Q&A with Jennifer Mathieu, Author of Devoted

Alisa Harris (l), Jennifer Mathieu (r).

HA note: The following interview is reprinted with permission from the Coalition for Responsible Home Education (CRHE) and Jennifer Mathieu. It was originally published by CRHE on September 22, 2015. 

To read a book review of Devoted by HA blog partner Kierstyn King, click here.


In her novel, DevotedJennifer Mathieu enters the world of Rachel, a dutiful homeschooled daughter and sister to five younger siblings. As Rachel’s mother struggles through depression, Rachel cares for and teaches her younger siblings, escapes into forbidden books, and begins to wonder about the world outside. She reads the blog of Lauren, an older girl who left their community, and Rachel begins to question whether she really wants the path that’s set out for her: marriage, childbirth, and an end to her education. Mathieu deftly paints a very sensitive — and very realistic — portrait of a young girl whose education has effectively ended but who has so much more that she wants to learn. CRHE’s Board Member Alisa Harris spoke with Jennifer Mathieu about her research, what she learned from talking with homeschool alumni, and how her own experience as an educator played into the novel. Note: this interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Alisa Harris: Did you have any connection to the homeschool community before you started researching? How much did you know? 

Jennifer Mathieu: When I was growing up, I went to Catholic school my whole life. My family was a part of our community pool and there was a church community near us that got very involved. The pastor of the church was a college swimmer and became the coach of our community swim team. He brought his whole congregation with him. All of these children homeschooled. I had never known any homeschoolers in my life so every summer I would connect with these homeschooled kids and we would have fun in the summer and I would never see them during the school year. I remember I was always asking them why they were homeschooled. They would explain to me that it was part of their faith, that the Bible told them education was the responsibility of the parent. As a little girl, I remember feeling sorry for them because I felt like they lived for the summer. I felt like the summer was their time to have connections with a ton of other kids. That was my introduction and that’s where my curiosity began.

AH: What were your perceptions before you started your research and how did those perceptions change? What was the most surprising thing that you learned? 

JM: I think something that I intuitively knew or sensed ended up being affirmed by my research. I thought that one of the challenges of being homeschooled, for some children, would be when they had outpaced whatever curriculum they were given. What would happen when they had a hunger to learn more and their parents couldn’t teach them? I remember doing science labs and chemistry labs that were super complicated, and we needed a chemistry lab. I remember thinking How would you do that? How would you complete certain things like that as homeschooler? That was affirmed for me in my research.

Even though it seems so obvious to me now, I had never thought about what a homeschooler would do if they were in an abusive situation. As a teacher, I have to report if a kid tells me anything. Lauren is being physically abused in the book. Who is she supposed to tell? I never thought about the fact that if your only world is this insular homeschool community, if you are being abused who do you have to tell?

AH: You did interviews and talked in-depth with homeschool students and alumni to research the book. Did you look for other types of data too?

JM: Something that I didn’t realize was that the laws were relaxed in the 1980s. I’m a former reporter, I’ve been a teacher for 10 years so the whole topic fascinates me on multiple levels. I was surprised at how easy it is to homeschool in some states. When I taught in public school I noticed there would be kids who would suddenly disappear and we would hear they’re being homeschooled. I would think, They’re getting homeschooled? I know that family and I’m a little bit concerned. Sometimes it was used as an excuse not to have to send the kid to school and that terrified me as an educator.

AH: In addition to writing novels, you’re an educator who teaches English to middle and high schoolers. How did that experience and profession shape your research and the questions you asked as you got to know homeschooled students?

JM: As an educator, what I brought to it was the experience of getting to see a child become excited about learning. I’ve taught students like Rachel who are just intuitively curious. In my mind, Rachel’s an exceptionally bright child. She had to be that smart to want to be able to learn as much as she wanted to learn. I felt that was her avenue out because she became so curious–that hunger to know was what helped her leave. I’ve taught children like that who are exceptionally and incredibly bright and there is such a hunger to learn. I watch students like that get accepted to Yale and University of Texas and they’re just going to flourish and I can’t wait. I say, “Please stay in touch — I want to find out what you do for the world.” As an educator I thought what would it be like if one of these blooming flowers were trapped and wasn’t allowed to bloom? She wants to blossom, she wants to learn.

I used to read obsessively. That was just one thing that I did and I remember thinking back on that when I was writing Rachel’s character. I thought What if that’s all that she had? As an educator I imagined my brightest stars and put them in this environment where they wouldn’t be allowed to shine, and that’s kind of how I wrote Rachel.

