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A father-daughter story that tells of the author’s experience growing up in a separatist fundamentalist Christian cult, from the author of the national bestseller Ghostwalk
Rebecca Stott grew up in in Brighton, England, as a fourth-generation member of the Exclusive Brethren, a cult that believed the world is ruled by Satan. In this closed community, books that didn’t conform to the sect’s rules were banned, women were subservient to men and were made to dress modestly and cover their heads, and those who disobeyed the rules were punished and shamed. Yet Rebecca’s father, Roger Stott, a high-ranking Brethren minister, was a man of contradictions: he preached that the Brethren should shun the outside world, yet he kept a radio in the trunk of his car and hid copies of Yeats and Shakespeare behind the Brethren ministries. Years later, when the Stotts broke with the Brethren after a scandal involving the cult’s leader, Roger became an actor, filmmaker, and compulsive gambler who left the family penniless and ended up in jail.
A curious child, Rebecca spent her insular childhood asking questions about the world and trying to glean the answers from forbidden library books. Only when she was an adult and her father was dying of cancer did she begin to understand all that had occurred during those harrowing years. It was then that Roger Stott handed her the memoir he had begun writing about the period leading up to what he referred to as the traumatic “Nazi decade,” the years in the 1960s in which he and other Brethren leaders enforced coercive codes of behavior that led to the breaking apart of families, the shunning of members, even suicides. Now he was trying to examine that time, and his complicity in it, and he asked Rebecca to write about it, to expose all that was kept hidden.
In the Days of Rain is Rebecca Stott’s attempt to make sense of her childhood in the Exclusive Brethren, to understand her father’s role in the cult and in the breaking apart of her family, and to come to be at peace with her relationship with a larger-than-life figure whose faults were matched by a passion for life, a thirst for knowledge, and a love of literature and beauty. A father-daughter story as well as a memoir of growing up in a closed-off community and then finding a way out of it, this is an inspiring and beautiful account of the bonds of family and the power of self-invention.
Praise for In the Days of Rain
“A marvelous, strange, terrifying book, somehow finding words both for the intensity of a childhood locked in a tyrannical secret world, and for the lifelong aftershocks of being liberated from it.”—Francis Spufford, author of Golden Hill
“Writers are forged in strange fires, but none stranger than Rebecca Stott’s. By rights, her memoir of her father and her early childhood inside a closed fundamentalist sect obsessed by the Rapture ought to be a horror story. But while the historian in her is merciless in exposing the cruelties and corruption involved, Rebecca the child also lights up the book, existing in a world of vivid play, dreams, even nightmares, so passionate and imaginative that it helps explain how she survived, and—even more miraculous—found the compassion and understanding to do justice to the story of her father and the painful family life he created.”—Sarah Dunant, author of The Birth of Venus
Under the Cover
An excerpt from In the Days of Rain
My father did the six weeks of his dying—raging, reciting poetry and, finally pacified by morphine—in a remote eighteenth-century windmill on the East Anglian fens. It was built to provide wind power to help drain the land, but by the time my father and stepmother bought it the sails and cogwheels were long gone. A previous owner had stripped out the rusting machinery, added a low nave with extra rooms, and painted it a dusky pink. From a distance and with the paint flaking off, it looked like a church washed up on the banks of a river. When the local farmer covered the black fields in every direction with plastic sheeting that miraged into floodwater in certain lights, the building always looked to me like a boat, or an ark, untethered from its moorings.
It was so far from civilization that it did not appear on GPS systems: The undertakers took four hours to reach us.
Since they’d moved into the mill six years earlier, my father had turned it into a pagan shrine, pasting its round, six-foot-thick walls with passages from Eliot’s Four Quartets and Yeats’s last poems, owl feathers, and Celtic symbols. He glued the lines of poetry onto the plaster, and when the damp made the paper curl off again he’d hammer in huge nails that made the plaster crack.
They bought the house on a whim a year after their wedding. They both wanted to live on flat land, he said. They both liked big skies.
“It’s on the banks of a fen river,” he said when he phoned to tell me they’d found the perfect house. “The Romans used it to ship building materials across the fens; during the war, a farmer plowed up a hoard of Roman silver plates covered in tritons and sea gods just a couple of fields away, and the local Baptists used to do their baptisms here. There’s a mooring platform so we can buy a boat.”
But you’ve got no money, I said to myself. How exactly are you going to buy a boat?
They drove me up to see it. We climbed through nettles and peered in through cobwebbed windows. It was beautiful, but it was also eerie and unsettling. All that sky. All that black soil. American bombers crossed the land on their flight path from the Mildenhall air base. Falcons hung low over the riverbank or scrutinized the fields from their posts on electricity cables.
