The Ideology Of Underage Marriages In Conservative Christianity

CC image courtesy of Flickr, Andrew Malone.

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Laura Lawrence’s blog The Rambling Soapbox. It was originally published on September 8, 2015.

A Teen by Definition is Not “Mature”

*Little disclaimer: By “mature” I mean as physically developed and/or experienced in life as adults. I am not referring to responsibility, which many teens are better at than some adults. 

I was just 16 but I knew it was love, and my boyfriend, also 16, and I secretly but seriously discussed our future. It was my 18th birthday when my new boyfriend and Sr. year highschool sweetheart proposed to me at our favorite park. I was 18 still when we married and my 19th birthday came one week later. My husband was barely 20.

Over the past 13 years of marriage, we have occasionally reflected on the past. On this issue, we both have come to the conclusion that marrying so young is not something we would now recommend to others. We were in love, but we were not prepared. We were not prepared financially, reproductive-wise, and he was not prepared mentally. Until my new husband kindly walked me through the steps, I had never paid a bill before. I didn’t know how to cook beyond pasta salad and boxed mac and cheese. We had no long-term plans, no goals other than my determination to get my Bachelor’s (it took 7 years, but I finally did).

We were strongly encouraged to marry fast in order to avoid living or falling into sin (sex), and we happily and naively agreed for the sake of our spiritual health and physical desires. It never occurred to our superiors/supporters that if we couldn’t be mature and responsible sexually before marriage, we weren’t mature enough for marriage. Our best friends and family were devastated and deeply concerned. They thought we were being way too hasty.

We struggled much for the first few years, forced to grow up very quickly and alone, for our friends were still in college when we began having babies. Not knowing how to budget, how to pay bills, or how to plan for long-term savings, and neither of us having a college degree, we suffered financially. Some decisions we made so long ago still haunt us today. We were encouraged not to take birth control since they were “full of toxins” and “not natural”, but to try the spit and microscope method of birth control instead. Wouldn’t you know it? Within 7 months I was pregnant.


Underage Marriage in the United States?

I was skeptical when a spiritual abuse blog I follow, posted an article on their FB page about child marriages in certain fundamental, homeschool, patriarchal, Christian circles. I knew it happened in many developing countries. I knew about the practice in fundamental Mormon (FLDS) churches out West. I knew it was a growing issue in the US due to the influx of immigrant cultures, but surely this article was grossly exaggerating the occurrence of underage marriages in these Protestant Christian groups. The article only highlighted two instances of child marriage, and both happened in the same family with a mother (married at 15) and her daughter (married at 16).

I asked for more information, and the moderator of the Spiritual Sounding Board Facebook page generously provided me with 3 more articles. While none of them could make a convincing case for the actual practice of child marriages, the positive mindset among several general commenters, the remarks of Kevin Swanson and Dave Bruehner (two big names in the conservative Christian homeschooling movement), and even Phil Robertson of “Duck Dynasty” fame, began to show a disturbing trend.

There is a legal, and for some, ethical, difference between underage child marriages which occur between 12-17 (more typically, 15-17) years of age, and young or early marriage, which happens between 18-22 years of age, generally speaking. While the latter has been increasingly pushed by some in Evangelical circles to prevent or reduce sin, when the former does occur or is promoted, many times it is for very similar reasons.


Early/Young Marriage, 18-22

Today there is “a sort of attitude … magical thinking, that if we get you married, then you’ll be fine and we don’t have to worry about anti-poverty programs… we don’t have to worry about child care.” Scholars, pundits and other policy elites need to end their magical thinking about marriage and acknowledge the widespread nature of marital poverty and economic hardship. Married Without Means, p. 3

Statistics have told those with “ears to hear” for years that the rate of divorce decreases, the older a couple is when married. Couples between the ages of 18-24 (or younger) have the highest rates of divorce among married couples. This age group of married couples also tend to suffer significantly lower incomes, many times at or even below poverty level. Poverty’s fallout among young people and society includes poor education, single parenting (related both to the high divorce rate and young, unmarried mothers), severe stress, poor mental and physical health, drug abuse, child abuse, abortion, and the ignominious welfare state-all issues that conservative Christians are deeply worried about.

Still, there are many examples of conservative celebrity Christians, politicians, and leaders who strongly promote the idea of early marriage as a panacea for society’s ills. The often-cited op-ed article from Christianity Today called, The Case for Early Marriage (July 2009), by Mark Regnerus—a sociologist with much to say on the topic of young marriages in the church (see also Regnerus’s similar article titled, Freedom to Marry Young, April 2009, from the Washington Post)—seems to be mostly concerned with abstinence (rather a lack thereof), baby-making, the “decreasing market value of women” as they age, and economics; it is cheaper to live together with someone, pooling resources, than living alone, he insists. Continuing in the CT article, Regnerus appears to idolize marriage as a “formative institution” and elevates it to the status of duty, meanwhile stigmatizing singles (especially women) as if they are forced to settle into their singleness. Regnerus is a real romantic.

The Duggar Family’s long-running reality TV show has garnered them much influence. The Duggars, of “19 Kids and Counting” fame, do not self-identify as a Quiverfull family, but they do maintain similar strict beliefs concerning children, homeschooling, marriage, modesty, patriarchy, and courtship. “Jim Bob and Michelle were married on July 21, 1984, just after Michelle’s high school graduation. She was 17 and he was 19 when they married; neither went to college, according to “19_Kids_and_Counting.

It would seem that oldest son Josh Duggar and his wife, Anna, were married when they were both 20. Anna says on their webpage, she first saw Josh via the TV show when they were both 13. They met at a homeschooling conference in 2006, when they would have both been 18. After a carefully cultivated courtship, they were married in 2008 and now have 4 children.

Josh was recently found to have cheated on his wife with a sex worker (at least once), engaging in rough, unprotected sex and potentially exposing both his wife and unborn child to venereal disease. Of Josh’s two married sisters, one was married at 20, the other waited until the ripe old age of 24. Both young women became pregnant immediately, none of the Duggars have gone to or have been encouraged to attend college. Although the Duggars’ lifestyle has worked for them financially because of their celebrity status, the average couple who marries early becomes just another statistic.


Child Marriage: A Rose by Any Other Name

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy. Proverbs 31:8-10

Rather than at least remaining neutral on the subject or better yet, speaking up for voiceless girls and young women like the Bible adjures Christians to do, certain teachers, preachers, and celebrities like Swanson, Bruehner, Robertson, the Duggar family, and others, actively encourage early marriage, even child marriage, although most Evangelicals draw the line at age 18-20 (*Disclaimer: I do not know that the Duggars advocate for child marriage, but the others in this list have, as has already been discussed in this article).

“At a Sportsmen’s Ministry talk in 2009, [Phil] Robertson had some advice for a young man. “Make sure that she can cook a meal, you need to eat some meals that she cooks, check that out,” he said. “Make sure she carries her Bible. That’ll save you a lot of trouble down the road. And if she picks your ducks, now, that’s a woman.” 

“They got to where they’re getting hard to find,” Robertson remarked. “Mainly because these boys are waiting until they get to be about 20 years old before they marry ’em. Look, you wait until they get to be 20 years old, the only picking that’s going to take place is your pocket.” The Duck Commander company founder added: “You got to marry these girls when they are about 15 or 16, they’ll pick your ducks. You need to check with mom and dad about that of course.” “ 

And Robertson practices what he preaches. He began dating his wife, Kay, when she was only 14 and he was 18. They waited until Kay was 16 to get married. See “Duck Dynasty Star: Girls Should Carry a Bible Cook and Marry When They are 15″ from Raw Story.

In a radio broadcast defending Phil Robertson’s comments above, former Executive Director of Christian Home Educators of Colorado, and current head of Generations with Vision, Kevin Swanson stated: “Remember that one concern people had over Duck Dynasty, when the guy came out and said the girls, 15 or 16 years of age, she’s able to get married, they got all mad. Because boy, you get a girl married at 15 or 16 years of age, that’s a sin! Dave Bruehner: Well it is because she doesn’t have a whole life of fornication ahead of her anymore. Later on, the men remarked, “I mean, think about what the president of the Girl Scouts would say about this, Dave, if we said, “Hey, these 15 year old girls, 16 year old girls, they may be ready to get married. They don’t have to live these, you know, independent lifestyles.””

The story of Matthew Chapman is famous/infamous depending on your perspective. He is well-known in conservative homeschooling groups for courting a young teen named Maranatha while she was 13 and he 25, eventually marrying her with her father’s permission and approval when she was 15 and Matthew was 27.

It seems that Matthew Chapman is going to be a keynote speaker at Christian Home Educators of Ohio’s annual homeschool convention this summer. This is a major convention…In addition to Matthew serving as keynote speaker, his wife Maranatha is slated as a featured speaker. Matthew runs Kindling Publications, and both Maranatha and Lauren is featured heavily on organization’s website. See “Matthew Chapman and Why I Included Lauren’s Picture” by Love, Joy, Feminism.

Attorneys claim Phillips, a close friend to the Duggar family and an associate of actor Kirk Cameron, “methodically groomed” Lourdes Torres since she was 15 years old and led her to believe they would be married. Phillips told the girl this was possible because his wife, Beall Phillips, “was going to die soon.” See “Lawsuit Reveals Teen was Groomed as Personal Sex Slave in the Duggar Family’s Movement” via Raw Story.

Child marriages heralded by the above-mentioned men, seem genuinely logical in their anachronistic culture which sometimes encompasses such names as Quiverfull, Patriarchy, and Evangelical Homeschool Movement (*there is much overlap here; not all families that adhere to these labels believe all the same things, perhaps especially on the issue of underage marriages). These movements, along with some Fundamental Evangelical Christians and churches, strive to bring back a romanticized 1950s, in some cases 1850s, believing those times to be Christianity’s heyday in America. Interestingly, or perhaps not surprisingly, those eras in history saw higher rates of underage marriages and sexual abuse, wife submission, and patriarchy-centered households -all hallmarks of the above-mentioned movements. It wasn’t until women’s groups moved strongly to shed light on the issues and promote change, that child marriage began to become a thing of the past.

While many might consider child marriages to be a form of pedophilia, medically and legally speaking, pedophilia is limited to sexual attraction to prepubescent children and child molestation is limited to the sexual touching of children 14 and younger. Sexual abuse, then is the term to be used concerning the topic of child marriages.

