Torching All That Is Sacred — One Child’s Emergence From a Totalitarian Environment: Alexander Anon’s Story
HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Alexander Anon” is a pseudonym.
In this series: Part One | Part Two
As I start, I wish to be clear that this story is intended to convey my experience of the complex phenomenon that was my homeschooling experience, not make broad claims about homeschooling in general; and that within this narrative I perceive not villains but instead numerous individuals that were products of factors they either did not understand or were helpless to change. What follows is a tale of how homeschooling efforts collided with conservative Christian values to create the perfect maelstrom of do’s and don’ts, and the resulting insecurities I was left with in the wake of destruction caused by the brain-washing and intimidation tactics utilized by the primarily homeschooling congregation of the local Orthodox Presbyterian Church our family attended.
I guess the best place to begin this story is to discuss the dynamics of my parents’ relationships with each other, their seven children, and their parents growing up. My mother had a hard life growing up, with her parents fighting constantly and physical violence prevalent. Her experiences in public school were not much better, as she has mentioned on various occasions that she felt isolated, unwanted, and ignored. The three main things she learned growing up were: (1) you keep fighting even when nothing is alright; (2) if nothing is alright, you shut up and pretend everything is alright; and (3) people will never give you what you want unless you trick them into giving you what you want. My father, on the other hand, appears to have had a much healthier childhood, although certainly no childhood is ever without its scarring moments.
Although they are virtually mum on the circumstances surrounding their dating and eventual marriage, as best I can surmise my mom wanted to escape her emotionally damaging life at home and my dad possessed the perfect combination of charm and wit necessary to distract her from her emotional wounds. Underneath his charm and wit; however, was an anger that would flare up from time to time and remind my mom of the dad she was forced to accept ‘loved her in his own way’, but certainly never expressed it in a manner that made her feel loved or accepted by him.
It was into this environment, sometimes wonderfully loving, other times frighteningly turbulent, that our parents brought seven children, of which I am the second oldest. For the most part, we grew up in a stable, loving place and had the typical American childhood everyone longs for.
We were also homeschooled.
Much of the driving force behind my mom’s decision to homeschool us, I believe, was wanting to shield us from the horrible experience she had with public school. Although our family never really talked about it, there was an unspoken understanding that people in general are mean, morally bankrupt, and frightening. While never outwardly communicated, I tuned in to this message that people do not care about you and will ridicule you, and internalized it so that my self-confidence was (and still is, in many areas) virtually non-existent.
To this day I struggle to believe people in my college classes, on the street, in church, and everywhere else I go could find something to like about me. Because people just don’t like or accept others. People were monsters. They were the unknown, and the unknown was frightening.
Our parents were overprotective of us. Out of love, of course; but still overprotective to the point of being constrictive. Even as teenagers, we were prohibited from riding our bikes further than a block away from our house. This severely limited the number of friends we could have.
I can only remember a handful of times our parents had non-family members over to our house, and we certainly were not allowed to go to others’ houses to play unless they lived only a few houses away. From this all, the message was clear: people are scary. Something to be avoided. I still have high social anxiety to this day because of our mom’s fear of being hurt by others.
One particular incident stands out to me. My older brother was watching over a couple kids at a summer camp as a counselor for several weeks, and had made several friends (he was always more outgoing than I). After the first week, one of the female friends he had made at camp returned to her home and sent a friendly email to my brother, who was still at camp. I remember our mom flipping out to our dad because she thought my brother had a girlfriend. I read the email myself; it was harmless. The girl was just being friendly. Even worse; why was the idea of my older brother (at that time in his teens) having a girlfriend something to freak out over? Why did this idea deserve such a harsh, negative reaction? I still do not understand to this day, and yet the message could not have been clearer: people are something we avoid.
To be clear, I am not trying to suggest that all homeschooling families are like this; this is certainly not the case, as I personally know family after family that encouraged their children to have as many friends as possible. However; in our family, having friends almost always seemed bad. There were a few exceptions. A homeschooling family moved in down the street from us when I was a young teenager, and our families became as close as possible without being related by blood. To this day, the two oldest boys in their family are my best guy friends. Their family moved away after less than a year in our neighborhood. A few years later, I met another homeschool family at our church and eventually became good friends with the two oldest girls. Being friends with girls was new to me, since the only previous female friend I had made attended a homeschool co-op that our family left just a few weeks after I finally started feeling comfortable interacting with her.
