I Was Spiritually Abused and I Blamed Myself

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HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Lana Hope’s blog Wide Open Ground. It was originally published on March 20, 2013.

On the outside, my childhood looked blissful. I was raised outside the box, free to roam and explore. I was raised to think wide and deep, to argue and to question. My home was overtaken in creativity. On the outside, we looked normal.

At the same time I was sheltered from ideasI was free to think — but only within a narrow framework. I was a 90s kid, a homeschooler, and I had no idea gays and lesbians existed, and I was raised to believe outsiders were ungodly. Other homeschool mothers, and homeschool organizations put enormous outside pressure on my family that ended up driving my parents into shamed-based parenting. I was fed nothing but bread and water if I was disrespectful. Sometimes my mom threw books across the room. And I would collapse in tears because I was to blame, and wept wondering if God would ever be pleased with me.

I lived in a world of contradictions. On the one hand, I was encouraged to explore. But then on the other hand, a gendered childhood hovered over me. I was told that girls are not brilliant like boys, and I was told married girls could not and should not have a career.

For example, at Advance Training Institute of America conference – a homeschool conference in Knoxville, Tennessee – we (my friends and I) asked to rock repel with the boys. The leadership just looked at us like criminals and said, “If you ever mention this again, I will go get your fathers. You are girls, and you should be grateful to get to sew.”

A piece of my heart was cut off that day.

Why the heck did God make me a girl? I asked myself.

I screamed that question and my heart beat and my guts hurt for years.Why did God give me a mind for debate and academics if he wanted me to stay home? Why did he give me a desire to teach if I could not speak in the church or teach anywhere outside an elementary school? Why did he give me a forest to explore if I was suppose to wear dresses? Why did he give me a desire to do everything else but sew if sewing makes me the definition of a quiet spirit?

So I ran.

I left for college, and I admitted I was a failure in God’s eyes. I had failed. Clearly.

I went to movies. I had “worldly” friends (also called regular people). I stood up and said I’d had it with courtship. I studied what I wanted. I studied Marxist theory, even, and read and read and read.

But my spiritual abuse caught upI now had buckets of shame.

Towards the end of college my stomach went in knots over my choices. I felt this enormous sense of shame and guilt. So I did what every daughter of spiritual abuse does — I blamed myself.

Lana, you are a filthy sinner. If only you had kept your heart pure. If only you had tried harder. If only you had not read such liberal books. If only you had better friends. If only you had never turned on the TV. Your parents were right. I spewed lies to myself.

Lies. Lies. Lies.

OH MY GUT.

Soon after graduation, I started crying at night and begging God to remove my guilt. It was the most depressing few months of my life.

*****

5 years later I do not feel anymore shame or guilt over my college life. It’s not because I’ve had a great spiritual moment where I repented of my sin and finally learned to get it all right. Heck, I’ll never get it all right. No, rather, instead I finally admitted that I had been spiritually abused, and I finally realized that I had been programed to feel guilty just for watching a freakin’ movie.

“The truth will set you free.”

The process of learning the truth at a healing level has been slow and rocky, but underneath it all I can feel the truth rushing through me.

I am His beloved.

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. 

I Remember ATIA: Lana Hope’s Thoughts, Part Two

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HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Lana Hope’s blog Wide Open Ground. It was originally published on January 25, 2013.

< Part One

I remember ATIA: Advance Training Institute of America  — now called ATI, or Advance Training Institute.

I remember our first taste of the legalism.

We went to a local IBLP (Institute of Basic Life Principles) conference that had a Children’s Institute program. I, age 6, and my younger sister, age 5, showed up in pants. That was the last night we showed up in pants.

Soon after we applied to join their homeschool program called ATI ran by Bill Gothard. We learned that we could not watch TV to be in the program. One of our friends was blunt that they did watch TV, and they were not accepted.

The next summer when I was 7, we went to our first ATI conference in Knoxville, Tennessee. This movement was not small. And it attempted to brainwash an entire generation. We sang songs such as The Umbrella Song that you can listen to on youtube. It’s a cute little song about staying underneath our umbrella of authority. The song seems harmless (after all, kids need to obey their parents, right?), but keep in mind, that was the watered down children’s version of authoritarian headship that was stressed over and over in the Christiany Patriarchy movement. See Gothard’s personal webpage on the umbrella.

At the ATI conference, we had to wear blue skirts and white shirts; my little sister was so skinny and so tiny at age 6, that the blue jean skirt would actually fall off at times. Also, in the summer heat, the churchy white shirts made for a lot of sweat.

