HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Kierstyn’s blog Bridging the Gap. It consists of two separate posts that HA has combined. The first, “The Cult That Changed Everything,” was originally published on March 18, 2013. The second, “Silence Isn’t Golden,” was originally published on March 10, 2013.
The Cult That Changed Everything
When I was between the ages of 5 and 7 my parents joined a bible study group through a family in our homeschool group. I guess it was less of a bible study and more of a home-church, because we went to their house for hours every weekend (I can’t remember if it was Saturday or Sunday, probably Sunday). This was not very long into homeschooling, maybe a year or two – my parents, I think, had been pressured by some of the group who had an incredibly spiritual persona that they weren’t godly or spiritual enough *or* homeschooling for the right reasons (but that’s a different discussion entirely). Anyway, My brother and I, we went along to this group with our parents and sat around being really bored, eating weird tasting food, listening to whatever it was we could understand and spending the rest of the time looking at the animals and wondering why it smelled funny at their house (they had a farm, and were into healthy/organic/self-sustaining life and for some reason that has a particular smell).
I don’t remember how long it took before my parents and the other couples at the group were introduced to this program called “Cleansing Stream.” Wanting to be godly and whatever, everyone hopped on board – they “learned” how to study their bible, use a concordance, expel demons (no, I’m not kidding), and we all had to make sacrifices (my brother and I lost many a loved plushie in the name of demon expulsion, and family heirlooms which didn’t matter to *me* as much) to make sure the demons didn’t have any “footholds”. There was a little red book, and any work by the Beveres’ makes me run the other direction. A lot of this now is instinctual, I don’t remember exactly what was taught (besides that demons could inhabit christians if they sinned, and apparently my stuffed tiger) but the ramifications have lasted…well they haven’t stopped.
My parents “left” or dropped out of the cult when they realized that the whole demon-inhabiting-christian-thing wasn’t actually biblical, but they never exited. They learned how to interpret the bible (according to the cult) and this is what became harmful. I was too young to understand anything happening at the bible study (that, or the memory is just blacked out), but the price that came with the things they learned there and after cost a lot:
Somehow god had turned from a loving being to an angry, vindictive, bastard who sent bad things to people for the fun of it, to “test” them, and “try them by fire” and somehow you knew you were loved by how miserable your life was and how much you suffered. The years following the cult were packed with much “love” from this deity.
We became increasingly isolated, we were drilled on the family beliefs, we had unassisted home-births (two of which resulted in stillborn babies – that *could* have been prevented by cesareans), we were constantly told that suffering was a good thing, that we should expect to suffer, even that not suffering was a bad thing (so anyone who good things were happening to? doomed. Anyone happy? obviously not loved by god). I was so scared to leave (and get married)because I thought for sure that after living through my own version of hell, the cycle would start all over again with my husband and our inevitable family.
We never had friends that lasted for more than a year or two – when I was finally able to make my own friends (on the internet!) I built myself a group of people I could trust, most whom I’m still friends with. The friends my parents “made” usually end up having a falling out over some doctrinal issue. We were kicked out of churches and widely hated (or so it felt) by anyone my parents disagreed with.
It grew worse as I aged, in ways I don’t yet have words for. I went from believing and being told that I could hear from god, to being told that he spoke to me through my parents (from my parents – it was convenient and self serving). I was less because I was a woman, my god-ordained-job at home was to be a caretaker to my siblings; I was brutally reminded of that pregnancy after pregnancy, child after child. I was told that my god-ordained-job as a woman, when I was married, was solely to reproduce and homeschool and give my husband sex when he wanted it (because otherwise, he’d find it somewhere else don’t ya know?). Not only that, but I had to let god plan how many kids we’d have, because “he wouldn’t give us more than we could handle” – don’t dare interfere with any kind of protection because that would be getting in the way of god’s will and that would be sinning.
I was a little self-conscious (I resisted as long as I could), but not of my own volition. My mom freaked out about facial imperfections – I have hereditary upper lip hair, my acne was worse than hers at my age, my teeth weren’t straight (supposedly, we could pray my teeth straight. true story), I didn’t wear makeup, I wore clothes a size too big so I’d “grow into them” (with a large family, you do that sometimes) even though I stopped growing when I was 15. The modesty culture was rampant, though admittedly my parents had little to do with this themselves.
Image and appearance were everything: we had (had) to look perfect and perfectly happy on the outside to everyone. We had to be good examples and witnesses, we could never complain, or have a less than perfect moment whenever we left home – if we did, there would be consequences. I can’t tell you how many times people have come up and commented to me about how perfect my family is and how “I bet you help out a lot, huh?” and I just had to stand there and smile politely, and nod, and say “yes, I don’t mind” (or a better variation) even though everything within me was screaming “no! everything is NOT okay! my family is NOT perfect!” There was no room for human moments or authenticity (which is why I treasure them so).
We had to attract people (those poor, ignorant sinners) to our lifestyle, so we had to seem perfect. I have a great smile.
