How a Logical Girl Talked Herself into Fundamentalism, Part 3

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HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Cynthia Jeub’s blog CynthiaJeub.com. It was originally published on October 17, 2014. 

< Part Two

Trigger warning: child abuse

“Icy roads beneath my feet,
Lead me through wastelands of deceit,
Rest your head now, don’t you cry,
Don’t ever ask the reason why.” –Opeth

When Tangled hit theaters in 2010, my sister Lydia and I saw it within the first couple of weeks. We were late for the movie, missing the narrator introducing Mother Gothel as the villain. We found our seats just in time to see the song “Mother Knows Best.”

Both of us thought, after watching that song, that perhaps in this movie the witch in the tower was a good person. After all, it was a retold fairy tale. You never know what they’re going to swap around.

For the uninformed, “Mother Knows Best” features textbook emotional abuse with manipulation and control, using guilt trips, threats, and fear tactics. I watched the song again recently, and realized most people knew that when they first saw it. When I was eighteen, I did not see any problems with the song.

Gothel looked like a good mother to me.

So after reading an article about girls in the homeschool movement who live with self-deception, I did the most natural thing I could think to do. I emailed it to my mom, and said I felt like my life had been that way.

Her reply: “We left all that behind in ’06.”

For context, my family filmed for reality TV in 2006. After that, my parents re-branded themselves, championing the word “love” as the ultimate trump card. They wrote a book called “Love in the House,” and emphasized that the greatest commandment is love.

To this day I get shamed for talking about the multi-faceted manipulation in my family, because it’s not in accordance with our brand, “love.” I got a text message a couple of months ago from my dad, after I walked out the front door because he started yelling at me for, well, ignoring his text messages. The text read, “Love is the answer. This is not love.”

Because I was accustomed to believing my parents every time they reinvented stories, I believed my mom. Maybe I wasn’t under pressure after I was 14. But I wrote letters about brightening the house until I was 18.

I visited my parents’ house sometime in May this year, and my sister Hannah, age 11, was standing at the stove. I asked where mom was, and was told that mom had been shopping for the past four hours. My brothers were working, and my eleven-year-old sister was left to feed and supervise her six younger siblings, and clean the entire house. Hannah beamed proudly as she told me about her work: she’d cooked, cleaned, watched the kids.

It was the first time in my life that this situation seemed like too high an expectation for an 11-year-old girl. It was what I was raised with. It had been normal.

The only thing Hannah didn’t have time for was the dishes. We don’t have a dishwasher because, with 14 people living in the house, it’s inefficient. We use too many large serving and cooking items, and there are more plates and cups at each meal than a regular dishwasher can hold. My parents have always verbalized dreams about an industrial dishwasher, but we could never afford one. As a result, we wash everything by hand, which takes hours, but it’s better than putting up with a tiny dishwasher.

Mom got home an hour later. Hannah beamed with pride, waiting for a compliment on how well she’d done. Mom’s eyes went straight for the dishes, piled all around the sink. Hannah had cooked, babysat, swept all the floors, and the other counters and tabletops were clean. The dishes were her one oversight.

My mom started yelling, and I watched my little sister crumple. I felt a twinge of familiarity. I had received the same treatment at her age, and taken it with the guilt I was supposed to feel, and tried to perform better. I became a master of homemaking over the next several years.

We listened to mom rant about how dishes are an important chore, and why didn’t Hannah get them done, and now it would be hard to move ahead with the day, and I-was-gone-shopping-aren’t-you-grateful-for-my-hard-work-enough-to-do-what-I-asked.

Hannah defended herself, listing all she had completed. My mom would hear none of it, so I stepped in. “Mom, the house is never this clean when you’re in charge. It’s always in better shape when you leave one of the girls here.”

This was insult. I was informed that my mom did her best, and now was no time for criticism. I tried to help her see that she was holding her young daughter to a hypocritical standard. It was no use. Hannah deserved a tongue lashing, but my mom could not be expected to keep the house in order.

