Bill Gothard Explains Road Safety (aka How Not to Get Raped)

CC image courtesy of Flickr, Mik Scheper.

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

Do you remember when that Saudi historian said that western women drive because they don’t mind getting raped? He used the danger that occurs when a woman’s car breaks down, leaving her open to sexual assault by any passerby, as a rationale for maintaining the Saudi ban on women driving. Well. Watch as this road safety module produced by Bill Gothard’s Advanced Training Institute (a program for fundamentalist homeschoolers) takes a weird turn.

(I was sent this module via Wende Benner of Homeschoolers Anonymous. You can read her story here. She filled out this module herself while attending Gothard’s EXCEL training program for girls.)

ATI Road Safety 01

The module is titled “Road Safety: Survival Road Skills And Wise Responses to Danger.” Since the responses to danger bit falls under the road safety heading, we can assume it’s about things like changing a tire safely, or knowing how to drive around a car that isn’t signaling or staying in its lane, yes?

ATI Road Safety 02

I actually would have found this page very helpful when I was a teen. If I’d read the bit about warning lights and overheating, I might not have totaled my mom’s car as a teen by melting her engine. (Seriously, this is one memory I’d really like to forget!) On the other hand, filling out a sheet like this does exactly squat to tell you where to put the brake fluid, or where the best jack points are, etc. So there’s that.

ATI Road Safety 03

Hang on, are these meant to be the warning lights? Because if so, my experience suggests that different cars have different warning lights. In fact, we recently got a new (to us) car, and I’ve found that the manual is my friend because when the warning lights come on I have absolutely no idea what they mean, because they look totally different from my other car.

ATI Road Safety 04

That last chart bit would be more helpful on a small notepad in the glove compartment, because I’m pretty sure most people aren’t going to be stuffing this entire module in there. But maybe it’s just meant to give the student experience with how these numbers should be written down?

ATI Road Safety 05

This is actually fairly comprehensive. Most people probably don’t pray before a trip, but mine always did, so it doesn’t seem weird to me. And the list of things to bring (and do before leaving) is quite thorough.

ATI Road Safety 06

While not getting to close to the car in front of you is important, one car length per 10 miles per hour isn’t going to serve you well when driving in congested cities. People will keep pulling into your lane in front of you, and then you’ll have to slow down to increase the distance. Also, the “what to do if there’s an accident” section says not to leave until an officer dismisses you, but it doesn’t say to call the police in the first place, which makes it feel slightly disjointed.

Of course, I’m just nit-picking here. We’re six pages into the module, and it’s mostly pretty standard stuff. Remember that these modules are designed for homeschooled students, many of whom (myself included) will never take driver’s ed, so it’s good that they’ll get any information at all, although obviously this module would be best accompanied with some hands-on training.

But let’s look at what comes next.

ATI Road Safety 07

Yes, we’re still in the same “Road Safety” module! All we did was turn a page, and hey, would you look at that? Suddenly it’s all about responding to attackers . . . because it’s totes common for women to be assaulted while driving.

What “provokes” an attack, according to Gothard? How you dress and the sort of friends you chose. Lovely. Just lovely. Hello, slut shaming and victim blaming! And what should you do if you are attacked? Well, resist, of course, but also present the gospel and pray for your attacker. Because converting a man who is trying to rape you while fending him off to protect your virginity is pretty much the epitome of godliness.

This goes on for six full pages. Yes, you read that right—a full half of Gothard’s “Road Safety” module deals with what to do if you are attacked or assaulted while driving somewhere, because if you are a woman, leaving your father’s house is dangerous dangerous dangerous!

ATI Road Safety 08

Yes, you read those first sentences correctly: “God has established some very strict guidelines of responsibility for a woman who is attacked. She is to cry out for help. The victim who fails to do this is equally guilty with the attacker.” Yes, really. A victim of sexual assault who does not cry out—who remains silent for whatever reason—is equally guilty with her attacker.

