Trigger Warning: Depictions of extreme medical abuse
Part Twelve: Exorcising Demons
Spiritual warfare is quite an interesting subject, all the more so because we don’t have much information on it, though what little we can infer from the Bible is quite fascinating. Inferences to divine armies battling in the heavens, the devil being cast out of heaven, references to the “giant dragon” trying to devour the infant Jesus…what do we make of all that? We know that in some hazy way these events are related directly to us, and that our actions affect the other-worldly battle going on in unseen realms. But how exactly they’re related and clear specifics? I have none of those, and I suspect you’re in the same boat.
I’m not sure where exactly Joe LaQuiere got his own beliefs on demons. For Joe, spiritual warfare was simple.
Any bad attitude could be evidence of an indwelling “evil spirit”.
Just like the devil went around “like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour”, we were taught that evil spirits were lurking everywhere, just waiting for the chance to settle in our hearts and souls. If we gave them an opening through having a bad attitude, they’d jump on it and invite themselves right in. So our parents spent time “rebuking” the evil spirits in us every time we were grumpy. As you can imagine, this did not endear them to me. In fact, hearing my parents order evil spirits to leave me, in the name of Jesus, just made me even more grumpy! It felt very stupid and silly, because I knew I was just in a bad mood, not possessed by a demon. But our parents took these things very seriously, praying over us and ordering the demons to leave. If our bad attitude didn’t immediately vanish, that was further evidence in their minds that it was spiritual warfare they were dealing with.
This was the environment that existed in our group when my little cousin H started having seizures. The first time it happened, they called an ambulance and rushed her to the hospital. She was prescribed anti-seizure medication, and I believe they even gave it to her, at first. We heard about it the next morning, and even as children, were properly scared and worried for her. I think she was about 6, but I could be off on the age…it was a long time ago. We all hoped it was a one-time occurrence, and that little H with her blonde hair and sweet smile, would be fine from then on. Then she had another seizure. And another. At this point Joe LaQuiere sat her parents down for some very serious discussions.
He was almost completely sure that these seizures weren’t medical – they were spiritual.
He thought they were being caused by demon possession, and he had a way to prove it one way or the other. When she started having a seizure, or right afterwards, they needed to order her to say “Jesus is Lord”, because demons couldn’t say those words. So if she said the words, then it wasn’t demon-possession, and presumably was just a medical condition that they could continue to treat with anti-seizure meds. If, on the other hand, she refused to say “Jesus is Lord”, then they had a very very serious problem, and it was going to require a lot of prayer and work to drive the demon out.
With this fool-proof bit of theological wisdom in hand, they and Joe set to work on little H. The next seizure came and went, and they tried to get her to say “Jesus is Lord”. She wouldn’t say it. There was the proof: their little girl was possessed by a demon. This was further confirmed to them by odd things she would say…sometimes she would say there was a “black man” in the room, and she would want him to go away. Even the little bit of reading that I’ve done on the subject has come up with information on visual and auditory hallucinations as a common and expected side-effect of epileptic seizures. But apparently this research was outweighed by the expertise of Joe LaQuiere, who told them this was further evidence of demon possession: she was able to see other demons that were invisible to the rest of us. The “black man” was clearly a demon, and little H needed to be delivered from her demon possession as quickly as possible.
So they stopped the seizure medication, and instead spent hours with her, Joe LaQuiere assisting, every time she had a seizure, ordering her over and over to say “Jesus is Lord”.
Often she would resist and fight them and cry, or say some variant of the magic words “Jesus is Lord”, but not the exact phrase. I was told that many times they would be up with her all night, fighting and trying to hold her down to control the demon inside her. This was a serious spiritual battle, and they were determined to win. Joe LaQuiere told them they could, and they believed him. Sometimes little H would say “Jesus is Lord”, and they would relax for a bit, believing the demon was gone. Then it would start all over again with another seizure. At one point I think she was having upwards of 12 to 15 seizures a day. I’m not sure what else they tried in their quest to exorcise the demon from H besides prayer, and ordering her to say “Jesus is Lord”. I was told of one time at least that Joe had them forcibly hold her in a shower as part of the process. I’m not sure what affect that was supposed to have, but the seizures continued. Little H started to look like she was in a constant daze all the time. She didn’t act normally any more. She didn’t talk much.
I don’t know how long this went on…I know that eventually the seizures lessened…for all I know, they put her back on seizure meds eventually. I was never told. The one thing we do know for certain: the effects.
H experienced permanent brain damage as a result of the untreated seizures.
Today she is in her 20s, but she’s never progressed mentally from the small child she used to be. She is still sweet, but with the sweetness of a young child. Her brain has been permanently scarred by the ordeal she went through, and her life will never be the same. I grieve for her and her stolen potential. What will happen to her now? Will she ever be married? Have her own family? Have the emotional capacity to realize the spiritually abusive environment she is in, and the ability to leave? I don’t know.
HA note:Aaron Gotzon is a homeschool alum and one of the regular contributors toThe Ontological Geek, a website that examines videogames through various critical lenses. The following was originally published on The Ontological Geek on April 24, 2013 and is reprinted with permission.
