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. 

Nightmare in Navy and White — Experiencing the Dark Side of ATI: Selena’s Story, Part Three

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Nightmare in Navy and White — Experiencing the Dark Side of ATI: Selena’s Story

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

Part Two

Part Three: The Hard Road Ahead

For the first few months, I was a recluse, constantly in my room obsessively praying for God to cleanse me, to forgive me, to surround me with protection from this terrifying world I was thrown into. I was surrounded by a world I had had nothing to do with for these years. I suddenly had freedoms I didn’t know how to handle. I had spent all this time with my every move planned, with every trip to the bathroom a privilege, every little thing a potential reason for shame and punishment. Now the shock was too great.

Eventually, I became suicidal.

I felt I was a failure, I would never be pure. I attempted suicide and my mother sent me to a mental hospital as a last resort. As she had drifted away from ATI’s teachings somewhat, she regained trust in getting medical and psychological help when necessary. Unfortunately, still feeling like the inferior, patriarch-less mother, she leaned on these figures to solve all of our problems and refused to just be a mother to us, unable to handle the responsibility.

At times she would instruct me on what to say when she dropped me off at the mental hospital so that they would admit me as a “danger to myself”, and she didn’t have to deal with me while I recovered from the abuse I had suffered. It was the same problem that had her handing me off to counselors and then Eagle Springs instead of taking time to love and care for me as her child; now the pattern continued to repeat itself time and time again.

My days in the mental hospital were traumatizing as well (the shock of being locked in a facility with people screaming, banging their heads, cursing, being wrestled to the ground and injected with sedatives, and so on is bad enough in and of itself – but here I was with full blown, undiagnosed PTSD, coming from the most sheltered life imaginable straight into this!). But there was one good thing that came out of it. For the first time, when I mentioned very cautiously a small hint of what I had been through, I was told that I had been abused. The counselor worked with me to get me out of my shell, and seemed truly disturbed at my level of trauma.

And for the first time in my life, I got a glimpse of understanding that what had been done to me was wrong.

I went home and began to change. I was an emotional wreck – but for the first time, I was angry, and I was tired of being hurt. Then one day my mother tried to get me to go back to church – the tiny little church we went to full of ATI families. I knew by the way she had been acting that I was likely to be subjected to another series of humiliation, prayers, exorcisms, and so on. And for the first time, something inside me just broke.

Now, all these years I had never truly known the police or CPS could help me; all these years I was told to fear these people, never speak to them, because they might come and get us for being godly homeschoolers. They were our enemy; to us, they were the Romans and we were the suffering righteous church hiding carefully in our own homes. We sent letters of thanks according to Gothard’s teachings – but we were always in this state of fear about the war we thought everyone was waging on believers like us. Now, in the hospital, I had been told the truth: that they could help those who had been harmed. I was told that I had options, if there was abuse in my home.

It really shook my whole view of the world. And I wanted more of this merciful world that I had glimpsed.

Presently, the situation began to escalate. I told my mother I did not want to attend church. She started to grow angry, weeping and yelling, and I knew what it could mean for me. Suddenly, I just looked my mother in the eye, and quietly but confidently threatened to call the police if I had to.

My mother’s eyes filled with shock. She took my sister to church, fearfully avoiding me, and never invited me to church again. I saw through her now, and she could never return me to my naive state again. She knew she had lost me. I was kicked out and sent to live with a relative – who was told a lengthy tale about how rebellious and out of control I had become. I was punished further, but since they worked daily, I was left more or less to myself most days.

And so, at 16 years old, I left ATI.

I was never my mother’s daughter again. They left the cult shortly thereafter, reluctant and angry that I had ruined their happiness again. I would never outlive the title of black sheep. I was able to tell my mother some of what happened before she passed away recently, but it will never truly be resolved.

The rest is history. Raised by a family who was wealthy, my rejection of the cult meant I was instantly plunged into desperate poverty. I spent the next 8 years clawing my way from the brink of homelessness, through a relationship that turned physically abusive (even in retrospect I don’t think I, nor anyone else, could have ever guessed that this guy was abusive, by the way – lest I be lumped in with those stories you hear all the time of abused people jumping from one abusive relationship to the next), past a few brushes with death and finally onto a shred of solid ground. My mother passed away this year; the last of her years were spent spiraling into severe mental illness, paranoia, alcoholism and addiction, and she died suddenly while in rehab.

My siblings have gone on to live the high class life, carefully hiding our family’s dark secrets behind flashy cars, million dollar homes and grand parties. They have long since learned to mimic the abusive behavior of my parents toward me, never really knowing or caring where it began. I have tried to build a life on my own, far away from my family and among kinder people. Circumstances brought me back into contact with a dear friend of mine from when I was young, and today we are engaged and living together in a happy relationship.

Through these years I searched for my own spirituality, and through many twists and turns, I landed somewhere outside the box. I spent years of study simply saying that I was an agnostic; I suppose in a sense that remains true, because I feel that faith is, after all, lacking a certain amount of evidence. Today my faith rests in the wisdom that seems present in most religions and belief systems, and in staying stubbornly aloof from religious control of any kind. I will never believe simply because I’m supposed to again. I will always ask, research, study, seek, and never be too comfortable that I know all the answers. I have settled on a more natural spirituality, and found that in many corners of spirituality I once considered damned to Hell, there are in fact some of the greatest truths I could ever know.

Through the years, I began to listen to secular music, dress normally, and slowly grow accustomed to modern living. Now I can’t see for the life of me what they were so afraid of! I am happier now than I ever was under Bill Gothard’s regime. They promised me freedom, but all I got was enslavement. My life now is true freedom: Responsibility for myself, not for my authorities. To find my own answers, not be forced to believe another’s.

I still suffer from very severe PTSD; I think it’s only to be expected. I’m not sure what healing looks like for this kind of repeated trauma, or if it’s even fully possible; but I try to take it day by day. It’s not the best of endings, but a firm and resolute one.

After all, I’m an “apostate” now – and we never give up!

Bread, Stones, and Bad Fruit: Jeri Lofland’s Story

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Jeri Lofland blogs at Heresy in the Heartland. Also by Jeri on HA: “Generational Observations”, “Of Isolation and Community”“His Quiver Full of Them”“David Noebel, Summit Ministries, and the Evil of Rock”“The Political Reach of Bill Gothard”, and “Bill Gothard on Education”, and “Ken Ham: The Evolution of a Bully“, “In Which the Pieces Come Together”, and “Jim Logan: The Stephen King of Fundamentalism.”


“So I tell you, ask, and God will give to you. Search, and you will find. Knock, and the door will open for you. Yes, everyone who asks will receive. The one who searches will find. And everyone who knocks will have the door opened. If your children ask fora fish, which of you would give them a snake instead? Or, if your children ask for an egg, would you give them a scorpion?  Even though you are bad, you know how to give good things to your children.” 

Luke 11:9-13a (NCV)


My parents had only been married five years when they attended their first Youth Conflicts seminar: 40 hours of lectures over six days. Living in a new city with three preschoolers but few friends, they were lonely, stressed, and probably sleep-deprived. They were eager to be “real” Christians, to differentiate from the mainstream Protestantism of their parents, to keep their marriage intact, and to raise the best family possible. They went searching for truth, and Bill Gothard and his Institute offered them an ideal, peppered with scripture references. Surely this was bread indeed!

They became avid Gothard fans, my parents. Not into sports or other strong alliances, their allegiance was to God and the Bible. Where an extreme sports fan might display the mascot or colors of their favorite team, we had an enormous sign over our garage proclaiming “Jesus is Lord” in hand-painted crimson letters on a white ground. And they were always eager to invite people to attend IBLP seminars.

It is difficult to tease apart the teachings my parents first heard from Gothard from those they picked up elsewhere.

