The Story of an Ex-Good Girl: Part Eight

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HA Note: The following is reprinted with permission from Exgoodgirl’s blog The Travels and Travails of an Ex-Good Girl. It was originally published on August 19, 2014 and has been slightly modified for HA.

<Part Seven

Trigger Warning: Depictions of physical abuse and gaslighting

Part 8: A Whip for the Horse, a Bridle for the Donkey, and a Rod for the Back of a Child!

From the beginning, my little brother B was a happy-go-lucky troublemaker, more interested in exploring and trying new things than in whatever rules he might be breaking!  Like most small boys, he was often getting into things he shouldn’t, being loud, engaging in rough boy-play, and sometimes careless with the truth.  Nothing too unusual for a small boy (or girl!).  These small misdemeanors brought scoldings from my parents, after which he’d continue on his happy-go-lucky little way.  He wasn’t a bad kid.  He was just a kid.

His personality did not sit well at all with Joe LaQuiere and his philosophy of parenting.  Everyone had the responsibility to be self-controlled and model godly behavior at all times, he said, and children were absolutely no exception.  The reason everyone around Mr. LaQuiere had bad results (bad children) while his were good was that he recognized that it was a misconception that children needed to act and be treated as children.  They should absolutely not be held to a lower standard than anyone else – that was insulting them and their Creator.

They were subject to the same expectations as adults.

And if they violated the rules, stern discipline was the key to correcting the problem.  “As the twig is bent, so grows the tree”, said Mr. LaQuiere.  If you want to correct the wrong bent in a twig, you must exert as much force as necessary to force it to stay in a straight position and maintain that force until the new position becomes permanent.  Children are malleable.  If they are expected to act like adults, they will learn to act like adults.  They will rise to the level of expectation placed on them – and if they don’t, it is the responsibility of their parents to forcibly hold them to those expectations.

From the first, Joe LaQuiere zeroed in on my brother B as a “bad seed” in need of a strong hand of correction.  He didn’t like his attitude, his carelessness about rules, his little-boy jokes, or his tendency to be found in the middle of any mischief.  These were all characteristics of a fool, he said.  Mr. LaQuiere despised anyone who was a fool.

Because B was a fool, Joe decided he needed to make an example of him whenever possible, to teach him (and the rest of us watching) a lesson about how God feels about fools.  This started when B was five years old.

One of the character flaws Mr. LaQuiere hated most in B was a tendency to lie to avoid getting in trouble.  As B was always getting scolded for getting into mischief, he’d often lie about things to avoid being punished for his little crimes.  Mr. LaQuiere decided this was one thing he would not stand for, and he intended to stamp it out quickly and forcibly. He informed everyone in the group that my brother B was “a liar”, and nothing he said was to be trusted at any time.  Unless there was independent verification from someone else “trustworthy”, any statement B made was jumped on and accused of being a lie.  Mr. LaQuiere encouraged all the men in the group to join in on “helping” to correct B in this way.  One time, the husband of my mom’s best friend, Mr. W, decided he would give B an object lesson.  He pointed to a green ball on the grass and asked him, “What color is that ball?”  B said it was green.  Then this man turned to me, and asked me, “What color is that ball?  Tell me it’s yellow.”  I didn’t know what to do, but I knew I had to respect and obey all adults, so I squirmed a little, and said it was yellow.  He turned to B and said, “See?  You’re a liar.  I trust your sister because she tells the truth.  You…you’re a liar.  It doesn’t matter what you say: everything you say is a lie.”  That scene impressed itself deeply on my memory and my conscience.  It was just one of many conflicts that raged in my heart from then on.

I knew B hadn’t lied, but I was told that adults were infallible, not-to-be-questioned, and God’s direct representatives to us.  How does a child reconcile those two things?

Punishments (though they were never called that–Mr. LaQuiere made it clear that this was “discipline”, never punishment) were many and varied.  B was often made to stand in the middle of the floor for some misdemeanor or other, and stay there all day, missing meals, until Mr. LaQuiere said he could move.  He wouldn’t be allowed to work with the other boys and men (“that is reserved for boys with good character who we can trust”) and was made to help Mrs. LaQuiere with laundry and other “women chores” as a mark of shame.  He had all privileges revoked, even the privilege of speaking sometimes, or having anyone speak to him for days at a time.  He was “tomato-staked”, which meant he was to be within twelve inches of Mr. LaQuiere or my dad at all times, and not allowed to interact with anyone, because he “couldn’t be trusted” out of their sight.  But those were the mild punishments.

“The rod is for the back of a fool,” Mr. LaQuiere would say, and he didn’t mean it figuratively.  In the bottom drawer of a tall chiffonier in his living-room he kept The Paddle.  About 2 1/2 feet long, and 1/4 inch thick, the Paddle was made of wood and had finger-grips carved into it, to make spanking easier for Mr. LaQuiere.  It was an instrument of fear to all of us and used to “correct” children for anything from minor rule infractions to major “sins of rebellion”.  The offending child would be sent to fetch their own instrument of punishment and bring it back to Mr. LaQuiere.

In our own homes, our parents would inflict corporal punishment: in Mr. LaQuiere’s home, he always carried it out personally, no matter whose child it was.

B was sent to get the Paddle more than any other child in our group.

