The Reluctant Rebel: Gemma’s Story, Part Six

Homeschoolers U

HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Gemma” is a pseudonym specifically chosen by the author.

< Part Five

Part Six: Spring of Senior Year and the Scandal of 2006

It wasn’t far into the spring semester before the whole situation went nuclear.

The college rescinded Dr. Root’s contract for the upcoming school year. The contracts had already been issued—it was not simply that they decided not to renew. They issued him a contract, and then rescinded it. Farris claims this was in response to something Dr. Root said in class that upset a parent. What is more likely is that the parent’s complaint was the excuse Farris had been looking for to rid himself of this troublesome professor, this man who mocked his Dean of Student Life and who had no compunction about publicly, in class and in writing, disagreeing with his idiosyncratic, sola scriptura pedagogical views.

This action by the college confused and grieved many students. The grief and confusion turned into a movement, the SaveRoot! Movement, complete with a protest website, orange lapel ribbons, and flyer distributions. Root’s de facto firing succeeded in radicalizing a few students, kids who wouldn’t even sign the letter the semester before but were now going around campus wearing orange. We weren’t optimistic, but we were earnest. We all knew, or suspected, that Root would not go alone. We loved our professors and wanted them to stay. So we wore orange, built websites, handed out flyers, and did our best to make it extremely clear to the administration that we would support a change of course while there was still time.

Wednesday, March 15. The Ides of March. A group of us, students and alumni, were watching The National play at the Black Cat in DC, despondent, trying to absorb the news that five professors had resigned in protest over Dr. Root’s treatment by the administration. We’d known it was coming, but that didn’t make it easier. Our fight was over, and we had lost. The band’s melancholy tunes seemed like a perfect reflection of our grief and anger.

I think this place is full of spies

I think they’re on to me

Didn’t anybody, didn’t anybody tell you

Didn’t anybody tell you how to gracefully disappear in a room?

This time, the magic wasn’t working. There was no gracefully disappearing, no absorption into the anonymous crowd this night. I love The National, but I’ve never enjoyed a show less. I felt alone and homeless. Everything we had worked so hard for had just gone up in smoke, and I still had two months of school left to endure. I didn’t belong there anymore, but I didn’t belong here either. I was stuck between worlds. I didn’t want to leave the club and go back to school, but the realization loomed that the people rubbing shoulders with me would never understand my story.

I would spend the rest of my life with Patrick Henry College on my resume, my Facebook, my Google search history.

To everyone outside the school, I would be identified with PHC and what it had become. To everyone inside, I was already identified with the enemy without, with “the world.” Was there even a place in the world for us

The alumni were drinking heavily. I was just trying not to cry.

You were right about the end.

It didn’t make a difference.

Everything I can remember,

I remember wrong.

The administration did not respond well to the mass resignation. Farris was clearly outraged and caught off guard. He quickly instructed the professors not to discuss the matter with students or the press. Farris, however, did not hesitate to discuss his opinions of the debacle with anyone who would listen. In typical fashion, he said some rather inflammatory and unflattering things about the professors, especially implying that they were less than genuinely Christian and didn’t believe in the Statement of Faith, which all members of the campus community had to sign.

Not unreasonably, the professors decided to defend themselves against these insinuations.

Friday, March 31, 2006 is one of those “I’ll always remember where I was” days. During one of his afternoon classes, Dr. Robert Stacey read a printout of the Statement of Faith to his class. Dr. Stacey was a founding faculty member, the chairman of the Government Department, the creator of the college’s flagship Freedom’s Foundations courses, my thesis advisor, and my dear friend. He read the Statement of Faith to his class and proclaimed his enthusiastic agreement with it. He reminded the students that it was his job to teach them according to this statement, and that if any of them thought he had failed in to do this, they would be better off getting up and leaving his class, and that he would not hold it against them.

After a few minutes, one daft sophomore girl did get up and leave (I say “daft” because, when asked later why she did this, she never could give a clear explanation). A couple of Farris’ toadies found her wondering the hallway, dazed and confused. When they got the story out of her, they immediately ran upstairs and told Farris.

What really happened next depends on who you ask. I didn’t have classes on Fridays; I was at my apartment during this whole event. At some point in the aftermath, I started getting desperate messages from students on campus that Dr. Stacey was being fired. I put on something dress-code compliant and drove over to campus. I found a pod of anxious, tearful underclassmen gathered outside the front doors of the main building. No one could tell me much other than that Dr. Stacey had said something during class, and now he was up in Farris’ office. I stuck my head in the building. It was mostly empty, as it usually was on Friday afternoons. No professors were in their offices. The two toadies were gliding around, looking smug and triumphant, but they would not deign to talk to me. The daft girl was sitting in the dining hall, crying.

I left; I needed to get back to my computer communicate with alumni and other off-campus students. At some point that evening, witnesses later told me, Farris came down to the dining hall and gave a red-faced rant in which he accused Dr. Stacey of “unprofessional conduct” and “forcing the students to choose sides.” Farris had given him the weekend to apologize or be fired. In reality, Dr. Stacey’s phone and email had been cut off by the time he got back to his office that afternoon. There was never actually any choice. A few of us students helped him pack up his office the next day.

Once again, this action by the administration only helped radicalize a few more students.

Dr. Stacey was beloved by the student body in a way Farris could never hope to be. It was abundantly clear to most observers that Dr. Stacey’s real crime had been embarrassing Mike Farris and little else; certainly, Farris’ behavior on that day could hardly be described as “professional” in any meaningful sense.

It is hard to overemphasize the severity of the emotional toll the professors’ resignations and, especially, Dr. Stacey’s firing inflicted on the students. The mood was funereal. We tried to keep up a sort of rueful sense of humor about the whole thing—at one point, we held a “wake” party commemorating the “death” of PHC as we knew it—but underlying the cynicism was a deep and sincere sorrow. This was not how we wanted things to turn out! We were not trying to ruin the school, we had been trying to save it! There were a lot of tears in the weeks following. I broke down anytime I had a chance to breathe and think—in the car, in the shower, at church.