Beat your plowshares into swords and your pruninghooks into spears: let the weak say, I am strong. – The Book of Joel
Frequent readers will note my intimate familiarity with the Evangelical subculture. It wasn’t until I grew out of my larval form that I recognized just how sub that culture was. To me, it was normal to repudiate the machinations of the secular, decry the subversive whims of a liberal media, and lionize such defenders of the faith as the Billy Graham Crusaders, the Gaither Vocal Band, and Randy Hogue.
In TobyMac, Switchfoot, and Relient K, we had our own music; a pro-family, pro-social answer to every genre of song – many Christian acts of the late 90’s and early 2000’s, in fact (the heydecade of the movement) consisted of popular secular tunes repurposed to affirm our social agenda. We had our own cartoons, some of them actually rather clever and technologically groundbreaking. We had huge rallies in stadiums of millions, and popped out “world outreach centers” like sneezes: some of which have passed on into obscurity, some remain a force with which to be reckoned, and a certain quite famous one in my hometown is under scrutiny for harboring some dark practices within ostensibly benign, if radical, quarters.
We had hit novels, major motion pictures. We refitted holidays to eliminate pagan (or even neutral) elements, and had our own youth organizations, like AWANA, as a cultural counterpoint to the Deistic-in-theory American Scouting movement. It might be said that, for some, or even many of us, the Boy Scouts weren’t conservative enough.
And, of course, we had our own games.
This impulse was borne from the Pauline commandment to “be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
“Worldly” was a slur.
The 1980s: BibleBytes, and Kidware Shareware Adware Underwear
The concept of the Christian computer game began with the uprising of modern Evangelicalism with its soon-to-be-realized theocratic tendencies and its reconstructionist emphasis on the budding culture war between the “old-time Religion” and the open secularization of the West. Focusing on the Family meant meeting the public mainstream culture point for point: in politics, in art, in hobbies and entertainments all alike.
As with certain evangelical leaders (Dr. James Dobson), internationally recognized conservative think tanks (Focus on the Family), and popular, still-running radio programs (Adventures in Odyssey), the “Christian” game was born in Colorado. BibleBytes was founded by the Conrod family with the express mission of bringing computer games into the mainstream with overtly religious messages. This being the early 1980s, videogames weren’t met with the scorn we witnessed in the early-to-mid 2000s, for example, on the charge of being unspeakably violent (and certainly they’ve earned that distinction, regardless of how that makes you feel personally). Instead, this was an answer to the emergent popularity and rampant growth of infant gaming, another tit-for-tat appropriation of an aspect of modern culture and integration into the fledgling Christian subculture.
BibleBytes was successful in marketing the first Christian games on the era’s microcomputers, which included those manufactured by Radio Shack, Texas Instruments, and Timex.
The overwhelming majority of Christian games produced during this period were developed by BibleBytes, and ported to the appropriate hardware platforms, including the Atari 2600 and Commodore 64, as those became widely available. The games were released in multiple volumes and iterations as a collection rather straightforwardly entitled Bible Computer Games.
Today, BibleBytes continues to operate as the dreadfully named “Kidware Software,” selling primers on programming basics designed for children of homeschooling families. They’ve since stopped supporting the old software, and no longer develop or distribute new games.
The wave of Bible games had begun, but it had yet to swell, until…
The 1990s: The Tree of the Knowledge of Dreams and Piracy
Like BibleBytes before it, the role of Flagship Developer of Bible Games fell to Wisdom Tree – the company formerly known as Color Dreams – during Our Most Awkward Decade.
Color Wisdom Dreamtree has several notches on its Belt of Contributions to Gaming History, the first being its development and distribution of the first-ever side-scroller for “IBM Compatible” (as the parlance went) PCs. The next two honorable mentions aren’t nearly as honorable, though they’re certainly not unimpressive: Color Dreams managed to develop a workable hardware bypass for Nintendo’s 10NES chip, the silicon gatekeeper of the Japanese company’s famously strict licensing rules. Later in the decade, they’d also publish the only unlicensed SNES title ever, Super Noah’s Ark 3D.
Wisdom Tree’s first release after their rebranding was Bible Adventures, for the NES, a three-in-one-pack featuring the following:
Noah’s Ark, a platformer wherein the goal is to gather up all of the animals by picking them up. The animals are presented as being hoisted above Noah’s head, and they can be stacked one atop the other, making Noah only slightly weaker than Superman (which I don’t remember from the Bible). The gameplay and presentation are similar to that of the American Super Mario Bros. 2.
Baby Moses, in which the player takes on the role of Moses’ sister Miriam, attempting to deliver him safely to the palace while evading guards after Pharaoh’s decree that all male Hebrew firstborn be killed. Miriam, like Noah, transports her charge by holding him directly above her head. Intriguingly, she is able to throw the infant prophet around the screen with no penalty damage to the child. She is, however unable to use the invincible slave-spawn as a bludgeoning weapon.
David and Goliath is similar. You’re still picking up animals as the psalmist shepherd and stacking them over your head. Except this time, once David succeeds in carrying enough sheep to safety, he is transported to the front lines of the Philistine war armed with a slingshot, with which he eventually defeats Goliath in the final stage by landing the perfect shot right in the giant’s forehead.
The Bible Adventures compilation was ported to the Sega Genesis as well, with virtually no changes to either graphics or gameplay.
