I Can’t Tell My Story Without A Trigger Warning: Elizabeth’s Story
HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Elizabeth” is a pseudonym.
Trigger warnings: this story contains graphic and detailed descriptions of rape, physical abuse, the physical results of abuse, and religious apologisms for both physical and sexual abuse of children.
I can’t tell my story without a trigger warning. I try writing it without describing physical and sexual abuse and it just doesn’t work. It could get graphic.
I just spent the last half an hour sitting in the corner, hugging my knees, and bashing my head into my wall because I dared to post a link to the HSLDA petition. I’m nearly 40, but I’m terrified of getting into trouble.
I can’t use my name–call me Elizabeth. This name I write with isn’t mine. I picked a name that I think is the sort of name that a typical white, protestant American would have. I hope that some homeschooled kid with that name and a similar story won’t be tortured or shunned on account of my speaking out. I just hope that anyone who reads this and sees someone they know knows that it wasn’t really them. It’s just an eerie similarity. Please don’t punish them for speaking out, because I’m someone else.
I can’t tell my story exactly. I’m afraid my family will recognize that it’s me writing. I only feel safe writing anything at all, even vagueing up the details, after reading the lawsuit filed by survivors of abuse covered up by sovereign grace ministries. It’s sad when the text of a lawsuit reads like your biography, but there you have it. It made me realize that this culture of abuse is sufficiently widespread that my parents could just read my personal story of our nightmare family and assume it comes from any anyone anywhere.
It at least gives me some plausible deniability. Not that I need plausible deniability–I have no contact with my family or anyone from my childhood. I won’t even be setting foot in a church again. But I’m so terrified of repercussions that I need a crutch. The brainwashing runs deep. I know I’m safe intellectually, but the rest of me doesn’t believe that safety is possible.
What lets me comment on the differences between homeschooling and other kinds of schooling? I’ve done it all. We started in a religious homeschooling coop–we did PACES first, later A Beka. Then my parents homeschooled us by themselves in a Northern European country–the rest of my education was in the United States. When we homeschooled in Europe there was no curriculum: it was closer to unschooling. Then they sent us to a private fundamentalist Christian school. Then they sent us to public school.
My parents’ reason for homeschooling us was ostensibly religious. We never heard that we’d get a better education than in public school. That wasn’t the issue. The issue was that public school would corrupt us. There’d be peer pressure. We’d risk getting caught up in a bad crowd and imperiling our immortal souls.
This seemed plausible at the time. After all, our church was very isolationist. You know that Emo Philips joke about the Baptists on a bridge? That was us. Everyone else was wrong. We spent hours learning about other denominations and how they got it wrong. Maybe some other Christians would still get into heaven, if God was extra merciful, but we were the only ones who actually had it right!
Did I mention that I basically had zero friends?
We were taught that children had to obey all adults unconditionally and instantly. We were taught that good Christian children who don’t want to burn in hell submit to their parents. They submit to discipline from their parents, other adults, or older children. They submit to spankings. They do not talk back. And so on. If you are wrongly accused you should still accept your punishment because you are a worthless sinful being and the punishment is probably good for you anyway. If you don’t accept punishment when you’re wrongly accused, that’s a sin, so you need to be punished for that now. Catch 22.
And we were taught that good, Christian children do not ever let anyone find out that they aren’t completely thrilled with their lives. We should never complain to secular authorities (or anyone, for that matter, but especially secular authorities) about anything. It makes us bad witnesses. It makes us bad Christians. And we might also be selfishly risking the destruction of our families because CPS will come and take us away. And there isn’t anything better, so after CPS destroys our families, we’ll still be disciplined so destroying our families and our parents’ good names will have been for nothing. If your bottom is sore from a spanking, you’d better not wince as you sit down. If you’re in pain down there, you’d better not let it keep you from walking normally. Don’t talk about your punishment. Don’t let anyone see you cry.
And we weren’t taught about sex, or wrong touching, or children’s rights. Most kids would get this in public school. At a young age, they’d learn that there are things adults aren’t allowed to do to them. They’d learn that they have the right to say ‘no.’ They’d learn that if something is wrong they can tell their teacher or call the police or something. Later, they’d have sex education and learn what sex is.
