In Their World, But Not Of It — My Years on the Periphery of ATI: Giselle’s Story

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We were never really one of “those families.” 

I felt out of place at the annual conferences because we only had two kids.  We might even put on shorts and watch TV when we got back to the hotel room.  We had a car, not a 15-passenger van, and we only drove two hours to get there, unlike many families who spent days traveling, their windows painted with pithy slogans like, “Knoxville or Bust.”  We evaluated the people we met at those conferences carefully.  Were they “real” ATI people, or were they renegades like us, who wouldn’t shun us when they learned we were blue jean-wearing, movie-watching, pizza-eating radicals?

We were definitely misfits.

However, I, too, donned conservative white blouses and flowing navy skirts each summer of my high school years (and several years after) for a week of training and choir rehearsals.  I will not lie, there was something invigorating and powerful about it all—particularly when we sang—thousands of voices raised together…. It was easy to get swept up in the moment, for sure.

But deep down, I think I knew that something wasn’t right.

Perhaps the full effects of those years on my psyche are still unknown, but for the most part, I emerged fairly unscathed.  My father was not controlling.  We were never abused.  We always had a voice and were allowed, even encouraged, to share our opinions.  My parents wanted me, as well as my brother, to graduate prepared for college, if we chose to go.  My teen years were mainly self-directed, with my parents supporting and encouraging me in my own interests and pursuits.

Strangely enough, in reflecting back on those years, I have come to the realization that it may have been me, not either of my parents, who was most indoctrinated by the ATI mindset. 

I remember reading countless books on courtship and buying into the “facts” that dating was stupid and rock music was somehow evil.  I dressed “modestly” at all times and memorized most of Matthew 5, along with countless other Scriptures that I self-selected during my own devotional times.  I chose to work on (but never completed) the faith, wisdom, and virtue journals, teach in Children’s Institutes, and even attend a short training in Indianapolis and a two-month training at EXCEL.  But even through all of this, my discernment told me that something was wrong.

I went to the Indianapolis training center when I was about 16.  I remember very little except enjoying spending time with a couple friends, but I do very clearly recall a session when a fairly prominent ATI mother spoke to us about her children.  She shared about her older son with disabilities and two adopted daughters of another race.  I think she was teaching about demonic influences and spiritual sensitivity in children.  I remember that the woman seemed tired, perhaps even defeated.   She said, “If I had it to do over again, I don’t think we should have adopted the girls.  It wasn’t God’s first choice for our family.”  After adopting them, they had conceived several children naturally, and their family was somewhat disjointed.  I was horrified.  What in the world was this woman thinking?!  Her teenage daughters were somewhere at the training center, and she had just admitted to dozens of girls that she wished she hadn’t adopted them!  What if they found out?

It was unbelievable to me.

Another talk that stunned me was during one of the Knoxville sessions for women and “apprenticeship ladies”—basically age 12 or above.  My mother was not with me (it may have been the year she was sick & didn’t go…) but there was a panel of mothers teaching us about child training.

I remember being fairly shocked as they described something called “blanket training” for infants. 

Basically the goal was to train your baby to stay on a blanket, so that no matter where you went, you could pull out the blanket and put your kid down and not have to worry about baby-proofing the area or your child crawling off into harm’s way.  In order to do this, you had to spend some time rather intensively “training” your child by administering spankings every time they touched the floor off of the blanket.  A great way to do this, they said, was to “spank” all around the edges of the blanket—perhaps even pulling a child’s hand off the blanket and administering a swat or two to get the point across before they even had a chance to “disobey.”  They told us that mothers who were “mercies” often had trouble doing this.  (Women with the spiritual gift of mercy were always looked down on as weaker and more vulnerable, it seemed to me.)

Keep in mind that these children were infants! They were not even toddling around yet! (Although they said older babies could be left on blankets, too, once they were “trained.”)

I remember thinking (and even saying to some people that week), “I’d like to know if these children are less curious or more fearful of exploring the world around them—isn’t that the reason babies crawl around and touch things?  They’re supposed to!”

During that same session, during a discussion on discipline, we were taught that biblical chastisement involved swatting your child at least six times—if it wasn’t that many, it was only a reproof, not true chastisement.   (Personally, I had never been swatted that many times, and I thought these requirements were pretty creepy!)  I remember a mother on stage sharing about how sweet their naptimes were now with her little child since she had taught her to lie down as soon as she was placed in the crib by giving her “six switchies” every time she put her head up.  I was sickened.  I was only a teenager, but I knew something was terribly wrong.

