HA notes: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Atarah” is a pseudonym.
Black strapped shoes, white stockings, pleated navy skirt, peter pan collared white blouse, brown pig tails, a splash of freckles, and wide, eager eyes completed my look. I was a mini version of the apprenticeship students. I was gonna be just like them someday.
After all, I was a good girl.
My parents counted the days till they would be allowed to join the program. Their excitement was palpable, and I still remember it, as a four year old. As a child you are unaware of how your parent’s decisions affect you. You just go with it. You trust, and you know nothing else. Thus begins my journey through Gothardism that spanned over 20 years.
I don’t know how much detail to give. You know the logistics — I won’t bore you with our family’s particular brand. But we were ATI through and through. I don’t say this lightly, but my parents worshipped (and still do) Gothard. My early years were grounded in his principles, and my formative years saturated with his teachings.
I really was a good girl. My impressions of my childhood were that I was an easy child to parent, as I was obedient to a fault. I remember having anxiety over wanting to obey every rule perfectly. I rarely got in trouble, and unlike many ATI survivors, wasn’t often spanked. (As I remember it.) I developed this identity as being obedient and perfect and never questioning authority. In fact, I backed authority. Vehemently. This made me my parent’s favorite, and an enemy of sorts to my poor younger siblings, who were not in the least so perfectly inclined.
As I grew into young adulthood, this good girl image brought with it an oversensitive conscience and hyper spirituality. No surprise there. I actually thought it was a good thing. I thought I was on track. Meanwhile, I never felt satisfied with myself or my spiritual walk. How can you, when nothing less than perfect is acceptable?
I remember I first questioned the whole Gothard thing at about age 21. It was very mild, very gentle, but in utter desperation to fix our falling-apart-family, I timidly asked my parents:
If we believed all these things, why weren’t they helping us? Why weren’t our lives matching up?
That was the first time I questioned Gothard in the slightest, but it wasn’t the last. Over the years as I watched my family sink deeper into dysfunction, as I experienced pain in my own life, and as I grew a little courage, I would start to turn over these things in my mind. Even if I was afraid to speak much about it, I was thinking. It was a necessary process. The time came when I did find courage to bring my concerns (albeit largely unformed) to my parents, but they were always dismissed.
After all, Gothard is never wrong.
When I say my parents idolize Gothard, it is hard for me to write about that. They didn’t hang framed pictures of him around the house or say blatantly that he was always right, or that his teachings were as good as the Bible. Those things were unsaid. The absence of these things almost makes it worse, because it was so hard to see through. Perhaps this is why it took me so many years to see the light. To me this shows even now, what a web of deceit was spun in our home. How manipulative the whole thing was. Gothard manipulated my parents, then my parents manipulated me and my siblings.
I was the brain-washed good girl.
In no way will I, or have I ever, blamed Gothard or ATI entirely for my family’s dysfunction.
There were and are issues that no doubt would have been there regardless. But without question the teachings of Gothard and the ATI way of life (after all, it dictated our whole lives) were an over-arching realm of control. Gothard’s teachings had alot to do in making my parents the kind of parents they were. Whatever problems lay with them, Gothard’s program exascerbated to the breaking point. I do blame Gothard for his part. I do blame my parents for their part. I blame my parents for letting him in, and never questioning it.
To write personally about this now, isn’t easy for me.
It makes me think about things that are buried deep in my psyche. And the scary thing about that is, Gothard’s way was so inscribed in my thinking, that it may take a lifetime, to unearth every single lie, to overturn every corrupt stone. When I was married in my mid to late 20s, I was finally set free to think for myself. Almost immediately the detox began. It is hard to separate my family’s issues and problems from the Gothard/ATI problem. Because they are so entertwined. But healing from my past meant facing the truth about Gothard and his teachings. Don Venoit’s book was a huge help to me in breaking free. Also the book Boundaries.
The biggest healing I found was in thinking, writing, and verbalizing. I was able to pick up the story of my past, piece by piece, and evaluate it in the light of truth. The freedom came, and it was wonderful.
I remember the day I said those turning-point words to my dad.
I had been married about two years, and in some ways still needed to “cut those strings.” We were having a huge conflict, that spanned many topics, but Gothard of course came up. I told him one last time how I felt. Or at least a little of how I felt.
And then I said it.
I said “I don’t believe Gothard is a godly man.”
My reasons for saying that are many. Take your pick. (Twisting scripture, manipulating thousands, the deceit, the many allegations of inappropriate behavior with young women and abuse in his training centers. ) But saying that, actually saying that to my dad, was a turning point. I have no regrets. I can only hope that one day Gothard will be exposed for the true person he is in such an undeniable way that even my parents will be able to see the truth about him. They will be the last to believe it, I promise you.
I am sad to say that as of a month ago, Bill Gothard knows me by name. When I was told he asked about me, I almost shivered. I was horrified. I have no idea why he should remember me after all these years or why he even knew me by name in the first place. It’s been many years since I saw him last. I make no bones about it, I have no respect for him. He is a deceitful old man, who is responsible for his manipulation, lies, and the many homes and lives wrecked by his corrupt power.
As I have moved beyond my ATI past, one of the biggest changes that came in my thinking was in regards to this “good girl” identity.
I’ve finally come to realize I don’t have to be the good girl. I’m just me. I don’t have to be perfect, I don’t have to always have it together. It’s ok to make mistakes. I remember many, many times while I was still at home, my father speaking angrily to me, pointing his finger and glaring with dark eyes “You’re prideful. You’re full of pride.” My spirit shriveled up within me. I would beg him to understand I wasn’t trying to be prideful, I really wasn’t. I was just trying to be the person he always expected me to be: Perfect. My identity was The Good Girl , and I felt trapped. Here I was trying to please him, but in my struggles I still failed to be good enough, and I was the recipient of his anger.
So realizing in my late 20s that I didn’t have to be The Good Girl anymore, well, that was revolutionary!
I’m still on a journey. I haven’t arrived, I don’t have everything all sorted out. But I’m on that journey. I’m moving from The Good Girl who has to be perfect to just being me. I am loved, I am valuable, I am unique, I am accepted, I am beautiful. Simple statements that were once Greek to me.
I share my story (and this is only a small part of it!) because I think it is good for me to write about my experiences. But I also want to share because I want to be a help to the other Good Girls out there. If you’re reading this, and you can relate to my story, know that you are not alone.
Know that you can change, and you can move beyond your past to be a new person.
First, just out of curiosity, what is the origin of the name “Atarah”? It has a peculiar three-syllable rhythm I remember from a local kid’s tune.
My church actually has a technical name for this: “Excessive Scrupulosity”, a form of OCD.
Let me guess… Their response was to double down and yell Louder? That’s the usual response of True Believers to cognitive dissonance; “the wall in the mind slams down” and there is only the Thoughtstopper mantras, repeated Louder and LOUDER.
I was a brainwashed good girl, too. Once you start questioning it all, it seems the rabbit hole goes on forever. My parents had their own issues before encountering Gothard, but I do blame him for the brainwashing that still affects my daily life. 😦
That’s my sister. I do believe, as with most religious teachers, that some things Gothard said were true, but he helped to f up our family. I’ll never forgive him for that.
I was a brainwashed good girl too, with an over active conscience and near constant guilt (although my homeschooling cult experience was mostly not related to ATI).
Yes, the book Boundaries (by Cloud and Townsend) was an incredible help to me as well!! Can’t recommend it enough to those coming out of authoritarian and/or manipulative fundamentalist parenting!
Thank you for being vulnerable and sharing your story!