UNICEF has stated that child marriage “represents perhaps the most prevalent form of sexual abuse and exploitation of girls”.[5] The effects of child sexual abuse can include depression,[6] post-traumatic stress disorder,[7] anxiety,[8] complex post-traumatic stress disorder,[9] propensity to further victimization in adulthood,[10] and physical injury to the child, among other problems.[11]  From “End Child Marriage PDF-UNICEF, p. 8.”

The main debate points against pedophilia concern:

  • The lack of true consent on the part of the child
  • The manipulation and power plays on the part of adult authority figures/taking advantage of a child’s innocence, naivete, and inability to say “no”
  • The safety and health of a child which includes the possibility of pregnancy, STDs, and/or physical damage
  • Using a child for the gratification of an adult

While the legal definitions exclude underage, child marriages from being classified as pedophilia or child molestation, there are still strong similarities because of the unique, fundamental culture of the groups that propose it:

  • The young girls in such families are not able to give their own consent, because the consent is settled between the father-patriarch and the bridegroom.
  • There are significant power plays on the part of older adults as they take advantage of such a sheltered girl’s innocence, naivete, and inability to say “no”.
  • The safety and health of the young lady is not taken into consideration, since medicine has shown how dangerous pregnancy can be for teens and their babies, yet in many of these families, contraception is considered a terrible sin against God. As was seen in the Josh Duggar-Ashley Madison case (see link above), these innocent teen girls may still be at risk of STDs as well.
  • Finally, these young marriages are pushed or arranged purely for the gratification of the adults involved and not the benefit of the girl.

Conclusion

  • Young/Early marriages occur between at least one party who is between 18-24 years old. In most cases, the couple are peers in age.
  • Young/Early marriages are often encouraged among traditionally-minded churches and religious groups as a way to reduce sexual sin and single parenthood.
  • Young/Early marriages and child marriages have the highest rates of divorce among married couples. Many times, young couples are uneducated, leading to poverty, which in turn leads to a variety of personal, familial, and social problems.
  • Child marriages are marriages that occur between at least one party who is between 12-17 years old. In many cases, the minor is a female and the bridegroom is in his mid-20s or older.
  • Child marriages are happening in the United States due to the culture of immigrants coming in and religious fundamental cults throughout the states.
  • Child marriages are a form of sexual abuse, no matter how prettily packaged they may seem.

References and Research:

Orthodox Pedophile: I Married My Child Victim So There was No Sexual Abuse

Early Marriage Survives in the USChicago Tribune

DayoftheGirl.org

Child Marriage in the United States and its Association with Mental Health in WomenPediatrics Journal

Child Marriage and Christian FundamentalistsRepublic of Gilead Blog

On Child Marriage: Kevin Swanson and Dave Bruehner Defend Phil Robertson—Homeschoolers Anonymous

Red Sex, Blue SexThe New Yorker

Wait for Sex and Marriage? Evangelicals Convicted

Unsatisfied With Pushing Abstinence Alone, Evangelicals Begin Pushing Early Marriages As WellJezebel

Teenage Brides and Titus 2 Women of the Homeschool ApostatesBecoming Worldly

Robert Van Handel: A Disturbing Look into the Mind of a Pedophile Priest

The Day I Ran Away: Charlie’s Story

Editorial note: Charlie blogs at Blind Horse Girl. Charlie is a pseudonym.

I remember being eleven years old, writing my mother a letter that was telling her I was running away. This was less than six months after my father had passed away, and a few months after we joined a church that I consider even to this day is both my savior and pain-filled. How I look at it depends on both the time and what I have heard from friends who still are active in both the church and world of home schooling. I haven’t told anyone about the letter, I remember the feeling though that I was going to be free, but after I thought for a second the letter was torn up and hid at the bottom of the trash can.

Maybe that would be the first time I considered telling someone, anyone about what was going in my home. I wasn’t actively being home schooled at that point in time, though I was still being taught at home in what I consider ”the fundamentalist home schooling way.” Before my father’s death I was being home schooled. My grandparents insisted that I go to regular school. I love and hate those three years. Love them because they allowed me some normalcy, but hate them because my mother found something she loved, a Pentecostal/church of god/mega church (I don’t know what else to call it, and most should at least know the type).

Home schooling though did come back like a flood, part of me thinks this is because of my choice of friends, but honestly it most likely would have happened anyway. By tenth grade, I was back to being home schooled. This time, though, involved more of what my fellow homeschool alumni are used to. Creation as science, courting, and the whole nine yards. None of which I believe in, now I am shockingly a rather happy Catholic, although that might change once I get the courage to come out of the closet on something other than a Harry Potter role playing site. Something again that makes me a sinner. Let’s just say I am a Catholic bisexual evolutionist who is visibly disabled (blind if you’re wondering). This isn’t about that though, this is supposed to be about how I got here from there.

I was what most would consider a high school dropout (though I did finish school, never got to actually get proof though), working at a horse barn making barely enough to get by. I did love having my own money, working and no future courting in sight (more than likely because I wasn’t putting myself out there, nor were we the norm). I have no father, and my mother has never been your typical active church mom.

What changed this was when I got in a horse accident resulting in legal blindness, so independent me was back allowing my mother control of her life. But looking back, My mother never really lost control. She had my legal documents, had access to both my cash, and bank account, and was pretty much allowed to tell me what to do and how to do it. When medical treatment failed, my mother insisted that my healing was to be found in the church. When it did not work, my mother turned to anger that I was disabled, because she saw me as forever in her care. The abuse that was a norm of my childhood became a norm of my adulthood.

My lack of income meant that she lost her apartment, and had us move in with a friend of hers, another follower of the faith. It was fine for the most part in the beginning, or more than likely it was my norm. When my money ran out things changed I felt as if a light switch had been flipped. I wasn’t allowed to leave the bedroom I was forced to share with my mother. My laptop was gone, something that years ago when she got it for me she promised she wouldn’t take away. Phone numbers of relatives deleted out of my phone, it seemed out of fear I would call a relative and tell them what was going on. My closest friend insisted once I told her what was going that I needed to pray for help. Out of pure desperation I contacted a friend, who I had never met from a horse forum, through Facebook on my cell phone. She insisted that yes I was being abused, and yes, they were acting crazy.  She insisted that I needed to leave, or at least contact adult protective services, considering that I am a protected class.

I remember that last day better than all the rest, something says to me that my mother heard me talking to her, more likely only some of it, because she stayed in my room, making comments about how I have been wanting to spend time with her for weeks and now I was trying to kick her out of the room. (The reason I wanted her to leave was because I wanted to call.) When I had finally gotten the courage to tell my mother I was leaving, she told me I had to wait until a certain date, something that still sends a chill through me.

I said I was going for a walk, I don’t know why they allowed me, though I am grateful they did. I left with nothing more than the long cane I barely knew how to use and the clothing on my back. I planned on walking to a local store and calling the non-emergency line to see about getting a ride to the local homeless shelter.

(Now what I did after this is was not safe, I was rather lucky to be picked up by who I was and not some other person.)

It didn’t turn out that way. My savior, as I like to think of him, pulled up and talked to me and then told me that homeless shelter doesn’t take people after dark. He offered me his couch, which I slept on until we figured how to get me to the friend I am now staying with, out of the state my mother is in.

I haven’t spoken to her since she told me she was going down to the courthouse with the woman to file for back rent, something I know is not legal, I signed nothing that said I would pay rent. My important documents have since been replaced, and I am waiting for other things to get straightened out.

My story is an odd one, and it sounds even odd to my ears (I use a screenreader), but it is all true. I don’t think anyone, let alone someone who is blind like myself, should leave in the night. But I did what I felt I had to do, I saw my way out and went for it.

I don’t fully blame my mother for being the way she is. I wish things were different, but they aren’t. I do plan on getting my GED, going to college, and maybe getting a guide dog.

I am a homeschooler who found her way out.

Leaving Before You are Ready: AJ’s Story

Editorial note: Shade Ardent blogs at I am Phoenix. This story is reprinted with permission.

How easy is it to leave a cult? For me personally, the answer is “not very.”

I pay close attention to the stories of those who have left a religious cult. I admit I am a little envious of the females who made their escape from their family’s cult by marrying a man who whisked them away from it all. I wish I had that ticket available back then. It wasn’t available to me because I was terrified of men. I was especially afraid of Christian men because of the religious Christian monster my father was. And I was also scared of the so called secular, worldly men because linking up with them meant my life would be cursed with demons attacking me, and my family would cut me off. Also, there was that unspoken threat circulating in the underground Christin dating advice columns and pastor’s sermons where the non Christian man is guaranteed to cheat on you and leave you. If he doesn’t first rob a bank, then become a mass murderer. Because, gasp, that’s what people do who don’t fear God.

So I knew from  a young age that my escape was not going to be through a man. There would be no prince on a stallion. My sisters didn’t escape with the help of a man or marriage, either. They were about as gun shy of men as I was.

So how did we get out? Well, we couldn’t just leave. It seems so easy, right? Just walk out of the door.

But if we moved out of the house, God would allow Satan to attack us, destroying our physical health, mental health, finances, future career, and future relationships and marriage.

That would happen if we left the house without our father’s permission. The only way he would give us permission to leave was if we married a good Christian man he approved of. A man who our father would transfer us to, so we could be under that man’s authority. We wouldn’t be safe unless we were under a Christian man’s authority. Also, if we left unwed to an approved man, our father said he wouldn’t be able to pray a hedge of protection around us. He said his prayer alone wouldn’t be enough to keep Satan from destroying us while we were out in the world.

There was no safe way to leave. Going into a courtship with a man approved by my father was far too frightening a concept for us sisters to want to entertain. We saw how our Christian father abused our mother, and we weren’t going to be tricked into an exit from our father’s home just to relive it again with a patriarchal man that he chose. No, that was far too great a risk.

And we couldn’t just walk out the door and move into our own apartments. With all those threats and judgments from God? No, doing so would be equivalent to admitting you had a death wish. I would never have thought to leave on my own. Unless I really hated myself and wanted my life as I knew it to end.

It was easier for my brothers to leave.

They were Patriarchs in the making, and were far better equipped than women to make it out alone in the world without risking God’s wrath. My older brother got out after he graduated from college, accepted a good job, and had the financial where with all to go. Incidentally, he timed his departure so that he got married right when he left my parents’ house, but he could have left with or without getting married if he wanted to. My brothers were privileged simply because of their gender. They didn’t have nearly as much oppression or nearly as many rules as my sisters did.

