Girl at the End of the World: My Escape from Fundamentalism in Search of Faith with a Future

Girl at the End of the World: My Escape from Fundamentalism in Search of Faith with a Future

by Elizabeth Esther


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I was raised in a homegrown, fundamentalist Christian group—which is just a shorthand way of saying I’m classically trained in apocalyptic stockpiling, street preaching, and the King James Version of the Bible. I know hundreds of obscure nineteenth-century hymns by heart and have such razor sharp “modesty vision” that I can spot a miniskirt a mile away.

Verily, verily I say unto thee, none of these highly specialized skills ever got me a job, but at least I’m all set for the end of the world. Selah.

A story of mind control, the Apocalypse, and modest attire.

Elizabeth Esther grew up in love with Jesus but in fear of daily spankings (to “break her will”). Trained in her family-run church to confess sins real and imagined, she knew her parents loved her and God probably hated her. Not until she was grown and married did she find the courage to attempt the unthinkable. To leave.

In her memoir, readers will recognize questions every believer faces: When is spiritual zeal a gift, and when is it a trap? What happens when a pastor holds unchecked sway over his followers? And how can we leave behind the harm inflicted in the name of God without losing God in the process?

By turns hilarious and heartbreaking, Girl at the End of the World is a story of the lingering effects of spiritual abuse and the growing hope that God can still be good when His people fail.

Includes reading group discussion guide and interview with the author

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307731876
Publisher: The Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/18/2014
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 1,217,982
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.80(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Elizabeth Esther is a popular blogger and advocate who has appeared on shows such as Fox News and Anderson Cooper Live. Elizabeth and her husband, Matthew, live with their five children in Santa Ana, California.

Read an Excerpt


I am ready to die for Jesus. I am nine years old.

I clutch my little white Bible to my chest and step up on a plastic milk crate. Once again I’m ready to prove that I’m not ashamed of the gospel. If I can preach on this street corner and withstand the heckling of sinners, I’ll show everyone I’m ready to be a martyr for the Lord.

I swallow hard and try to smile. I tell myself that God speaks through the mouths of babies. And I’m not a baby. I’m nine.

“Praise the Lord!” I shout. Nobody looks at me. “Praise the Lord !” I shout again.


This flummoxes me. I’ve preached all over the United States with my parents—to tourists at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, gay-rights activists in San Francisco, and college students in Midwest university towns—but this Rhode Island crowd is the toughest. Maybe Dad is right: maybe the most hardhearted sinners are East Coast Catholic liberals. There is a bookstore nearby, and I redirect my sermon to the Brown
University students walking toward it. “I want to share with you the glorious message of our Lord Jesus Christ!”

Street-preaching tip: shout the name of Jesus, and people will look at you.

Suddenly, eyes are on me. I try to smile again—“Always look pleasant!” Mom says—but the East Coast humidity sits heavy on my shoulders like a hot, wet blanket. I feel smothered.

I glance at Dad, and he gives me a boisterous thumbs-up. He says there’s no greater honor than being persecuted for my faith. I want somebody to heckle me. Nothing would make my dad happier.

I open my Bible to the bookmarked spot and hold it open in front of me. I pretend to read the words aloud even though I know them from memory. In my family, preaching is a competitive sport. Before I was reading, I could rattle off the books of the Bible. By age five I could preach a three-point gospel message in one minute. Damnation to salvation in sixty seconds flat.

“In Romans 3:23, the Bible says, ‘For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’!” I shout.

Street-preaching tip: always use the phrase the Bible says to make your words sound as if they come straight from God. And always give ’em the bad news first, because until sinners understand how wicked they are and how desperately they need Jesus, they won’t repent.

“God sent his only begotten Son, Jesus, to die for our sins!” I glance at the gathering crowd and decide to ratchet it up a notch. “The Bible says it is appointed unto man once to die and then the judgment!”

A plain-faced woman with wiry gray hair is eating ice cream on a nearby street bench. I point my finger at her. “You might die today!”

She stops midlick and raises a curious eyebrow at me.

“But there’s good news! The Bible says the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord!’ ”

The woman shakes her head and looks away. I direct my last line at a few people standing around. “Please ask Jesus into your heart today!” I’m done. I step off the milk crate and dash to Mom, who is standing nearby holding a stack of Bible study invitations.