I brought up the email. “You said you left all this behind, and here we are,” I said. She insisted that there was nothing unreasonable about her expectations.

Another time I visited, Hannah and mom were having the same argument: mom had left the little girl in charge, and Hannah had failed on one chore, and mom was yelling at her. I walked in on the middle of the conversation, and Hannah had evidently just cried.

My sister turned to me. “Happy Fairy, cheer me up.”

Something twisted in my gut. This was what I’d been coping with when I pretended to be happy. This was what I convinced myself was a good thing. This was what I was burying away, and this was why I’d dropped out of college and started mental health therapy – because I couldn’t live in denial of my depression anymore.

I looked at Hannah, who was hopeful and ready for my “magic” power to cheer her, and said, “The Happy Fairy was a lie. I forced myself to be happy. Just in the past few months, I’ve learned to start sentences with ‘I feel…’ because I was never taught to express my feelings. I spent my teenage years pretending to be happy. I thought I could fake it until I made it.”

My mom was standing in the kitchen with us. She was quick to announce, “You didn’t learn that from me.”

But I did learn that from her. One of my mom’s favorite lines was, “It’s scientifically proven that if you smile when you don’t feel like smiling, it sends messages to your brain that you’re happy, and pretty soon, you feel better.”

I turned back to my little sister. “I also distrusted myself when I felt angry or sad. You’re angry for good reason: you tried to keep the house in order and you didn’t please mom, and she yelled at you. It’s okay to be frustrated about that. You don’t have to pretend to be happy, and I’m sorry I made you think it would work. It didn’t work for me. It just helped me bury all my emotions for years.”

In the weeks that followed, my mom used all kinds of emotional abuse to get me to stop criticizing her. She said she could yell at my siblings if she wanted to, that’s just the way she is. She could never see the hypocrisy of having higher expectations for her kids than she had for herself. She threatened to commit suicide. She appealed to my emotional vulnerabilities, and she knew them all: I’d just been through a breakup, I couldn’t trust myself because I was mentally ill, and I should feel guilty and ashamed for not being forgiving and loving enough.

One evening, when I was exhausted from arguing with her, I collapsed on the couch. She sat next to me and stroked my head, and told me I could trust her, and that she loved me, and that she hoped I’d get better, and said how she thinks I’m an awesome person.

It was like being cuddled after a nonconsensual BDSM session, as I told a friend a few days later. Had I not read a post on tumblr criticizing the lack of consent in Fifty Shades of Grey, I would not have recognized what my mom was doing that night.

Then I realized she’d done this all my life: attack, threaten, comfort. Hurt, and then flatter.

And in that one moment, with my mother gently caressing my hair and murmuring soothing words, I lost every ounce of trust I’d ever had for her.

End of series.

How a Logical Girl Talked Herself into Fundamentalism, Part 2

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HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Cynthia Jeub’s blog CynthiaJeub.com. It was originally published on October 15, 2014. 

< Part One

Trigger warnings: child abuse

“I could fight this, but I may die.
And all I want is be the apple in your eye
Well I could stay here, strap on my face
Listen to the words that put me in my place.” –Pendulum

I was a curious child. I wanted to know how everything worked and why we did certain tasks, and if the explanation wasn’t satisfactory, I refused to participate.

One day when I was nine, I questioned the reasoning behind sweeping the floor. It was always dirty again within hours. Why not just leave it, or find something more efficient? In a fit of frustration, my mom pulled my ear and yelled in my face, then threw me into the pile I’d partially swept. My head rang from hitting the wood floor and my mom kept yelling about how I needed to finish my chores and stop asking questions, and do it as she said to do it. I finally obliged.

The next day, I felt weak. I struggled with low energy and being underweight, so this happened pretty often. I didn’t have the strength for my chores, and fell asleep again soon after breakfast. My mom brought me a snack and gently offered comfort and care, and she said that I could always trust her. When I felt safe, she asked about why I had such a strong aversion to chores. I remember this phrase from her: “Jesus wouldn’t be happy that you won’t listen.”