The rest of the semester went by in a fury. Despite the fact that the real battle was over, there was plenty of fallout to manage, and keeping busy helped stave off the depression. The scandal hit the news and suddenly reporters everywhere wanted to talk to us, bloggers wanted to write about us, and alumni wanted to know what was happening as it happened. Managing the reporters was especially sticky. The college had always been happy to show off to reporters, but now they were having trouble controlling the message. The departing professors had been threatened not to speak out, but they refused to comply once Farris started maligning them in the press. The students didn’t have to be told not to speak without permission—the level of fear at this point was intense enough to keep most people in line. By the end of the semester, though, I felt like I didn’t have much left to lose. I chatted with my alumnus boyfriend about it a couple weeks before graduation:

boyfriend: Are you sure you want to talk to this reporter while you are in school?

me: if the professors are willing to talk, I am willing to talk

boyfriend: Don’t you fear reprisal before graduation?

me: yeah, a little

I mostly don’t care anymore

there’s really not much left they can do to me, or take from me

they can’t stop me from graduating because I talked to a reporter

In reality, they probably could have, but I called their bluff and they didn’t.

In the midst of all this, the Student Life drama continued apace. One day Dean Wilson stumped for the establishment candidate for Student Body President in chapel. The Student Senate (I was also a Senator) debated revising the election rules to prohibit this sort of interference in the future. Another day, they rescinded the rule allowing people to live off campus for the following school year, unless they already had leases. We scrambled to help friends get leases signed that day. It became a full-time job. “Every few hours or so there is more bad news,” I wrote in an email to a friend.

Meanwhile, I was also desperately trying to finish my last bit of coursework so I could walk across the stage and never look back.

I had a job to go to and post-graduation plans to line up. The pressure became unbearable at times. There was just no outlet for it. I began to entertain the thought, on my way to church or the grocery store, that I could just keep driving and never come back. Some days I would get as far as the Shenandoah River before collecting myself enough to go back home. I wasn’t the only one.

Email to a friend, May 10, 2006

[Name redacted] snapped the other day and just ran away.  Literally, just threw her stuff on the ground and ran the fuck away.  They found her, she didn’t go too far and it was in the middle of the day and people saw her, but it is frightening because we all have that impulse from time to time, but are rational enough to stop ourselves.  I wish I could run away though.

Towards the very end of the semester, I packed a cooler full of snacks and a bag full of books, drove out of town a ways, and rented a room at a cheap motel, with no internet access. I gave my boyfriend the room’s telephone number, but no one else knew where I was. I prayed no one would recognize my car from the road. I spent four days in that room, writing my thesis and trying to sleep. (I wasn’t sleeping much anymore; even when I got the chance, I was plagued with nightmares and woke up terrified and exhausted.) This was the closest I came to running away.

I returned to find the senior class up in arms. I had been elected one of two senior class representatives, so this was my problem, too. Some graduating seniors had invited Dr. Stacey to come watch them graduate, but he told them he’d been banned from campus.

The seniors wanted the administration to make an exception, for a few hours, so he could attend graduation. The other senior class representative and I were supposed to have a conference call with Farris about it. The other representative set it up, but we were both on the phone when Farris’ assistant answered it. She asked us to wait, then came back with the news that Farris would only speak to the other representative, not to me. My friend told her that this was not a personal request, but a request on behalf of the whole senior class. Therefore, both of the senior class representatives should be present on the call. The assistant asked us to wait again, then returned with the news that Farris was out of town. We would have to reschedule.

Ten minutes after this phone call, witnesses on campus saw Farris leave the main building, get in his SUV, and drive away. He wasn’t out of town; he just didn’t want to talk to me on the phone, so he lied about it.

The seniors wrote a letter to Farris with our request. It was signed by most of the graduating class. Not surprisingly, our request was denied. The administration wanted to avoid “incidents” and, apparently, a majority of seniors was insufficient. Since we seniors didn’t have unanimity on the issue, the college said approving our request wouldn’t be fair to those few who chose not to sign the letter.

Like Stacey’s firing, this bungled response only radicalized a few more people.

The seniors were also forced to cancel the annual Professor Appreciation dinner. The faculty and the student body were so firmly split between those loyal to the departing professors and those loyal to Farris and the administration, it would have been impossible to get everyone in the same room together and have any semblance of a good time. The mutual distaste was too strong.

The week before graduation was as close to rock-bottom as I’ve ever been. I wrote to an alumnus friend three days before graduation:

Today has just been hell.  Every day there is more.  Will we be living with the pain of all this for forever

They’ve told us we are not allowed to have any senior pranks.  Which I guess is just as well, I have work to do and couldn’t really afford the time.  But I say, no senior pranks – no senior gifts.  Screw them for taking the last bit of joy out of our miserable lives here.

The profs are drafting a response to Farris’ [most recent] accusation.  I am worried they will all boycott graduation… and I don’t think I can go through with it if they are not there… I am so weary of this.

From a chat with another alumnus friend, in response to some event—probably the publication of a media piece making the college look bad:

this is good – it proves all those bastards wrong who say we’re just a bunch of selfish whiners out for revenge

they do not even realize

revenge would not feel good right now

it is not even remotely what I want

what I want is everything they have taken from me

what I want is a college experience as it should have been

what I want is better health and not a life of pain

because we are “winning” now, and if this is all we wanted, we should be happy

but I’ve never been more depressed in my life

I don’t want this to come across as if the only things we were upset about were missing out on “senior pranks” and the typical “college experience.” You have to remember that the reason we were all at this college to begin with was so much more than this. If all we wanted was to party and have fun, we would have gone to a different school!

We believed in the mission and vision of the school as it had been sold to us, not as it turned out in reality. 

We had spent four or more years fighting tooth and nail to preserve and fulfill that mission. We believed in high-quality, Christian liberal arts education. We wanted to be leaders and world-changers. We were proud of the education we had received, and we loved the professors who had given it to us. We fought against the fundamentalists not because we hated their “rules,” but because their way of life was cannibalizing what was actually good about PHC. We had invested ourselves, our names, our reputations, our youth, our money in this fledgling project because we believed in it! Now our investment was being flushed away before our eyes, and the people destroying it were blaming the destruction on us. Is it any wonder we were left grieving and angry?

Graduation was the worst day of my entire life.

The departing professors did boycott. My extended family came to town for it, mostly oblivious to what was happening. I was miserable, and trying to put on a happy face for them just took more physical and emotional strength than I had left. Graduation morning, I forced myself to go through the motions and got myself to campus on time with a graduation gown on.

The lawn where the ceremony was being held was surrounded by people in uniform. Every campus security guard not graduating was on duty and lined up in a circle around the folding chairs and stage. Several Purcellville police cars lined the entrance to the campus.

This had never happened at a graduation before.

