The Smoke and Ash of Melting Memories

Photo credit: Ajgiel, deviantArt. Image links to source.
Photo credit: Ajgiel, deviantArt. Image links to source.

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Cynthia Mullen Kunsman’s blog Under Much Grace. It was originally published on October 7, 2014. 

What are your earliest memories like?

I remember some events as what seem like still photographs from when I was very young – like the yellow diaper service pail on the front porch with an embossed stork on it, though the pigment in the pattern had faded. I remember my mother sitting beside my white crib, reading different books to me. Though I could not have had a visit with him after I was three years old, I remember my orthopedist. He had jet black hair and wore a smock like doctors wore in black and white movies. I remember really liking him, but I don’t remember talking to him or why I saw him. I remember my grand geek fascination with the magiciadias when Brood X made their seventeen year appearance, just before my fourth birthday. They are pictures in the album of my mind, accompanied only by the sense of joy, excitement, or curiosity that I feel when they’re called back into my consciousness. I have to rely on the history that I learned from my family to put those pictures into perspective.

The Scandal of Undeserved Shame

I would love to say that my first continuous memory of a whole chain of events follows some moment of joy. Most of the elements of the scene move like clips in a movie without sound. I’ve written about it before as “the thought seeds of the heart’s scandal,” I was terrified when I posted it online, as it felt painfully revealing.

Suffice it to say that this continuous memory was a trauma that taught to me a host of horrible messages, basically that in addition to not being able to trust my own experience and memory, I was damned to punishment no matter what I did. A child stole pennies from me, and I was punished for carelessness with money, believing that I’d misplaced it. When the child’s mother called my mother when the money turned up, I was punished for somehow provoking the child to steal. When I learned later that the child had not returned all of the money, I was punished and shamed again. The sweeping, continuous events seem like movie clips, teaching me some rather sick ideas about about who I was, how I fit into the world, and what I should expect from others.

I can vividly remember only a few audible memories of those events. I would hear my mother echo many of the statements many times again throughout my childhood. I clearly remember the taunting voice and laughter of that other child in that characteristic “nah, nah, nah” cadence that can be heard on every school playground. Though I have desensitized to this memory of confusion and shame, the scar can still be weak and tender, if the conditions are right (or wrong, depending on your perspective). I’m very human, and my “early wiring” was far from ideal.

Life in the D-O-L-L-H-O-U-S-E

This weekend, I read a post that Cynthia Jeub wrote recently, and I am haunted by it. Cynthia’s family was once featured on The Learning Channel in a 2006 series called Kids by the Dozen. In 2008, the network launched the more commonly known 19 Kids and Counting series featuring the Duggar Family which follows a family of homeschoolers who are a part of the same basic religious belief system. The fun adventures of these large families portray the idealized life that seem like a Norman Rockwell originals, but they omit the experiences of the less fortunate families like those described in the book, Quivering Daughters.

It seems that Cynthia and her sister Lydia now find themselves among the ranks of the Second Generation Adults (SGA) of this relatively new, high demand religious movement. According to Libby Anne at her blog on Patheos, Cynthia and her sister Lydia have been shunned by their family for failing to follow their parents’ lifestyle. (SGAs are adults who grew up within a high demand religious system. Their needs and recovery issues often differ significantly from those of adults who enjoy a “good enough” childhood and make their own choice to join a religious sect. Those who are raised in sects have no choice and find themselves limited to far more bounded choices.)

Cynthia describes the crafted persona of her family which focuses heavily on image consciousness and perfection – a way of proving to the world (and themselves) that they are more special to God than other Christians. Borrowing lyrics from Melanie Martinez’s song Dollhouse, Cynthia describes the dissonance of living such a life. I marvel at her valor and the ability to express such painful events with melancholy beauty.

Though I always tremble at the seriousness with which I post my own personal details online to illustrate a truth or a principle, to my knowledge, my parents don’t read what I write. The healing process, done privately, takes tremendous courage. The children of shows like Kids by the Dozen break their silence about their hidden difficulties before a captive world of television without pity. They cannot hide. Their parents and all of their friends who are still within the religious movement will read and harshly judge their words, though survivors of the same experiences will find validation and encouragement. Such candor demonstrates remarkable bravery that I cannot fathom, for I did most of my recovery work in private.

Melting Masks in the Flame of the Gaslight

Cynthia’s Melting Memory Masks reminds me of the gaslighting that I endured as a child.

The term “gaslighting” derives from the British play and film that was remade in the US in 1944 staring Ingrid Bergman.  The husband in Gaslight wants to convince his wealthy, already traumatized wife that she is insane, so he sets up situations to convince her that she’s lost touch with reality. The term came to represent the behavior wherein one person wrongfully challenges the perceptions and memory of another, though in dysfunctional families, it’s not as malicious or deliberate as portrayed in the old film. (Read more about gaslighting HERE. I’m amazed at how much I needed to reread today for my own benefit.)

