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

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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.

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Trigger warnings: threatening and emotionally abusive situations.

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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.

Part Three >

Hana Williams Abuse and Murder Trial Ongoing

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Hana Williams.

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Libby Anne’s blog Love Joy Feminism. It was originally published on Patheos on August 6, 2013.

Hana Williams died two years ago, in May 2011, of hypothermia after her mother banished her from the house as punishment for being “rebellious.” Hana was already overly-thin from starvation—her parents withheld food as punishment—and she had often been forced to sleep in the barn, use an outdoor port-a-potty, and shower outside.

Hana Williams had been adopted from Ethiopia in 2008 by a conservative Christian homeschooling couple who followed the child training methods of Michael and Debi Pearl.

Her trial is currently taking place, including testimony from some of the children’s seven biological children and Hana’s adopted Ethiopian brother.

I’m going to offer some excerpts from recent articles covering the trial. If you want to see video news reports, click through, as most of these articles include news footage. For what I’ve previously had to say about Hana Williams’ death, read this post from two years ago, written right after the news of Hana’s death surfaced.

Jurors See Before and After Photos of Starved Girl, August 1, 2013

For the first time, jurors saw what Hana Williams looked like as a healthy girl–and her shocking deterioration before her death.

Video taken in 2007 before she left Ethiopia shows Hana smiling as she looks at the camera.  A photo taken closer to her death in 2011 shows her thin teen and shaved head.

Hana’s adopted brother, Immanuel, who is deaf, testified she was always told to stay outside by her adoptive parents, Larry and Carri Williams.

“They didn’t let her into the house to warm up,” said 12-year-old Immanuel, through an interpreter.

Immanuel says he and Hana were treated very differently from the Williams’ own seven children.

Hana’s Adopted Brother Testifies about Abuse, August 1, 2013

During the third day of witness testimony yesterday in the trial of Larry and Carri Williams, a mental health therapist from Seattle Children’s Hospital testified that Hana’s 12-year-old brother suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder because of the abuse he endured under the hands of his adoptive parents.

The mental health expert, Dr. Julia Petersen, said that the boy, who was also adopted from Ethiopia, started meeting with her last winter, when he had been in foster care for more than a year, local media reported. The couple have pleaded not guilty.

Per the Skagit Valley Herald: “Petersen said the boy fit the diagnostic criteria for PTSD based in part on his nightmares about being physically harmed and the fact he was constantly afraid of making mistakes or expressing himself lest he be “punished.” Discipline the boy experienced in the Williams home, plus seeing Hana in pain and dying, is traumatic enough to lead to PTSD, she said.”

Dr Petersen pointed out that the brother’s upbringing in Ethiopia or his stay at foster care in the U.S. do not appear to be the reason for the post-traumatic stress disorder. “Losing his parents caused the boy sadness and grief, but not the same kind of anxiety brought on by what he said happened in the Williams home,” Petersen said.

Latest from the Williams Trial, August 4, 2013

An expert on torture testified Friday in the homicide-by-abuse trial of Larry and Carri Williams who are accused of abusing their two adopted children from Ethiopia, Hana and Immanuel, and causing the death of Hana.

13-year-old Hana Alemu (Hana Williams) was found dead on May 12, 2011 in the family’s backyard in Sedro-Woolley, Washington. She died of hypothermia, which doctors say was hastened by malnutrition and a stomach condition.

“In my judgment, it’s not a close case,” said John Hutson, taking the witness stand on day-six of the trial. The law school professor and dean, who had previously testified before Congress about military prisoner abuse, added: “They both were unquestionably tortured.”

Kids Testify in Abuse and Murder Trial, August 5, 2013

Cara, one of Larry and Carri’s seven children, says Immanuel, a brother, and Hana ate outside and slept in a closet when they broke the rules in the gated, conservative Christian home.

The parents claim they cared for the adopted pair—like shaving Hana’s hair when she had lice. But Cara says Hana’s braids were shaved as punishment.

“Because she was clipping grass around the house and she was clipping it down to an inch instead of leaving a couple of inches,” said Cara.

The Williams could face life in prison and are charged with assaulting Immanuel and abusing Hana to death.