So, this is how my older sisters escaped. My father hadn’t made any matches for them, and they were waiting and getting old. My father did approve of a courtship for my oldest sister L with a Christian man who worked with my father. My sister L did not find him in any way attractive and declined him. That I know of, she didn’t get courtship offers after that. So when L was about 25, my second oldest sister Thalia (aged 24) staged an intervention and secretly got an apartment out of town, where she all but dragged my mild mannered, easy going oldest sister along to. They left quickly and secretly, before my father found out. L didn’t want to go initially, but with Thalia pushing and planning, they made a hasty departure. There was a big blow up when they left, much threatening and cursing of their futures.

All manner of ill will was wished on them, Bible verses were hurled, their characters questioned.

They were called harlots who were practicing the sin of rebellion, which was likened to witchcraft. At this point, my sisters were so naïve and innocent about matters of life, that calling them harlots was just silly. Their harlotry consisted of wearing gel in their hair instead of leaving it natural. That, and going to a university where… non Christian men sullied my sisters simply by walking past them on campus. As if. My younger sister and I were given threatening sermonettes on the dangers of following their wicked footsteps.

When I was about 24, my 21 year old sister Christy staged an intervention. She secretly put a security down on an apartment out of town and rented a U-Haul. The same day, she broke the plans to me and told me I had a few hours to decide if I wanted out or not. She told me I had to make up my mind quickly. Back then I didn’t even know we were living in a cult. I had no outside worldly experience to compare my life to. My 18 year old brother was going along with us. At the last minute I said, “OK.” But I was dragging my feet. I was scared and not ready to go.

I had just graduated college, and had my bachelors degree in elementary education and my teaching certificate. I was too scared to go on interviews, so I lived on a substitute teacher’s salary. This wasn’t enough to pay the rent, even splitting it three ways. My younger sister had just graduated as well and had her bachelors degree and was hired as a nurse days before she even got her diploma. She was strong in her decision to go. I wasn’t as confident.

As an aside, it is quite a shocker that we had gone to college at all. But my sisters and I had discussed how we didn’t want to end up like our mother, uneducated except for a high school diploma, trapped and abused by our father. Since we didn’t trust any man to get us out or have our backs, our ticket was an education, career and independent single gal living.

If it wasn’t for my older sister Thalia paving the way and helping each of us work out the FAFSA and various scholarships and loans, we wouldn’t have had the know how or balls to go against my father and try to extend our education.

All of my siblings and I took part and sometime full time jobs and went to college around our work schedules. I certainly would never had gone to college without Thalia’s example and encouragement. My parents would not help financially based on moral grounds, and kept trying to discourage us from going. According to my father, college was evil and worldly, and all of us had better be prepared to reap the consequences of going through demonic attack as punishment from God for disobeying and going. My siblings laughed this off, but I was terrified. I woke up every day and fell asleep each night worrying when my judgment would hit.

So I entered the real world with reluctance and fear. I had a secret boyfriend at the time, and was able to see him much more often, which was nice.

But I’ll be honest with you. If my younger sister hadn’t staged that intervention, I wouldn’t have left. If I hadn’t gone with my younger sister and brother, I would have been the only one left at home other than my parents and trust me, I was incredibly uncomfortable with that. So I went with my siblings, even though everything inside me was screaming that I wasn’t ready. Home was bad, yes, but it was all I knew. And even more importantly, I knew what would happen if I left as a single female, unmarried to a man who could protect me from the evils of the world. I knew I would be slaughtered. According to cult rules, God would punish me by sending demons to destroy my physical health, career, finances, relationships, happiness and mental health.  

Again, my siblings laughed all of this off. I wish I could have had their thick skin and sensibilities. For some reason, I was terrified of the consequences and they weren’t. However, I think that had to do with the fact that I took spiritual matters far more seriously than my siblings did. And the main reason for that, although I didn’t recognize it at the time, was because I sensed how much my father hated and shunned me, and wanted to do everything possible to get his approval. Since religion was his life, I figured that my following his spiritual rules to the T would be an excellent way to gain his approval. Sadly, though, the more I tried, the more he pushed me away.

But I didn’t let myself see that. I just kept trying all the more to be spiritual. I got baptized, taught Sunday School, tithed, fasted for weeks on carrots, cornflakes and water, wore hideously modest prairie dresses and culottes, went to Bible College, went on a mission trip overseas, wanted to become a missionary, didn’t look sideways at men, read my Bible and prayed regularly. Meanwhile, my sisters left the house in modest attire and changed into tight jeans and tanks in their car, dated wild men, read romance novels, said “Shut up” and “Oh my God,” looked at magazines in the grocery store checkout, pierced their ears and wore clip-ons over top to hide the holes from my father, bought bathing suits and went to the beach (covert trips, of course). Most of my siblings were dancing on the edge of hell, and were just laughing all the way.

My siblings would occasionally talk about how horrible it was growing up.

They would whisper that we had grown up in a cult, and that our father was a sociopath.

They worried he would work himself up into some massive Biblical dither one day, shoot our mother, shoot himself, and then that would be the end of them. We used to check in our mom to make sure she was OK after most of us left. Our father kept loaded rifles on his bedroom wall, and often fell into unpredictable tirades of anger where he got violent. So my siblings worried. I was in a religious stupor myself back then, and told my siblings he was innocent, that he would never hurt our mom, and they were just being dramatic. Again, I didn’t have the foggiest idea of what we grew up in, as I had no experience in a world other than the family home and cult. Yes, I did go to college full time and worked, but I was too afraid of people to talk to them, so it’s like I was just a ghost passing through. I studied, took tests, drove, came, and left without communicating with other people, so it was like I actually wasn’t even doing these things or really in the world. I was technically, slightly “in the world” but without human interaction out there, it pretty much doesn’t qualify as being out.

Even after the intervention, when we moved out, I was in the world but very hesitant to break out of the mold and drop my normal customs and habits. It took quite a long time.

Fast forward a decade. I was living in extreme stress every day worrying about God’s judgment for every little thing I did. And trust me, after ten years, I had started being worldly. It’s like I had one foot back in the cult, since I believed 100% everything I was taught back then. And I had one foot in the world, living the life of a heathen while wracking up punishment and guilt left and right.

That’s the danger of leaving before you are ready. That was the danger in my leaving my family and the cult before I was ready. That was the downside to accepting the intervention my sister staged when I was scared to go. That was the danger of leaving the cult physically, without first leaving mentally and emotionally.

That was the danger of living in the word without shedding the cult mentality. I gave myself permission to try to live a “normal” life like normal people did, but I couldn’t get rid of all the nagging cult fears and threats of punishment for trying to be normal.

Maybe I would have been safer never leaving the cult in the first place. Maybe I would have been safer at home with my parents in the cult, safe from God’s judgment because I was carefully obeying all rules?

Maybe that would have been safer than living a double standard, free on the outside but still in bondage to the cult fears inside?

I can’t even begin to explore what would have happened if I had stayed in my parents’ house instead of leaving with my siblings during the intervention. I think it would have been an incredibly dark experience. I do know that once I started living on my own, I began to experience happiness. I did forget the horrors of the cult. I think I can honestly say that I was happy on my own. Especially when I was geographically far away from my family. I certainly didn’t have any flashbacks, anxiety or any physical manifestations of PTSD for at least a decade. I was pretty much oblivious and happy go lucky. I was always on the move though, never sat still or rested. Never stayed in any one location too long, or with anyone too long. I was antsy. I didn’t ever want to get trapped by any person or situation. I was always running, always busy. I didn’t stop to reflect or look inside. I just thrived on looking outside of myself, and shut my emotions and feelings up tightly. I was my five senses exploring the world, and nothing else.

I do recognize the danger of living in the duality I was immersed in for the decade of time I was out free in the world, living it up, but terrified on the inside.

Like I mentioned, I always felt fear and threats lurking over my shoulder, poised and ready to get me for the huge amount of sins I was piling up every day. I was just waiting for all hell to break loose. I was just waiting for my punishment to begin. Biting my nails hoping that maybe I could squeak by for another day, another month, maybe even another year before disaster hit me.

And then it hit. I was 33 and a half. The PTSD knocked me blindside, and everything fell apart. My health fell apart, even though I struggled for a year to keep myself together. I had to eventually give up my teaching career. Well, I put in for a year’s leave of absence, but my health wouldn’t allow me to go back after that year was up. I had to give up my apartment, my boyfriend left me, acquaintances disappeared, and I didn’t really have friends… the only thing I had left was my family. I had literally forgotten how strange and cruel they were. Time has a way of clouding those things over. So I crawled home, happy to have a family to go stay with.

I was naive. Too trusting. Too gullible. I give too much credit ahead of time. I actually thought I would go home to open arms. They were closed. But I didn’t find that out right away. It was a very slow process of me finding this out.

When I went home, I was so ashamed of my life of sin, that I…. wait for it, wait for it, oh, darn it. Yes, you guessed it. I weep to share this sad revelation.

I went back into the cult.

There. I said it. I double dipped.

Oh, horrors!

That’s what happen when you leave before you are ready. The chances of falling back into the fold are just that much higher.

And I felt so guilty. I fell into it headlong.

To the point that I was back in the Bible, back in the land of religious fear, eating up all the devotionals that said illness was punishment from God, that illness was a gift from God, that I was supposed to praise God for the beautiful gift of character edification that came in the form of illness. I ate it all up.

I even let waver my fiercely held promise that I would protect myself by never getting married to a man. I let myself believe for the first time that perhaps a Christian man would be safe after all. Because what had I ever really known about being safe, right? Here I thought I would the safest out on my own in the world far away from my family, far away from religion, and without a man. I really thought that was my safest bet. But here that plan didn’t pan out. Being alone out in the world unmarried, living a non-Christian life only ended up with me getting PTSD, ME/CFS and severe adrenal burnout.

So I had to re-evaluate my perception of what “safe” really looked like. I had been broken. I had to try a new route. God was a fierce punisher, and the single life alone in the world without Him and a man who served Him was a dangerous life after all. I had learned the hard way that it would be safest after all to do the Christian thing, the right thing, and get married to a good Christian man.

If I did this, perhaps God would ease up his punishment on me and perhaps He would even let me regain my health!

So I over-rode my fear of Christian men and married one. I introduced him to my family (oh horrors!) and I introduced him to Christianity and the cult. I thought I was doing the “right” thing. I was getting back on track. The backslidden AJ rallies and returns to her Christian roots, praise God Almighty, and all God’s people say, Amen.