It occurred to me that they might really be scared of us! Rumors of “protests” and “incidents” had been circulating on campus, but “we” had not started them—we assumed “they” were fomenting the rumors to discredit “us.” The show of force was completely absurd; of course, no one had anything planned. Or at least, nothing requiring police and security. A growing, and by now significant, group of graduates didn’t feel like we could bring ourselves to shake hands with Farris. We had mused on what would happen if we chose not to do so. Alphabetically, I was the first of this group and the informal understanding was that if I didn’t shake his hand, the rest wouldn’t either. I went into the ceremony resigned to do it anyway. It was a motion I could go through like all the others. Just get it over with.

Then Farris threw a bomb. He was scheduled to speak last, after the diplomas had been conferred. But just before the diplomas, he hastily got up and started to speak. It was an intentionally inflammatory speech—a final dig at the professors, a parting shot, getting the last word in.

I felt like I’d been punched in the gut. I was shaking with rage and I couldn’t breath. What was the point of this? They weren’t even here—and I was glad they weren’t! I looked over my shoulder at some of my compatriots. They gaped back, wide-eyed in disbelief. Even some of those not “on our side” were sighing and looking grim. It was an embarrassingly petty act. He’s doing this because he has a captive audience, I thought. He went early because he knows we can’t leave if we haven’t gotten our diplomas yet! One last, final confirmation that it wasn’t about us students at all—it never was—it was only about him, his beliefs, his vision, his agenda, his petty scorekeeping.

In the back of the audience, the local Presbyterian pastor got up and walked out.

Farris finished, and the graduates stood to line up for our diplomas. I was shaking and dizzy. Do I shake his hand? Now, after this? I could barely walk in a straight line. At some point before I reached the stage, through my anger, I reasoned with myself that I had to be the bigger person. I could not react to petty with petty. I could not put that burden on the shoulders of those who walked behind me, even though I know they would have carried it.

Or maybe I’m just a coward. But I shook his hand.

Behind me, unprompted by anything but Farris’ behavior and his own conscience, a friendly, non-rebellious student with an unimpeachable reputation shook Farris’ hand too, looked him in the eye, and said —

“Thanks for ruining what should have been the best day of my life.”

In retrospect, I think this was the most fitting response.

I left as quickly as I could, dragging my gown behind me. My boyfriend pointed out that it was dragging the ground and I said I didn’t care —

I wished I could run over it with my car.

Part Seven >

The Reluctant Rebel: Gemma’s Story, Part Five

Homeschoolers U

HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Gemma” is a pseudonym specifically chosen by the author.

< Part Four

Part Five: Fall of Senior Year

My senior year was a year of crisis for the school.

So much has been written about the academic freedom scandal of 2006 that it doesn’t seem necessary to rehash the whole story. The only points I want to make are 1) that the scandal didn’t come out of thin air—it had been building for years as the tension between the academic and cultural/religious sides of the campus became increasingly untenable—and 2) that it took a severe toll, emotional, psychological, spiritual, and physical, on the students as well.

The troubles started during freshman orientation. Farris gave a speech during the orientation in which he claimed that Patrick Henry students only studied materials other than the Bible for purposes of “opposition research.” According to his interpretation of the doctrine of sola scripture, all necessary truth comes from the Bible. Everything else was just “learning the enemy’s playbook.” Even Plato and Aristotle could not teach us anything worthwhile. We were only to study them to become knowledgeable about “the world.” This was and still is a laughably simplistic viewpoint for any Christian, much less the president of an institution of higher learning, to hold. The faculty, including the feared and respected Academic Dean, publicly disagreed with this position, which embarrassed and enraged Farris.

A few weeks later came the first of what is now an annual event at PHC: the Faith & Reason lecture.

It was given by Todd Bates, our unassuming theology professor. He used some writings by St. Augustine to form the basis of his argument for why Christians should study the liberal arts. On the day of the lectures, Farris invited himself to the post-lecture discussion panels, where he asked obnoxious and uncharitable questions and famously accused St. Augustine of heresy. According to his simplistic way of thinking, if St. Augustine was a heretic, then nothing he said could possibly be worthwhile.  He claimed he was only using his “academic freedom” to join in the campus debate.

I don’t think it ever occurred to him that academic freedom is for people who don’t have power, not for those who do.

Furthermore, his ignorant assertions were, again, publicly corrected by both students and professors. Embarrassed once more, he threatened Dr. Bates’ job and demanded the faculty put an end to the Faith and Reasons lectures (they refused).

Shortly after this, the Academic Dean resigned to take a position in the Bush administration. I forwarded the email announcement to my dad and told him to watch and see if more faculty didn’t resign soon after.

With the departure of this Academic Dean, the faculty suddenly felt exposed and unprotected. The events at the beginning of the semester had really drawn Farris’ ire, but in addition to this, they were increasingly targeted by Paul Wilson. In accordance with his trenchant anti-intellectual streak, Wilson had decided that the faculty were the ones responsible for fomenting “rebellion” in the student body, and he was determined to do something about it.

As usual, the rulebook had been overhauled over the summer. The major change this year was that students who witnessed any offense, no matter how minor, by any other member of the campus community, including professors, were required to turn the offender in to Student Life. Otherwise, the witnesses would be punished as if they had committed the violation themselves. This change obliterated whatever miniscule level of trust still existed amongst the student body, although as usual, some students couldn’t be happier:

An email, sent Aug. 30, 2005

From: some freshman guy

To: all students

I have a great respect for Dean Wilson and the RA’s who uphold morality and dignity even when others think it is extreme.
The rules put in place have greatly increased my respect for the school as a whole and I’m proud to be called a student here.

Let’s be careful in our mockery of the rules or just plain complaining and rebellion. Rightness trumps reasonability. Do what is right whether you think it is reasonable or not. How much do you love God? Enough to obey authority?

In addition, Dean Wilson enlisted his RA’s and favorite students to help him target and punish students on his “bad” list, and to keep an eye on the faculty as well. They started monitoring the discussions in the classes of certain professors, and would go immediately to Dean Wilson’s office after class to report what they had heard. As the student body became aware of these practices, students became more and more hesitant to speak up in class, lest something they said be used against them.

The professors were more audacious, and started mocking Wilson publicly. This was encouraging to students, but only increased the tension between the faculty and administration, and each side’s favorite students. One professor, Dr. Erik Root, was especially outspoken. He was personally offended that Dean Wilson would so overstep the bounds of his authority and intrude, even via proxy, into the classroom.

The situation was bad enough by about the midpoint of the semester that a group of students, encouraged by some senior administration officials and a couple of Trustees, decided to do something about it. Many of these students were younger and still optimistic about what could be accomplished, especially now that we apparently had the ear of the Board of Trustees.

