Nonfiction author Debby Schriver didn't want to write about survivors of the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries cult when she was first asked.
But after meeting those affected by the story, this Tennessee-based writer with human rights commitment changed her mind.
"As a writer, what I like most is writing about people whose voices need to be heard," said Schriver, who'll be in the Texarkana area for a couple of appearances, including a Monday book signing in Fouke, Ark., for her new book, "Whispering in the Daylight." The signing takes place from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Fouke Community Center.
Just published by the University of Tennessee Press, "Whispering in the Daylight" chronicles the stories of people whose lives were long hidden. They're the children who lived in and then were freed from the cult, which had a compound in Fouke.
As Schriver explains it, the story found her. A former University of Tennessee employee who worked with students to help them adjust to college life, she hadn't written anything like this before. She knew it was an unusual and difficult story to explore in writing. Using pseudonyms for some of the people whose lives are still fragile because of the Alamo cult experience, she was able to do it, having first met an adoptive father of some of the children she writes about in her book.
Schriver said he asked her to write about it, and after resisting at first, a meeting with the adoptive parents inspired her to do so. Then she met the children, who are adults now, she said, and got to work on the book.
"I spent a lot of time listening to them, earning their trust," Schriver said about learning how their lives were inside the cult. She conducted more than 300 interviews for the book, research that included a trip to Fouke.
"I did a lot of learning for the first level of resources," the author said. She talked with people on the front lines of this piece of history. She visited a compound.
"The kids let me get as close as I possibly could to their lives," Schriver said, noting that's where the book's emphasis rests. In fact, proceeds from the book will be devoted to a fund to help cult survivors.
In the book, Schriver addresses the lives of several children, but features six or seven main ones. Some are composite characters. It starts with a raid in Fouke, then spins back through time to explore the founding of the cult. A timeline of Alamo's legal troubles is part of this book, which the author said is in the true crime genre.
While it's published by a university press, Schriver aims for a more general audience, not an academic one. "I want people from the streets to read it," she said, calling it a book that's important to read, if not a pleasure to read.
Her hope is that the voices of these children and their parents can be heard. "They were all victimized by Tony Alamo," Schriver said. She includes the parents here, even though many may not understand their actions. They believed, she says, that they were doing the right thing and are also victims.
Schriver also hopes her book helps people figure out what cult survivors need. This includes second generation adults, as they're called, those who grew up as children after being born inside the cult environment.
"They are very different because they don't have a pre-cult identity," Schriver said. Some of them have no record of their birth. They may not know their parents, the author said. Or they may have siblings and family members who are still in the cult, which, she said, has only gotten stronger rather than weaker after Alamo's death.
Schriver would like the book to be a wakeup call for what they need. It's difficult for them to maneuver the world outside of the cult now that they're free.
As part of her preparation for the book rollout, she met with her subjects last summer. They asked what she thought they'd be like. She thought they'd kind of all look the same, she admits, which turned out not to be true, and she thought they wouldn't talk with her, which was only true at first. Her stereotypes were challenged, she explained.
"They're now asking questions that show they're able to look at their subjective experience with a little more objectivity," Schriver said, pointing out that contrary to widespread beliefs, cult survivors are typically intellectually smart.
Now the author is coming to Texarkana and Fouke to promote the book and share their stories. She has other events scheduled in Arkansas, too.
"I'm excited to be there and to talk with more people and meet with people now that they are unencumbered a bit," Schriver said.
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