Think for a moment about the Duggar girls. They did not cry out for help when they were sexually assaulted by their older brother. How might studying from a module like this (and remember that the family centered their curriculum and Bible study on Gothard materials) affect one of them, or anyone else who has ever been sexually assaulted but kept silent? Remember that it is very common for a victim of child sexual abuse not to cry out, because they are first groomed to ensure that they won’t.
ATI Road Safety 09

Okay, first of all, let’s be clear that “morally attack” means sexual assault. And second, let’s be clear that in the story presented on this page, the “I hope I got here in time” and “Sir, you did, you just barely did” exchange means the girl’s virginity was still intact, which is of course what really matters to Gothard. But the thing is, she was still sexually assaulted. She is still going to have to work through the trauma of that. And I actually get the feeling that Gothard isn’t aware of that. It’s like the fact that her hymen is still intact means no harm was done. Except that that’s not how it works.

But you know what I really want to know? How the blazes Gothard thinks this one example is evidence that it’s always safer for a woman to cry out when being assaulted than it is for her to remain silent. Look, this is going to vary! In some situations, screaming may alert someone that you need help or scare away the attacker. In other cases, screaming may just make the attacker become more violent. In some situations, a woman may be so shocked by what is happening (especially when the perpetrator is a friend or significant other) that she is stunned into silence. There is no one correct way to respond to being sexually assaulted, and saying there is will only lead victims to blame themselves more than they already do.

Of course, what really matters to Gothard is that if a victim of sexual assault does not scream for help, she violates scripture. It’s not really about what’s most affective, it’s about what the Bible says. But of course, now that he has said the Bible mandates it, he is going to explain that it is in fact effective by offering five more anecdotes (none of which involve rape or sexual assault, I might add).

ATI Road Safety 10

Here are two anecdotes in which crying out to Jesus caused attackers to reconsider! Clearly this means it always works! If you try it and it doesn’t work, you must not have enough faith! /sarcasm

Actually, wait a minute. That second example might not even have been an attack. Perhaps the “strange man” who approached the woman was just going to ask for directions, and when she began shouting to God to save her from him, he backed up with raised eyebrows like anyone else would do in that situation.

ATI Road Safety 11

Here are two more examples of cases where witnessing to an attacker caused the attacker to repent and apologize. Ignore the fact that neither of these cases involved sexual assault, because that totally doesn’t matter. If you have enough faith, witnessing to your rapist while he’s raping you will totally make him stop. /sarcasm

That bit about having enough faith that I keep repeating? That’s not in the text, but it’s sure as hell implied. If you’re “godly” enough, God will save you from being raped . . . and thus it follows that if you’re not saved from being raped you must not be godly enough. This is not a good message to be giving teenage girls, especially homeschooled teenage girls who almost certainly will not receive more accurate information elsewhere!

ATI Road Safety 12

And then we’ll add one more anecdote for good measure. In case you haven’t noticed, Gothard is really big on anecdotes. His textbooks are absolutely chock full of them, from cover to cover.

I do want to note that none of these last five examples actually deals with rape. Only the first example—the girl in the alleyway—had to do with sexual assault. Granted, getting robbed or mugged or held at gunpoint is pretty bad, but encouraging teenage girls (the main target of this workbook) who are sexually assaulted to witness to their attacker somehow seems worse than encouraging them to witness to an attacker who is asking them to hand over whatever cash they have on them.

So, let’s see. Out of twelve pages of Gothard’s “Road Safety” module, six are about car maintenance and contingencies and six are about what to do if you’re sexually assaulted while out driving.

You can probably see, now, why I drew a connection between this and the Saudi historian’s opposition to women driving, because their car might break down and they might be raped at the side of the road. Gothard is positioning driving as something that is fundamentally dangerous for a woman. While it is true that women face a greater risk of sexual assault than men, women are far more likely to be sexually assaulted by someone they know than by a stranger at the side of the road. Portraying driving as fundamentally dangerous for a woman may discourage girls who take this module from achieving the independence that comes with the mobility driving offers.