Wisdom Tree would continue to release games throughout the rest of this decade, many of them with elements borrowed heavily from other more popular titles, like Zelda expy Spiritual Warfare for Game Boy, NES, and Sega Genesis. Sometimes, the games would be outright clones and re-skins of titles Color Dreams released before they re-styled themselves as a Christian developer, like top-down puzzlers Exodus: Journeyto the Promised Land and Joshua: Battle of Jericho, both of which used the same gameplay mechanics and level layouts as the secular Crystal Mines, with different graphics reflecting the biblical theming.
Perhaps the most bizarre was the aforementioned Super Noah’s Ark 3D, which could only be played by loading a licensed cartridge on top of Noah while it was connected to the SNES console. It was an actual level-for-level clone of the popular Wolfenstein 3D by id Software, with Noah replacing the meaty muscled bloody guy (did he have a name?), a slingshot for a weapon, and various animals standing in for Nazis. A widely-spread rumor claims that id Software gave the source code of their Wolfenstein game to Wisdom Tree as a revenge on Nintendo for releasing an inferior port of their popular game, making it a point to tone down the violence (Nintendo was known for being especially particular about games for their system being Family-Friendly). The details surrounding this bit of corporate intrigue have never been released, and the facts remain unclear to the present day.
Technically, Wisdom Tree is still active, selling their own games and those of even smaller developers on their website, on which they promise to make their entire past library available for the current versions on Windows, eventually.
So, you know, if you ever really, really wanted to pay $22.95 for a videogame called JESUS IN SPACE, now’s your chance.
The 2000s: Cacti and Catacombs
So far, the formula for most Christian games, as codified by Wisdom Tree, was to adapt well-known stories from the Bible into playable adventures, most often by taking an existing secular game and copy-pasting kitschy religious imagery (the standards, mostly; bearded men in dresses and plenty of camels). In the early 2000s, the standard began to shift from adaptation to symbolic imaginings of the Christian journey and comic-style portrayals of spiritual warfare.
Arguably, one of the only explicitly Christian games to enjoy significant mainstream success and recognition was Catechumen, a first-person shooter which tasked the player with a journey to travel down into a Roman-inspired catacomb to defeat a demonic horde ensconced therein. Along the way, the player character increased in spiritual power until finally gaining enough strength to banish Satan himself from his lair in the bottommost parts of the caverns. The quality of the action, progressive gameplay, and “mature” theming drew many gamers from both inside and outside of the Evangelical community.
Cactus Game Design entered the scene a little later in the decade, bringing yet another more adolescent-oriented shooter offering, Saints of Virtue, to the range of Christian games available to consumers. The player journeyed into the center of a young man’s heart in an attempt to purge it of sinfulness from the outside in, gathering items representing the different pieces of the “full armor of God” along the way. These were accompanied by verses explaining different facets of the Christian inner life, and at times could be oddly introspective in its rather personal, if clichéd and Totally Rad! ™, exploration of the meaning of the modern Christian walk. The weapon in the game was the “Sword of the Spirit,” which was not used as a typical bladed tool. Instead, the player was able to fire bolts of lightning at the (quite scary) enemies, masks which took the names and traits of various sins or follies.
The Saints of Virtue characters would come to be used again in Cactus’ Magic-like trading card game, Redemption. Instead of draining the opposing player’s life points, the objective of matches in the card game was to come into possession of the opponent’s so-called “Lost Souls,” claiming them for the Kingdom of God with biblical hero characters, while at the same time defending their own souls with evil characters. The game worked well, and became pretty successful for a few years, hosting national and local tournaments and gaining a cult following even among those Christians not expressly invested in the culture of Evangelicalism.
The latter portions of the decade saw a trilogy of Left Behind games, based on the popular and long-running series of novels sets after a premillennial dispensationalist’s idea of the Rapture, which faced some controversy from the mainstream regarding various charges of cultural insensitivity and (of all things) violence.
Other than this briefest of debacles, and a few rhythm games, which were basically Dance Party and Guitar Hero but with contemporary praise and worship music, the rest of this decade saw no noticeable influence of explicitly Christian games on the mainstream.
We’re now well into the New Tens, and, as it turns out, they’re suspiciously absent of any noteworthy Christian games. Many of the old developers are either closed completely, or sustaining themselves by repackaging, reselling, and sometimes halfheartedly supporting or updating their old titles. It seems that, by and large, the Evangelical subculture has given up on appropriate games into itself. This may reflect the poor quality of the early games, the lack of significant commercial success of the newer ones, or the Evangelical movement’s withdrawal from the impulse to create a new, “Christian” world in lieu of being participatory in the new one.
It’s true that religious themes abound in modern games, as interactive media matures and becomes able to comment on more and more aspects of culture, layering complexifying narratives over dynamically evolving artistic structures and play mechanics. As with BioShock Infinite and Fallout: New Vegas, these new representations of Christianity and other religions seem to refrain rather cautiously from commenting on popular religion specifically, choosing instead to focus on general themes, patterns from history, or minority faiths (Mormonism is a popular one, and by some accounts New Vegas managed a nuanced and respectful portrayal of the Latter Day movement).