A witness told investigators the couple followed a controversial book called “Train Up A Child”. The author tells parents to use a switch, cold baths, withhold food and force children outside in cold weather as punishment. Cara says her father, a Boeing worker, and her stay-at-home mother hit all of the kids.

“In your family you call the swats and spanking “training” correct?” asked Larry’s attorney, Cassie Trueblood.

“Yes,” said Cara.

But Cara says the adopted children were the only ones who had to shower outside with a garden hose.

“Did you ever take a shower out there?” asked prosecutor Rich Weyrich.

“No,” said Cara.

Prosecutors want jurors to hear from the couple’s oldest sons. But a judge ruled the pair will not testify without immunity—because they are also accused with abusing their adopted siblings. Prosecutors say they are willing to give immunity from any future charges which should clear the way for the boys to testify this week.

It will be interesting to see where things go from here.

Growing Kids the Abusive Way: Auriel’s Story, Part One

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Trigger warnings: references (sometimes graphic) to emotional, physical, religious, and sexual abuse.

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HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Auriel” is a pseudonym. Auriel blogs at Drying My Wings.

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Also in this series: Part One: Growing Kids the Abusive Way | Part Two: Isolation and Ideology | Part Three: Mini-Parents | Part Four: The Sound of a Sewing Machine | Part Five: The Aftermath of Childhood Abuse

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Part One: Growing Kids the Abusive Way

“Turn around, put your hands on the bed.” You scream, “No mommy, please!” She’ll grab you by your arm, wrist, shoulder, lapel, jaw or hair, shake, twist, or drag you, scratch, pull, shove, slap or kick you if you don’t move your butt to her room. “You selfish, spoiled rotten brat! You’re just a little ingrate, you little jerk. Let’s have a spanking!” she yells. Escape is futile. 

“You’re abusing me! How could you be so cruel?” your mom asks in tears over her rage. You clench your fists and teeth at the injustice, but can do nothing. After all, you’re an “idiot” and a “stupid a-hole.”

She has told you that this hurts her more than it hurts you.

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My parents were abused as kids.

They perpetuated the cycle with us.

With their first child, my parents discovered Growing Kids God’s Way by the Ezzos. True to the teachings, my parents controlled our hearts with fear, and later taught Growing Kids classes to dozens of families over the years, and taught me the classes to use on my younger siblings. I grew up in a Catholic, upper middle class family, and was homeschooled K-12, starting out under an umbrella charter school, moving to become our own private homeschool when I entered high school.

As far as didactics go, I learned a great deal. While my friends used Mother of Divine Grace (MODG) or Seton, we used an eclectic mix of those and other curriculums like Abeka since the Catholic curriculums usually require an overload of coursework. My education was classical and informative until middle school when my chronically and mentally ill mom gave up on teaching us. From there, I had a tutor, online classes, or taught myself through my textbooks. Lucky for me, I had a passion for learning and was pretty studious. I ended up graduating early!

Unfortunately, the damage was done.

I was physically, sexually, emotionally, and spiritually abused and neglected as a child.

"With their first child, my parents discovered Growing Kids God’s Way by the Ezzos. True to the teachings, my parents controlled our hearts with fear."
“With their first child, my parents discovered Growing Kids God’s Way by the Ezzos. True to the teachings, my parents controlled our hearts with fear.”

From the time I was 6 months old, up until I was a teenager, my parents beat me with a leather strap. This was based on the Ezzo’s teaching of chastisement. My parents would force me to pull up my dress, and if I were especially stubborn, they’d have me pull down my panties. Just the humiliation was enough to fuel my ire. The pain only compounded the injury. Flinching, screaming, or crying meant longer beatings. So, you learn to shut up, have “first time obedience,” “right away all the way with a happy heart.” Don’t show even a flicker of anger, sadness, discontent, or any negative emotion. Those are signs of rebellion.

I often had scratches and bruises, in various stages of healing. They’d start out as the new red or white fingerprint marks or welts, moving to purplish blues, healing to ugly greens and sickly yellows.

Some days, the punishment was only receiving smacks from a wooden ruler, running scores of laps around the yard or being flicked in the face. Other times, punishment was no supper.