Here’s what I thought the word “spanking” meant when I was a kid: if your dad is home, usually it happens right away in your bedroom or his. If your dad isn’t home, you get sent to the guest room, where there’s nothing to do in the meantime, to wait for him to get home. Then the spanking commences. Maybe he’ll go for the big wooden paddle. Maybe he’ll pull off his belt. Sometimes he gets them both out and makes you chose. If he makes you choose, he’s feeling particularly sadistic.
Just the paddle is better. Then he sticks to your unclothed bottom and thighs. The pain is excruciating, but it’s a good sign if he doesn’t take his belt off at all. He’ll probably just finger you a bit when he’s done. Ditto if he bends you over his lap instead of over the edge of the bed. If he just breaks out the belt, he’s lost his temper. You’ll get hit everywhere that can be covered by clothes. The individual strikes aren’t as hard as with a stick, but the beating goes on forever. Sometimes your body just shuts down. Maybe that’s better; if you wet yourself the spanking might stop there because you’re now too gross and dirty to rape. But usually he’s going to finish the “spanking.” The whacks stop coming and then he’s inside you, crushing you with all his weight and ramming into you over and over until he’s done with his business.
I was told that all kids got spanked. I didn’t understand that ‘spank’ meant a bit of a beating for most people and not an extreme beating followed by rape. I didn’t even know what rape was, as I knew nothing about sex. I had no idea what was going on.
Spanking was how my dad got access during the day. If he wanted it and I hadn’t done anything wrong, he would make up something wrong. Notably, he’d wait for me to look at the telephone. Mind you, I was too short to actually reach the telephone up on the wall, but he needed to make sure the message was ingrained. He’d wait for me to look at the phone then punish me for thinking about making a phone call. For thinking about lying to people that I was being abused. It was part of his way to drill into my mind that there was no way out. That this way of life was all there was or ever could be.
I only remember a few instances of explicit training. I remember a gruesome rape when I was too young. I can see my baby fat hands in my memory. I can taste blood. I wonder if that was the first time. I think the ripping might have caused some nerve damage. I can’t actually feel much on the surface, which might have made me the perfect victim in the future. He could do whatever they wanted and I wouldn’t react much. I remember one day when I was older–maybe 3ish–getting taught to relax properly, to stretch out, to be able to take in something larger. Being told that this is what big girls are supposed to do. This is what good girls are supposed to do.
Compared to a spanking, simple molestation didn’t mean much. There was a ‘monster’ that came at night and did his thing. I was told that I had nightmares. And I had to comply instantly with any demand made by an adult. I had to do whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted. So if I was running around at church and an adult said I had to come give him a hug, I had to. And if his hand slipped up under my skirt, I was supposed to relax like a good girl and ignore the uncomfortable pressure filling me up. I guess it got out to anyone who was interested that I was groomed for complete submission and wouldn’t make a scene. I don’t know if he shared me on purpose or if all the perverts attracted to the good cover of a patriarchal church found me independently.
The violence was most extreme when we were at the cooperative homeschool. The school and the church reinforced the message. We only came into contact with other kids in the same situation. The probably weren’t all being seriously abused, but some of them sported regular bruises–new dark blues and purples in a new pattern over the fading browns and yellows from last week. Even the ones who weren’t abused weren’t told that they had rights. None of us was going to compare notes and discover that rapes weren’t a standard part of spanking. It was Orwellian. We didn’t have the words or concepts to address any of it.
No one at church would question my dad’s authority. He was a well respected member of the community. He was all godly and stuff. The benefit of the doubt extended to someone in his position was endless. By homeschooling us through this crucial period, my dad normalized abuse and kept me from finding out that I had rights. I literally had no idea until I was an adult that there was anything else out there, that this was not the natural order of things, that everyone wasn’t raised with this sort of abuse. Insofar as I ever heard about child abuse, I was taught that abuse was something that happened to other people.
When we homeschooled in another country, the abuse stopped almost completely. My dad was away from the comfort and safety of being an established pillar of the community. The monster still came at night, but the daytime abuse was drastically curtailed. I spent huge amounts of time being free and happy. The only punishment I recall was being yelled at.
