Falling from Family Dysfunction into Nightmares Realized — Another Story of Homeschool Abuse: Lana Martin’s Story, Part Two

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< Part One

My life during this time was bleak.

I was almost completely isolated, subject to my mother’s personal drama on a daily basis. She lost control of her hoarding behavior, eventually lining the walls of our home with piles of dusty books, magazines, and papers which seemed dearer to her than family living space and respiratory health. She instigated disputes with her siblings and raged about perceived injustices. She spent time planning parties that never happened. Until the last few years, she refused to work outside the home, even though her supplemental income would have enabled me to enroll in music or foreign language lessons. When she finally began working part-time, she spent the income on a new car. She fretted about falling behind in educating me, while doing nothing to improve the situation.

She instructed me to lie about our daily routine.

Despite her awareness that this situation had become quite terrible, she still believed keeping me at home was preferable to exposing me to the horrors of public school. HSLDA purports homeschooling is all but necessary to preserve a child’s decency.  It was, no doubt, far easier for my mother to ignore the reality of the situation while consoled with this noble image.

Despite isolation, my mother continued to monitor my behavior, watching for signs of emergent “teenage behavior” and un-Godly beliefs which might have seeped into our household against her wishes. Laughing at the wrong joke in a movie, for example, might unleash a torrent of shaming rage. One day, wearing nail polish would be acceptable and “pretty” — another day, it would be shamefully worldly and warrant usage of the label “slut”. By the age of 16, I became severely depressed and had lost significant weight, but was not offered counseling or medical treatment.

My mother instead chastised me for exhibiting teenage rebelliousness.

For a while I was suicidal, high-risk given my secrecy and feasible plans. No adult in my life acknowledged that this stress and isolation might have negative effects on me. No one asked me if I felt I was being prepared to enter the adult world or to attend college. My father, despite living in the same house, never inquired about my education or wellbeing. Grandparents expressed concern and curiosity but were silenced by my mother’s convicted assertions. More distant family members inquired skeptically but were blown off with her combative resolve. I felt trapped and hopeless, unwanted and invisible.

*****

I did escape this situation at the age of 18.

My mother’s employment during the last few years enabled me to get out of the house more often and, in turn, my mental health improved. I earned my GED, began working in retail, attended community college, then moved to another city and supported myself through university. I somehow emerged with a strong sense of self and the ability to form healthy social relationships. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I have always had my doubts about Christianity. Today I follow a self-constructed spirituality stemming from Buddhist philosophy, yoga, and meditation, with occasional dabbling in occult divination via cartomancy.

However, there is a dark side of myself that only a close few know.

For years I have struggled with PTSD symptoms, depression, social anxiety, and low self-esteem. Often I cannot identify with my peers as the experiences of my first 18 years were so atypical and potentially stigmatizing. I mourn the loss of my childhood and the absence of positive parental figures.

These days I can’t imagine away the pain of this long-term isolation and having been physically abused.

I was thrown under the bus to fulfill my parents’ fantasies of the perfect family.

Nor can I align myself with my parents’ perspective that children and teenagers are indentured servants. I can’t stop caring about how poorly they treated me, nor suppress the feelings of disgust and unease that arise when I see them or imagine visiting them.

I am currently no-contact with my parents. My mother flatters herself with historical revisions, presenting my acceptance to a prestigious graduate program as the success of her home education efforts. They have not acknowledged the truth of our shared history, and I do not know how to relate to them as anyone other than authority figures. I have no emotional attachment to them, and for now their presence in my life merely reminds me of the horrible things they did to me.

But, gradually, I am feeling less shame about what happened to me. I am starting to feel less embarrassed by it and more proud of how I overcame the situation. I am beginning to empathize with my past self, appreciating the things I did then to help me survive into the present. Lately I feel more “human” in some vague sense. Specifically, I feel more capable of relating to other people and knowing what I want and need. On that note, my therapist of five years is a total rock star.

*****

At its core, this is clearly a story about growing up in a dysfunctional family and with an abusive mother failing to manage her mental health issues. However, several aspects of the Christian subculture homeschooling movement stand out as fueling the existing fire of my misfortune, or creating the perfect storm of an abusive, neglectful homeschooling situation.