“Good job, Elizabeth,” Mom says and hands me some invitations.

“Now help me pass these out.”

Whenever we land in a new city to preach the gospel, Dad rents a house near a local university and then draws people to our home Bible study by holding these open-air preaching sessions and community outreaches. Our goal is to plant a new church in six weeks. I turn to hand out the invitations, but someone is yelling.

“Look here, man!” a lady shouts. “What you’re doing to your little girl is wrong!”

I turn to see the wiry-haired ice-cream lady standing in front of Dad, jabbing a finger in his face. “This is brainwashing!”

“Whoa, ma’am. Please calm down.” Dad has his hands up in a gesture of surrender.

“Don’t tell me to calm down! You’re not in charge of me!”

“Hey, hey. There’s no need to yell.” Dad chuckles, unruffled. “I’m more than happy to have a conversation with you. Would you like some cookies? Maybe a lemonade?” Dad gestures at Mom to serve something from the snacks we’ve set up on a card table.

The angry lady waves her off. “I don’t want any of your damned Kool-Aid ! I want you to listen to me for one goddamned minute.”

“Well, I’m afraid we can’t have a reasonable conversation if you insist on yelling and using foul language,” Dad replies, crossing his arms over his chest. He leans back on his heels and smiles benignly. I clutch Mom’s skirt.

The woman glances at me and then lowers her voice a notch. She leans toward Dad. “Look,” she growls, “it’s fine for you to have your religion. But sticking your little girl up there on a stage and making her yell at people? That’s wrong! You’re teaching her to manipulate people through fear. You’re brainwashing her!”

Dad raises his eyebrows, but his voice remains calm. “With all due respect, you don’t know me or my daughter. There’s no way you can prove what you’re saying.”

“I don’t need to prove anything to you!” the woman snaps. “I know abuse and manipulation when I see it. I should report you to Child Protective Services!”

“Well, we’ve got nothin’ to hide,” Dad says, still smiling. “And anyway, I can think of a lot worse things than being brainwashed to love Jesus!”

The lady spins on her heels and stalks away, muttering obscenities.

“May God richly bless ya!” Dad calls after her.

She whips back around, glares at Dad, and then looks directly at me. For one quick second, her face softens. Dad steps forward.

“Don’t be afraid to think for yourself!” she shouts before Dad blocks my view.

Mom claps her hands over my ears. But it’s too late. I already heard it. Don’t be afraid to think for yourself.

I don’t even know what that means.

I was raised in a homegrown, fundamentalist Christian group—which is just a shorthand way of saying I’m classically trained in apocalypse stockpiling, street preaching, and the King James Version of the Bible. I know hundreds of obscure nineteenth-century hymns by heart and have such razor-sharp “modesty vision” that I can spot a miniskirt a mile away.

Verily, verily I say unto thee, none of these highly specialized skills ever got me a job, but at least I’m all set for the End of the World. Selah. I was born in 1977, just a few years after my paternal grandfather, George Geftakys, began holding informal Bible studies in his living room. An insurance salesman and part-time preacher, he had never been officially ordained. He said the only requirement for serving God was “hearing the call of Jesus” and having the anointing of the Holy Spirit. True disciples of Christ didn’t need seminary or the approval of “hypocritical, organized religion” in order to do the Lord’s work. George Geftakys—known as Papa George to family—claimed his authority came straight from God. Which was just another way of saying he ordained himself. Conveniently, self-ordination also meant Papa George was the final authority on everything and answered to no one. Papa George was pretty much a prophet, priest, and king all rolled into one.

Still, he found a way to harness the Jesus Movement energy and create his own personal brand of Christianity. Our basic beliefs were similar to Baptists’ but with Papa George’s added emphasis on personal holiness, evangelism, and End of the World prophecy. From our grass-roots start as a Bible study in Papa George’s living room, The Assembly—as we came to be known—grew to include about fifty sister Assemblies throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, Europe, and Africa.

In the beginning, The Assembly was vibrant, energetic, and revolutionary. It was groovy. The social experimentation of the sixties had broken down the walls of tired old religion, and a new generation was falling in love with Jesus. Roaring out of Southern California like wildfire, the Jesus Movement upended traditional Christian denominations and challenged the religious establishment.