Right. I married K. He actually wasn’t a Christian when I initially met him. It was I who led him to the Lord. Out of compulsion and duty, not out of a desire. I didn’t trust a Cristian any farther than I could throw one, but at the same time I feared what would happen to myself and him if we didn’t punch our tickets and do our bare minimum as Christians. I felt safer around K knowing that he was brand new to the faith and hadn’t been brainwashed by any sub cults or extremist thinking. He was a good man, and kind, when I met him. I imagined it could stay that way. I figured that as long as I was there to guide the ship and help shape the direction of his newly forming beliefs, he would remain the kind and jolly fellow he always was.

I was wrong.

As soon as K put on the coat of Christianity, he became a monster.

A living and breathing certified, Bible thumping, Christian monster. And that’s when my eyes opened and I didn’t want to go on living or breathing any more. The life vest of Christianity that I had reached for in my hour of need was now no longer a life vest, it was a pile of rocks that drug me to the bottom of the lake and wouldn’t let me up for air. I endured it for a couple years, until one day I woke up and realized that I want nothing more to do with being a Christian.

It’s been about two years now that I’ve left Christianity. I’m still digging myself out of the pit and separating from my family and a few situations and people still involved in the cult. I’m happier now, and K is happier.

On looking back, a part of me thinks that if I had stayed in the cult at my parents house instead of leaving during the intervention, I would have not only obeyed the cult rules, but I would have felt safer, I wouldn’t have feared severe punishment from God every waking minute of my life for years on end, and I wouldn’t have fallen apart with severe PTSD. I could possibly have avoided my health falling apart. Just think!

From this perspective, I wish I would have stayed at the homestead after graduating college and lived a safe life where I could just breath. It is too difficult balancing one world with another, with one foot in one world and one foot in the next. But at the same time, if I had stayed on the homestead in my parents under cult rules, I may have just shriveled up and died inside. Or I may have reached some kind of internal conflict that forced me to examine my beliefs and wake up. After which I would have solidly renounced the cult and made a clean break by leaving the belief system 100% and physically removing myself far from the cult and my family.

A solid, clean break is the ticket. The best way to leave involves breaking away emotionally and intellectually, as well as physically and geographically.

I still do admire those folks who were able to know firmly what they wanted the first time they left, the folks who didn’t have to come back for round two to relive the nightmare. I admire some of my siblings who weren’t so entrapped and who left more easily than I did. But every one’s journey is different.

I double dipped, but that’s OK. The first time only my body left. The second time, my body, heart and mind broke away. I had to experience the horror twice to know what I wanted and didn’t want. I know now. And I’m finally free.

Fighting for Hope: Elliott Grace Harvey’s Story – Conclusion

In this seriesPart One | Part Two | Conclusion

*****

Mars Hill Church – 3 years
Mars Hill Church, though a cult, was my gateway drug to separating myself from IBLP and OPC. The act of attending a church with different beliefs was radical in and of itself.
Though not openly stated in so many words, the foundation of Mark Driscoll’s leadership in MHC was based on misogyny, over-emphasized masculinity, and a severe need for control. Because of the size of the church, there was some buffer between Driscoll and his church members in the form of hundreds of pastors, elders, deacons, small group leaders, and volunteers.
The following is a direct quote from Driscoll, part of his rant that set off a cascade of criticism that was the ultimate demise of MHC.

“Scrap all you want. Hurl insults. Throw your petty theological darts. Have a good cry. Whatever. But do not lose sight of the issue. At some point you will all learn that I don’t give a crap about how you “feel.” Why, because I am not talking about your right to your feelings. That is the result of feminism, psychology, and atheism which says we are all good and need to have freedom to express our goodness and receive goodness in kind. If you are a man I want to teach you a new word. Duty….My feelings and rights turn me into an idol of self-worship that mitigates against Him. I am screaming at you to do likewise. And yes I am screaming, why, because listen to all the noise we’ve got to cut through. Even from “Christian” men who are basically practical queers that freak out when a man shows up because it becomes obvious that they are completely pussified.” – Mark Driscoll, on men

During the time I was involved, I was fairly unscathed by the church, in contrast to the experiences of thousands of other MHC members. I joined a study group led by an elder that worked with Driscoll from the church’s infancy, and openly disagreed with some of his teaching. This study group had the most genuine and loving people I had encountered up to this point, many of whom I’m still in touch with. I embarked on another stage of my healing, simply by learning that there were good souls in the world.

The last two weeks I’ve mostly been very emotional, crying through a lot of stuff. But the moment I arrived and the service started, I relaxed and it all faded away. As much of a hassle it is to get to church I’m always glad I came. – Journal entry

While a member at MHC, I became deeply involved in their individual and group counseling. It was helpful to a point, learning to speak honestly about myself, especially since I couldn’t afford the financial and emotional toll of seeing a professional counselor.

Everything just hurts. I feel like I’m lying to everyone when I talk about dad being abusive. It’s such a heavy word. Was he really? What about all the good things? Does it matter how often one of us got hurt? I hate remembering everything. I hate rewriting my perspective constantly. – Journal entry

Unfortunately, I found myself entrenched in a bad relationship with my counselor.

There was a good deal of control that, thankfully, I was eventually able to identify and cut myself off from.

My small group leader was, and still is, supportive of me and my decision to leave the church.

After moving out of my parent’s house, I intentionally kept contact on good terms with my family for the sake of my siblings. I feared if I told anyone about what went on in that house, things could go horribly wrong. So I waited, careful not to talk to mandatory reporters, and made sure my siblings could contact me if there was an emergency.

Several years passed, and I ran across an article about a homeschooling fundamentalist leader being involved in a sex scandal. From this story I found and connected with Homeschoolers Anonymous, Recovering Grace, Mars Hill Refuge, and other groups. Even at the time I knew this would be a turning point in my life.

One month before finding this community, I penned the following:

I say my past doesn’t matter that much, that I love my family and that’s all that matters. I want it to be true, but it has directed my whole life. I never want to feel like that again. I suppose that leaves me here, believing that no one on this earth will love me more than my daddy does. Desperately holding onto it. And so so lost in the reality of the life that we had.
But. As long as nothing else is better. As long every other relationship I have is worse, as long as no one measures up, I can keep believing it. I don’t have to let go. I don’t have to acknowledge, truly to myself, that it’s not all in my head. That I’m not just misinformed, that it’s not my skewed perspective. This is where the lines become so clouded that I have no idea what’s even close to true. One is so ingrained that I think (I know) I’m lying to myself to say anything else.

On the Homeschoolers Anonymous website, I poured over dozens of stories from other homeschooled kids that were carbon copies of my family, I could have written them myself. Recovering Grace detailed the dangers of IBLP, and shared stories from others that were involved in the cult. I consumed everything I could find.

“I’m not the only one. I’m not crazy.”

Over and over those words played in my mind. I started realizing the truth of what my family and these groups were, and calling it for what it was.

“When you detached yourself from all the negativity in your life that’s when your spirit started to shine. You were more comfortable in your own skin; it was a beautiful transformation and I’m glad I got to be a witness to it.” – B

I was at a new job by this time, and my colleagues were my family. Every day I came to work with a new story, a new scandal that broke, something I had remembered. They walked me through the process of coming to terms with my history one day at a time.

This is from one of my coworkers at the time, remembering:

“When I met Grace, she wasn’t the Grace people know today. She was quiet, insecure, awkward, and uncertain. I have watched her transition from meek and scared to strong, independent, and free thinking. It seems surreal to see a transformation like this, the environment she was raised in suppressed her into being kind of a wounded animal. I personally watched her heal those wounds through knowledge of what was out there, that there was more out there. Once she was strong enough to leave she did, it wasn’t without pain or abandonment but now meeting her, you can see the strength and confidence; two words I would have never used to describe her a few years ago. Those wounds have since scarred over like armor, leaving her guarded and a little cold, but strong, stronger than I ever would have thought she could be.” – S

I called CPS and reported abuse of minors. I pled with my parents’ church for help. I talked to a lawyer. I made every effort to establish a point for my siblings to look back on. A time when I said that my parent’s behavior and ideology was wrong, and when I did everything I could help.

My father threatened to sue me if I talked to anyone.

My brother was scared for me, asked that I please not say anything. It was too late for me to shut up, and I certainly wasn’t about to.

I confronted my mother about what she could be doing now to get help, and to help us. To stop taking money and fighting to keep us out of school. She openly blamed us for the way they were sabotaging our lives. I cut off contact with my parents. Changed my name, job, moved away. I had taken a risk speaking up and wasn’t going to wait around to see how my father would react.

Ultimately everything I did hasn’t yet made any visible difference that I know of, beyond my own peace of mind. Life for me after getting out of it all is still hard in many ways, but it’s happy. I still deal with people I knew saying things like this:

“I want to tell you that I hope you will be happy, but I really don’t. …If you ever want to talk more about returning to the faith, please don’t hesitate to call or come over. Our home is open. May the Holy Spirit draw you to himself my dear. We love you.” – C

But I have dear friends that encourage me to fight for myself, and for kids that need someone to believe for them it’s possible to get out. To heal. To live free:

“You didn’t let your upbringing define you, or let it hold you back. You broke free, and are more yourself than 99% of the people in this world. You’re continuing to grow, and evolve and change. You’re still finding yourself, but the you that we all get to see is amazing. I wouldn’t change one thing about you. …You’re proving that you are who YOU decide to be. Not who your parents raised you to be. Spread your story girl. Hopefully some other repressed and sheltered girl (or boy) will somehow see it and get inspired to finally break out and live their life for themselves.” – J

Today I’m living more transparently, continuing to heal. Happily settled down with my partner, making good friends, writing, growing my career, involved in my community. Life is better than I could have hoped for.
_ _ _

Combing through years of my history to tell this story has been exhausting, but well worth it.
Throughout the process I felt a surreal sense of my past, the pain of my former self was so real and intense and hopeless – but I had forgotten. Life as I know it now is so far removed from that world.

“Even though my memory is messed up, the image of those big green eyes, so haunted, so sad; blossoming into a shining hope of, ‘really?’ That will never leave me.
Her name is Grace.
She is very much loved.” – A

It gets better. It gets so so much better.

Fight for it, reach for it, claw your way out to a new and better hope.