I helped organize the little movement, but I saw it as essentially a last-ditch effort.

We decided to write a letter to Dr. Farris, outlining our concerns with the campus culture and the office of student life, and emphasizing how these concerns were impacting our ability to learn in the classroom. I can say, even with many years of maturity and distance in between, the letter was legitimately fair, measured, and respectful. We did not name-call or use inflammatory or exaggerated language. We repeatedly emphasized that our overriding concern was for the future success of the college we loved so much. The letter made four points:

First, we pointed out that the school lacked any official system of due process with regard to alleged rule violations. Students were accused, convicted, and punished without any kind of transparent process, without any chance to defend themselves, and without knowing the evidence against them. Furthermore, students were routinely punished for violating “rules” not actually enumerated in the handbook, and lived in fear of arbitrary enforcement.

Secondly, we described what we saw as a culture of suspicion on campus, reinforced by the new rule requiring students to report each other or face equal punishment. Again, we emphasized that this culture of suspicion was exacerbated by the fact that students were maligned or punished for behavior that broke no specific rule at all—things like perceived attitudes, offhand comments, or unorthodox opinions.

Thirdly, we pointed out that free thought and free speech on campus with regard to student rules or administration policy, no matter how innocent or well-intentioned, was treated as thought crime. Students who submitted without question were held up as moral exemplars, while students who asked questions or voiced opinions—even if they still obeyed!—were denigrated as rebels and troublemakers.

Finally, we argued that these three factors combined to have a chilling effect on the classroom. Students were afraid to speak up in class, lest they share an opinion, or even just raise an uncomfortable point, that might land them on the “black list.” Professors worried about their ability to teach the liberal arts to students who were indoctrinated into an illiberal, submissive-to-authority mindset. We concluded that the college was engaging in self-defeating behavior. The Office of Student Life believed its mission was to create a culture of submissive conformists, while the faculty believed their mission was to create free thinkers who could lead the nation and shape the culture.

The college was at war with itself.

Even with the tacit approval and encouragement of higher-ups, we had a hard time gathering student signatures for the letter. Many students, especially those employed by the college, privately professed their support, but were too scared to actually sign the letter. Others promised to sign, but backed out at the last minute.

Email to co-author, Nov. 26, 2005

[Name redacted] called me this morning and backed out of the whole thing.  Not just the delegation – she doesn’t want any part in the whole project.  Because I had put her name on the delegation email to Dr. Farris, she felt the need to email him and Dean Wilson and tell them she was backing out.  I had already told her by email that it was okay if she didn’t want to be on the delegation, we could replace her with someone else, but apparently she got really scared while she was home and wants to make it extremely clear to everyone that she is no longer a part of this.  I know this is probably bad, but she called me right after I woke up and I couldn’t think of a reason to tell her not to do this.  I did talk her out of copying her email to all-students.

We ended up with about 75 signatures, or one-third of the student body. A smaller delegation of students took the letter to Farris. The meeting was somewhat productive. Farris promised to create a committee to review student life rules and processes, and wrote an op-ed in the student paper reiterating his commitment to freedom of speech. The younger signatories were encouraged. I was not convinced, but I was glad we had done something.

As we found out the following semester, our letter was nothing more than a doomed last-ditch effort. Once again, Farris’ “commitment to free speech” was only for appearance’s sake.

He just couldn’t refrain from taking action against speech he disagreed with.

Part Six >

The Reluctant Rebel: Gemma’s Story, Part Four

Homeschoolers U

HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Gemma” is a pseudonym specifically chosen by the author.

< Part Three

Part Four: Junior Year

I started my junior year with a panic attack as my mom and I drove back onto campus.

Of course, I had no idea what I was experiencing at the time—the overwhelming sense of dread or drowning, my heart beating wildly, fighting the sudden urge to flee the car, the campus, the world… By the time we parked, I had composed myself enough to articulate something like “I don’t want to be here anymore” to my concerned mother. Terrified and on the verge of tears, I gritted my teeth, got out of the car, and resumed life as usual.

It was the worst semester yet.

Dean Wilson and the Office of Student Life had retaliated to the loosening of certain rules the previous year by revising the rule book, especially the dress code and the music and movies standards.

The dress code at PHC had always been two-pronged. During normal business hours, students were required to dress in “business casual” outside of their dorms. One purpose of the dress code was to describe the rules for this professional dress code. The other purpose of the dress code was to maintain modesty standards. The burden of this second prong of the dress code fell primarily upon the women (though men sometimes got in trouble for “rebellious” hair styles and such).

This particular edition of the rulebook had revised the dress code for women on both counts. It clarified certain aspects of the professional, business-casual standards in such a way as to exclude certain modest, but patently unprofessional looks, like denim jumpers. It also re-worded the modesty code in a rather confusing way. There was outrage from the students on both counts. Apparently, some of the more conservative students were upset because they literally did not have enough clothes left to dress themselves according to the professional standard. (I happened to be in favor of the professionalization of the women’s dress code.) This half of the new rules was almost immediately rescinded.

The backlash over the modesty rules, however, prompted a women’s-only chapel to explain and clarify. In this chapel, the female students were informed that the modesty standards were worded in such a way as to give a positive impression to outside inquirers and prospective students. We current students, however, should understand that we needed to hold ourselves to a “higher standard.” This higher standard, apparently, was a little too “high” to codify in the actual rulebook, lest outsiders or prospective students think us too restrictive. Their solution to this dilemma was to install a volunteer “dean of women,” the wife of a member of the college’s Board of Trustees, who could help us with our wardrobes and decide for us what was appropriate, and what was not.

I do not mean this story in any way to besmirch this woman or her family. She was a kind, fair, and well-intentioned person. Most of us women were happy to have a sympathetic female authority figure on campus to talk to, and not just about our wardrobes.

But I want to emphasize the absurdity of a dress code written so vaguely and arcanely that this kind, patient woman had to come to our dorm rooms and endure hours of “fashion show” by exasperated and cynical female students, and to decide (often to our disappointment) which items of our clothing passed her test and which did not.

The movie standards had been updated in response to the advent of laptop computers with DVD players in them. When the college began in 2000, students mostly watched movies in communal lounges, on college-provided televisions equipped with censoring devices for bad language. There may have been explicit standards for movie content—I don’t remember—but the fact that movies had to be watched in public, and that random people routinely walked through the lounges at any time of day or night, meant that most people self-censored effectively.

