A Sister, Not a Parent: Sage Lynn’s Story


Pseudonym note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Sage Lynn” is the pseudonym chosen by the author.

I absolutely love being a big sister. In the darkest times of my life, thinking of my siblings kept me going. I would do anything in the world for them, and they know it.

However, my relationship with my siblings is also complicated. 

When, as a kid, I expressed concern that I didn’t get to hang out with kids my own age and wouldn’t know how to do that when I went to college, my mom quickly told me that “if you can get along with your siblings, you can get along with anyone.” Naively believing this, I struggled with the guilt of wishing I had perfect, loving relationships with my siblings (“Making Brothers and Sisters Best Friends,” anyone?) and the reality that we just didn’t get along all the time, even though we loved each other fiercely.

As the oldest of eight siblings—a small family by the standards of the church I grew up in—I grew up with mega responsibility. Early on, I learned that my role was to take care of younger siblings. I babysat, cooked, sewed, cleaned, taught, and filled dozens of other parental roles. My younger siblings would accidentally call me mom, something that landed me in the middle of a fury storm as my mom raged at me for usurping her place before retreating back to her room to try to deal with the depression she refused to seek help for. I was proud that I could run the household.

Luckily, schoolwork was incredibly easy for me (even though the material was comparable to a standard traditional school education), so I managed to get a great education even though my time was full with chores and housework. I would often get installed in the kitchen, doing schoolwork at the table while I watched several of the youngest children so my mom could teach the middle ones. From the age of seven, I took on making breakfast and lunch every day—by the time I was nine, I was making dinner as well. I have a knack for involving kids in whatever activity I happened to be doing, something that was honed in my years at home. Some of my happiest sibling memories involve making meals in the kitchen. My mom never had much patience with them, but I loved nothing better than to find something for them to do and have some company while I worked.

Our bond was not always nurtured under such happy circumstances, though.

My mom had anger issues and could flare up at short notice. My dad’s way of dealing with it was to ignore it, leaving for work early and coming home late. We had an unspoken rule of covering for each other as much as we could. Any animosity we felt was laid aside in the event of an anger outburst.

Walking on eggshells is the best way to describe what our life felt like.

When my mom was fine, our normal sibling arguments and jealousies sprang up. We loved each other, and we also fought; this was when life felt the most normal. When my mom was angry, though, we worked like a well-oiled machine. Each older child took a younger one under their wing, and even the babies seemed to realize they needed to be quiet and keep sweet. We came to look forward to when my mom would leave the house for hours or days on end—although we never knew if she was ok or not, we were able to have fun. We didn’t have to worry that any laughter would be shushed and any argument would incur violent punishment. We’d clean the house, make meals, and care for our younger siblings under and unspoken agreement that delegated certain jobs to each of us. It worked, and it provided the most security and schedule we ever had.

Sure, we were acting more like adults than kids, but we also got to tease each other and come up with goofy rituals that made the chores seem easier. For example, my next older siblings and I often cleaned up dinner together. We split the jobs into three main parts and each took one. While we cleaned, we’d tell jokes, sing songs, have arm wrestling matches, and talk about our days. When my mom was home, however, we were expected to do our work in silence.

It was easier with my younger siblings. I left home for college out of state when they were still fairly young. While it tore my heart apart to leave them, since I was their surrogate mom, it was the best thing for me and them. I still have good relationships with them—I feel more like I’m their aunt than their big sister. When I’m at home, we will do activities, go out to eat, and have fun. My parents have loosened up some with them, and I am no longer afraid of my parents, so things go much better. Even though I still have a lot of anxiety about leaving them and feel more responsibility than most older siblings probably do, I know that I am no longer responsible for them.

I also know that I don’t have to get along with any of my siblings perfectly.

In fact, socialization is an entirely different thing altogether. My older siblings still believe a great deal of the fundamentalist teachings we grew up with, but they are also all still living at home. When I’m at home, I walk the fine line of not disagreeing with my parents’ worldview, principles, and positions in front of my siblings while simultaneously believing that their attitudes are often dangerous and harmful. If I want to continue to interact with my siblings, I have to keep up this balancing act. At the same time, as my siblings get older, I hope that they see me as a safe person who will accept them for whoever they are and whatever they believe.

