Please Don’t Deny Our Agency


HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Libby Anne’s blog, Love, Joy, Feminism. It was originally published on November 16, 2015.

I wrote the first draft of this post last summer. I wasn’t satisfied with it as it was, so I set it aside and promptly forgot about it. A conversation with one of my sisters reminded me of the post, so I’ve pulled it out and dusted it up.

In writing, last summer, about Josh Duggar’s Ashley Madison account, I noted that:

Josh and Anna didn’t have sex until they married, so they had no way of knowing whether they are sexually compatible. Further, Josh doesn’t believe in birth control and he and his wife Anna have had four kids in five years. There is no way this hasn’t taken a tole on the couple’s sex life. Josh also does not believe in divorce. None of this justifies Josh’s cheating. He is a grown man, and in choosing the beliefs he has he has made his own bed.

Quite a few commenters objected, arguing that Josh didn’t chose his beliefs, his parents chose them for him. While I understand where this is coming from, I have a problem with where this logic leads—namely, that any individual who grows up in the Christian homeschooling movement and does not deviate from their parents’ beliefs as an adult is some sort of automaton, bereft of agency.

I grew up as the oldest of a dozen homeschooled children in a family similar to Josh’s in many ways. If I hadn’t left the fold, I would probably be pregnant with my fifth child right now and homeschooling my oldest, but instead I am part of the Homeschoolers Anonymous community, one of scores of other young adults now critical of our Christian homeschool upbringings. While I was not raised in ATI, as Josh was, dozens of individuals of my generation who were have formed Recovering Grace and found other outlets for opposing Bill Gothard’s cultish teachings.

What I am trying to say is simply this: Being raised in a Christian homeschooling home does not rob a person of agency. If it did, I would not be where I am today.

It’s true Christian homeschooling is often centered around ensuring that children will adopt their parents’ beliefs, but you know what? We all turn 18 at some point, and at some point we leave home. When we become adults, we make our own choices. Some of us chose to reject our parents’ beliefs entirely. Others pick through, keeping some things and setting aside others. Still others choose to make our parents’ beliefs our own. We exercise our agency in different ways, but we do have agency.

I am familiar with the concept of “bounded choices.” I understand that some of us have more room to question than others, that some of us have more exposure to other people and beliefs than others, and that some of us have more resources and marketable skills than others.

There are indeed young women in these communities who go straight from their parent’s home to their husband’s home, with no college or job skills, and immediately commence bearing and raising children. But you know what? Telling these women that they only believe what they do because their parents taught it to them, denying their agency and their ability to make their own choices—these things will only contribute to the sort of infantilization many of us experienced as adolescents. It doesn’t help.

That conversation I had with my sister? She wanted to make sure that I respected her agency. She was concerned that I knew that she held the same beliefs as our parents because she believed them for herself and not because it was what she had been taught. She was worried that, because I had a rather dramatic experience of resorting and choosing my beliefs as a young adult, I might assume that she was not exercising her own agency. She wanted to make sure I saw her as an autonomous person making her own choices.

When we speak of young Christian homeschool graduates being “brainwashed” we push people like my sister away. When we affirm their agency and autonomy (while also challenging their beliefs when necessary) we help promote both. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t consider the challenges faced by homeschool alumni from controlling or dogmatic homes, and we should absolutely promote greater freedom and openness by speaking out against harmful practices and supporting scholarships and other initiatives to help those who may find themselves stuck. But denying the agency of those who espouse their parent’s beliefs helps none of this. We can affirm agency while also promoting expanded options.

But let’s return to Josh Duggar. Some of you may argue that Josh was, in some sense, trapped. He had a wife and four children and no marketable job skills that he could apply outside of his parents’ circles of influence.

Let me tell you a story about a Christian homeschool graduate who, like Josh, courted, married, and set up house with a young woman who had just graduated from homeschooling herself. Together they had four children in five years. This homeschool graduate was trained for the ministry, and only for ministry, and was expected to follow in paternal footsteps. In the early years of marriage the fledgling family was financially dependent on family. Small children in tow, the young family moved several states away for a new job pastoring a church.