But once students could watch movies on their laptops in the privacy of their own dorm room, the administration saw a need for explicit rules governing content. I don’t remember the details, but I do remember they were strict enough to exclude Braveheart, and indeed, Braveheart was even mentioned specifically as an example of a movie that failed to meet the content standards.

I will leave you to ponder the irony of a campus full of homeschool graduates forbidden from watching Braveheart.

I don’t remember the details of the music rules either, but it was around this time that iTunes introduced the ability to share music libraries across a shared network. The entire campus was a single network, so suddenly we all had access to each other’s music libraries. This was fantastic for those of us who were audiophiles. Apparently, it was also a great opportunity for pharisaical students to go spying. Most people with potentially offensive music had the good sense either to hide their libraries from the network or, at least, to give them anonymous names. This didn’t stop the pharisees from sending out pompous all-student emails expressing their shock and horror over, for instance, the vaudevillian gruesomeness of Decemberist songs they had stumbled upon over the network. Would Jesus listen to music like this?? As with most other things, the message—explicitly or implicitly—was that those of us who enjoyed such music were insufficiently Christian.

This all took place in the first couple of weeks or so.

The rest of the semester went by in a blur of exhaustion, depression, emotional breakdowns, and 6-8 hours a day translating Greek. I was also taking two courses from a psychopathological Sovietologist who dressed (and thought and taught) like it was still 1985. She trimmed her nails into little triangles, like bird claws, and tapped them ominously on the table during class. On the first day of class, she described how she once woke a student sleeping in her class by slamming a heavy textbook onto the table next to his head.   She held her classes at 8am on purpose, because she knew we were all exhausted and she wanted to… I’m not sure what she wanted, actually.

But she seemed to enjoy torturing her students.

She deliberately withheld information from me that thwarted my ability to make good grades in her class, and then blamed me for not knowing what she decided not to tell me. She called me into her office on various pretexts, only to berate me to the point of tears over my grades. Then, after ruining my chances in her classes, she refused to sign off on my application for a study-abroad opportunity, telling me that, as far as she was concerned, I “had no future in academia.”

I decided to transfer. Up until this point, at least the wonderful professors and classes had been worth enduring all the BS from student life. Now, I had nothing going for me. My panic attacks and emotional breakdowns continued with growing intensity. I couldn’t take it anymore.

But I wanted to transfer to another private, liberal arts school nearby, so I could stay in touch with my friends. My parents didn’t want to pay for that out of pocket, and there was very little scholarship money available for transferees from non-accredited institutions. My only other choices were to attend a state school back home, or find a way to make PHC work.

It was a choice that just didn’t feel like much of a choice. I stayed.

I switched majors to get away from the Soviet psychopath, and moved off campus to get away from the culture and give myself some space to breathe. These changes made life tolerable, for a while.

I don’t want to imply that we never had a good time at school. My friends and I enjoyed some amazing times together and grew so close I couldn’t imagine life without them (a decade later, I still can’t). It’s just that most of the things we enjoyed doing, even if they weren’t technically against the rules, would have been “disapproved” of by the campus monitors.

For example, we all loved music and movies. It was hard to take the new campus media rules as anything but a personal attack. So we took our activities off campus. We watched forbidden movies in various students’ off-campus housing. We went to indie rock shows at the Black Cat and other clubs in the city, losing ourselves in the anonymity of the crowd, away from the eyes of the watchers, pretending to be normal for an hour or two. We wore our hand-stamps to class the next day like a secret sign.

The media was more than just illicit entertainment; it helped us process our experiences and emotions. The lyrics of longing, loss, and defiance by bands like the Mountain Goats and Neutral Milk Hotel became our mantras.

I am gonna make it through this year

If it kills me.

                        – The Mountain Goats

Now we must pack up every piece

Of the life we used to love

Just to keep ourselves

At least enough to carry on

                        – Neutral Milk Hotel

Needless to say, all of us still professed Christianity—a requirement for our continued enrollment, at the least. But the legalism, religious bullying, and anti-intellectualism we encountered at PHC had pushed us away from the evangelicalism of our youth and sent us in search of other expressions of our faith. Most of us found our way into liturgical traditions. Near the end of my junior year, a younger journalism major approached me and a group of my friends about a story he wanted to write. He had noticed a correlation between students like us, who had a deep academic interest in philosophy, history, or literature, and attendance at liturgical churches. He asked us our opinion about that connection, and why we chose to attend Episcopal or Presbyterian churches rather than the evangelical churches that most PHC students went to. He assured us that his story was only for a class assignment, not for publication. We believed him and answered candidly.

His story was published in the campus newspaper. The administration went ballistic.

We were scolded, mocked, accused from on high with the same old charges: snobbery, intellectual elitism, and the unsubtle implication that we were deficient Christians at best, and more likely wolves in sheep’s clothing. The local Presbyterian pastor and Episcopal priest were temporarily banned from campus. Fellow students began making snide comments about “popery” and “vain tradition” in the lunchroom or in class. The author of the article tried to defend himself, and us, and the whole thing blew over by the next fall, but it was one more nail in the coffin. No matter how I tried, I would never be good enough for these people.

Most of my friends graduated that year. Being the “intellectual elitists” that we were, they scattered to various graduate programs across the country. Only a couple remained in DC. But we all stayed in touch, emailing or chatting weekly if not daily.

That summer, I stayed in DC and interned for the federal government. At this point, the physical symptoms of the pressure I was under became undeniable and troublesome. I was exhausted. I would commute to and from work with my boss, and despite my best efforts, I would fall asleep in the car. Sometimes I would fall asleep while he was talking to me. Sometimes I would fall asleep at my desk. Most days, I would get home from work, eat something, and go straight to bed. I was always cold and could never seem to get warm. My hair fell out in handfuls. Everything felt like it was spinning out of control. I stopped doing things I enjoyed in my free time because I didn’t feel strong enough, or energetic enough, or happy enough to enjoy them.

That drowning, panicking feeling was with me daily now.

I turned 21 that summer and celebrated like most 21-year-olds would. But it was hard to enjoy it. Technically, because I was in the DC area and my internship was for credit, I was still subject to the PHC rulebook. My birthday celebration was definitely against the rules. And it’s hard to enjoy normal things like that when there’s always the possibility, no matter how remote, that some talebearer might have gotten lost in Adam’s Morgan that night and seen you walk out of a bar.

Part Five >

The Reluctant Rebel: Gemma’s Story, Part Three

Homeschoolers U

HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Gemma” is a pseudonym specifically chosen by the author.