AH: The educational picture in the novel is complicated. On the one hand, Rachel is clearly a smart and motivated student who is gifted in math and computers. On the other hand, she doesn’t seem to receive very much instruction for her own education and spends most of her school time teaching her younger siblings. How did you decide to deal with Rachel’s education? Were you surprised at the extent to which some homeschoolers are basically self-taught? 

JM: I was surprised to learn how much responsibility the older girls were given, especially in terms of instructing the little ones. There was an anecdote I read about a man, a father talking about how his 9-year-old daughter didn’t know how to read. He acknowledged that would make people uncomfortable but she was learning everything she needed to learn to be a wife and mother. I remember reading it and my blood just ran cold. I was so shocked.

I am a licensed educator in the state of TX. My teaching certificate is only for English and I could maybe teach my son up to about third or fourth grade level math. That was one thing that I learned as I started reading more — you can buy these curriculums off the internet, but you still need an instructor who can explain it. I don’t think I really realized how much the older girls were tasked with helping the younger ones, even though I would kind of see that in 19 Kids and Counting.

AH: Your novel faces the reality of abuse in the story of Lauren, the blogger Rachel reads, but it doesn’t sensationalize it or make that the focus of the novel. What went into your decision to acknowledge the reality of abuse but also not make it the focus? 

JM: I think that Lauren’s family is portrayed more one-dimensionally and more evil, obviously more abusive. I did not want Rachel’s parents to be one-dimensional. So many homeschoolers I talked to told me about how they loved their parents. Their parents maybe had dysfunctional childhoods of their own and they thought they were giving their kids what they didn’t have. I didn’t want to make Rachel’s parents overtly abusive because that would make it obvious for Rachel to leave. But I had read stories and heard anecdotes about homeschool children who had been abused. I wanted to work that into the narrative and show this more extreme, overt abuse that has gone on. That’s why Lauren’s story is in there. I was trying to show the continuum of the behavior that can go on in these families.

AH: Have you had any reaction from the homeschooling community, alumni or current? How has it been? 

JM: The reaction I’ve received has been very positive. It made me feel good because they said, “You told our story in a way that was not exploitative but was real.” I have had a couple of people say, “It was triggering for me to read it. I had to put it down. I was too emotional at parts.” I don’t want to make people cry, but if I am creating that reaction then it’s authentic. My hope is that people will read Devoted and if people are from that world, they will read the book and hopefully find some validation, perhaps find some encouragement to look forward to enhancing their education through other means.

Resolved: An Index

Resolved: An Index


Call for Stories

By Nicholas Ducote: Resolved: That We Should Talk about HSLDA Debate, NCFCA, STOA, and CFC/ICC, Part One

By Bethany: “Resolved: That We Should Talk about HSLDA Debate, NCFCA, STOA, and CFC/ICC, Part Two”


Debate History and General Topics

By R.L. Stollar: “A Brief History of Homeschool Speech and Debate”

By Nicholas Ducote, “A Letter of Gratitude, A Call for Dialogue”

By Luke: “Debate As Socialization: Luke’s Thoughts”

By Andrew Roblyer: “Angry Emails And Thoughts On Why They Happen: By Andrew Roblyer”

By Alisa Harris: “The Shining City’s Superman: By Alisa Harris”



By Libby Anne: “The Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute: NCFCA and Growing Up in a Conservative Bubble — Libby Anne’s Thoughts”

By Finn:

“Sailboats And The Spirit: Finn’s Thoughts, Part One”

“Sailboats And The Spirit: Finn’s Thoughts, Part Two”

By Philosophical Perspectives:

“Of Love and Office Supplies: Philosophical Perspective’s Thoughts”

“How NCFCA Taught Me to Fight Sexism: Philosophical Perspective’s Thoughts”

By Andrew Roblyer: “The Lessons I Wasn’t Supposed to Learn: Andrew Roblyer’s Thoughts”

By Kierstyn King: “Teenagers Taking Over the World: Kierstyn King’s Thoughts”

By R.L. Stollar:

“The Most Controversial Thing I Ever Wrote, Part One: By R.L. Stollar”

“The Most Controversial Thing I Ever Wrote, Part Two: By R.L. Stollar”

By Jayni: The Space To Be Human: Jayni’s Story



By Krysi Kovaka:

“I Was A Problem To Be Ignored: Krysi Kovaka’s Story, Part One”