This advancement of a more subtle religious theming has allowed the faithful among us to project our journeys onto the adventures we undertake in our gameworlds of choice, without the exclusivity implicit in playing a “Christian game.” We’re allowed to think about the spiritual paths we choose, even as we consider the paths we undertake when synched-up to player characters. We’re allowed a wider discourse, incorporating gamers of other faiths, or no faith, to engage with us in our universal quest for personal, immediate, and transcendent truths. We’re allowed to put our problems, like violent impulses, misogyny, and all those sundry troublesome –isms, on display without fear of retribution from a community which once sought to burrow in and ignore or downplay the difficult issues which come along with being human, indeed, being fundamentally worldly.
There may well be something profound to be said of a freedom in Christ, but it seems like today’s secular games offer us a lot more freedom (even to be in Christ more fully and honestly, should we so choose) then would Christian games, had they gotten the chance to become as successful or ubiquitous as our more familiar, religiously neutral engagements.
Perhaps the central impulse of the Christian subculture of the past twenty years was slightly twisted: being “in the world, but not of it,” does mean rejecting ties to historical barbarism, checking destructive primal urges, and striving to create a more balanced, peaceful social order. All great ideals, but if we want to achieve them, we do have to be “in” the world. We don’t get to opt-out of the realities of earthly life before we’re through with it. Before we’ve managed to accomplish being in it, even if we choose to identify with an otherworldly ideal. Even if you suspect that your Real Home might be elsewhere, this is definitely where it is now.
So, “worldly,” perhaps, shouldn’t be a slur. Succeeding in embracing the world, loving it, being Home-for-Now, might be the first step toward transforming it into something better, toward making the “world” something not to be rejected, but to be cared for and nurtured. Something to be proud of.
Anyway, go play some games.
“What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air perched in its branches.” – The Book of Luke
A note: for some fun, check out the Angry Video Game Nerd’s three-part series on Bible Games. He covers just about all of the Wisdom Tree titles of the 90s in detail, with his typical humor (which means the videos aren’t safe for work, obviously, and screw you for watching YouTube at work, you lazy ass).
By this point my label as the rebellious child might as well have been tattooed to my forehead. My efforts to find some safety had backfired in the worst possible way. Now my father was gone, but I was still considered the little demon child. My mother placed me into heavy counselling, and even took me all the way to Indianapolis to see a particular counselor who was pretty deep into ‘spiritual warfare’. For days and days he performed multiple exorcisms, interrogations, and vigilant attempts to hunt down every demon he was sure resided in my soul. I went home feeling empty and ashamed. During this time almost every last bit of my personal possessions were burned, considered tainted by Satan’s influence upon me.
I had almost nothing but my clothing and basic school supplies left.
Time passed. We moved away, found a new church alongside one of the ATI directors, and what few friends had been hand-picked for us in our old town were just a distant memory now. Here in a quiet neighborhood in a tiny little town, we had nobody but ourselves. In an attempt to find us some ATI friends and reconnect a bit with her own past, my mother began talking with an old friend she knew in her high school days. He had fallen on hard times and she felt bad for him, and started trying to help. Once a week he’d visit us, we’d all watch a movie, have dinner, and chitchat. These weekly visits went on for close to a year. During that time it became clear, at least to my sister and I, that this guy was very, very creepy. A few veiled advances on both of us, and eventually, we called our mother into the living room one night and told her that he was “very scary” and begged her not to let him visit anymore in a formal, ATI-approved appeal. We never told her the truth, that he was behaving very inappropriately toward us.
The incidents were too close to home for me. I started spiraling into depression, and became suicidal. I started questioning everything; why were we putting ourselves through this hell on earth? What if we were wrong? My mother was horrified; I no longer accepted “because God says so” as an answer. I started asking too many questions, wanting to really understand why we lived this way; things I had never really questioned all these years. She made a call to the family coordinator, explaining that her daughter was “out of control” – and was put in touch with the LIT program.
I don’t feel very comfortable going into too much detail, as this time period is one of the more difficult for me to cope with. I will simply say that I was put into the LIT program, held captive for two years against my will, and systematically tortured and brainwashed. I realize “tortured” is a very strong word, but I feel it is appropriate – leaders were expected to carry out extreme punishments to brainwash their “students”, and those who did not were demoted or ejected. It was a calculated effort and there were many terrible things that happened there, to myself and others like me. I was permitted no contact with my family for the first few months; all correspondence was monitored heavily, my mail filtered coming in and going out. I was to send glowing reports of the program every week, and nothing more. I was never to speak with her on the phone unless watched closely. I was never, ever going home for a visit until they thought I was “ready” – until I was brainwashed enough to not beg to stay home or speak of what happened.
I was frequently starved, dehydrated, sleep deprived, humiliated, sick, neglected, interrogated, and working grueling hours every day on top of being swamped in ATI and ATI-endorsed materials 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Punishments came on a daily basis, sometimes multiple times a day, and sometimes long-lasting, cruel and unusual punishments. I lost over 40 pounds in just a month and became pale, sickly, malnourished and perpetually mute. Several times I stole food out of severe hunger, only to be punished again. I was placed into solitary confinement for two and a half weeks just for singing in the car. Sometimes I was ordered never to speak, for weeks or even a month solid or more – to never speak unless spoken to, or to ask “May I please ask a question?” or “May I please speak, Ma’am?” I was given tasks designed to fail, punished when I failed, and then humiliated further. It was a nonstop effort to break me down, and even after I was broken down, they would never stop.
