When Demons Are Real

CC image courtesy of Flickr, Ivailo Djilianov.

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Libby Anne’s blog Love Joy Feminism. It was originally published on Patheos on March 17, 2015.

I’m sure by now nearly every one of you has heard about Arkansas state representative Justin Harris’s decision to “rehome” his two adopted daughters with a man who then sexually abused them. Most of you have probably heard, too, about the impetus for Justin’s decision—that he believed the girls were possessed by demons. Justin called in specialists to conduct an exorcism and kept the girls separated because he believed they could communicate telepathically.

I might very well think this story to bizarre to be true if I didn’t know first hand how strongly entrenched demons and spiritual warfare are within evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity.

I grew up hearing stories about demons. A friend of my parents’ told a story at Bible study about confronting a demon in the hall in her home at night. She explained that her teenage daughter had been listening to secular music, and that that must have let the demon in. I checked out books by Frank Peretti at the church library, and read hair-raising stories about demonic activity. I went to a dramatic reading of C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters with my parents.

My parents were very clear about demons. They told us that the world around us was locked in conflict between demons and angels. This conflict was going on everywhere around us, unseen.

I struggled with fear of demons my entire childhood. I would lay awake in bed with my eyes clenched shut, afraid that if I opened them I would see a demon at the foot of my bed—demons, after all, could make themselves visible to the human eye if they so chose. I was afraid I would invite a demon to attack me by thinking the wrong thoughts, and fearfully tried to keep my mind away from anything that might seem like an invitation.

My parents always told me that the name of Jesus would protect me from demons. All I had to do was evoke that name, and the demons would flee. But I read in the Bible about a case where a demon beat up some men even though they evoked the name of Jesus, because the men weren’t “true” believers. This frightened me, as I also suffered from salvation anxiety—I was so concerned that I might not actually be saved that I prayed the sinner’s prayer continually throughout much of my childhood.

On a recent visit home, my mother told a story about praying demons out of my youngest sister when she had a migraine. She said my sister vomited violently as the demons left, and then the migraine was gone.

But let’s bring this back around to Justin Harris. My parents believed demonic possession was real, and not just a thing of the past. I was taught that much of what we call mental illness today is in fact demonic possession. It seems Justin Harris believed this too, and interpreted his adopted daughters’ very normal adjustment troubles as demonic possession.

My daughter Sally has a friend who was adopted out of foster care when she was three and her sister was four. Both girls have had adjustment issues, but their adoptive parents expected that and have showered them with the love, attention, and careful guidance they need. It breaks my heart to think that natural adjustment issues—often the result of past trauma—could be interpreted as demonic possession.

I am reminded of this exchange from the Doctor Who episode Curse of the Black Spot:

Captain Avery: The ship is cursed!

The Doctor: Yeah, right. Cursed. It’s big with humans. It means bad things are happening but you can’t be bothered to find an explanation.

I’m honestly not sure what the solution is. Belief in demons as real and active entities is integral to fundamentalism and evangelicalism. But then, my mother once told me that she did believe some forms of depression could be caused by actual chemical imbalances, so perhaps there is some wiggle room—perhaps it is possible to educate individuals like Justin Harris on the psychological explanations behind behavior like that of his adopted daughters. Perhaps, returning to Doctor Who, having an explanation will dispel the need to invoke demons.

Although actually, I’m not sure much could have been done for Justin Harris himself. Anyone willing to threaten a department’s funding to push an adoption through and then give his adoptive children away under the table without so much as a background check is probably too far gone.

When Homeschoolers Turn Violent: Aza Vidinhar

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Series note: “When Homeschoolers Turn Violent” is a joint research project by Homeschoolers Anonymous and Homeschooling’s Invisible Children. Please see the Introduction for detailed information about the purpose and scope of the project.

Trigger warning: If you experience triggers from descriptions of physical and sexual violence, please know that the details in many of the cases are disturbing and graphic.

*****

Aza Vidinhar

In May 2013, 15-year-old Aza Vidinhar from West Point, Utah was babysitting 2 of his younger brothers, aged 4 and 10. When Aza’s mother returned home, she found the younger brothers dead, stabbed to death by Aza.

In May 2013, 15-year-old Aza Vidinhar from West Point, Utah stabbed 2 of his younger brothers to death while babysitting them.
In May 2013, 15-year-old Aza Vidinhar from West Point, Utah stabbed 2 of his younger brothers to death while babysitting them.

