Chair of Andrews University's communication department, Rachel Williams-Smith, talks about growing up off the grid, and why she remains an Adventist today.
Question: What inspired you to write your new book, Born Yesterday: The True Story of a Girl Born in the 20th Century but Raised in the 19th?
Answer: I’ve always known that I had an unusual life. Right about the time that I was 30, I thought about writing Oprah and telling her about my stories. I knew I had an unusual enough story to be on Oprah, and that was my dream. But then I thought, Well, that would give me my 15 minutes in the sunshine, as it were, and that’s it. Then what? I couldn’t answer why I would do that. So then decided I would never publicly share my story until I could answer “Why?”
It was not until I went to work on my doctoral program that I learned about ethnography and then autoethnography. Ethnographers look at people in their own natural settings; for instance, my professor had spent time in Tanzania studying Maasai warriors. Autoethnography is similar, but focuses on the study of self set in culture. That’s when I realized my unusual life could be a part of my study.
When I mentioned my background to my professor, he said: “You have got to use that!” I began to realize I really had a story to tell. My dissertation chair and others really pushed me to use it.
So I used auto-ethnography in my dissertation, which I finished in 2007, and I was the only one at Regent University to ever do a dissertation based on that method.
After that, everyone said: “You need to write a book!”
How long did it take you to write it? How did you find the process? Have you ever written a book before?
The electronic version of my book came out last summer, and the printed version was published in October last year.
After I finished my dissertation eight years ago, I was done with my story. I didn’t want to hear about it anymore! But probably three years later I went back to it, and started thinking about pulling different stories out of the dissertation.
It took me two years of serious writing to finish the book. It began with my dissertation, but that was scholarly research that used stories to enliven key points. The book is all a story, told without much commentary.
And no, I have never written a book before.
But yes, I will write another book. For every story I told in Born Yesterday, there are at least four others I didn’t tell. And I didn’t say much about my children and my challenge of raising them (in light of the way I was raised!). I also want to also tell more about my parents’ stories, and what made them the way they were.
But don’t expect the second book any time soon!
Who published Born Yesterday?
Xulon Press, which is actually a company that helps you to self-publish. I have had offers from publishers, but I am waiting for the right one. I decided to go with self-publishing initially. The book has a frankness that we don’t typically see in Adventist literature. I wanted it to be exactly what it is.
I have heard that it has had a powerful effect on people — that’s because it hasn’t been glossed over, and made pretty. It looks like life, and that is what people want.
I have prayed about this. The Lord really guided me on what he wanted me to do. He told me to tell the story of my life as I lived it.
Who inspired you?
There were two inspirations for my writing style. The first is Maya Angelou. I have read all of her books. She doesn’t dress anything up when she talks about her life. She makes it poetic, and paints pictures for her readers, but she doesn’t explain away her mistakes.
My other inspiration was the Bible, where I found the same thing. The Bible just tells the story. The prophet was told to go home without stopping. He stopped, and he died. That’s it. No editorializing. You just have to figure it out.
So I tell my story. What you get out of it is up to you. I share insights as they occur to me, but I am not going to go back and edit. You can think whatever you want to think when you finish.
It must have been hard to always be frank. Was there anything you left out in order to spare the feelings of your family? Was it difficult to be honest and open about your family and the way you grew up?
It was quite hard. I didn’t want to make anyone look bad. When I was writing some parts of the book, I cried a lot. But I finally decided I had to just tell what happened in my life. I am not condemning anyone else.
What about your mother and brothers?
After I wrote the manuscript, I sent it to my brothers and mother. My mother said she didn’t want to read it before it was published. My brothers read it, and they gave me input. For the most part they were really supportive.
Your book talks about your childhood spent growing up in the woods with no modern conveniences. Why did your parents decide to live this way?
Neither of my parents were raised Seventh-day Adventist. They were both born to relatively poor, large families, in the city. My mother came to the truth when she about 15, and father was about 20. For them, learning about the truth was amazing.
When my father was in the military, and when I was two years old, we went to Spain. My parents couldn’t understand the [Adventist church] services because they were in Spanish. So my parents started spending a lot of time reading Ellen G. White for themselves. This was in late 1960s and early 1970s. [Robert] Brinsmead and [Desomond] Ford were stirring up questions about the church. My parents were open-minded, questioning, and studying. The more they read, the more they saw things that they believed were wrong in the Church. They began connecting with groups saying the [Adventist] church was apostate. They began seeing the church wasn’t always following Ellen White’s advice.