Suffice it to say, Bill reinforced much that they had already accepted and added plenty more of his own. When they decided to enroll in ATIA in 1987, I was not enthusiastic. I had had enough of Bill Gothard’s anecdotes and teachings, which Dad often reenacted with our Fisher-Price people, from his notes.

I knew Gothard was behind Dad throwing a rock through the face of our television. And making me wear dresses instead of jeans and my favorite pink shorts. And not letting us eat sausage anymore. And our sleepy pre-breakfast attempts to hunt for “nuggets of wisdom” while reading Psalms and Proverbs aloud to each other. And selling our big, new house with four bathrooms because having a mortgage was unbiblical. Instead, we moved to a rented farmhouse with its very own cattle lot and temperamental plumbing. The good things my parents wanted us to have were intangible: good character, the blessing of God, spiritual protection, true wisdom, eternal life. Everything else was worthless when compared with these.

I had already adapted to homeschooling, using workbooks we ordered from conservative religious publishers. Mom had her hands full with potty-training, breastfeeding, checking papers, feeding five kids, and teaching my little brothers to read. I was largely on my own. My subject assignments were written on cards for each day of the week, and once they were completed I had the rest of the day to do what I liked. It was far different from my two years in public school, but I didn’t mind.

Now, everything changed.

For at least an hour every morning, month after month for years, my poor mother tried to study the Sermon on the Mount with us via the Wisdom Booklets sent from ATI Headquarters. We reacted to the questions—which seemed designed to manipulate or to trip us up—and even more to the answers that made no sense. We knew the Bible well, and trusted it; this “material” coming from Gothard was something else entirely. Thus began endless debates and arguments. Mom identified personally with the ATI program and felt her authority was being challenged when we criticized Bill Gothard’s [mis]interpretation of scripture and the “educational” projects we were required to complete together: learning to judge other people based on appearances and reading sermons about what wretched sinners we were (Charles Finney), what a monster God was (Jonathan Edwards), and how puny our minds were compared to his (A.W. Tozer).

With the exception of grammar, school wasn’t a lot of fun after that.

It didn’t feel like “school”, with every aspect of my life (social life, entertainment, exposure to music & literature, transportation & shopping, academic grades, political bent, bedtime, menu & meal portions, time in the shower, chore list, sex education, and religious guidance) all in the hands of the same two people who had been entrusted with my soul by God himself. I argued with Mom a lot, and she called me a scorner and I got plenty of spankings and I blamed Bill Gothard for making all of us miserable. I hit puberty and had new questions, new interests, new desires, and new guilt. I was desperately lonely and looked forward to summer when I could spend more time with other girls my age.

After two years of protesting and challenging, I was tired of feeling like an outsider in my own home. I really did want to be on God’s side, whatever that was. My parents noticed that my resistance was crumbling. They decided it was time for me to attend my first Seminar. I sat beside my very pregnant mother and dutifully raced to fill in all the blanks in my workbook. When we closed our eyes and Gothard asked us to raise our hands for each of his Seventeen Basic Commitments, I was keenly aware of my mom’s presence. Would it be possible for her not to know if I had raised my hand or kept it in my lap?

I didn’t follow everything Gothard said—some of his euphemisms went over my head—but I made a lot of commitments. I gave God my right to have friends. And I was brought many degrees nearer to the inner circle of the Institute in Basic Life Principles cult.

I was looking for a fish, but had unknowingly grasped a snake.

Over the next two years, I was thoroughly assimilated. Pressured by guilt within and parents without, I gave up my own interests and desires and adopted the cult mentality. I accepted, until I truly believed, that my parents were God’s voice to me. I dressed in navy skirts and white blouses whenever I could (the dress code for Mr. Gothard’s staff), grew my hair according to the style Gothard recommended, and listened to cassettes from IBLP headquarters while I did my chores. I now tolerated the Wisdom Booklets, though the inconsistencies and poor writing still bothered me. And, to keep my Walkman, I even agreed to follow Gothard’s rules about avoiding rock music, though I still puzzled over how my favorite Christian tunes could be tools of Satan.

We attended several ATI conferences in Knoxville, TN—pep rallies where we dressed in navy suits despite the July heat and heard about the latest nations begging for instruction in good character. Knoxville conferences were exciting for teens because there were thousands of others who also did Wisdom Booklets and wore long dresses and had umpteen siblings and knew what their motivational gift was.

With a grueling schedule and impossible logistics, the week was an effective brainwashing tool.

There was a choir for students who wanted (or were forced) to participate, an orchestra, and special music performances on pianos, strings, handbells, and more. Families in matching clothes sang harmony together, dozens of “reversal babies” were put on display, and the ALERT team made emotional mothers cry by rappelling from the ceiling in their uniforms unfurling an enormous American flag.

One year we all clapped when a speaker announced that Clarence Thomas had been nominated to the Supreme Court. He was young and conservative, we were told, so we rejoiced. In another session, a pastor with three grown daughters outlined a model daily breastfeeding schedule while we all took notes. A woman with no children of her own offered a hypothetical schedule for homeschooling a brood of five. Jim Logan made us shiver with tales of his encounters with talking demons. David Barton fired rapid-fire historical quotes at us to convince us that we could take America back for God.

In the separate meetings for students (where 12- to 28 -year-olds sat segregated by gender), we listened to Gothard tell stories about his girlfriends in high school and college. We raised our hands to commit not to marry a divorced man, and to postpone dating so we could serve the Lord longer instead. Gorgeous young men and women gave “testimonies” about quitting college to come home and learn with their families, about submitting to parents and not keeping secrets from them, about getting along with their siblings, and about putting off marriage in favor of ministry. Gothard showed us film clips about England’s Civil War, warning the girls to close their eyes if the violence was too much. “Fellas, drink it in,” he said.

It wasn’t long until I was teaching Gothard’s materials myself–to children in Russia and in the United States. I memorized Bible passages by the chapter. I completed my Journal of Faith and started working on my Journal of Virtue, an introspective study of Gothard’s 49 character qualities, with examples of how I had demonstrated (or failed) each one. I read the ATI newsletters carefully and studied the photos of the girls held up as godly examples. I prayed and waited and wondered when I would be called upon to teach character to the nations, or assist government leaders with changing the world.

College was strongly discouraged as a place where youth rebelled against authority, yielded to lust, and lost their faith but I did spend a year and a half enrolled in ATI’s unaccredited and spanking new correspondence law school. The stress of three weeks at an IBLP training center landed me sick in bed for weeks with headaches that lingered for months. A few months later my mother had a postpartum mental health crisis. For a week, while studying for a state exam, I was left in charge of a house full of younger siblings so my parents could seek “counsel” from staff at an ATI training center in Indiana. Though my grades were good, I found solitary “homeschool college” to be incredibly stressful. I wearied of fighting anxiety and boredom simultaneously and eventually gave up on getting a degree.

At age twenty-two, I was finally invited to volunteer my services for IBLP.

By the time I attained my dream and landed a job at Mr. Gothard’s headquarters, I was jaded and disillusioned. Gothard was a salesman who was not strictly honest, and was a poor judge of character. He cared little about the credibility of his sources, which he rarely documented. He was quick to discharge staff who expressed alternative points of view. He overworked employees and made it difficult for them to participate in local churches. Gothard was embroiled in legal battles with partners in ministry as well as with the neighborhoods where the Institute operated. He disdained government authority, only following the rules (construction permits, building codes, employment regulations) when pressured. Employees were encouraged not to report overtime. Despite the “non-optional principles” that were supposed to ensure loving family relationships, Gothard was estranged from some of his siblings.

