Trigger warning: this story contains a detailed description of physical abuse.
I was an abusive homeschooling mother.
I can’t change that fact by writing about it.
I’m hoping to raise awareness about the higher potential for abuse in a family that homeschooling makes possible and the dangers of the Pearl child raising methods by speaking out about it, as one who has first hand experience. And partly I’m speaking up because I am still trying to recover a sense of myself in the aftermath, which is still unfolding in our lives like a years-long train wreck from which we can’t escape.
My husband and I were fervent Pearl followers, which is strange considering that he was a non-believer. However he used other arguments to come to the same conclusions. After a devoutly religious friend sent us some No Greater Joy newsletters we ended up buying and reading, and re-reading, almost all of Michael Pearl’s books concerning child raising. We also bought his book To Train Up a Child by the box load and gave it away to people at every opportunity.
I was a young and uncertain college student when I met my husband to be. He was 16 years older and had been living alone for many years. He was set in his ways and could be described, by a generous description, as eccentric. At first it seemed we both wanted the same kind of life: that of being semi-self-sufficient on a small farm. He had the land and skills to make that life possible.
Most pertinent to this story, he has the soul of a lawyer. He loves argument more than anything in the world, and spends much of his time devoted to it’s study and practice. Esoteric disputation, definitions, shades of meaning, debate techniques, and hard-core allegiance to “principles” over relationships is what made it so easy for him to adopt the Pearl techniques, blowing away any objections I, or my mother, might put forth.
I must accept blame however. I must make clear that I chose, in the face of conflict with my husband, to submit myself to his will in all things. I made that choice. No one else made it for me. I felt that it was a good choice at the time, for I could not stand up to him in argument, and I could not stand conflict. I wanted to have a real home for the kids, with a real dad, like I never had as a girl. As time went on I was baptized and accepted that being a submissive wife was my calling from God, as preached by Debi Pearl. I was determined to make it work and keep my husband happy at whatever the cost.
It turned out that the cost was very, very high. Accepting his will in everything meant living without electricity or running water while living in a small decrepit single wide trailer, having a baby every two years, not going to the dentist ever or doctor regularly, wearing dresses, not wearing make up, not cutting my hair, doing all the cooking,gardening, food preservation, never buying anything, not celebrating any holidays or birthdays, not leaving the house without permission, and forbidding my mother to come visit on any occasion whatsoever. I essentially lost contact with the outside world and became completely consumed with the vast number of everyday chores that were my duty.
For the children it meant that they had no birth certificates, no social security number, no vaccinations, and no friends. It meant being spanked regularly, without mercy, until their “wills were broken”, as the Pearls’ say. To do anything less would have been to allow “evil” to flourish in their very souls, and what a bad parent one would be then. When the children got older, it meant they were “homeschooled”, which also became my job.
I loved my children. Being a housewife with kids on a farm had been my ambition since I was a little girl. I was never spanked as a child. I never thought that was a good idea. Our family’s exposure to the Pearls’ child raising ideas came along when our first child was two years old. I was appalled. But my husband, devouring the Pearl’s books, found many arguments to use on me. Eventually I simply came to the point I always came to with him. I gave up and let him have his way.
According to the Pearl philosophy however, I could not choose to be an innocent bystander. No, it would not do to let dad do all the spanking. The children would notice. Mom must also do her part so that the children would know there was in essence, no escape. I too must hit my children with sticks for the slightest disobedience or even tardiness of obedience.
And hit them I did. The change in parenting hit my poor two year old daughter like a brick wall. The first spanking was at least an hour long. She, of course, did not ‘submit’ at all, never having experienced anything like it.
I believe the first command I gave her was over something relatively minor. The second was to stop crying after her first spanking. Of course she wasn’t going to stop. According to the Pearls’, to stop crying was a command I was supposed to be able to give and get obedience. I am here to tell you, it takes a long time to spank a child until they stop crying. Their bottom gets red, welts start appearing. You take breaks and waste your breath on endless explanations between the hitting about how you are not going to stop until they obey. Eventually, they start trying to hold their breath while they sob, making a sort of hiccuping gasp with moans and gurgling in between, while the demanding parent tried to decide what point really constitutes “stopped crying”.
It is a horrendous thing to witness, to perpetrate. It makes my blood boil to think of it now. It was completely mentally and physically and emotionally exhausting at the time. Both myself and my now ex-husband deserve jail time for what we did. We really do. But that really would not take the past back.
