Daughter of Gloriavale: Lilia Tarawa's story of escape

by David Hill / 02 December, 2017

Raised in the repressive Gloriavale community until she was a teenager, Lilia Tarawa details her struggles there and in the real world. 

The sequence is almost a cliché. Charismatic man (they’re always male) helps and inspires disadvantaged people.

Community forms, flourishes, detaches itself from the world. Leader grows more messianic. Families fret, the press probes and allegations bubble. Leader is convicted of abuse in some form. Community dwindles or implodes. Think Jonestown, Mount Carmel at Waco, Centrepoint.

Gloriavale escapee Lilia  Tarawa: bewildered and bereft.

And Gloriavale, near Arthur’s Pass. Lilia Tarawa, granddaughter of Neville Cooper, aka the grotesquely self-named Hopeful Christian (yes, I’ve read Bunyan), lived there for 18 years, until her family left, first one by one then en bloc, pursued by Grandad’s rantings.

For many of those years, she felt loved and nurtured. Indeed, she’s meticulously even-handed in her portrait of Cooper, acknowledging his physical courage, resourcefulness and inexhaustible work for his followers. She also details his sexual creepiness, paranoia, bizarre obsession with trivia. Zips on women’s clothing were an abomination, as were tea and coffee.

Named after Cooper’s first wife (his third was more than 50 years his junior), Gloriavale began buoyantly. It was an “economic powerhouse”: sphagnum moss, deer velvet, adventure tourism. For a while, it even had its own airline. Up to 500 grateful followers lived there.

The gratitude didn’t last. Lilia’s parents were less submissive than others. They and she became bewildered and disillusioned as the community grew more totalitarian. She was censured after a school report praised her leadership qualities (she was a female, after all).

The hierarchy of creature comforts where leaders had en suites and spas while others shared dormitory lavatories; the almost publicly consummated arranged marriages (“Yuck!” the young girl thought); the denunciations of gays, feminists and any member who broke the proliferating prohibitions: in the end, it was pettiness as well as principles that made the family leave.

Because they left, they were “cursed with the mark of the beast”. Lilia was bewildered and bereft and suffered months of panic attacks. But eventually she met a nice tall bloke and her life started to reassemble.

Conventional literary criteria aren’t all that relevant here. The writing often has a rather endearing schoolgirl prattle to it. The narrative is direct, unaffected and sometimes flat. The life-coach bits at the end (she’s now a “health and lifestyle business mentor”) are well meant, but not well rendered.

But it makes an affecting parable and testament, in the most commendably secular senses. The very best of fortune to its gutsy young author.

DAUGHTER OF GLORIAVALE, by Lilia Tarawa (Allen & Unwin, $36.99)

This article was first published in the November 4, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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