Gothard was controlling of his staff to the point of criticizing the hue of a female employee’s fingernails, (while coloring his own hair a noticeably unnatural shade of burgundy). Gothard surrounded himself with willowy, long-haired, very young women. Appearance mattered a lot to him. One young woman who had been invited to join the ATI staff in Russia got a fresh and cute haircut right before her trip. When she reached Chicago, she was pulled from the group and hidden away at a small campus in Indiana until her hair grew out to an acceptable length. I was appalled by her story, but she blamed herself for not considering her hairstyle more carefully.

I could look past many disheartening inconsistencies because I had been trained to believe that God himself spoke through men with power.

I was doing God’s work at IBLP, God had sent me there at last. And in spite of the overbearing rules and constant meetings and curfews and dress codes, in many ways I still had a lot more autonomy than I had ever tasted at home. So it was a blow when Gothard fired me late one night—by calling my parents hundreds of miles away instead of speaking to me, though I slept just yards from his office. Gothard found me the next day, after I’d packed up my belongings from my room and emptied my new desk. My parents wanted me to come home, he said, though they’d told me Gothard wanted me gone. I felt rejected and lied to.

Since “bitterness” was a great sin to be feared, I tried to absorb the blow and see God’s hand in it. But I cried myself to sleep for weeks afterward. It was years before my husband (whom I met while working for IBLP) and I could admit we had given years of our lives to a cult. Years of unlearning the guilt, of trying to push away the rubble of legalism to find out if our faith still survived, of accepting our humanity instead of trying to live as spiritual beings, of rejecting abuse in the name of love, of discovering that women have as much right to autonomy as do men and that children are not possessions, or extensions, of their parents.

The “Bread” we had asked for turned out to be nothing but rocks, dead weight we carried for too long. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned his followers to be “fruit inspectors”. And, more clearly as time passed, we could see that the fruit of Gothard’s teaching, even when followed with the best of intentions, was of terrible quality. Humbling as it was to realize, we had been raised in a religious cult that drew in our parents and then absorbed our youthful energy, feeding on our desires to please both God and our parents.

I no longer identify as a follower of Jesus, but I am still a fruit inspector.


 You will know these people by what they do. Grapes don’t come from thornbushes, and figs don’t come from thorny weeds. In the same way, every good tree produces good fruit, but a bad tree produces bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot produce good fruit.   

Matthew 7:16-18 (NCV)

Finding Freedom from My Demons: Nicholas Ducote’s Story, Part Three

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By Nicholas Ducote, HA Community Coordinator

< Part Two

Much of what I have discussed is about my childhood and teenage years, but there were three incidents after my marriage that proved my parents were still trapped in ATI Parent Mode.

I assumed, because my parents actually said on multiple occasion, that after I was married I would be treated differently — more independently. I knew to expect this because it’s just the way people who are into courtship think.  However, my parents have continually chosen to put their fundamentalism in front of our relationship, despite me now being the “Spiritual Leader of my Household” (in their mind, not mine — you could best describe my marriage as an egalitarian party, looking at you Doug Wilson). They know that I do not agree with them, so most parents would just back off with the religious judgment and prioritize their relationship. But not my parents!

Over a steak dinner celebrating my graduation from my MA program in 18 months with a 4.0, my father half-joked, half-claimed that he lost faith in the university institution because I grew up to disagree with them politically. For my older sister, who converted to Christianity after college, it worked. But my education “failed” me. It failed me because I did not turn out conservatives like them. To his credit, he apologized after I blew up at him (and openly talked about the event on Facebook). I’m a forgiving person, so I let it go.

I thought, maybe this is the last time, so I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.

When I was visiting the next day, I had one of my most triggering conversations I’ve ever had with them. They claimed that the black people of New Orleans are “culturally more violent because they have a long history of accepting government benefits.” I tried to keep my cool, but our argument quickly brought me into a blind rage. This wasn’t the first time I was triggered by a conversation like this and my parents had been trying harder to not argue about politics with me. It might seem strange that I, someone who debated competitively for eight years, would have such an uncontrollable, visceral reaction to a political argument.

I called them racists and, to say the least, they got pissed. The conversation continued deteriorating and I couldn’t take it any longer. I stormed out of their hotel room and said they could just leave. They had brought me crawfish, my favorite food, but when my mom called in tears telling me I had forgotten it in the room, I told them to just throw it away — I couldn’t see them again. Later that day, my oldest sister talked me down. But this incident drove a big wedge my parents’ and my relationship. I sent them a series of emails that led to me calling them Victorian, sexist, racist cultists.

Political arguments with my parents trigger me because the conversations always include a level of personal judgment.

Debate rounds take place outside the realm of personal judgments — I can advocate a position and my opponents don’t take it personally or judge me.  In fact, some of my biggest rivals in college debate became my closest friends.  When I started attending college and developing concise counter-arguments to my parents’ zealous Reaganism, conservatism, and… well, how do you describe someone who thinks giving the women the right to vote ruined America? My challenges to their political beliefs are what gave me the courage to question many of the cultic philosophies deeply ingrained in me.

Even though I remained a devoted Christian who attended church and bible study for the first two years of college, my parents reacted to my transforming political beliefs as if I was as rejecting the Gospel. One of their biggest mistakes was telling me I was only “in a phase,” and would believe like they did when I joined the “real world and started paying taxes.” (I have had a full-time job since the age of 16, even paying the dreaded self-employment tax, so I’m not unaware of taxation).

My father took my political beliefs incredibly personally.

We had lots of arguments about rich people paying more taxes, namely by repealing the Bush Tax Cuts. My parents helped me a little bit through my four years of undergrad, they bought my books and paid my $50/month car insurance. I still worked a part-time job throughout college and debated one or two weekends a month around the US for a scholarship. Occasionally, I had to ask my parents for a few hundred dollars, but I always paid them back quickly. I hated feeling dependent on them and financial independence gave me. After I graduated, my father informed me that he resented the help he gave me, and couldn’t stomach giving me more, because of how I felt about taxes. Even though I only argued the richest people should pay more taxes, he internalized that as an attack on him.

After the incident in the hotel room, I didn’t talk to my parents much on the phone. I stuck to email because I could control my triggers and reactions much better. Over a year after my marriage, and nine months after the hotel incident, my mother called to have a chat on the phone.  During my childhood, we always got along well and she was my confidante. As long as she doesn’t get judgmental, I enjoy her company. I remember it being one of the better conversations we had in quite awhile when she decided to bring up the state of my virginity on my wedding day.

To be clear, I told my mother I was moving in with my girlfriend (now wife) nine months before my wedding (two years prior to this phone call). One would think this would have given her ample time to discuss the consequences of my sinful lifestyle, but she chose to bring it up a year after my marriage.

After finding out I was “impure,” she said that, later in my marriage, I would “face consequences” for my sins. When I told her that I didn’t think it was a sin to live with the woman I was going to marry (we had been engaged over six months at that point) she said that she was “sorry” I believed that and obviously I had bigger problems. Eventually, she said that the root of all of our conflict was my sinful lifestyle — not, of course, their raising me in a homeschooling cult, still clinging desperately to those beliefs, and refusing to accept my personal development/evolution. I pushed back and then my mom started crying.

It’s not like I enjoy making my mother cry, but I now refuse to be manipulated, guilted, and shamed.

And what came next proved the depths of my mother’s spiritual and emotional manipulation. She reminded me of the purity pledge I made to her at 14 years old. That was it, I told her the conversation was over.  She apologized and said she didn’t want our great conversation to end this way. I curtly replied that if she wanted to have a good time, she could just not judge my spiritual condition. My father sent me an email after, as he always does now after my mom and I fight. In it, he took on a self-righteous air about how my rebelliousness (against them and God) was the cause of our conflict and that Jesus was right when he said the righteous man would cause strife among his family.

I guess he forgot the one about a father provoking his child to wrath — but that’s my parents! Apply verses selectively to shame, guilt, and manipulate. I replied that I spent the last six years forming my own beliefs and I knew they were wrong ethically, morally, spiritually, and politically.