My stomach would suffer, painfully contorting, gnawing at the emptiness, and I would cry myself to sleep.

Sometimes we would only be fed plain oatmeal or bread and water for the week as punishment. My brothers were locked outside or forced to sleep naked on the cold floor as punishments. And it’s hard to imagine the amount of screaming we bore.

Back then, tears were weak. They could be used against you. I couldn’t let anyone see them, or they’d be powerful. I’d curl in a ball on the floor in a corner, and just sit, and rock, and cry, soothing myself in the dark. I reverted to thumb sucking when I was 8. Even today, I still rub my arm and hug myself to self-soothe.

I tried to protect my siblings by covering for them on chores and standing up to my parents for them. My littlest sibling even called me Mommy, and would call to me for help and protection. We’d take beatings for each other too. But if no one confessed to a failure on a chore (read: perfectly swept floor), everyone would suffer. If we brought a sibling into our mistakes, we would be held outside the room, while our parents reminded us that the screams of our siblings were our own fault. Overtime, you become jaded to pain. It no longer hurts you, and the screams of others become mundane and almost comical.

To be honest, I was so sheltered, I didn’t even know I was being beaten or abused. I thought this was legal spanking.

Nightly, we’d fall asleep to domestic violence, fights, slamming doors, broken glass. After a nice tuck in and a whispered, “Jesus loves you,” we’d hear Mom attacking Dad. She’d claw, scratch, knee, hit and punch him, pounding her fists into his chest and back, smacking him with objects.

A few snapshots of my home life:

  • Mom threatening Dad with a knife in our kitchen right in front of me
  • Dad leaving me in my Mom’s room to talk her out of suicide
  • Dad throwing my brother into a bedpost
  • Mom driving recklessly nearly driving into oncoming traffic or a telephone pole
  • Mom yelling at us and publically humiliating us in restaurants

In the end, I learned to lie to save my skin.

I learned to take my siblings away from domestic violence. I learned that violence was acceptable.

This is not to say that my parents didn’t love me.

I firmly believe they did, and see it in countless examples. They hugged me, cared for me, kissed away my childhood scrapes, bought me gifts just because, and told me that they loved me. Birthdays and holidays were special, and they taught me fervently, took me on outings, gave me my faith, drove me to events, encouraged me to learn musical instruments, play sports, and compete in speech and debate.

It’s not like they are monsters.

But they are hurt people who probably should never have had kids. The abusive techniques propagated by the Ezzos jived with my parents’ abusive upbringings. It was their normal, supported by “experts.”

I don’t hate my parents.

I don’t know how to hate human beings. All I feel for them is love, pity, and a need to be far away from them out of self-preservation.

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To be continued.

Ashamed Of My Own Skin: Lily

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

Trigger warning: this post contains references to eating disorders and self-harm.

“You may not wear that.”

This phrase, and others like it, made up a large part of the soundtrack of my journey into womanhood.  Modesty, and all of the accompanying clothing restrictions, were part of the homeschool community of “keeping our daughters pure until marriage.”

As young girls, my sister and I were told that dressing modestly was important, in order to not be a stumbling block to men.  I remember hearing modesty talks and going to modesty “Fashion Shows” as young as 10 or 11.  Before my body even began to develop into that of a woman, I was told it needed to be covered up.   Why? To protect the eyes, minds, and hearts, of men.

Of course, I was only in middle school, and my sheltered self didn’t understand the idea of sexual attraction.  I was skinny and developed relatively late, and so the legs, chest, and shoulders that I kept covered were those of a child.   Before I even developed womanly curves, then – I learned to be ashamed of my own skin.

I have long, thick, dark brown hair, and my aunts and other extended family women will joke about the blessing and the curse this thick dark hair is for all of us – because it grows everywhere.  Face, chest, sideburns, arms, legs, stomach, eyebrows.  As I turned 11, 12, 13, 14, even – I grew more and more self conscious of my hairy legs and dark upper lip.  I would timidly ask my mom how to take care of it, embarassed by my own body.

“You’re still a little girl. That would look awful if you plucked your eyebrows.  You would look so bad.”

