I was privileged to be sent an advanced copy of Naghmeh Panahi’s book, I Didn’t Survive. Before it is released in October, I would like to give some reflections here, hopefully without any spoilers that would take away from the experience of reading it.
I Didn’t Survive is not a standard testimony. Of course, every story is unique, but testimonies that are turned into books do often follow a certain pattern. There is a story of what life was like without Christ, a search for something better, a turning to Christ, problems and persecution, solutions and deliverance and eventually amazing fruit for the gospel. The problems and persecutions are also predictable after reading a few of these books. Fundamentalist groups threatening, upset authorities, and resistance from relatives.
I Didn’t Survive is a much more complicated and painful story. Yes, it includes amazing encouragements of the power of God working through persecuted Christians. It is also a heartbreaking account of the evil and sin that was at work amid revival, hidden at first and eventually, as it always will, bursting out in the open, bringing all sorts of ugliness and destruction.
Although it is not a comfortable read, it is an engaging read, and I am immensely thankful Naghmeh dared to tell her story and Eugene dared to write it down. It takes courage and vision, as responses to the book will undoubtedly be mixed.
Naghmeh’s story of how she met Jesus in the first section of the book is extraordinary and uplifting. Still a child, she becomes a believer in the US, shortly after her family fled the war in Iran. Her loving Muslim parents are very distressed by it, but come around eventually. Naghmeh gets a call to missions and leaves for her native Iran. She experiences danger and setbacks, but people come to faith and she is seeing the fruit of her ministry. So far, her book follows the familiar pattern.
Things change when she meets Saeed. From the time she becomes involved with him, an undercurrent of confusion and tension enters the story. All is not what it seems. Sincere and joyful service slowly turns into a desperate attempt to keep up the appearances of a sincere and joyful service. Just below the surface of miracles and revival, Saeed’s double life of a courageous Spirit-led evangelist on the one hand and a violent and sexually immoral abuser on the other hand, overshadows the beautiful beginnings of the Iranian house churches with a dark cloud. And the story loses its uncomplicated excitement.
As the story progresses, the reader gets sucked into this torrent of confusion, which is also known among abuse survivors as the ‘fog of abuse’. The dutiful ministry wife who wants to believe – in the face of all evidence to the contrary – that she can and must make the marriage work, makes excuse after excuse for the most horrendous offences. She will not give up her dreams and continues to hope they will yet come true.
She is not the only one living in the fog. Ministry associates in Iran experience his abusive side too, struggling to decide if they should choose loyalty to the ‘great man of God’ or common sense. The American pastor who offers him a job witnesses many of his behaviours, but allows him to continue ministering until Saeed decides to leave. Naghmeh’s family likewise do everything they can to support their daughter, but stop short of holding her husband accountable, even after being assaulted themselves. They continue to support the couple and Saeed’s ministry, enabling his continued abuses. Even the police cannot convince them to press charges.
This is the part of the book that is especially uncomfortable, and it is meant to be. Whether we are aware of it or not, we all have people in our lives who are crushed by abuse, and we all know abusers. Abusers will hide their crimes or blame others for it, and the abused will often retreat in fear and confusion. Can we, dare we, see straight? What is the price we are willing to pay to bring darkness to light? To help someone get to safety?
This question becomes more pressing when Naghmeh finally breaks down, no longer able to carry the weight of the secret. As she takes her first steps towards safety and sanity, there are a few walking that path with her. Thank God. But the vast majority, also those who should know better, blame her for bursting the bubble and refuse to let go of the hero image they cherished of the persecuted pastor, Saeed.
This book has no heroes. Although many of the characters, even Saeed, do heroic things when their moment comes, in the end all human idols lay shattered. And out of the mess something new is born.
Naghmeh’s story reminded me of an old song of Julie Miller, also a victim of abuse:
“You can have my heart, if you don’t mind broken things/ You can have my life if you don’t mind these tears/ and I heard that you make all things new/ so I give these pieces all to you/ if you want it you can have my heart”
By the end of the book, that ‘new’ is emerging.