Regulations on homeschooling may have discouraged my mother from wanting to homeschool, or brought outside attention to my terrible situation. Currently, in many states, future homeschool students silently fade away behind a vague letter of withdrawal and intent. Registration with the local school district would require parents to face school officials and engage in dialogue about their rationale and preparations. Annual lesson plan approval and testing would encourage earnest academic investment and would identify on-going cases of neglect. It has become apparent lately that, upon legal emancipation, many homeschooled teenagers no longer desire to attend Bob Jones University or marry into a Quiverfull movement. Documenting grades and filing transcripts with the local school district would expand higher education opportunities for these children. Such regulations would have imposed reality on my mother’s mostly unchallenged fantasy world, one which placed me at a severe disadvantage.

HSLDA’s promoted image of homeschooling provided an ideal fantasy for my mother to latch onto.

She saw herself most importantly as a warrior for Christ, less so a dedicated teacher. HSLDA propaganda, in fact, less heavily emphasizes the importance of proving quality education and social opportunities for children. One can walk away from an HSLDA forum thinking, “the most important thing is that I remove my child from the evil public school environment.” Dispassionate, research-based information about the work needed for legitimate homeschooling would place the value of teaching above “fighting the culture war”. Availability of such information may have undermined my mother’s romanticized image of the homeschool-mom as an anything-goes hero-by-default. HSLDA’s insistence to avoid regulations and legitimate research on homeschooling does nothing to protect or improve home education, only to help obscure appalling cases such as mine.

It’s clear from my description of family dynamics that one may not expect me to have had a “good-enough” childhood regardless of how I was educated. Sometimes I ask myself, “how would public (or private) school have improved my situation?” My parents failed to educate me; it would have provided a baseline education that was, at least, better than nothing. My parents believed that children should not be allowed a voice; it would have provided access to adult mentors who might have listened to and respected me. My parents were socially isolated, lacking friendships; it would have provided opportunities to acquire developmentally-appropriate social skills rather than learning it all at once as a working college student. My parents did not provide extracurricular activities for me; it would have provided a means to expand myself with arts or athletics.

Finally, my parents did not offer a structured means by which I could assess my personal changes and growth. Formal schooling, no matter how angst-ridden it might be for many young people, at the very least grants the student a sense of autonomy in deciding whether they love or hate school, admire or despise authority figures, agree or disagree with society at large.

My parents robbed me of that experience by imposing their selfish whims on me, unchecked by the isolation.

Although I survived with a fair bit of myself intact, going through this experimental phase while an employee and student, alone in a new city, was both risky and terrifying.

*****

A question I continue to grapple with — and perhaps will, for a while — is: who do you turn to when your own mother is trying to destroy your metamorphosis into a healthy, functional adult? When your father ignores your plight?

What do you do?

No adult in my immediate or distant family intervened, nor were child protective services ever alerted to my condition. Family members cannot be depended on to identify and report educational neglect and abusive behavior. Turning a blind eye is easier for many than dealing with a difficult person or sacrificing the perfect family image for a child’s so-called “rights”.

Homeschooling is a dangerous plan when abuse, isolation, and dysfunction already exist within a family. Homeschooling is also a unique challenge when parents or children already struggle to maintain mental health. A first step toward preventing tragedies similar to my own would be access to dispassionate home education information and enactment of regulations that screen for high-risk families.

Until stories like mine cease to appear, influential organizations such as HSLDA owe such efforts to the wellbeing of these particularly vulnerable children.

Falling from Family Dysfunction into Nightmares Realized — Another Story of Homeschool Abuse: Lana Martin’s Story, Part One

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The HSLDA promotes a certain image of the average homeschool family, a cozy picture which convinces thousands of parents each year to withdraw their children from public school.

Parents in the conservative Christian subculture explicitly use homeschooling to shelter children from secular beliefs. Regardless of the degree of their sheltering, they often want to provide an emotionally and spiritually healthy educational environment for their child. While HSLDA propaganda acknowledges that homeschool parents experience a range of “ups and downs”, it neglects to provide critical, data-driven information on specific challenges. God will lead any willing parent to successfully homeschool, they say, avoiding the issue that some families could be considered high-risk for unsatisfactory, even abusive, homeschooling outcomes.

Instead, these promotional materials vaguely assert that God will use each parent’s strengths to provide a positive and effective home education environment. They assure potential homeschooling parents that, regardless of their educational background, any follower of Christ can give their child a better, safer intellectual and social development than formal schooling would.