There was one phrase I repeated to myself over and over through the years of anguish, and it’s as true today as it was then:

– It can’t get better tomorrow, if you’re not here for it. –

Fighting for Hope: Elliott Grace Harvey’s Story – Part Two

In this seriesPart One | Part Two | Conclusion

*****

Orthodox Presbyterian Church – 18 years
However imposing, formal, and elitist you might imagine “Orthodox Presbyterian” to be, it’s all of that and then some. At first impression however, your experience with church members will likely be warm and welcoming, though distant and non-committal.

I want friends so desperately and I’m not going to have any if I don’t do anything. I think that’s a big part of my problem, I’m very lonely. I’ve been at my church 16 years. No one calls me when a group of kids are getting together. No one picks me to kills time with. No one wants me. I just want want friends, people to love with, laugh with, live with, grow with. – Journal entry

The following is a direct quote taken from The Book of Church Order of the OPC. It contains in alarming detail the measure of control they expect to exact over their members:

“All governing assemblies have the same kinds of rights and powers. These are to be used to maintain truth and righteousness and to oppose erroneous opinions and sinful practices that threaten the purity, peace, or progress of the church. All assemblies have the right to resolve questions of doctrine and discipline reasonably proposed and the power to obtain evidence and inflict censures. …They are to watch diligently over the people committed to their charge to prevent corruption of doctrine or morals. Evils which they cannot correct by private admonition they should bring to the notice of the session.” – The Book of Church Order

My own OPC leadership regularly sent out letters to all parishioners if there was a “sin issue” involving a church member. These so-called sins included eating disorders, mental illness, unmarried pregnancy, marital struggles, and so forth.

This shaming effectively silenced the victims of the sexual, physical, and psychological abusers being harbored in the church.

I’m confused. Completely and utterly. People are so hard to figure out. I want to be real. But who people really are and what they tell you is so different. How do you know who to trust? – Journal entry

My mother asked for help from the leadership regarding her abusive husband. Little was done, arguably nothing legitimately helpful, and she was discouraged from seeking outside help.

The last month has been hard. Finding out that your church family isn’t what it seems is difficult. Lying, secretive, untrustworthy, unchanged. – Journal entry

When I was kicked out by my father, I was expressly instructed by a pastor not to tell anyone.

I was told they would help me find housing, and this kept me from going anywhere else for assistance, waiting for help that never materialized.

What I’m feeling: Scared. Alone. Scared of what I might do. Scared of messing up. Scared of Sundays. Scared of falling apart. Scared of admitting it, admitting anything. Scared of loving and not being loved back. Scared of disappointing people. Feeling trapped by my own walls. Afraid of the solution. Tired. – Journal entry

Much later after leaving the church, I detailed for all the church leadership my parent’s history of abuse, and abuse being currently committed against minors in their home. My appeal was based upon their current membership in good standing with the church, but after formal meetings and pleading for help nothing was done.

After roughly a year at the fabric store, I came home from work to a letter from my father giving me a few weeks to get out:

“The time has come young lady for you to leave our home, and move out on your own. Though I had hoped for better circumstances under which this transition could occur, it can not be helped or avoided at this point. As you will remember, this was my position a year ago. But after talking with several of our elders, I decided to exercise deference towards their counsel and allow you to remain in the home. I have in all sincerity young lady endeavored repeatedly to express my love for you, to show you grace and forgiveness in spite of your repeated rank disrespect, animosity, and bitterness towards me. I have appealed to you for forgiveness for my known past sins against you, but you have refused to forgive me, and have chosen rather to harbor this hatred against me, as well as any effort I have made to repair and restore our relationship, and now as you can see, it is affecting your other relationships, including the ones in this home. Hatred is toxic, and it will destroy your other relationships with sound Christians. I have told you that hating me is not worth this, but you have rejected my counsel in this. I have tolerated this toxic influence in this home long enough, and in light of your continued obstinance in this regard, it’s time for you to move out.
Now if you behave yourself during this transition, you will have till the end of August to be moved out. But if you continue this same nasty pattern, and continue to neglect the few duties you have in this home (it’s your week for dishes, make sure they get done each day), you will be out much sooner. Please do not test me on this, my mind is made up, I will not be moved.
If you have a change of heart and truly desire to seek to repair and restore our relationship that would be great, and I would be up for moving forward under the proper avenues of restoration with competent counsel and mediation. But your residence here is not required for that to happen. In fact, I believe it would be detrimental to the process.
Please don’t blow this off or procrastinate with this move, please seek all available avenues in the church for help in finding a new permanent residence, if you choose not to I will help you in this regard.
I am truly sorry that it has come to this young lady, but this is a choice that you have made repeatedly and finally over the past several years. As I told you before, I am not worth hating. You will and are ruining your life over these unresolved issues. Whether you believe me or not, I do love you, and it grieves me deeply to see you to make the choices you’re making. Now I have to make some choices, please act wisely and accordingly. Sincerely, Dad.”

I had nothing I could do, nowhere to go. My mom asked if I wanted her to say anything, I told her not to, I didn’t want her fighting with dad about it and making things harder for them.
A series of excerpts from my journal at the time:

– I’m so tired. Confused. Lonely. Lost. Down. I feel like the truth I’m looking for is somewhere staring me in the nose and I just can’t see it. I wish… I even just knew what I was looking for.
– So supposedly dad is bringing a complaint against me to the church. This is going to be a big ugly mess.
– I’ve never felt like I really could be myself or belonged anywhere but my family. Now I don’t even have that.
– I didn’t know I wanted someone who would stick with me even if I wasn’t good enough. Wasn’t perfect. Maybe there’s a person out there who could love me for me, but why not a christian? Is there such a person? Someone I could trust that much? I’m just so tired. Tired of this place.

Nearing my deadline to move out, I still had nowhere to go, and I had been abandoned by the people I thought would help.

In a moment of hopelessness was honest with my coworker when she asked me what was wrong. She shares about that conversation:

“Grace started to withdraw a bit which was concerning. …One day I came in to work and found her cross legged on her car hood eating lunch. She looked upset, so I stopped and chatted her up a bit.
She confessed the most heartbreaking situation- her dad was kicking her out. Her? WTF? Hard working, sweet, talented, that made no sense.
I never hesitated. You can move in with me.
Her big green eyes widened, and a single tear rolled down her cheek.
‘Really?’
Well, I have cats and a stressful job, but a spare bedroom and you are welcome to it.” – A

I accepted her offer, and moved in within a week. I was running on adrenaline, doing everything I could to keep it together and just survive. I was starting to deal with the impact of my childhood:

“We settled in, her coming and going when ever she wanted… When I had a minute, I cleaned out the kitchen so she could be comfortable this was *her* house. I came into the living room after work that day to find the girl curled up in a fetal position on the corner of the couch. Apparently, cleaning the kitchen set off ptsd. Her father ‘cleaned’ when mad, and the whole family pussycat stepped around when that was happening. We had a long talk after that admittance about how she lived with me now, she was her own person and could grow and set her own rules. She seemed to relax after that, and settled into her new life.” – A

I spent two wonderful years living with her. She was my angel in disguise, giving me a place to start to heal and move on. My parents were critical, but at this point I couldn’t afford to care.

Fighting for Hope: Elliott Grace Harvey’s Story – Part One

In this series: Part One | Part Two | Conclusion

*****

One household. Three cults. Twenty two years.
Twenty two years more than I would wish on anyone.

“I’m angry because I’m alive, because life hurts so much and I can’t hear the good things. Because my purpose is merely to glorify god and I can do that perfectly in heaven. It’s sick, but it’s true, and I have to deal with it. But I don’t want to. I just want it to all go away. Do I want to die? Not really, I’m not ready to, I just want to be with jesus. I’m tired of the tears.” – Journal entry

Leaving it all behind took a total of four years.


Cultishness

Cult is a strong word to use, and it’s especially difficult to assign to a group you’ve been subject to.

Something I find amusing about the three groups I was in is each of them had their own, “Here’s why we’re not a cult” speech.

Reminds me of a proverb in the christian bible, “The wicked flee when none pursue.”

Here are a few of the signs of a cult shared among all three groups:
● The leaders are always right; hierarchical and authoritarian power structure.
● Use of guilt, shame, and excommunication to manipulate and silence group members.
● Suppression of dissent, you must change your beliefs to conform to the group’s beliefs.
● Newcomers need fixing, the leaders believe they are entitled to know everything about you personally.
● Black and white thinking, contradictory messages, group specific language.
● Insistence that this group holds the source of truth; unquestionable dogma.
● Elitist and isolationist; denigrating other religious groups, and personal attacks on critics.

I don’t know how to live, how to feel. I want to be real, not put-on. It’s just about impossible. I’m so good at being fake, playing the game. Being good enough. I don’t want to be just good enough. – Journal entry

Institute in Basic Life Principles – 12 years

IBLP is a seminar and publication based cult, through which parents and/or churches absorb teaching. Bill Gothard was the long-standing leader of this cult. He stepped down after it came to light that he had been taking advantage of young girls for decades.

Of all the destructive ideologies my parents picked up from Bill Gothard, one in particular regarding bitterness was used to justify any and all abuse toward their children. Interestingly, if I take a direct quote from Gothard, it isn’t quite the reasoning my parents used, rather the root they manipulated:

“When offenses are left unaddressed, bitterness often destroys relationships. Favoritism, disappointments, and misunderstandings are frequently causes of bitterness. …By your example, lead your children to maintain both a clear conscience and loving interaction in the family.” – Bill Gothard, The Rebuilder’s Guide

In practice, this principle translated to a cycle of abuse: Abuse would occur, parent confesses, and the child must respond with express trust and affection.

If the child becomes withdrawn, or exhibits any sadness or fear, this is shown as evidence of bitterness. This accused bitterness is in turn deserving of punishment and abuse, and the cycle continues.

It seems like dad doesn’t want us as friends, we don’t behave good enough, but I know from experience perfect never happens. It’s never enough for him, so why bother? He doesn’t want me anyway, I’m not good enough, and I never will be.
…I know somebody is asking why I don’t say something. Tried that. It doesn’t make a difference. He know’s what he’s doing, and it’s just my fault. You give up hope after a while. It says you can’t be loved until you’re perfect, and you can never do that anyway. – Journal entry

I applied for my first real job at the local fabric store after my father more seriously threatened to kick me out, though not the first time he’d made this threat. I had no social skills, no diploma, and no driver’s license. Amazingly, they hired me. I was ecstatic. I had an incredible learning curve ahead of me; learning to talk to people, pluralism, how answer a phone, so many things.