The Vidinhar family had 6 children, 4 of whom were adopted. Aza’s father was an engineer for the Air Force. They lived in “a wonderful neighborhood” where “kids are usually outside playing.” Aza was enrolled as a 9th grader at West Point Junior High as a member of the track team; in the school he was an honor student. However, his mother homeschooled him for other subjects. Aza was a quiet kid who had a speech impediment, was “socially awkward,” and kept to himself. Neighbors described him as “different” and said he was once found “throwing dozens of rocks over a fence.” While he was quiet and awkward, neither he nor any family members had a history of mental illness. Two years prior in 2011, Aza was in the news for running away from home.

On the day of the attack, Aza’s mother left him home alone with two younger siblings, Alex (10) and Benjie (4), while she took his other siblings to a dance recital. (Their father was away in another state.) Upon returning home, she found the dead bodies of 1 of the children. (Police later found the second body.) Aza was nowhere to be seen. He was later found (either by his adopted brothers or the police; reports differ) wandering miles away from home with traces of blood on his clothes.

Officials hesitated at first to charge Aza, though they arrested him and placed him in the Farmington Bay Youth Detention Center. As of August 2013, officials were determining whether Aza was fit to stand trial. In November 2013 he was charged with two counts of felony murder. On July 18, 2014, Aza pleaded guilty “in both juvenile and adult court to intentionally and knowingly stabbing his two younger brothers to death.”

View the case index here.

When Homeschoolers Turn Violent: Jonathan McMullen

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Series note: “When Homeschoolers Turn Violent” is a joint research project by Homeschoolers Anonymous and Homeschooling’s Invisible Children. Please see the Introduction for detailed information about the purpose and scope of the project.

Trigger warning: If you experience triggers from descriptions of physical and sexual violence, please know that the details in many of the cases are disturbing and graphic.

*****

Jonathan McMullen

In September 2001, 14-year-old Jonathan McMullen from Elgin, Arizona killed his adopted mother and attempted to kill his adopted father and biological brother.

In September 2001, 14-year-old Jonathan McMullen from Elgin, Arizona killed his adopted mother and attempted to kill his adopted father and biological brother.
In September 2001, 14-year-old Jonathan McMullen from Elgin, Arizona killed his adopted mother and attempted to kill his adopted father and biological brother.

Kristina and Andrew McMullen, Jonathan’s adopted parents, were a “devoutly religious family” who had “faith in God and Jesus Christ.” They moved to Elgin a few years prior to the attack on account of health problems (which the higher elevation of Elgin alleviated). They took Jonathan and his two biological brothers in as foster children in 1999 and then adopted them slightly more than a year prior to the attack. The McMullens had one biological son, 2 years older than Jonathan. 56-year-old Kristina, a professional teacher, homeschooled all the boys.

According to reports, Jonathan “was a good kid.” In his early childhood he attended Elgin Elementary School and was described as a “quiet, shy, polite” kid who “was never in [the superintendent’s] office for discipline.” But he suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome (FASD), a disorder that “can cause tremendous behavioral problems.” The “distorted reasoning of the brain affected by FASD” has been blamed as a cause of Jonathan’s actions.

On the night of the murder, Jonathan and a friend of his were talking about using his mother’s car to drive to a nearby city. Jonathan was afraid they might get caught taking the car, so he decided to shoot his family.  His original plan was to kill them with knives, but he decided on a rifle instead so they “would die more quickly.” He threw something at his mother’s door to wake her and, when she came out, he shot her 5 times. Woken by the sound of the gunshots, his father and brother came into his room. Jonathan shot his brother twice and his father once. Kristina died. His 55-year-old father Andrew and 12-year-old brother Jack were airlifted to Tucson Medical Center and survived. Jonathan’s 9-year-old brother Joe was unharmed as he was spending the night at a friend’s house.

Jonathan was charged with first degree murder of his mother and attempted first degree murder of his father and brother. In December 2002, Jonathan pleaded guilty to reckless manslaughter.

View the case index here.

When Homeschoolers Turn Violent: Hugo Clayton

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Series note: “When Homeschoolers Turn Violent” is a joint research project by Homeschoolers Anonymous and Homeschooling’s Invisible Children. Please see the Introduction for detailed information about the purpose and scope of the project.

