Leaving Before You are Ready: AJ’s Story

Editorial note: Shade Ardent blogs at I am Phoenix. This story is reprinted with permission.

How easy is it to leave a cult? For me personally, the answer is “not very.”

I pay close attention to the stories of those who have left a religious cult. I admit I am a little envious of the females who made their escape from their family’s cult by marrying a man who whisked them away from it all. I wish I had that ticket available back then. It wasn’t available to me because I was terrified of men. I was especially afraid of Christian men because of the religious Christian monster my father was. And I was also scared of the so called secular, worldly men because linking up with them meant my life would be cursed with demons attacking me, and my family would cut me off. Also, there was that unspoken threat circulating in the underground Christin dating advice columns and pastor’s sermons where the non Christian man is guaranteed to cheat on you and leave you. If he doesn’t first rob a bank, then become a mass murderer. Because, gasp, that’s what people do who don’t fear God.

So I knew from  a young age that my escape was not going to be through a man. There would be no prince on a stallion. My sisters didn’t escape with the help of a man or marriage, either. They were about as gun shy of men as I was.

So how did we get out? Well, we couldn’t just leave. It seems so easy, right? Just walk out of the door.

But if we moved out of the house, God would allow Satan to attack us, destroying our physical health, mental health, finances, future career, and future relationships and marriage.

That would happen if we left the house without our father’s permission. The only way he would give us permission to leave was if we married a good Christian man he approved of. A man who our father would transfer us to, so we could be under that man’s authority. We wouldn’t be safe unless we were under a Christian man’s authority. Also, if we left unwed to an approved man, our father said he wouldn’t be able to pray a hedge of protection around us. He said his prayer alone wouldn’t be enough to keep Satan from destroying us while we were out in the world.

There was no safe way to leave. Going into a courtship with a man approved by my father was far too frightening a concept for us sisters to want to entertain. We saw how our Christian father abused our mother, and we weren’t going to be tricked into an exit from our father’s home just to relive it again with a patriarchal man that he chose. No, that was far too great a risk.

And we couldn’t just walk out the door and move into our own apartments. With all those threats and judgments from God? No, doing so would be equivalent to admitting you had a death wish. I would never have thought to leave on my own. Unless I really hated myself and wanted my life as I knew it to end.

It was easier for my brothers to leave.

They were Patriarchs in the making, and were far better equipped than women to make it out alone in the world without risking God’s wrath. My older brother got out after he graduated from college, accepted a good job, and had the financial where with all to go. Incidentally, he timed his departure so that he got married right when he left my parents’ house, but he could have left with or without getting married if he wanted to. My brothers were privileged simply because of their gender. They didn’t have nearly as much oppression or nearly as many rules as my sisters did.

So, this is how my older sisters escaped. My father hadn’t made any matches for them, and they were waiting and getting old. My father did approve of a courtship for my oldest sister L with a Christian man who worked with my father. My sister L did not find him in any way attractive and declined him. That I know of, she didn’t get courtship offers after that. So when L was about 25, my second oldest sister Thalia (aged 24) staged an intervention and secretly got an apartment out of town, where she all but dragged my mild mannered, easy going oldest sister along to. They left quickly and secretly, before my father found out. L didn’t want to go initially, but with Thalia pushing and planning, they made a hasty departure. There was a big blow up when they left, much threatening and cursing of their futures.

All manner of ill will was wished on them, Bible verses were hurled, their characters questioned.

They were called harlots who were practicing the sin of rebellion, which was likened to witchcraft. At this point, my sisters were so naïve and innocent about matters of life, that calling them harlots was just silly. Their harlotry consisted of wearing gel in their hair instead of leaving it natural. That, and going to a university where… non Christian men sullied my sisters simply by walking past them on campus. As if. My younger sister and I were given threatening sermonettes on the dangers of following their wicked footsteps.

When I was about 24, my 21 year old sister Christy staged an intervention. She secretly put a security down on an apartment out of town and rented a U-Haul. The same day, she broke the plans to me and told me I had a few hours to decide if I wanted out or not. She told me I had to make up my mind quickly. Back then I didn’t even know we were living in a cult. I had no outside worldly experience to compare my life to. My 18 year old brother was going along with us. At the last minute I said, “OK.” But I was dragging my feet. I was scared and not ready to go.

I had just graduated college, and had my bachelors degree in elementary education and my teaching certificate. I was too scared to go on interviews, so I lived on a substitute teacher’s salary. This wasn’t enough to pay the rent, even splitting it three ways. My younger sister had just graduated as well and had her bachelors degree and was hired as a nurse days before she even got her diploma. She was strong in her decision to go. I wasn’t as confident.

As an aside, it is quite a shocker that we had gone to college at all. But my sisters and I had discussed how we didn’t want to end up like our mother, uneducated except for a high school diploma, trapped and abused by our father. Since we didn’t trust any man to get us out or have our backs, our ticket was an education, career and independent single gal living.

If it wasn’t for my older sister Thalia paving the way and helping each of us work out the FAFSA and various scholarships and loans, we wouldn’t have had the know how or balls to go against my father and try to extend our education.

All of my siblings and I took part and sometime full time jobs and went to college around our work schedules. I certainly would never had gone to college without Thalia’s example and encouragement. My parents would not help financially based on moral grounds, and kept trying to discourage us from going. According to my father, college was evil and worldly, and all of us had better be prepared to reap the consequences of going through demonic attack as punishment from God for disobeying and going. My siblings laughed this off, but I was terrified. I woke up every day and fell asleep each night worrying when my judgment would hit.

So I entered the real world with reluctance and fear. I had a secret boyfriend at the time, and was able to see him much more often, which was nice.

But I’ll be honest with you. If my younger sister hadn’t staged that intervention, I wouldn’t have left. If I hadn’t gone with my younger sister and brother, I would have been the only one left at home other than my parents and trust me, I was incredibly uncomfortable with that. So I went with my siblings, even though everything inside me was screaming that I wasn’t ready. Home was bad, yes, but it was all I knew. And even more importantly, I knew what would happen if I left as a single female, unmarried to a man who could protect me from the evils of the world. I knew I would be slaughtered. According to cult rules, God would punish me by sending demons to destroy my physical health, career, finances, relationships, happiness and mental health.  

Again, my siblings laughed all of this off. I wish I could have had their thick skin and sensibilities. For some reason, I was terrified of the consequences and they weren’t. However, I think that had to do with the fact that I took spiritual matters far more seriously than my siblings did. And the main reason for that, although I didn’t recognize it at the time, was because I sensed how much my father hated and shunned me, and wanted to do everything possible to get his approval. Since religion was his life, I figured that my following his spiritual rules to the T would be an excellent way to gain his approval. Sadly, though, the more I tried, the more he pushed me away.

