Reviewed by Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2016 336 pp.
The opening pages of Ruth Everhart’s memoir, Ruined, document a night from Everhart’s college years when two men broke into the house six women shared, tormented and raped them over the course of hours, and left with their few valuable belongings. The scenes are disconcertingly vivid. The details of Everhart’s reactions, including her conditioned sucking in of her gut to make herself attractive to the intruders, take the readers through emotional terrain most of us prefer to avoid. The remainder of Everhart’s book explores the fallout from this evening—more than a decade of struggling with and recovering from her “ruin.”
In a market awash with sexual assault memoirs, why read this? Why willingly put ourselves through such trauma, albeit second-hand? Everhart has crafted a compelling narrative; we’re in trustworthy hands even as she ushers us through her darkest hours. She segues back to childhood to build a foundation for her response to the rape, and interjects current insights, informed by years of healing, with grace and concision. But even exceptional literary skills aren’t enough to get me to read what it feels like to be molested at gunpoint or endure the ensuing disconnect from friends and family or be dragged through court proceedings. “No one,” as Everhart herself says, “wants to pass through the valley of the shadow.”
What makes this narrative worth reading is how Everhart has contextualized her response to the rape—feeling ruined—within patriarchal theology. “Did the feeling begin that night, or had it taken root years earlier, when I came to believe I could never be good enough?” Maybe the rape helped surface a hurt more broadly inflicted, over greater time, by her Dutch Calvinist upbringing. One pastor told seven-year-old Ruth that Jesus “loved you so much He had nails driven into His hands for you… Without Him, you are nothing, do you hear me? Nothing!” Only hours after her ordeal, Everhart’s sister offers this perverted consolation: “Thank the Lord for his care for us.”
Suffering puts belief to the test. Everhart’s story is ultimately a struggle with harmful theology, misogyny, and (to a small extent) racism—unspoken, untested beliefs that the rape unearthed. Ruined is also a testament to the redemptive power of naming, questioning, and telling stories about our faith. “We need to frame what we believe,” she writes, “because healthy theology functions like a proper diagnosis. It can point the way to a course of treatment.” In Everhart’s case, she had to leave her beliefs about not being good enough, as a woman, a rape survivor, and sinner, to welcome the Spirit’s movement in and through these seemingly shameful qualities.
This memoir isn’t about a rape; it’s the story of rising from hurt to construct a new cosmology that encompasses personal and systemic evil. “Love holds in itself the seeds of great suffering,” Everhart concludes once she gives birth to her own daughters. For this reason, I recommend enduring these often difficult pages: Readers can—readers need to—test our beliefs against the extremes of human experience. We need to witness possibilities for radical reframing of old faith structures so they can more nimbly address the traumas of our time—systemic racism, the destruction of our environment, and the violence of extremists. Everhart has offered her intensely private transformation as a witness, and done so with great love.
*Ruth Everhart was a participant in the Collegeville Institute summer writing workshop Apart, and Yet a Part in 2012 and 2013.