I didn’t recognize my own use of humor as a defense mechanism. “I don’t want to follow Jesus, mom.” I laughed at her alarm and joked, “I want to be a follower of Garfield. He’s okay with himself how he is, and he lays around, and he’s not skinny as a rail like me.”

The next day my mom told me, “Your dad and I have talked it over, and we decided you can’t read comics for a year.”

I wanted to cry. I already knew what it felt like to lose something I loved for a whole year, because they grounded me off of watching Star Wars when I was seven and eight. I loved reading, and I loved comics. I loved reading Garfield, Spider-man, Calvin and Hobbes, Foxtrot, and always got the newspaper and read the comics before reading some of the news. It was wit and humor and information and philosophical thought and character development.

My favorite movies, and now comics, took precedence over my parents’ religion and expectations, and that made them an idol. My crime for losing what I loved was that I loved it too much.

But like I’ve said before, I knew to suppress my feelings. I took pride in the fact that I did not cry.

For years afterward, I checked myself: never let your obsessions with fantasy and science fiction and stories get in the way of God. Better yet, convince yourself that you want to love God more than anything else.

I started to enjoy housework after my last spanking, at age eleven. I was fighting with my mom about chores again, and she called my dad’s office. He was a web designer for Focus on the Family. I was afraid of talking to him on the phone, so I hid. I was told I’d be spanked with a belt, and I was terrified.

Now, again, I didn’t make these connections at the time – but now I know that the threat of a belt was a trigger for me because my older sister was beaten with a belt years earlier. It was the first and only time the belt was used on me. I cried, and what I hated about spankings was that I always had trouble catching my breath after I started crying. That moment of fighting to breathe was agony, worse than the initial pain of the spanking itself.

Within a week, I decided I loved housework. I took pride in doing it well. I did my chores on time, then I was allowed to disappear and read. I couldn’t read comic books anymore, so I read more chapter books. As I grew into my teen years, I learned to bury my emotions and put on a smile. By the time I was an adult, I had mastered the art of self-deception.

I could either resent what I was expected to do and be, or I could embrace it. I chose to embrace it, and spent countless hours cooking, cleaning, babysitting children, and encouraging other girls like myself, so they could enjoy my lifestyle as much as I did.

As a teenager, I remember thanking my parents for spanking me. I thought it had been effective, and I thought I’d spank my own kids. Now that I’ve researched emotional and physical abuse, I see my memories in a new light:

My parents broke me into embracing the identity they demanded of me.

Part Three >

How a Logical Girl Talked Herself into Fundamentalism, Part 1

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HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Cynthia Jeub’s blog CynthiaJeub.com. It was originally published on October 13, 2014. 

“Do not look down
Or the abysmal beast of non-conformity
Might stare some unpleasant truth
Into your desensitized mind.” –Meshuggah

It was in April 2014 that I read an article on Homeschoolers Anonymous by Sarah Henderson entitled, “Oh daughters of fundamentalism, take upon yourselves the cloak of self-deception.”

I read it, and for the first time, I recognized how I’d survived my teenage years.

There’s a huge myth I run into on a regular basis – that people raised in fundamentalism are stupid.

It’s too simple an explanation for the many types of people involved in it. There are the stupid ones, of course. There are also those who love power, and they control those less intelligent than themselves. Some are willfully ignorant, checking their brains at the door, as it’s been so eloquently said elsewhere. Then there are those who are both smart and ignorant, and, having been presented with no alternative, survive with self-deception.

I was in the last category. I prided myself in logical thinking, and had quite a few radical ideas of my own. I read all the time, and I wasn’t afraid to reject what I thought seemed unreasonable. Predestination, for instance, was something I enjoyed arguing against.