But I didn’t let myself see that. I just kept trying all the more to be spiritual. I got baptized, taught Sunday School, tithed, fasted for weeks on carrots, cornflakes and water, wore hideously modest prairie dresses and culottes, went to Bible College, went on a mission trip overseas, wanted to become a missionary, didn’t look sideways at men, read my Bible and prayed regularly. Meanwhile, my sisters left the house in modest attire and changed into tight jeans and tanks in their car, dated wild men, read romance novels, said “Shut up” and “Oh my God,” looked at magazines in the grocery store checkout, pierced their ears and wore clip-ons over top to hide the holes from my father, bought bathing suits and went to the beach (covert trips, of course). Most of my siblings were dancing on the edge of hell, and were just laughing all the way.

My siblings would occasionally talk about how horrible it was growing up.

They would whisper that we had grown up in a cult, and that our father was a sociopath.

They worried he would work himself up into some massive Biblical dither one day, shoot our mother, shoot himself, and then that would be the end of them. We used to check in our mom to make sure she was OK after most of us left. Our father kept loaded rifles on his bedroom wall, and often fell into unpredictable tirades of anger where he got violent. So my siblings worried. I was in a religious stupor myself back then, and told my siblings he was innocent, that he would never hurt our mom, and they were just being dramatic. Again, I didn’t have the foggiest idea of what we grew up in, as I had no experience in a world other than the family home and cult. Yes, I did go to college full time and worked, but I was too afraid of people to talk to them, so it’s like I was just a ghost passing through. I studied, took tests, drove, came, and left without communicating with other people, so it was like I actually wasn’t even doing these things or really in the world. I was technically, slightly “in the world” but without human interaction out there, it pretty much doesn’t qualify as being out.

Even after the intervention, when we moved out, I was in the world but very hesitant to break out of the mold and drop my normal customs and habits. It took quite a long time.

Fast forward a decade. I was living in extreme stress every day worrying about God’s judgment for every little thing I did. And trust me, after ten years, I had started being worldly. It’s like I had one foot back in the cult, since I believed 100% everything I was taught back then. And I had one foot in the world, living the life of a heathen while wracking up punishment and guilt left and right.

That’s the danger of leaving before you are ready. That was the danger in my leaving my family and the cult before I was ready. That was the downside to accepting the intervention my sister staged when I was scared to go. That was the danger of leaving the cult physically, without first leaving mentally and emotionally.

That was the danger of living in the word without shedding the cult mentality. I gave myself permission to try to live a “normal” life like normal people did, but I couldn’t get rid of all the nagging cult fears and threats of punishment for trying to be normal.

Maybe I would have been safer never leaving the cult in the first place. Maybe I would have been safer at home with my parents in the cult, safe from God’s judgment because I was carefully obeying all rules?

Maybe that would have been safer than living a double standard, free on the outside but still in bondage to the cult fears inside?

I can’t even begin to explore what would have happened if I had stayed in my parents’ house instead of leaving with my siblings during the intervention. I think it would have been an incredibly dark experience. I do know that once I started living on my own, I began to experience happiness. I did forget the horrors of the cult. I think I can honestly say that I was happy on my own. Especially when I was geographically far away from my family. I certainly didn’t have any flashbacks, anxiety or any physical manifestations of PTSD for at least a decade. I was pretty much oblivious and happy go lucky. I was always on the move though, never sat still or rested. Never stayed in any one location too long, or with anyone too long. I was antsy. I didn’t ever want to get trapped by any person or situation. I was always running, always busy. I didn’t stop to reflect or look inside. I just thrived on looking outside of myself, and shut my emotions and feelings up tightly. I was my five senses exploring the world, and nothing else.

I do recognize the danger of living in the duality I was immersed in for the decade of time I was out free in the world, living it up, but terrified on the inside.

Like I mentioned, I always felt fear and threats lurking over my shoulder, poised and ready to get me for the huge amount of sins I was piling up every day. I was just waiting for all hell to break loose. I was just waiting for my punishment to begin. Biting my nails hoping that maybe I could squeak by for another day, another month, maybe even another year before disaster hit me.

And then it hit. I was 33 and a half. The PTSD knocked me blindside, and everything fell apart. My health fell apart, even though I struggled for a year to keep myself together. I had to eventually give up my teaching career. Well, I put in for a year’s leave of absence, but my health wouldn’t allow me to go back after that year was up. I had to give up my apartment, my boyfriend left me, acquaintances disappeared, and I didn’t really have friends… the only thing I had left was my family. I had literally forgotten how strange and cruel they were. Time has a way of clouding those things over. So I crawled home, happy to have a family to go stay with.

I was naive. Too trusting. Too gullible. I give too much credit ahead of time. I actually thought I would go home to open arms. They were closed. But I didn’t find that out right away. It was a very slow process of me finding this out.

When I went home, I was so ashamed of my life of sin, that I…. wait for it, wait for it, oh, darn it. Yes, you guessed it. I weep to share this sad revelation.

I went back into the cult.

There. I said it. I double dipped.

Oh, horrors!

That’s what happen when you leave before you are ready. The chances of falling back into the fold are just that much higher.

And I felt so guilty. I fell into it headlong.

To the point that I was back in the Bible, back in the land of religious fear, eating up all the devotionals that said illness was punishment from God, that illness was a gift from God, that I was supposed to praise God for the beautiful gift of character edification that came in the form of illness. I ate it all up.

I even let waver my fiercely held promise that I would protect myself by never getting married to a man. I let myself believe for the first time that perhaps a Christian man would be safe after all. Because what had I ever really known about being safe, right? Here I thought I would the safest out on my own in the world far away from my family, far away from religion, and without a man. I really thought that was my safest bet. But here that plan didn’t pan out. Being alone out in the world unmarried, living a non-Christian life only ended up with me getting PTSD, ME/CFS and severe adrenal burnout.

So I had to re-evaluate my perception of what “safe” really looked like. I had been broken. I had to try a new route. God was a fierce punisher, and the single life alone in the world without Him and a man who served Him was a dangerous life after all. I had learned the hard way that it would be safest after all to do the Christian thing, the right thing, and get married to a good Christian man.

If I did this, perhaps God would ease up his punishment on me and perhaps He would even let me regain my health!

So I over-rode my fear of Christian men and married one. I introduced him to my family (oh horrors!) and I introduced him to Christianity and the cult. I thought I was doing the “right” thing. I was getting back on track. The backslidden AJ rallies and returns to her Christian roots, praise God Almighty, and all God’s people say, Amen.