Empty, impersonal ritual was replaced with charismatic, personal experiences. Written prayers gave way to spontaneous individual expression of praise. Preachers like my grandfather insisted traditional churches had become false mediators and God was allowing an outpouring of the Holy Spirit in order to bring people back into direct contact with Jesus. Among those drawn by my grandfather’s charisma and Bible preaching was my mother, a beautiful debutante and former high school cheerleader.

She’d grown up in Baptist churches, but as a college freshman, she was looking for something different, something more real. She stumbled across a Bible study being held at California State University, Fullerton, and was immediately dazzled by Papa George’s fiery preaching. She also met my dad at that Bible study. He was Papa George’s younger son.

My parents were an unlikely pair. Dad was a college dropout; Mom was a straight-A student. He was gregarious and she was an introvert. Mom told me the first time she saw my dad he was wearing tattered army fatigues, huarache sandals, and—here Mom crinkled her nose in disgust—“he’d hitchhiked to the Bible study.”

But they fell in love over studying the Bible, all-night prayer meetings, and living “100 percent sold-out for Jesus.”

As Mom liked to say with a nostalgic sigh, “In the early days, we didn’t have anything but Jesus.” Not having anything but Jesus was what everyone always talked about when they reminisced about The Assembly’s early years. They fondly remembered being enthusiastic young college students in the early seventies, radically redefining  Christianity in a new, exciting way. They saw themselves as faith revolutionaries on the cusp of a huge revival, which would usher in the return of Jesus to Earth. Everyone was finding Jesus and getting saved, baptizing each other in the Pacific Ocean, getting married, and starting families.

Sometimes, when we were traveling across the United States preaching the gospel, my parents would get all flushed with Jesus fervor, clasp hands, and burst into hymns in two-part harmony. These wild preaching sessions were inevitably followed by noisy lovemaking in whatever cheap hotel room we were renting—with me plugging my ears and pretending to be asleep in the other bed.

It was all very exciting for them, I suppose. But as a child growing up in The Assembly, I had a far different experience.

As with most revolutions, the idealistic dream that had initially ignited our little band of born-again Christians gradually hardened into a rigid lifestyle. Ironically, by the mideighties, we had morphed to become nearly indistinguishable from the legalistic, organized religion we’d rejected in the first place.

What I remember most are the increasingly strict rules and the insular, fundamentalist traditions we developed. Papa George’s interpretation of the Bible was hyperliteral: he demanded complete and total loyalty—spiritualizing this conformity as “unity in Christ.” Children were spanked from six months old until they were teenagers. Women were required to dress very modestly and behave within strict gender roles. Everything, from how we ordered our daily schedules to our tone of voice, was monitored. The only person who wasn’t held accountable for anything was Papa George.

This is why, when people ask me why I call The Assembly a cult, I say it’s because we operated like one. Cults aren’t so much about beliefs as they are about methods and behavior. According to cult researchers, it is the emotional seizing of people’s trust, thoughts, and choices that identifies a cult. The Assembly wins on all counts.

Fundamentalism that becomes cultish destroys the God-given freedom of each person. Usually this is accomplished through fear. In my own experience, the most detrimental aspect of my childhood was our preoccupation with End of the World theology. Even though my grandfather was never quite certain whether Christians would be persecuted before or after the Rapture, the End of the World was coming soon, and we had to stay prepared.

Indeed, everything in our lives was oriented toward the End of the World. Thus, my parents never owned a home, never had a savings account, and never invested toward retirement. They didn’t save money to send me to college because planning for the future was irrelevant when there was no future. That’s why by age nine I had simply resigned myself to dying for Jesus.

“What’s brainwashing?” I ask.

Dad squats in front of me, his face a huge, beaming smile. “Oh, don’t you worry about that crazy feminist, Wiz,” he says, calling me by the nickname he’s had for me since I was a toddler. “Keep your eye on the prize; you just endured persecution. What a privilege! I bet you just earned yourself a huge crown of glory!”

Mom whispers something in Dad’s ear, and he shakes his head. “No, no. Don’t worry about that,” he says. “If the cops show up, I’ll tell them I was exercising my constitutional right to freedom of speech and some crabby feminist didn’t like it.”

