HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Sophia” is a pseudonym specifically chosen by the author.
My parents are very well meaning people.
They didn’t go to college, and they didn’t grow up religious. Just before they started a family together, they came to Christianity. For them, it meant safety. It was a formula for doing things correctly and for protecting their children from the hurt that they experienced in their own lives, hurt for which Christianity offered an explanation (sin). They homeschooled us to “protect us from the world.”
Growing up, though, I didn’t feel protected.
Instead, the most vivid memories I have from my childhood are of fear and loneliness. Fear that, at any moment, I was transgressing one of my parent’s constantly changing rules. Loneliness that came from sitting at home most days, with nothing to keep me company but my family and my books. Patrick Henry College seemed like a perfect escape. It was on the other side of the country, their rules seemed lenient to the sheltered 16-year-old filling out her college application, and best of all, I would constantly be around other people my age.
In reality, attending Patrick Henry College (PHC) was an extension of all the worst parts of my childhood. Again, I stepped into an atmosphere full of suffocating rules. All of our time was spent in rigidly structured and overbearingly supervised social interactions. When there was no rule in place, the college administration (really, disciplinary watchdogs), would remind us that we should abide by the “spirit,” not just the “letter” of the law.
If no rule existed, you weren’t safe. Instead, you needed to invent one.
We had mandatory chapel where we (or at least, I, doubting my faith even as a freshman) had to feign enthusiasm while singing worship songs. After that, we would listen to various speakers tell us of the evils of liberalism and homosexuality, or perhaps give a lengthy digression on some portion of the Bible. We spent the rest of our time in classes all day, then studying at night, all while conforming to a rigid dress code and rigid conduct rules (and many informal social sanctions). My four years at PHC were filled with incredible loneliness.
Within a few weeks, the excitement of leaving home faded, and the nature of my new prison became increasingly clear. I came to PHC the semester after the “schism.” My friends were all people who had been deeply affected by the ousting of multiple professors, and were generally “anti-administration.” At PHC, a school filled with students who’d spent their lives trying to understand reality in an us-versus-them (conservatives-versus-liberals, Christians-versus-nonbelievers, etc.) framework, it seemed natural to view the student body of PHC (a, mind you, very conservative school) with a liberal-versus-conservative, bad Christian-versus-good-Christian rubric.
My friends were the “liberals”, and by associating with them, dressing somewhat normally, and having career aspirations as a female, I too was branded as a liberal. Once, after attending a concert in DC with some older students, two members of the administration called me in to question me (probably thinking they could scare me, a freshman, more easily than they could an older student) about the purported use of alcohol, tobacco, and drugs by students at the concert. I managed to say something about how I thought gossip was a sin, and they let me go. It was clear, though, that I had been branded, and was being watched.
College, a place where I was supposed to finally have friends, became a place where I felt lonelier than ever.
I didn’t know whom to trust. I felt that anyone around me was possibly watching for me to transgress a rule so they could report me to the administration. And if not that, anyone around me was probably judging me:
“You’re eating that much food?”
“You’re wearing that dress?”
“Your attitude toward that boy seemed flirtatious.”
“That comment was too assertive.”
Of course, coming from where I came from, I didn’t think this was wrong, or a problem with the college. I thought that there was something wrong with me. I simply wasn’t trying hard enough to be godly or pure enough.
That was just the tip of the iceberg. I now teach college students at a much more prestigious research institution, and I know that even at major Universities, freshmen confront some of the biggest blows to their egos of their lives. Students who were at the top of their class at prep school find themselves grade-grubbing at their TA’s office hours when they receive their first B- (or worse) on an essay. At PHC, we were learning how to write and think like all college students, and that involved many ego-bruisings. But there were also a few more nefarious subtexts.
We had to excel, because this was our Christian duty. Failure was somehow sinful. But in exceling, we couldn’t be too prideful. Especially as a female, this attitude could be seen as inappropriate. In one instance, after a particularly contentious student senate meeting where I’d spoken against the “conservative” wing of the senate, a fellow student senator (a “mature Christian” male) came to me and said:
“You know, everyone hates you. You’re too assertive, and it’s not a godly or womanly attitude.”