Right. I married K. He actually wasn’t a Christian when I initially met him. It was I who led him to the Lord. Out of compulsion and duty, not out of a desire. I didn’t trust a Cristian any farther than I could throw one, but at the same time I feared what would happen to myself and him if we didn’t punch our tickets and do our bare minimum as Christians. I felt safer around K knowing that he was brand new to the faith and hadn’t been brainwashed by any sub cults or extremist thinking. He was a good man, and kind, when I met him. I imagined it could stay that way. I figured that as long as I was there to guide the ship and help shape the direction of his newly forming beliefs, he would remain the kind and jolly fellow he always was.

I was wrong.

As soon as K put on the coat of Christianity, he became a monster.

A living and breathing certified, Bible thumping, Christian monster. And that’s when my eyes opened and I didn’t want to go on living or breathing any more. The life vest of Christianity that I had reached for in my hour of need was now no longer a life vest, it was a pile of rocks that drug me to the bottom of the lake and wouldn’t let me up for air. I endured it for a couple years, until one day I woke up and realized that I want nothing more to do with being a Christian.

It’s been about two years now that I’ve left Christianity. I’m still digging myself out of the pit and separating from my family and a few situations and people still involved in the cult. I’m happier now, and K is happier.

On looking back, a part of me thinks that if I had stayed in the cult at my parents house instead of leaving during the intervention, I would have not only obeyed the cult rules, but I would have felt safer, I wouldn’t have feared severe punishment from God every waking minute of my life for years on end, and I wouldn’t have fallen apart with severe PTSD. I could possibly have avoided my health falling apart. Just think!

From this perspective, I wish I would have stayed at the homestead after graduating college and lived a safe life where I could just breath. It is too difficult balancing one world with another, with one foot in one world and one foot in the next. But at the same time, if I had stayed on the homestead in my parents under cult rules, I may have just shriveled up and died inside. Or I may have reached some kind of internal conflict that forced me to examine my beliefs and wake up. After which I would have solidly renounced the cult and made a clean break by leaving the belief system 100% and physically removing myself far from the cult and my family.

A solid, clean break is the ticket. The best way to leave involves breaking away emotionally and intellectually, as well as physically and geographically.

I still do admire those folks who were able to know firmly what they wanted the first time they left, the folks who didn’t have to come back for round two to relive the nightmare. I admire some of my siblings who weren’t so entrapped and who left more easily than I did. But every one’s journey is different.

I double dipped, but that’s OK. The first time only my body left. The second time, my body, heart and mind broke away. I had to experience the horror twice to know what I wanted and didn’t want. I know now. And I’m finally free.

I Shall Not Live in Vain: Jael’s Story


HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Jael” is a pseudonym. Jael blogs at To Not Live in Vain. This piece originally ran on January 15, 2014.

I began home-schooling after a summer of fraught efforts, on my mother’s part, to find me a pre-kindergarten class. Later, she said she took me to forty different schools trying to determine which program would suit me best; I only remember attending two, for no more than a few weeks at each. My experiences were uncomfortable, which led my mother and father to decide that homeschooling was the best option.

My mother home-schooled me from kindergarten until seventh grade. I had some good friends that I saw at a maximum of once or twice a week, and we did some cooperative schooling with parents providing science and language classes as a group. We drifted from charter school to homeschool group, never staying one place more than a few years.

I didn’t understand it at the time, but I realize now, looking back, that these moves were probably caused by my mother’s unaddressed psychiatric issues. 

I got a first-hand look at these issues when I was about eleven. It was the year that I got my first period, in an awkward stage between adolescence and childhood. My mother started experiencing psychiatric symptoms with increasing severity – I won’t go into detail, but she made me actively fear that our family was in mortal danger for a period of several months. My father was emotionally and physically absent, working all the time, and left me entirely in her custody. My mother made sure that I had no support during this time; she separated me from all my social groups because she believed they were haunted by people who wished to harm us. She separated me from my best friend because her mother told my mother (not incorrectly, in retrospect) that my mother was acting crazy

It got to the point where one day she demanded we pack up a suitcase immediately, and we drove for hours aimlessly, going from one cultish bookstore to another, while my mother wept and my grandmother (who my grandfather had convinced to join us for this expedition, presumably to make sure my mother didn’t kill us) sat stony-faced in the front seat.

My mother threatened alternately to kill us by crashing, then to merely leave the state.

She believed our family was being persecuted, and told me so in many ways for many months, treating me as her only confidante (during the times that my father was not around, at least). When my grandparents found out what was happening, they told me that my mother was sick and not to believe her. We lived for them for a month, while they watched over their borderline daughter.

It took me a long time to finally understand that the things that my mother had predicted had not come to pass, and would not come to pass. And it made me angry, because it was difficult to understand, particularly in a family where mental illness (or sexuality, or anything really important) was never discussed. My mother was my only source of information and learning, and when paranoia struck her, and I began to identify that her fears were unrealistic, I felt betrayed. My anger bred, with periodic fights with my mother, where she ignored my legitimate needs and feelings, instead always refocusing any argument on herself. Eventually, we had a fight that had epic consequences.

I have no idea how it started, but I do remember how it ended:

“Do you want to go to public school?” she threatened me. 

I snarled back, “Yes, maybe I do.” 

She deflated, glaring at me like a wounded tiger who was giving up a fight. “Fine,” she said, and that was that. She took it as a personal slight to her ego, that I might want to be educated elsewhere. She told me I would regret it. At that point, making me go to school was the only weapon she had left that could harm me. I no longer loved her, so she could not emotionally manipulate me in the same old ways anymore.

I was really scared, to enter public school, since it had been painted in such a negative light. Entering public school was a culture shock, but at least it was better than being at home, most of the time. Classes were somewhat miserable, with math and chemistry being the worst, but at least I had music to get me through middle school and high school. I found comfort in the two public school teachers who best supported the conservative, Christian perspective I had from my home-schooling years, teachers who prayed before tests and encouraged me to keep strong despite my travails, encouraging me to look towards college when I wouldn’t have to worry about my parents. Reminding me that at least I had parents.

I confided in these teachers about what happened in my family. I did the same with other authority figures that I began to trust. But I never was referred to counseling, a school social worker, or any other services. I know that if I had, at least I would have had that extra support, someone to help me understand that what happened was not related to me, and to help me cope with the realities I experienced every day.

Every time I began to trust an authority figure, I would cry and cry, and tell them what had happened.

This happened at least four times at three separate summer camps, one of which was connected to my school. These summer camp counselors did not know what to do. My teachers did not know what to do. I think I must have been asked once or twice whether or not I wanted a referral to services, and I would insist, no, I didn’t want services.

But I reached out, and reached out, and reached out, over and over and over again, in so much psychic pain. My mother was psychologically and sometimes physically abusive to me when I went home, threatening me with calling the police for talking back at her, threatening me with a knife if I was angry, threatening to take away my lifeline (the internet) constantly, and threatening to kill herself basically every chance she got. So I would retreat and hide in my room, where I would IM friends on the neighbor’s WIFI connection (thank you so much it basically saved my life) and write gothic stories about self-harming girls and roleplay.