Athletics became unbearable – not just because of the long, knee-length shorts that stuck out from the crowd – but because of the dark, thick hair on my legs.  “It’s time to pluck the stache!” joked one of my girl friends at a homeschool co-op gathering – not knowing my shame and embarassment that came from not being allowed to.

Makeup, shaving, and tweezing would have made me look too adult-like, said my mom.  Looking too adult-like was an aspect of immodesty.  Immodesty was a stumbling block to men, and I should be ashamed of myself for the way that I was leading boys on.   My mother once told me that the fact that my hair smelled good was a valid reason for other homeschool mothers (of boys) to be angry at me: after all, I was a stumbling block to their children.

I stopped eating, quit athletics, and ran alone in my neighborhood.  My 96 lbs at 5’4″ at age 14 dropped down to close to 80.  The dark hair on my body grew finer and more plentiful, and my breasts stayed almost completely undeveloped.  I hid food every chance I could, and threw myself into school and more homeschool co-ops and extracurriculars so that I would be able to skip meals and say I had already eaten.  My nose started bleeding about twice daily, and I bruised easily – even from small bumps, I developed large bruises that stayed for weeks.

Feeling embarassed and ashamed of my body was now a regular part of my life, and self-abuse became a way to deal with those feelings.  I started cutting my upper legs – a place that I knew would always be hidden away from the world, thanks to modesty restrictions.   My parents explicitly didn’t believe in privacy for teenagers, and I began to cut myself more and more because it was the one thing that I could keep secret.   Although I was allowed no control of my own body, the secret scars I left underneath my modest clothing was something that I could control.

When I confided in a male friend about my self-injury, my parents immediately found out thanks to heavily monitored spyware on my computer.  At this point, I weighed in the mid-80s and look and acted incredibly depressed and unhealthy, but my parents saw my issues as rebellion against their authority that should be broken instead of mental and emotional issues that needed to be treated seriously.  They loved me dearly, but refused to admit that self-injury and anorexia were “real” disorders.  The few times that I went to the doctor during this period, they strongly reccomended my parents allow me to attend sessions with a medical therapist – but they refused, as they saw no potential benefits from a medical professional hearing about my “rebellion”.

I was 14.  My mother started coming into my room immediately when she saw me leave the shower and make me take my towel off so that she could check my naked body for scars.  If I was in public with her and wearing shorts, she would pull the fabric of the shorts back on my thighs to see if I had cuts on my legs, or pull the waistband of my shorts down to check my hips.

I started showering less, wearing clothing that was harder to remove, and cutting myself in even more “private” places.  As it got less convenient for her to check my fully naked body, and more time passed since she had found cuts, she stopped remembering to check – but it was much, much longer until I stopped cutting.

As for my weight, she mostly dealt with it by telling me how awful I looked.  “You’re sickly,” she told me.

As I went through high school, I got better, mostly from interacting with parts of the homeschool community that simply didn’t know about my self-harm.  I played music with a successful band and worked hard for leadership in academics, and eventually graduated and was able to cut financial ties, and subsequently a lot of the manipulation in my life.

I have three points from this story.

First of all: If you are struggling with self-injury, an eating disorder, or anything else: get help.  Get medical, professional, help.   One of the resources that children in the public education system have is private, personal access to guidance counselors who are trained to recognize problems like this and point children in a direction where they can get help.  In a homeschool situation, well-meaning parents are not always able to understand or recognize the mental/emotional issues behind things like self-injury.   When there are no other adults present who are able to help a child/young teenager and parents have ultimate authority, it can be hard to find help sometimes.

Get help though – any way you possibly can.  One thing that I learned after graduating high school was that my mental issues almost always should be discussed with a medical professional, as well-meaning church elders who I talked to would almost inevitably point me back to my parents.  Self-injury is not something that can always just be “fixed” by praying to quiet your “rebellion”.  It is real, and as a human being, you deserve real help.  Don’t be afraid to seek it out. 

Secondly: To anyone who is struggling – it gets better. Someday, you will be on your own, with access to clothing and makeup/skin care stores that you can purchase from, free from guilt.  Someday, you will have friends who never would have known that you had a dark unibrow.  Someday, the way you look will be your choice, and you won’t have to be ashamed anymore.  It gets better.  I know what it feels like to be shamed into not being beautiful.   I know what it feels like to be told that your simple desire for hygiene and feminine attractiveness is slutty, sexual, and wrong.