*****

My experience as a neglected homeschool student growing up in an abusive, dysfunctional family is testimony that this scenario does not always unfold so neatly.

My mother was encouraged by HSLDA propaganda to homeschool me, and my parents were enabled by lack of regulatory oversight to proceed with little consideration for my needs.

*****

Over the past few years, the confusion and pain that has haunted me for over a decade has driven me to tease apart how my bizarre past came to be and how I managed to survive it. I grew up in a conservative, fundamentalist Southern Baptist family. True to form, my parents believed that children, relative to adults, lack basic rights of respect and agency. They bought into the Dobsonian authoritarian parenting philosophy that rose in popularity during the 1980s: parents are responsible for their children’s eternal salvation, a task best achieved by breaking the child’s willful inner core of sin through severe physical punishment and verbal shaming.

My mother, in particular, was extremely controlling and sheltering. As long as I can remember, I had to sit patiently and listen to her rants about “contemporary culture” and her demonization of public school, working moms, divorced couples, the existence of sexuality, almost all the music out there, and (of course) spaghetti-strap tank tops.

I later realized that her polarized perspective, especially her black-and-white thinking, relates to her poorly managed mental health issues, which most likely expand far beyond official diagnoses of major depression and anxiety disorder. She partially blamed these illnesses on energy lost in battling the devil — particularly in guarding her children against influences of the more liberal family members who were, in fact, instruments of the devil placed on earth to challenge her faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, her personal friend and savior.

My mother’s parenting decisions were driven by fear and paranoia. She lacked empathy, a psychological freedom that allowed her to place ideology above a child’s needs.

My father’s choices were driven by his desire to pacify my mother. He wanted peace and quiet, a need I was happy to comply with, as I had been trained to do since birth.

Life in public school grades K-3 was no picnic. My mother frequently initiated conflict with teachers and administrators. She confronted teachers over which G-rated secular movies were shown in class; she became incensed when her VHS cassette of a cartoon Christian Easter Story was not allowed to be shown due to religious content. Appeal to follow the norms of mainstream society means nothing to someone who is convinced they have discovered the one right way to live.

As I faced my entrance into junior high school, my mother grew terrified of my impending exposure to a more rigorous secular education, jealous of the increased time I would spend away from her during extracurricular activities, and paranoid of “worldly influences” from the more complex peer relationships I might form. She expressed alarm when I began budding as an independent person. I recall her rebuking me for my change in personality, blaming my new attitudes and opinions on peer influence, and shaming me for “becoming a different person”. No developmental change could be attributed to my unique thoughts and emotions; her shame- and fear-based authoritarian parenting creed declares children do not (or should not) have their own. Her need to use her child as a mirror to understand herself prevented her from acknowledging my identity.

My mother’s behavior created intense chaos and embarrassment for me as a child. I became fearful of her near-constant scrutiny of my tone, expressions, and reactions. In his passivity, my father did little to mitigate the negative impacts my mother’s intrusive, unpredictable behavior had on me.

*****

My journey down the rabbit hole begins when I was placed in a Baptist private school, which I actually liked because the 4th grade classes were small and intimate. But half-way through the school year, my mother once again generated conflict with school officials.  The more “secular” aspects of an otherwise quite religious curriculum were questionable. She had taken a part-time job in the after school care program and developed irresolvable interpersonal problems with her co-workers. Suddenly everyone at this school was bad, dumb, not up to her standards. She abruptly moved us back to the local public school for the second half of the year.

I remember this mid-year move as a turning point in my childhood, when I first fully realized that my mother had serious problems which were not being addressed by other adults in my life. I realized that her selfish whims would be catered to at the expense of my needs. That I had to shut up and put up, as I would not be listened to nor respected. I silently grieved the departure, leaving friends I would likely never see again. My last few months in public school were disastrous. I struggled to cope with the change, was self-conscious of my mother’s erratic behavior, and developed behavioral problems. My grades fell from As to Cs. This shift strengthened my mother’s resolve to remove me from this “toxic environment” and teach me at home.