Created to be His Doormat: Wende Benner’s Story

CC image courtesy of Flickr, Ryan Hyde.

By Wende Benner, HA Editorial Team

My lightbulb moment began at the age of sixteen. My family was a part of Bill Gothard’s Advanced Training Institute (ATI) homeschool program. This was the year my father received the call inviting me to live and work at a training center and to also be a part of a brand new training program especially for girls, EXCEL (Excellence in Character, Education, and Leadership). Every ATI teenager knew that receiving a personal invitation to work and participate in an Institute event meant that someone important had seen the light in your eyes and recognized your devotion to God. I was thrilled to be thought worthy to help prepare the newly acquired Ambassador Hotel in Dallas, TX for the first class of EXCEL girls and to also be able to participate in this groundbreaking program.

Once I arrived at the beautiful, historic Ambassador Hotel I worked long, hard hours with little sleep preparing for hundreds of girls to arrive. We were to spend eight weeks learning how to be godly women. Since this was a brand new program, I was unsure of what subjects we would be covering until I received my giant, white binder. Some of the things we were going to learn were the womanly arts of sewing, dressing, hospitality, courtship, and submission. But the most exciting thing to me was the discovery that Elisabeth Elliot would be coming to speak with us. Mrs. Elliot was a bit of a hero of mine. She was a woman who God used through writing and speaking to reach others. And she would be talking to us about how to write, something I dreamed of doing one day. Her sessions with us were scheduled for the second week of EXCEL, and I couldn’t wait.

Our sessions began with learning about God’s design for us as women. God created us to be wives and mothers that raised the next generation for God. Then we moved to all the ways that we could mess up God’s plan for us.

There were so many sins women were prone to falling into it seemed, and just one of them could not only destroy our lives but the lives of our husband and children.

Things such as having expectations from life or loved ones only led us to be contentious and ungrateful. This of course could destroy a family or lead to something even worse- bitterness. Bitterness would give Satan a piece of our soul and was even known to be the cause of certain illnesses (like arthritis) and depression. We finished the week of sessions by concentrating on how wrong priorities could destroy our lives. But first we needed to understand God’s priorities for women were a relationship with him first, then to put the needs of our husband’s second, and the needs of our children came next.

These sessions made it clear to us God’s only purpose for women was marriage and children (as many children as possible).

If we had any other desires or dreams we were sinning.

Of course these weren’t exactly new ideas for someone who had been in ATI for a while, but hearing these things everyday with verses to back them up started to take a toll. From the time we got up at 5:30 in the morning till we went to bed at 9:30 we only studied verses instructing women on how to be godly wives and mothers. That with the added knowledge that my parents had never once disagreed with anything said through Gothard or ATI began to make me feel as if my future was already decided for me, and it was a future that had never really been a part of my dreams or even what I felt had been God’s calling for my life. It was a future where my desires and thoughts were never to be considered, a future where subservience not partnership was required.

I felt trapped.

And then I felt shame and guilt. I felt I was so selfish to have other dreams and to not want what God’s design and purpose for me.

The point of this first week of sessions was to help us understand the purpose of EXCEL and what we were there to learn. Now, we were going to begin “practical” training to help us meet these goals. And we were all excited that Elisabeth Elliot would be the one to start this part of our training. Learning about writing and ministry from one of the most respected Christian women of our time was something I knew would be useful. It was something that could even help me reach the goals and dreams I felt God had given me.

Mrs. Elliot first informed us that she only taught under the authority of the Institute leaders and of her husband, Lars. In fact, Lars stood to the side or in the back of the room every session to show her submission to authority. Then she spoke about loneliness and suffering. She told us that just as Jesus had suffered and died, we were called to suffering and to die “little deaths” by sacrificing ourselves for others. This was especially true in marriage she told us; we are “married but alone”. “It is the mercy of God that gives us the chance to die”, and for women this chance comes through marriage.