Even now, I am still on my father’s insurance (because of a crazy accident that left me with a fractured L5 pars and then an ordeal that left me with dying femur heads and a hip replacement) and this has made me feel like I cannot publicly speak against them.  When I first became a frequent public critic of my parents and their beliefs, they would email me or call me and plead with me to essentially just let it be.  I told them that I believed my cohort of homeschooled peers had been subjected to systemic problems within the Christian homeschool movement and I intended to get to the bottom of it.  I moved from Louisiana to Oregon so I could be surrounded by fewer fundamentalists and more free thinkers who will judge me less for my progressive politics.  I also moved to get more distance from my parents so I could freely pursue my advocacy, which would include my personal testimony (it feels funny using that word, but it’s applicable here).

The final straw in my attempt to repair our relationship came just a few weeks ago after I underwent my hip replacement.

When I first learned that I would need a hip replacement, my parents made it very clear that they were too busy moving to be expected to come up to Oregon to help me after the surgery. This was fine with me since their presence usually just triggers me. At the same time, I wished that I did want their help because that’s what parents are for, right? And I knew my usual lines of emotional defense would be compromised by my weak physical state. You probably think this is incredibly heartless of me, but the only consistency in my relationship with my parents is that they will somehow judge me with their self-righteousness and ruin whatever good times may have occurred.

The day of my surgery, my mother was bugging me to talk to her. She said “a mother worries when her favorite son is having a major surgery thousands of miles away” and said “glad to know you are alive.” Despite my wife calling her before and after my procedure. After that, I told her to stop trying to guilt me into talking to her more. That wasn’t the way to make me want to talk to her. Later that day, she became infuriated because I updated my Facebook, but didn’t send her a text. So she didn’t get the update until four hours after my status update. I eventually texted her back later that night and gave her an update, but she didn’t reply, so we tried calling her phone only to discover it was off. I believe right around the time she got pissy, my spinal block wore off and I experienced the worst pain of my life. I cried for thirty straight minutes and couldn’t even think. Luckily they doped me up, but I was still a wreck.

A few hours later, my mother posted one of the most passive aggressive Facebook statuses I have ever seen.

You see, although I didn’t have time to text a bunch of people, I did have time to update by Facebook status to let a few hundred people who were concerned about me know what was up. She proclaimed to the Facebook World that she was “breaking up” with it because it found out about me before she did. (Although my wife tried to call her and the phone signal was just bad in the hospital.). The way the status was worded, I could tell she was incensed.

As I finally got a nurse to enter the long distance code on the hotel landline, I tried to call her. I texted my dad saying I didn’t know what was up and I was trying to get in touch with mom. As I lay in the hospital bed — a wreck physically and emotionally — my father responded with this text message:

“Moms phone is off. You hurt her terribly. I’m very disappointed in you. I’m also upset at how you treat her. She is concerned about you. And you blew her off.”

I was just blown away. My mother turned off her phone, the night after my hip replacement, because her feelings were hurt. It’s hard to believe she was truly concerned about me since she turned her phone off.

At this point, the only indication I had that my mom was upset was the passive aggressive Facebook status and my dad’s text message. Because exactly what I wanted to deal with then was my parents’ bullshit.

This was the moment my parents needed to just show sincere compassion, selflessness, and love.

Sure, maybe I was mean, but I was just out of surgery, doped up with insane amounts of oral and intravenous opioids, my brain polluted by lingering anesthesia, and unable to move my right side without immense pain, which was swollen to twice its normal size. On top of that, my wife got food poisoning that night!

With all the energy I could muster, I slowly composed and recomposed a message about ten times. I met with a therapist earlier in the month to prepare for this very moment because I knew I would be vulnerable and my parents would try to manipulate me. It seems completely irrational to expect such behavior, but my instincts proved right. I told my parents that their reactions were completely unacceptable and that I needed space and time. I didn’t mince my words and I told them their attempts to guilt and manipulate me lost them the privilege of getting constant updates.  Everyone else in my life gave me nothing but positivity in my moment of need, but my parents put on an entire dramatic performance because I posted to Facebook a few hours before texting them directly.

It seems like I have gone on quite a tangent since my days in ATI, but all three of these instances occurred because of the way they allowed Gothardism to take over their lives. To them, I may always be the son who chose to live, and thrive, outside their Umbrella of Authority. Despite having almost ten years to indoctrinate and brainwash me into their version of cultic Christianity, they continue to try and enforce their perceived God-given right to judge me (or “show me the light”) into adulthood. I now refuse to allow them to treat me as their subordinate. I demand respect and I try to avoid controversial topics.

Unfortunately, nearly every topic is corrupted by their Gothardist fundamentalism.

Only in an ATI home could you get into an argument on Christmas morning about how women should never have gotten the right to vote or divorce. They conceptualize my mental illnesses (anxiety and triggers) as spiritual weakness because Gothard told them that’s how it is. The morning before I left to go to Afghanistan to teach debate for a month, I had terrible anxiety, and my dad just chuckled and said “well you wanted to go there.”

My dad likes to chuckle when I’m in a really awful situation. 

I talked to a lot of my ATI friends about all these events that I’ve described and most of them have patched their relationships up with their parents. Most of those friends’ parents have liberalized a lot, but not my parents. My friends are constantly baffled by the way my parents treat me. Because my parents still conceptualize our relationship as that of a parent-child, when I assert myself, it creates conflict. They seem to believe this conflict is the result of my sinful lifestyle. As long as they cannot even understand why what they do is so hurtful, they have no positive impact on my life. Every positive encounter with them becomes overshadowed by an intensely painful experience.

There are only so many times you want to open yourself up when you know what the result will be.

That’s my story. For the ATI kids out there: Did your relationship with your parents improve as they moved away from Gothardism? Does my observation hold true in your life?

The Good Girl: Atarah’s Story

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

Black strapped shoes, white stockings, pleated navy skirt, peter pan collared white blouse, brown pig tails, a splash of freckles, and wide, eager eyes completed my look. I was a mini version of the apprenticeship students. I was gonna be just like them someday.

After all, I was a good girl.

My parents counted the days till they would be allowed to join the program. Their excitement was palpable, and I still remember it, as a four year old. As a child you are unaware of how your parent’s decisions affect you. You just go with it. You trust, and you know nothing else. Thus begins my journey through Gothardism that spanned over 20 years.

I don’t know how much detail to give. You know the logistics — I won’t bore you with our family’s particular brand. But we were ATI through and through. I don’t say this lightly, but my parents worshipped (and still do) Gothard.  My early years were grounded in his principles, and my formative years saturated with his teachings.

I really was a good girl. My impressions of my childhood were that I was an easy child to parent, as I was obedient to a fault.  I remember having anxiety over wanting to obey every rule perfectly.  I rarely got in trouble, and unlike many ATI survivors, wasn’t often spanked. (As I remember it.)  I developed this identity as being obedient and perfect and never questioning authority.  In fact, I backed authority.  Vehemently.  This made me my parent’s favorite, and an enemy of sorts to my poor younger siblings, who were not in the least so perfectly inclined.

As I grew into young adulthood, this good girl image brought with it an oversensitive conscience and hyper spirituality. No surprise there.  I actually thought it was a good thing.  I thought I was on track.  Meanwhile, I never felt satisfied with myself or my spiritual walk.  How can you, when nothing less than perfect is acceptable?

I remember I first questioned the whole Gothard thing at about age 21. It was very mild, very gentle, but in utter desperation to fix our falling-apart-family, I timidly asked my parents:

If we believed all these things, why weren’t they helping us? Why weren’t our lives matching up?

