Ruined: A Memoir
Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2016
Ruth Everhart invites readers into her story of recovery and redemption in the aftermath of sexual violence. One unexpected night during their senior year of college, armed intruders broke into Ruth’s residence and took turns raping her and four of her housemates at gunpoint. In the ensuing months, she dealt with a rage and a brokenness that her previous constructs of faith were ill-equipped to address. More than 30 years later, Ruth writes about the events of that night and her subsequent reclamation of wholeness, redemption, and faith. It is a memoir of her spiritual struggle to reconcile the meaning of God’s providential care in the face of trauma. The candor and authenticity with which she writes raises awareness of the many layers – theological, physical, psychological, legal— that emerge when confronting sexual violence.
Part 1, “The Crime,” is set up over five chapters in which Ruth painstakingly details the horrendous events of November 5-6, 1978. Over a period of several hours Ruth and her college roommates were held hostage, brutalized, and raped. Interspersed throughout her account of that fateful night, Ruth gives us sketches from her childhood and draws a portrait of the social and religious contexts in which she was raised as a beloved daughter of Midwestern parents and child of the Christian Reformed Church.
Part 2, “The Aftermath,” is an account of all that Ruth and her roommates experienced in the months immediately following the tragic incident (November 1978 – August 1979). She does a superb job of describing the range of emotions that reside simultaneously when is life is thrown into disarray – fury, exhaustion, tears, night terrors, grief, confusion. Despite the bond of a shared experience, there were also tensions that erupted when the roommates were together. This drove Ruth to look for an escape from people who were reminders of that night and take refuge in unfamiliar places. Ruth also writes about the impact of rape on relationships within her family and the experience of coming “home” for the Holidays. The crime was reported on the news so the publicity also had an impact on Ruth’s return to college. Her efforts to resume a “normal life” were subverted by a constant awareness that others recognized her from the news stories. Ruth identifies many layers of disequilibrium. The experience of being raped confused her perceptions of God, of black people, of innocence, of her hopes for the future.
Part 3, “The Courts” (September 1979-January 1980) details a long sequence of frustrations with the court system and repeated delays i
n the service of justice. There were a lot of emotional ups and downs during the court sessions. There were attempts to carry on and move forward in non-trial related facets of life, while at the same time feeling a constant drag back into the darkness and anger created by the judicial process. After a four-months long trial, one of Ruth’s assailants was sentenced to prison serving a term no less than 40-years. Throughout these chapters Ruth continues the theological thread of her narrative, working to understand how God fits into this drama. Certainly, the picture of God she carried before the rape was no longer adequate to address the brokenness of her current situation. The childhood catechism she learned promised her that “without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head.” The memory of the catechism only infuriated Ruth. The naïve faith of her childhood was disorienting to her current circumstances. It felt futile to direct her anger at the God she had trusted in her whole life, and yet didn’t God deserve her anger for abandoning her to the rapists? If the catechism was right, then her heavenly Father had willed this awful thing to happen. It was a theological conundrum.
Part 4, “The Fallout” (January 1980 - May 1981). The section opens with an apt quote from Canadian poet and folk musician Bruce Cockburn, “Got to kick at the darkness ‘til it bleeds daylight.” In these chapters, Ruth is brutally honest about how she “kicked at the darkness” of not knowing who God was and not knowing how to re-invent her place in the universe. Despite a certain “victory” in sending the perpetrator to jail, Ruth’s life remained in ruins. Her attempts at rebuilding her life included an affair with a married man, a summer in Yellowstone park, an arrest for a stolen vehicle, and finding a new home in a multi-cultural worshipping community called Prince of Glory Lutheran church in Minneapolis.
Part 5, “The Future” (June 1981 – December 1989). Here’s the part of the story where Ruth begins to breathe in new life and discover a
way forward. She finds herself in unexpected places, embraces a new way of seeing the world, and allows herself to step into the light. Her faith is restored. Ruth gets married, finds a new church home, becomes a mother, enrolls in seminary, sets a new trajectory for her life.
