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Daughters of Cain: The Voice of Preacher’s Daughters Everywhere

TW: This article contains references to multiple forms of violence and abuse.

When I first heard the loud ringing notes of the electric guitar opening Ethel Cain’s American Teenager, the sound took me back to my teen years. Standing in a circus tent, listening to stadium worship music with 10,000 other young people all praising a good and mighty God. The song floored me. Loud unashamed music like that used to bring me closer to Him. I stopped singing at church when I stopped believing in His goodness. I quit the church band because the words felt hollow. I felt I shouldn’t be leading people in worshipping a God I was angry at. Those guitar riffs were so familiar and soaked into my bones like an old friend. The shame of it is that those memories of taking in the powerful booming music will forever be tainted by the man who led the events where I built the majority of my spirituality, my connection with something bigger forever marred with revelations of systematic spiritual abuse, the exploitation of young people on fire for God. 

I think if Ethel Cain knew the feelings of familiarity and hollowness that her music brought out in me, she would be proud. The 25-year-old Tallahassee-born singer was inspired by her Southern Baptist roots. She is like a spookier Lana Del Rey. She combines gothic dream pop with Americana and, randomly, Gregorian chants, creating an ethereal, almost spiritual experience for her listeners. While Ethel Cain is a character, and Preacher’s Daughter is a concept album with a beginning, middle and end, her story is so relatable and powerful for anyone, particularly those who have been a victim of Church mentality. 

I first picked up Preacher’s Daughter for a laugh. Being an ex-preacher’s daughter myself, I thought that I would probably enjoy a bit of relatability. 75 minutes later, I was lying face down on my bed, completely bereft. 

This concept album tells the story of Ethel Cain, the daughter of a powerful but corrupt televangelist preacher living in a small town. She escapes the abuse of her father, falls in love with a man who subsequently sells her into prostitution, kills and eventually cannibalises her. 

While this isn’t incredibly relatable for most people as a basic concept, it touches heavily on the spiritual abuse from inside the Church. It exposes the dichotomy between the public-facing good-guy narrative of famous Christian preachers and the dark underbelly of their private lives and personas. More often than not, the vulnerable are the ones who are the biggest victims of these ‘godly men’; queer people and women often find themselves left to the mercy of men crazed with power from the Bible. 

This is seen all over the world today. In 2018, Chicago megachurch Willow Creek’s pastor Bill Hybels stepped down from his role after 10 women came forward with sexual assault allegations. This was only after the board had dismissed, ridiculed and denied their claims. In Australia, Hillsong leader Brian Houston found himself in hot water as it was discovered that his late father, Frank Houston, the founder of his church, had sexually abused young children, and Brian knew and covered it up. In the UK, as recently as May last year, Soul Survivor Watford Revd. Mike Pilavachi was forced to step down after it was discovered that he spiritually abused young interns for 40 years. Soul Survivor had an annual young people’s festival which ended in 2019, and from the ages of 11-18, I was in attendance. The new allegations against Pilavachi brought a horrifying truth home for me. No matter how charismatic or Godly someone seems in public, they can still be sinners in private.

Ethel Cain did so many things right in this album, but the one that rang the most true for me was the fact that while people could call her an iconoclast, they could never call her blasphemous. While she faces her dark past with the church and her complicated relationship with God, it is imperative that it is that: complicated. She never blames God for her plights. She never makes Jesus the catalyst. Instead, it’s the people with God-like power who do the most damage. Christianity as a religion is based on compassion. It’s only people with power who have twisted it into an exhausting labyrinth of rules and ideas that are virtually impossible to follow, even for those who spew them from the pulpit every Sunday, virtually hoisting themselves on their own petards. 

How refreshing it would be to have a preacher who preached their sins and their brokenness to the masses, who stood apologetic but took ownership of what they had done. Instead of asking people to walk the walk and talk the talk, which is virtually impossible, we ask them to admit and own up to their grievances long before more people get hurt in the name of God. There is a change happening in the Christian Church, and maybe one day, there will be no need for an album like Preacher’s Daughter. For now, I, for one, am glad it exists. 
In one of the lines of the penultimate track of this beautiful album, Sun Bleached Flies, Cain sings, “What I wouldn’t give to be in Church this Sunday/Listening to the choir, so heartfelt, all singing” and this is the purest line from the whole album. She sings this track while she’s dying, making peace with her life up until now. Even though she had suffered so greatly at the hands of the Church, all she wants is to be back in a congregation, soaking up the worship music like me in that circus tent.

Listen to Preacher’s Daughter on Spotify here:

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