To survive in high demand situations, people must bury who they are and their experiences to survive and avoid the punishment created by their non-compliance. This process (of which gaslighting is often a part) creates cognitive dissonance – the very stressful psychological state when elements of a situation become confusing and inconsistent. Speech or emotions fail to match the context of behavior or information, causing individuals to feel out of balance. They become more easily manipulated as a consequence. Though adults are very vulnerable to these same influences when the conditions are right, children have little or no power to resist the process because of their dependency on adults. High demand religious groups as well as parents also exploit a child’s innate vulnerabilities to exact control.

Because of the demands of the roles of the “family script” and the gaslighting, siblings who remain behind within the high demand group will often do and say whatever they need to do to survive their own discomfort. We human beings tend to believe what we want to believe and that which gives us the most comfort. Sometimes called “wishful thinking,” this human trait of confirmation bias makes us unwilling to consider unpleasant information. To protect their family and the continuity of their own life, siblings often challenge dissidents as they struggle against the unpleasant testimonies of their family when they speak openly about the problems that they suffered within the group. They are dependent upon their family, and they often have no other choice because of their lack of resources. High demand groups require the same type of loyalty of their members. When individuals, particularly children, become isolated from their own sense of personal worth and acceptance from good experiences outside of a closed world, within high demand homeschooling, gaslighting becomes even more effective.

Smoke and Ashes

I am amazed when I look back on how much I’ve grown since I left a group that followed the same religious system embraced by the Jeubs and the Duggars. I indeed experienced gaslighting when in that system, sometimes through “mystical manipulation” and sometimes just through their unwritten social code of conduct. I soon realized, however, that when I recognized the unhealthy dynamics within religion, I could no longer tolerate the same kinds of behavior when I encountered them in other relationships – most notably with my family.

I felt as though this message from Cynthia’s father described well my own parents’ sentiment about our estrangement which began about a decade ago. I, too, am “welcome” at my parents’ table – if I give up on having a perspective that differs in any way from theirs – even about things that seem completely insignificant. A decade ago, I deliberately set out to learn how to manage my responses so that I could tolerate their gaslighting and pretense. Along the way, I figured out that I was chasing a fantasy, and the solution to the dilemma didn’t involve learning new skills. The solution involved walking away and abandoning the fantasy of finding some place of grace with them, free from coercion and shame. Portia Nelson’s poem describes the situation well for me.

Ultimately, the gaslighting situation boils down to a relationship of cooperation between two parties. The person who gaslights consolidates power by using others to bolster up their ego by always being right. The person who allows the gaslighter to redefine their own perspective seeks to gain their gaslighter’s approval or whatever their approval can provide.

If the gaslighter doesn’t realize that this is what they’re doing, the “gaslightee” may be able to negotiate with them to stop. If the behavior is intentional, then the manipulator doesn’t have much incentive to change. If the gaslightee wishes it to stop, they must be the one to initiate the change. They have to shift the balance of power in the relationship so that they are no longer ruled by the gaslighter.   In my relationship with my parents and despite forty years of trying, they would only accept being “right,” thus assigning me with the role of “100% wrong.” I worked at coming to an agreement with them – a plan of what we might do when they gaslighted me because my reactions to it were powerful and too painful for me to manage. After years of trying, I finally realized that if I hadn’t gained their favor by playing along for most of my life, it likely wouldn’t happen in the future. I changed the gaslighting dynamic by withdrawing from the relationship which was really just one of fantasy that I wished could be true.

They really don’t have anything that I want anymore, now that I’ve abandoned that fantasy.


I hope that Cynthia and Lydia Jeub will learn this wisdom far more quickly than I did. I’m glad that they both have a whole community of surviving and thriving SGAs for support and validation. And I’m grateful to Cynthia for her post which helped me remember where I’ve come from and how far I’ve traveled. She reminded me that though my own deep wounds have largely healed, I still need to honor my scars – and I need to listen to them. Though I wish that it all was far behind me, I still find myself cleaning up the soot left by the remnants of those ashen memories.  And that’s okay.

Proverbs says that truth comes at a price. Those who were gaslighted as young children must pay a high price in adulthood to claim their own perspective — a rite that most people take for granted. It’s been my experience that the truth and the price one pays to speak it doesn’t come cheap. May they be wealthy!