“I don’t remember when exactly the shy little girl slipped into my life, but I remember where. She was quiet, reserved, and dressed for the wrong century with long flowing hair and dresses. She was quirky when you got to know her, quick with a side snark, and sharp as a pin intelligent. We at the store became used to her quickly (homemade fudge had a little to do with that) and thought of her as a little sister. Her family came in a few times, mom, dad, brothers, but no one was quite like her. Something seemed off about the family. A stillness, a caution. Something hid behind the big green eyes of the girl, but I couldn’t figure out what. As a manager, I was pressed against the wall of deadlines and corporate, so wasn’t able to get a moment to think as it was. She kept on working and blowing everyone’s socks off with her brilliance. And silence…” – A

I continued living with my parents, I couldn’t afford to move out. Life at home got worse, and I didn’t have the ability to cope with it.

There’s so many things I know that are inside of me and I don’t know how to get it out. And more than anything I need a reason to live. Some days are worse than others and I need something for those bad days. When the feeling of adrenaline is so bad I can hardly concentrate at work. – Journal entry

My job became my safe place, where I got away from everything at home and did something I had become good at. I made friends with people that weren’t religious, something criticized in my world.

“I remember when you first started working there, you were so quiet and shy. It seemed like you had no idea what the outside world even looked like, let alone how to live in it. You had your long hair and very sensible long skirts, no piercings or anything. After a few months, you really started to come into your own. You were talking more, and it turns out you were super friendly! No one knew because you never really talked much. That’s when I started learning who you really were. Sweet, kindhearted, and funky as hell, haha. I remember when you got your ears pierced, and it was such a huge deal for you.” – J

In a moment of reflection, I wrote the following:

So what have I learned? …Life is not worth living. Maybe I ought to do it anyway. That tears heal, but it’s not always easy to cry. That saying what I think and feel does not cause the world to implode. That me is a hard thing to find sometimes. That real friends are found in strange places. That any relationship void of honesty suffers. A life with secrets wanting to be told becomes unbearable. A life without hope isn’t. – Journal entry

Leave: Shade’s story

Editorial note: Shade Ardent blogs at The Unspared Rod. This story is reprinted with permission.

my car isn’t even full, it didn’t take that much time to pack my clothes. river stares from the window upstairs. she didn’t want to say goodbye. everyone else is busy with their lives.

no one looks up as i walk by.

‘Hurry up, Shade’.

i turn to go.

she is mouth thinned, eyes scraped against the sun. no more air escapes her, my chance to leave is now or never. her hands are tapping against car’s door.

it’s time.

road unfolds in front of me, she is letting me drive.

‘You want to go to college so badly, then you can drive there yourself.’

i’m not sure why she came.

10-20-30-40-50-65.

i find the speed limit, and hold its edge in my mind. i want nothing to stop me from leaving.

‘I can’t believe you are really leaving us. How could you do this to us?’

out of the corner of my eye, she is grim. hands move while she thinks of more words to say.

i keep watch on her ring, it glints in the light. i know its curve, its sharp edge. i hope that driving means she won’t do anything.

road keeps curling away.

sun splits away trees’ branches, stained glass splintered hopes, my dreams grow.

‘thank you for visiting [state]. please come again.’

each mile feels like points, adding up the amount of leaving i am doing. i count and count, they sift their tens and hundreds into skin’s knowing.

am i leaving-leaving-leaving?

‘You’re so selfish, Shade, to be leaving. Think of all the work I will have to do now that you’re not there to help me. Who will help me?’

words are stuck behind my tongue. its grasping for shape, for sound, but words never come.

i am selfish, i want to leave.

‘You’ve always been a difficult person, Shade. You will have no one to blame but yourself, when you have no friends.’

sun has splayed colors across horizon’s edge. we are westing into the coming night.

‘No one will ever love you like we love you, Shade. How can you leave us?’

sky is tattooed with stars.

i know it’s late, but i don’t want to stop. if we stop, she might find a way to take me back.

so i keep driving, leaving-leaving-leaving.

headlights slice up night’s darkness.

city from city, we flow on by. highway carries us past their normal lives. maybe i can have normal too. maybe college is where normal starts, and the great yawning darkness is forever killed.

i stop for gas, i stop for food, but not for sleep. the miles keep counting up and up.

she sleeps next to me, so i keep driving.

‘welcome to [state]’

she stirs.

‘You know he won’t arrange a courtship for you now. You’ve removed yourself from his umbrella of authority. You have only yourself to blame when you get hurt.’

i have sinned, i have disobeyed.

i don’t care, i am leaving-leaving-leaving.

words still pile up behind my teeth. they scatter into the growing light. sun’s promises echo from behind, east is gone, west is new.

dawn’s moon laces up between the branches, sky’s replete with hope.

‘You’re so proud, if you think you’re smart enough to go to college. Don’t come crying to us when you fail.’

we are side by side, still. little car, bigger mountains. it climbs and climbs. each mile, each peak, each pass, her anger grows.

air is stifled between us, she seems to have run out of words. they still hover in my mouth, bitter, broken shards of dreams.

will she be happy for me now? will she give me advice?

all the books i’ve read say that moms do this, they fuss and then they love. was she going to love me now, pat my hand and give me silly advice?

but she is silent.

we are here.

 

Bird Set Free: Avia’s Story

Content warning: Victim blaming, child abuse, body shaming, and religious shaming of mental illness

Editorial note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Avia” is a pseudonym. 

There are a few incidents in my life that pushed me to leave home.

Clipped wings, I was a broken thing

When I was nineteen years old, I fell into a deep depression. Every day was hell. I struggled to get out of bed in the morning, and I lost interest in my hobbies. I was always an avid reader and writer, and I dropped those hobbies for hours of trying to convince myself that I needed to stay alive. I might not get into heaven if I killed myself, and anyway, there must be some sin I didn’t know of keeping me in the depression.

I wrote down dozens of Bible verses and posted them all over my bedroom walls. I slept with a Bible under my pillow. I kept scraps of paper with Bible verses on them in my pocket. I would whisper scripture to myself when the depression was so bad that I wasn’t sure if I could keep myself from walking into oncoming traffic.

My parents were convinced it was an attack from satan. When I had anxiety attacks, my parents prayed over me. When that didn’t work, I threw out books, CD’s, and clothes that I thought might be upsetting god. When I would lie in bed and cry, my mom told me I was “letting satan win”, and that I just needed to stop thinking about it, and it would go away.

I begged god, every night, to take the depression away from me. Nothing helped. I didn’t know what I was doing wrong. How was I displeasing god when I was trying to straighten up my life and do what he wanted? I had repented of every sin I could possibly remember.

I suffered through that depressive episode for nearly a year.

I finally stopped asking god to help me, and I started helping myself. I cleared my thoughts and “spoke life” (we all remember that song by Tobymac, right?) into myself, something I’d never done before, and it was powerful. I gathered all my strength and pulled myself out of that hole. The depression lessened and I was able to function again.

Had a voice, had a voice but I could not sing
You would wind me down
I struggled on the ground

When I told my therapist about this time in my life, she was horrified. I now know depression is not an “attack from satan”, but an imbalance of chemicals in the brain. I can also see that year as the onset of my bipolar disorder.
Because my parents shun all modern medicine, especially psychiatry, I didn’t see a psychiatrist until after I escaped. I had no idea that the things I was experiencing were real, and valid. I was constantly told by my parents, especially my mother, that I just didn’t have enough faith in god. If I had enough faith in god, he would take my depression away.

That was my parent’s approach to mental illness. Today I credit my strong will, the will my parents did all they could to break, for keeping me alive.

The second incident was a year or so before I left home. I wish I could pinpoint exactly when this happened, but my childhood and teen years are blurry. I remember it was a sunny, warm afternoon, and my mom called me into my parent’s bedroom. My mom was on her laptop, excitedly pointing to the screen. “Look at this! This sounds just like my mother!” She said, scooting over so I could sit on the bed. I sat down and looked at the screen as my mom continued to talk. It was a list of traits of a narcissistic mother. As my mom read the traits aloud, my heart sank and I started to feel sick. The traits my mother was attributing to my grandmother are traits she had herself. Some of the traits made my heart beat faster.

Does your mother act jealous of you? Does your mother compete with you?

My mom was very strict about how I dressed. She bought me my first real pair of jeans when I was seventeen or eighteen. I had been forbidden to wear jeans or any dress or skirt above the knee since I was a toddler. When my mom went on a diet and lost a large amount of weight, suddenly we were allowed to wear pants, because my mom wanted to wear pants to show off her weight loss. She realized she would look bad if she didn’t let her daughters wear pants as well, so jean dresses and patterned skirts were out, and pants were in.

The jeans my mom bought me were tight hip huggers. I remember trying them on and looking at myself in the mirror. My mom constantly cut down my appearance, but looking at myself in ‘normal’ clothes and not the baggy, oversized skirts and dresses my mom forced me to wear opened my eyes. There was nothing wrong with me. I wasn’t fat. I wasn’t “up and down with no shape” like my mom told me I was. All my life my mom told me I was nothing special, and she was even surprised when men would catcall me on the street. “What’s special about you? I’m still young and pretty.” She’d pout.

From then on, wearing pants or anything even hinting at form fitting, was sure to be a battle with my mother. She would wear cleavage baring shirts and I would cry foul. “It’s ok for me, I’m married!” She’d tell me.

When I’d throw on pants and a t-shirt for a lazy day or for work, she’d ask me if I had a hot date, or accuse me of being indecent around my step-dad and brothers. The fact that my mother was worried that my step-dad and brothers would see me in a sexual manner is creepy as fuck, and very telling.

That’s a different story for a different time though.

So lost, the line had been crossed
Had a voice, had a voice but I could not talk
You held me down
I struggle to fly now

Does your mother lack empathy for your feelings? Does your mother act like the world should revolve around her?  Is your mother controlling, acting like a victim or martyr?

The number one person in my parent’s household is my mother. Once I hit puberty, my step-dad (my mom married him when I was three) stopped parenting me, and really any of the kids, and faded into the background. The house was run the way my mom wanted, and she ruled with an iron fist. It wasn’t just my feelings that didn’t matter, anyone who wasn’t my mother didn’t matter either. That went for all my siblings and my step-dad. My mother was ruthless towards my step-dad. She has a sharp tongue, and had no problem fighting with my step-dad in front of us kids.

It was at my mother’s insistence that our family started following the biblical feasts, covering our heads (which my mom did off and on, depending on whether or not she wanted her hairstyle to show.), and shunning anyone who didn’t believe as we did. I was a self-righteous teenager, because I was convinced we were doing it the right way, and every other Christian was following the bible half-heartedly.

