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A Feature Review of
Ruined: A Memoir
Paperback: Tyndale House, 2016
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Reviewed by Jasmine Smart
What I love most about this memoir is that it is a gift, primarily for her daughters, but by extension to other young women and ultimately Christian culture in general. Purity-culture theology has real-world, damaging consequences, and Ruth Everhart has an insightful lens in which she explores those consequences: through her personal journey wrestling with the traumatic events that happened to her, and the way her theology held up to those events and community responded.
The book opens with the trauma, not easing into it, which is appropriate because trauma is not necessarily something you can prepare for or anticipate. She sets the scene: a group of girls are living together in Grand Rapids, MI attending Calvin College in the late 1970s, when masked gunmen break into their home in the middle of the night, rob and rape them. The memory of the specific events of that rape are interspersed with the things going through Everhart’s mind, much of which is theological. She tries to recite Psalm 23 in the midst of the assault; the theological implications of losing her virginity as if it were somehow her fault, and the shame that is intertwined with that.
Everhart also explored the difficult topic of racism. Calvin College was founded by Dutch immigrants, and even to this day the Dutch Christian Reformed Church has a strong presence in Grand Rapids. Everhart writes, “Growing up, I had only indirect contact with black people. My world was populated by pale-skinned people of Dutch descent…” (11). The men who assaulted Everhart happened to be black. The trauma that she experienced was therefore mixed with race, and would sometimes have a visceral reaction to the trigger of black men: trembling, dry mouth, mind going blank. Even years later, she went on a date with a handsome young black man who had no resemblance to her assailants, and yet her anxiety was there: “I felt both helpless and ashamed… If I was uncomfortable with a man simply because of his skin color, what do you call that? Was race aversion the same thing as racism?” (249). Yet she yearned to be free from this connection to her past, and eventually she joined a multi-racial church, where by the grace of God she was able to be thoroughly healed from her “race aversion.”
Everhart’s connection to the church, theology and Christian community are a thread throughout her story, and she eventually lived into her calling as a pastor after being encouraged by others who saw that call in her life. She recalls, “Ordination rarely is [a simple matter]. And for a woman with my history—growing up in a conservative culture that barred women from ministry, being raped at gunpoint, taking up with a married man—the issue of fitness for ministry was especially fraught. Not just ‘Could a woman be a minister?’ but ‘Could I, a woman with a history, be a minister?'” (285).
Clearly, Everhart’s pastoral heart is a gift to the world, and it shines through in this book. In her epilogue letter to her daughters, some of her final words can serve as a summary of her hope for this book and benediction to us all:
Women are not merely virgins or victims. There’s more to living in a woman’s skin than that… I could ask, rhetorically, ‘Since when has a woman’s sexual purity been of more value than the breath in her body?’ … The sad fact is that a woman’s sexual purity has long been the measure of her worth. As a culture, we need to bury this worthless belief… Daughters, you are more than your virginity. You are more than what happens to you. You are immensely valuable. No wound can ever make you less than whole… Thank God.