The picture of marriage Mrs. Elliot painted was one of loneliness and loss-a place where women were created “gloriously unequal” to men.

In fact, she informed us that equality was a political construct, but women were created to be “lesser than” men in order to symbolize the mystery of Christ and the church. The only way to be “truly womanly” was to “surrender” to Christ and our husbands. With that final pronouncement Mrs. Elliot handed out a page of helpful hints on writing and asked if we had any questions about her talks.

A few girls asked questions about specific situations in their homes. How does submission look when parents are quite possibly being abusive or even asking one to do something wrong? With each question Mrs. Elliot seemed to become more and more impatient. She reiterated the fact that God called us to submit and surrender. There were no exceptions. I became increasingly uneasy. Then, a very brave girl raised her hand and asked a question that is burned into my memory. In an almost challenging tone she said, “Mrs. Elliot, are you saying that God made women to be doormats?”
There was silence for a few moments. You could tell everyone was waiting to hear how she would respond to the confrontation.

Mrs. Elliot then replied, “Well, I have always said since God made me to be a doormat, I will be the best doormat I can be.”

I didn’t hear anything else that happened that night. I was too stunned. Never had I heard my role in life put that plainly. This world I was growing up in believed women were created to be doormats. Something within me rose up in protest.

I was not created to be a doormat, to be walked over, ignored, abused, and used.

My life was meant for much more than this. I knew in that moment their whole paradigm of how the world interacted and related was fundamentally flawed. Everything from now on must be questioned for truth.

It has been a long journey of unraveling the lies and truth since that moment. In many ways I have needed to tear everything down and rebuild my beliefs and views of life over again. But, every moment of hard work has been worth the freedom of knowing it is acceptable for me to be my own person, to have my own thoughts and desires, and to know I do not have to sacrifice my whole self in order to love my family.

*****

“A kind of light spread out from her. And everything changed color. And the world opened out. And a day was good to awaken to. And there were no limits to anything. And the people of the world were good and handsome. And I was not afraid any more.” ~John Steinbeck, East of Eden

We’ve called these stories, “light-bulb moments”. They are stories of awakening….spiritual, emotional, and deeply personal. We were, every one of us, to some extent or another, asleep, in the dark, and complacent. Then, something happened to wake us up, turn on the light, stir our souls. Some incongruency that didn’t fit our boxes. We discovered a world far bigger and better than we’d imagined. People that were multi-dimensional and complex. Thoughts and feelings within us we didn’t know were there before or maybe we did and they scared us. We got angry, we grieved, we ranted to each other about how we were lied to, how we were sometimes complicit in our own darkness, choosing what was safe over what was true. Some of us walked a harder road than others, but we all walked them. We all, in one way or another, realized the world was open to us, in full color, and that, contrary to what we had been told, it was very good. And there are now no limits to anything. These are our stories. Glimpses into our awakenings. I’m sure we’ll have many more before we walk our last path.- Darcy Anne, HA Editorial Team

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. 

Memories of EXCEL: Holly’s Story, Part One

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HA notes: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Holly” is a pseudonym.

I did not want to go.

That is the first thing I remember about EXCEL, The Advanced Training Institute (ATI)’s eight-week program for teenage girls and young women, which stood for Excellence in Character, Education, and Leadership. My parents had sent me to ATI’s Indianapolis Training Center for a ten-day counseling seminar a little over a year before I went to EXCEL.

I didn’t want to go there, either, but I told myself that if I were very good maybe they would leave me alone and not make me go anywhere else.

The next fall, my dad asked me if I wanted to go to EXCEL. I remember that it was a gray fall day, around this time of year, and he took me for a walk. I made the mistake, as I often did up to that point, of thinking that I had a choice in my own life, and so I told him I did not want to go. He pressed the issue, telling me all the good things he knew about the program and how it would teach me to be a young lady. I remember that we ended the conversation with him promising never to force me to go, and with me agreeing to “think about it.”