It’s not wrong.  Wearing a v-neck is not wrong.  Wearing makeup is not wrong.  Plucking your eyebrows or waxing your upper lip is not wrong.  It is not wrong for you to want those things, and it is wrong for them to make you feel ashamed of wanting those things.  You shouldn’t have to lash out at your own body because you are ashamed of wanting those things.

Finally:  I am an undergraduate education major, and I teach young students and teenagers in the public schools on a regular basis – and, let me tell you, conservative, non-distracting clothing is not what the homeschool community or the Modesty Survey or Josh Harris or anyone says it is.  If you want to dress conservatively and not be distracting, dress professionally.  Wear those heels and dark jeans and a sweater.  Wear dress slacks and a button-down shirt, and guess what?  It’s okay if it’s form-fitting! It’s okay if it makes you look attractive!  It’s okay if you’re wearing lipstick!  After multiple years in the real world interacting with real people, I am finally beginning to realize that conservative and “modest” clothing is not what we were told it is, and it can bring about real, serious, body-image emotional and physical harm to girls who have never learned to love their own bodies. 

I hope that one day I teach my future daughter(s), who will most likely also have dark hair all over, small breasts, and a great smile,  how to dress in a way that makes them feel attractive.  I hope they feel confident enough around me to ask me for makeup or shaving or clothes advice, and I hope that I am able to help them learn how to dress attractively and appropriately for all situations.

Maybe, just maybe, they will grow up a little bit more comfortable in their own skin.

All My Fault, Not Good Enough: Quick Silver Queen

All My Fault, Not Good Enough: Quick Silver Queen

Quick Silver Queen blogs at The Eighth and Final Square. This story is reprinted with her permission.

Trigger warning: self-injury.

Everything was my fault.

This was never said, but it was implied enough to really screw me up. Somehow it was my fault if the kids got into something and I was in the room with them, or just on the same level of the house as them. If I wasn’t watching them any time I was near them and they did something they weren’t supposed to, I got a spanking along with them. Sometimes I joked dryly to myself (and one or two trusted friends) that if a world leader on the other side of the globe was assassinated, somehow my mom would find a way to pin it on me.

I had a lot of anger and depression in my teens. I was growing into a woman, but was kept stifled and like a child. I was constantly told “if you act like an adult, we’ll treat you like one.” I was rarely even given the opportunity to act like an adult, and when I did prove my responsibility (like, I ran the household for a week while mom was in the hospital after giving birth to Abby), it was always forgotten.

I didn’t present a happy face enough. I didn’t spend enough time with the family. I didn’t spend enough time homeschooling the kids (which was my job, right?! Yeeeah). I didn’t spend enough time cleaning up the house (even if it wasn’t my chores). I didn’t serve my dad and brothers enough. I didn’t put enough time and energy into making dinner. I didn’t go outside enough. I didn’t keep my anger and frustration in check enough. Nothing I did was ever enough.

I’m naturally an introvert, and all the frustration and anger and blame and depression turned inward. I just was not good enough. I wasn’t pretty enough, I wasn’t thin enough, nobody would want to marry me. Instead of diffusing my negative energy outward, I also turned that inward. I would bang my head into walls and doorways, because what did it matter if I hurt? I was nothing. And the pain helped the anger and frustration go away.

After a while I decided I didn’t want to give myself brain damage, so I began hitting my thighs and hips. I would hit so hard and so much that I had giant bruises and could barely walk for stiffness and pain. I never let it show though. I wouldn’t coddle myself, I made it hurt on purpose because I had to pay for everything that was my fault. I had to pay for all the ways I was never good enough. When the glass dishes were fresh from the dishwasher and piping hot, I didn’t wait for them to cool — I put them away anyway (I would sometimes get first-degree burns on my hands from it). Sometimes I would scratch my thighs so hard it drew blood. If dad was lecturing and I felt like crying, I would pinch my legs through my pants with my nails and draw blood. Same when he was embarrassing me for no reason in front of people.

Why should I care if it hurt? Nobody else cared.