Gradually, perhaps, they will see that the girls have other options than being wives and mothers, although that is perfectly fine if that is what they truly want. They may see that women and men are inherently equal, and that neither needs to conform to traditional expectations of gender from any source.

I will always love being a big sister. For most of my life, though, I did not know what being a sister meant.

Today, I am truly a sister, not a parent. And I love it. 

Paper Swords: Mahalath’s Story


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

I have one precious little sister. Let’s call her Susannah.

When I was nine, I decided I’d had enough of my parent’s rules, belittling, and humiliations. It was time for a rebellion. In my childish ignorance, I fashioned a sword and shield out of paper to fight them. My isolated little brain convinced me that these were effective weapons. At nine years old, I had no real concept of reality because I’d never seen it.

My little sister Susannah came along and saw what I was doing. Seven at the time, she wanted to help her older sister out. So I made her her own sword and shield, coloring with red markers along the edges of the blade. “That’s blood. So they’ll be afraid of us,” I explained. She nodded solemnly.

Our eight o’clock bedtime was deemed the perfect time for our small coup. When summoned upstairs for our mandated bedtime prayers, we charged up to our bedroom with weaponry at hand. Our parents watched us approach with a sort of bored amusement. But I meant business, and I said so: “This is a revolution! You have to do what we say or we’ll kill you!” Pointing my flimsy sword at their noses, I gave them fearsome glares.

My dear, darling little sister was unfazed by all of this. She ran up to our mother and sat in her lap. “See, Mommy! I have a sword! See all of the blood!”

“Susannah,” I shrieked, “get back here! We’re rebelling!”

Fortunately for us, our parents saw this display as a cute little historical reenactment and laughed it off and put us to bed. Indeed, as I look back on the incident, I find it sort of funny. But I was serious at the time. I was deadly serious.

My sister Susannah was sometimes my greatest enemy, sometimes my only friend.

At times we helped each other survive the isolating, emotionally abusive environment that was our home. Yet at other times we turned on each other, every girl for herself, and used the other as a tool to gain at least a little sanity. But she will always be my sister, and I will always love her.

I whispered her stories at night that I made up myself to help her fall asleep. We created word games and did shadow puppets, always listening for the footsteps at the door so we could duck under the covers and pretend we were asleep.

When our parents demanded confessions for real or imagined offenses, we’d whisper in our room again, this time to decide who would take the fall. Often I would bear the burden as the oldest, but both of us sacrificed months of television and rare social events so that the other would walk free.

When my parents would fight, my sister Susannah would run to me. She would sob and I would rub her back. I’d tell her it was all okay when it all was horribly wrong. When they came with their fake apologies and forced grins, I’d wrap my arms around her and have to be pried off.

I taught her how to sneak food from the fridge when we were hungry and steal answer keys when our mother refused to give us help with our schoolwork. We sneak-watched forbidden TV shows and cracked computer passwords to search the internet. When I got a job and was denied access to my money, I figured out a way to sneak money out. I’d ride to the gas station just outside our subdivision on my bike when my parents were at work and buy sweets. We’d eat them in secret and hide the wrappers. I’d also visit the library box in the next subdivision over and obtain precious books. Books that didn’t have the swear words whited out, books with magic, books with African American protagonists. We’d devour them eagerly and then hide them in a secret drawer.

It wasn’t always smiles and games, however. It was true that we knew each other’s secrets, but they were often used as blackmail material in our spats. That I had read Harry Potter in secret, Susannah had a crush, I was cheating my way through French and she through science: these were often whispered in each other’s ears to get our way. But we never told these secrets, because we knew if one of us let a precious secret out, our own would be forfeit.

It was an endless stalemate.