Four months later my stepmother had turned the small circle of long-neglected riverside land into the beginnings of a garden. My father beat down the nettles with sticks. He borrowed a plow from a neighboring farmer and broke it within a few hours. The farmer patched up the worst parts of the road. My father planted beech hedges and supervised local lads in the laying out of a lawn. He ordered and planted a grove of white birches at the far end of the garden as a birthday present for my stepmother. Their white trunks were magnificent, luminous against the black soil of the fen fields, especially at dusk.
“He’s always had a thing for silver birches,” she told me. “I prefer willows.”
My father was built on a different scale than the rest of us. In 2007, the year of his dying, he was sixty-eight, six foot four, and twenty stone. His long snow-white hair and beard would have made him look like an Old Testament prophet if it wasn’t for the combat jacket he’d taken to wearing. He bought it from the Army and Navy Store to audition for the part of Mark Antony in a production of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and now wore it all the time. He thought of himself as an aging Mark Antony, but to me he was Sir Andrew Aguecheek, sometimes a Falstaff, occasionally a Lear. We called him Roger in our teens, and later on Rodge or Dodge or the Big Man, never Dad. He wasn’t a dad, at least not in the way that most people mean it. I’d usually just refer to him as “my father”—Roger seemed an absurd name for a man built on his scale.
His head was twice the size of mine. When he had money he bought his clothes from an outsize shop called High and Mighty, but now that he was poor, most of his clothes—and my stepmother’s—came from charity shops. When he split the seams in his trousers he’d staple them back together. It was far quicker and more efficient than sewing, he insisted when I asked what he was doing with the stapler in one hand and the washing basket in the other. My stepmother flashed me a look that meant hold your tongue. When he broke his glasses, he taped the arms back on. She flashed me a look about that too.
He had a set of dentures that replaced some of his back teeth, and sometimes he took them out when he was speaking fast or reciting poetry. He’d place them on the table between us. Sometimes he did this in restaurants or pubs. He belched too—at home and in public. His belches were loud, elongated, and cadenced like a long rumble of thunder. He belched, I think, as an act of defiance against all forms of gentility and because it made us laugh. My brothers—and then my son—competed to imitate those sounds. It became a tribal thing.
Through that final winter, increasingly lame, bilious, and irascible—his pancreas riddled with the still-undetected cancer—my father, the great limping bulk of him, walked the bank of the River Lark for hours every day, following the line of the river across the fens listening to Joyce’s Ulysses through headphones for the seventh time. He and my stepmother had planted hundreds of bulbs—fritillaries and parrot tulips—on the path up to the mill door and in rows on the riverbank. By February they were pushing up shoots.
On Valentine’s Day in a hospital in Bury St. Edmunds, doctors finally used the word “cancer” at the end of several weeks of euphemisms that had begun with “inflammation” and then progressed to “blockage,” then “lump,” and finally “tumor.”
“Seems they manage bad news by drip-feeding it here,” my father said. “It’s exactly three centimeters by six centimeters,” he added, indulging his obsession for numbers, tracing the edges of the shadow on the ultrasound printout. “They don’t know how long I have. But they’ve given me a counselor. That’s not good, is it?”
He’d have to finish his memoir now, he said, when he’d been allowed to go home and had stopped swearing, raving, and thumping walls and tables with his fist. He’d begun to think about what it might mean to put his affairs in order. When he told me he was going to need my help to finish that book of his, my heart sank.
He’d started writing a semi-fictionalized autobiography eight years earlier, shortly before meeting my stepmother. He called it The Iron Room, after the corrugated-iron meeting room where he and his parents and siblings worshipped five or six times a week when he was growing up. For the first three years, he talked about his memoir all the time. Every spare hour he took away from his paid work as a freelance copy editor he was at it: ten steps back into rewriting, one step forward into new writing. He sent me scores of drafts, each only slightly different from the last. I came to dread the sight of his emails in my inbox.
“I can’t see the wood for the trees anymore,” I pleaded. “Let me read it when it’s finished. Then I’d be a fresh pair of eyes.”
I was relieved when the emails stopped coming, when he was distracted by the mill, the garden, the broken plow, and the question of where to put the silver birches.
It was when he hit the 1960s, he said now, that he’d run into trouble. He hadn’t been able to get any further. I did the calculations. That was a shortfall of forty-nine years. How long would that take him—or me—to write?
“The Nazi decade,” he added, as if it was an explanation, and I nodded, telling myself the morphine was addling his head. Everything after 1960 had turned into a thicket, he whispered through tears and expletives while uncorking what was probably the third bottle of wine that afternoon. But he was going to finish it, he said. He had to. He wasn’t going to let death win that sodding chess game. He thumped his huge fist down on the arm of his chair again. Not anytime soon. He gestured at the television, a forty-two-inch flat-screen, the only piece of equipment he kept within the cool damp interior of the mill tower, on which he’d paused a scene from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Within the black-and-white frame, two men dressed in medieval clothes sat playing chess against a wild sea.