The beatings (can I now call them what they really were?) continued almost everyday. The Pearls’ say that you should be able to spank less and less. That the children will come to joy and peace and trust through this method, over time. But this much awaited magic never happened. Our oldest two children as time went on, became angrier and angrier. According to the books, this was because I was not being diligent enough in my applying of discipline. So, we spanked more and more as time went on.
More and more beatings.
More and more screaming.
The oldest girl got spanked over school lessons too, the few we had time to fit in. It was especially bad in areas of math and Spanish. Dad would butt into our lessons, and ask her if she understood what he was telling her. If she said yes she did, but then she could not demonstrate understanding, she was spanked for “lying”, for saying she understood when in fact she had not. Of course, she wanted to stay out of trouble and was trying to say what she thought he wanted to hear but became trapped in a no-win situation. She was also spanked for not being able to correctly pronounce Spanish words, he said she was simply “not trying”.
To this day, our girl cannot learn math or Spanish due to her emotional block to those subjects which were the setting for some of her worst tortures.
Our second child, a boy, was not so much under my attention where school was concerned. His dad toted him around with him all the time. This meant that instead of learning to read and write, he was standing around most of the time with nothing to do, no one to talk to, with frequently not enough warm clothes on and nothing to eat or drink. His only task was to stay quiet and out of the way. He had night time sleep walking episodes which involved peeing on the floor, for which he was severely whipped with the belt.
I could go on about the abuses that myself and their dad handed out to them, but it becomes tedious.
Occasionally we would go out as a family. When in public we were always praised for the good behavior of our children. They were very quiet. They did not make scenes. What good children we had. It makes me sick! My ex-husband points to these praises as evidence of how righteous our treatment of the kids was back then. Our friends and neighbors never saw the terror our children were experiencing.
Five years ago I left that whole situation. I moved into a modern house in a town. I put the kids in school. I got them birth certificates, social security numbers and vaccinations. I stopped hitting them.
He fought me on all these things. However, he too was forced to stop hitting his children. He was also forced to put in running water and a septic tank. After significant and extremely drawn out legal machinations, the oldest two children were given the choice to visit him or not. They never want to see him, or talk to him, and now live with me full time. He insists that I am the one who alienated them from him by telling them lies about him. He cannot forgive me for “taking away his authority”. He makes no effort whatsoever to contact the older two and seems to have completely given up an them.
When they first went to school, the oldest girl was put in seventh grade, according to her age, the boy in fifth. Our youngest was two at the time, so she did not go to school. However our other three children also entered school according to their ages: kindergarten, first grade, and third. It was a stressful time for all concerned.
The oldest girl spent her first year in school crying because she did not know what to do. She also got pneumonia and had to be hospitalized. She repeated seventh grade the next year. She will probably never be able to do math. She displays PTSD like symptoms, with constant anxiety, rage, and feelings of low self-worth. She threatens to commit suicide and goes to therapy regularly.
Despite not being able to read, write or do math when our oldest son first arrived in fifth grade, he was barely promoted to sixth the next year. Now he has almost caught up to his grade level in his academic subjects, though his hand writing is still horrible and his reading is still slow. He has anger issues on occasion and can be a bit of a bully. He is aware of this and really wants to do better. He spurns his father, yet suffers from a lack of a father. He is in boy scouts.
In contrast, the younger four kids are making straight ‘A’s and winning writing, art and science awards. They excel in everything they try. They do not suffer from low self esteem. They have friends.
Yet their father still wants to homeschool them, and has told them that homeschooling is better than public schooling, based on the results of studies. He has got some of the kids convinced that they want to be homeschooled by him by using his powerful arguments. He and I are going to go to court soon regarding this issue.
He is a member of HSLDA. I was interested to read from the site of Homeschoolers Anonymous the transcripts of speeches given by [former HSLDA attorney] Doug Phillips at the 2009 Men’s Leadership Summit. His vision of having CPS abolished, and homeschooling girls to be housewives instead of considering having a career is truly terrifying, and made me realize that this whole thing is of a scope that goes far beyond my family. I had previously thought we were strange exceptions.
What happened to me and my children could happen to anyone who becomes isolated and vulnerable, and if homeschooling is allowed to occur with such little oversight. Unfortunately abusive parents will exploit that opportunity for everything it is worth.
Abusive parents, like me.