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.
Trigger warnings: threatening and emotionally abusive situations.
< Part One
Part Two: Imprisonment
Soon, my mother was determined to fix me.
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.