What my mom wanted, my mom got. If I had something that she liked, she took it from me. If my mom wanted to sleep all day and leave me and my younger sister with the hungry, crying babies, that’s the way it was. If anyone questioned our mother, there was hell to pay. We’d endure hours of her screaming and ranting about how we were all ungrateful brats who didn’t deserve all her or her hard work.

Any time my mom would send me a text, letting me know she was on her way home, it was a scramble to make sure the house was spotless for when she arrived. Doing what she wanted, when she wanted it, was the only option we had. I would have done anything I could to avoid her wrath. If mom wanted her feet massaged for hours, her feet were massaged for hours. One of my younger brothers protested too much one time, and my mother gave him a bloody nose. She blamed him for angering her.

For my entire teen years, my entire life was taking care of my family. I wasn’t taught to drive or given a bank account, despite my pleadings. I had maybe two friends, but I wasn’t allowed to go places often. I had to beg my parents to let me go anywhere, even as an adult. I couldn’t even go outside without telling my mom where I was going. Up until I left my curfew was 10pm. I did most of the cleaning and most of the cooking. My younger brothers, also teenagers, were never forced to help. Any time I complained about doing all the housework, I was chastised for being ungrateful and disobedient towards my parents and god.

But there’s a scream inside that we all try to hide
We hold on so tight, we cannot deny
Eats us alive, oh it eats us alive

In the couple years before I left, I was growing more and more resentful and I stopped doing what my mom wanted. I stopped being available to watch my siblings all the time. I isolated myself from my mother. I stopped helping with schooling. Not that the kids were schooled even close to properly anyway—my mom was constantly pregnant and unable to keep up with the school work. Currently, my parents have a total of 13 children. Schooling even half of those by yourself is not feasible. Without my help, it became impossible.

Of course, that meant serious consequences for me. My mom would go on hours long tirades about how I was a horrible daughter, I was such a bad influence on her kids and she should just kick me out, I was never going to be anything without her, etc. She wouldn’t stop until I was crying, and then she’d quiet down and tell me she was just doing this for my own good. Sometimes the yelling would culminate into physical violence, where she would push or hit me and dare me to hit her back. I never hit back, not once.

Yes, there’s a scream inside that we all try to hide
We hold on so tight, but I don’t wanna die, no

I was newly twenty-two in the beginning of 2014, and I knew something had to change. I couldn’t stay at home anymore. Remaining under my mom’s tyranny meant I would have a mental breakdown and kill myself. I lost a lot of weight. I started cutting again, something I hadn’t done since I was a teenager. I stopped talking to my mother. She used anything I told her against me anyway. She would bring up things I did as a toddler (“you were such a bad child! You smeared jelly on my couch when you were two years old!) to prove that I was a bad person. Her moods fluctuated wildly, from calling me her “special girl”, to flying into a rage and pouring hot coffee on me.

I couldn’t take the emotional and physical abuse anymore. I was worried that the next time my mother grew angry and beat my siblings with plumbing tube (my parents were avid followers of Michael and Debi Pearl), I would snap and beat her with it. Their screams haunt me. Dressing my siblings and seeing the purple bruises on their bottoms and legs was killing me inside.

February or March of 2014, my mom and I got into yet another argument. I’m never going to claim that I was the best daughter there ever was. But for a good part of my life, I did everything and anything I could to please my mother. I completely believe everything she told me, and blamed all our issues on myself—she definitely did. If I could just be a better daughter, she would stop getting so angry at me.

I didn’t sneak out, do drugs, curse, or even bad mouth my mother to my friends. I was a good daughter. I did the best I could.

During this argument, I fired back with my own insults. I was tired of her using me as her punching bag when anything went wrong. If she had an argument with my step-dad, she would make my life hell for days. Something as simple as me putting on makeup would set her off. I was done. I was going to stick up for myself finally.

My mom cornered me in my room, got in my face, and started pushing me. She kept telling me she could see how angry I was, and I should just hit her. I told her to back off, and if she didn’t, I was going to call the police. She laughed. “What are you going to tell them?” I looked my mother straight in the eyes and said, “Oh, there are lots of things I could tell them.”

Her face grew pale, and she backed off. I closed my bedroom door and sat on the floor. I ate my lunch through my tears, and for the first time in my life, I told a friend what was going on at home.

I need to tell you something. I typed up to a friend on my ancient laptop.
what? She replied.
My mom hits me sometimes.

I met a guy through a co worker a couple weeks later. I was working at a greenhouse about a mile away from my parent’s farm, and one of the girls there took a liking to me. I had talked to guys online before—without my parent’s knowledge of course. They never would have approved, and my mom was notorious for reading my private conversations and even my diaries. This guy was different. I genuinely liked him and I even made up excuses to spend time with him. The first time I met him was at a coffee shop in town.

My parents knew something was up, especially my mom. I had become so distant from her, and she noticed. My mom wasn’t in control, and that wasn’t going to stand. She decided she was going to kick me out, and got my step-dad on her side. They sat me down one night after I got home from “visiting a friend” (I had been with my boyfriend), and told me that I was rebellious (not wanting to be at home constantly, not being a second mother, wanting a job, driving license, bank account, and more freedom), and they didn’t want me influencing their other children. My mom looked so smug and happy sitting next to my step-dad. I think she thought I would leave, realize life was horrible and that I couldn’t make it, and come crawling back to her. I was working a part time job at the time and I a little under $200 to my name. My parents knew this, but they were willing to risk me being homeless to “teach me a lesson.”

I was sitting on my bed messaging my boyfriend on FB a little bit after, when my mom came in. She had such a disgusted look on her face.

“I just wish you’d leave now.” She said. “I can’t stand seeing you here.”

And I don’t care if I sing off key
I find myself in my melodies
I sing for love, I sing for me
I shout it out like a bird set free

The next day while my mom napped, I packed a backpack with some clothes, my money, and a toothbrush. I nervously kissed some of my siblings good-bye, and asked my only local friend (a girl my mom hated and nearly banned from the house) to drive me to my boyfriend’s house.

Within a week, my mom was threatening to call the police to bring me back home. It didn’t matter that I was twenty-two and the cops wouldn’t have done a thing. My mother saw me as a child, and she thought everyone else did too. So in her mind, of course the cops would agree with her.

But I was free. Life wasn’t smooth sailing after that, of course not. My mom started a smear campaign, and I lost. Friends and family members stopped talking to me. The most ridiculous lies she told got back to me in the most surprising ways. I had to be careful who I trusted and talked to.

I stopped surviving and started living, and I’ve been on a quest to find out who I am. I was told so long who I was by my mother and religion, but that wasn’t who I really was. It was who I had to be to survive.

I was diagnosed with PTSD, anxiety, and Bipolar Disorder, and working through those in therapy has been exhausting and sad. Sometimes tearing open wounds means more struggle, but in the end I’d rather have a bone broken and reset then hobble through life on a crooked leg.

Sometimes I mourn all that I lost. Not seeing my siblings or being able to talk to them has broken me the most. I confronted my mother about the abuse and lies on New Years 2015, and she immediately cut me off from my siblings. I’ve talked to my mom maybe three or four times since then. I’ve asked her to go to therapy with me every time, and every time she said no or ignored my request. I stopped asking. I stopped responding to her messages and blocked her on social media. My mom isn’t going to change, and I’ve finally come to terms with that. I can’t expect things from her that she cannot give.

The sad thing is that my mom grew up in an abusive household, and she would always tell me that she was determined to not let the cycle continue. This serves as a warning to me. It’s so easy to be blinded by the bad things I’ve experienced and adopt a victim mentality. It’s so easy to think the world/my parents owe me something for what I suffered through. I’ve seen through my mom’s sisters that you CAN break the cycle. You don’t have to be a victim, and you can rise above. It’s slow going, but I’m working towards something good and whole.

Now I fly, hit the high notes
I have a voice, have a voice, hear me roar tonight
You held me down
But I fought back loud..
I’ll shout it out like a bird set free

No Longer Wanted: Natalie’s Story

My parents meant well. They wanted the best for me. They were excited to find the perfect formula to raise a perfect daughter.

And somewhere along the line they stopped wanting the best for me and started needing me to be what they decided was best.

And when I wasn’t that picture they no longer wanted me. That’s the best way I can describe it.

I think like many people raised in the world of homeschoolers, I’ve had the gut feeling that it’d be inappropriate to share my story. Our 11th commandment was to never speak ill of our family or lifestyle. There was always a push to hide what we were doing and never cast any negative light on the angelic conditions of homeschoolers and our perfect families. I’ve only told a few people what happened with our relationship.


 

When I was five we moved to acreage in the middle of nowhere. We listened to programs that told us music with a beat was scientifically proven to kill your brain cells. We didn’t have cable because all the shows would make us worldly. We stocked up for Y2K. We supported groups like HSLDA that told us the evil government would take away our children if we didn’t fight with them by paying membership fees. We obsessively absorbed the wisdom of the Pearl’s.

My experiences with the outside world were limited to church activities and the library, but even this was enough to make me question if my parents were really raising me correctly. My parents couldn’t keep up with all the books that I read. I’d borrow big piles and hide the ones that wouldn’t pass inspection in the middle.

My parents told me that people who didn’t homeschool their kids didn’t really love them. That people who dated didn’t value their future spouse and would get divorced.

Purity and gender roles were everything.

My mother obviously wouldn’t work outside the home, even when my dad lost his job multiple times and money was tight. Respect was the most important thing to my dad. We were all to submit to him without question, to the point that we couldn’t ask something that ended with a question mark. We had to direct conversation as respectful statements that he could choose to respond to if he wanted.

My mom couldn’t explain anything past simple math and my dad would get frustrated at me when I didn’t immediately understand it. I faked the majority of my math work past 2nd grade. Science was a similar story. My parents made it clear that I only needed it because the state required I learn it. It wasn’t vital for a woman’s education. What was vital was understanding that my goal in life was to be a wife and mother. I needed to sew, cook, clean, and learn to be the best wife and mother. All of my life was focused on that aim and that meant everything was focused on getting married.