Mom leans against Dad, and he winks at me. “Mama, how ’bout you go get Wiz some frozen lemonade? She’s earned it!” I feel relief wash over me. I’ve preached the gospel and suffered for Jesus. Dad and God are proud of me. If Dad is right about this whole being-persecuted-for-Jesus thing, I’ve just scored some major heavenly swag.

The adults in our fundamentalist church are forever fantasizing about what they’ll get in heaven: new bodies, mansions, and crowns of glory. Dad likes to say he wants beachfront property on the Crystal Sea. As Mom walks me to the frozen-lemonade shop, I dream about the heavenly prizes I’ve just won. I don’t dare say it aloud because Mom will scold me for desiring “things of this world,” but if I’m being honest, all I really want is a television, a Happy Meal, and a Christmas Barbie.

Table of Contents

Part 1

1 Brainwashed 3

2 Apocalypse Prep 101 11

3 Christian Commune 20

4 Grand Masters of My Destiny 30

5 Bible Boot Camp 35

6 Love Is Patient, Love Is Violent 39

7 School at the End of the World 46

8 Left Behind 52

Part 2

9 High School Is Where the Sinners Are 61

10 God Knows If You're Wearing a Thong 70

11 An Escape Plan 78

12 Cult Girl in Love 88

13 Surrendering to God and Man 101

14 Thought Virgin 116

15 The Selfer's Prayer 125

16 Will the Cycle Be Unbroken? 135

Part 3

17 A Break That Heals 145

18 Do I Have to Like Oprah? 151

19 Independent Distributor for Jesus 159

20 Religious PTSD 167

21 If You Can't Find Jesus, Look for His Mother 176

22 I Am Not Afraid 185

Author's Note 193

Discussion Questions 194

A Conversation with the Author 197

Acknowledgments 212

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Girl at the End of the World: My Escape from Fundamentalism in Search of Faith with a Future 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
dgregoryburns More than 1 year ago
"Girl At The End Of The World" chronicles the author's life in – and ultimate escape from – "The Assembly" – a homegrown, hyper-fundamentalist Christian sect which her grandfather, George Geftaky, organized in 1970. The sect ultimately spread to encompass 50-Assembly "churches" around the world before the "church" broke up in 2003 when severe moral failures on  Geftaky’s part were uncovered, and the group's strange cult like practices were revealed. Elizabeth Esther was born into this clan and oppressive situation in 1977 – a period when the cult was growing more inflexible and legalistic in its spiritual ideas. Esther describes why "The Assembly" was a cult and gives us a compelling insider’s glimpse at what it was like to be reared in a  Christian cult – the long-term consequences it has had on her – how she originally came to understand she was being brainwashed and what it ultimately took for her to cut herself free of her bondage – and the emotional and spiritual trials she still grapples with today. The book also includes thought-provoking  questions and an interview with the writer. It is both tragic and heartbreaking to read accounts about life-long child abuse. That sadness and terror are amplified when child  abuse happens in the name of a loving God, by seemingly devoted parents, who endlessly twist a child’s understanding of what real love, genuine spirituality and trustworthy relationship with a trustworthy and caring God is all about. "Girl at the End of the World" does not leave out the particulars regarding what living was as in "The Assembly" – Esther does not  linger over graphic parts. Rather, she inspires us with her keen banter and her strong sense of humor, even in the darkest of times. As a consequence, once you start reading you will find it tough to put the book down – and you may well find yourself desiring to  re-read it as she leaves you with a lot to consider  when it comes to matters of faith and salvation. Esther's memoir is a tale of her gallant effort to live a life that thoroughly displays the God-given liberty that all of us are born with.
AnnetteOC More than 1 year ago
You might be familiar with the name of Elizabeth Esther. Anyone scouring the internet for information about authoritarian cults, the “quiverfull” movement, courtship and betrothal, modest dressing, and patriarchy in general would likely come across her name, although she was never really part of the homeschooling movement. Elizabeth Esther has spoken out a lot about authoritarian cults and the Pearl method of child abuse…er, discipline. During the brief time I read her blog, I was curious about her personal experience with the things she criticized. Perhaps she was waiting for a better time to share her story, such as now. Presenting Girl at the End of the World: My Escape from Fundamentalism in Search of Faith with a Future (Convergent Books, 2014): This brief memoir tells of the author’s childhood, marked by brainwashing, humiliation, and physical and emotional abuse disguised as discipline. The Assembly is a cult that demands complete allegiance, and as the granddaughter of its founder George Geftaky, the pressure to be perfect was overwhelming. She found comfort in inflicting severe punishments