What really broke me, though, was something that happened freshman year. I was on the college debate team, which was one of PHC’s main selling points (“See, we have this activity where our students sometimes do ok against people at normal schools! We’re awesome!”). I’d won my first tournament. At my second tournament, my partner and I won enough rounds to advance as first seed, which meant we had the best performance in preliminary rounds. Our coach (another student), thinking that I needed to learn humility, held us back from advancing, and sent another team ahead of us. I couldn’t understand it. I thought I’d done everything I needed to do, but somehow there was this deeper logic of being ambiguously “Christian enough” that I was failing to follow. After that, part of me stopped trying. I didn’t know where the lines were anymore. I just knew that I was somehow spiritually inadequate, and I didn’t know how to fix it.
I started to go deeper and deeper inside myself in the quest to be good enough. Like so many perfectionist girls, even in less restrictive environments, I decided I needed more rigid self-discipline. So I stopped eating, both because this felt like some form of success or control, and because I felt that I needed punishment for my inadequacies. As my eating disorder continued to develop, I continued to withdraw. The only way to stay safe from the onslaught of judgment was not to let anyone in, ever. One by one, my friends started to slip away from me. I still don’t really blame them. As an 18, 19, or 20 year old, dealing with your 18 year old friend’s anorexia is a pretty tall order, especially if you think it’s a sin (which she can just stop committing) instead of a disease (for which she might need professional help). I never got that help. The campus administration, who cared so deeply about whether our skirts were 2 or 3 inches above our knees (the latter was a serious infraction) or whether we imbibed alcohol (for which you could be expelled), didn’t seem to care at all about the fact that I (and many other students) developed life threatening self-harm disorders.
At the worst of the eating disorder, when I could hardly walk and just wanted to die and make it all go away, many people questioned my “walk with the Lord,” but not a single person asked me if I was ok.
This, to me, is what PHC stood for. Love Jesus, all else be damned.
Every time someone told me they “just couldn’t deal with me anymore,” or I “needed to get right with the Lord,” I dealt with it by closing up a little bit inside, and eating a little bit less (650 calories today, only 600 tomorrow, oh, I didn’t deserve that salad, I should throw it up, etc). When an older classmate, someone I trusted, took advantage of that trust to force himself on me, I didn’t really resist. I was just a worthless shell, after all. Who was I to say no? It didn’t even seem worth reporting.
After all, it was (as I was later told by another male student) probably because my skirts were a “stumbling block”.
My parents, of course, didn’t know what to do.
They knew something was wrong when I came home for Christmas break my freshman year, 30 pounds underweight, withdrawn, and sad. I didn’t have the words to articulate what was happening to me, or how things were going at PHC, which they interpreted as standoffish. Even if I had articulated a cry for help, their backgrounds and religion didn’t provide them with the tools to help me. They tried various tactics, including denial, anger, and threats. But eventually it was them, in a fumbling but heartfelt attempt, as well as the kind attention of a wonderful professor, that finally tipped the balance.
After my freshman year, when I was exhausted, waif-like, and contemplating giving up on it all, my mom called me. She didn’t tell me I was sinning. She didn’t yell. She didn’t judge.
She just told me how she loved me.
How when she was pregnant they told her I might not make it, and how she cried and prayed and hoped every day that I would, and how it felt to hold me for the first time, and how all she’d ever tried for in life was to protect me in pain, and how she felt like she failed, and please, please not to give up.
Her words were filled with love, and in that love was a kind of freedom. It was also the freedom I found in the classes of one particularly gifted professor, who transported us away from the rigid confines of religious rules to questions about existence, knowledge, and politics.
These glimpses of freedom helped me make it through. Eventually, I recovered from anorexia (without any professional help, which is a different story). I made it through the rest of the PHC (not happily, but again, that’s another story), and I made it out to go to graduate school in a big city with no one to answer to but myself. Now, many years later, I still get nauseous anytime I get near Purcellville, Virginia. Sometimes I’m still bitter and angry, but mostly I’m grateful for my freedom.
Last year, I came back for homecoming to speak on an alumni roundtable about graduate school. The students expressed concerns about what it would be like to be surrounded by “non-believers”, who might keep them from vocalizing a “Christian worldview” in the classroom. I’m afraid that my attempts to explain the glories of academic freedom or the wonders of objective scholarship fell on deaf ears.
What I was trying to tell them was something I wish someone had told me:
Outside of that overly stylized colonial campus, there are places where you have the freedom to say what you think, and no one’s going to report you for it.