Besides unintentionally (I truly believe my parents did nothing out of bad intent) restricting my access to friends for the greater portion of my childhood, several other areas of my life were censored out of a need to please God. This was most noticeable in the music I was allowed to listen to.
I had no interest in music until our local church offered to pay for one cd for every 20 Westminster Shorter Catechism questions I memorized. Being a homeschooler with little else to do, I beasted this mental feat. Every time I recited 20 catechism responses, our mom would drive us to the local bookstore, listen to music samples from the cd’s we wanted, and read printouts of the lyrics. Almost nothing was Christian enough for her tastes. Newsboys’ Thrive, with its song ‘It Is You’ and lyrics “holy, holy is our God Almighty/ holy, holy is his name alone” was not good enough. Relient K’s Anatomy of Tongue and Cheek, with lyrics such as “Never underestimate my Jesus/ You’re telling me that there’s no hope/ I’m telling you you’re wrong” (For the Moments I Feel Faint) was not good enough.
You get the picture.
I used to cry every time we returned from the bookstore with my 10th choice cd; or worse, empty-handed after killing an entire afternoon in the store reviewing lyrics. The point of mentioning this isn’t to generate pity, or talk bad about my mom who I love very much; I bring this up because I learned several very important lessons through this experience:
If a cd was shot down, my mom would agree to listen to it the next time we went. Several times she would cave on the third or fourth listen simply because I kept making her listen to it again. This was not always the case, as Skillet’s Collide album was shot down no matter how hard I tried to get her to accept it as Christian rock.
No one was going to get me the album I wanted to listen to unless I put in the hard work, constructed arguments my mom was willing to accept for why I should be allowed to have it (usually revolving around why the lyrics were “Christian” lyrics), and didn’t stop the barrage of arguments until I had won or was shut down completely. Even when a particular album was shot down, I would pick a similar sounding album and push for that, because I suspected that while she claimed to be judging albums based on lyrical content, her genre preferences were also a significant deciding factor. In other words, I became a social scientist formulating and testing hypotheses because of this process. I am currently a first year Master’s student studying forensic psychology, and intend to pursue a Ph.D. in criminology. The skills I learned as a result of these unpleasant music-judging trips have been invaluable to me throughout my academic journey.
3. There Is Always A Way
After trying for several years to get specific albums and failing despite all my best hypothesis testing and revising, I finally stumbled onto the perfect solution without even intending to. My parents gave us the opportunity to play music, and after a few failed years of learning piano (I did not appreciate the teacher’s mechanical playing style and wanted to play a specific genre of music she did not let me learn), I took up guitar. The guitar teacher was amazing in so many ways, the most important of which was he alternated between learning how to play and teaching me how to play the songs I wanted to learn. For this, it was necessary to bring in a recording of the song for him to play along with and figure out the notes. At first, I would bring in Christian music my mom had let me get. Then, because I was embarrassed that the guitar teacher did not know any of these songs, I started bringing in more “secular” songs I had recorded on a cassette tape from the radio. One day, I got the bright idea to search online to see if I could listen to the songs. Quite accidentally, I discovered a place to illegally download mp3’s of the any song I ever wanted. Needless to say, I secretly binged and downloaded hundreds of albums this way. After years of secret listening to music this way and fearing being found out, I finally broke the silence and reported that I had access to any music I wanted and desired to pay the artists money to actually legally own the cd’s. After the shock wore off, my mom reasonably agreed that the Christian thing to do was to pay money to own them legally since she couldn’t stop me from listening to them anyway, as long as I didn’t buy any “Eminem.”
One of my pet peeves growing up, and that will still get me fired up when I hear my dad tell my youngest brother this, is the phrase “just stop the foolishness.” This phrase was the buzzword for enjoying yourself, reveling in the absurd nature of something, or presenting something logically impossible. In other words, it was the response used to prevent a child from being a child and utilizing their imagination.
Foolishness was a concept derived from the Bible (particularly Proverbs), and foolishness was to be avoided at all costs. Six year olds laughing at farts was “foolishness”; but it was not “foolishness” when my dad wanted to crack a joke about farts. It was only foolishness if a child tried to add something on to our father’s joke that our dad did not find amusing. Then, magically, what was not foolish only a moment ago became foolish. I know my parents did not intend to link enjoying yourself or being happy with punishment, but they did. One minute I was laughing and having a good time, the next I was being rebuked for foolishness because I had tried to add something of value to the conversation.
Not only did this make me fearful of being happy; it discouraged me from speaking up, because speaking up can inexplicably lead to being punished.
To be continued.