I confided in friends about what had happened. One or two offered me books, and I refused them, scared that if my mother would see that I was reading these books, that I would be punished. I appreciated the confidence of these friends, though at the same time my mother tried to dissuade me from pursuing practically any relationship, criticizing any friend that she met that I seemed to be growing fond of.

People assumed that because I was smart, that I was doing okay, and that my issues were normal teenager stuff. Also, I was not very good at advocating for myself – still am not, by the way – and I didn’t know how to articulate the severity of the issues I was facing. At this point, I’m finishing up a graduate degree at an Ivy-league institution. I don’t want to write more than that for fear that either my mother or someone else will find this and identify me and put me in a compromising position. Even today, people presume based on my appearance – white, middle-class, female – that I was raised by a happy family. It pains me because it’s definitely not my experience.

I have lasting psychological issues that impact my life even now as a young adult in my 20s. I have PTSD, paranoid ideation, suicidal ideation, and depression despite the fact that I am no longer in contact with either of my parents.

It was not so much homeschooling that traumatized me as much as my mother’s mental illness. This was hidden by homeschooling, and the pain that damaged me came from the constant exposure to her psychiatric illness.

I feel like someone roasted me over a fire, leaving me with burns to rest the remainder of my life, and I didn’t even know at the time what fire was.

My early education was a shield that kept everyone from seeing who was doing the roasting, and of what. My father and my grandparents did not advocate to separate me from my mother, instead telling me to suck it up until I went to college.

That was the constant refrain. Wait until you’re in college. Everything will be better then.

Well, the short story is that no, it wasn’t better when I got to college, because I went to college in my home state, a quick drive from my hometown. It’s not been better until I cut off all ties from my family.

I should not have had to be in this position, as a child growing up. I had many, many adult mentors in my life – and none of them helped intervene with my family. It has become my purpose in life to help prevent my story from ever happening again – or at least, if I can stop a few more hearts from breaking, I shall not live in vain.

Hurts Me More Than You: Robert’s Story

Screen Shot 2014-09-23 at 10.15.16 AM


Trigger warning for Hurts Me More Than You series: posts in this series may include detailed descriptions of corporal punishment and physical abuse and violence towards children.


Robert’s Story

I don’t remember anything about my young life before I was 5. They always told me I was a happy, quiet child.

The first memories I have of my childhood are extreme bouts of corporal punishment. As to whether the corporal punishment or the home education came first is as fine of a question as the chicken and the egg.

When I misbehaved as a young child my mother had the belief that “If you spare the rod, you spoil the child” in regards to punishment. In fact that’s what she told me before the belt came out.

The belt.

For the uninitiated a real leather belt taken off of a shelf can be a colossal terror for a small child. I suspect it was a 36″ model, the same size I wear now and that my father would have worn in his 30s.

My mother had a philosophy, that I assume was if I didn’t scream the neighbors would be less likely to intervene. Her exact words “Take it like a man”. Usually the beatings would be 10 at a time unless I cried or screamed, if a murmur came from my tiny mouth the count would be reset.

I cried a lot.

The beatings would continue until I was 13 and larger than her, at which point I took the belt from her by force and never allowed her to strike me again.

The “Education”.

As my young life continued I did not proceed to go to school with my friends across the street (we played their Atari and I found shelter in their house). Instead I found myself at home 24/7 with an abusive mother who decided that school wasn’t for her son. In my later years I found out that this was for religious reasons and to keep me from worldly things.

My childhood coursework consisted of whatever books she chose for me. I excelled in subjects I had interest in which led to much bragging among friends and family by mother about my proper education. Reading, biblical courses, basic math, American history (redux in a christian slant, obviously) and spelling were my highlights.

The Fallacy.

When I was in my teens I hit a glass ceiling in my education. The coursework – Algebra, Trig, advanced courses were all above my aptitude levels at that time. What’s the problem? a person might ask. You have a teacher right? Unfortunately this is where my truth and many of others comes out.

I was alone, in my room, studying without a teacher.

This was my home education. I was taught core basics in my early years, in my teenage years I taught myself as I had the basic skills needed to learn from a book. For me – it was a personal shelter and I was able to avoid most verbal abuse by keeping my head inside of a book and not admitting that I didn’t know what I was doing. This continued until I was 18 years old, I failed multiple courses of advanced subject matter and at the end my mother simply stated that I wasn’t good enough.

My mother attempted to kill my father and myself when I was 16 years old because “God told her to do it”. Somehow she avoided jail time, instead going for mental evaluation. My education did not advance past that point. PTSD took over my teenage brain and I lived my next two years in fear.

Growing up.

I removed myself from my parents home at 18 years of age after acquiring a GED (this was my way to graduation according to my mother and her home school group). My father filed for divorce from my mother less than a week after I left. He is a good man. He stuck around to make sure I was able to get out.

I didn’t know anything about the world and I didn’t have any experiences to fall back on. I immediately joined the wrong crowd, drinking and smoking at 18, smuggling large quantities of weed when I was 19 until I was ripped off, drunken driving in my 20s. I never went to jail and I deserved to so many times. The thing about homeschooling is that you just don’t fucking know what to do because you have no experiences and no peers. My family lived in the country for almost all of my childhood and had contact with others at church and small home school gatherings only.

I never grew to learn what not to do or the consequences of my actions.

Getting lucky.

Today I’m in my mid 30s. I am married to a beautiful woman who showed me true love. I have alcoholic, abusive tendencies that have gained me some trouble in my 30s along with depression and PTSD. Fortunately I am stable and with the help of my loved ones I am conquering my past.

If anyone is reading this story feeling alone in their struggle I encourage them to find peers that have been down the same road. We need each other.

One last thing — regarding “spoiling the child.” I am a strong atheist who has had no need for any gods and have been since my 20s. The rod will always fail you.

~ Robert, class of 1996

Hurts Me More Than You: glor and Gary’s Stories

Screen Shot 2014-09-23 at 10.15.16 AM


Trigger warning for Hurts Me More Than You series: posts in this series may include detailed descriptions of corporal punishment and physical abuse and violence towards children.


glor’s Story

My father’s study was a terrifying room, from birth until I moved out of the house. I’m sure it still is for my siblings. But I seem to have been the only one to get as much pain there that I did. I try not to think about why that is, because it’s a long, dark, ugly road. But it stands: my father beat me, though not with a rod. He started with a belt, and moved to a wooden spoon and then “the paddle.” It was one of those cutting boards, oak, I think… 5”x8” or so and about an inch thick. It was terrible.

It was terrible not just because I was getting smacked with a giant board – but because I became intimately acquainted with how it felt on bare skin. Yeah, bottomless. A lot of boundaries that should have existed were ruined when that thing came into the family. There’s a lot more I could say on that, but… that memory section has mostly vanished into the depths of my PTSD.