I’m still sorting my education into the facts and what was just an elaborate attempt to shape my worldview. The “mistakes” that my parents made were probably the only way my brain developed in the shape that it did. They regret letting me have part time jobs, taking classes with other Christian homeschoolers, and not monitoring me close enough. My friends were all very intellectual. They pushed me to excel when my parents didn’t necessarily care. I started to question their mandates. I didn’t want to solely be a stay at home daughter. I wanted to figure out what I believed for myself. I wanted to understand my father’s beliefs. He wouldn’t explain them to me. He said my questions were disrespectful and I should just accept that he knew what was best. My role was to serve his family until I got married and then I would serve my husband’s family.

I wanted to go on a mission’s trip after I graduated. They grudgingly agreed, assuming I wouldn’t be able to raise the funds. I worked all summer and then my brother told them that it wasn’t appropriate to let me leave their guidance. They postponed my trip for 6 months. They canceled it again. Then my dad borrowed $2000 from my account without asking. When I sheepishly mentioned it he said he needed it to pay bills for our family and was offended I had brought it up. Months later I saw that he had paid it back. Eventually I convinced them that I should go on a mission’s trip for 3 months with our church. My reasoning was that I should serve others some before I got married.

College wasn’t ever a choice for me.

Going into debt was sinful. My parents couldn’t afford to send me even if they approved of the choice. I knew I wasn’t educated enough in math and science to get a scholarship.

My sister had the perfect long distance courtship. They only wrote letters for months. They didn’t hold hands till they were engaged. They didn’t kiss till they were married. My dad gave an hour long sermon at her wedding and he cried from happiness. She was everything they wanted in a daughter. Since it all worked out so well for them, my parents insisted that it was the perfect method. When I didn’t act like her I was a disappointment. They had been (untrained) marriage counselors for years. They’d insist on telling me all the intimate details of people’s marriages. Sometimes they were my friend’s parents. When I didn’t want to hear it I was disrespectful. When I didn’t want to read another book about submission I was rebellious. When I didn’t want to watch another marriage DVD series I was selfish and disobedient. All the scenarios ended with the wife realizing that if she just respected her husband more he would love her and things would be fine.

When I got tired of my life only being focused on marriage, I asked them if I could focus more on pursuing God.

They told me the only way I could pursue God was to pursue marriage.

Single people were selfish. Pursuing independence was sinful. Living outside the protection of my spiritual authority was unthinkable. My dad told me whatever I was doing, I should think of what he would want me to do and then do that. If I didn’t I was sinning against him and God.

When I got back from my missions trip I wanted to move out and for some reason they complied. A couple months later it was a different story. I had a full time job, and I wanted to buy a car. It was a battle. I wanted to pay for my own car insurance, and they finally lost it. They gave me an ultimatum: quit my job, move back home, stop pursuing my selfish independent lifestyle and I could remain their daughter. They couldn’t bear to see me living in sin any longer.

My father told me that God would always forgive him if he strayed, but he was a human so he couldn’t promise that he would always forgive me and take me back.

I couldn’t agree to their terms. They told me the choices I was making would make me a horrible wife and would ruin my marriage and children. My dad wouldn’t bless my marriage. My mom started crying and told me that she shouldn’t have had such high expectations for me. Maybe if she had lower expectations for me this wouldn’t be so hard. I was 18 and on my own. A couple months later I tried to reconcile with them, and my dad clarified that we didn’t have a relationship unless I could come back to the biblical model. I couldn’t.

Six months later my dad shared that he still felt the same however cutting off relationship meant he was giving us responsibility for me and he couldn’t do that as he was still responsible for all my sinful choices. He said he was sorry if I was hurt by the things he said, but they were true. He said we needed to have a relationship again so he could show me how to be better.

It’s been a couple years since then. Things are still rocky between us. It took me over a year to come out of the depression that our broken relationship caused. I was suicidal and cried continuously.

They were my entire world.

The hardest part is that I was close to my family. I didn’t think they were capable of disowning me. They were all I had ever known, and I was relatively happy with my brainwashed life. I didn’t know how to function without them. I had to learn to support myself on my own. I had to figure out who I was without my family. I had to deal with my parents turning my whole family against me.

Since then I’ve found out that members of my family helped and supported an elder that molested his adopted daughter for years. They protected him because he was the head of his household and knew best. Now when stories surface of incest and abuse I don’t question them.

Of course this happens, we were all taught to blindly obey.

I still have to fight the guilt when they say I ruined our relationship. I still hear that I should just be like my older sister and things would be better. I still hear that I’m not what they want. I still deal with them poisoning my relationships. Counseling and time helps. But it’s still complicated and it still hurts.

No Longer Afraid: A. Drake’s Story

Content Warning: Descriptions of child abuse, sexual abuse, animal abuse, and transphobia

It was 5am. I woke before dawn and got ready for work in the dark. I went outside into the cold fall air, my breath visible. I went around the side of my car and my heart stopped. My father was kneeling in the frost and gravel next to my driver’s door. He didn’t say a word. I quickly ran back into my house, bolted the door, and woke my boyfriend. “My father is outside,” I said, my voice shaking. “I think he’s here to scare me or kill me; I’m not sure which one.” He jumped up and went outside, but my father was gone.

In the aftermath of that day, I broke family scripts: I called the police.

His behavior alone was creepy and stalking. But the more disturbing thing was that he shouldn’t have known where I lived. Unbeknownst to me, my younger brother had disregarded my concerns about my safety and told my father where I lived. The day before, my older sibling had mentioned to my parents that I was working early the next day. And my father was waiting for me that morning.

It’s been 5 years since that day. For the first 2 years, I left my house every morning for work, prepared to do battle with a spook, a stalker that may or may not be there. And every day he wasn’t there in body, he was there in spirit. I lived my life with the knowledge he might be around the next corner. I wouldn’t know if he was empty-handed or if he had a weapon. Or even worse, I might never see him coming.


Growing up, I worried a lot about the day when my father would snap and murder all of us.

One day, us three older siblings sat my youngest brother down and said “Nathan, what do you think would happen if mom tried to leave dad?” He thought about it for a second. And then without missing a beat he said “I think he would try to kill all of us.” We looked at each other and said “Even he sees it, even he knows.” He was 11. We lived with that reality from birth.

I worried. I worried so much. I worried that if my mother spent too much money on groceries, my father would get angry. I worried that if I didn’t read the Bible long enough each morning before breakfast, my father would get angry. I worried that if I wasn’t contrite enough in spirit, my father would get angry. I worried that when my father got angry, he would hurt us.

Like the Sunday morning my brother went to church with my father’s hand-prints bruised around his neck because he had the audacity to try and walk out of a room when my father was angry. The youth pastor teased him about the bruises being hickies from his girlfriend.

Like the night at the kitchen table when my father became angry. He reached under the kitchen table and pulled out the 60-pound dog lying there. He picked the dog up by the throat with one hand, and threw him down the basement stairs, closing the door in a calm, controlled manner.

See, some people think anger is an explosion. Sometimes, it is. And sometimes, it is the coldest thing you will ever experience.

And sometimes, the anger wasn’t the scariest thing. Sometimes, it was the sound of my bedroom door softly sliding across the carpet at 2 a.m. It was the sound of my breathing as I tried to regulate it so he wouldn’t know I was awake. It was the feeling of his rigid cock pressed into my lower back as I hoped he would leave without raping me.

Sometimes it was the existential agony of knowing that my abuse was either sanctioned by god and I deserved it or god didn’t care enough to intervene.

It was the soul rending pain in my heart, knowing my father was right – I was worthless, useless, and unlovable. It was the bone-searing rage that wanted to tear apart all the people who saw the signs of abuse and turned away. It was the trapped animal in my brain, trying to cut me free from this torturous captivity through the surface of my skin.

And my father was the good Christian who sang hymns at church, chatted with the teens and deacons, and made small talk with everyone. So at the end of the day, if I said something negative about him, I was told I was a bad child, a rebellious teenager. That I must stop speaking ill of my parents, that I must stop lying.


I was raised in a conservative, fundamentalist Christian household. I was homeschooled kindergarten through 12th grade. And somehow I escaped.

I wasn’t supposed to.

My life was not built to prepare me to fly; it was built to contain me in a cage with my wings clipped, never thinking for myself, never dreaming any bigger than the bars that held me.

My narrative is similar to many others who went before me and will come after me, though it is complicated in some ways by the fact that I am both queer and transgender. Neither of those things blatantly came to the surface growing up. I had far more pressing things to worry about, like survival of my physical body and preservation of my mind and spirit, and so I buried my gender and sexuality as best I could. But I couldn’t bury them deep enough. Even if people didn’t often target me directly, they spoke with derision and scorn about queer and trans people in general. My parents and the church I grew up in were homophobic and transphobic. I knew from a young age that who I was, deep inside, was an abomination, anathema, and abhorrent. Those attitudes heavily impacted my internal self-concept; I still struggle with feeling broken and shameful regarding my queerness and transness.

My younger brother did not escape; he left but his wounds were infected with my parents’ poison. He was my best friend for years but he became increasingly racist, homophobic, transphobic, controlling, and abusive as time passed. A few years after I helped him leave my parents’ house, he cut me out as I set boundaries around his increasingly abusive behavior. He made it clear he reviled my gender and sexuality. My youngest brother is still at home with my parents. He has not escaped either. The minimal contact I had with him through text stopped completed after I came out to him as trans.

My older sibling has escaped; they live an hour away from me. They are queer, just like me. We support one another. We have an adult relationship now; we have worked past the experience of our parents pitting us against each other. We are able to affirm for each other what childhood was like.

With time, I found myself wondering if I imagined things or if I made them out to be worse than they truly were.

After being a victim of [gaslighting] for so many years, it’s hard to believe your own brain. But having a comrade to tell you “oh no, I remember that. Do you remember this?” is validating and bonding. It is family. I have begun to build my chosen family of partners and friends, people who love and respect me.

I am 28 years old. I left my parents’ house when I was 19. I have not returned. They still live in the 4 bedroom colonial where I was raised. They still send me mail to a PO box I set up when I moved. I didn’t want them to know where I lived because I was afraid of being stalked and killed. I did not register to vote at my new address for 3 years because I was afraid: voting information is public record.

But there came the day when I had a dream. Until that point, my dreams had always involved my father trying to hurt me or someone I loved. In the dream, I would be too slow, like was I stuck in molasses, or I would hit him and it would do nothing. I would be a helpless observer to abuse, as I had been throughout my childhood. But there came the day when I had a dream. And I beat the shit out of my father. I knew then I had really and truly escaped.

I am no longer afraid of my parents. I have not just survived; I am thriving. I know myself and what I can endure. I am no longer afraid what would happen if my father showed up. Because I have grown and know now that I am stronger than he is.