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July 20, 2011

Growing Up Christian Science

As a child, Lucia Greenhouse was not allowed to visit a doctor or even pop an Advil, as part of her religion. Could she keep the faith?

lucia greenhouse

Lucia Greenhouse with her mother in 1968.

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When she was 7 years old, Lucia Greenhouse got the chicken pox — but she was told the disease did not exist. The itchy red bumps on her body, her father said, weren't really there: They were an illusion, a sign that there was an error in her thinking and she needed to pray. Illness, contagion, germs — these are nonexistent concepts in Christian Science, the religion the Greenhouse family practiced. Her father explained, "If we think of God's love as a suit of armor, protecting us, we can never be hurt or sick."

Greenhouse, the author of the new memoir fathermothergod, says she accepted the religion as a young girl growing up in suburban Minneapolis, but over the years, doubts crept in. First, there was the time her kitten died, and no one could pray the pet back to health. "I called my dad out on that," she says. Her father, an authority in the church, told her the animal had not died but had gone to a higher plane of existence. Then there were the more everyday contradictions: For instance, it was acceptable to have a tooth pulled by a dentist because that was a "mechanical correction," Greenhouse says, but it was not OK to take novocaine for the pain.

In junior high, when Greenhouse began having trouble seeing the blackboard at school, her doubts sparked a family crisis: She told her father she might need glasses, and he suggested she try prayer instead. She rebelled and got the glasses — but never wore them at home.

By the time she graduated from Brown, Greenhouse had left the faith behind. But her parents' beliefs came back to haunt her, on a Christmas visit home in 1985. That's when she discovered her parents had been hiding a secret: Her mother was terribly ill. When Greenhouse asked her parents what was going on, they declined to even discuss symptoms. "It was hell," Greenhouse says. "It's a hell I've carried with me for the rest of my life." Her mother eventually checked in to a Christian Science center, where practitioners prayed for her; when her condition became critical, she finally went to a hospital, where she died of colon cancer. "The abandonment felt raw," Greenhouse says, describing her mother's reluctance to get medical treatment. "It still does."

Greenhouse, now a married mother of four and self-described "hockey mom" in Westchester, New York, says she spent more than two decades writing the book, first to help herself heal, but also to shed light on the religion and its contradictions. "The church has presented a squeaky-clean image," she says. "I wanted people to see it in a different light. Kids have died of treatable illnesses. Children don't get the usual vaccinations. It's a fringe faith."

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