< Part Two

Part Three: Sophomore Year

I had apparently made enough “progress” by the following fall semester, my sophomore year, that I was allowed to return to a wing with my friends and my old RA. However, it wasn’t long before I came to the definitive conclusion that Dean Wilson was an evil man by watching how he “counseled” one of my roommates who was dealing with a serious personal issue. He engaged in some of the most blatant, disgusting, misogynistic victim-blaming I have ever heard come out of a man’s mouth, and left my roommate even more grief-stricken and overwhelmed than she had been before.

Somehow it was easier to see the evil clearly when it was being inflicted on someone else.

That year, my RA and another popular student wrote a petition to the administration for the loosening of some of the more restrictive rules, especially regarding the interaction of male and female students. This petition was actually relatively successful, and in the aftermath it seemed like people could breathe again. I remember going to an off-campus basketball game shortly after this and seeing girls and guys in the bleachers, rubbing shoulders and leaning back against each other’s knees—just like normal college kids would do. It made me happy—my friends and I acted like this in high school. It seemed normal and familiar.

I also remember, in the time between the delivery of the petition and the administration’s positive response, my RA hiding—literally hiding—in her dorm room, ducking from the view of the window, or sitting in the hallway trying to breathe and slow her rapid heart beat. She had done the right thing, but she was terrified of Dean Wilson, and of the nameless atmosphere of fear we were all drowning in. She laughed at the absurdity of her “hiding,” but the feeling was real and we all knew it.

Academically, the school was living up to its reputation. In fact, I think one of the reasons the student life issues were so important to everyone is that we had so little chance to socialize as it was. Most of our time was spent studying, trying to conquer the unconquerable mountain of work we were assigned. My classes were extremely difficult, but very rewarding. Most of the professors seemed genuinely to enjoy their students. Some would routinely hold court in the dining hall between and after classes, answering questions, doling out advice, mostly just joking around or facilitating lighthearted debates.

But there was a growing split between the administration and the Office of Student Life, on the one hand, and the academic side of the school, on the other. We started to articulate it even then to outsiders who asked: the education here is great, but the culture is oppressive. Dean Wilson took it personally that the professors—and let’s face it, many of the students—were smarter than he was. He and his favored students started ruminating on the pride of intellectualism, the vanity of worldly philosophy, and the greater goodness of purity of heart and devotion to Scripture. It was spoken of as an either/or dilemma—smart, prideful, sinful people vs. lowly, humble, pure people.

It was around this time that several friends and I had started a campus group called the Alexis de Tocqueville Society. We semi-regularly published a journal of academic writing, book, music, and movie reviews, and opinion pieces. We also hosted guest lecturers on a variety of topics, from international relations to medieval literature to film criticism. Our stated mission was to further intellectual dialogue on campus. It was definitely an intellectually-focused club, but our mission was to serve the campus as a whole, not to show off. But ATS attracted the “wrong” kind of students, and it wasn’t long before “ATS” became a byword for “troublemakers.” We embodied that “intellectual elitism” Dean Wilson hated so much, and the administration began to view us with suspicion.

I now recognize this anti-intellectualism and many other of Dean Wilson’s teachings in what has been written recently about Bill Gothard and other authoritarian homeschool leaders.

For instance, Dean Wilson repeatedly admonished us not to take up another person’s offense—a teaching so bizarre and idiosyncratic I recognized it immediately when it appeared recently on the Recovering Grace website. Another example is this page from the ATI Basic Seminar textbook. Again, I discovered this only recently, but was shocked to see how neatly it summed up so much of what the students branded as “rebels” endured from our fellow students and from Student Life and the administration:

Basic Seminar Page

I know these teachings seem commonplace to those who grew up in systems like these. You have to imagine how bewildering and alienating these judgmental attitudes seemed to those of us who literally had no context to understand how we were being perceived, or why. I didn’t go into college wanting to be a rebel. I was a good, homeschooled, Christian girl. I memorized Scripture by the chapter, volunteered at AWANA, and played praise songs on the piano. I’d never even had a boyfriend before college. But at PHC, just by living my (good) life and being myself, I was branded a “rebel.” It was like there was this invisible line I was constantly crossing, which everyone could see except me. The only people who made sense to me were the other “rebels.” After a while, it just got psychologically demoralizing. I don’t even know what you people want from me, so fine, I’m a “rebel.”

Dean Wilson was a strong adherent of Doug Wilson and the Pearls. In our weekly small-group wing chapels, we were given writings from Wilson and the Pearls to study and discuss.

Here, for example, is the actual handout we studied in one wing chapel, probably during the 2003-2004 school year. The name and book title are mysteriously missing, but anyone familiar with the material can recognize it as a page straight out of Debi Pearl’s Created To Be His Help Meet.


From what I’ve heard, the men were indoctrinated with these materials even more than the women. It wasn’t like everyone on campus necessarily accepted these things at face value—in my wing of relatively fashion-forward women, I remember us all kind of giggling at one piece of Doug Wilson’s that condemned high heels. But even if everyone didn’t accept them, the presence of these writings and teachings added to the overall atmosphere. Now, it entered the minds of everyone that girls who wore high heels were sluttier than girls who didn’t. Now, wearing heels meant something it hadn’t meant before.

Mike Farris has recently distanced himself from people like Gothard, Phillips, Wilson, and other extremists and has claimed that he rejects their teachings. I think it is true that he, personally, does not hold to many of their more extreme beliefs.

But he allowed these extreme views to circulate on his campus with a stamp of official approval.

He allowed his hand-picked Dean of Student Life and this dean’s favorite, very conservative students to dominate the campus culture with their extremism. He should have known this was going on. If he knew, he never said anything.

And Mike Farris had no qualms about saying something when he thought something needed to be said! Once, a student wrote an article for the student newspaper with the Slate-esque headline of “Why Bono Is A Better Christian Than You.” This piece prompted Farris to respond with an entire chapel sermon on why cursing is bad and demonstrates that one is not a true Christian. Afterward, he spoke jovially with the author of the article, slapping him on the back in a “no harm, no foul” kind of way. But not surprisingly, this response had a chilling effect on the further publication of controversial pieces in campus newspapers.

Another time, Farris got wind that some students had been dabbling in libertarianism. This prompted another chapel sermon, a fiery one in which he denounced libertarians as no better than child molesters.

So it’s not like he ever hesitated to address campus trends that bothered him, publicly and personally.

My best guess is that Mike Farris and Paul Wilson personally benefitted from a campus culture of total submission to authority. Many ultra-conservative students came from backgrounds that said parents, pastors, and government must be obeyed without question and respected without complaint. Questions and complaints were no better than defiance, and defiance of authority was an unforgivable sin. It was very easy for these students to add “college administrators” to that list of unquestionable authorities.