When in desperation I tried to escape through a tiny window and run away from the compound, my leader just laughed and said, “Where are you going to go?” I attempted another time and was threatened by the director who stated that he had a shotgun and that if I tried this again, it “might be open season” for me. That was one of the turning points. I began to realize the horror of the situation – I was a prisoner. I was outnumbered, outmuscled, and the director had a gun he was not afraid to use. They told me they were registered with the state, in good standing with the cops, and the police would gladly bring me back to their doorstep if ever I managed to escape. I had nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, and nobody to help me.
I was terrified for my life every single day.
So, two years of this went by. I became what they wanted me to be, at first just to survive, and then I got lost in it. The pale vacant smiling face became everything I was. I sang the songs, worked tirelessly, and bent over backwards for my leaders. Eventually, I was praised as a success. I was even promoted, here and there – the photogenic face, so happy to be here, doing so well.
I started being invited on strange exclusive trips to other training centers. We called ourselves the Cavalry – we were called in to lend extra hands in the places that were short staffed. A call would come in, the best of the best of us were gathered together; we’d swoop in, work tirelessly and silently, and suddenly disappear. Many times the staff at the other training centers didn’t even seem to know who we were; with tired smiles, those in charge would greet us, usher us to our rooms, direct us, and ask few questions.
It was through this that I was able to see some aspects of ATI that still shock me to this day. I was never told what we were doing; it was a simple order to pack up and head out. I rarely knew what we were working for, exactly. It wasn’t our job to know, just work. It was God’s work, after all. That being said, what I witnessed is very difficult for me to comprehend. I just had such a terrible feeling. Something was wrong.
Again, I’m going to gloss over a few things, because I don’t feel safe going into too much detail. We spent time in the North Woods training center, I believe during Gothard’s yearly trip up there to plan for the next year’s events and programs. He was always talking about this time – the time when God gave him new messages, scriptures, teachings that he would later proudly announce to us all. Unlike the image I had in my head of a lone cabin and Gothard quietly meditating, it was more like a business meeting among Gothard and a lot of people I didn’t recognize. We were invited to a lot of the meetings, and I didn’t like the way we were looked at. For once, we weren’t told to work – it almost felt like we were like furniture accessories, just to be there and look pretty. Some of us were told to give our testimony, but it was very uncomfortable.
Then out of nowhere, a boy was brought to the lodge. He just appeared one day, Gothard announcing the boy’s exciting “discipleship opportunity” while hugging the frightened boy up against his side. I had a sinking sick feeling in my stomach. The boy was by Gothard’s side for days on end, utterly silent and looking afraid. Gothard spoke for him. He never said a word. Eventually, Gothard was going to take the boy on a trip – I wish I could remember where. We all accompanied Gothard, in this little entourage, to a small landing strip. He ushered the boy, still glued to his side, into a small, brightly-colored airplane. And they took off, to the cheers and appluads of everyone.
I never saw the boy again.
On another strange trip across the country, we found ourselves in the Deep South, working in an abandoned building. It was a wreck – short, tattered carpets covered in drywall dust, room after empty room in disrepair. We weren’t here to build, they said. Just clean the place, spotlessly, and never speak to anyone who speaks to us. We were prepped for days beforehand, reminded again and again that this was very important, rehearsing the rules. No speaking to strangers, you are God’s servants, this is an important work, Bill Gothard will be there but is not to be bothered. So we worked ourselves sick (quite literally).
One day as I vacuumed a hallway in the harried, obsessively tedious manner I had grown accustomed to – I spotted a policeman sitting at the end of the hall. He watched me intently, curious. I must have been a strange sight – this little girl in an ankle-length khaki skirt and uniform-like polo, keeping her head down. He struck up a conversation and I nervously kept my head down, replying with as short an answer as I could manage, smiling and afraid: “Yessir. No sir. Yessir.” He squinted at me, curious. “Well,” he said finally, “You girls’re doing a great job. Thanks for your help.” He gave me a keychain in the shape of a police car – one of those things they pass out in schools, I guess – with the name of the police department on it. And he went on his way. As silly as it may sound, the genuine kindness this officer showed had a profound effect on me. I still sometimes wonder what went through his mind, and whether he suspected something was very wrong.
When all of our cleaning work was finally done, we still had more to do. We put on our best clothing, and started work hosting a banquet for the grand opening. We worked tirelessly throughout the event, never eating that day except for mere bites of food amid the flurry of activity. That night we stood aside as a ceremony was held. The entire police department, city officials, and more were all gathered. Bill Gothard spoke about how glad he was for this opportunity, and hinted at a bright future working with this police department and more. The city officials and chief of police thanked him for his support, in turn, joking about how cramped their former office had been. Hands were shaken, toasts were made. We were ushered quietly to our bedrooms for a few precious hours of sleep before we disappeared in the morning, off to another training center.
I have held onto the keychain all these years, to remind myself what I witnessed.
It’s one of the hardest things for me to wrap my head around.
Eventually, my prison sentence came to an end. I was sent home, praised as a success story, a great turnaround for Jesus. I had done God’s work, diligently, humbly, as they say. They even threw me a farewell party.
I returned home to a changed family. My mother had dyed her hair, bought a new car, and started finding a little bit of liberty from ATI’s rigorous standards. She was even wearing pants regularly now, and seemed so much happier. She and my sister were the best of friends.
They had learned to live without me.
I, the rebellious child, would never again be truly welcome in their home.
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.