That was the first time I questioned Gothard in the slightest, but it wasn’t the last.  Over the years as I watched my family sink deeper into dysfunction, as I experienced pain in my own life, and as I grew a little courage, I would start to turn over these things in my mind.  Even if I was afraid to speak much about it, I was thinking.  It was a necessary process.  The time came when I did find courage to bring my concerns (albeit largely unformed) to my parents, but they were always dismissed.

After all, Gothard is never wrong.

When I say my parents idolize Gothard, it is hard for me to write about that.  They didn’t hang framed pictures of him around the house or say blatantly that he was always right, or that his teachings were as good as the Bible.  Those things were unsaid.  The absence of these things almost makes it worse, because it was so hard to see through.  Perhaps this is why it took me so many years to see the light.  To me this shows even now, what a web of deceit was spun in our home.  How manipulative the whole thing was. Gothard manipulated my parents, then my parents manipulated me and my siblings.

I was the brain-washed good girl.

In no way will I, or have I ever, blamed Gothard or ATI entirely for my family’s dysfunction.

There were and are issues that no doubt would have been there regardless.  But without question the teachings of Gothard and the ATI way of life (after all, it dictated our whole lives) were an over-arching realm of control.  Gothard’s teachings had alot to do in making my parents the kind of parents they were.  Whatever problems lay with them, Gothard’s program exascerbated to the breaking point. I do blame Gothard for his part.  I do blame my parents for their part.  I blame my parents for letting him in, and never questioning it.

To write personally about this now, isn’t easy for me.

It makes me think about things that are buried deep in my psyche. And the scary thing about that is, Gothard’s way was so inscribed in my thinking, that it may take a lifetime, to unearth every single lie, to overturn every corrupt stone.  When I was married in my mid to late 20s, I was finally set free to think for myself. Almost immediately the detox began.   It is hard to separate my family’s issues and problems from the Gothard/ATI problem.  Because they are so entertwined.  But healing from my past meant facing the truth about Gothard and his teachings.  Don Venoit’s book was a huge help to me in breaking free.  Also the book Boundaries.

The biggest healing I found was in thinking, writing, and verbalizing.  I was able to pick up the story of my past, piece by piece, and evaluate it in the light of truth.  The freedom came, and it was wonderful.

I remember the day I said those turning-point words to my dad.  

I had been married about two years, and in some ways still needed to “cut those strings.”  We were having a huge conflict, that spanned many topics, but Gothard of course came up.  I told him one last time how I felt.  Or at least a little of how I felt.

And then I said it.

I said “I don’t believe Gothard is a godly man.”

My reasons for saying that are many.  Take your pick.  (Twisting scripture, manipulating thousands, the deceit, the many allegations of inappropriate behavior with young women and abuse in his training centers. ) But saying that, actually saying that to my dad, was a turning point.  I have no regrets. I can only hope that one day Gothard will be exposed for the true person he is in such an undeniable way that even my parents will be able to see the truth about him.  They will be the last to believe it, I promise you.

I am sad to say that as of a month ago, Bill Gothard knows me by name. When I was told he asked about me, I almost shivered.  I was horrified.  I have no idea why he should remember me after all these years or why he even knew me by name in the first place. It’s been many years since I saw him last.  I make no bones about it, I have no respect for him.  He is a deceitful old man, who is responsible for his manipulation, lies, and the many homes and lives wrecked by his corrupt power.

As I have moved beyond my ATI past, one of the biggest changes that came in my thinking was in regards to this “good girl” identity.

I’ve finally come to realize I don’t have to be the good girl.  I’m just me.  I don’t have to be perfect, I don’t have to always have it together.  It’s ok to make mistakes. I remember many, many times while I was still at home, my father speaking angrily to me, pointing his finger and glaring with dark eyes “You’re prideful.  You’re full of pride.” My spirit shriveled up within me.  I would beg him to understand I wasn’t trying to be prideful, I really wasn’t.  I was just trying to be the person he always expected me to be: Perfect.  My identity was The Good Girl , and I felt trapped.  Here I was trying to please him, but in my struggles I still failed to be good enough, and I was the recipient of his anger.

So realizing in my late 20s that I didn’t have to be The Good Girl anymore, well, that was revolutionary!

I’m still on a journey.  I haven’t arrived, I don’t have everything all sorted out. But I’m on that journey. I’m moving from The Good Girl who has to be perfect to just being me.  I am loved, I am valuable, I am unique, I am accepted, I am beautiful.  Simple statements that were once Greek to me.

I share my story (and this is only a small part of it!) because I think it is good for me to write about my experiences.  But I also want to share because I want to be a help to the other Good Girls out there.  If you’re reading this, and you can relate to my story, know that you are not alone.

Know that you can change, and you can move beyond your past to be a new person. 

Nightmare in Navy and White — Experiencing the Dark Side of ATI: Selena’s Story, Part Two

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Nightmare in Navy and White — Experiencing the Dark Side of ATI: Selena’s Story

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


Trigger warnings: threatening and emotionally abusive situations.


Part One

Part Two: Imprisonment

Soon, my mother was determined to fix me.

By this point my label as the rebellious child might as well have been tattooed to my forehead. My efforts to find some safety had backfired in the worst possible way. Now my father was gone, but I was still considered the little demon child. My mother placed me into heavy counselling, and even took me all the way to Indianapolis to see a particular counselor who was pretty deep into ‘spiritual warfare’. For days and days he performed multiple exorcisms, interrogations, and vigilant attempts to hunt down every demon he was sure resided in my soul. I went home feeling empty and ashamed. During this time almost every last bit of my personal possessions were burned, considered tainted by Satan’s influence upon me.

I had almost nothing but my clothing and basic school supplies left.

Time passed. We moved away, found a new church alongside one of the ATI directors, and what few friends had been hand-picked for us in our old town were just a distant memory now. Here in a quiet neighborhood in a tiny little town, we had nobody but ourselves. In an attempt to find us some ATI friends and reconnect a bit with her own past, my mother began talking with an old friend she knew in her high school days. He had fallen on hard times and she felt bad for him, and started trying to help. Once a week he’d visit us, we’d all watch a movie, have dinner, and chitchat. These weekly visits went on for close to a year. During that time it became clear, at least to my sister and I, that this guy was very, very creepy. A few veiled advances on both of us, and eventually, we called our mother into the living room one night and told her that he was “very scary” and begged her not to let him visit anymore in a formal, ATI-approved appeal. We never told her the truth, that he was behaving very inappropriately toward us.

The incidents were too close to home for me. I started spiraling into depression, and became suicidal. I started questioning everything; why were we putting ourselves through this hell on earth? What if we were wrong? My mother was horrified; I no longer accepted “because God says so” as an answer. I started asking too many questions, wanting to really understand why we lived this way; things I had never really questioned all these years. She made a call to the family coordinator, explaining that her daughter was “out of control” – and was put in touch with the LIT program.

I don’t feel very comfortable going into too much detail, as this time period is one of the more difficult for me to cope with. I will simply say that I was put into the LIT program, held captive for two years against my will, and systematically tortured and brainwashed. I realize “tortured” is a very strong word, but I feel it is appropriate – leaders were expected to carry out extreme punishments to brainwash their “students”, and those who did not were demoted or ejected. It was a calculated effort and there were many terrible things that happened there, to myself and others like me. I was permitted no contact with my family for the first few months; all correspondence was monitored heavily, my mail filtered coming in and going out. I was to send glowing reports of the program every week, and nothing more. I was never to speak with her on the phone unless watched closely. I was never, ever going home for a visit until they thought I was “ready” – until I was brainwashed enough to not beg to stay home or speak of what happened.