Starving myself was also a form of self-injury for me. I went on a diet with my parents (Atkins) before I was 18. My dad reminded me (far more than he ever complimented me) often that I needed to “watch what I ate” or “a moment on the lips, forever on the hips”, and “do you really need seconds?” Many days I would eat less than 1000 calories for the entire day, drinking only coffee in the morning and having a bird-sized portion of dinner. Why should I care if I was hungry? Nobody else cared.

Sometime along in my mid-teens I figured out (or learned about) that sometimes people cut themselves. I tried with a pocket knife, and that didn’t work, so I used pliers to tear apart the head of a safety razor to obtain the paper-thin razor blades. I never cut very deep or in visible places, and never more than I needed to. My anger and frustration and depression would evaporate instantly. It was my coping mechanism…besides writing, it was the only way I could get my feelings out.

I kept a razor and a couple band-aids with me at all times for years. I felt naked without them. I told a couple friends about my cutting; one freaked out and begged me to stop. Another tried to make me promise to stop because god wouldn’t want me to. A third confessed she self-injured too. Scottie was understandably upset by it, but he also knew the environment I was in.

When I escaped wasn’t when I stopped hurting myself. I think the last time I cut myself was a year ago or more. I’ve grown out of the craving. I’m much more emotionally stable than I was (even though I have diagnosed depression and am on Zoloft now). I’m building up my self-esteem and self-confidence, both of which I wasn’t “allowed” to have. Occasionally I’ll feel the urge to cut, but I haven’t mostly because I just can’t…unless I do it in front of my daughter and I can’t bring myself to do that. I’m determined she will grow up with the confidence and independence and self-image she deserves.

I have no words of advice. I have no apologies, only my story.

The Breaking of a Child, A Story of Near Disaster

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Libby Anne’s blog Love Joy Feminism. It was originally published on Patheos on April 25, 2013.

*****

The next day was Tuesday. Hope did not say please and so did not have breakfast, lunch, or her bottle. By late afternoon Hope had gone for forty-eight hours—two straight days—with nothing to eat or drink but a single six ounce bottle of milk. By that time she was beginning to act strangely. Her usual vivaciousness had disappeared, replaced with a sort of melancholy. She lay on the couch listlessly, uninterested in playing or even reading books. 

*****

I’ve hesitated from sharing this story because of how personal it is, but I think it needs to be told because it illustrates perfectly the danger of the Pearls’ teachings. See, when I first read about the death of Lydia Schatz, my immediate thought was that I understood how something like that could have happened. The Schatzes followed the discipline methods of Michael and Debi Pearl, who teach parents to view their relationship with their children as a battle for dominance that they must win. Once a contest is started, the Pearls say, you can’t back down. You can’t blink. My parents are also Pearl followers, and there was one time when a situation got similarly out of hand, but in their case, mercifully, they blinked. Their basic humanity got to them and overrode the Pearls’ advice; they got scared by what was happening, by what they were doing to their child, and they backed down.

My parents didn’t follow the Pearls’ discipline methods because they wanted to do us harm—they followed them because they wanted what was best for us. When the Pearls’ discipline manual came to them highly recommended by their Christian homeschooling friends, they read it and found its reliance on Bible verses and (simplistic) theological arguments convincing. The Christian homeschooling movement puts parents under intense pressure to turn out perfect children, and in that environment books like this seem to make sense. But even the best of intentions can have disastrous results—and that is what the Pearls’ book does, it takes parents’ best intentions and spins them into something twisted.

In general, my parents’ adherence to the Pearls’ discipline methods meant that we children were not allowed to show a spark of defiance toward them and were expected to be 110% obedient 110% of the time. Bad attitudes were not allowed, and obedience was expected to be immediate, complete, cheerful, and without complaint—anything short of that was disobedience. When we were disobedient or defiant—or were seen as being disobedient or defiant—we were spanked with a wooden paddle until we were sorry, repentant, and compliant. We learned quickly that things were easiest for us if we just rolled over quickly, so we generally did.