Friends of mine and readers of Homeschoolers Anonymous may notice that, despite my involvement in HA from the beginning, I’ve yet to tell “my story.”
At first, I wasn’t sure what my story was or what information I wanted to make public, so I waited. I also hoped my gentle public criticisms of homeschooling would start a dialogue with my parents. Quite the opposite: they talk to everyone but me about HA.
I do not want a bad relationship with my parents, but I am no longer willing to limit my expression in an effort to try and appease them.
It’s sad because my parents no longer participate in ATI, but they still hold to the most radical and cultic beliefs promoted exclusively through Gothard and his allies in IBLP and ATI. Sometimes I see glimpses of the loving, fun people that my parents are, but the religious fundamentalism preached by ATI hijacked our relationship.
To put it simply, I was raised in a homeschooling cult (ATI) and my parents were/are emotionally manipulative and spiritually abusive. It has taken me a long time to be able to write that, and for the longest time I didn’t want it to be true. But my time reading others’ stories and talking about our complicated parental relationships, patterns began to emerge. I hope that telling my story can help other troubled young adults to find ways to assert, defend, and express themselves with their parents. As for me, I’ve given up waiting for the fun, loving version of my parents to take over the fundamentalist version.
Many people will call me embittered, angry, or any number of pejorative terms to delegitimize my story, but I am not telling my story in an attempt to lash out and hurt my parents. I am telling my story because I now know that my story is not unique. All across America, former homeschoolers are dealing with convoluted and dysfunctional relationships with their parents. Sometimes parents give up the rigid legalism of Gothardism as they age. But my parents did not.
All too often I see the scared little boy (me) that my parents created — cowering in fear of reprisal, instead of confidently asserting my thoughts and beliefs.
This may seem odd to the people that know me because I am far from meek in debates about politics and religion. I debated competitively for eight years, which makes me good at finely tuning my advocacy to avoid conflict. Over the past few years, I’ve carefully avoided answering questions about my religion because I was too afraid of the reactions my immediate family would have.
It was easier to lie to them than to deal with being their “project.”
So for all the people who wonder where I am coming from — and I know religion is prima facie to many Christians when weighing an argument’s or source’s validity — here is it all laid out.
I am a non-Christian Theist.
I believe that there is something in the universe that is omnipresent and supernatural — unexplainable by modern scientific knowledge — but it certainly is not some father-God-Lord-Universe-Creator. I believe the universe originated at the Big Bang, which may have been triggered by aforementioned supernatural being, and life evolved. I believe humans have consciousness that is equivalent to a soul. I arrived at these beliefs through years of study, exegesis, and weighing of all sides. I don’t need evangelizing.
As far as the Old Testament of the Christian holy scriptures, I view them as a typical ancient history where a cultural group claims some supernatural justification for their conquest. I do not believe a loving God would order genocides, but I believe a group would commit genocide in the name of God and defend their actions with “God told us so.” I view Muslims, Christians, and Jews as essentially the same monotheistic religion, relying on ancient incorrect history to prop up a modern religion. That said, I believe the modern forms of these religions look nothing like they did in their original form. All religions evolve substantially over time, often changing core tenants or relying on arbitrary man-made decisions as Divine Truth (i.e. Council of Nicea, Papal Ex Cathedra, etc.).
When it comes to the New Testament, I believe that the historical Jesus was nothing like he was portrayed in the epistles and NT outside of the Gospels. Jesus was likely a real person, but the historical Jesus and verifiable source texts do not reflect the modern Biblical interpretation of Jesus’ divinity. That said, I believe Christianity, like Islam, Judaism, and many other religions, introduced many great moral codes to humanity.
When I traveled to Afghanistan to teach debate, I could not believe how similar the rural orthodox Muslims were to patriarchal fundamentalist American homeschoolers. (I’m sure some of you are incensed reading that, but remember I’m just being honest). Women were treated as second-class citizens, many were forced into a form of “stay-at-home daughter,” and laws discriminated against them. It was the exception for a young Afghan girl to attend as much school as her male peers, and certainly to attend a university.
Modesty is also rigidly enforced in both cultures, to an obsessive degree. Only in Afghanistan and American homeschooling have I seen so many arbitrary rules regarding modesty only for women. Granted, the level of modesty required of American homeschoolers does not reach the level of the burqa, but the philosophy and its outcome is relatively the same thing.
Just like many of the rural Orthodox Muslims, patriarchal fundamentalist American homeschoolers want their version of Christianity enforced through the government. Afghans also revere and respect their elders – a tradition that thrives in patriarchal fundamentalist American homeschooling. Even as a married adult, my advocacy in America faces the “you’re just a rebellious bitter child” line all too often.
The similarities were haunting and during my month there I started writing what would become a catalyst for the stories that built HA.
My mind made so many connections and being in the repressive atmosphere brought back so many memories. Even teaching Afghans debate mirrored my experience teaching patriarchal fundamentalist American homeschoolers. At first, they could not grasp the idea of arguing both sides — since they had been raised to only believe in one side. But as the light bulbs went off they lit up and they were so excited by debate. One thing that struck me was how religiously devout the Muslim students of the universities remained. Although they were among a very small cohort of their peers who attended secular universities, they all left the debate tournament after lunch to pray. The entire tournament halted because they needed time to pray.
Something like that would never happen at an NCFCA tournament!