I knew I would never change my mind.

During that winter, friends of ours also in ATI hosted a mother-daughter luncheon at which two attendees of a recent EXCEL (I believe it was EXCEL II) were to be the guests of honor. To my dismay, the luncheon turned out to be a hard sell for the program, and my mother seemed intent on sending me. What was happening?

From that point on, my dad didn’t listen either. Mom wanted me to go, so he broke his promise.

They took money out of my college fund for the program and the plane ticket.

I began the process of filling out the application, with its numerous essays and commitments. I don’t remember the exact number of commitments I was expected to make, or what all of them were, but I had definitely not made any of them. One of them was to not listen to rock music, one was to remain morally pure, one was to dress modestly, and the others were similarly legalistic and restrictive. I remember trying to decide whether to honestly fill out the application saying that I had not made the commitments, or to lie. I decided it was wrong to force myself to make a serious lifelong commitment, but it was also wrong to set myself up to be made into a project either at EXCEL or at home. I filled out the forms as if I had made the commitments, deciding that it wasn’t so much a lie as it was a creative work of self-protective fiction.

The following winter, in the mid-1990s, I arrived at the Dallas Training Center, an historic hotel converted for the EXCEL program. Even though two of my friends from home were there as well, we were not allowed to room together. I had everything I expected to need for eight weeks, including toiletries, in two bags. During the evening’s orientation to the facility, the facility leaders explained our daily routine: early wake up (around six am, I think), get ready for the day, Bible study with our team, breakfast, class, a short break, another class, lunch, break, class, exercise in the park across the street, change for dinner, class, free time, and bed. Even though we were 15 years-old and up, we were not allowed to leave the property except to go as a group, escorted by staff, to walk in the park across the street once daily.

If any of us needed anything from the store, we were to ask training center staff to get it for us. We were not allowed to have food in our rooms. If we were hungry, we would be fed at the next meal, except on Sundays, when we fasted.

During our breaks and free times, we were expected to coordinate room cleaning with our roommate, as our rooms would be inspected daily. We were also expected to study for weekly tests on class material, memorize daily Bible passages, coordinate laundry with our roommates on our assigned day of the week, and find time to call our parents. We were never to be even one second late for any class or team meeting, or we would be disciplined.

I was overwhelmed. It wasn’t just the hotel that felt claustrophobic. It was my life.

The classes focused on etiquette and women’s submission instead of real academics. We even had a sewing class for several weeks, at which I was a miserable failure. Apparently good ATI girls were expected to have basic sewing skills, because the class did not start at “this is a sewing machine.” All of us had to make brocade vests to wear at our graduation ceremony. Since I could not sew and could not be taught, the instructor and my friend, an advanced seamstress, surreptitiously sewed mine. At home I was used to being allowed to read literature, science and history books, in addition to the ATI Wisdom Booklets.

Being at EXCEL made me doubt my future.

Were my parents trying to mold me into a cooking, cleaning, sewing, babymaking young wife? I wasn’t ready for that. I wasn’t even sure I wanted that.

Fasting on Sundays was a spiritual discipline, but I can’t help thinking that it may have also been a financial consideration. Walking to church was, however, a practical consideration. The training center didn’t have enough vehicles to drive 80-some girls and additional staff to church, so we walked a little over a mile each way to First Baptist Church.

On one of the first Sundays I fainted during church, which shouldn’t have been surprising, since I was obviously underweight and just as obviously suffering from an eating disorder.

From then on, I was allotted four Nutri-Grain bars every Sunday, along with the other girls who had health problems or who had also fainted on a Sunday. As much as I generally enjoyed a chance to lose more weight, I was thankful for those meager Nutri-Grain bars. The hunger I felt at EXCEL overpowered my desire for control over food.