We were both very good at manipulation. I would threaten her dolls if she didn’t let me copy off her history, she would call me names and poisonous insults for a turn at the forbidden cable show while I kept watch. I remember both of us hitting, damaging possessions, and stealing money from each other at ages when we should have known better. She went through a phase in her teen years where she enjoyed biting me. Later she switched to having me lie down and jumping on my back. I yelled at her, “forgot” to include her in hidden pleasures, and gave her the wrong answers for geography on purpose.

Today we are on good terms. I love her, and have come to a greater knowledge of this since moving across the country for college (and to get away from home). She, in turn, loves me in a sort of distant way. I fear a lot of the good feelings she has toward me are due to the presents I send in copious amounts and the valuable cultural information I pass on. (I can hardly blame her. I had that survival mindset, too!) But she does love me for more than that. I know it.

Many times at night I lie awake and worry. Is she okay? What does she do when our parents are fighting? Does she remember to change the channel to where it previously was before our parents return home? Can she make it through her science course? Will she even get out of there (I barely managed, and it was a huge fight.) ? Someday, will I have to rescue her?

Someday, my dear Susannah will be free. Whether she breaks out on her own or not, she’ll get to taste the real world, and I’m excited for that day. I’ll do whatever it takes to help her. I’m not going to wave paper swords around, but I will let her live with me if she wants, help her find a job, teach her how to make it in the world.

Susannah, if you ever read manage to read this, take heart. It gets better.

This Road I’ve Traveled

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HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Caleigh Royer’s blog, Profligate TruthIt was originally published on January 20, 2013.

For awhile now, I have been wanting to write a background for everything that I am working through… I want to write about myself, and who I really am.

Exactly two years ago, I found out that one of my dearest friends passed away from two brain aneurysms. Not only that, Phil’s guitar mentor passed away, the day before my friend, from ALS. Two days later, my dad kicked me out of the house. All through this time as well, Phil and I were trying to get married and get my dad’s blessing. This time was the climax of many years of hurt, emotional, verbal, and spiritual abuse, and it was the climax of Phil’s and my relationship.  That January of 2011 was a train wreck for both of us, and since then I have been deconstructing my faith, my past, and my broken heart.

I am the oldest of 9, 10 technically, with 3 sisters and 5 brothers. Being the oldest has given me heavy responsibility and has made me “old” before my time. I half jokingly say at times that I am an old soul in a young body. As with many typical Patriarchal and Quiverfull families, I — as the oldest — got the brunt of the house work. I took care of the children, made almost all of the meals, and all while trying to keep up with my school work for homeschool. I love all of my siblings, and I could never imagine life without them, but I will never have that large of a family. I don’t blame my parents, but when there are major issues that screw up the family, a lot of the love and togetherness that a “normal” family experiences ends up greatly lacking.

I don’t ever want to put my children through what I have been through growing up.

My husband Phil and I recently left Covenant Life Church for the purpose of finding a smaller church. But that wasn’t really my only reason for leaving. I needed to get out of an environment that told me that I had to forget and forgive, I had to not say anything negative, nor could I be angry over something that I should be angry about. For years, all of my life in fact, I have tried to block out, tried to forget, purposefully felt nothing (this didn’t really work though) whenever I saw my dad yell at my siblings, manipulate my mom, or whenever he got mad enough and started throwing things or getting in the kids’ faces. Getting kicked out two years ago, after all of the years I was my siblings’ protector to the best of my ability, all of the years that I have helped raise my youngest siblings, or made dinner consistently to feed the 11 mouths in the house, was the pinnacle of tolerance for me. I knew from a very young age that something wasn’t right in my family, and that something wasn’t right with my dad.

As my family bounced around over the years with dad being in the military, we have been in many different churches. And at each church, we would get a verbal beating from my dad on the way to church, but as soon as we pulled up, all of the fake smiles would go up, and the family would act like nothing was wrong. I could never do this. I could never put the fake smile on and pretend that I hadn’t watched my dad throw the breakfast dishes in the sink that morning because someone dared to speak back to him.

I couldn’t stand by and watch my siblings suffer while no one knew what happened behind the doors of my family’s home.