Trigger warning: If you experience triggers from descriptions of physical and sexual violence, please know that the details in many of the cases are disturbing and graphic.

*****

Hugo Clayton

In November 2003, Hugo Clayton — a 14-year-old boy from Guatemala — stabbed his adopted mother to death over a dispute about working in his adopted father’s painting business.

In November 2003, Hugo Clayton — a 14-year-old boy from Guatemala — stabbed his adopted mother from South Carolina to death.
In November 2003, Hugo Clayton — a 14-year-old boy from Guatemala — stabbed his adopted mother from South Carolina to death.

Hugo’s early childhood in Guatemala was bleak: he was an orphan and spent much of the first 7 years of his life on the streets, then 5 years in an orphanage. He suffered from “major depressive disorder, reactive attachment disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and brief reactive psychosis.” Hugo was adopted in 2002 from Guatemala by 33-year-old Debra Jean Clayton and her husband Keith, a couple living in Lexington County, South Carolina. The Clayton family were raising 8 children (5 biological, 3 adopted), all whom Debra Jean homeschooled while her husband worked. The family was religious.

James Metts, a Lexington County sheriff, reported that the teenager killed Debra Jean because “he was upset about restrictions that were imposed him…for disobeying his parents.” The restrictions were language-based: Hugo was being required by his parents “to speak only English.” His act of disobedience was refusing “to go to work in the family painting business.” Keith said the family was “an army at war with Satan.”

On the day of the murder, Hugo stabbed Debra Jean multiple times with a knife, then hid the knife under his bed. Debra Jean ultimately died from bleeding to death. A memorial service was held for her at the Calvary Chapel in Lexington.

On November 14, 2003, Hugo was charged with murder, the charge later being changed to voluntary manslaughter. In July 2005, Hugo — then 16 — pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Keith was at a loss to explain his adopted son’s actions, saying, “He was a good kid when he lived here. It’s just inexplainable.”

 View the case index here.

Wifely Duties and Baseball Bats: Morgan Dawn’s Story

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HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Morgan Dawn” is a pseudonym.

Trigger warnings: rape, extreme physical abuse.

At the age of 3, I was adopted by a Navy couple.

Life was great for about 6 weeks, when they adopted a baby boy. That was when the horror began.

I was pushed aside, because I was “just a girl.”  By the time I was 10, the couple had 3 biological kids, on top of myself and the other adopted boy. My adopted mother had lots of health issues, so she was either pregnant or sick.

My adopted father decided that since his wife wasn’t able to perform her “wifely duties,” that job would fall to me. The rapes were a weekly occurrence from then on. When I went to a DOD school official, my family decided that the “safest” thing for me was to be homeschooled. After all, I was a pathological liar.

Right there, my life changed.

They started reading everything they could about “To Train Up a Child” and proper disciplines for “obstinate children.”  Drop a glass on the floor?  I had to stand on that glass until my feet were bleeding badly.  Slam a door?  My hands were slammed in doors until I couldn’t help but pass out from pain.

I would sneak out of the house to see my boyfriend at night. One thing led to another, and by 13 I was pregnant. The father was killed in a drive-by shooting when I was 6 months along.  I managed to hide the pregnancy (my adoptive father was on deployment to the Middle East, so no one was close enough to tell) until he got home. He wanted sex, and I said no.

O, the pain that “no” would cost me.

He took a baseball bat to my body for hours.  By the time the paramedics were called, I was hanging by a thread, and in preterm labor.  They said I’d never walk or talk again.  My daughter was given (without my permission) to a family “friend” who let her drown in a pool on her 6th birthday.

Homeschooling hid everything.

No one really saw me anyways, so not seeing me at all because I was in body casts didn’t alert anyone. When my face had to be reconstructed for the 2nd time, everyone was told that my biological family had passed on defects that needed fixed. Schooling was “Here’s a book, read it and be prepared to debate on it”, but if the debate wasn’t “right” I’d get beat. It was hell.

By 18, I was ready to leave. By then, there were 10 kids total, and I was expected to sacrifice college to take care of them all. I couldn’t. So, one night, I left and never looked back. I’m now forbidden to talk to anyone in the family.

They were all told that all I was was a whore who left because I was pregnant.

I moved out of state with the help of a few friends that had known me before I was pulled from school. Apparently I was the only reason for homeschooling, as the other kids are all back in school. I was the evil sinner who needed punished.  And now, I love that title.