“So long as the Knight keeps playing the game of chess,” my father said, “Death can’t take him.”
He was going to keep death at bay by watching Ingmar Bergman films. He was damn well going to watch all fifty-eight of them again now, he declared.
I could only remember seven Bergman films. My father had made me watch them when I was sixteen on afternoons when he persuaded me to skip school during my O levels: Wild Strawberries, Autumn Sonata, Cries and Whispers, The Seventh Seal, Winter Light, The Silence, and Through a Glass Darkly. He’d buy red wine, huge loaves of still-warm bread, and slabs of ham, and open a jar of his favorite whole-grain English mustard. We watched those films in his dusty, postdivorce flat, sitting on the floor amid piles of unpaid bills and documents and scatterings of poems. I’d go back to school—or to my mother’s house—slightly drunk, my head spinning.
I started a list on the day he showed me Death playing chess on the TV screen. Ingmar Bergman: 58—I wrote at the top of the page in my notebook, thinking I’d order them online. I’d forgotten that my father had more than forty of them in a cupboard in the mill, that he’d been collecting them since he stole into the back row of a cinema to see Wild Strawberries at the age of eighteen.
Fifty-eight. How many films could you watch in a day?
My younger brother, traveling across New Zealand on sabbatical from work, flew home and moved into the mill. I stayed as often as I could, driving up from Cambridge every other day, leaving notes for my ex-husband and babysitters, managing a job and publishers with a phone and an Internet connection that rarely worked. My sister flew over from France. My two other brothers came as often as their jobs and young families allowed them. The five of us gathered around, steeled ourselves. My stepmother ordered in food and more cases of wine and turned the thermostat button to Constant.
In the crypt light of the mill tower, through late February and March, we watched Bergman films together, interspersed with long hours of cricket—the Cricket World Cup had just started. We played Mozart, drank wine, cooked, and ate together at a table that seated fifteen, only a few feet from my father’s reclining chair, which was now permanently horizontal. It snowed. My son and I drove across fen dirt tracks in the dark to fetch foil boxes of Gressingham duck prepared for my father by the cooks at the White Pheasant pub at Fordham, but though he wanted to eat he had no appetite. He worked away at his memoir for several hours a day for the first week, propped up on pillows, but then, once the Macmillan nurse increased his daily doses of morphine, he was too tired to write.
Then there was the day he told me, tears in his eyes, that he didn’t think he could finish his memoir after all. He’d gone back into the thicket, but he couldn’t face it: the muddle, the cruelty, the madness of it all. And even if he could describe those years, he whispered, as if someone might be listening in, he’d never be able to close the great gap in time, get from 1960 to now, to this.
“Shandy’s dilemma,” I said, and he smiled darkly. For decades he’d been persuading me to read his favorite books. Many had become my household gods now too. A webwork of inside jokes and literary references had grown between us. We both read Laurence Sterne’s mad fictional eighteenth-century memoir, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. But now that he had only weeks to live, the similarities between Tristram Shandy and my father’s own unfinished fictional memoir struck me as both tragic and ridiculous.
Poor Tristram finds he’s written several hundred pages before he’s even been born. Convinced that the oddities of his personality were caused by the fact that his father was interrupted while having sex with his mother on the night of his conception by his mother asking if he’d forgotten to wind the clock, Tristram then has to explain about the clock, and to do that he has to explain about Uncle Toby, his father’s brother . . . and while he is trying to explain all of this, and as the pages are clocking up, there’s a knock at the door and Death is there on the threshold—cloak, scythe, and all. Tristram leaps from the window and gallops to Dover to take a boat to Calais. Death takes up pursuit.
I took the bus from my house into town to buy a portable tape recorder.
“If I ask you questions,” I said to him as he disappeared into another cricket match, “it might be easier. You wouldn’t get so tired. Then I could transcribe it later. We could do short bursts, when you felt like it.”
The tape recorder was black. Out in the mill, dust coated everything within hours and I had to keep wiping the machine down. The dust bothered me. I’d never noticed it before. Dust and, even in March, fruit flies. The house was full of them. My father had started to keep a tally of the number he found in his wineglass. The fruit-fly count joined all his other reckonings in his notebooks: daily calorie count, his gambling winnings and losings, the daily diabetes count, the cricket scores. My stepmother just put an old beer mat over her glass. She didn’t much like wine.
Rebecca Stott is a professor of English literature and creative writing at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. She is the author of Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution, the novels The Coral Thief and the national bestseller Ghostwalk, and a biography, Darwin and the Barnacle. She is a regular contributor to BBC Radio and lives in Norwich.