What hasn’t is the non-hitting corporal punishment: the physical labor.

I was tasked with a lot of stuff that my brothers were not, since I was the girl and all. All the laundry, most of the dishes, making sure all the bedrooms were clean, and so on. One of my doctors has said that she thinks I have fibromyalgia because of the abuse and work I was made to do. I know some of you are thinking that that’s not possible. But try “being forced to manually turn a garden and plant bulbs in the middle of a Colorado October while sick with pneumonia.”

That is why corporal punishment is bad: not only are you hurting your kid in the immediate, but you lose all sense of boundaries the child should have… like helping them to be healthy instead of seeing them as someone you can force to do things because they’re terrified of being punished.

Trust me… while I’m not physically still being punished [I moved out seven years ago], it’s still punishing me. Through my PTSD, my flashbacks, and the nightmares where I wake up screaming in the middle of the night.

I may be free from more, but I will be punished the rest of my life by what I’ve already experienced…  thanks to corporal punishment.


Gary’s Story

I never heard my parents say anything even remotely close to “It hurts me more than you.”

For one thing my “spankings” were very rarely thought out. They were rarely “punishment” for some infraction, they were most often spontaneous beatings by my enraged father, enraged for any number of trivial reasons.

One episode demonstrates this best.

I was nine years old.

My father had been hired on a contract basis to clear brush from 180 acres of forest land. The man who owned the land assumed that my father would be working this job himself. Of course this was far from true. My father would wait till he knew the man was not in town, pile all us kids into the van, drive us to the land and work us, for a solid eight or more hours. Unpaid. Under the radar. During school hours.

“This IS your “schooling” he would say, “Learning how to work”.

This kind of thing was standard for my childhood, and one of the major reasons we were homeschooled. Work. Hard work. Unpaid work. Grueling work. Dangerous work. Mind numbing work. 

Not chores. Not house hold duties.

Work. Real work. Work with chainsaws and lumber, work with shovels and rakes and hoes. Work that left blisters.

Work that my father was paid for on a “per job” basis.

Work us children never got a dime for.

All of this work was made possible only because we were homeschooled, because we could be worked 8-10 hours a day any time of the year.

It was early spring. Snow still held the shadows under the trees in an icy grip. As we headed into the forest to work, breath puffing in the cold predawn air, my father turned to me and said: “I forgot the gas for the chainsaw, go back and get it out of the van, and don’t dawdle.”

His voice was level and normal, showing absolutely no sign of the rage to come. I walked back, walked carefully, one foot in front of the other. Why? Because we were on a rutted logging road, and the deep ruts were filled with water several inches deep, crusted over with a thin film of ice.

And my boots were old and full of holes, passed down from 3 siblings before they got to me. I had never owned a new pair of shoes. Not once. My first pair of new shoes was bought for me by my Grandparents when I was 12 years old, so I wouldn’t have to wear ragged sneakers to their 50th wedding anniversary. I knew that if I got my feet wet I would work in the cold and snow for 8 or more hours with wet feet. No question about it. So I walked carefully, one foot in front of the other down the ridges between the water filled ruts.

This, was apparently, “dawdling.”

I heard an enraged scream from behind me, and turned just in time to see my father rip an ice encrusted tree limb from the frozen ground, it was a big one, two and a half feet long and twice as thick as a broom handle.

The beating went on for about 30 seconds.

Do you know how many times a enraged man can swing a club in 30 seconds?

Do you know what kind of damage it does to a 9 year old boys body when swung with the full force of grown man’s work hardened muscles?

That night my mother was worried enough about what she had seen to ask me to “show her”. Even she recoiled in shock.

I was covered in now black bruises about three inches wide from my lower calves to my lower back. At least 30 blows had rained down on my skinny frame.

This kind of beating didn’t happen all that frequently. But I still have nightmares at least twice a year.  At 31 years old I still wake up with clenched teeth and a racing heart. In my dreams, I am small and helpless.

In my dreams I cannot escape. In my dreams my father is beating me.

The Reluctant Rebel: Gemma’s Story, Part Seven

Homeschoolers U

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

< Part Six

Part Seven: Aftermath

On paper, my post-PHC life has been quite successful.

As it turns out, I do have a future in academia. I was accepted to an excellent graduate program in the DC area. I teach at the collegiate level, and I’m good at it. I am still a Christian, mostly due to the fact that I had some experience with the type of Christianity that loves and accepts and forgives before coming to college. I recognized the “Christianity” used to hurt me there as a bastardization of the real thing. Today, I am happily married and still run with the same group of friends I had in college. The future looks bright.

Spiritually, my post-PHC life has been a mixed bag. On one hand, the spiritual abuse my friends and I encountered at school poisoned entire swaths of the normal Christian life for us. Things as simple as prayer and reading the Bible trigger either bad memories or massive amounts of legalism-induced guilt. For me, just hearing one of the praise songs we used to sing in chapel at college would be enough to induce a panic attack. Many of my friends left the faith altogether, and I don’t blame them. Those of us who stayed Christians found homes in various liturgical traditions. On the other hand, the process of sorting through my faith and wrestling with what to keep and what to discard has been enormously rewarding. It is difficult to admit to myself that I just don’t know what I believe anymore, and to try to re-explain the tenets of the faith to myself in words that are meaningful to me now. But I have discovered that Jesus is big enough to handle my doubts, and he seems to be the one constant at the bottom of all my confusion and grief. Today, I am a better Christian than I ever have been, but it has taken years of struggle to come to this place.

Ironically, had it not been for Mike Farris and his college, I would probably still be a conservative evangelical, attending a Bible Church and homeschooling my kids. I would never have had a reason to leave the world I grew up in, because it was a world I didn’t want to leave in the first place.

Their abuse is the only thing that drove me away.

But in other ways directly attributable to my time at PHC, life has been a massive struggle. I graduated a broken, burnt-out shell of a person and spent the first several years after graduation in a haze of grief, anger, and depression. I lost weight. I slept all the time. I had panic attacks daily. Some days, I felt so physically sick—dizzy, nauseous, exhausted—I couldn’t even get out of bed. I skipped class a lot. Even though I was out from under the oppression, I couldn’t shake the sense that I was being watched wherever I went. It didn’t help that I would randomly run into people I didn’t want to see, since I still lived in the DC area. I lived in paranoid and baseless fear that my new university would find something wrong with me, that I would unwittingly break some rule and be found out, or that they would realize they had made a mistake by accepting my unaccredited undergraduate degree and kick me out. I was afraid to speak up in class, so I didn’t. Academically, I was extremely well-prepared for graduate school, but my exhaustion, depression, and anxiety prevented me from getting the most out of my program.