Are you noticing some parallels? You should be. Josh also married young through a parent-controlled courtship, had four children in five years, was financially dependent on his father, and moved several states away to take up a much-lauded job doing what he was expected to do to further the family name.

But this story ends differently. This homeschool graduate struggled with dysphoria, entered a period of intense questioning, and then left the approved path. Though assigned male at birth, this homeschool graduate came out as transgender and transitioned to living openly as a woman. She left the ministry and had to find an entirely new career, starting from scratch with four children to care for. Neither she nor her wife had any job skills to fall back on. And yet, they overcame overcame. You can read Haley’s story, as told by her wife Melissa, here.

Hayley chose to question her parents’ beliefs and leave their subculture. Josh chose to adopt his parents believes and stay in their subculture. Both had agency.

Yes, children who grow up in Christian homeschooling families are often more sheltered than other children. We may study out of textbooks that are extremely limited in ideological scope. We may not have any friends whose beliefs differ from ours. But the entire premise of this blog and so many others is that Christian homeschooling does not work. Children are wildcards, not robots waiting for programming. Regardless of how controlling our parents may be during our childhoods, once we turn 18 we make our own decisions. Please do not deny us that.


5 thoughts on “Please Don’t Deny Our Agency

  1. Brian November 23, 2015 / 11:43 pm

    Alice Miller asked me once, at what age one becomes responsible for one’s choices and actions. I answered her that I felt there was no specific age but that when a child was able to grow up enough to know some independence, some individuality, then responsibility was born. Fully responsible? Dunno.
    I know many people who are older than 18 and unable to stand on their own against their abuser parents. They have been severely harmed and the harm is life-long. The Law will hold them accountable once they are 18 but they might not own their own lives for many years after that….

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Courtney G. November 24, 2015 / 6:54 am

    I agree with Brian. It took years to even understand what I had gone through, much less realize I was permitted to do the work of healing and changing. I agree we should not be infantilized b/c that just shifts us from one abusive or co-dependent relationship to another. However, acknowledging how the brain-washing, control, abuse, violent imagery, etc. deprives adults of agency is appropriate and needed. My problems went on for far too long, b/c so many well-meaning people didn’t want to assume I couldn’t make decisions for myself. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t make a safe or healthy decision to save my life. And that is an almost-literal statement. Friends granted that, because I was functioning a certain way and had not renounced certain things they instantaneously saw as horrible, I must be actively choosing it. And that wasn’t the case. We are granted the opportunity to reclaim our agency by being told that those abusive techniques and resulting beliefs are, in fact, dangerous and destructive. We are granted the opportunity to reclaim our agency by being informed that we actually don’t have it and desperately need it. We are granted the opportunity to reclaim our agency by being informed as to what agency IS. And honestly, ways of life are not value-neutral. Certain ways of life are invalidated by the way they cause people to be treated. If I talk with a friend or family member who insists they have agency and still choose to walk the same path I was forced to walk, I have one of two choices. I can assume the best of them and try to show them all the ways they have been coerced into adopting a dangerous lifestyle. And in the course of trying to demonstrate to them how their agency has been thwarted, it will look like I think they don’t have any (agency). And it is true to some extent. If I assume the best about someone who believes things I know are harmful, I can only think they don’t know any better and should be helped. OR, I can assume they understand fully all the danger and harm baked into the cake of their worldview, grant them full agency, and hold them fully accountable for everything they do. I can proceed to tell them how I have no respect for an individual who so deliberately puts children in harm’s way, adopts anti-Biblical perspectives while claiming they are from God, demeans whole groups of people around the world, etc. And I can tell them that while I will always be a resource for their children or any other people they harm, I will never ever be a resource for them personally. I will happily bear witness against them in court or in any other circumstance when I might be called on to clarify whether or not I think they are fully responsible for their actions and why. And I will hearken back to the point where they insisted they knew that what they were doing was right and did not want to consider the fact that maybe they needed mental health help or some other resource. But as someone who tries to let mercy lead my life, I will probably always begin with the position that maybe a person’s ability to understand and utilize their agency may have been thwarted. And I do that to keep other people safe, as well as prevent someone from being caught up in a legal or social system that (rightly) cannot afford to distinguish all the nuances of agency I have become aware of.