At least this “evil sinner” is now living life the way she wants. I’m currently in school for Social Work, living with my biological mother, engaged to a wonderful man, and happy.  The happy is so strange, but I like it.

There is hope out there.

Then Why Didn’t You Tell Us That, Mom?

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Libby Anne’s blog Love Joy Feminism. It was originally published on Patheos on September 1, 2013.

"My mother subscribed to Above Rubies and read each issue thoroughly."
“My mother subscribed to Above Rubies and read each issue thoroughly.”

“I want you to know that I never actually believed everything in those Above Rubies magazines,” my mom told me when I was visiting home a while back.

“Then why didn’t you tell us that, mom?” I asked. “I read every issue of that magazine cover to cover, and I always thought it was completely approved material.”

I don’t know why my mother made that admission to me when she did.

It was before the Mother Jones article about Kathryn Joyce’s new book on evangelical adoption, which sheds light on the Above Rubies/Liberian adoption scandal. My mother knows I identify as a feminist and that I’m critical of at least some aspects of the culture of the Christian homeschool movement, but that’s about it. Beyond that, we have a strict Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy. Except, I suppose, for the Pearls child training methods—that we’ve discussed on more than one occasion. But the Pearls don’t run Above Rubies magazine. Nancy Campbell does.

Regardless of what prompted my mother’s admission, I think there is something incredibly important to be learned here.

Kate and I were talking a few months ago, and she told me she doesn’t think her parents realized quite how many extreme patriarchal/purity ideas she picked up and took to heart through Christian homeschooling culture. Her parents, she said, were always quick to condemn reading material, organizations, and leaders they believed promoted ungodly ideas or false doctrine. Because of this, she always assumed that materials that entered the house under the banner of Christianity and without condemnation were things they approved and endorsed.

My experience was very much the same.

My mother subscribed to Above Rubies and read each issue thoroughly. The ideas contained within the magazine aligned at least generally with beliefs I heard my mother espouse. When my parents disagreed with a religious leader, they were quick to say so. In fact, I grew up hearing James Dobson described as too wishy-washy and soft. Yet, I never heard my mother call Nancy Campbell or her magazine into question, so I assumed that the messages contained therein were approved, and that it was something I should read, take to heart, and learn from. And read, take to heart, and learn I did.

I’ve talked to many homeschool graduates—some I knew growing up, some I’ve met in person since, and others I’ve connected with over the internet or through facebook. This thing I’m talking about? This thing is important. Once homeschool parents enter the Christian homeschool subculture, if they don’t vocally and openly condemn, question, or contradict what that subculture teaches, their children will assume that the ideas and ideals of that subculture are approved—something they should listen to, take seriously, and imbibe.

I’ve talked to more than my fair share of homeschool graduates who grew up in this culture and took to heart things they later found out their parents never even realized they were learning.

Christian parents who choose to homeschool their children but do not ascribe to the ideals of the Christian homeschool subculture, especially things like Christian Patriarchy or Quiverfull, need to be on guard against this. It’s not uncommon for homeschool parents who happen to be Christian to find themselves in the same homeschool circles with Christian parents who homeschool out of religious conviction. And it’s also not uncommon for their children to find themselves in those circles whether their parents actively frequent them or not. In this kind of situation, parents may not realize the toxic ideologies their children taking in through osmosis from the Christian homeschooling culture around them.

In my mother’s case, it’s not that she disagreed entirely with the Above Rubies magazine. My mother was more mainstream than many, but she definitely ascribed to the outer circles of Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull ideology. To be honest, I don’t actually know what parts of what Above Rubies she takes issue with—I was too surprised by her admission to think to ask.

There is one thing I was not too shocked to make sure to tell her, though:

“You need to tell the girls, mom,” I said. “They read Above Rubies just as I did at their age. You need to tell them you don’t agree with all of it, because if you don’t, they’ll think you do.”

Hana Williams Abuse and Murder Trial Ongoing

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Hana Williams.

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Libby Anne’s blog Love Joy Feminism. It was originally published on Patheos on August 6, 2013.

Hana Williams died two years ago, in May 2011, of hypothermia after her mother banished her from the house as punishment for being “rebellious.” Hana was already overly-thin from starvation—her parents withheld food as punishment—and she had often been forced to sleep in the barn, use an outdoor port-a-potty, and shower outside.