“I Was A Problem To Be Ignored: Krysi Kovaka’s Story, Part Two”

By R.L. Stollar: “I Was The Original CFC Fuck-Up: R.L. Stollar’s Story”

By Marla: “Competence, Not Character: Marla’s Story”

By Michele Ganev: “CFC Gave Me Confidence: Michele Ganev’s Story”

By Renee: “Sharing the Burden of the Pedestal: Renee’s Story”


Great BJU Protest of 2009

By Joe Laughon: “Engaging the World — Debate and the BJU Protest: An Interview with Joe Laughon”

By Ariel: “The Embarrassment of Protesting Racism: Ariel’s Thoughts”

By Krysi Kovaka: “When I Recanted What I Truly Believed: Krysi Kovaka’s Thoughts”

The Shining City’s Superman: By Alisa Harris

The Shining City’s Superman: By Alisa Harris

HA note: The following story is reprinted with permission. Excerpted from Raised Right by Alisa Harris Copyright © 2011 by Alisa Harris. Excerpted by permission of WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. – See more at: http://waterbrookmultnomah.com/catalog.php?work=206894#sthash.Wt4qBeys.dpuf

It was clear on day one of our homeschool speech class that our instructor, the head of the county Republican party, was training us up to be GOP operatives. And it was clear in the final days of the class that I was up to the challenge.

“And for our final exercise we will have a mini-debate competition. And for the resolution… Drumroll please! ‘Resolved: that Ronald Reagan was the greatest president of the twentieth century!’”

He held aloft the prize, a calendar featuring Ronald Reagan pictures alongside quotes from the Great Communicator. I promptly died and went to a heaven where there was no more dying and no more tears, no progressive income taxes, and no ACLU. No Democratic National Committee or William Jefferson Clinton. Where the Gipper sat at the right hand of Jesus who sat at the right hand of God. When I returned to earth, I knew only one thing mattered: I had to have that calendar.

Some children revere saints. In the conservative circles of my childhood, we had heroes—not suffering martyrs who sacrificed for their faith but conquerors who crushed the enemies of God with truth and justice. These conquerors had to be Christians, preferably of humble roots and always of stainless character, who overcame their enemies to accomplish deeds that changed the world. We read glowing heroic accounts that omitted Thomas Jefferson’s deism, Louisa May Alcott’s transcendentalism, and Christopher Columbus’s avarice.

Choosing a hero was imperative, and mine was Ronald Reagan. I devoured every book that canonized him and gulped down his 752-page autobiography. I collected his movies: The Hasty Heart, in which an angry Scotsman bests him for the broken heart of an angelic nurse; Bedtime for Bonzo, in which he parents a monkey while accidentally winning the affection of a charming farm girl. But the crown was This Is the Army, a patriotic epic in which Reagan plays an entertainer who joins the army and discovers his assignment is to put on a musical show to boost morale.

In my speech class we were debating the greatness of Ronald Reagan not because anyone disagreed he was great but because we had to know our enemies’ arguments if we were to defeat them. Whenever our speech teacher asked, “Why do we learn speech?” my hand shot up: “To learn to give a defense for the hope that’s within us!” I was quoting the apostle Peter, who was speaking of the gospel. But to me the hope of the gospel meant more than the truth that Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man, had come to earth, died on a cross to free us from sin, and then rose on the third day. It also meant the hope of being free from the shackles of government as we worked to redeem the world for Christ through political means. I read Jesus’s words in Luke 4:18: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed.”When I heard “freedom” I thought “deregulation of onerous government rules”; when I heard “blind” I thought “blind to the virtue of limited government”; when I heard “oppressed” I thought of children who were not allowed to pray in school and successful rich people whose money was seized by the government. I would whisper, “It is for freedom that Christ set us free,” and would think, Freedom to display the Ten Commandments in a public place!

And Ronald Reagan was the earthly bringer of this good news. His story proved the truth that one person had the power to mold our nation into the kingdom of God if he had the fortitude to stand against the axis of evil, cut taxes, and build up nuclear arms. Ronald Reagan restored America to its economic and moral and political glory. I could do the same for my own generation if I was only open to God working through me, if I could give great speeches full of great thoughts.