My survival technique of being perfect worked well for me while I was at EXCEL. I never got in trouble for being late, forgetting to wear pantyhose, or failing to memorize the Bible passages. I did the laundry and cleaning for myself and for my roommate, who took advantage of my fear of failure. By graduation I was exhausted and had learned nothing except how to stay in line. On the one hand, I saw through the foolishness of the system. I never bought in to the ATI school of thought. On the other hand, the stress of pretending to agree with the program and of managing my behavior was taking a heavy toll on me. I was tired and needed a break.

When I got home, the expectation among family and friends was that I would be spiritually mature and more ladylike. Instead, I was withdrawn, exhausted, thinner, broken. I don’t remember exactly how it happened or what the details were, but I spent a lot of time in bed crying for the next few weeks. My parents referred to this as my “breakdown.”

After that, I never did another Wisdom Booklet. I don’t remember what was said, but I couldn’t do it. Within the next eighteen months I had finished homeschooling through high school and my family had left ATI. I was free.

I have never gotten free, however, from the memory of what ATI expected me to be.

Part Two >

Life With A Gay Husband: Rachel’s Story

Life With A Gay Husband: Rachel’s Story

"I realized there was no way to fix this. He couldn't be who he was with me, and it wasn't fair to either of us to stay together."
“I realized there was no way to fix this. He couldn’t be who he was with me, and it wasn’t fair to either of us to stay together.”

I grew up as the oldest of ten children. My parents were a part of ATI and the Quiverfull movement. My father was very controlling and my mother was neglectful and withdrew herself. We had to ask my father to go anywhere. He would say to clean something or weed the garden first and then he would say no many times.

I was the “second mom” the one who listened to what my dad said and took care of the house, the other kids, stayed home as a highschooler to cook dinner while the younger kids got to play sports. I had a really good guy friend who was the oldest of ten children himself and also played the violin. We used to write to each other all the time until the letters just stopped. This guy, Jacob, would give me butterflies and make my hands sweaty and I would dream of being with him. My mom came to me and said that we were the oldest kids, so a relationship would just not work. I was confused what she meant. But, I continued to “wait” for him.

Then, at the age of 19, I went to EXCEL, which I paid for by babysitting. There, I sought God each day and somehow ended up with the exact opposite beliefs as I was taught. There, I cut my long hair, stopped wearing skirts all the time, stopped arguing with everyone, decided I needed to go to college to become a nurse and I decided I was done with waiting for Jacob. I came home and signed up to start classes. I also looked for a job, which I got in a deli.

My parents were supportive until I actually started classes and then it was, “Rachel, come home and watch the kids,” and, “Rachel, come and take the kids to their games.”  I, being a girl who did give everything to god and believing I had to obey my dad, would, but this jeopardized my grades. Here I am, a girl who has no understanding of any of my classes (all I knew how to do was read really well and basic math; I didn’t even know how to write a paper), looks very strange in mostly skirts, and thinking about sex all the time.

Then Ben entered my life.

A friend of mine told me of a homeschool debate site. I decided to join and decided to have a “gender neutral” name of “His child.” There was a guy there who wanted someone to do a bible study with him. I knew instantly that he was suicidal and I had to do it. So, I led a bible study and he eventually started asking me questions about myself.

We talked for an entire year before he decided to come to WA state to work at a camp and meet me. His parents tried to prevent him, since they ran a camp themselves, but then they found out the reason was there was a girl there and they excitedly let him go. He got me a job there as a store manager. I worked it out with my deli manager so that I could do it for the summer, but my father put his foot down and refused to let me do it. I had told him about Ben several months before which made him pretty upset. He unplugged the internet many times so I couldn’t talk to him.