It also didn’t help that PHC continued to abuse its remaining students, many of whom had taken up the fight and kept me abreast of the issues. I fought with them for a while, via the alumni association, interviews with reporters, or maintaining protest websites. Over time, as more of my friends graduated or left, I just dissociated from the entire place as much as I could.

But the dissociation didn’t cure the emotional and spiritual wounds. At the time, I didn’t have much of an understanding of mental health, and attributed my problems to a set of inexplicable, incorrigible physical symptoms. In retrospect, it is obvious that I was deeply depressed and also struggling with severe anxiety. My therapist has compared my symptoms to PTSD, a common description for those who have experienced environments of intense spiritual and emotional abuse. These things don’t heal overnight.

I believe the abuse I experienced at PHC robbed me of my health and happiness in the prime of my life.

I spent 10 years crushed by the weight of broken health, a broken spirit, a broken heart. I didn’t want to live like this. It wasn’t my choice. I wasn’t wallowing in bitterness or being hard-hearted or refusing to trust God enough. After a while, the school wasn’t even on my radar anymore, but the feelings stayed. I think when you spend enough time feeling a certain way, those feelings just start to feel so normal you stop imagining life without them, and then one day you can’t imagine life any other way at all.

Now on the verge of my 4th decade, I’ve finally gotten myself the professional help I needed for so long. Reading people’s stories on HA has helped in the sense that I can see now that I am not alone. But it has also brought up a lot of strong feelings I thought had gone away. Writing this story was very hard, but I thought it was important to do for a few reasons:

First, I want there to be a record of the truth. I want people to know that some of us stood up for what was right and against what was wrong. I want people to know that serious wrong was done to us, and we tried to respond in the right way. I am proud of myself and my friends for the way we handled ourselves. Although no one should have to endure what we endured at college, I am glad that I had an opportunity to stand up for something I believed in, at significant personal risk. I am glad that when I had a chance to be courageous, I took it. Not everyone gets those opportunities in life, and not all of those who get them, take them. We did.

Secondly, I want people to know what PHC is really about. I can’t tell you how many times, even while I was still a student, I would have settled for the school just admitting the truth about itself, even if that meant I had to live with that truth forever. Patrick Henry College is not a normal, mainstream, classical-liberal-arts college. It is not regionally accredited and apparently never will be, despite what we early students were promised when we enrolled.

Patrick Henry College is a sheltered, religiously fundamentalist, agenda-driven institution; a side project of HSLDA like Oak Brook is a side project of ATI/IBLP.

Its purpose is not to give students a quality collegiate education on which to base their own dreams and plans for the future, but to indoctrinate students into the mindset of its founders and leaders, so they can be deployed into positions of power and thereby further the political and social agenda of those leaders.

I am not exaggerating. This is the truth.

In order to fulfill this agenda and succeed in getting people into power, the college wants to maintain its veneer of respectability and normality. But it is just a veneer. Once upon a time, some professors and students fought with all our strength to make the veneer into a solid reality, but we were kicked to the curb by those in power. That ship has sailed. The only thing left to do now is peel back the veneer and expose the underlying reality.

Finally, I want others to know that they are not alone. Recently I saw that students at Bryan College were going through a similar struggle. I hope they know they have support, and that what they are doing is courageous and important.

As long as my story has been, I have not included every significant thing that happened while I was at PHC.

I have not even included the worst things. There are some stories that, even now, a decade or more later, are too painful to write about.

Some events included other people, whose stories I don’t want to tell for them. And I have left out many of the weekly and daily occurrences that, individually, were just straws, but over time accumulated into an unbearable, back-breaking mountain. The little comments made in chapel or in the lunch line; the judgmental, preachy emails sent to all-students by self-appointed morality police; the new rule adjustments, interpretations, or applications that dribbled out from the Office of Student Life. All reminders of the invisible standard we non-conformists were not conforming to. All reminders of who was in charge, and who was watching, and how we could never live up. A thousand little discouragements. They add up after a while, but there are too many to remember.

I hold no grudges against my fellow students. Thanks to the work of people at Homeschoolers Anonymous and Recovering Grace, I now have the perspective to see that those of my fellow students who made my life so unhappy were unhappy themselves. They were not actually evil sadists, but victims of a sadistic system. They didn’t know any better. Many of them have changed. Their stories, like mine, are not over yet. My hope, for all of them, friends and foes alike, is that they will find some peace on their journeys after all.

Honestly, I have had a harder time forgiving the adults in charge at PHC, mostly because they have refused even to entertain the idea that they might have been at fault for some of what happened, and that they, personally, might have hurt students and alumni along the way. Recently, it seems that Mike Farris is in more of an apologetic mood. As I can personally attest, the skeletons that have come out of the fundamentalist homeschooling movement’s closet in the last year have prompted a lot of reconsideration and reflection. I hope he will come to see the recent stories in the press and the blogosphere not as an attack to be countered, but as an opportunity to acknowledge the truth. Truth is important. Without truth, real reconciliation is impossible. I believe that God’s work in the world is toward the redemption and reconciliation of all things. I stand on the side of truth and redemption—not bitterness, not cheap grace, but the kind of real love and reconciliation that can encompass the ugliest truth.

I will end by saying that I recognize there are many former students whose experience was not like mine. Some students seemed to get along just great with the administration. Of those, not all were abusive and spiteful—many were kind, compassionate, genuine human beings with whom I simply disagreed on some issues. Other students kept their heads down and their opinions to themselves, and escaped relatively unscathed. Even others seemed to let the BS wash off them like ducks—it was just a place they went to college, and their real life was somehow elsewhere. I recognize the fact that other people experienced PHC very differently than I did.

I hope that those who disagreed with me (then or now) can extend the same courtesy, and acknowledge that just because my experience may have been different than theirs, does not mean that I am wrong and need to be silenced.

End of series.

Like Acid on Skin: Myra’s Story

Screen Shot 2014-02-12 at 7.48.57 PM

Series disclaimer: HA’s “Let’s Talk About Sex (Ed)” series contains frank, honest, and uncensored conversations about sexuality and sex education. It is intended for mature audiences.

Pseudonym note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Myra” is a pseudonym.

Trigger warnings: the following story contains descriptions of physical and sexual abuse of a child.


Perhaps this is just for me, for me to finally put into words the terrible pain in my heart, which seems to slowly eat away at life like acid on skin. Sexual education.

I received none as a child, absolutely none.

The following story might be confusing in places because I have recently been told I suffer from PTSD and DID, or dissociative identity disorder. Large portions of my childhood are missing, confused, or simply changed. Only recently has the truth been resurfacing in my mind.

I was homeschooled my entire life growing up, and my family was the homeschooling family to be in our area.

