Nightmare in Navy and White — Experiencing the Dark Side of ATI: Selena’s Story
HA notes: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Selena” is a pseudonym.
Trigger warnings: graphic descriptions of sexual abuse and sibling abuse.
Part One: A Childhood Destroyed
It was the early 1990’s. My family was fairly happy, and attended a church full of vibrant, hopeful people excited about Christ. Everything felt so alive. Even as a child, I never felt like church was drudgery, and every service was full of excitement with a very down-to-earth approach to Christianity that made everyone feel right at home. When I remember those days it is shocking to see how much has changed. How did we get this far? Where did it start?
It’s difficult to answer that fully. I was so young, I only remember the little things. I remember my mother and father having meetings with other members of the church. Quiet meetings – sad meetings. I remember my mother crying. As I was told years later, they were having trouble in their marriage and looking for any answers to keep this family together. My mother was hospitalized after having a breakdown, and for a time, we were sheltered at my grandmother’s house, kept safely unaware of the strange trouble that had befallen our home – circumstances nobody has really spoken of since. I remember someone telling my parents about a ‘seminar’ that seemed to give them hope. I remember the desperation in my mother’s eyes.
I remember when my parents came home with arms full of books and papers – and then, what seems like a short time later, they announced that we were going to start homeschooling.
The transition was difficult. My siblings and I were yanked out of school without any real explanation, and told never to speak of it to anyone, not even other family members. Our house immediately turned into a prison. Suddenly we were watched more and more closely if we played outside. It felt like the whole world collapsed into just the square of our yard, and everything outside of that suddenly became terrifying. It all happened so fast, but felt like a train wreck in slow motion. And it was just the beginning.
I don’t remember when my father took a turn for the worst, exactly; it was a progression more than a singular event.
When we were little, he had a remarkable temper – in an instant he could go from calm to screaming. He’d threaten to beat us, to leave us outside, to kill us; over time, though, the threats and behavior got stranger and stranger, more and more disturbing. Specifics on how exactly he’d kill us and make it look like a hunting accident; strange punishments, like being told to pick up a piece of wood swarming with fire ants and carry it around; working beside him and being left without relief or hydration in temperatures over 100 degrees. Throughout all of this, the teachings of Bill Gothard were being fed to us non-stop. We jumped in headfirst, and my father was quite happy to take the role of Umbrella over us – the hammer that pounded us into submission and into a “diamond” for Christ.
Around those early days, my father began sexually abusing me. He had hand-picked a few verses from the Bible that he felt gave him the permission to do so. He’d had a revelation from God, that it was his right, perhaps even his duty. Several nights a week, he would take what he thought was his. I learned how to keep my eyes open at bedtime, and started throwing fits (even if it meant being called ‘rebellious’) until a light was left on in the hallway – his shadow appearing in my doorway would stir me from sleep and give me enough time to try and turn over. I started staying awake at night, for hours on end. Sometimes I even put things haplessly in front of my door to make it more difficult for him to enter, trying to make it look like an accident or just a messy room.
Most days I had precious little sleep.
And if it wasn’t terrifying enough that my father was doing this – it was worse to think of an angry God who would send misfortune, curses, danger, even demons from Hell to torture me if I dared step out from under my father’s tyranny. I was told that this was what God, omnipresent, infinitely powerful, wanted.
How could I ever dream of escaping that?
My mother worried about her daughters. She was, perhaps, nearly as much of a victim as we were. She knew she was expected to submit to his will, and they, too, had left behind most of their friends. In retrospect, I believe she put on a brave face and tried to help us when she could – until she, too, became brainwashed into believing she was inferior, that she must answer to my father and to Bill Gothard’s angry God. I don’t believe she knew about the sexual abuse; if she did, she certainly never spoke of it. And, truth be told, I don’t think she would have stopped it if she knew – at the time, she was as much under my father’s iron fist as we were. She became quiet, sad, afraid – and then, she painted on a big vacant smile, and forced a cheery laugh.
We were expected to be cheerful, after all. Enthusiastic!
By the time I was about 11 years old, I had developed the best system I could think of to try and gain some semblence of safety from my father. I would come up with an issue, any issue at all, just before bedtime (after all, we were taught never to let the sun go down on your anger – always resolve all issues before bedtime!), and try to drag it on into the night. I’d make it as dramatic and urgent as I could; I needed prayer and I needed it now! I was bitter and really really had to confess something! Hey, maybe we can pray a hedge around the house! As long as it kept my father awake well past his bedtime, to the point of all but cursing at me – it sometimes meant one more night safe from his sexual advances.
Still the guilt burned inside me that I was going against God’s will by trying to keep my father at bay.
I was torn between guilty shame, and desperation. Some nights desperation won out, and my act would resume; I would sleep safely, but worn down by my guilt. Other nights I would accept my fate, even going to bed early in the hopes it would be over with soon. Unfortunately, he got downright vengeful about trying to break me down in response, often calling family meetings or trying to humiliate me in front of everyone. I was too afraid to tell anyone what was going on and he certainly didn’t mention it, so the only thing they got out of it was that I was the trouble child who had a real problem with the almighty patriarch of our family.
It was a daily war between myself and my father, and he usually won out.