I was frequently starved, dehydrated, sleep deprived, humiliated, sick, neglected, interrogated, and working grueling hours every day on top of being swamped in ATI and ATI-endorsed materials 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Punishments came on a daily basis, sometimes multiple times a day, and sometimes long-lasting, cruel and unusual punishments. I lost over 40 pounds in just a month and became pale, sickly, malnourished and perpetually mute. Several times I stole food out of severe hunger, only to be punished again. I was placed into solitary confinement for two and a half weeks just for singing in the car. Sometimes I was ordered never to speak, for weeks or even a month solid or more – to never speak unless spoken to, or to ask “May I please ask a question?” or “May I please speak, Ma’am?” I was given tasks designed to fail, punished when I failed, and then humiliated further. It was a nonstop effort to break me down, and even after I was broken down, they would never stop.

When in desperation I tried to escape through a tiny window and run away from the compound, my leader just laughed and said, “Where are you going to go?” I attempted another time and was threatened by the director who stated that he had a shotgun and that if I tried this again, it “might be open season” for me. That was one of the turning points. I began to realize the horror of the situation – I was a prisoner. I was outnumbered, outmuscled, and the director had a gun he was not afraid to use. They told me they were registered with the state, in good standing with the cops, and the police would gladly bring me back to their doorstep if ever I managed to escape. I had nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, and nobody to help me.

I was terrified for my life every single day.

So, two years of this went by. I became what they wanted me to be, at first just to survive, and then I got lost in it. The pale vacant smiling face became everything I was. I sang the songs, worked tirelessly, and bent over backwards for my leaders. Eventually, I was praised as a success. I was even promoted, here and there – the photogenic face, so happy to be here, doing so well.

I started being invited on strange exclusive trips to other training centers. We called ourselves the Cavalry – we were called in to lend extra hands in the places that were short staffed. A call would come in, the best of the best of us were gathered together; we’d swoop in, work tirelessly and silently, and suddenly disappear. Many times the staff at the other training centers didn’t even seem to know who we were; with tired smiles, those in charge would greet us, usher us to our rooms, direct us, and ask few questions.

It was through this that I was able to see some aspects of ATI that still shock me to this day. I was never told what we were doing; it was a simple order to pack up and head out. I rarely knew what we were working for, exactly. It wasn’t our job to know, just work. It was God’s work, after all. That being said, what I witnessed is very difficult for me to comprehend. I just had such a terrible feeling. Something was wrong.

Again, I’m going to gloss over a few things, because I don’t feel safe going into too much detail. We spent time in the North Woods training center, I believe during Gothard’s yearly trip up there to plan for the next year’s events and programs. He was always talking about this time – the time when God gave him new messages, scriptures, teachings that he would later proudly announce to us all. Unlike the image I had in my head of a lone cabin and Gothard quietly meditating, it was more like a business meeting among Gothard and a lot of people I didn’t recognize. We were invited to a lot of the meetings, and I didn’t like the way we were looked at. For once, we weren’t told to work – it almost felt like we were like furniture accessories, just to be there and look pretty. Some of us were told to give our testimony, but it was very uncomfortable.

Then out of nowhere, a boy was brought to the lodge. He just appeared one day, Gothard announcing the boy’s exciting “discipleship opportunity” while hugging the frightened boy up against his side. I had a sinking sick feeling in my stomach. The boy was by Gothard’s side for days on end, utterly silent and looking afraid. Gothard spoke for him. He never said a word. Eventually, Gothard was going to take the boy on a trip – I wish I could remember where. We all accompanied Gothard, in this little entourage, to a small landing strip. He ushered the boy, still glued to his side, into a small, brightly-colored airplane. And they took off, to the cheers and appluads of everyone.

I never saw the boy again.

On another strange trip across the country, we found ourselves in the Deep South, working in an abandoned building. It was a wreck – short, tattered carpets covered in drywall dust, room after empty room in disrepair. We weren’t here to build, they said. Just clean the place, spotlessly, and never speak to anyone who speaks to us. We were prepped for days beforehand, reminded again and again that this was very important, rehearsing the rules. No speaking to strangers, you are God’s servants, this is an important work, Bill Gothard will be there but is not to be bothered. So we worked ourselves sick (quite literally).

One day as I vacuumed a hallway in the harried, obsessively tedious manner I had grown accustomed to – I spotted a policeman sitting at the end of the hall. He watched me intently, curious. I must have been a strange sight – this little girl in an ankle-length khaki skirt and uniform-like polo, keeping her head down. He struck up a conversation and I nervously kept my head down, replying with as short an answer as I could manage, smiling and afraid: “Yessir. No sir. Yessir.” He squinted at me, curious. “Well,” he said finally, “You girls’re doing a great job. Thanks for your help.” He gave me a keychain in the shape of a police car – one of those things they pass out in schools, I guess – with the name of the police department on it. And he went on his way. As silly as it may sound, the genuine kindness this officer showed had a profound effect on me. I still sometimes wonder what went through his mind, and whether he suspected something was very wrong.

When all of our cleaning work was finally done, we still had more to do. We put on our best clothing, and started work hosting a banquet for the grand opening. We worked tirelessly throughout the event, never eating that day except for mere bites of food amid the flurry of activity. That night we stood aside as a ceremony was held. The entire police department, city officials, and more were all gathered. Bill Gothard spoke about how glad he was for this opportunity, and hinted at a bright future working with this police department and more. The city officials and chief of police thanked him for his support, in turn, joking about how cramped their former office had been. Hands were shaken, toasts were made. We were ushered quietly to our bedrooms for a few precious hours of sleep before we disappeared in the morning, off to another training center.

I have held onto the keychain all these years, to remind myself what I witnessed.

It’s one of the hardest things for me to wrap my head around.

Eventually, my prison sentence came to an end. I was sent home, praised as a success story, a great turnaround for Jesus. I had done God’s work, diligently, humbly, as they say. They even threw me a farewell party.

I returned home to a changed family. My mother had dyed her hair, bought a new car, and started finding a little bit of liberty from ATI’s rigorous standards. She was even wearing pants regularly now, and seemed so much happier. She and my sister were the best of friends.

They had learned to live without me.

I, the rebellious child, would never again be truly welcome in their home.

Part Three >

Thoughts From a Regretful But Healing ATI Mom

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HA note: The following contributor has asked to remain anonymous.

I’ve thought about writing ever since I stumbled upon this site.

I am going to be short, although I could share my thoughts and reflections for hours. I am a college educated  capable mom of 58 who has seen my life, and the life of my children, turned upside down as a result of, at least in part, our years in ATI.  My husband and I stumbled upon the pilot project of ATIA (as it was known in the early years) during our attendance at an Advanced IBLP Seminar. At the time, we were both somewhat disillusioned with the church world and the way that there seemed to be no real commitment to “walking the talk” among Christians.

Looking back, I can see where we were unconsciously looking for a “formula” that would help us be successful with our precious 2 kids.

Fast forward 20 some odd years… just within the last 5 years have we become aware of how we caused much harm in the lives of our oldest 2 children, especially. They were given a view of God that was so legalistic and formulaic that the whole concept of a God who loves and forgives became problematic for them. We are still working through the damage caused by those many years in ATI. I cannot speak for other families.

But I know that I, at least, have come to really grieve over what happened to our family as a result of our years in ATI.


“A Regretful But Healing Mom”

Finding Freedom from My Demons: Nicholas Ducote’s Story, Part Two

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By Nicholas Ducote, HA Community Coordinator

< Part One

You’re just “spiritually sensitive,” they told me at six years old, my young mind racing with anxiety. As my parents entered further into the labyrinthian maze of fundamentalism, they took my mind with them.  My parents were convinced that Gothardism held the solution to my issues. If religious options and doctrines were a grocery store, my parents plopped down on the Gothard Aisle and expected me to also enjoy their strict diet of Gothardism.  Instead, the doctrines on spiritual warfare, the Umbrella of Authority, and Strongholds increased my anxieties – sending me into a state of hyper-vigilance at night as I waited for the demons.

For years, I confused invasive thoughts, which everyone has, with a Satanic assault on my mind.