My 8-week trip to EXCEL when I was 21 was…well…strange. 

In a lot of ways.  I was still living at home but was largely autonomous in most of my daily activities.  I was working 30 hours a week and involved in church and ministry activities which I had to leave completely for two months.  For me, EXCEL was a step into an ultra-controlling environment, the likes of which I had never experienced before, but I tried to adapt and make the best of it because I was a pleaser and never wanted to be in trouble.  Although I absolutely loved to learn and looked forward to gleaning a lot from the sessions, the dozens of rules and regulations were tough.  I remember the look on a close guy friend’s face when I told him, “No, you can’t write to me.  It’s against the rules.”

Our relationship was never the same again after that.

At EXCEL, we were only allowed to call home once or twice a week, unless we had “something to confess.”  We had a strict “lights out” time, and my stickler roommate turned me in for using a flashlight to journal after 9:00 p.m.  Living with her was a bit of a challenge because she was often depressed and terribly homesick.  I never knew how to help her when she would lie on her bed during free time and refuse to engage in conversation or anything remotely fun.

I was frustrated because this made me feel even more lonely and strange about being there.

At home, I spent most of my time with adults or with the children I worked with in my job and volunteer work.  There were no kids at EXCEL, and that was very difficult for me.  There were also very few adults—just a whole bunch of teenage girls.  My “team leader” was the age of my younger brother, and it was difficult to submit to her as an authority.

Sundays were also very difficult.  We attended various churches in the mornings and then had “free time” in the afternoons, but we weren’t allowed to work on our academic projects since it was the “Sabbath.”  We couldn’t really read (books weren’t allowed at EXCEL except for Bibles and a few approved books for our assignments.)  We also weren’t allowed to eat anything until dinner—every Sabbath was a 24-hour fast.  Those were realllllllly long afternoons. I learned that you can feel pretty unloved and uncared-for when your blood sugar drops and you are away from the people who care about you.  

I think I’ve taken that with me because I am pretty conscientious now about making sure anyone in my care is well-fed and comfortable.  Although I learned many things at EXCEL, some of which come back to me at the strangest times, reflecting back on those weeks fills me with an eeriness that seems from another lifetime.

When I returned from EXCEL, I was grateful to be home, but somewhat more indoctrinated.  I don’t think I wore pants for almost a month, even though my parents had never in my life suggested that I shouldn’t wear them.  I was even more dead-set against “rock music” than I had been before leaving.

In fact, I remember visiting a church with my family and ending up in tears because they added a backbeat to a hymn. 

My poor parents didn’t know what to do with me, but they were very patient, and after several weeks, I came around.  That was the beginning of the end of ATI’s influence in our family, because the following year my brother and I both started college, so we weren’t really eligible for the program anymore.

When I began preparing this article, I thought it would be easy.  I planned to write about my experiences and impressions throughout my years in the ATI program.  However, as I delved into my old notebooks, I found pages and pages from sessions with titles like these: “How to Conquer Food Addictions and Avoid Degenerate Diseases,” “7 Reasons Why This Is the Most Important Conference,” “A Way of Life the World Will Want to Copy,” “Why Not to Marry a Divorced Man,” “How to Prove God’s Existence Without Faith in 2 Minutes!”

It has been more difficult to process through all this than I had thought it would be.

I even called my dad to ask him if he had felt pressured in his men’s group meetings to follow certain commitments or act a certain way, since he never seemed to fit the ATI mold for controlling fathers.  He said no, it wasn’t like that in his group.  He even told me that he viewed ATI as just another program to help us reach our goals, and he basically selected the parts that he felt would help us while leaving the rest alone.

We were taught at the ATI conferences that there are three types of smiles: a joyful smile, a ministry smile, and an obedient smile.  You should always be able to pull out one of the three, they said.  This concept makes me wonder now: how many of those bright, cheerful faces were never joyful at all…?  Although I am a bit shaken by all the memories I’ve sifted through over the past few weeks and by the adult realization of what was going on during those impressionable years of my life, I think I’ve emerged fairly healthy with an ability to coexist in the world I once believed to be evil.

After all, I am now a public school teacher.