About the Author

Cynthia Mullen Kunsman is a nurse (BSN), naturopath (ND) and seminary graduate (MMin) with a wide variety of training and over 20 years of clinical experience. She has used her training in Complementary and Alternative Medicine as a lecturer and liaison to professional scientific and medical groups, in both academic and traditional clinical healthcare settings. She also completed additional studies in the field of thought reform, hypnotherapy for pain management, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that is often associated with cultic group involvement. Her nursing experience ranges from intensive care, the training of critical care nurses, hospice care, case management and quality management, though she currently limits her practice to forensic medical record review and evaluation. Most of her current professional efforts concern the study of manipulative and coercive evangelical Christian groups and the recovery process from both thought reform and PTSD.

Not On Your Side, Debi: Jeri Lofland’s Thoughts


Jeri Lofland blogs at Heresy in the Heartland. The following was originally published by Jeri on April 27, 214, and is reprinted with permission.

This week, embattled IBLP founder Bill Gothard received aid from an unexpected quarter–homeschool mom and popular author Debi Pearl.

In the past, self-confessed “old hillbilly” Michael Pearl has sometimes himself been critical of Bill Gothard for helping create the excesses of the homeschooling patriarchy movement–a highly ironic observation coming from the father of patriarchs! But this week, Debi came out swinging against IBLP victims who have gone public with their stories on “Recovering Grace” and other websites.

Beginning her post with the question, “Whose side are you on?” Debi attacks those who have dared to publish accounts of how Gothard lied to, molested, or otherwise mistreated them. According to Debi, these “critics” are “bitter” (that’s the ultimate pejorative in IBLP circles, remember?), they are “foolish”, and they have joined a “Satanic attack on God’s people”.

On the one hand, Debi describes Gothard as a “man who put his whole life into doing a work for God”. On the other, she denies having any connection to IBLP’s beleaguered “ministry” which, she claims, helped “set thousands of people free from bitterness”.

Gothard and the Pearls have, in fact, had a symbiotic relationship for years.

They attended a Basic Seminar in the late 1970’s. IBLP promoted and distributed the Pearls’ parenting book To Train Up a Child. The website for IBLP Australia still offers at least two of the Pearls’ numerous books. At least one of the Pearl girls worked at Gothard’s orphanage and training center (South Campus) in Indianapolis and the Pearls kept several Russian orphans at their home over the summer. Michael solicited donations for IBLP from his followers. Several of the Pearl children’s spouses were raised in Gothard’s ATI program. (I say “spouses”, but Michael Pearl made it clear years ago that his children do not need any such thing as marriage licenses. A ceremony and their parents’ blessing is apparently good enough.*)

Besides being given to racist and homophobic remarks, the Pearls are somewhat obsessed with sex. It gives Michael hope to envision homeschoolers “outbreeding” progressives. He counsels the wife of an angry man to “make love” to improve her husband’s mood. Debi often suggests that being sexually available is a wife’s primary responsibility. Michael even wrote a book on erotic pleasure for fundamentalist Christian couples.

And then there are the Pearls’ highly controversial child training methods, which have now been linked to three child deaths. There is currently a petition circulating to ask to remove To Train Up a Child from its website in the interest of protecting children from parental abuse. According to a BBC report last year, To Train Up a Child has sold over 800,000 copies and boxes of the Pearls’ books have been shipped for free to U.S. troops overseas. “No Greater Joy” pulls in over $1 million a year, with Debi functioning as “the financial brain of the company”, according to her son Gabriel.

Last year, Rachel Held Evans wrote a blunt piece about Michael and Debi Pearl and their abusive “ministry”. First, she quoted Pearl himself describing how to handle a rebellious child:

If you have to sit on him to spank him then do not hesitate. And hold him there until he is surrendered. Prove that you are bigger, tougher, more patiently enduring and are unmoved by his wailing. Defeat him totally.”  -Michael Pearl

And Evans added her own warning:

But it’s not just children who suffer from No Greater Joy‘s ministries.When I was conducting research for A Year of Biblical Womanhood, I read Debi Pearl’s popular book, Created to Be His Helpmeet…which I threw across the room a total of seven times.

The writing is awful, the biblical exegesis deplorable, but what troubles me the most is that the book reads like a manual for developing abused wife syndrome.

In their story “The Real Michael Pearl” a few years ago, Religious Child Maltreatment pointed out the peculiar rush Pearl appears to derive from seeing small children spanked into silence, and his sense that he has “come upon the holy grail of childrearing”.

To Pearl, and many parents who follow his teachings, the primary goal of parenting is not to support children by fulfilling their needs to feel safe and experience appropriate autonomy, but to control children.

In April 2011, Cindy Kunsman, a nurse explained the physical dangers of Pearl’s teachings in a post on the No Longer Quivering blog. Homeschoolers Anonymous reposted the piece in September of last year:

Due to the severity of the spankings with [Michael Pearl’s recommended] plumbing line, both Zariah and Lydia Schatz suffered renal failure because of rhabdomyolysis.