To give you some idea of what it was like to do what Sarah Henderson describes, here’s a segment of a letter I wrote to my best friend when I was eighteen:

“About setting the tone in the house…I know exactly what you mean. It’s in the difference between the bright ‘Oh, I’ll clean up the cinnamon all over the floor’ vs. the blame-leaden ‘It’s Noah’s job to clean the kitchen in the afternoon’. I think the problem with attempting to brighten our family’s faces is that, at least for me, I feel like nobody cares if I’m really trying to be an encourager. So one thing I do is to remind myself what I hear from people who work in minor departments on films: ‘The best compliment is no comment at all.’ Especially for animated films, there are people who work as hard as the rest in order to get the lighting just right to make the scene vibrant, but the audience doesn’t notice. The only thing the audience sees are the characters talking, the clever dialogue and movement. That’s rather how it is at home: the goal is not to make my siblings and parents realize how hard it is for me, but to do my best, and the results will brighten the mood of the house, not necessarily the task itself. I guess what I’m trying to say is that others don’t think of my actions in terms of isolated incidents, they look at my attitude’s consistency as a whole. What goes on inside my head is not what my family sees, hopefully. What they see is a cheerful servant.”

See, I was informed and could command words. I gave good examples. I was not unreasonable. Looking at that letter now, I see denial and buried emotions. I had no idea that I was in survival mode. It would take three more years for me to realize that I was depressed, and that my depression was perpetuated by forced smiles and taking pride in the fact that I never cried.

I was great at it. In my final years of living with my family, my parents and siblings nicknamed me “The Happy Fairy.” I was known for my skill in lifting spirits. I could make everyone laugh away any frustration. I could lighten any mood. I embraced my Happy Fairy nickname. After all, I love fairies, and my ever-bettering skill as the one who could keep the house happy was a sign of accomplishment. When I started college and spent more time away from home, my family complained that they missed the sound of my cheerful singing.

This took years to develop. My adult self was the product, but I didn’t stop fighting until I was eleven.

Part Two >

Self Preservation and Mental Health

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HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Sarah Henderson’s blog Feminist in Spite of Them. It was originally published on her blog on September 3, 2013.

In my last post, I made a brief mention of how living in a state of survival affected my mental health. I thought it would be a good idea to expand on this issue, because in my opinion it is the crux of why having quiverfull families and homeschooling in chaos is abusive to the children involved.

As I have mentioned before, doing something that causes harm to your child is abusive regardless of your intentions or religious justification. Children are do not become raised in a vacuum. Children do not have the ability to protect their own interests, and as I have shown in a previous post, in fact unfortunately do not have the right to do so. Therefore it is a parent’s job to try to protect their children from harm as much as possible – no perfection required – and to introduce good things and reduce negative influences as much as possible. It is my belief that that most parents would not argue with this assertion, because most parents have their children’s best interests in mind.

When a child is raised a quiverfull family, there is a core belief involved that stipulates that older children should help raise their younger siblings.

This is commonly known to those outside the quiverfull movement as the “buddy system”, but survivors sometimes call this “sister-moms”. The use of older siblings to care for younger siblings can cause various levels of neglect depending on how organized the family is and whether there is homeschooling involved. It is typically simply impossible for a mother of 6 or more children to recover from childbirth and unending pregnancies at the same time as being able to provide adequate care to that many children, provide adequate schooling for that many different grades, cook nutritious meals, do laundry, and keep house. Don’t get me wrong, I do not object to children having chores. I do object to a ten year old child being responsible for a whole department of parenting or housekeeping, such as all cooking, or all laundry or all cleaning or all child care.

This is the difference between a child helping with chores, and “the use” of children to help raise other children or “take over” certain aspects of being a housekeeping mother. When there is a high level of chaos, the older children can become invested in running the household. Indeed, that is the goal of quiverfull families: to pass on the ideals of raising a big family and having women stay in the home and replicate the family values as soon as they are old enough. However, this emotional investment will have one of two outcomes: either the sister-mom will succeed in pulling off an inappropriate amount of responsibility in the home and move on to their own submissive marriage and many children without ever experiencing her own life, or she will fail at the vast amount of work required to raise a family as a young teen. If she succeeds, it is a tragedy.