My next essay will focus on the impact of ATI on my childhood and teenage years. And the terminal third essay will explain how ATI’s toxic teachings continue to poison my relationship with my parents.
You’ve probably heard of them by now. Enabled by their parents (and I use ‘enabled’ deliberately here) they’ve travelled the world battling the forces of evil. They’ve taken culture war to a supernatural extreme. Adult me pities them. Adolescent me would have rolled her eyes–and probably envied them just a bit.
It sounds ludicrous. And it is ludicrous. The Harry Potter phobia and the conviction that the United Kingdom is a seething hotbed of demonic activity aren’t rational reactions. Nevertheless, I’m going to argue for a certain degree of leniency for these girls.
If you can, step inside my former world for a moment.
In that world, demons are real. And they are terrifying. I spent nights awake, soaked in sweat, because I had been told that demons can possess people, even people who think they’re Christians. I’d been told that if you aren’t right with God, you’ve left a window open for the devil. So I prayed. I prayed until I fell asleep, and when I fell asleep, I had nightmares about witches and devils who would seek me out and take me over.
The dreams would routinely frighten me awake. One night, I ran for my parents, because I was a child and that’s what children do.
My father then told me that I was actually correct to be frightened, because Satan is a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour.
I didn’t go back to sleep that night.
And then there were the Rapture movies, with their gory martyrs. I secretly loved them, because for a long time Revelation was as close as I could get to science fiction. But at the same time they too filled me with fear, fear that I wasn’t really saved, that I was out of favor with God and would therefore fail to be Raptured upon Jesus’ imminent return. I spent so much of my early life effectively paralyzed by fear.
When you’re a child, and you’ve been told from your earliest days that evil isn’t just real, but that it’s an active force currently engaged in a war against you, it makes sense to go on the offensive. If you’re a girl, of course, your options are limited. You’re not allowed to hold a position of spiritual authority. You can be a ‘prayer warrior.’ You can share the gospel. But you certainly can’t lead an offensive against the devil. That’s men’s work.
Unless you’re Brynne Larsen or her friends, Tess and Savannah Scherkenback.
These girls are the fundamentalist Scooby Doo gang. They’re almost certainly being controlled by Larsen’s father, a failed televangelist, but they’re doing something. They’ve seen the world. When I was a teenager, demonic possession seemed far more plausible than freedom.
People change as they grow. I lay the blame at Bob Larsen’s feet, and at the Scherkenbacks’ feet, for choosing to raise their children in a manner that has emotionally crippled them. Brynne, Tess and Savannah most likely believe they’re helping people.
I was 20 when someone tried to exorcise me.
Specifically, she intended to set me free from depression, and somehow she thought laying her hands on my head in public, without prior warning, and praying the “depressed spirit” out of me would improve my outlook on life.
My exorcism wasn’t particularly violent. I’m grateful for this, because self-proclaimed exorcists have been known to carry things to a dangerous extreme. But it was invasive and humiliating. A year later, I left the church altogether–for a variety of reasons, of which the exorcism was only one.
It turns out that leaving the church did far more for my depression than exorcism ever did.
Brynne, Tess and Savannah have never been on the receiving end of exorcism. ** I suspect that if they underwent what they’re dishing out to others, their perspectives on the matter would change rather drastically. But that’s my point, really: they’ve never been faced with any real to challenge to their indoctrination. They’ll be adults soon (and since Savannah’s 21, she’s really already there) and personal responsibility does play a role. But believe me, fundamentalists know how to brainwash. They’re terrifically successful at it.
They saturate your every encounter with the world with such a blinding fear that it feels impossible to move or think, and waging culture war is the only proactive measure you can take.
It’s so pervasive that even now, as a secular adult, the occasional sleepless night is still ever so slightly tinged with fear.
If I’m going to be honest with myself, I don’t know that I’d have left the church if it weren’t for experiences like that exorcism. Perhaps I might have eventually, because the doubts were certainly present. But my departure might not have been so early, or so drastic. When I had cause to fear Christians and not the devil, it became much more difficult for me to convince myself that Christianity was worth the effort.
If we’re fortunate, Brynne, Tess and Savannah will learn from their travels. Maybe they’ll even join me and my friends among the ranks of the prodigals.
I hope for their sake their journey is less frightening than mine.
** Update: So it seems that Savannah Scherkenback has received an exorcism. Also for depression. I suppose becoming an exorcist yourself is certainly one way to prove to your fundamentalist community that you’re really “healed.” Maybe I’ve underestimated the level of fear (or arrogance) at work here. Thanks to Kathryn Brightbill for pointing this out.
Author edit to clarify my call for more oversight: I recommended intra-community policing in my post. State action should be a last resort. Those that care to preserve their parental rights to homeschool need to hold other parents accountable. Unfortunately, fundamentalist homeschooling communities are often isolated from anyone who would question the parents. I don’t have a solution, but I know we can’t just assume the status quo will fix things. Hopefully, projects like this will scare other parents enough to make them confront other parents. But let’s be honest, do you see that happening in these sort of communities? Most of these people laugh at the idea of children having rights and would never support anything that encroaches on their ability to teach their children whatever they want. If you suspect child abuse or neglect in a family you know, please report them to Child Protective Services.