Both of my parents were nurses, and did their pre-nursing courses at Oakwood. But as they began reading what Ellen White says about drugs and diet, my mom began to bring that into our lives. We got healthier, and we could see that. Then they focused on dress — and we began wearing long dresses. Then education — my parents decided they should homeschool us kids to keep us from the corruption of the world. So they took my brothers out of school (I hadn’t yet started). At that time, homeschool was illegal, and the principal of the school reported us. The city gave my parents an ultimatum, and threatened that us kids would be taken away.
And that’s when we went off the grid.
My parents were reading about “out of the city” in Ellen White’s books, and they believed the end of the world would be soon. They believed people who were self-sufficient and had their own gardens and so on would fare better in the time of trouble. So they decided to separate from the world, and prepare for Jesus’ coming.
We lived in a state park for a while, then moved to a 50-acre lot “on the hill.”
Did other friends of your parents also decide to go "off the grid” with them?
My parents were not the groupie type. They were independent and strong-willed. They forged ahead with their beliefs and went a degree beyond where most people we knew were willing to go. We knew others with similar ideals, but we had the entire package.
We wore long dresses and bonnets, lived without running water and electricity, had a strict diet, kept feast days, and were educated at home.
Some others may have done some of those things, but not all of them. Few lived as isolated as we did.
What was the best thing about growing up the way you did? What was the worst experience you ever had in your childhood, or the hardest thing?
The best thing: I think that our society tries to formalize children’s education too soon. Children need to roam. They shouldn’t spend hours at a desk at age six. They need to explore and touch things, experience things. We were allowed to see nature and do things. We would dissect animals we found and look for their organs. Once we dissected a dead snake we found, then a dead rabbit. We couldn’t find enough dead things, so one day my brother Jeff found a big old grasshopper, took his knife and just sliced his head off. We learned a lot just by being out there doing and seeing. Our education was very practical and hands-on.
Another thing that was really good was the way we memorized scripture. By the time I was 16 I had memorized about 30 full chapters of the Bible. (We also had the doctrinal training, which wasn’t necessarily bad — we just had way too much.) But I will never regret learning Scriptures.
The worst thing about growing up the way I did was the conflicts. It seemed like we could never get along with other people. If other people didn’t see things exactly the way we did, we would kick them off our property. Those kinds of dissensions were hard. We had so few people to associate with as it was.
For instance, if you believe you should only eat oil in its natural state (contained in fruit, nuts or grains) and I believe I should only eat only free-running oil — then we can’t speak.
If you believe the new moon is when the slightest bit of crescent can be seen, and I believe the new moon is when it’s completely dark, we yell and kick each other out.
My family and their friends would turn into snarling devils, screaming at each other if we disagreed about the nature of man, or whatever.
You ask what the worst thing was. I’ll try to explain.
If you go to a gourmet restaurant, with everything perfect — amazing food garnished beautifully — and then, just before the plate is handed to you, they sprinkle just a little feces on the top, what do you think? It’s perfect food, right? But that no longer means anything. You find yourself in utter revulsion of everything on the plate. The entire experience is utterly ruined.
And that’s how it was. We lived in extremism. We followed the letter of the law, but not the spirit. That ruins everything. It makes you want to reject all of it, and want nothing to do with God, religion, or anyone who has so much as smelled religion!
It’s very surprising that in spite of everything you experienced, you are still a believer in God, and still an Adventist. How can you explain that? Haven’t you been tempted to leave the church entirely?
It surprises me too! How can I explain it? At age 14, the Lord Jesus got ahold of me and let me know that what I was learning was not really him. I realized something was wrong. I saw some very disturbing things, such as when my brother was very badly burned, my parents did not take him to the hospital, but experimentally treated him with natural remedies. I felt that must be wrong.
Another time, we were at an Adventist campmeeting, passing out tracts. If I am being honest, we were trying to disrupt the meetings and pull people away from the Church. And we were good at it. The more you are persecuted, the better you do, because people start feeling sorry for you.
One lady invited us for dinner, and she went out of her way to cook us a really good vegan dinner. But we didn’t eat it, and couldn’t have eaten it no matter what we she did. We asked: “What kind of oil did you use? What about salt? What type of pots, and what else have you cooked in them?” We were trying to show her that she could not meet our standards. She had gone out of her way to feed us and make us feel welcome, but that wasn’t important. I felt that something was very wrong about that.