on her cat, became addicted to masturbation, and developed a case of what appears to be obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Most would agree, that’s one messed up childhood. However, unlike many a cult member in history, we might say Elizabeth Esther was extremely fortunate. Having the benefit of a somewhat sympathetic mother, she had educational opportunities that might have otherwise been closed off to her as a female in a patriarchal cult. While some girls fear being forced into a marriage to someone they hate, she entered into a parent-approved love-match with a man who later developed his own misgivings about their religion and left with her. And while many ex-cult members remain estranged from their families for the rest of their lives, she has had the joy of forgiving and reuniting with her parents. While controversial for sure, Girl at the End of the World is likely to become a favorite for many readers. The story is engaging even if the chapters, arranged more by topic than chronology, make for a choppy reading. At the end, there are some questions that may be appropriate for Bible studies and book clubs, and readers will likely find endless possibilities in topics for discussion: children’s roles as missionaries, fathers’ disrespect for teen daughters’ bodies, Roman Catholic Mariology embraced as a reaction against patriarchy, etc. I’m very happy that Elizabeth Esther finally decided to share her story, and I hope that even readers who might disagree with how it has turned out will still appreciate her message.
SheilaDeeth More than 1 year ago
“A story of mind control, the apocalypse, and modest attire” says the back of this book. How could I resist it? Elizabeth Esther’s memoir tells of life growing up with the everyday abuses, physical and mental, of a fundamentalist cult. Regular spankings seem to have failed in their aim of breaking her will. But it’s hard to leave home, faith and family, and Elizabeth struggles to conform, firm in her conviction that she’s ugly, God doesn’t want her to be happy, and only obedience can save her. Girl at the End of the World is a heartbreaking tale, rendered gentler by the reader’s knowledge that Elizabeth must have escaped, and by the author’s natural humor and honest voice. I like her from the very first sentence and want to know more about her. I want to know why she’s standing on a soapbox at age nine, why she hasn’t run away at age fifteen, and how will she bring up her own children. I take delight in the surprise of her escape, and the wonder of slow steps back to faith. And I love her genuine insights, her willingness to face controversy, and her personal touch. This is Elizabeth’s memoir, not a template for better churches or deeper faith, and not a condemnation of any particular belief. It's also a beautiful tale of God’s mercy, slowly delivered and surely received. Questions for the reader and an author interview at the end only add to the tale. The fact that I didn’t want to skip them just shows how well the author has drawn me in. A great memoir. A great tale of wounded and recovered faith. And wonderful book. Disclosure: I received this book free from Blogging for Books and I offer my unbiased review.
JamieLittle More than 1 year ago
Girl at the End of the World is Elizabeth Esther‘s account of growing up in, and eventually escaping from, a Fundamentalist Christian cult – her description, not mine. As the granddaughter of the founder of The Assembly, Elizabeth’s childhood included daily spankings, adherence to strict rules, regular humiliation and an intense Apocalyptic fear. When her efforts to be perfect were not enough she took drastic measures, including self mutilation. As she grew older she began to question whether or not what The Assembly taught her to truth was actually the Truth. After she married, Elizabeth and her husband, Matt, began to search their souls on the issue and made the decision to leave The Assembly even if it meant never seeing her family again. Life on the outside wasn’t always easy, as Elizabeth and Matt soon discovered. Slowly, but surely, they started to settle into a new normal and even a new church, the Catholic Church. For some reason, I am intrigued by the culture of Fundamentalist religion, I’m not sure why but I find it really interesting. When I saw that this book was available for me to review, I got ahold of it as soon as I could. Elizabeth’s story is very interesting and provides great insight about life in a Fundamentalist Christian church.  Her memoir is well written and kept my attention from cover to cover, I think I read it in about 2 days. I was surprised by the fact that she ended up joining the Catholic Church, but as I read more I was able to understand her decision a bit better. This is a beautifully told story, one told without holding anything back, that will capture the attention of every reader. Disclaimer: I was provided a copy of this book in exchange for this review. All thoughts are my own.