But the story I want to tell here is the time my parents ended up in a battle of the wills with one of my sisters, Hope, who was only eighteen months old at time—a contest of the wills that quickly spun out of control. Now I say that there was a contest of the wills, but I actually think it was a one-sided contest—I think my sister was confused and bewildered, not defiant or rebellious. But it didn’t matter. Her actions were interpreted as rebellion and that was all that mattered. This story is illustrative of the danger of the Pearls’ child rearing methods.

It all started one Sunday at supper time. Hope had recently gained the ability to lisp a little “peez,” so my parents held her plate of food out to her as she sat in her high chair and asked her to say please before they would give it to her. They weren’t trying to make any special sort of point or anything, just to teach her to be polite and ask nicely for things. But for some reason, she wouldn’t do it, and my parents interpreted that as a sign of willfulness on her part. They told her she couldn’t have her supper unless she said please—so she sat and went without, watching us eat our warm spaghetti, steaming garlic bread, and fresh spinach salad as the delicious smells wafted over her high chair.

Hope no longer breastfed, but my parents still gave her bottles of milk. That evening my mother bathed Hope along with the two or three siblings closest in age to her, and then dressed her in her warm footie pajamas. Then, as usual, she prepared a bottle, this time asking her to say please. But Hope would not say please. After some cajoling, my mother reluctantly snuggled her into bed in her crib, empty stomach and all.

In order to explain the mindset my parents were operating on here, I’m going to quote directly from Michael Pearl’s To Train Up a Child (p. 11):

Be Assured of Two Things

First, almost every small child will have at least one time in his life when he will rebel against authority and attempt to take hold of the reins…. This act of stubbornness is profound—amazing—a wonder that one so young could be so dedicated and persevering in rebellion. It is the kind of determination you would expect to find in a hardened revolutionary facing enemy indoctrination classes. Parents who are trained to expect it, and are prepared to persevere, will still be awed at the strength of the small child’s will.

Second, if you are consistent in training, this attempt at total dominance will come only once in a child’s life, usually around two years old. If you win the confrontation, the child wins the game of character development. If you weaken and allow the child to dominate, the child loses everything but his will to dominate. You must persevere for the sake of the child. His will to dominate must be dominated by the rule of law (that’s you.)

Based on the Pearls’ teachings, my parents believed that they were now engaged in a contest of wills with Hope, a contest of wills that revolved around her refusal to say “please.” If they gave in and let her get away with that refusal, they believed, all would be lost, and much damage done. On the other hand, if they won the contest, they would put Hope on the path to a happy, healthy, and productive life. They could not lose. They could not back down. They had to conquer Hope’s will and refuse to let her dominate them.

The next morning at breakfast, Hope was put in her high chair, dressed in fresh clothes and hair tied up in a bow, and offered food—a warm bowl of oatmeal topped with brown sugar—if she would say please. But for whatever reason, Hope would not say please. So once again, she watched us eat while getting nothing for herself. And later that morning she was once again offered a bottle on the condition that she must say please, and once again she did not say it, so once again she went without. Lunch came and passed—peanut butter jelly sandwiches with pretzels and carrots—still without a please.

We children began to see it as a challenge—a challenge to do whatever we could to get Hope to comply and say please. We kept her bottle handy and again and again over the course of the day we offered it to her, urging her to comply and say please. In between our attempts we got out her toys and played with her, enjoying her babyish smiles. Finally, sometime that afternoon, Hope lisped out something that sounded vaguely like a little “peez” and was therefore given the bottle. She drank it down—all six ounces of milk—as though she was famished, which of course she was. By that time she hadn’t had anything to eat or drink in twenty-four hours.

But then supper came and Hope once again would not say please for her food. Once again she sat in her high chair and watched us eat, unable to avoid the aroma—and my mom is a very good cook. Once snuggled into her pajamas, Hope was again offered a night time bottle—and again she would not say please. My parents concluded that while they may have won one battle—she had surrendered her will and had said please for a bottle that afternoon—the war was still on, and they must win it. And so Hope went to bed hungry, having only had a single six ounce bottle of milk that entire day. As she read a bedtime book to my small siblings, Hope among them, I could tell that my mom was concerned—but determined.