We would line up in alphabetical order each morning, and then were taken off in school buses (of all irony) to our appropriate groups. Girls went to one building, and did girl crafts and had girl lessons. Boys went to a different building and did cool activities like rock climb.

My friend and I were both tomboys and wanted badly to rock climb. So my friend suggested that we all put a pair of pants into our bags (not tell our parents about it) and ask our leaders if we could join up with the boys. That backfired. Our cell group leader reported our request, and a man took us all outside on a bench and told us we were not boys, and we needed to be thankful that they were teaching us to sew. Then he said if we even mentioned what the boys were doing, or even looked at the boys, he would call our fathers.

A piece of me died that day.

And the now famous Duggar family was at that conference. I remember meeting them.

One night at a local Children’s Institute we studied attentiveness, learned the attentive song, listened attentive stories, and then at the end had to promise that we would always be attentive. There were 100 kids or more there, and we were supposed to put our right hand in the air and promise. I knew I was dingy, I knew I would fail.

My elementary education was not normal to say the least. We went through what we called wisdom booklets, an all encompassing one-age fits all homeschool curriculum. I studied the Bible, memorized character traits and Matthew 5-7, studied Greek and law, and read missionary stories.

Weird, I know.

When my family left ATI when I was in 10th grade, I had lost a whole year of high school credits because I had never studied select courses other than math and grammar. (I don’t think this was a huge problem because my family was naturally curious and read a lot, but it would have been a problem if we had not.)

At home, Bill Gothard gave us rules to set ourselves apart though not all families listened. No TV. No pork. No rock or even contemporary Christian music. (We were told a beat would bring in demonic influence.) No pants for girls.No going to the movie theater (might ruin our witness, all about the outside).

I remember when my friend threw away Rebecca Saint James CD she received for her birthday because any drum beat is evil.

Adults had rules too. My mother was forbidden to work outside the home, and if she had a home business, she had to submit her schedule to ATI (my mom runs a business today). Sexual intercourse on the Sabbath, during a woman’s cycle, and 40 days after giving birth was strictly warned against.

Bill Gothard told parents that Cabbage Patch dolls could bring demons into the house, and trolls were evil. For my 7th birthday, I had a troll party. I loved them that much, and my sister’s doll was her life. But our dolls and trolls went in the garbage, a regret my father will probably take to his death bed.

We had local ATI get togethers, which were mostly Quiverfull families. We wore weird swimsuits (see mine below), played games, mostly fun times.

And then there was the teen programs at different places, called EXCEL for girls. We went to a mini EXCEL camp, were told to put our heads down when the boys went by, etc. The girls didn’t listen, but smiled and pretended like they did when the adults were around. I hated the hypocrisy. My mother mentioned to our group leader that her daughters had come home upset. Then the leader met with us (when she was in our area) and quizzed us about what happened. My gut literally hurt over the whole thing, and I still don’t know why she cared a hoot.

ATI is a legalistic program that encourages people to fake it on the outside.

Thankfully my family got out. And I did get a college education that Gothard warned against.

So that, my friends, is my memory of the homeschool world of ATI. Fun?

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)

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.

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

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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: graphic descriptions of sexual abuse and sibling abuse.

*****

Part One: A Childhood Destroyed

It was the early 1990’s. My family was fairly happy, and attended a church full of vibrant, hopeful people excited about Christ. Everything felt so alive. Even as a child, I never felt like church was drudgery, and every service was full of excitement with a very down-to-earth approach to Christianity that made everyone feel right at home. When I remember those days it is shocking to see how much has changed. How did we get this far? Where did it start?

It’s difficult to answer that fully. I was so young, I only remember the little things. I remember my mother and father having meetings with other members of the church. Quiet meetings – sad meetings. I remember my mother crying. As I was told years later, they were having trouble in their marriage and looking for any answers to keep this family together. My mother was hospitalized after having a breakdown, and for a time, we were sheltered at my grandmother’s house, kept safely unaware of the strange trouble that had befallen our home – circumstances nobody has really spoken of since. I remember someone telling my parents about a ‘seminar’ that seemed to give them hope. I remember the desperation in my mother’s eyes.

I remember when my parents came home with arms full of books and papers – and then, what seems like a short time later, they announced that we were going to start homeschooling.

The transition was difficult. My siblings and I were yanked out of school without any real explanation, and told never to speak of it to anyone, not even other family members. Our house immediately turned into a prison. Suddenly we were watched more and more closely if we played outside. It felt like the whole world collapsed into just the square of our yard, and everything outside of that suddenly became terrifying. It all happened so fast, but felt like a train wreck in slow motion. And it was just the beginning.

I don’t remember when my father took a turn for the worst, exactly; it was a progression more than a singular event.