The version of christianity/god I knew, “loved”, and served was egotistical, demeaning, self righteous, superficial, and fear based (much of christianity I’ve seen so far is fear based, don’t you dare say love!). If my parents didn’t like someone, they’d rip them to shreds as soon as they were out of earshot, if I was less than perfect I’d get dragged out of bed and made to sit through several hours of Kierstyn-is-evil-thus-saith-the-lord lecturing until I would finally give up and act how they wanted (usually it was for minor infractions, like not hearing or understanding something correctly – sometimes it was for *gasp* wanting a life) I never knew when this line would be drawn or what the boundaries were.
Silence Isn’t Golden
I’m tired of watching abuse. It happened to me, it happens around me – it’s the reason I can’t run away and escape from my past. The reason I can’t forget, the reason with every core of my being I become so angry that I lose words and start to breakdown.
In 2005, 2006, and 2007 I was a blogger, an NCFCA-er, a Rebelution moderator, a Regenerate Our Culture board member, a Student Project campaigner, and a TeenPact Alumni – if you recognize any of those (*except NCFCA outside region 8 prelims, I didn’t get far), then my name, Kierstyn Paulino (or variations thereof) will ring bells. I contributed to the amount of hurt I and many others who grew up in this radical/evangelical/conservative/christian subculture endured and continue to endure. I’m sorry for that, and ashamed. A large reason I don’t write about it here, and am vague at best is because I’m so ashamed of my past and who I used to be. I didn’t know any better, I was 15 and growing up in a spiritually, psychologically, and emotionally abusive environment. I was trying to do the “right” thing, to be a good girl, to be approved of, and I was. I was looked up to, and even World Magazine noticed. I succeeded for a while, before it all fell apart.
I am not that person anymore. I’ve spent the last 4 years of adulthood learning things most people learn in their late teen years, trying to heal and reach a sense of normalcy, trying to discover who I am because I lived a charade my whole life just to survive, grieving for everything I’ve lost, putting the pieces of myself back together with my best friend who’s been beside me this whole time. I have grown and evolved. I’m not whole, or healed, or perfect, or awesome, or anything. I’m still remarkably borked, but my past keeps casting a shadow and I’m so tired of being quiet, scared, and ashamed. It happened, it was wrong and abusive on so many levels, and I can help it stop.
I am a geek, artist, actress/filmmaker, and activist. I am a paladin, a champion, a defender of the defenseless. I am strong, determined, defiant. I am a protector, a safe place, a warrior, a sister. I am done being silent. I will fight to help the scores of us who are coming out of the woodwork to right the (unintended) wrongs and heal the fellow broken souls. Maybe that will help me heal too.
I doubt that I’ll ever be able to be completely normal, to live a life without the pain and reminders – because my past is a part of me, and it’s the reason that I rage at injustice, and it’s the reason I’m so strong. But maybe, just maybe, I’ll get better at balance, and I’ll be able to embrace all of it and accept the things I’m ashamed of, and help the ones who need it, and live an epic life.
Right now, I just need to cry.
It was so very sad to read this blog. I am sorry for what this young lady went thru and am praising God that she is now tell the world about it.
Thanks for talking about the impact of telling children that demons can inhabit them. Even though I was always told that saying some bible verses could repel these demons, Jim Logan (through IBLP/ATI) told tons of stories about Christians being possessed. Especially by that demon rock n roll!
I developed anxiety, often with racing thoughts before bed about whether my sins that day or my predilection for rock music, and that anxiety continues to this day. I have come to learn that the “fear of God” is sometimes just anxiety, not God telling me I need to behave differently. This seemingly small discovery is difficult for a child raised in a cult environment. Even if the parents distance themselves from the cult, the time spent by the child being indoctrinated has much more long-term impact that it would on mature adults.
I certainly hope you keep up your amazing work. Activism especially in the realm of illuminating the abuse of religion regardless of what sect, is tough work, and a huge challenge. it is also very liberating and healing. I have been ardent in the field of activism for some time, even speaking against your early works (yes, I have known of your works from early on.)it is with a great deal of emotion that I find myself on your side for a change. It is good to see you have come in from the cold.
Kierstyn, first of all, there is NO Such Thing as “completely normal”.
I sign myself as “fromthediagonal” for the reason that my early years were different from those of the majority, as they were shaped by war and its aftermath, and I arrive at solutions in a different way than most.
Yet, no matter our early injuries, we have the capability of accepting that while we may not fit “the norm”, our scars will heal if we permit them to do so.
You have found the way… to be a helper, to be a healer requires we draw upon our own memories of early sufferings in order to help and heal others.
You are doing that… keep up the work of reaching out and healing others and permit your successes as well as your inevitable failures to guide you.
Do not let this myth of “normalcy”, perpetrated by those who would control others control you!
Strength to you and yours… Ing
Thank you for sharing your story. Have you ever read “Nice Girls Don’t Change the World? http://www.lynnehybels.com/ngdcw.asp It is a short read. You may like it:-)