I don’t remember when my parents got introduced to Bill Gothard’s patriarchy ideas, but I have seen this stuff totally mess up my family, myself, and many other families. One of my biggest griefs with his version of patriarchy is that it enables narcissistic, controlling, manipulative, and abusive men to continue their abuse under the name of “God-given authority as the husband and father to rule over the wife and children.” Fathers who are abusive are enabled through this ideology by basically being “God” for their family.

There is no one above them, and they are the ultimate rulers.

God speaks through them, and never to the wife or children. It’s no wonder that I have seen, read, and watched so many children who were raised under this mindest leave the faith because of the hypocrisy they had seen in their dad.

Bill Gothard’s “patriarchy” says that women are simply baby-making machines who bow down to their husband’s rule, and who aren’t allowed to have a voice. “Patriarchy” says that young women are their father’s property and are to be traded to off to the father-chosen men when the times comes.  ”Patriarchy” seems to have this unspoken rule that even if it is a living hell at home, you don’t tell anyone else. “Patriarchy” told me that when I questioned something dad said, with the purpose of understanding better, I was not honoring him, or respecting him. “Patriarchy” said that when I fell in love with Phil, I was being idolatrous, lustful, and that I wasn’t honoring my dad. “Patriarchy” says that when I talk about the pain, the truth, the real life that I have experienced, I am not being forgiving, I am bitter, I am angry.

Well, “patriarchy,” I am angry.

I am angry that there are so many men out there taking advantage of this so called right to hold abuse over their wives and families and not being held accountable for the pain they inflict. Forgiveness is a difficult animal to deal with. It is not a one time deal, nor is it something I am always dealing with, or never dealing with. Writing these things out are just barely touching the surface. These are the truth, and these are not things I am bitter about, nor are these not forgiven. Patriarchy says that once you forgive, you must go on living life as if nothing happened.

I say hell no, and that is never the case in forgiveness.

When I wrote about reading my bible, and I wrote about how difficult it is for me to open my bible without being triggered, I meant that I can’t open my bible without hearing my dad’s hypocrisy, or without hearing the gut wrenching sobs that I had when my dad told me that he didn’t have time for me, that I was a bad influence on my siblings, that he wanted me to leave as soon as possible, and that he had had enough of me. Even though I have done my best to honor my dad, to initiate time and time again daddy-daughters dates so that we could have an actual father daughter relationship, he tossed all of that out when he told me to leave. I can’t open my bible without hearing the verses that have been thrown at me with the means of showing me how my pain is sin. I can’t open my bible without having flashbacks that start bringing on a panic attack. It’s hard enough opening the app on my phone to look up verses when I do make it out the door to church.

I can’t open my bible without feeling guilty of sin I did not commit and remembering the people who felt obligated to tell me about that so called sin.

The more that I have acknowledged the pain that is hidden in my heart, the harder it’s become to go to church, read my bible, sing worship songs, hear certain phrases, or even speak the lingo. Why? Because in all of those things I have been hurt, I have been burned, I have been broken.

I am eager to get to the place where I can once again enjoy all of those, but I am not there yet.

I am still rifling through the ashes trying to find the burning embers that are still burning me. I will, I promise, be able to open my bible again one day, but the promises that comfort so many of you, bring cries of pain and panic attacks for me right now. I find comfort in knowing that my salvation is never in question, and Jesus is always by my side. Through the uncovering of my broken heart, I am finding peace. But it takes a long time. The number of pieces that my heart has been shattered into time and time again makes it even more difficult to make sure that I have each shard back into place. I don’t think I will ever fully heal, but fully healing is not my goal right now.

My goal is to be able to admit to myself that yes, I have been hurt, and yes, it’s okay to cry.

This I believe is the step I need to take right now towards healing.

My story is an uncomfortable one. It sucks, it hurts, it has made me dissolve into a puddle of tears and totally forget entire weeks at a time because the pain is too great. I have learned great tolerance, compassion, and understanding for those who have been where I have been, and still are.

I can weep with those who are weeping, and I cheer the bold and brave who are finding their voice and stepping forth with their story.