…[W]e may never learn the details about new cases of Pearl-related kidney disease unless it is reported by the families of the survivors.

Kunsman went into much more detail about rhabdomyolysis in another post at Under Much Grace. This article convinced me that the Pearls are not just cranks, they are dangerous.

If the children are aggressively spanked on a chronic basis, …it is possible that chronic damage could occur in children that is not bad enough to cause kidney failure but bad enough to cause damage.Unless a child undergoes blood tests at some point, “renal insufficiency” (inefficient kidney function that is lower than a normal, healthy level) could be present and no one would be the wiser. It is conceivable that at least some children have experienced some damage, but not enough to produce symptoms of kidney failure.

In October 2011 Rachel Stone wrote about Pearl in for Christianity Today. Her article included sadistic passages from To Train Up a Child and described the Pearls’ methods as “a program of calculated cruelty”:

One child suffering under this training is too many; it’s my hope that the Pearls will be widely discredited, and soon.

In a November 2011 post, a Chicago blogger pointed out that the popular Duggar family, who are still members of Gothard’s homeschooling cult, not only endorse but actively promote the Pearls’ materials on their own website:  Features some of the finest in family-friendly, value-based books, audios, videos, and articles on parenting, husband and wife relationships, ministry and more! Materials include, To Train Up A Child, Jumping Ship, Created To Be His Help Meet, Preparing To Be A Help Meet, Only Men, the Good and Evil graphic novel in over 20 languages and a FREE bi-monthly magazine.

Samantha at Defeating the Dragons and Libby Anne at Love, Joy, Feminism have both written boldly about the dangerous and abusive teachings of Michael and Debi Pearl. Author and mother of five Elizabeth Esther, whom Anderson Cooper interviewed alongside Michael Pearl late in 2011, has been both outspoken and tearful about the horrors perpetrated against children when parents follow Pearl’s advice. You can watch the interview for yourself here.

2011 New York Times article quotes Michael likening childrearing to training “stubborn mules” and explores links between child deaths and the teachings in Pearl’s book.

Dr. Frances Chalmers, a pediatrician who examined Hana’s death for the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services, said of the Pearl methods: “My fear is that this book, while perhaps well intended, could easily be misinterpreted and could lead to what I consider significant abuse.”

This video shows Michael and Debi Pearl in action at a child training seminar, apparently at the Cane Creek church that meets on Pearl’s property in a Tennessee hollow. Michael would much prefer to be known through his books than through these clips, but there he is on his own turf:

With his wife smiling and nodding beside him, Michael Pearl laughingly advocates cruelty against children. He encourages hitting children, even infants, with implements. He recommends luring young children with tempting objects and then swatting them to teach them obedience and self-denial. He teaches parents to instill fear in their children on purpose. Michael Pearl seems to get off on asserting his domination of a much younger, smaller human being:

” A proper spanking leaves children without breath to complain. If he should tell you that the spanking makes him madder, spank him again.”

The Pearls have long pointed to the supposed happiness of their own trained and obedient children as evidence of the efficacy of their methods. However, Michael and Debi have not taken well to being called out by adults whose parents followed this couple’s advice. Earlier this month, Michael became defensive against vocal homeschool graduates such as those of us who post at “Homeschoolers Anonymous” and posted his response at “No Greater Joy”. But even as he blasts those who speak the truth about their experiences, Michael must admit that homeschooling is no panacea:

“Not every homeschool experience will be a great success. Some will be total failures; others will be good but not altogether good. In some cases, out of six children a family may lose one or two to the world, but they will have two or three that are exceptional human beings.”

Alas for a child who turns out to be a less-than-exceptional human being! Pearl chalks such failures up to satan at work and recommends people buy more of his books, just to be safe.

I really should not be surprised to see Debi Pearl defending Bill Gothard and his ministry against what she considers defamation. But I look at her daughters, their body language, and I wonder what stories they could tell and what they would say about their famous parents if they felt completely safe.

It speaks volumes that the Pearls feel compelled to hitch their ministry to Gothard’s falling star.


*Michael Pearl on marriage licenses:

“None of my daughters or their husbands asked the state of Tennessee for permission to marry. They did not yoke themselves to government. It was a personal, private covenant, binding them together forever—until death. So when the sodomites have come to share in the state marriage licenses, which will eventually be the law, James and Shoshanna will not be in league with those perverts. And, while I am on the subject, there will come a time when faithful Christians will either revoke their state marriage licenses and establish an exclusively one man-one woman covenant of marriage, or, they will forfeit the sanctity of their covenant by being unequally yoked together with perverts.”