When we were little, he had a remarkable temper – in an instant he could go from calm to screaming. He’d threaten to beat us, to leave us outside, to kill us; over time, though, the threats and behavior got stranger and stranger, more and more disturbing. Specifics on how exactly he’d kill us and make it look like a hunting accident; strange punishments, like being told to pick up a piece of wood swarming with fire ants and carry it around; working beside him and being left without relief or hydration in temperatures over 100 degrees. Throughout all of this, the teachings of Bill Gothard were being fed to us non-stop. We jumped in headfirst, and my father was quite happy to take the role of Umbrella over us – the hammer that pounded us into submission and into a “diamond” for Christ.

Around those early days, my father began sexually abusing me. He had hand-picked a few verses from the Bible that he felt gave him the permission to do so. He’d had a revelation from God, that it was his right, perhaps even his duty. Several nights a week, he would take what he thought was his. I learned how to keep my eyes open at bedtime, and started throwing fits (even if it meant being called ‘rebellious’) until a light was left on in the hallway – his shadow appearing in my doorway would stir me from sleep and give me enough time to try and turn over. I started staying awake at night, for hours on end. Sometimes I even put things haplessly in front of my door to make it more difficult for him to enter, trying to make it look like an accident or just a messy room.

Most days I had precious little sleep.

And if it wasn’t terrifying enough that my father was doing this – it was worse to think of an angry God who would send misfortune, curses, danger, even demons from Hell to torture me if I dared step out from under my father’s tyranny. I was told that this was what God, omnipresent, infinitely powerful, wanted.

How could I ever dream of escaping that?

My mother worried about her daughters. She was, perhaps, nearly as much of a victim as we were. She knew she was expected to submit to his will, and they, too, had left behind most of their friends. In retrospect, I believe she put on a brave face and tried to help us when she could – until she, too, became brainwashed into believing she was inferior, that she must answer to my father and to Bill Gothard’s angry God. I don’t believe she knew about the sexual abuse; if she did, she certainly never spoke of it. And, truth be told, I don’t think she would have stopped it if she knew – at the time, she was as much under my father’s iron fist as we were. She became quiet, sad, afraid – and then, she painted on a big vacant smile, and forced a cheery laugh.

We were expected to be cheerful, after all. Enthusiastic!

By the time I was about 11 years old, I had developed the best system I could think of to try and gain some semblence of safety from my father. I would come up with an issue, any issue at all, just before bedtime (after all, we were taught never to let the sun go down on your anger – always resolve all issues before bedtime!), and try to drag it on into the night. I’d make it as dramatic and urgent as I could; I needed prayer and I needed it now! I was bitter and really really had to confess something! Hey, maybe we can pray a hedge around the house! As long as it kept my father awake well past his bedtime, to the point of all but cursing at me – it sometimes meant one more night safe from his sexual advances.

Still the guilt burned inside me that I was going against God’s will by trying to keep my father at bay.

I was torn between guilty shame, and desperation. Some nights desperation won out, and my act would resume; I would sleep safely, but worn down by my guilt. Other nights I would accept my fate, even going to bed early in the hopes it would be over with soon. Unfortunately, he got downright vengeful about trying to break me down in response, often calling family meetings or trying to humiliate me in front of everyone. I was too afraid to tell anyone what was going on and he certainly didn’t mention it, so the only thing they got out of it was that I was the trouble child who had a real problem with the almighty patriarch of our family.

It was a daily war between myself and my father, and he usually won out.

I was the youngest in our household. Under Gothard’s strict sense of hierarchy, and because of my efforts to stave off some abuse and their interpretation as ‘rebellious’, my family readily interpreted these teachings to mean that I was the very bottom of the totem pole. As such, when I was about 7 or 8, my two older sisters began to abuse me as well. The middle sibling was hesitant, sometimes going along in fear with the oldest, and other times secretly trying to protect me. Quite in fact, she taught me how to open my eyes just a little bit so that it looked like they were closed but I could keep an eye out. She taught me places to hide, what to say, what to do. She tried to stop me from fighting it so hard, feeling that it was better to play along than to create problems and receive more abuse. She would often shush me or try to rein me in. She made fun of me when others were around, but in secret, she was my best friend and ally.

Caught literally in the middle, she took it all quietly and kept it all inside.

The oldest of us tried to stay out of the house a lot, but when she was home, she did a lot of her own abusing. I think her way of coping was to feel powerful by abusing those she saw as being beneath her, while claiming to be their best friend to keep them close. Using her rank as the oldest, she would order us to humiliate ourselves, perform sexual acts, or tell her embarrassing details of our lives, or divulge inappropriate details of her own sex life and make us swear to secrecy, all the while laughing and pretending it was all a joke or a game or just normal girl talk. She babysat frequently and turned the same pattern of abuse outward onto those children as well.