Knowing what I know now, I can see where that mindset comes from. At the time, I thought I was surrounded by a bizarre species of human who spoke some kind of foreign code. At least, I never could seem to get through to them with normal English words, or logic, or questions like Where in the Bible does it say it is evil to question a college administrator? And many of them—especially the young men—didn’t even seem capable of looking me in the face when I talked, or acknowledging anything I had to say. I think Farris tacitly (and Wilson explicitly) approved of this state of affairs, because it gave them power and control over the student body.

That, or he just didn’t know that his students were being forced to study patriarchalist writers and imbibe cultic teachings under the guise of not only administrative, but religious authority—but he really, really should have known.

One final example of the split between the academic and student-life cultures on campus came towards the end of my sophomore year. A reporter from the New York Times, David Kirkpatrick, came to visit the campus for a story he was writing. Reporters were on campus all the time. PHC was huge media bait during its first few years in existence, and the administration was only too happy to show us off to the world. At first, it was kind of fun to interact with reporters, but after a while, you just feel like a specimen being examined. I guess it never occurred to the administrators that it’s actually really hard to pay attention in class when there’s a massive camera in your face. The students joked about campus being a “fishbowl,” a double reference to the utter lack of privacy within and the constant prying eyes from without.

At any rate, when David Kirkpatrick arrived, he came to visit my class. I was taking a course called “Modernity, Post-modernity, and Society,” a political theory elective intentionally modeled on a graduate-level, seminar-style course. We were reading and discussing Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition on the day Mr. Kirkpatrick sat in on our class. At the end of the class, he complimented the students and the professor on the level of engagement with text we had displayed. He himself had read The Human Condition—in graduate school—and he noted that we had handled the text as well as any of his graduate classmates had.

I was, of course, pleased with the compliment—but even more pleased that this reporter from the New York Times had seen the good side of PHC, the academic side, before encountering whatever weirdness he was sure to find if he hung around long enough.

And it didn’t take long at all. By the time I got to lunch, he was in the dining hall, surrounded by a table full of girls in long prairie skirts. The article led with a photo of students walking on campus, noting that students “may show affection publicly only by holding hands while walking”—one of the more arcane rules from the rulebook.

There was no mention of Arendt or graduate-style seminar courses.

Part Four >

The Reluctant Rebel: Gemma’s Story, Part Two

Homeschoolers U

HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Gemma” is a pseudonym specifically chosen by the author.

< Part One

Part Two: Freshman Year

My problems started the first semester of my freshman year.

I remember my first few weeks at PHC being happy ones. It was nice to start over with a clean slate and a new group of friends. I felt like I could “be myself” in a way I hadn’t ever been before, now that I was so far away from parents and home. It was still warm in northern Virginia, and the weight of the semester’s work hadn’t set in yet. A favorite evening pastime was swing dancing—we would clear out the furniture in the dining hall or the large lecture hall where chapel was held, and someone would put on a CD of swing music. (This was 2002 and swing dancing was really popular then.) On cooler evenings, we would dance out on the back porch of the main administration building.

The rulebook said nothing about dancing.

But a few weeks into the semester, the administration sent out an email saying that dancing was no longer allowed on campus.

They were not officially saying that dancing was wrong, but some people—donors, board members, it wasn’t clear—might believe it was, and out of deference to these people’s opinions, the college had decided to disallow it on campus. We could dance off campus if we wanted to.

That was easier said than done. Some people would go into the city on weekends and dance at community dance halls like Glen Echo, but that was a long drive. The fun, informal evenings were effectively squashed. Lots of rule changes happened this way—arbitrarily, without warning, and with no chance to appeal. A frequent rationale for changes was that the campus culture needed to respect the sensitivities of the more conservative students, parents, and donors.

The dorm wing I lived in was packed with freshmen girls. Our bubbly, outgoing RA wanted to help us make friends, so she coordinated with the RA of one of the male wings to organize some group outings. One month, our “brother wing” took us all out to dinner at an Italian restaurant. The next month, we invited them to go roller skating at a divey local rink. It was fun.

But then the Dean of Student Life, Paul Wilson, found out about these outings. Dean Wilson was a swarthy, charismatic former wrestling coach, hand-picked by Mike Farris for the job of shepherding his students. Most students seemed to like him. He certainly seemed jocular, smiling, energetic, easygoing, and approachable. Just like a coach should be.

But he believed that men and women were simply incapable of true platonic friendship. This was a belief he had stated repeatedly in chapel and to individuals in private. Relationships between men and women were always potentially volatile; it was best to stick to your own kind.

At the time, in order to promote a “courtship” culture on campus, the college had taken upon itself the burden of monitoring student relationships.

When it seemed like a man and a woman were getting pretty close, Dean Wilson would inquire about the nature of their relationship. He would then ask the man to call the woman’s parents to inform them of his intentions and receive their permission to pursue a relationship with their daughter. In these early days, there were less than 200 students on campus, so it was somewhat feasible for the college to play this role. (They have since modified the extent of their involvement in romantic relationships.)

Even though there was nothing romantic going on in our brother/sister wing outings, Dean Wilson used this rule to put an end to them. He discovered that our two RA’s had gone out for coffee a couple of times to plan the wing outings (and for no other purpose). He called them both to his office and told them they were forbidden from spending any more time alone together, unless the male RA was willing to call the female RA’s parents and get their permission to go to coffee with their daughter. Since there was nothing romantic in the least about their planning sessions over coffee, they were unwilling to take this step. It was clear, anyway, that Dean Wilson had more of a problem with our group outings than he did with the two of them talking over coffee. So they gave in, and we had no more brother/sister wing outings.

And again, what had seemed like a bright new beginning, full of friends and new opportunities, became a little duller, and a little smaller, a little more stifling. I started to wonder if maybe I had been lied to about this campus culture.

Later that first semester, I went to the city one weekend evening with a bunch of friends to see the monuments. Curfew was an hour later on weekends, and we made the most of our time, enjoying the monuments by night. But we took a wrong turn coming out of the metro station lot on the way home and got lost. As a result, we broke curfew by a few minutes. This was a rule violation for sure, but a fairly common one, and we had a reasonable excuse.

Weeks went by and no one said anything about it. I was starting to think our violation had simply been overlooked.

I had a friend, a troubled young man a year or two older than me, who had decided to withdraw that semester. He sold his books and told everyone he’d bought a plane ticket for a particular day. He was just living on campus until that day arrived, when he would go home. On the appointed day, however, he woke up early, stole his roommate’s bicycle, and left. Just disappeared.