I was only punished for one thing: speaking the other language. Somehow I’d picked it up, although my parents and other siblings hadn’t. My dad could use English at work and didn’t need to know it. Everyone spoke English in the shops anyway. My mom didn’t have a problem with it, but my use of the other language outraged my dad. If I uttered a word in front of him, his face would turn red and he would explode with anger.
How dare I speak another language. I couldn’t know what I was saying if it wasn’t English. I could be insulting someone and not know it! Because I couldn’t possibly know what I was saying if he didn’t know what I was saying. I couldn’t guarantee to him that I wasn’t saying something inappropriate because he couldn’t speak the language. So the act of speaking the other language was deceptive: I was hiding things from my parents by not speaking English. I never knew that I wouldn’t be spanked after these outbursts; I only connect the dots with the illegality of spanking in the other country now, as an adult. Looking back, I realize that he was afraid of getting caught in a country that cared about its children. He needed to make sure that I didn’t trigger any alarm bells there and get rescued by their child protection agencies.
When we returned to the US, we went to a fundamentalist Christian school. The ‘spanking’ resumed but it was much less frequent. Partly the training had kicked in and I was a good little robot. It was very difficult to find a reason to spank me. Partly we now lived in a bigger house. I had my own room and was far enough away from my parents room that it was unlikely for it to wake anyone up when he came in at night. Partly he couldn’t assume that he’d get a free pass at the new school. Teachers were from other denominations who might be just as distrustful of us as we were of them. Some students were just there because their parents thought they’d get a better education at a private school. Some students were even there because they’d been expelled from every other school and their parents couldn’t find anywhere else to take them. While I was guaranteed to not get any sex education or get told I had rights by the school, it was less clear that I wouldn’t exchange information with peers who knew stuff.
The fundamentalist Christian school went bust over doctrinal differences (surprise, surprise) and I was allowed to finish out high school at the local public school. It was the most supportive and loving environment I’d experienced in my life. No one made fun of me, as they had at the Christian school, for having zero social skills. People, not just teachers but students as well, put up with horrific ideas from my upbringing and gently taught me tolerance. Even people who didn’t like me were still patient and cordial with me. And my dad had to stop the ‘spankings’ altogether.
He still came in at night. He suffocated me so I wouldn’t wake up. I only woke up to absolute terror a few times. Rape is a thousand times more terrified when you fade in and out of consciousness from lack of oxygen. When I asked the youth pastor at church he said it was a demonic attack. I tend to trust my gut; I don’t know if that’s good or bad. But he wasn’t the brightest bulb in the box. I think he was just gullible and never got any sex education himself either. He was a relatively young adult who had never dated. I don’t think he had any idea that he was passing on a lie used to conceal abuse.
Unfortunately, I got to public school too late to get sex education. It would have been covered in junior high. I’d learned about periods the day my first one started (I was at the Christian school at the time). A neighborhood girl who went to public school found out how little I knew about it and tried explaining the facts of life to me, but she was several years younger than me and hadn’t learned all the details herself yet. I am grateful that she noticed something was wrong with my complete lack of education and did her best to step in and fill in my educational gaps. But there was so much she couldn’t tell me.
So I didn’t know that periods were supposed to happen regularly, about once a month. I didn’t understand that it wasn’t normal to go months between periods. I didn’t understand that that much pain and that much blood was abnormal. I didn’t understand that something was very wrong if you had to spend several hours bleeding into the toilet and passing chunks. I didn’t put two and two together until I had my first miscarriage as an adult. Then it hit me that my period got regular after I got married. I wasn’t in so much pain. The flow was lighter – a pad was enough instead of having to spend time on the toilet because it was too much. And it hit me that while I’d had a few odd periods in high school, I’d mostly just had a succession of miscarriages. I still can’t have kids. I wonder if it’s from too much violence to my reproductive organs at such a young age. It’s not something I can face having a conversation with my doctor about.