I was the youngest in our household. Under Gothard’s strict sense of hierarchy, and because of my efforts to stave off some abuse and their interpretation as ‘rebellious’, my family readily interpreted these teachings to mean that I was the very bottom of the totem pole. As such, when I was about 7 or 8, my two older sisters began to abuse me as well. The middle sibling was hesitant, sometimes going along in fear with the oldest, and other times secretly trying to protect me. Quite in fact, she taught me how to open my eyes just a little bit so that it looked like they were closed but I could keep an eye out. She taught me places to hide, what to say, what to do. She tried to stop me from fighting it so hard, feeling that it was better to play along than to create problems and receive more abuse. She would often shush me or try to rein me in. She made fun of me when others were around, but in secret, she was my best friend and ally.
Caught literally in the middle, she took it all quietly and kept it all inside.
The oldest of us tried to stay out of the house a lot, but when she was home, she did a lot of her own abusing. I think her way of coping was to feel powerful by abusing those she saw as being beneath her, while claiming to be their best friend to keep them close. Using her rank as the oldest, she would order us to humiliate ourselves, perform sexual acts, or tell her embarrassing details of our lives, or divulge inappropriate details of her own sex life and make us swear to secrecy, all the while laughing and pretending it was all a joke or a game or just normal girl talk. She babysat frequently and turned the same pattern of abuse outward onto those children as well.
She liked to get others to gang up with her on her abuse – so when the middle sibling didn’t want to go along, she pressured me into going with her to babysit.
I was far too uncomfortable to join in on teasing and bullying the kids while pretending to be a nice person…it gave me a sick feeling in the bottom of my stomach. I usually stuck to the corner of any given room and quietly whined that I just wanted to go home.
Since all three of us slept in the upstairs portion of the house (a portion often neglected by our parents), most of this went on up there where they were blissfully unaware. I believe Gothard’s teachings of authority gave my oldest sister the feeling that she, too, had the right and perhaps even the duty to treat us in this way.
Every year, our family attended Knoxville conferences religiously. We would make it into a family trip, veering off into Colorado for a while (our other favorite vacation spot) or just sightseeing along the way. Each time we returned home, for a while we were high on Gothard’s teachings and on our best behavior. The abuse would sometimes stop for a while, but other times seemed to be worse. Knoxville was something I simultaneously dreaded and anticipated.
The Knoxville conference in either 1998 or 1999 really changed everything for us. During the side-seminar reserved for fathers, Bill Gothard revealed what I can only guess was some kind of new teaching about the dangers of demonic attacks. (I don’t really know much – my father was very secretive about any material reserved for men-only or fathers-only.) A checklist was handed out to each father. If your child exhibited a certain number of traits, the fathers were told, it was safe to say they were being targeted by Satan. There were specific steps to take, of course, to rid your home of these demonic influences – most notably, burning possessions.
That night, my father was wearing a big grin on his face.
He reached for his binder and pulled out the checklist. He described the teaching in brief, went through each item on the checklist, and then sat back looking at me over his glasses as if to say, “What now?” I was floored. I started to cry. Well on my way to being brainwashed, I wasn’t even sure what scared me worse: That demonic influences had taken over my soul, or that my father made a vague promise to bring ‘big changes’ into our house after we returned home. What was he going to do?
As soon as we returned home, my parents went to work. They started burning dozens and dozens of things in our home. About half my possessions were taken and burned, my sisters’ left virtually untouched; I was forced to watch the few shreds of joy I had go up in flames. Even a couple of my favorite shirts – just polos I liked – were burned away. I was prayed over. There were exorcisms with the help of the leader of the local fathers’ meeting and some local church and ATI members – hands laid on me, men shouting, my mother weeping for my soul. I shook in terror. My whole world was collapsing around me.
I felt something from those hands pressed on me, but it wasn’t love. It was hate and fear and punishment.
Weeks stretched into months that passed in a blur of numbness. It was October 1999. Y2K was looming, and my father had sunk into paranoia, vowing to prepare us for the worst. We were almost completely stocked with foodstuffs, guns, supplies. I stopped my attempts at safety; it was reduced to the occasional weeping reluctance to go to bed, and nothing more. I had been broken. The night of October 4th was one of the few nights I put up a fight. Dad had picked me up from basketball practice and driven me home, and when bedtime came, I sat at the top of the stairs saying I wouldn’t sleep. He looked up at me in disgust from the bottom of the steps, shook his head, sighed and went to bed.
I wasn’t even worth it anymore. Finally, I went to sleep in relative peace.
I woke to the sound of my mother calling tearfully up to me and my sister. She frantically told us to come downstairs, “your Dad’s not breathing!” She said she was afraid he might be having a heart attack, and she’d called the paramedics. She tried to assure us, and gathered us into a circle where we clasped hands and prayed. I looked up into her eyes, screwed shut and full of tears, and somehow I knew we would never be the same again. I knew Dad was never going to wake up. He was gone.
At the hospital, the news finally came. They couldn’t revive him, and he had passed away. My mother and sister wept. I sat there in stunned silence. Was it really over? That night we returned home, and for the first time, I broke down completely. Years of emotions and trauma came rushing to me at once, and I spent the entire night crying and violently sick.
After that, things were very different.
What little activities we did outside the house were clamped down. My mother received direct help from a few members of the ATI board of directors at Bill Gothard’s direction. I still don’t understand how it happened – she just received a phone call one day and that’s how it began. My best guess is that it had something to do with Bill Gothard’s teachings about caring for the “fatherless” and “widows”. The idea that a family would be without their powerful patriarch was almost taboo – we were more open to sin and Satan’s attacks, they said. The tone people took was one of pity, but often condescending.
It felt like we had become second-class members of ATI.
Part Two >