As the rumors spread across campus, people became very concerned. What had happened to him? Did he kill himself? It was well known that he had a dislike for particular people on campus. He’d gotten into arguments with other students, and made a note of which people seemed sad to see him go and which people asked him things like “why are you still here?” Maybe he was planning something. Maybe he would come back and kill us! The rumors grew in intensity—he had penned some kind of manifesto to be sent as an all-student email, but the administration had caught it and deleted it before it went out. His parents flew in—apparently, they had no idea he’d even withdrawn from school. Students were huddled in dorm lounges, crying and praying.

We were afraid, and no one would tell us anything.

On this particular afternoon, in the midst of this crisis, I was summoned to Dean Wilson’s office. I went quickly—I assumed he wanted to talk to me about my missing friend.

He didn’t. He wanted to talk to me about being late for curfew a couple weeks before. I was blindsided. I didn’t even know how to respond—everyone was preoccupied by this massive crisis, and he wants to talk about this?

He wanted to know if I was “sorry” for breaking curfew. I was confused: we got lost, it took time to get un-lost, by the time we got home we were late—what part of that was supposed to make me “sorry”? I didn’t deny it, but I didn’t see what there was to be sorry about. It was a mistake, it just happened. I would accept punishment for having broken a rule, but it wasn’t some kind of moral offense that I needed to be “sorry” about.

This made Dean Wilson angry. My refusal to be “sorry” demonstrated a defiant attitude on my part. This disappointed him more than the rule violation itself. Furthermore, he was very concerned about the people I had been out with when the rule was broken. What did I think it said about me, that I was willing to be seen out in a car with these people, after curfew?

I was confused. “These people” were my friends. I liked them. I didn’t see anything wrong with them, and I didn’t see why I should care what anyone else thought either.

He continued to press me—was I sure there was nothing wrong with my friends? What could I tell him about their character? Did I think they had good character? Really? What did hanging out with them communicate to others about my character?

I was confused. I had no idea how to answer these questions. He badgered me into admitting a few character flaws on their part. I still didn’t see what difference that made. Everyone has flaws. If I couldn’t be friends with flawed people, I wouldn’t have any friends.

Dean Wilson was very disappointed in me. He had this remarkably effective way of acting “hurt” to make you feel guilty for things you didn’t need to feel guilty about. I had hurt him, disappointed him, and I should really feel bad for that. He concluded our meeting saying he would have to take some time to think about just how to punish me for this rule violation.

I left feeling scared, bewildered, guilty—on top of the other stress of the day. I spoke to another girl who had been in the car with me, a dorm-mate and good friend. She’d had a similar meeting with him. We were both left not knowing how we were to be punished, but with the threat of eventual punishment hanging over our heads.

Each student, at the beginning of the semester, was given 10 one-hour curfew “extensions,” which could be used at will throughout the semester, but only one-at-a-time (i.e., you couldn’t stack 6 together and stay out all night, you could only use one per night). A common punishment for curfew violation was the confiscation of some curfew extensions.

We assumed this would be our punishment, but we didn’t know how many he would take.

I clearly remember, a few weeks later, the first snow of the winter began late one evening. It was snowing heavily, with enough accumulation that many students went outside and started playing in it, throwing snowballs and building snowmen. Since it was after curfew, these students were all technically using their extensions to leave their dorms. My friend and I watched wistfully from a dorm window while all of our friends frolicked in the snow. We asked our RA if we couldn’t be excused to go out and join them? After all, we wouldn’t be leaving campus, just our dorm. She sympathized, but told us no—until Dean Wilson decided how he was going to punish us, we had to assume we had no extensions left and stay inside the dorm after curfew.

We stood, by ourselves, in the lobby of our dorm, watching all of our friends play in the snow. It was such a silly thing, but it left us feeling demeaned, like naughty children.

He did eventually make up his mind about our arbitrary punishment, but at a point so late in the semester that it didn’t matter anymore.

Several of my new friends dropped out after that semester.

The next semester, a new dorm that had been under construction the previous year was finally finished. The opening of this dorm relieved the massive overcrowding of the previous semester. There had been 7 freshman girls in my one-bathroom suite that first semester, and not surprisingly, we all hadn’t gotten along so well in such tight quarters. Now, there were entire wings of dorms that went unused. Everyone spread out.

Dean Wilson was in charge of assigning people to their rooms. He gave me a room by myself, in a wing full of mostly older, fairly conservative girls I did not know well. He sold this to me as being in my best interests and something I should be grateful for: “You seem like the kind of person who would enjoy living alone.” In retrospect, I can see that he was clearly trying to isolate me from my friends and put me in a place where I would be monitored.

I almost immediately got in trouble for re-arranging the furniture in my room. The room had 3 beds. I didn’t need 3 beds, so I took one apart and stored it in one of the two closets to make more space for myself. Again, according to Dean Wilson, it wasn’t so much the offense that was the problem as my attitude toward it—I didn’t think I had done anything wrong. I wasn’t “sorry” enough. I was “entitled” and “defiant of authority.” I also discovered during this encounter that my new RA would repeat to Dean Wilson, verbatim, anything I said to her.

I shut up after that.

The girls on my new wing made a habit of walking into my room whenever they felt like it, to try to “counsel” me. They made it clear that gossip was not only not condemned, but actually encouraged—it was a tool they would use to make people behave the way they wanted them to.

I still saw my friends at class and went to visit them in their dorm rooms (the female ones, anyway), but I felt increasingly isolated, watched, and fearful. I began to have nightmares, including a recurring one in which I was being strangled to death by demons. I had trouble sleeping and developed odd habits like sleeping with the lights on.   Like a child, I literally became afraid of the dark.

It is hard to explain, in retrospect, the level of pressure, fear, and isolation I felt. I was so confused about what I had done to deserve this. I couldn’t even talk to my parents about it; I couldn’t seem to make them understand what I was going through. It was like they had turned into different people—cold, angry, and judgmental. I found out, years later, that Dean Wilson had been calling them and talking to them about me, behind my back, since the previous semester. I don’t know what he was telling them, but he made it sound like I was in so much trouble they nearly withdrew me from the school involuntarily. But he reassured them that he was watching over me and doing his best to fix my problems, so of course they tried to help him in his project.

He took advantage of normal parental concerns to manipulate my well-intentioned parents and turn them against me, and used them to manipulate me, break my will, and bring me over to his side.

Part Three >