Ruth Everhart was raised in a Christian family whose Dutch roots were embedded in the Reformed tradition. She chose to attend Calvin College because of its denominational affiliation. She tells her story as a child of the sixties reared in a Christian home. She describes her early understanding of the Reformed view as a naïve trust in God whereby nothing bad can happen to those who claim Jesus as Savior. “The sovereignty of God means that God is supreme and rules over all. Nothing can happen apart from God’s will. . . if you believe in God and are saved, then you’re chosen, and so are your children. . . the family package is the spoonful of sugar that makes the whole system go down.” All of her theological presuppositions are called into question after her rape. Ruth walks the reader through her struggle to meet God in a new way. It is a long process of healing and of accepting all that remains unhealed.
One of the theological themes of Ruth’s memoir is theodicy – if God is good and all-powerful, then why does evil exist in the world? More specifically, if not a hair can fall from one’s head without God’s willing it, then how is possible that God would allow Ruth and her housemates to be violated and raped? On some level, every young person wrestles with questions of ultimacy on the road to adulthood. When the circumstances of life call into question our childhood notions of God, we must ask, “Who is God when God is no longer the God we knew as a child?” It is typical to experience God at a new and deeper level as we grow in faith. But the crime against Ruth and her friends incalculably escalated the stakes in finding a satisfactory answer to how evil can prevail if God is good.
Ultimately Ruth lands on the conviction that God brings life out of death. Though it took years to come to a place of renewed trust in God’s goodness, Ruth can now claim that God’s unfaltering goodness promises to bring something new and beautiful out of every pain. There may be a season of darkness or trauma, but faith will see us through to the other side. In the closing letter to her daughters, Ruth writes, “Sometimes there is no option except to let the waves of trauma engulf you for a time. Just trust that they will recede again. What’s left in you will rise up afterward, and that will be enough. More than enough! There’s more to you than you know. There is more to God than you know” (p. 307).
Aim of the Book
This book breaks open the silence that so often surrounds rape and sexual violence. Ruth’s candor helps to promote frank discussions about the complex web of physical, emotional, spiritual and legal issues that pervade one’s life in the aftermath of victimization. One of the aims of the book is Ruth’s advocacy for all those who identify with her story and her fervent affirmation that “you are infinitely precious, no matter what happened to you” (p. 310). In God’s economy, each of us is greater than our past hurts or scars. Ruth is writing to a wide audience, but she keeps her daughters always in view. The mother-daughter connection is especially poignant in the book’s Epilogue where Ruth specifically addresses a letter to her girls. Ruth’s memoir is for all of us, but ever present is a message to her daughters to see the world through a different lens than what they’d previously known. For Ruth’s daughters, and for us, the story inspires a breadth of love for every life that bears the wounds of the past and a radical grace that allows a person to become much more than the sum of their wounds.
Strengths and Weaknesses
The strength of the book is its first-hand account of one woman’s journey from victimhood to wholeness. Ruth refuses to remain a victim. She refuses to let rape be the defining event of her life. Ruth’s story may create a safe space for readers to talk about their own experiences of trauma and violence. The book can also give a deeper understanding of what it means to survive rape so that friends, family, counselors, and pastors can be more supportive in walking with survivors as they search for healing. (Click here to access a discussion guide provided by the author on her website, RuthEverhart.com)
The weakness of the book is more a literary critique than a critique of the content. As compelling as the story is, the later chapters are sometimes repetitive and the story feels as if it drags in places. Some parts of the story could be covered in less detail and still retain the critical thread of the narrative. But perhaps it is unfair to rush the story. It is Ruth’s story to tell and she is courageous in sharing it, so the reader should allow her to pace the story in a way that’s authentic to her. That said, however, this reader wanted resolution and a quick jump to the “happily ever after” part of the story. Then again, maybe the author’s pace helps the reader better identify with the slow work of God in bringing Ruth (and us) to a place of healing. Whether it’s rape, or some other form of darkness, there are times in our lives when we struggle to see “progress,” and we wonder if God can or will move us beyond pain, beyond grief, beyond loss. Ruth’s story is a testimony to God’s faithfulness in times of trouble and heartache. Her long journey toward redemption offers strong encouragement to wade through the darkness, trusting that light will break through on the other side. Today, Ruth is a wife, a mother, a writer, and a Presbyterian pastor. The family lives in Washington D.C.
Review by Tammy Wiens