My parents did not feel that they were starving Hope, because they were quick to offer her food—and tasty, tempting food—if she would only say please. Their interpretation of what was happening was that Hope had gone on a hunger strike, a hunger strike she could end at any time by simply obeying and saying please. The problem wasn’t with them or their actions, it was an internal battle within Hope. All Hope had to do was to stop being rebellious and submit her will to theirs, and it would be over.

The next day was Tuesday. Hope did not say please and so did not have breakfast, lunch, or her bottle. By late afternoon Hope had gone for forty-eight hours—two straight days—with nothing to eat or drink but a single six ounce bottle of milk. By that time she was beginning to act strangely. Her usual vivaciousness had disappeared, replaced with a sort of melancholy. She lay on the couch listlessly, uninterested in playing or even reading books. I sat and held her in my arms, worried. My siblings were worried too, but Hope seemed barely aware of our attempts to coax her to say please, offering a bottle as a reward.

I knew nothing other than the Pearls’ discipline methods, and had been taught since I was small that if parents didn’t break their children’s wills while small, those children would grow up to be miserable and unhappy. I believed all of this. This entire situation, then, was confusing for me, because I saw the pain my sister was in but I still believed in the system, still believed that her pain was justified and necessary. If only she would just say please, I thought. But another voice nagged me: Is she even able to anymore? What happens if she doesn’t? When will this end? And yet, I didn’t do anything. I wish now that I had—that I had secreted her some food and water, or attempted to intercede with my parents. I wish that my sense of compassion had overridden my brainwashing and belief in the system. But it didn’t.

That evening Hope didn’t say please for either supper or a bottle. She acted tired and didn’t make eye contact, so mom put her to bed early. By this time, my parents were becoming extremely concerned about the situation. In some sense, they were stuck. They believed, based on the Pearls, that if they gave in and gave Hope food or a bottle they would be allowing her to conquer them—they would be submitting their will to hers rather than the other way around. The Pearls teach that even giving in once—just once—will set back everything that had been gained and even threaten to ruin the child forever. And yet, here was their eighteen-month-old daughter, still toddling and barely starting to lisp words, wasting away before their eyes. The atmosphere was tense, and I think in retrospect that they were frightened.

The next morning, everything was different.

See, that night my mother had a dream. She dreamed that Hope died, and that Child Protective Services was called to investigate, and that they took the rest of us children away. They say that dreams are our subconscious processing and regurgitating, and I think this was an obvious case of that. But my mother’s interpretation was different. She told us that the dream was sent by God, sent to tell her to give in and feed Hope, give her her bottle, and end the contest. Thankfully, Hope was still strong enough to eat and take a bottle, and her recovery didn’t take long.

My mother’s dream gave my parents an out—an opportunity to give in and cede what they saw as a contest of wills even though the Pearls strongly advised parents against ever doing this. Yet my parents did not reject the Pearls wholesale. Believing they couldn’t end the contest entirely, they instead changed the requirement—they now asked that Hope say please only for snacks or dessert, withholding them if she did not. About three days after they ended the main contest, Hope lisped “peez” for a Popsicle, and regularly did so for snacks and desserts after that. Part of me wonders if it was a developmental thing, and if my parents assumed she was able to say please on command a week or so before she was actually able to.

This story illustrates the way the Pearls’ teachings can lead parents to become caught up in real or perceived contests of the will with their children, and result in those contests spiraling out of control. When parents believe that they can’t back down ever, no matter what, without threatening their children’s temporal and eternal well-being, we shouldn’t be surprised when some parents, like the Schatzes, refuse to back down and instead persist in continuing the battle until the contest escalates to a disastrous end. It doesn’t even take bad parents for this to happen, it simply takes well-meaning parents following toxic advice. And this, perhaps, is the most dangerous thing of all about the Pearls’ teachings.

My own parents continued to endorse the Pearls’ discipline methods even after this incident, but nothing like it ever happened again. I think maybe this incident frightened my parents, and shook a little bit of common sense into them. Perhaps it took a small edge off of the infallibility they imputed on the Pearls, or perhaps it simply awoke a little nagging doubt in the back of their mind, doubt that served as a check on things getting out of control. Either way, when I recall this incident and look at my sister Hope, now in her teens, I am reminded of the danger the Pearls’ teachings pose to both parent and child. And even after all these years, telling this story hasn’t been easy.