Book Review: The Creaking on the Stairs, by Mez McConnell
Mez McConnell, The Creaking on the Stairs: Finding Faith in God through Childhood Abuse. Christian Focus, 2019. 240 pages.
One of the greatest challenges I have faced as a pastor is knowing how to apply the comfort of the gospel to the abused. Not long ago, a young woman sat at my kitchen table sharing how, as a child, she suffered physical and sexual violence at the hand of numerous abusers. Looking in my eyes, she asked me three questions; Why did God stand by and watch this suffering, am I really expected to forgive my abusers, and can my abusers be saved if they repent?
I felt out of my depth. I floundered, and, frankly, I blew it. I have sound theological principles, but I didn’t understand how to apply them to this young woman, her suffering, her fears, or her anger. She needed the truths of the gospel sensitively applied to her suffering. While she left knowing the truth, I was not able to capably apply the gospel to her pain. By God’s grace, I would now be much better prepared for that conversation, largely because of Mez McConnell’s new book The Creaking on the Stairs.
A SOBERING LOOK AT ABUSE
In The Creaking on the Stairs, McConnell chronicles his life growing up in an abusive home. These pages transport you back to the dingy council house in northern England where McConnell spent his miserable childhood. In this home, McConnell was tormented and abused by his stepmother—a woman who remains nameless to the reader.
His descriptions of his life are immersive. Just a few pages into the book I could nearly smell the cigarettes and alcohol and hear McConnell’s abusers jeering at him.
The stories of emotional and physical abuse are at times hard to stomach. Consider just one story among countless others. On one occasion, he recounts excelling at his school exams such that his scores were in the top 2% of the country. Might this achievement bring some reprieve from the constant verbal, physical, and emotional abuse? Hardly. His stepmother responded: “Go get yourself a slice of bread for your tea. Put some margarine on it. Not too much though it’s not Christmas” (39).
What’s perhaps even more heartbreaking is McConnell’s response: “Wow, bread and margarine. She must be happy with me. ‘Thank God’ I said inwardly as I went to the kitchen to claim my reward” (39).
He was so malnourished and mistreated that the prospect of eating one slice of bread and a thin coat of margarine for his evening meal brought him great excitement.
But his excitement didn’t last long:
An hour later I heard the door slamming and then the sound of silence descended over the house. Then the sounds of footsteps on the old rotten staircase with the threadbare carpet. My stomach jumped. The all-too-familiar fear came over me. Would she pass by and go to bed, or would she stumble through the door to my room? (40).
McConnell’s stepmother didn’t go to bed, but instead entered his room and abused him physically and emotionally—eventually knocking him unconscious. In the midst of this unspeakable evil his stepmother would repeat: “You’re nothing. You’ll never be anything. Nobody loves you. Nobody ever will” (40).
As McConnell recounts his torment I experienced sadness, grief, anger, and even hate for people I had never met before. I wanted to rescue McConnell. I wanted to confront his abusers. I wanted to see them face justice. Disturbingly, I wanted to see them suffer.
The Creaking on the Stairs has given me a tiny glimpse of what abuse victims have endured. His stories helped me understand more how the young woman who had sat at my kitchen table was feeling.
THE GOSPEL AND ABUSE
Throughout the book, McConnell unfolds how the gospel beautifully engaged his life and how it heals the abused. Nearly every page offers hope and comfort to the abused, a message of salvation for sinners, and a reminder that all of us fall short of the glory of God—whether your childhood was blessed, abusive, or even if you are an abuser.
I may have been a victim, but I know deep down that I was not guiltless. I had hurt people. I had lied. I had cheated. I had done terrible things. But, most grievous of all, I had denied my creator. I had cursed Him. I had shaken my fist at Him. I had blamed Him for my terrible life and all the bad decisions I had made (146).
He also writes: “I am so thankful that God is not like me. The Bible says that He is rich in mercy even though we deserve His justice and wrath. . . . Jesus took the punishment for the crime that I committed” (147).
For any who are counseling abuse victims or are ministering in places where abuse is prominent, this book is a helpful evangelistic tool. McConnell communicates the gospel with clarity and doesn’t shy away from telling the abuser and the abused that they are both in rebellion against God. In fact, perhaps one of the most insightful chapters is entitled “The Terrible Reality of Heaven” and answers the question “Can abusers be saved?” McConnell shows how the gospel offers a message of transformation, hope, and forgiveness even for abusers—and how he initially struggled to accept this truth from Scripture.
One of the most pastorally useful sections of the book is McConnell’s meditation on suffering, evil and the sovereignty of God. He deftly shows how to explain the sovereignty of God to abuse victims and how this truth can comfort them.
Why did God stand by and watch suffering? “I form the light and create the darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster, I, the Lord, do all these things” (Isa 45:7). Meditating on this verse, McConnell shows that God didn’t just stand by and watch his abuse, but he remained sovereign over it. God is in control of all good and evil in the world, though his posture toward them is certainly different and he never sins. McConnell reveals that this notion of God’s sovereignty once angered him. How could God be loving and allow such evil? But as McConnell explains, as he came to understand God’s character more fully, God’s sovereignty not only made sense, but it began to bring him comfort. In particular, meditating on the story of Joseph in Genesis 37–50 helped him understand how God can take the worst actions—even abuse—and use them for good.
McConnell’s skillful use of Scripture, his readable style, along with his honesty and vulnerability provide a compelling example of how to wisely apply God’s word to the worst human experiences. Avoiding cheap answers and platitudes, he provides a much-needed example of how to gently share our theology in a way that demonstrates empathy and comfort to victims of abuse.
The book closes with practical advice that is both challenging and convicting. The final pages record interviews with people who have been abused, a repentant abuser, and those that are ministering to the abused and abusers. These interviews give clear, first-hand advice on the importance of and the need to disciple repentant abusers, protect the abused, and guard against abuse happening in our churches.
For pastors who are looking for help on how to minister to the abused, this book is a must-read.