If she fails – and many fail – she will be subject to shame by others inside and outside the family. The problem is, in order for a daughter to participate in the investment I described above, there is a certain amount of self-deception required. The girl must become oblivious to her own needs and desires, ignore her own sexuality, and truly believe in the moral obligation to participate, to the exclusion of all other life paths. Otherwise she will object to what is being taken from her.

The other important factor apart from self-deception is self-preservation.

In a chaotic situation, there is difficulty in maintaining discipline, and some parents do not have the skills to do so with a few children, let alone over half a dozen. Child abuse and “squeaky wheel” parenting is very common, where children are punished for being loud and only receive help when they are insistent enough to get it but not loud enough to warrant punishment. In this type of environment, there is not enough parental supervision to guarantee good behavior, so they may depend on older children to help supervise the younger children. Sometimes this means that if younger children misbehave, the child responsible for watching them may also be punished for not preventing the infraction. When this happens, the goal becomes less about moral behavior and more about each child protecting themselves from punishment.

A sister-mom who has juggled age-inappropriate levels of chores and child care for years, and is responsible for the behavior of others, lives in a haze of survival. They do not let themselves fully absorb what is going on around them, and do not allow themselves to experience the unfairness in their lives. When a failure takes place, the entire facade crumbles down. The girl will realize that the very parts of herself, the very skills she takes pride in, are what makes her different and scarred compared to others the same age. She will realize other girls have something she does not have: an identity outside of someone else’s children and ideology. If a girl fails at being a sister-mom, there is nothing left unless she makes something happen. If you have no other identity and no social skills, building these from scratch as a teenager seems like an insurmountable task.

The process of disillusionment that takes place is terrifying and horrifying.

Imagine spending several years working on something you really believed in, and investing every moment of every day in it, and believing that it was your life purpose, and one day it simply falls away. Teenaged girls in this situation are typically quite sheltered as well, and tend to not know much about depression and self-harm, which means that they are exposed to the life-changing effects without understanding what is going on, and believing that they are deficient in some way and are the only one in the world going through those feelings.

Quiverfull families are not open to exploring such issues and seeking help, and such help would be counter-productive to the goals of the ideology. Sometimes such girls retreat from their moment of clarity back into the haze and try again. Others are given help within the ideological circle, and the girls are encouraged to suppress their feelings. Others leave.

For the ones who leave and start their lives over outside the quiverfull community, it can take years to start to feel normal. It is difficult to feel normal when you are not living the purpose you have been taught, and are no longer pursuing those goals. Another important aspect is that as a sister-mom, a girl will raise children who are not hers. When she leaves, she walks away from small children who she loves and they know her as the source of food and comfort. It is impossible to fully describe the loss this causes, and the unselfish teachings from childhood can make it difficult to move forward with one’s own life when there is a huge part of the soul that is still attached to the raising and protecting of younger siblings.

When a girl starts to open up to her own life, she will start to realize how much of her life has been used up to pursue the goals of someone else. There is resentment towards both the parents and the siblings, which brings with it the conflict of not wanting to resent siblings for what they had no control over. Sister-moms are taught to not pursue their own goals and to malign typical ‘worldly’ goals, and it can be painful to process what is right and wrong and pick a moral code to live by. Sister-moms who leave will often also simply miss their families and feel rejection because they cannot stay and live their lives. They will feel confusion and shame, and be afraid of going to hell for their actions.

They experience the conflict of self-preservation both while living in the haze and while getting out. All these experiences can trigger depression, self-harm, and self-destructive behavior, and when a girl is used to living in a haze of denial, it is very difficult to get out of the new haze of depression if she falls into it.

A parent risking a girl’s mental health to get help with child raising other children is abuse.