I obeyed my father and did not go to camp. I picked him up at the airport with my parents and a very talkative me. But he was lost for words. The poor guy was so nervous and just grunted all the time. My father and I dropped him off at camp and my dad said, “Oh, you should exchange numbers.”  We hadn’t even talked to each other on the phone at this point. We started to have phone calls during which I talked a lot and he said nothing.

I saw him again during that summer when he had a weekend break. He played with my siblings and this is when I knew that I would marry him. He had already told me I was the girl for him before I met him. I thought he was smoking hot and very excited that a guy this attractive would be interested in me. I was sad to see him go home on the final meeting when we dropped him off at the airport.

My father, realizing that I liked this guy, put a lot of pressure on me to get him to ask permission to court me. So, I did and Ben called up my dad and asked his permission to court. I got in front of our church and announced with my father that I was courting, which in my group of people meant we were getting married. We continued talking on the phone (which was awkward for us cause he barely talked) and mostly talking online.

Six months later, he flew to see me again. We were ready to hold hands and cuddle which freaked out my parents. My father gave him 50 questions to answer by hand and said we could not talk until it was finished. I was supposed to go and work at his family’s camp as a cook for that summer. This was his reaction to that. Instead, I threw myself into working 80 hours a week. Eventually, he finished the questions over that summer. I decided I should do nursing down in Mississippi because I could take a test and get into the program. (I struggled a lot with school because my father was constantly trying to get me to come home and babysit my siblings or take them to practice and I was balancing working full time and taking classes for which I had zero knowledge, so my grades weren’t that good). Extra bonus was that I was two hours away from him.

Our plan was that I would stay there six months and we would get married and I would go to nursing school on the same campus as his seminary. We spent a few hours together in person every other weekend or so.

Finally, it came to the wedding.

Our first kiss was at the wedding alter. Bad idea… I had no idea how awkward that would be and how it just felt…wrong, like it was meant to be shared in private. Then of course, to go further, my husband was incredibly scared and nervous. I thought the bride was supposed to be the nervous one!

It puzzled me why he seemed never to want to have sex. I thought this would be a phase, but it wasn’t. This went on for years — in fact, our entire marriage.

I had always heard that men liked a woman’s body, that it turned them on. I tried that.

It didn’t work.

We talked about this and both came to the conclusion that it was cause he was a lifeguard for years and was just used to seeing almost naked bodies. He always seemed depressed about everything. He would withdraw and not talk to me or even seem to want to be around me. This would frustrate me but I was busy with work and school. I just gave him space and hoped he would show interest in me. I worked hard to try to please him and to try to motivate him. But, he always seemed unhappy, no matter what we tried.

I put my energy in trying to become pregnant. (Believe me, that took a lot of work!). We had our child and I — doing what every other mother I knew did — stayed home with him. Our problems became stronger since now I had nothing to distract me, no school or work. We were trying to become missionaries. He got ordained and we were in the application process. I was highly involved at our church.

He seemed to withdraw yet again, like he didn’t want to do it.

I had been talking to my best friend who had just come out to me. She described how she felt — in a marriage with a man — being gay herself. I asked a lot of questions and realized she sounded exactly like my husband! I approached him and asked him if he was attracted to men. He said he was but tried not to think about it.

Everything made sense!

He was repressing who he was, which was causing the depression and the withdrawing. This is why nothing seemed to work or motivate him. We continued on, wondering what we should do next. He had already been having issues with god for years but also tried to ignore that as well. I began to question the bible as well. If it is wrong about homosexuality, what else is wrong with it?

I realized it was incredibly cruel to expect a homosexual person to either be single or to be in a relationship with someone of the opposite sex. I know what that is like. This led to a spiraling amount of questions which I could not find answers to. I guess this was important to me being able to leave the marriage — and then divorce.

A couple months later, I realized there was no way to fix this. He couldn’t be who he was with me, and it wasn’t fair to either of us to stay together. So, the next six months, we made plans to separate and help each other be financially stable.

We are still friends, share custody of our son and live about a mile and a half apart.