Warning: I’m giving the story being reviewed an ESRB-type rating of R for strong language, violence, and disturbing sexual images.
Author’s Note: One of my first followers, Heidi Stauff, recently published a couple of her stories on Amazon. In honor of her accomplishment, and as a thank you for being one of the first to show an interest in my work, I’ve written a review of my favorite story of hers.
But beware. It’s not a comfortable read. Especially if you call yourself a Christian. But it’s an awesome read. An important read. And it includes a much-needed look at a little-dealt-with subject as one of its main themes — spiritual abuse.
That one word pretty much sums up how much this story touched my heart. But let me cut a little deeper to explain why.
Heidi Stauff is a writer I’ve been reading for a while now, and her stories are always deep, pertinent, and incisive. She never shies away from real-life issues, but examines them under a sterile white light to reveal all their ugly defects and weaknesses. Yet somehow she still manages to present both sides of a controversy without any bias or sermonizing coming through. Heidi’s writing always acknowledges that there are never any easy answers, and she always develops her stories to show that.
This story is Heidi at her best, and I couldn’t stop reading. It grabbed me right from the beginning and, suture by literary suture, she stitched together a story that refused to let me go until I had found out whether June, her husband Hank, and Eric, her son from a different man, would survive their ordeal.
But beware. It’s not a comfortable read, especially if you call yourself a Christian. But it’s an awesome read. An important read. And includes a much-needed look at a little-dealt-with subject as one of its main themes — spiritual abuse.
With the skill of a literary heart surgeon, Heidi has crafted a hard-hitting and gripping story brimming with literary devices:
- Amazingly complex, interesting, and detailed characters.
- Relatable and likable protagonists.
- A plot that moves the story along steadily and purposefully without so much as a single splatter of coincidence.
- A unique setting.
- A multitude of themes that are universal and evergreen.
- Graphic sensory images that make you a part of the story and not just an observer.
- Creative and germane similes.
- Emotional chaos you can feel.
- Life-altering stakes.
- And, by far the most notable and striking, a liberal and visceral use of metaphor.
Heidi’s story is a literature professor’s dream come true: a modern work of art with contemporary cultural relevance but with literary depth and timelessness as well. It has what every great piece of literature has: something new and more profound to discover every time you read it while still being enjoyable, accessible, and inspiring on a surface level as well.
Like tools from a surgeon’s tray, Heidi wields these literary devices expertly.
All great literature has relevant themes, and the themes in Heidi’s story are manifold, adding layers and substance to the main theme of the importance of respect and dignity in relationships. I’m sure I’ll find more, but here are the ones I have found so far:
- Difficult parent-child relationships.
- Teen angst.
- False religion bordering on cultism.
- Civic violence.
- The need for empathy.
- The gender wars.
- The value of women as a person to be respected and honored, not belittled, treated as sex objects (hence the title), or used like one of those squishy pink stress-reliever heads to take frustrations out on.
Heidi takes these themes and, along with the aforementioned rare theme of spiritual abuse, slices them wide open and sticks her hands right into the middle of the whole pulsating, quivering ugly mess without any qualms whatsoever. Then, after doing what needs to be done, she sutures it all back together so expertly that you hardly even realize she has been in there, guiding the narrative, excising the wrong, shoring up the good.
Want specific examples of these themes and possibly find more? You’ll have to read the story to find them!
And Oh. My. God. The symbolism! It’s spurting out of the story from everywhere! But the main symbol in particular… Wow! What an indelible, surprising, shocking, appropriate, profound, cut-to-the-core symbol for the disgusting, damaging, and demeaning nature of false religion! I’ll be ruminating on it for weeks!
What is that symbol? You’ll have to read the story to find out!
But prepare yourselves.
Though set in a Christian home Bible study situation, this is no Christian story. It’s intended audience is not the sheltered and blessed. It is meant for those living in a world of pain and abuse, both emotional and spiritual, who, in need of comfort, respect, understanding, and support, have found themselves instead being slapped upside the heart with judgmentalism, weak-kneed and pious platitudes, and doctrinaire arrogance. It is for those desperately trying to heal from the gaping hole in their chest left by abuse from ex-boyfriend, teen-age child, and a near-cultic church.
Is there an escape? You’ll have to read the story to find out!
But it’s not an easy-to-endure read. Heidi cuts deep and doesn’t hold back in her honest and gritty portrayal of real life and a painful situation. It’s not sanitized. It’s not bowdlerized. It’s not even PG-ified. It’s gritty, it’s graphic, and it’s visceral. She’s not afraid to portray life just as it is with all of it’s strong language, violence, emotional despair, and disturbing sexual images.
Want examples? You’ll have to read the story to see them!
And when you read it, even in all its graphic, visceral, vicarious glory you’ll still feel a constant undercurrent of empathy. There is never any obvious authorial intrusion, but somehow you can always sense in your subconscious that Heidi is there trying to soothe and comfort. You can tell that she cares, that she understands the pain in your heart and for what you’re going through. You can feel her trying to offer some hope as she examines these veins of real-life experience while avoiding the normal platitudes most people toss around like candy-colored painkillers that mask the real symptoms and avoid correcting the real problem. There is no overt moralizing or sermonizing here. Nor is there any coddling. Just a sense of someone behind the words who cares, who listens, who understands.
And sometimes that’s enough.
Sometimes it’s enough just to know that you’re not the only one in the world with these problems, that there are others who care and can empathize. Heidi wants you to see in June that you’re not alone, that it’s okay to be upset, that you’re allowed to hurt.
And yes, I have to admit, the story of June touched my heart so deeply that at times I actually wept. I wished there was something I could do or say to help her. I have ministered to many of my friends going through similar situations, and it pains me every time I see it. But with June I felt helpless. All I could do was stand by and watch as she suffered immeasurably.
Not to be outdone by all the other surgical literary devices, the ending is perfect. It’s one of the most impacting, relevant, and emotional endings I’ve ever read. Everything — and I mean everything — that had gone before is given a final once over. Nothing forced. Nothing coincidental. Just a natural flow through climax and denouement that reminds us of all that has transpired.
Heidi sutures everything closed neatly and memorably. It’s not the saccharine ending of pulp fiction, so the incision of her story may leave a raw ugly scar for a while, but she has done such a masterful job, I know that over time it will heal itself beautifully and leave me a better man than I was before.
And isn’t that what great literature should do?
So, do June, Hank, and Eric make it through okay?
You’ll have to read the story to find out!