Around this time, my mother became attracted to HSLDA’s portrayal of the homeschool family. Through HSLDA, she learned that children did not need to learn how to be independent, mature teenagers because the concept of “teens” is a modern myth. She declared that dating would not be allowed, but she would supervise a parent-controlled courtship. Participation in athletics, the arts, or science labs would have to be carefully censored and restricted to prevent exposure to un-Godly influences. She learned that mainstream education, socialization and rampant acquaintance-making would be unnecessary for and harmful to my development.

As a homeschooled child I would, presumably, learn how to become an adult through observing and imitating my mother in the home. As an emancipated 18-year-old, I would then either attend a Christian Bible-based private university (Pensacola and Bob Jones were popular ideas) or marry some family-approved fellow I had successfully courted under her supervision.

This was the reality I faced as a 10-year-old girl.

This might have all been faintly reasonable had my family been functional and my mother a healthy, responsible adult. Rather, my mother was increasingly overwhelmed by self-gratifying fantasies and obsessions. She became easily bored with reality, distressed by responsibility. Clearly, between her crises and my family’s financial struggles, even courtship and extracurriculars would not happen. My father was surely aware of these weaknesses and would have had compelling reason to question her competency, but he did not intervene. Even as a young child, I could see that I would not be taken care of in this bizarre world. And I would not have the childhood or education that would prepare me for a successful, fulfilling life in the real world.

This nightmare was my reality.

And so, beginning with 5th grade, I was “homeschooled”. I bracket this term in quotes, because without doing so would be an insult to families who legitimately home educate. At first my mother kept me involved with the local Christian home educators group. We attended meetings, field trips, and play dates. My mother purchased a years’ stock of A Beka, Bob Jones, and Saxon Math textbooks. She planned out a few months of lessons and graded my work for a few weeks.

She voraciously consumed every hyperbolic HSLDA-issued line about using homeschooling to save children in the “culture war”.

At first this seemed better than being in school because I suffered less conflict and chaos. But, predictably, over time the people in our homeschool group became bad, dumb, not up to her standards. My mother withdrew herself socially, effectively withdrawing me from the outside world except for trips to the public library and grocery store, occasional visits with extended family.

My mother’s mental health declined severely as my eight years spent “homeschooling” progressed. For much of this time, my mother slept all day in a depressive state while I cooked, cleaned, watched television, and read library books. My mother continued to purchase textbooks on an annual basis, but most remained uncracked until boredom drove me to fill out and “grade” workbooks on my own. Aside from the secular math curriculum, information I gleaned from the homeschool curricula was uselessly biased toward a fundamentalist Christian worldview.

Somehow I was aware of this and, when a particular subject interested me, I filled in gaps using the latest technological innovation we had acquired: the Internet.

Part Two >

Recovering…: By Lana Martin

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Recovering…: By Lana Martin

A while back, I had a vivid dream.

I am standing in my parents’ house. The house I grew up in. The house that, in my waking hours, sends shivers down my spine at the mere thought. Police have ordered an evacuation of the area.

Something terrible is about to happen.

I tell my parents they need to leave the house. Get in my car and drive away with me. They seem to not hear me. My dad is sitting in his chair, watching a muted TV. My mom is sleeping in bed. No, really, I tell them: we all need to go. I feel panicked. I’m responsible for moving them to safety. As they fail to look at me or stir, I realize that I have to leave. Their bodies seem trapped in a soundless chamber. There’s no hope for us to escape together. If I stay, I will die. I go back to my car. As I pull onto the highway, I feel deeply sad and guilty. I feel as though I’m abandoning my family and that I should to go back for them.

As I drive on down the highway, I sense a giant explosion behind me. The house I grew up in has disappeared into a massive, fiery mushroom cloud.

This dream took place at a point in my life when I was actively confronting my past.

I was coming to terms with the physical abuse, the emotional abuse, the spiritual abuse. I was trying to shed the deep shame I had long carried about the way I was homeschooled for eight years. I lived, for the most part, in isolation and received no parental education. I read and “graded” my own workbooks. I assumed domestic responsibility and took care of my mother, whose mental health and functionality deteriorated as our years spent homeschooling progressed.

The house that exploded was my prison for eight years.

The living room was where my mother slept on the sofa all day. The kitchen was where my slapdash dinners of canned and frozen food were consumed in uncomfortable silence. My parents’ bedroom was where my father beat me as a small child. The family bathroom was where I nursed the bruises and welts.