She liked to get others to gang up with her on her abuse – so when the middle sibling didn’t want to go along, she pressured me into going with her to babysit.

I was far too uncomfortable to join in on teasing and bullying the kids while pretending to be a nice person…it gave me a sick feeling in the bottom of my stomach. I usually stuck to the corner of any given room and quietly whined that I just wanted to go home.

Since all three of us slept in the upstairs portion of the house (a portion often neglected by our parents), most of this went on up there where they were blissfully unaware. I believe Gothard’s teachings of authority gave my oldest sister the feeling that she, too, had the right and perhaps even the duty to treat us in this way.

Every year, our family attended Knoxville conferences religiously. We would make it into a family trip, veering off into Colorado for a while (our other favorite vacation spot) or just sightseeing along the way. Each time we returned home, for a while we were high on Gothard’s teachings and on our best behavior. The abuse would sometimes stop for a while, but other times seemed to be worse. Knoxville was something I simultaneously dreaded and anticipated.

The Knoxville conference in either 1998 or 1999 really changed everything for us. During the side-seminar reserved for fathers, Bill Gothard revealed what I can only guess was some kind of new teaching about the dangers of demonic attacks. (I don’t really know much – my father was very secretive about any material reserved for men-only or fathers-only.) A checklist was handed out to each father. If your child exhibited a certain number of traits, the fathers were told, it was safe to say they were being targeted by Satan. There were specific steps to take, of course, to rid your home of these demonic influences – most notably, burning possessions.

That night, my father was wearing a big grin on his face.

He reached for his binder and pulled out the checklist. He described the teaching in brief, went through each item on the checklist, and then sat back looking at me over his glasses as if to say, “What now?” I was floored. I started to cry. Well on my way to being brainwashed, I wasn’t even sure what scared me worse: That demonic influences had taken over my soul, or that my father made a vague promise to bring ‘big changes’ into our house after we returned home. What was he going to do?

As soon as we returned home, my parents went to work. They started burning dozens and dozens of things in our home. About half my possessions were taken and burned, my sisters’ left virtually untouched; I was forced to watch the few shreds of joy I had go up in flames. Even a couple of my favorite shirts – just polos I liked – were burned away. I was prayed over. There were exorcisms with the help of the leader of the local fathers’ meeting and some local church and ATI members – hands laid on me, men shouting, my mother weeping for my soul. I shook in terror. My whole world was collapsing around me.

I felt something from those hands pressed on me, but it wasn’t love. It was hate and fear and punishment.

Weeks stretched into months that passed in a blur of numbness. It was October 1999. Y2K was looming, and my father had sunk into paranoia, vowing to prepare us for the worst. We were almost completely stocked with foodstuffs, guns, supplies. I stopped my attempts at safety; it was reduced to the occasional weeping reluctance to go to bed, and nothing more. I had been broken. The night of October 4th was one of the few nights I put up a fight. Dad had picked me up from basketball practice and driven me home, and when bedtime came, I sat at the top of the stairs saying I wouldn’t sleep. He looked up at me in disgust from the bottom of the steps, shook his head, sighed and went to bed.

I wasn’t even worth it anymore. Finally, I went to sleep in relative peace.

I woke to the sound of my mother calling tearfully up to me and my sister. She frantically told us to come downstairs, “your Dad’s not breathing!” She said she was afraid he might be having a heart attack, and she’d called the paramedics. She tried to assure us, and gathered us into a circle where we clasped hands and prayed. I looked up into her eyes, screwed shut and full of tears, and somehow I knew we would never be the same again. I knew Dad was never going to wake up. He was gone.

At the hospital, the news finally came. They couldn’t revive him, and he had passed away. My mother and sister wept. I sat there in stunned silence. Was it really over? That night we returned home, and for the first time, I broke down completely. Years of emotions and trauma came rushing to me at once, and I spent the entire night crying and violently sick.

After that, things were very different.

What little activities we did outside the house were clamped down. My mother received direct help from a few members of the ATI board of directors at Bill Gothard’s direction. I still don’t understand how it happened – she just received a phone call one day and that’s how it began. My best guess is that it had something to do with Bill Gothard’s teachings about caring for the “fatherless” and “widows”. The idea that a family would be without their powerful patriarch was almost taboo – we were more open to sin and Satan’s attacks, they said. The tone people took was one of pity, but often condescending.

It felt like we had become second-class members of ATI.

Part Two >