Being “paddled” involved telling the child to bend over and hold his ankles.  They were not to let go under any circumstances until Mr. LaQuiere finished the punishment and said they could move.  They were also only allowed to cry silently, or as silently as possible.  Wails or screams were punished with further beating.  Any infraction of the rules resulted in starting the punishment over again.  The minimum number of “paddles” was 5, but that was reserved for extremely minor infractions, or for very young children, maybe 3 – 5 years old.  For most of us, the average beginning number was 10, but this was quickly increased for any breaking of form while being paddled: if you let go of your ankles, Mr. LaQuiere started counting again from the beginning.  If you put your hands behind you and they got hit with the Paddle, Mr. LaQuiere started again from the beginning.  If you cried loudly, he started over.  If your crying sounded angry, he started over, and sometimes tacked on extra paddles for showing “rebellion”.  It was common for my brother B to be struck upwards of 20 times during one “paddling”.

Each “paddle” was accomplished by Mr. LaQuiere taking a full-bodied swing and hitting the exposed rear end of the child with the full force of an adult male (this was modified for the small children, but it still hurt good and proper, as it was intended to).

For the children that were considered “good”, like me, spankings were rarely experienced first-hand.  Instead, Mr. LaQuiere told my parents that I was a child “who learned best by watching”.  Meaning that I wasn’t actually committing offenses deserving of being spanked, but I was forced to watch all my siblings and friends get spanked, because that would teach me to be “afraid of sinning” and I would be even less likely to sin myself.  I was forced to watch a lot of these spanking as a young child.

What made it the most traumatic for me, even more than seeing my terrified brother or cousins being hurt, their wide eyes streaming tears as they fought to hold back the cries that would earn them further punishment, was the fact that Joe LaQuiere treated it like it was funny.

He would smile, laugh, and even joke with the other adults while he was carrying out these beatings.  This was to show that he wasn’t punishing “in anger”, but out of love and genuine care for us.

Once when I was 9 or 10, during a public “paddling” of my brother B, I ran into the dark front room and hid under the piano, my tears mixing with my panic.  I sat there in the dark, hugging my knees, until Mr. LaQuiere’s oldest daughter came and found me and coaxed me out, telling me “everything was fine”, and “there was nothing to be sad about”.  I dried my tears and went with her, but the fear remained.  Maybe these kinds of experiences – watching my siblings be hurt by other adults while my parents watched and joined in laughter – are why I can’t remember ever being afraid.

I live with fear every day of my life since then, and it took me well over a decade after we left to realize that it is really not normal for a child to live life in constant fear.

The thought of how I’d feel if my own children were forced to endure or watch the things I was made to, makes me want to vomit.

When my brother B was 10, he developed a nervous tic – an involuntary twitch in his eye. I’m personally surprised it didn’t start sooner. It started off happening every time an adult made eye contact with him but increased until it was nearly a constant thing.  It was nearly impossible for him to look anyone in the eye.  To correct this “misbehavior”, Mr. LaQuiere told my parents to put rubber bands on his wrist, and snap him every time he did it.  His wrists were red from then on; even so, it was a long time before he could learn to control the eye twitching.

“Paddlings” were not the only punishments my brother B endured.  As he got older, it seemed like any and every expression of anger, contempt, disgust and violence was fair game.  The most violent of the treatment took place during the times we were working construction with the rest of the families.  My memories of this time are somewhat hazy, maybe because my subconscious is protecting me, but I easily recall him being called “lazy” “foolish” “ignoble” “idiot” “knucklehead” “stupid”, and other names — not by other children, but by the adults.  In addition to the regular beatings he received in public, or behind closed doors in Mr. LaQuiere’s home office, he was often dragged places by his hair.  He was thrown against walls.  He was held up against the wall by his throat, high enough that his feet dangled off the ground.  These things were mostly done by Mr. LaQuiere and the other men in the group, but eventually they were also done by my father in the privacy of our own home, as he fought to control an increasingly-troubled B who was getting older and older, and still a “problem” to his authorities.

Other children were considered “hardened” and “problem children”, but none received as much time and attention at the hands of Joe LaQuiere as my brother.

B was targeted for verbal, emotional and physical abuse from the age of 5 until we left the group when he was 13 (though the pattern continued at home for many years after that).

Years later, my dad would express regret over this treatment of B, but his most recent comments on the situation to me were that “he doesn’t have much sympathy for B and J, because they weren’t ‘innocent’, and also, it’s hard to feel too bad for them when they’ve gone on to make bad life choices as young adults”.

I’d like to ask my dad why he considers my brothers “not innocent” for acting like children, but seems to carry no lasting guilt for himself for letting other full-grown men physically abuse his sons and joining in on it himself.

I’d like to ask him how he can see the devastation and depression in my brother B that followed and that has plagued him through his adult years, and not feel responsible.  How he can’t see the link between the abuse and the high level of control they grew up under and their tendency to make “bad choices” later on.

But I also feel guilt myself.  Guilt that I didn’t stand up for my brother.  That I didn’t tell somebody who could have stopped it, though we were strongly ingrained with fear of Child Protective Services, and heard horror stories of older children who “informed” on their parents, and had CPS come snatch all the children away.

So calling CPS would never have entered my mind as a possibility, even if I hadn’t been too afraid to take action.  Though my adult logic can admit that I couldn’t have done much, if anything, to stop the abuse, I still feel guilt and grief over what was done to my brothers, and my own inability to stop it.

Part Nine>

photo credit: Joel Dinda via photopin cc

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.