And so this semester-long speech class was a practice drill for my ultimate mission. I gave speeches on the power of words to change the world (using Ronald Reagan as my prime example), on why George W. Bush should be the Republican nominee for president (comparing him to Ronald Reagan), and on why public school students should rise up against tyrannical administrators who forbade prayer in public schools. Before my speech teacher announced our final debate, I had given a speech on why Ronald Reagan was the greatest president since Teddy Roosevelt. I was the greatest communicator of the Great Communicator’s greatness.

That calendar should be mine.

A few days before the debate took place, I had the chance to defend my arguments before opponents who didn’t just pretend to disagree. We had my grandparents over for dinner—a set of urbane atheists who had birthed a couple of disappointingly religious nuts in my mother and her older sister, a Russian Orthodox nun. When my sisters and I mentioned we were working hard on our speeches, our parents seized the opportunity to squeeze in some rhetorical practice. “Why don’t you give your grandparents one of your speeches?” my dad asked.

I mentally ran through my repertoire, realizing that I was now forced, by the limitations of my earlier rhetorical exercises, to take a stand for truth and seize the moment to witness for God and Republican values. The time to share my hope with the unconverted had come. When the Word of God goes out, it does not come back void, I reminded myself—and besides, their criticism would help hone my arguments for our Reagan debate. So I printed out the latest draft of my speech on why Ronald Reagan was the greatest president since Teddy Roosevelt.

As my grandparents settled onto the couch, I took my place behind the large stereo speaker we used as a podium, my belly quaking a little. My deaf grandmother always boomed her outrage at a volume I could not match, at which point she would bellow, “Speak from your diaphragm!”—an order we never quite executed to her satisfaction.

I cleared my throat and opened my eyes wide as my parents had instructed when I’d practiced my speeches before. Hand gestures were still beyond my preadolescent oratorical skills, so I anchored my fists to my sides and lobbed my cause: “Ronald Reagan stood before the vast, huge, thick Berlin wall and said, ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!’ And Mr. Gorbachev did tear down that wall.” I described how Ronald Reagan had inspired Americans to be “happy, joyous, and proud to be Americans again.” He was great because he had destroyed the “evil, inhuman wrong Communist empire.” And most important, he believed in God.

I sat down, trembling with the thrill of suffering the persecution sure to come, but my grandparents merely applauded. My mild-mannered grandfather was too polite to match his seventy-five years of honed intellect against that of a twelve-year-old. My deaf grandmother had not heard a word.

When the debate day came, my sister and I took our places behind our table and I sized up our two opponents. Daniel was a massive youth with an imposing physical presence, but when our dad said, “I just think girls have more natural verbal skills than some men,” he was speaking of Daniel. Mark, by contrast, was a gentle soul whose goal was to become a veterinarian. He had a habit of walking my mom out to her car and carefully closing her car door behind her. She always said, “Well, thank you, Mark,” and as we drove off, my dad would say, “He’s such a nice kid, but it’s a little too much.”

No doubt, my sister and I were sharper and feistier. This would be an easy victory.

The boys, as born conservatives themselves, knew it was impossible to argue that Ronald Reagan was bad, so they argued instead that he was not quite as good as Theodore Roosevelt. I debated brilliantly, argued passionately, painted a deft picture of Theodore Roosevelt as a progressive who instituted unconstitutional national parks and set Big Government in motion. I dipped into my brain and drew up fistfuls of Gipper trivia, skewering each of my opponents with the force of truth.

After we gave our rebuttals, I waited impatiently for our teacher to announce the winner, anguishing over the thought that the calendar might adorn Mark’s wall or, even worse, kick around the room of someone who wouldn’t give it a place of honor. “And the prize goes to the Affirmative team, which has proved that Ronald Reagan was the greatest president of the twentieth century!”

I took the calendar, cupping Ronald Reagan’s face in my loving hands. My sister and I would enshrine his image on the wall of the bedroom we shared, but he was really all mine.

A few months later someone at church trying to make conversation on a topic they knew I loved and casually mentioned some news I found devastating. A liberal media outlet had taken a poll on who was the greatest president of the century. Of the choices offered, Ronald Reagan came in last. I ranted and raved to my family in the car on the way home, seething at the idiocy of my fellow Americans. The next day I collared a mother at speech class to inform her of this travesty. She politely extricated herself by saying consolingly, “Well, at least we know the truth.”

But her response wounded me as much as the poll. For the next few days I was brimming with tears, my heart breaking for the Americans who had ranked Ronald Reagan last, not because they were malicious but because how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And why would anyone preach if they thought it was enough simply to know the truth themselves?

Somewhere in there, I got my gospels crossed.