted is a book about just that: a family with complete and utter devotion to an all-powerful God, (or, in this case, the men who preach God’s word), and the one daughter (out of 10 children) who longs to escape the pressure of docile, unquestioned conformity. Rachel Walker, the 17-year-old protagonist, loves God with all her heart, but she can’t seem to reconcile her beliefs with the hypocrisies she witnesses around her. Devoted explores her quest for a broader worldview in a community hell bent on mute acceptance, and the consequences for questioning man-appointed authority.
(For a review of Devoted, click here: http://www.greatreads4teens.com/?p=1275)
Questions and Answers with Jennifer Mathieu, author of Devoted.
How did you come up with the idea for Devoted? Were you in any way inspired by the TLC show 19 Kids and Counting, a reality television show about the religious Duggar family from Arkansas with 19 children?
I [did come] up with the idea from watching the show. Honestly, I started watching it at first as more of a novelty [and] when it became clear to me that they had very strong religious beliefs that influenced their lifestyle, I went online and started researching more about it. For reasons I’m not sure of, the Duggar family has shunned the label Quiverfull, but many, many aspects of their lifestyle match this movement, which is a subculture of Christianity. It’s sometimes called the Christian Patriarchy movement, and the movement’s central belief is that by having many children, Christians are spreading the word of God and building an army for Christ, essentially. I became fascinated by this movement – I’ve always taken an interest in extremes in religion. I did a ton of research just because I was interested in it, and then I decided I wanted to set a story in this world.
Did you glean any specific situations/issues from the show?
No, but I got a sense of the lifestyle from watching many episodes. I was able to get in touch with and interview several young women who grew up Quiverfull, and one or two of their stories made it into my book – specifically the scene where Rachel is reprimanded because her bra straps are visible through her shirt. That really did happen to one woman I interviewed. I stopped watching the Duggars as I was writing this book because it became too depressing. I heard too many sad stories from the women I was interviewing. Of course now [the Duggars] are in the middle of a huge scandal and the show has been pulled off the air. My heart breaks for the victims, and I’m saddened but not surprised that they never received real counseling. The world of Quiverfull believes that issues like sexual abuse can be addressed with prayer alone and that problems like these should be addressed “in house” by pastors and church elders, even if they have no training or real knowledge on how to deal with these issues. It’s very disheartening and disturbing.
I’m not familiar with Quiverfull; is Rachel’s community a close liking to it?
Yes, Rachel’s family is an extreme version of the Quiverfull movement. If you study the movement, you’ll find it’s a continuum of sorts, with the central belief being that birth control should be shunned and couples should actively try to have as many children as possible – not even natural forms of birth control like natural family planning are allowed. Advocates of the Quiverfull lifestyle also believe in strict and traditional gender roles for men and women, and many Quiverfull families homeschool and attempt to live debt free. It’s important to note that Quiverfull is not a denomination but more a subculture within Christianity as a whole.
I find it interesting that Rachel is the only child who doesn’t appear to be a “blind follower.” She points out the hypocrisy in religion (and the Bible) on several occasions. Why do you think she is different from her siblings who were raised in the same community/church/house (other than to give the story a plot, that is)? What makes Rachel so open-minded?
It’s difficult to know what makes a personality type. In my own life, I was the questioner, always pushing back on the religious teachings of my youth, but my younger sister never did. Maybe we were just born different? I do think some of Rachel’s way of being comes from being an extensive reader – as much as she can be a reader in her home. Her natural curiosity and search for knowledge – even in her old encyclopaedias – broaden her worldview just enough that she wants to and does ask questions. She just can’t help it.
Were you raised in a religious household?
Yes, I was. I was raised Roman Catholic and went to Catholic school for 13 years. While my childhood was probably more religious than most and we were pretty observant, I must say my parents always encouraged me to question things. While I still feel a connection to my childhood faith, I currently attend a progressive Lutheran church, but not regularly. I pray and have a relationship with God, and I believe we have a lot to learn from the life of Jesus Christ.
What do you think about #CropTopDay and the current uproar over appropriate dress and body shaming?
I love this question because it connects to Devoted in that Quiverfull culture is, one could argue, “obsessed” with bodies and modesty. I read and heard countless stories of former Quiverfull girls and women who were shamed for their bodies, including one young woman who was forced to wear her seatbelt incorrectly because her father thought the seatbelt cutting across her chest accentuated her large breasts. Ridiculous! I don’t understand this obsession with women’s bodies and covering women’s bodies, especially when – as is the case for Rachel – it is being done in the name of “helping” men not lust over women, as if men are so helpless and out of control that seeing a woman’s breasts makes them crazy with desire. I believe we humans can see other humans and appreciate each other’s bodies or even be attracted to each other’s bodies and still control those feelings and behave appropriately. Of course, I do believe we want to be respectful [in our choice of clothing] of situations and places, but why all the fuss over a young woman’s navel or shoulders? It’s absurd.
What sorts of reactions have you received about Devoted?
The reactions have honestly been overwhelmingly positive and I am so glad. I have been hearing from a lot of people who were very nervous about reading the book. Religious people thought I was going to bash religion and nonreligious people were leery of reading anything having to do with the topic. But fortunately, people from all sorts of backgrounds are finding Rachel’s story interesting and are telling me I have treated a complex story with nuance and sensitivity. I’m really touched. The best reactions have come from former Quiverfull women who helped me with my story – they have said I have done their stories justice without being exploitative or insensitive. That means so much – more than any trade review.
What hopes do you have for your readers?
Well, my goal as a writer is to create a captivating story for the reader that they don’t want to put down and that they remember for a long time after finishing! Beyond that, I would love for readers to be inspired by Rachel’s story and her bravery. Perhaps she will inspire them to ask themselves the big questions and live life authentically.