Hana Williams had been adopted from Ethiopia in 2008 by a conservative Christian homeschooling couple who followed the child training methods of Michael and Debi Pearl.

Her trial is currently taking place, including testimony from some of the children’s seven biological children and Hana’s adopted Ethiopian brother.

I’m going to offer some excerpts from recent articles covering the trial. If you want to see video news reports, click through, as most of these articles include news footage. For what I’ve previously had to say about Hana Williams’ death, read this post from two years ago, written right after the news of Hana’s death surfaced.

Jurors See Before and After Photos of Starved Girl, August 1, 2013

For the first time, jurors saw what Hana Williams looked like as a healthy girl–and her shocking deterioration before her death.

Video taken in 2007 before she left Ethiopia shows Hana smiling as she looks at the camera.  A photo taken closer to her death in 2011 shows her thin teen and shaved head.

Hana’s adopted brother, Immanuel, who is deaf, testified she was always told to stay outside by her adoptive parents, Larry and Carri Williams.

“They didn’t let her into the house to warm up,” said 12-year-old Immanuel, through an interpreter.

Immanuel says he and Hana were treated very differently from the Williams’ own seven children.

Hana’s Adopted Brother Testifies about Abuse, August 1, 2013

During the third day of witness testimony yesterday in the trial of Larry and Carri Williams, a mental health therapist from Seattle Children’s Hospital testified that Hana’s 12-year-old brother suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder because of the abuse he endured under the hands of his adoptive parents.

The mental health expert, Dr. Julia Petersen, said that the boy, who was also adopted from Ethiopia, started meeting with her last winter, when he had been in foster care for more than a year, local media reported. The couple have pleaded not guilty.

Per the Skagit Valley Herald: “Petersen said the boy fit the diagnostic criteria for PTSD based in part on his nightmares about being physically harmed and the fact he was constantly afraid of making mistakes or expressing himself lest he be “punished.” Discipline the boy experienced in the Williams home, plus seeing Hana in pain and dying, is traumatic enough to lead to PTSD, she said.”

Dr Petersen pointed out that the brother’s upbringing in Ethiopia or his stay at foster care in the U.S. do not appear to be the reason for the post-traumatic stress disorder. “Losing his parents caused the boy sadness and grief, but not the same kind of anxiety brought on by what he said happened in the Williams home,” Petersen said.

Latest from the Williams Trial, August 4, 2013

An expert on torture testified Friday in the homicide-by-abuse trial of Larry and Carri Williams who are accused of abusing their two adopted children from Ethiopia, Hana and Immanuel, and causing the death of Hana.

13-year-old Hana Alemu (Hana Williams) was found dead on May 12, 2011 in the family’s backyard in Sedro-Woolley, Washington. She died of hypothermia, which doctors say was hastened by malnutrition and a stomach condition.

“In my judgment, it’s not a close case,” said John Hutson, taking the witness stand on day-six of the trial. The law school professor and dean, who had previously testified before Congress about military prisoner abuse, added: “They both were unquestionably tortured.”

Kids Testify in Abuse and Murder Trial, August 5, 2013

Cara, one of Larry and Carri’s seven children, says Immanuel, a brother, and Hana ate outside and slept in a closet when they broke the rules in the gated, conservative Christian home.

The parents claim they cared for the adopted pair—like shaving Hana’s hair when she had lice. But Cara says Hana’s braids were shaved as punishment.

“Because she was clipping grass around the house and she was clipping it down to an inch instead of leaving a couple of inches,” said Cara.

The Williams could face life in prison and are charged with assaulting Immanuel and abusing Hana to death.

A witness told investigators the couple followed a controversial book called “Train Up A Child”. The author tells parents to use a switch, cold baths, withhold food and force children outside in cold weather as punishment. Cara says her father, a Boeing worker, and her stay-at-home mother hit all of the kids.

“In your family you call the swats and spanking “training” correct?” asked Larry’s attorney, Cassie Trueblood.

“Yes,” said Cara.

But Cara says the adopted children were the only ones who had to shower outside with a garden hose.

“Did you ever take a shower out there?” asked prosecutor Rich Weyrich.

“No,” said Cara.

Prosecutors want jurors to hear from the couple’s oldest sons. But a judge ruled the pair will not testify without immunity—because they are also accused with abusing their adopted siblings. Prosecutors say they are willing to give immunity from any future charges which should clear the way for the boys to testify this week.

It will be interesting to see where things go from here.