When Does a Religion become a Cult? Fleur Beale’s “I Am Not Esther”

How I Am Not Esther got on The Lois Level

The list where I heard this book has slipped through my records, but I know I was also a bit excited to find it at my local library because books published “Down Under” (Oceania, which includes Australia and New Zealand) are often hard to find in the United States.

I looked it up as soon as I heard about it because I can’t resist a good book about people caught up in extreme religions.

I wasn’t brought up in what I would call an extreme religion (some outside of the southern United States would), but still, religion is an issue that I have struggled with for most of my life.  I went so far as to investigate it as part of the research for one of my doctoral comprehensive essays, and through that research I came to understand a bit about why I feel drawn to religion while at the same time being resistant to formal religious groups.

What I learned, or came to believe, is that people have a need to get a sense of order of their lives, and religion helps with the parts that are abstract. For example, we don’t need religion to figure out when certain crops need to be planted, but we might need religion to understand why we need to grow our own and not steal our neighbor’s.

In a larger sense, because religion has been such a strong force in determining the path of human civilization, I’ve always been a bit curious about people at both extremes: those who turn their backs on it completely and people who embrace it wholeheartedly.  So when this book popped up, I was curious, especially because it was written by a New Zealander and set in New Zealand, which in and of itself is somewhat of a novelty. 

I think Americans are interested in Oceania because we identify with the sense of rugged individualism that you see in the remote areas of both countries. I wonder if this shared sense of independence might also be embodied in a shared tendency to embrace extreme religions.  It’s probably that so many of us are descended from ex-convicts (I am about to read Moll Flanders for an upcoming post, which partly explains why my mind is on this subject).

Why should you read My Name is not Esther?


It’s been a little while since I’ve read a book written for adolescents, so at first the switch in styles seemed a bit choppy to me, but once I got into it, I was fully engaged and didn’t feel as though the book were written “down”, if you know what I mean.  And I think that a book that doesn’t engage an adult reader isn’t a good book, no matter who the intended audience is. 


Even though the book is primarily written about a teenager who is about 15, some of the concerns of the parents manage to seep through to the reader, despite the highly structured household and remote, repressed stance of both parents.  Despite their problems, I could see the genuine love and concern that the entire family have for one another, and in fact, this love and concern is what causes problems for the group, even for the title character, Esther/Kirby.

The character’s given name is Kirby, but in the “religion”, she must have a Bible name, which is Esther.  

This book also takes the trouble to examine why people choose to live in extreme religions, and might also make you question exactly what is the line between a religion and a cult.  I think that can be confusing for a lot of people, especially when the religion purports to follow a form of Christianity or other widely accepted faith.  And yes, there are a lot of different sects of all major religions, just like Christianity, in case you were wondering. Some are considered more extreme than others, but it always depends on whom you ask, which makes it complicated.


One of the issues Kirby faces is that, as her guidance counselor (in the novel) points out, she isn’t facing physical or even (legal) emotional abuse.  She’s pulled out of school a couple of times for things that would not exactly be excused, but you know freedom of religion, so the line becomes hazy. 

To me, it seems like it all comes down to two questions:

  1. Do closed societies such as these breed abuse that occurs at a greater rate than in the larger society?

  2. Where, or if, we should draw the line of acceptance when our family members choose paths that are divergent from our own believes?

For the record, the plot in I Am Not Esther ultimately hinges on both of these questions.

From a larger perspective, and I’m sure because Beale is a former educator, an important message imbedded in the plot of this book is that there is help available for children and teens through school. Another significant theme in this book is that Esther/Kirby knows she can seek help in her public school, even though she has never gone there before, and an important message for kids is that they they can go to anyone at school for help. Kirby’s guidance counselor is unable to immediately extricate her from her situation, but she is able to provide support and does eventually help Kirby leave.

Making this book available to teens is a way to indirectly send that message.

If you read My Name is Not Esther

Notes to remember about life in New Zealand: It’s more usual for kids in public (state) schools to wear uniforms in New Zealand than in the United States. A “form” is roughly equivalent to what Americans would call “homeroom”. Schools in the Southern Hemisphere normally end their school year in December, so they have a longer vacation at that time of the year for Christmas, because it’s in the summer for them.




Is the group in the book real?

Beale never mentions the name of the religion in I Am Not Esther, but she mentions specific cities in New Zealand, which led me to a group called the Gloriavale Christian Community in that area.

The granddaughter of the founder, Neville Cooper, Lilia Tarawa, has written about her experiences in the Gloriavale Church. She is a motivational speaker who has written about her experiences and also speaks movingly about them in the clip below.

When you hear her story, you will start to notice some direct overlaps between her experiences and the plots of Beale’s novels.

Free Read

The Seven Signs You’re In a Religious Cult” from The Atlantic.

The author of this article, Boze Herrington, was in a different group not associated with the Gloriavale Church, but some of his experiences are similar.

Free Read

“My Life in a Religious Cult” excerpt from Daughter of Gloriavale as presented in The Guardian

Who is Fleur Beale?

Fleur Beale’s being named to the New Zealand Order of Merit Photo Credit: New Zealand Government, Office of the Governor-General / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)

Fleur Beale’s being named to the New Zealand Order of Merit

Photo Credit: New Zealand Government, Office of the Governor-General / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)

Fleur Beale is a former teacher from Wellington, New Zealand, which is also the setting of I Am Not Esther. The flyleaf of the book states that Beale wrote this book, in fact, because of incidents that happened to some of her students related to their strict religion.

Beale has been publishing books for children and teens since the early 1990’s.

She has received numerous awards for her work, including being named an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to literature in 2015.

Sequels to I Am Not Esther

Long after the publication of I Am Not Esther, Fleur Beale wrote a nonfiction book about Gloriavale Church.

Beale has written many books for children and teens including two sequels to I Am Not Esther about two other member’s of Kirby’s family who appear in the first book. Both were published nearly two decades after the original story.

If you want to know more about religions

If you are curious about what makes people join religions, the best book I’ve ever read on the subject not connected to any particular religion is James Fowler’s Stages of Faith. Fowler uses a developmental approach similar to Piaget’s Stages of Development to unpack different individuals approach to religion.

About the Cover Photo

Иерей Максим МассалитинCamera ( https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0). 8 May 2005.

Иерей Максим МассалитинCamera (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0). 8 May 2005.

The cover photo shows Golgotha, the place of Christ’s crucifixion, in inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

What’s tricky about cults is that so many of them draw on tenants of religion that people recognize and may even be a member of already. It can be hard to recognize the signs.

In my two visits to The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I have seen many different kinds of Christians including those in many different types of religious and plain clothes that I never imagined!