My mother kept a computer in the house that was password protected and we were never allowed to use it unless we were typing. I found her password book one day tucked under her mattress when I was cleaning the house. When I was a teenager I snuck out of my room in the middle of the night and I searched sex, rape, and pornography on the World Wide Web. They were all terms I had heard before, mostly associated with evil and the world going to the devil at church.

Needless to say I got a first-hand pseudo sex education from the porn industry.  And I was hooked. I spent every night on that computer watching pornography in a trance. I realized, eventually, that I had been masturbating since before I could remember as a self-soothing mechanism when I was spanked. I also realized that my father touched me after beating me (it was called spanking but I was always left with bruises from the middle of my back to my knees) to make me stop crying.

I had my first orgasm as a small child with my father.

Frankly, the experience was beyond confusing. The actual experience with him was pleasurable not painful at all, but it forever associated being beaten with sex for me. And obviously, I was being molested even thought I did not know it. I honestly thought it was how people were supposed to comfort their children. The intense shame and regret I felt as a teenager immediately caused me to dissociate the memory and place it in my mind in a place that was carefully guarded.

I do not know how long this abuse continued or when it started. There are other elements of the abuse that I have recently remembered but are too fresh, raw, and frankly too explicit to detail.

My mother spanked me between the legs whenever she caught me masturbating. When I was almost a teenager I was raped by a family friend.

Today I am left with a confusing mixture of sexual issues. I have a hard time not associating sex with punishment. I have a hard time not seeing sex as something used to make someone feel better, basically, used as a commodity, I have a hard time associating intimacy with sexual action.

Having any sort of sexual education might have helped me see that I was being taken advantage of by the people who were supposed to care for me. Perhaps it would not have, I honestly do not know. I do know that it could have saved me from a life long struggle with pornography addiction.

I hear others talking about how wonderful, intimate and generally fireworkery, sex is.

I wish that had not been taken from me.

I wish I had not been so isolated. I wish I had been told more about sex.

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

Screen Shot 2013-11-18 at 12.57.25 PM

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

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

Part Two

Part Three: The Hard Road Ahead

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

Eventually, I became suicidal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2013-11-18 at 12.57.25 PM

By Nicholas Ducote, HA Community Coordinator

< Part One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Three >

How I Lost My Faith, Part Three: Rejection

Part Three: Rejection

HA note: The following story is written by lungfish, a formerly homeschooled ex-Baptist, ex-Calvinist, ex-Pentecostal, ex-Evangelical, ex-young earth creationist, current atheist, and admin of the Ask an Ex-Christian web page.


Also in this series: Part One, Introduction | Part Two, Isolation | Part Three, Rejection | Part Four, Doubt | Part Five, Deconversion | Part Six, Conclusion


Rejection: Evangelicalism 

“But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin.” Romans 14:23

The doctrine of sin effectively maintains many Christians in a cycle of guilt and self denial that they cannot escape.

The Bible teaches that, whether a person is a believer or an unbeliever, everyone on this planet is a slave to sin. The Bible also teaches that a lack of faith results in sin – and sin results in evil and destruction in this world. In other words, evil exists in the world because of you. Destruction exists in the world because of your sin. People die of famine, disease, and natural disasters because your faith is not strong enough to avoid breaking God’s law. When this is the belief that you hold so closely, there is no choice but to drown in an unending sea of guilt – because, everything that causes sorrow and loneliness in this world, is your fault.

“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” I John 1:9

But there is a dangerous loophole to this doctrine: forgiveness is available to anyone who merely asks for it. A sort of “get out of jail free” card that can be played – no matter the enormity of the sin that may have been committed. So you ask for personal forgiveness with little concern for those whom your sin may have affected and you pray for strength to deny your own thoughts and biological functions so that you may not sin again. With effort, this denial of self can often be accomplished and the guilt may even subside – but it is always only temporary because you are fighting who and what you are as a human being.  All of this traps a believer in a continuing swell of rising and falling periods of guilt and self denial. This emotional roller coaster comes at a psychological cost that Christianity refuses to acknowledge and often even considers beneficial to the individual’s personal relationship with Jesus Christ – because the pain that this cycle causes is Jesus himself forming and shaping you into a person closer to His likeness. And to be more Like Jesus is the ultimate goal of a Christian.

Battered Person Syndrome is defined as the medical and psychological condition of a person who has suffered persistent emotional, physical, or sexual abuse from another person. 

When Battered Person Syndrome manifests as PTSD, it consists of the symptoms: (a) re-experiencing the battering as if it were recurring even when it is not, (b) attempts to avoid the psychological impact of battering by avoiding activities, people, and emotions, (c) experience of being constantly tense and the need to maintain an increased awareness of the surrounding environment, (d) disrupted interpersonal relationships, (e) body image distortion and (f) sexuality and intimacy issues. Victims of Battered Person Syndrome often believe that the abuse is his or her fault and the abuser is somehow omnipresent and omniscient.

This is often the effect that Christianity has on many of its followers and the effect it had on me.

The righteous chooses his friends carefully: but the way of the wicked leads them astray.“ Proverbs 12:26

We began attending a large Evangelical church. I knew many of the youth at this church from the Christian school I attended when I was younger; but I had developed a social anxiety I did not have before. I don’t know if I was afraid that if I made friends again I would lose them again or if I had just become used to a lack of social interaction. But it did not really matter. Most of the youth’s parents would not allow me to be friends with their children because my father was not a Christian. A fact made painfully obvious by his absence from our pew each Sunday morning.

The thought was if we could not convert our father to Christianity, then there was something wrong with our own Christian walk. 

I was told this straight to my face on multiple occasions. No one invited me to events that took place outside of church or youth group. I often saw everyone at the sledding hill or the ice cream shop, but no one ever called me to ask if I wanted to join and that hurt me in ways I would not admit to myself.

However, there was one who did accept me. He was the pastor’s son. We were once friends at the Christian grade school we attended and we managed to rekindle that friendship. Together, we became the youth group video production team. He as the camera man and I as the actor. We filmed many videos for the youth group and this gave me purpose. Eventually, he invited me to teach sixth grade Sunday school with him. I found that I had a talent for Biblical teaching. I believed that the Bible meant what it said and, therefore, needed no interpretation beyond that. I began giving long talks in youth Bible study about the meanings of Bible verses. This sometimes brought out sarcastic remarks towards me from the other youth. But my clear and direct approach to the Bible impressed my youth pastor and he suggested I get further training in seminary. We toured Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and I loved it. I began fabricating plans in my mind to become a missionary to third world countries.

After a fund raiser for the church, the pastor’s son, my only Christian friend at the time, informed me that he and his family were moving to Texas.

The church elders asked his father to resign as head of the church. They believed him to be too liberal and wanted the church to travel more in the direction of fundamentalism. I was devastated. He was the only Christian that accepted me and he was being removed from the church by the Christians that did not accept me. Soon after, I was asked to resign from my position as Sunday school teacher and replaced. When the kids asked me why I was no longer their teacher, I couldn’t answer them.