I began conceptualizing my mental illness as spiritual warfare very early on, probably by the time I was 7 or 8. Recently converted, it was the only paradigm my parents accepted so they explained things to me through that lens. When I had nightmares night after night, my parents told me it was the rock music I could hear through the walls that my sister listened to – certainly not our rapidly changing family dynamic as my parents tried to apply fundamentalism to my older sisters when they had already begun high school.

I remember one night, perhaps after attending the Basic Seminar a second time, my parents decided we should burn all the things in our house that possessed “demons” or a “demonic influence.”  This included books and movies and music – especially my dad’s vast collection of rock and roll from his youth.   We had to purge our home.  As time went on, I was sucked further into this idea of spiritual warfare causing mental, and even spiritual, issues.  My education in creationism only further complicated science and confused me about how my body worked.  It was not until college at a public university that I began to understand how the brain worked.  I slowly realized that many “mysterious” feelings and thoughts, which supposedly originated from God or Satan, were really my own brain simply working.

There were a number of Gothard’s doctrines that caused a great deal of fear.

One of the most problematic doctrines is the Umbrella of Authority. 

In this model of communication with God, divine inspiration and guidance flows from God, to the male parent, then to the female parent. It’s clear in this model that wives are subordinate to their husbands and ATI leaders preach that a woman’s first duty is to submit to the male leadership in her life. For wives, that means their husband. For daughters it means their fathers. In this model, the father is the only person in the family unit that has a sort of “direct connection with God.”  By this, I mean that if a child believed God was calling them in a certain direction, the child could only pursue that option if their father “confirmed” it with God. This model profoundly impacts a child’s conception of themselves.

If you disagree with your parents, you are disobeying God.

If you are outside of your parents’ Umbrella of Authority, then you are literally opening your mind to Satan and demons.

This brings me to what, in my life, was the most abusive and damaging belief. Gothard rejected the idea of mental illness and replaced it with a concept of “Strongholds” in your mind. Gothard preached that when humans disobeyed God, or their earthly authorities, they allowed Satan to “build a stronghold in your mind.”  From this Stronghold, Satan could tempt you and further lead you down the path to darkness and evil. One of the most common weaknesses for teenagers was rock music and dating, which Gothard believed was one of the fundamental reasons why teenagers rebelled and became perverse. In another giant leap of logic, Gothard argued that physical ailments could be caused by Strongholds. Literally almost every cause in your universe stemmed from your spirituality, which included everything from Christian Contemporary music, to apparently demonic Cabbage Patch dolls, and of course Disney.

So over my teenage years, I gradually developed intense anxiety, insomnia, and panic attacks. I would lay awake in my bed, staring at my door waiting for demons to come and get me.  This very real fear was stoked by Jim Logan, who would tell his Real Life Ghost Stories. Logan would preach about his many exorcisms, how African masks would literally scream and cry out if lit on fire, and how children’s misdeeds attracted demons into a Christian home. Especially rock music! I prayed incessantly, sometimes screaming with eyes filled with tears, for God to take away my fear and anxiety – but nothing ever happened.

It was because the cause of my mental anguish was not demons and spiritual warfare.

In fact, the further I get away from my internalized fear of demons and possession (taught to me exclusively through ATI), the better I sleep, the less afraid I am of what’s behind the shower curtain, the more confident I am to walk through a room with the light off, and it is because my brain no longer feels like its survival is threatened by the invisible forces of evil.

In my teenage years, some of the only relief I could manage to muster came from listening to a local modern rock radio station.  First, it connected me with the outside world and gave me hope that one day I could be in that world and not the one I was trapped in.  Second, it allowed me to enter all the conversations my peers had about their favorite music. Third, it gave me something to focus on that took my mind off spiritual warfare, demons, etc.  Unfortunately, I was also taught to believe that rock music would open my mind to Satan. I struggled with the cognitive dissonance for a year or two until I decided that the peace I received from rock music was far more important than risking demonic possession (which I was starting to believe less and less).  I figured, with all my rebelling as a teenager, if I hadn’t been attacked by demons yet I was probably alright.

It’s not uncommon for precocious, smart children to develop anxiety – as I now know my “sensitivity” is really just anxiety – but my parents only worsened it by focusing on solely spiritual causes and solutions.  When we prayed, when I prayed, when we “cried out” – whatever Gothardist ritual we preformed – it never made me feel any less anxious.  As a result, I felt like I must not be a real Christian or must have some sin in my life stopping God from helping me.  I don’t know how many times I prayed the sinner’s prayer, afraid that whatever I had done before wasn’t “sticking.”   I started finding a way out of the anxiety, and sometimes intense panic attacks, by learning about my brain. Not from fundamentalists, but from scientists who studied the brain – neuroscientists.

In the back of my mind, after I left the house, was always a voice warning me that my actions would attract Satan – that he would ruin my life because I chose to live outside my father’s Umbrella, to reject the concept of Strongholds, and I listened to rock music.  For quite awhile, I struggled to find out who I was, beyond my fearful subordination to a fundamentalist God.

I now know that I have a form of complex PTSD, which is triggered by my parents and their fundamentalism, especially when they judge my “sinful lifestyle.” 

For the longest time, I didn’t know why certain things they said or did would “launch” me into an irrational, emotional state.  Sometimes it was something inanimate, like the American flag covering my old bedroom wall or the library of fundamentalist literature I was pressured to read and apply to my life.  It doesn’t affect my life much anymore, but it did quite a bit into my early-20s.  Part of the reason is because I rarely communicate with my parents anymore.  Despite my best efforts, most of our interactions end with me being triggered by their lack of acceptance or the cultic doctrines they still try to evangelize me about.  This isn’t a story that takes place wholly in my past.

The third and final part of my story discusses how (as a 25 year old) I am still impacted by my parents’ fundamentalism.

Part Three >

Seeing Shades of Blue: Holly’s Story, Part Two

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

< Part One

During the 1990s, ATIA/ATI had annual conferences in Knoxville at the University of Tennessee. Mega-families crowded the hotels and university facilities to hear Bill Gothard and other staff and lecturers tell us God’s will for the upcoming year. During the daytime, adolescents and unmarried young adult men and women were separated from their parents for apprenticeship sessions.

My family and I attended Knoxville in the years 1993-1995, although we were in ATIA/ATI longer. During one of those years, I remember a particular afternoon apprenticeship session. Although it isn’t unusual for young adults to be taught in schools separate from their parents, Gothard was a tremendous proponent of family togetherness, except during his apprenticeship programs.

I noticed during the week that, when I would tell my parents about the often unusual content of the apprenticeship sessions, they had a ready answer such as “I don’t think you understood what the speaker really meant,” or “that speaker came to the parents’ session and explained the topic differently,” or even, “I don’t believe anyone would say that.”

One particularly muggy afternoon, the young ladies and young men loaded up into different vehicles for transportation to separate facilities on the university campus for our sessions. I remember the room was very cold and had bluish drapes around the stage. The seats were angled upwards, and there was a mezzanine, so we must have been in a theatre. We were a sea of navy and white, modestly dressed young ladies, with long hair and bright eyes. I can’t remember who spoke first, but Gothard was the main speaker of the afternoon.

As difficult as it is for an outsider to understand, Gothard was a real celebrity in our world.

Teenage girls became giggly and nervous around him. Conference attendees were in awe of him. For him to be the speaker to a young ladies’ apprenticeship session was impressive. Although we initially whispered among ourselves at the wonder of it all, Gothard was able to silence us when he began speaking.

I don’t remember how he began, but I know the topic was moral purity. Gothard frequently spoke to women about purity, so this was not a surprise. In his mind, men lusted after physical things and women lusted after emotional things. For this reason, he often encouraged us not to read romance novels, or any books including romantic ideas.