Sometimes at age 15 or 16 I would be in my window, kneeling for hours. I wondered if every girl and woman in the whole world should be wearing a bonnet and long dress? We were taught that everything was rule-based and absolute. But I just felt something was wrong about that.
I realized I wouldn’t have the freedom to change while living at home. So I began to ask God to let me go away to school.
I went to Fountainview Academy, a small self-supporting school in British Columbia, Canada. There were 30 kids there. To most, that would be small; for me it was overwhelming with so many other kids! For some people it would have been very restrictive, but for me it was extreme freedom. I arrived in my bonnet and long dress (which I wore for a couple of months before I gave them up).
The principal there introduced me to principles. She showed me that principles don’t change, but rules do. She used some of my own arguments against me. That was an epiphany. That is what made it possible for me stay in the church, and be an Adventist.
So first, I met Jesus. Then I learned about principles. I learned a way of thinking that was more flexible and broad than the absolute, rule-based thinking I was raised with. I found a way to be, to adjust, to live in a world of color, not just black and white.
Over time, I ended up moving toward relationship-based thinking. The truth is now not a set of facts, but Jesus. I can be a Seventh-day Adventist, because this is where Christ has rooted me. This is where I can bloom. Jesus is the center. It’s very easy.
Do you believe in the inspiration of Ellen White today still?
I believe some of Ellen White’s writings were inspired, but not necessarily every word and every letter she wrote. So I tend to reject that phrase you used. I don’t think Ellen White considered herself to be inspired in that way. She always said if her writings measured up to the word of God, use them, and if not, use the Word.
I find that her writings after 1888 have a different tone and a different emphasis. The difference? In 1888 she discovered righteousness by faith. She accepted Jesus as her Saviour in a way she hadn’t before.
How is your relationship with your parents today?
My father died in 2012. My mother lives with me.
Are you close?
We are proximally close. She still has a lot of beliefs that can sometimes rub me like a jagged edge. I love her very much and care for her. She has just always been herself.
It sounds like it was your father and mother together who decided to live the way they did, rather than one of them, is that right?
It took both of them to do it. My father is the one who envisioned a lot of things, and said “This is what we are going to do.” Mother said, “Okay, this is how we are going to do it.” They couldn’t have done it without each other.
In what ways did the primitive way you grew up shape the person you are today, perhaps both negatively and positively?
All the aloneness that I experienced helped me to become a writer. I would write my thoughts. I had to express on paper what I couldn’t express to other people.
Because I was alone a lot, many social and cultural things came much later in my life. Most people just know things from growing up in society. I didn’t; I had to learn.
Everything about my life today is an outgrowth of the way I was raised. The choices were mine, but the way I grew up shapes everything.
You are now chair of the communications department at Andrews University, the flagship Adventist school. What do you credit with getting you to where you are today?
God’s guidance in my life. Him not letting me go. He talked to me when we were still living out there on the hill, and told me he had a plan for my life. I couldn’t fathom it, but I believed it. I just wanted to do something good, to make a difference somehow.
And I discovered, through writing my book, as I kept weaving together the stories, that what looked like a collection of unrelated incidents, was actually a full plot. I couldn’t see it earlier. I thought I was just sharing experiences, but in the last chapter I saw it all coming together. I realized God was weaving a pattern through my life that I couldn’t even see at the time.
Now my purpose is to bring people to him.
I don’t know where this book will go. I haven’t had time to market it. I hope it will make a difference in people’s lives, especially for people who have been damaged by religion, and by the way God has been misused. I hope this book can give them hope. I have had people say that it has.
In light of my background, it is particularly interesting and ironic that I am chair of the Department of Communication at the Adventist church’s flagship university.
I was raised in a home where we were taught that media was evil, and that we should stay out of the world.
But in Ellen White’s book Education (page 262 and 263), she talks about the whole world opening to the gospel — how Ethiopia, China, India, and our own continent are all reaching out their hands to God, with hearts crying out to Christ. Millions want to know about the Saviour.
Now, the only way I know to reach millions is through media. Because of this quote, I am convicted of the power of media.
I came to Andrews, and saw there was not a strong program to teach young people how to use media. I am now trying to fundraise, use what we have, and create programming to help change the world.
This is my passion, that God has put on my heart. I want to train young people to use their amazing talents and knowledge to develop programming that will help to reach other young people.
Read excerpts from Rachel Smith-Williams' book, see photographs, and find information about purchasing it, at www.rachelwilliamssmith.com.
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