I didn’t understand that I was experiencing rape until we had to read a short story in 12th grade advanced English about a girl being raped. That’s when I learned that that’s what rape was and, by extension, that’s what sex was. But I was too afraid to tell anyone. The programming to pretend everything was fine persisted. Teachers and counselors noticed and asked if something was wrong and I instinctually lied every time. I didn’t know how to do anything else. I didn’t believe anyone could help me, just that it would get back to my parents that I’d told someone. And then I’d be in for another spanking; I’d rather have died than risk another spanking.
I tried reporting my abuse to the authorities once as an adult but the law wasn’t on my side. If I’d been a minor, they could have gotten CPS involved. But as an adult, the law is written for specific instances. You can’t charge someone with years of violence and rape where there are so many memories jumbled together. You need a report of a specific instance. And remembering a specific instance with all its details when it happened all the time is like remembering what you had for dinner on March 12, 1986. What time was dinner? What did you eat? Did you have company? How was the food arranged on your plate? Who sat where at the table? Good luck with that.
Having been rebuffed, I tried getting out but it didn’t take. The economy was in shambles and I couldn’t find steady employment. The U.S. has a patchy safety net. One of the things that we as a society assume is that people’s parents don’t suck. If you’ve very lucky and your abuse is caught and you end up in the system, there are programs for young adults who have aged out of foster care. These programs aren’t perfect, but it beats the hell out of choosing between starvation and going back to an abusive family. After you’re an old enough adult (I think it varies by state), you are eligible for things on your own. But there’s an awkward gap between 18 and 20 something where your eligibility is determined by your parents income. Long story short, I ended up homeless. I had to go crawling back to my parents, tail between my legs, and enduring several more years of abuse before I married my husband and escaped.
I firmly believe that if public school teachers had gotten to me before the brainwashing set in that I might have told them the truth. I think the brainwashing would have been harder if I’d been getting a counterbalancing affirmation from public school that I was a human being with rights of my own. And you know what? Maybe my dad still would have found a way to abuse me, but he either would’ve had to pull me out of public school to keep the abuse hidden or he would’ve had to abuse me a heck of a lot less.
That’s what bugs me the most when homeschool parents bring up the fact that kids in public school get abused too. They act like that’s evidence that regulating homeschool is pointless. From where I’m sitting, that’s hogwash. I’d take rare beatings over frequent beatings. I’d take beatings severe enough to leave obvious marks during just summer vacation over getting those beatings several times a week around the year. I’d take just being raped over having the crap beaten out of me then being raped. I’d take being brutalized for the first 7 years of my life over being brutalized for the first 20 years of my life. I could go on down the line.
It’s clear to me how the abuse I received changed with the amount of control my parents had over the other adults in my life. When it was just them and church, the abuse was horrific. When it was public school teachers who weren’t going to give them a pass just for being Good Christians, the abuse was relatively minimal. I guess it reads as pretty extreme still, but that level of abuse required that they already have the prior controlled environment in which to make sure I never found out about my rights. And it’s way less than the baseline level of abuse they established when they had complete control of my environment.
But the more I think about my upbringing, the more I think the church and homeschooling were just convenient. In the wake of the ohio kidnap victims’ escape, an article in the guardian addressed the issue of girls and women being trapped in long-term situations where they were kept as prisoners and raped repeatedly. It quotes Prof. Sherry Hamby of Sewanee and journal editor of Psychology of Violence as saying “I don’t think there is any question there are other victims in similar situations. We are only catching the dumb ones.” It’s the first time in, well, ever, that I’ve felt like I wasn’t invisible. Usually situations like mine are invisible to mainstream media that is usually so desperate to maintain our societal illusion that abuse is a rare thing that is done to and by people we don’t know.
There are victims in similar situations. And we do only catch the dumb ones. My dad is extremely intelligent. It doesn’t matter what his personal beliefs might be: the perfect place to isolate his prey was in a patriarchal religious sect. The perfect way to avoid letting his kids encounter mandated reporters is through homeschooling. The perfect way to keep me from going to authorities was to lie to me about my rights and to surround me by other kids who didn’t know their rights. I don’t think I’m special. I don’t think I’m unique. I think odds are high that there are plenty of other people who grew up just like me.