Books such as Anne of Green Gables were even considered too romantic and defrauding in Gothard’s eyes.

He taught us to save our hearts for the one man we would marry, and to be sure to let God and our fathers pick that man for us.

On the afternoon in question, Gothard began to discuss divorce. To me, this was odd, because, as a prerequisite for being an apprentice, none of us had been married. He continued to convince us of how damaging divorce was in God’s eyes. I tuned out, as I often did. I was young, why did I care about this? Besides, I knew divorced people, and they were not damaged. My aunt was engaged to a man who was divorced. I was the only one of my siblings who even knew that, because my parents were so anti-divorce, but my future uncle didn’t seem damaged to me.

As Gothard brought his talk to a close, he asked us to do something. He wanted us to make a promise for our fathers, our future husbands, and ourselves.

He asked all the young ladies in the room to commit to never marry a divorced man. 

All of a sudden, I was paying attention again. This wasn’t one of the regular commitments! Did that mean there was no end to the number of commitments we could be asked to make? Did we have to make this one? As I waited in my seat, assuming that I could just be quiet and avoid unwanted attention, Gothard asked all of us to close our eyes and stand quietly to indicate our agreement with the commitment. He said that the commitment would be personal and no one would know, because everyone would have her eyes closed. We needed to stand to indicate our commitment to God. At first I thought I would just sit unobtrusively, but I soon realized that I could feel and hear my friends standing around me. Could they tell I was not standing?

Of course I peeked. I saw male ushers walking up and down each row, looking at who was sitting and who was standing. I also saw other girls, standing girls, peeking at me. I quickly stood and redeemed my good name, but as I did I said, “God, I don’t mean it. Don’t hold it against me. I am not promising this. I am just doing it so I don’t get punished.”

Late that afternoon as I rode back on the bus with my five friends from home, I brought up the afternoon session. I tried to talk about how some people can be really great and still be divorced, but none of the girls understood. I had to drop it, or I would be out of the group, the one morally compromised adolescent who had never even kissed anyone. Something didn’t seem right, though.

I knew that marrying a divorced person couldn’t be wrong.

Everyone was seeing the world in navy and white, but I saw shades of blue.

Memories from Bill Gothard’s Indianapolis Training Center: Latebloomer’s Story

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HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Latebloomer’s blog Past Tense Present Progressive. It was originally published on November 10, 2013.

In my early 20s, I had my first experience living away from home.

It was a Really Big Deal.  Me–a weak, vulnerable, easily-decieved woman, according to the teachings of my family’s pastor Reb Bradley–out on my own, flying to a faraway state.  I was going to spend a few months living and studying music at Bill Gothard’s Indianapolis Training Center.

ITC was a tall drab brick building surrounded by a parking lot, not much to look at.  But that didn’t matter.  As I soon learned, the people staying there rarely ventured outside.  I personally only went outside about once a month during my few months there.  In order to leave, as a legal adult, I had to sign out, state my purpose for leaving, and verify that I was not leaving alone or with a male peer.  For a walk in a parking lot or a view of a run-down part of town, the hassle wasn’t worth it.

Inside the building was where all the excitement and drama played out.  For me, my time at ITC was a huge social challenge. I had almost no experience participating in conversations, eating meals with non-family members, or learning in a class setting. As a result, my stress level was nearly unmanageable from the challenge.  Mealtimes were the worst; I would try to eat when no one at the table was looking at me, and I would have a panic attack if anyone directed a question at me when I was chewing.  I was always the last one at the table, with a plate still full of food, wishing for privacy.

It didn’t help that, even though I was surrounded by hundreds of other fundamentalist homeschoolers like me, I was still the odd one out, because my family was not part of Bill Gothard’s homeschooling program, ATI.  Many of the rules of ATI were new to me, and I’d had lots of trouble finding clothing that fit the extreme and very specific modesty standards, even though my own wardrobe was incredibly conservative.  One of the biggest challenges had been finding a long navy skirt and a plain white button-up shirt, Bill Gothard’s required “uniform” for special sessions.

At ITC, lost in a sea of people with years of experience dressing to ATI standards, I felt even more hideous than normal.

However, I found that many of the other girls in attendance were incredibly sweet, considerate, and fun people, and I considered many of them friends by the end of our time there.  We bonded over late-night candy binges (smuggled in! candy was against the rules!), hallway races with *gasp!* no nylons or shoes (we weren’t allowed to leave our rooms without nylons and close-toed shoes!), and gossip about the “flirtatious” girls who dared to have a conversation with a guy.

We couldn’t stay up too late though, because every morning we were woken at dawn by two songs from the speakers near our beds: first a classical instrumental piece, followed by a boisterous march.  That signaled us to get up and get ready for a day of learning.

The music program was, in my opinion, fairly well done.  I learned a lot about music theory and composition, including how to write 4-part harmony!  But there were definitely some strange reoccurring themes that made an impression on me.  We were taught, for instance, that heavy drum beats in music was demonic because it originated in African music, which was demon worship.  Additionally, we heard that syncopated rhythms, which emphasize the offbeat, would affect our brains and cause us to have a strange shuffling gait.  The “scientific” proof of this was drawings of plants gradually wilting and dying next to a radio–killed by prolonged exposure to rock music.

The emphasis on authority and submission in ITC culture meant that not a single student ever challenged the teachers or expressed doubt at such bizarre, racist, arbitrary, and unsubstantiated teachings.  

This attitude affected me too, even though I was an ATI outsider, and I did not spend any time mentally refuting the ideas that were presented.  Gradually, these ideas began to seem “wholesome” to me, associated with the wholesome image that ATI maintains (now, most famously through the Duggar family’s TV show and blog).  The clothing standards, the early rising, the music standards, the sea of smiling white faces–it all began to feel normal and right, and I wondered what was wrong with me that I felt deeply unhappy and “unwholesome” most of the time, under my forced smile.

The authority culture had another dark side as well.  ITC had what it called a “Leaders in Training” program, separate from its music program.  An ITC young adult volunteer would be paired with a juvenile delinquent from the “outside world”.  These two were never allowed to be apart, and the volunteer was supposed to model good character while making sure the juvenile delinquent followed the ITC rules.  People pointed out to me the “prayer rooms”, with doors monitored by cameras, where “rebellious” juvenile delinquents would be held in solitary confinement until they were repentant.  While I was at ITC, one of them tried to jump off the roof.  It was unsettling, but at the time I couldn’t identify the reason.  Now I realize that it must have been incredibly dehumanizing for them to be forced to accept Bill Gothard’s version of Christianity, which gave them a painfully rigid exterior of rules and no tools for dealing with their inner turmoil.

When my time at ITC came to an end, re-entering the outside world felt incredibly strange and foreign.  

Almost all music felt oppressive and stressful, which is ironic for having just spent a few months studying music.  People wearing typical clothing looked strange and dangerous, after a few months of seeing nothing but a strict “wholesome” dress code.  And there was so little smiling!  It took quite awhile to acclimate to my regular life again, and to begin to question the culture and the teachings from ITC.

Once I let myself question it, one of my first thoughts was, “Why do people think so highly of Bill Gothard??” He visited ITC a few times while I was there, and I found him to be a strange, short little man with a judgemental face, jet black dyed hair, and a creepy vibe.  At no time did I ever wish to meet him or talk to him, which was very unusual for me, since I typically had to resist idolizing spiritual leaders.

Now I just have distant memories of this experience.  It feels like another life and another person, not me.  I wonder what happened to the others girls I studied with.  I wonder what happened to the “leaders in training”.  I wonder if ITC is the same now as when I was there 10 years ago.

And I wonder if this extreme experience was actually just what I needed to push me to start questioning all my beliefs

NOTE: I recommend the website for anyone who is trying to get out of the cult mentality of Bill Gothard’s programs.