My bedroom was a sanctuary, almost shielded from my mother’s overbearing scrutiny of my thoughts and emotions.

The field behind this house, it was the true oasis. Freedom could only be found in the open prairie grassland. Trees, unlike my distant father, do in fact hug back.

Children who are homeschooled in the fundamentalist Christian subculture are particularly vulnerable to the effects of unmanaged mental illness. Stigma surrounding mental health problems is particularly strong when one’s wellbeing is tied to a positive relationship with God. Fundamentalist Christians often avoid psychiatric help and effective talk therapy due to their skepticism of scientific and humanistic thought. Learning disorders are seen as malevolent inventions of the public school system. Violence toward women and children can be normalized and justified with authoritarian, patriarchal ideology.

Black-and-white thinking and paranoia-driven behavior nicely fill the Reconstructionist mold.

Adolescent depression is perceived not as a medical condition or experiential phenomenon, but as a sinful teenage rebellion. The imposed isolation characteristic of many abusive homeschooling situations only worsens these problems for both parents and children who are struggling to identify and manage a mental illness.

I used to see myself as just another survivor of child abuse and family dysfunction, another piece of collateral damage in the Christian fundamentalist “culture war”. My homeschool situation was a failed social experiment, a delusional fantasy of my mother’s quite realized, a convenience for my father. These are clinical, academic terms and they reflect the stark lens through which I rigidly viewed myself, my history, and the psychiatric symptoms I experienced as a young adult.

And, so I thought, my depression, anxiety, insomnia, hypervigilance, dissociative episodes, panic attacks, persistent sadness, suicidal thoughts, and explosive anger might be easily resolved once removed from the toxic home in which I grew up. I should be able to get over the past and move on with life once free, employed, and college-educated. But it didn’t work out that way.

Ten years later and 1500 miles away, I still felt like an awful person, permanently damaged, incomplete.

I still drowned in shame when I thought about my past, but couldn’t shed a tear over my injuries and losses. And I still experienced quite a few undesirable symptoms of unresolved stress and trauma. I judged myself harshly for this perceived failure.

Fast-forward to a point in my life, five years into therapy, when this stoic attitude begins changing. I see my parents more clearly for who they are: selfish, exploitative, and severely maladjusted. I know that neglect impacted me perhaps more so than abuse. I struggle to feel present because I was not seen, valuable because I was not respected, calm and centered because I was not protected. I cannot remember a time when I did not feel responsible for my parents’ welfare, simultaneously fearful of my dad’s anger and my mother’s psychotic delusions.

In working with these memories and feelings in therapy, I have gradually let down my defenses. I have peeled the proverbial onion down to the part where, if I was hurt by the other person in the room, my usual defense tactics of denying, rationalizing, dissociating, and, perhaps, hissing and growling would not be enough. But the other person in the room has not hurt me, and deep vulnerability has in fact not been unpleasant.

My instinct to fortress my soul is quite strong; my desire to regenerate and heal is yet stronger.

Reacquainting myself with buried emotions has led me to feel more fully human and deserving of kindness. Through the years of sorting through my fragmented memories with my therapist, through time I remember, feel, and react to them in a new way. A way that resonates in some deep place I hadn’t known existed. That feels more relieving than triggering. That clears self-doubt from my narrative.

My therapist demonstrates empathy for me through each of these developmental phases; in turn I feel compassion and forgiveness for myself in the past and present. Because of this experience, I’m hopeful that one day I will feel comfortable discussing my past outside of that oasis.

I want to believe my therapist is not the only person capable of appreciating my true self and the strange experiences of my childhood.

Hindsight tells me that my intuition led me to this place because I wanted to see what it would feel like. I spent a young lifetime fearing authority, internally fighting coercion, and managing my image to please others, prevent conflict. I was curious what it would feel like to let go, to allow someone else to do the fixing, the soothing, the pushing, thinking of the right words to say and being most concerned with how I might feel in response to them.

At some point I began to sense this happening. It felt incredibly, intoxicatingly good.

Some days I feel really sad without knowing exactly why. I often dream of losing something very dear but not actually knowing what it was. Now I know at least part of this loss. And now I grieve my injuries and losses, in words and tears, alone and with others.

At the end of my dream, I did not mourn the shattered house.

I kept driving away, without looking back.