  3. imatchett November 25, 2015 / 11:56 am

    I have to say that I have mixed feelings about this post. I mostly agreed with you at first. Yes, it doesn’t matter how Josh was raised, as an adult, he can make his own choices. It doesn’t mean the whole family is bad simply because one child went astray. I agree with that. What I don’t agree with is when you said that “Christian homeschooling does not work.” That line bothered me. I have chosen to homeschool and I am a Christian. So we’ve chosen a Christian curriculum. It just made sense. Every home and every family is different. What works for one family may not work for another. Christian homeschooling works very well for us. We absolutely love it. We are in no means forcing our Faith on our children and they are not being programmed. We are not isolated and sheltered from the world. We are active members of our community. We take pride in educating our children academically, spiritually, emotionally and in any way we believe will be helpful for our children. We want to raise children who will one day become strong, independent, intelligent and caring adults. I do not believe that Christian homeschooling is the issue in the Duggar family household. In my opinion, it doesn’t matter which homeschooling approach they use, each child is their own person and if someone is going to make bad choices, it is not always a direct result of the parent’s homeschooling choices. I realize that there are some true cults out there and some children are made to feel like they don’t have a choice in the way they live. But that’s the minority. It’s not exclusive to the Christian homeschooling community. It happens in every type of family. Christian, non-Christian, homeschool, public and private school. Pointing the finger at one specific homeschool approach is unjust. So I choose to respectfully disagree with a portion of your blog post.


  4. Cherilyn Clough November 25, 2015 / 6:09 pm

    I believe every person is different because the amount of training and yes, brainwashing and social isolation are different. I left home at almost twenty. I was not homeschooled, but I was taught to lie and say I was, when in reality I had no education after sixth grade. I was so naive that I had no clue how to date or finish college. It took several years for me to catch up socially to the rest of society.

    Even though I married a kind man, I still felt responsible to my family of origin, we gave them money and supported my family members for years then, when I was nearly forty-five, I finally realized I couldn’t be who my parents wanted me to be anymore. It was a painful divorce because I had been trained to please them and I had believed God wanted me to honor them, now I realize I am to honor my heavenly parent first.

    It took a major family fight and crisis for me to wake up. I have read about Stockholm Syndrome and I think many who were home-schooled or abused fall into that category of making excuses and justifying what they have been taught to do.

    Having said all this, I still believe we have basic instinct or conscience between what is right and wrong. using other people for sex and cheating on the person you love is not excusable because we were homeschooled or isolated. What happened with Josh Duggar was not a pattern created by his parents, he chose to deviate from their path and while I don’t approve of their particular path, I don’t believe he can excuse himself from his choices because of his parents. He made the call to do what he did and he did it in full knowledge of what he was doing


  5. Brian November 26, 2015 / 9:48 pm

    Cherilyn said ” What happened with Josh Duggar was not a pattern created by his parents, he chose to deviate from their path…”
    Just how you have discerned this is not getting through to me. Josh Duggar would have been just fine if he had not deviated from the ‘path’? Meaning that he magically decided to abuse his sisters out of an indwelling of a devil or something? Abuse is most often learned at home and because you don’t see how that can work in the Duggar’s case does not make it accurate to state that Josh did not adopt a pattern from his parents, drom within his family life. Homes full of woo-woo religion and denial, full of rigid rules about sex and love and every other matter, certainly do create abusers. I would be very interested in knowing just why Josh became an abuser if it was from somewhere other than sick, religious family life. Your final statement is also lacking any basis for support. What ‘call’ did Josh make as you see it? Or is it simply that he abused and so he is responsible? I agree, he is responsible but I have no idea what you are talking about when you say, he made the call. And your statement about full knowledge, well, I guess you mean by full knowledge that he knew where to find his victims? I do not in any way absolve Josh Duggar for his sick crimes but I am not going to join you in your disconnect regarding the origin of his actions. The pattern in Josh’s life, including the Duggar family life was quite likely a contributing factor in his sick behavior. Time will tell.


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