Homeschooling, as a method of instruction, is not intrinsically bad, dangerous, or damaging. I saw many children raised in homeschooling who were not abused by religious fundamentalism – even if they were Christians. However, as a society, we have to realize that the current state of homeschooling gives parents unique power over their children. Yes, many homeschooled children are a part of co-ops, interact with neighbors, and have relatively normal social interactions. But other homeschoolers are isolated in rural areas, with no contact with neighbors, or the outside world. Abuse develops in these environments because there is no oversight from outside the parents and, if criticism if lodged, the parents are defensive. To many homeschooling parents, homeschooling (the method) is part of a larger worldview that involves rejections of secularism, science, and academic institutions.
I developed claustrophobia, a generalized anxiety disorder, and panic attacks in high school. At the time, I assumed my panic attacks were the result of the Holy Spirit convicting me of my sins. The most common trigger for my panic was sexuality. As a teenager, I would often shake uncontrollably after masturbating. Homeschooling can make children feel trapped because they are literally never away from their parents. When I was quasi-dating girls in high school, behind my parents’ back because they wanted me to court, I would have a mini-panic attack when the phone rang – scared that my parents would find out. When I got in trouble it meant a few hours with mom and dad, crying and arguing about what God told them to do, ending in me feeling completely trapped. When I woke up the next day, I had no choice but to bottle up my anger, shame, and humiliation and go “do” homeschooling. In ATI, many leaders preached about how listening to rock music would literally result in demonic possession. This is abusive to teach to children. To this day, I struggle with anxiety before I fall asleep. I was taught, by my parents and by ATI’s leaders, that demons were very real and they could possess rebellious Christians. Many in the homeschooling movement conceptualized the “culture war” as spiritual warfare — the secular humanists were literally portrayed as the minions of Satan.
Spiritual abuse is a difficult term for many people to wrap their heads around. It may seem like we are trying to say that raising children in a religious tradition is abusive, which we are not. However, I can say that when homeschooling is mixed with religious fundamentalism, abuse almost always occurs.
There is a distinction between religious fundamentalism and mainstream religions. I once told my mom, “I would have been fine if you stayed Baptist. It’s when you drifted into fundamentalism that hurt me.” What many people fail to realize is that most parents don’t wake up one day and decide they need to start controlling their childrens’ lives and prepare them for the culture wars. Yes, my parents are to blame for subscribing to fundamentalism, but the homeschooling community and movement are also to blame.
In many states in the 1990s and 2000s, homeschooling parents received most of the curriculum, instruction, and indoctrination at state, regional, or national conferences. There are a myriad of institutions and groups that formed the movement, so it is impossible to point to a single root cause of the abuse in homeschooling. But I know abuse doesn’t just happen because of bad parenting. The bad parenting that people indict was being advocated on stage before thousands of people. There is a reason why so many homeschooling alumni share stories and experiences. Tens of thousands of homeschoolers attended state Christian Home Educator Fellowship (CHEF) conferences, where they were exposed to
The Harris family and their beliefs about Biblical courtship
David Barton and Little Bear Wheeler’s revisionist history
Evangelical leaders that scared everyone about the evils of secular humanism
Michael and Debi Pearl’s harsh ideas on corporal punishment and misogynistic ideas of gender roles
Huge book sales populated mostly by Christian fundamentalist textbooks — advocating creationism, teaching math based around the Gospel message, or other “educational tools.”
All of these ideas circulated around the homeschooling communities and trickled down to local CHEF chapters.
Parents’ responses have been mixed, but many of them see our blog as a tool to take control of their children away from them. Parents emphasize their rights to raise their children however they want. But, as a society, we have already decided that parental rights end where abuse begins. Thus, one of the main issue in this debate becomes whether or not a homeschooling environment is emotionally or spiritually abusive.
You might think this is only a problem of the past decades — that now, in this new zenith of modernity, fundamentalist homeschoolers that spiritually abuse their children are dying out. You would be wrong. Yes, there is growing momentum behind secular homeschooling, but there is no hard social science about homeschooling. At this point, observational data is almost all that exists about homeschooling and its demographics. We know very generally how many people homeschool and for what reasons. But ten states do not even require the parents to inform them of their childrens’ “enrollment” in homeschooling.
This is the start of an important conversation about homeschooling. I am opposed to religious fundamentalism in all forms and I believe that the abuse that occurs when fundamentalism is allowed to dominate homeschooling has no place in the modern world. I’ve heard so many Evangelicals and homeschooling parents mock the Islamic madrasas for their religious instruction, but fundamentalist homeschooling isn’t different by much.
To those homeschoolers who are afraid of this exposure, it’s time to own up. These abuses happened, the community’s leaders encouraged it, and the community does not regulate itself. If the homeschooling community is not willing to regulate itself – lest a parent tell another parent their methods and ideologies are abusive! – then someone else will.
I am tired of sitting around hoping that the abusive fundamentalist culture within homeschooling will die out. I don’t want it to die out, I want to trample it out so that no other children face the sort of abuse I, and many other, went through. Part of the means telling the honest, visceral truth about what happens in many homeschooling homes. Yes, abuse is ultimately the fault of the perpetrators, but why does everyone leave the homeschooling community blameless for how it brainwashed my parents?
The issue of abuse in homeschooling is an issue of the distortion of parental rights and the reality of systemic indoctrination.
You cannot stop the abuse without exposing the advocates.