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Girl at the End of the World by Elizabeth Ester. A woman tells her story from just a young girl til an adult, the ins and outs of a cult like religion enforced by her entire family. She is abused physically and mentally, never allowed to think for herself and all women she knows are stripped of their freedom. She knows nothing else and to explore would be to sin. This story is about how sometimes following your heart is the best even if your brain tells you to just submit. I thought this was an awesome read; short yet interesting. I think it is important to read about the unfortunate things that happen to people, it keeps you humble and makes you realize that life is not something you take lightly. I thought this woman was brave to leave her family and everything she knew because she felt something was wrong. She found her own happiness and definately walked a hard road to get there. This is a book everyone should read, even if you are not a believer or a highly religious person. This book was provided by blogging for books in exchange for a honest review. Everything written above is my opinion.
robtennant More than 1 year ago
Girl at the End of the World by Elizabeth Esther is a must read.  I read the book in one day.  The story is so compelling I could not put it down. The author was raised in a legalistic, fundamentalist cult in which the role of women was to have babies and obey their husbands.  Because she kept a journal all through her growing up, Esther is able to piece together the pain of living in such an oppressive home.  She describes the absurd practices of people who seriously believed the actions of the United States government were directly tied to references in the book of Revelation and who thought the world would end within their lifetimes.  The Bible clearly declares we will not know when the end will be (Mark 13:32); no matter.  The cult acted as if the future were irrelevant and all that mattered was preparation for eternity.  They made predictions about when it would happen (1988) and when those predictions proved foolish, they simply recalculated. This indifference to the love Christians are called to share with all people along with an extraordinarily selective reading of the scriptures and a horribly unjust male dominance resulted in the cult thoroughly breaking the will of its members while turning a blind eye to systemic abuse. The author not only survived, but lived to describe it.  Yet her depiction is not without pain.  She is exposing her family – the family from which she came.   Every follower of Jesus Christ should read this simply to see where the Christian faith can go horribly wrong when it is separated from humility and love.  As I read, I took breaks to spend time with my daughter.  I wanted to heap love her to somehow make up for what the author missed.  I wanted to make sure my daughter’s life is the opposite of what Elizabeth Esther experienced.  That’s how much this book affected me. As I said to begin this review, Girl at the End of the World is a must read.  Enjoyable would be the wrong word.  It is compelling, powerful, heartbreaking, and inspiring.  And the author’s excellent writing of a story that needed to be told will lead readers to be more humble and loving in their own practice of Christian living. Disclaimer - I received this book for free from WaterBrookMultnomah Publishing Group for this review.
oliviabellemary More than 1 year ago
Girl at the End of the World by Elizabeth Esther This is the true story of Elizabeth Esther and her terrifying, deeply scary, and sad walk with a religious cult, known as The Assembly. This book was a quick, easy read. It was deeply sad, but Elizabeth knows how to throw humor into these terrible things that she had to go through. I really did feel extreme sadness and horror, but also laughed a lot!! Although I did enjoy this book there are things that bothered me coming from a Christian publisher. One issue was some of the language--I know it helped convey what the author was trying to say, but there are other ways to get your point across. Another issue I had was if I wasn't a strong woman of faith, this book probably would have scared me away from the Lord on all levels! As a Christian publisher and author, I don't think that is the intention of the book, but it definitely came across as such. I would have liked to see more of how God has worked in Elizabeth's life since walking away from The Assembly. I wold recommend this book to strong women and men of faith with deep Christian roots. It is definitely eye-opening and a captivating read. Waterbrook Publishing provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
There are many spiritual memoirs out there these days, but few as compelling and insightful as this one. Elizabeh Esther courageously recounts the story of her upbringing in a spiritually abusive fundamentalist cult, painting a fascinating and often heartbreaking account with her vibrant storytelling. Despite the darkness of her experiences, her writing is full of humor, warmth and grace. This is a tough book to put down and one that will leave you with lots to reflect on. Definitely worth reading.