I did not want to cause these kids doubt by making the church look bad.

But Peter and the apostles answered and said, we must obey God rather than men.“ Acts 5:29 

I became lonely and after constant begging, my mother once again agreed to let me attend public school. I attended full time my senior year. I consider this the best year of my life. I made many friends; but, I was still afraid to let them get close.

Although I had never felt as accepted in my life as I had been among these unbelievers, my indoctrination still held me tightly. 

I thought their influence was a danger to my Christianity and my eternal soul. I was often invited to parties and small get-to-gathers but I would never attend them. I wanted nothing more than to let these people in. I wanted to drink and talk about life with them more than anything I had ever wanted before.

I just wanted to be normal.

But I wasn’t normal; I was a child of God. These desires were merely a temptation from Satan and I was a pillar of Christian morality. I knew that people must look up to my morality, even though no one ever told me this. I thought that if I faltered even once, someone who looked up to me would be devastated. That person, who may be considering accepting Jesus, might decide the teachings of the Bible are a lie. That person would be sent to hell and I would be responsible. But I soon found this not to be true.

Halfway through the year, one of the kids in my neighborhood, whom I had reconnected with that year in public school, committed suicide. 

I still do not know why. I thought myself a failure. I could not understand how he could not see hope in the Jesus that I strived so hard to be like. I attended his open casket funeral, but I trivialized the experience and repressed any emotional response. Losing people I cared about had become a normal occurrence. So, instead of mourning, I sunk even deeper into Christianity. I became more devout, I become stricter, and I began to verbally evangelize for the first time in my life. Christianity had emotionally shut me down and I coped with it by adopting even more fundamental views of the same doctrine – avoiding the reality of abuse by becoming more abused.

It was around this time, I befriended a girl at school. She showed an interest in Christianity so I invited her to church. I became closer to her than I had ever been to anyone else. I took her to a presentation by Kent Hovind at a local church. He talked about faith and science – connecting the two in a way that never gave my faith more validity. On the drive home, she told me of how interesting she found the presentation. The talk had given me a confidence in evangelizing I had never experienced before. I pulled the vehicle over and told her all the reason that I believed the Bible to be truth over any other religion in the world. I told her how we are born into sin, separated from God; but He sent his son to die so we could be with Him in heaven. Soon after, she accepted Jesus and I began a romantic relationship with her.

She began attending church with my family every Sunday and, eventually, I asked her to marry me.

To be continued.

In Which the Pieces Come Together: By Jeri Lofland

Screen Shot 2013-11-03 at 4.23.13 PM

Jeri’s post was originally published on her blog Heresy in the Heartland  on November 3, 2013. It is reprinted with her permission. Also by Jeri on HA: “Generational Observations”, “Of Isolation and Community”“His Quiver Full of Them”“David Noebel, Summit Ministries, and the Evil of Rock”“The Political Reach of Bill Gothard”, and “Bill Gothard on Education”, and “Ken Ham: The Evolution of a Bully.”

At some point in my growing up, I realized that my family was dysfunctional.

While outsiders saw us as picture-perfect and held us in regard as a model of the ideal Christian family, we knew our Sunday-best was an illusion or at best, just one facet of who and what we were. There were a lot of good times, certainly, but there was also tension. And no matter how much fun we were having, we never let our guard down.

I have spent the last year seriously unpacking what I’ve carried from my family of origin. In the process, I’ve gradually learned a new vocabulary describing the ways that dysfunction affected me:

According to a report on Developmental Trauma Disorder by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk,

When children are unable to achieve a sense of control and stability they become helpless. If they are unable to grasp what is going on and unable do anything about it to change it, they go immediately from (fearful) stimulus to (fight/flight/freeze) response without being able to learn from the experience. Subsequently, when exposed to reminders of a trauma (sensations, physiological states, images, sounds, situations) they tend to behave as if they were traumatized all over again – as a catastrophe. Many problems of traumatized children can be understood as efforts to minimize objective threat and to regulate their emotional distress. Unless caregivers understand the nature of such re-enactments they are liable to label the child as “oppositional”, ‘rebellious”, “unmotivated”, and “antisocial”.

When trauma emanates from within the family children experience a crisis of loyalty and organize their behavior to survive within their families. Being prevented from articulating what they observe and experience, traumatized children will organize their behavior around keeping the secret, deal with their helplessness with compliance or defiance, and accommodate in any way they can to entrapment in abusive or neglectful situations.

These children… tend to communicate the nature of their traumatic past by repeating it in the form of interpersonal enactments, in their play and in their fantasy lives.

So many of Dr. van der Kolk’s observations resonate with me. And in an odd way, I find it reassuring to discover that professionals can accurately describe the ways in which my siblings and I coped with our traumatic upbringing. We were not anomalies; we were not “broken”; we were not “messed up”. As children, we responded understandably–even predictably–to unsettling circumstances beyond our control.

Our parents were told by Bill Gothard and Michael Farris and Mary Pride and Doug Phillips, by Raymond Moore and Gregg Harris and even James Dobson, that God had given them (parents) responsibility for their children’s education and that by taking our education into their own hands, they could have the loving, God-fearing family they always wanted. Our parents accepted the challenge, choosing to raise us in an environment totally different from any they had known before. In a system totally different from their own experience. In a culture totally different from that of our peers. But in some cases, that system failed dismally.

My ten siblings and I are only a tiny representation of the thousands (millions?) of children who grew up in conservative religious homeschooling homes.

Many of those homes were unhealthy, and socially isolated; many were abusive. And many of us are survivors. The symptoms we have dealt with along the way are not signs that we were rebellious or lazy or crazy or influenced by demons–they are simply signs that our young brains reacted normally to the challenges our parents created for us when we were vulnerable and doing the best we could to make sense of the strange and sometimes painful world in which we found ourselves.

Now that I have children trusting me to show them the world, I am finally able to feel empathy for my younger self. I see myself at my children’s ages, and grieve the losses that little girl was not able to properly mourn at the time because she had to be strong and she had to be good. That little girl discovered early that it was safer to ally herself with her caregivers–who were bent on pleasing God–than with the rest of her culture–who were displeasing him every day. That little girl learned to cooperate with and even defend the very people who were traumatizing her, even when this only created more cognitive dissonance.

Now I find nurturing my children and tuning in to their specific needs to be healing to me. Observing them, I am better able to recognize my own likes and dislikes and fears, the things that make me feel supported, the things that make feel threatened, the things that make me feel brave.

I have carried a lot with me since leaving the home of my childhood. I felt I had to hang onto it to find out what exactly it was.

Now that I am able to label the way I felt as a girl, it is easier to let those feelings go and move on with a better, healthier life.