Sunday, April 20, 2014

Our Courtship Story: Fork in the Road

Continued from Kidneys, Needles, and Y2K.

Oak Brook, June 1999

I spent the rest of that day in the Legal Department. I guess Michael spent the rest of the day at his house, packing. At five o'clock, I rode my bike--always an adventure in a long navy dress skirt!--back to Brook Manor and fixed myself dinner. I probably talked to Chris and Michael, but I can't remember. What I do remember is being in my new bedroom organizing and unpacking my things when I got a phone call on the house phone late that night. It was my parents.

Dad was driving down to get me in the morning, they said. I was confused. Michael had been fired; I understood that. But he had a car. Why was Dad--? Bill Gothard had called them. Just a few minutes earlier, apparently. His office stood just yards from my window, but he had said nothing to me. Bill wanted me gone, too, they said, not just Michael. It was after eleven in Michigan. Dad would leave early and arrive by noon; the Suburban could easily haul our bicycles and all my luggage. Stunned, I stopped unpacking.

And so my first night to sleep in my own room was also my last. I lay there in the quiet and came up with enough of a plan to settle my racing thoughts. Mom had recently announced that she was pregnant with a twelfth child. With six kids under ten years old, she would clearly need help. God knew I was so emotionally invested in the Institute I could easily be what we called a "lifer"--the kind of girl who would only "leave in a white dress or a black box". So God must have arranged to get me fired so I would be free to invest in my family. I would be the heroine of the story!

I had been around long enough to know that staff members sometimes disappeared overnight. They were just...gone. No explanation was ever offered. You could come down to breakfast and they had simply vanished. I didn't want to be one of those. When I woke in the morning, I did not dress in the despised navy and white. I was no longer in Gothard's employ, so he was no longer my authority. I put on my favorite homemade red sunflower print jumper, with mustard-colored buttons. I would be noticed when I went to the Production Center to gather my personal effects, and there would be no mistake about my employment status!

I did not attend that morning's staff meeting, no longer considering myself staff. When I entered the Legal Department in my cheery picnic frock, someone told me Gothard was looking for me. Feeling angry and betrayed, I evaded the man for a while but eventually found myself seated beside him on a sofa in the building's front lobby, beneath the framed painting of his parents. He peered into my eyes, which I found disagreeably intimate, and told me my parents wanted me to come home. There wasn't much to say to that, so our conversation was brief. I thought he wanted to take my hand, but I kept my distance. Someone was lying to me, that much was clear.

It was nearly noon when Dad arrived at Brook Manor. Chris, who had met my parents on a weekend visit home with Michael, was hanging around to say goodbye and Dad invited him to join us for lunch at a nearby restaurant. I could feel my role reverting as soon as we opened the menus: I immediately eliminated all the choices containing pork. When Chris casually ordered an egg scramble with ham, on Dad's check, I gasped inwardly, shocked and envious. (I would have been reminded of the scene in Chariots of Fire when Sybil orders a pork dish on a dinner date with Harold Abrahams, except that scene had always been edited out when Dad showed us the film.) My first autonomous act after being dropped off at Headquarters had been to order pork, and now I instinctively surrendered that freedom as I slid back under my father’s “umbrella”.

After lunch we loaded the vehicles. In the flurry of collecting my belongings, I forgot my crockpot but remembered my grapefruit knife and was daring enough to give Chris a photo (of me? us?) to remember our times together. Our goodbyes, in the Staff Center-Brook Manor parking lot when Dad was ready to go, were brief. For the first time since November, we shook hands. This time we knew we would see each other again. Lisa was getting married in the fall and she had asked all of us from the old "CLink" to have a part in the wedding.

For the rest of day, I sat in the car, feeling more stunned as time and distance grew between me and IBLP Headquarters. We stopped at an Arby’s where the familiar decor stirred numerous memories. This time, Chris wasn’t there to order fries he couldn’t eat. Back in the passenger seat, I pensively sipped my Jamocha shake. I remember feeling shaken, weary but agitated. Of the previous twenty months, only three at most had been spent at my parents’ home. I was one of a minority of IBLP staff who found training center life to be less restrictive in many ways than living at home.

Yesterday I was sitting at a desk doing a job I had fantasized about for years. Now I was a 23-year-old woman being taken to a place I really didn’t want to return to. No one had asked what I wanted; it never occurred to me that I had any options. Thrown out of my house overnight, without a job, a car, or a plan, I was again dependent on my father. I had a checking account and plenty of skills, but little knowledge or experience or confidence that I could survive in a world of adults.

Watching mile markers slide past the window now, I braced myself for the inevitable adjustment. The pants folded in my suitcase would have to stay in my bedroom or under long skirts. The pajamas would have to be hidden under a robe. I would no longer be in charge of my own meals or schedule. Instead of working in an office for a regular minimum-wage paycheck, I would likely be helping to raise children, sew dresses and bloomers, garden, clean the house, and feed the family. City life had agreed with me; returning to the stench and flies of the farm would be trying. But if that’s where God wanted me, I would make it. I would show him how faithful I could be.

To be continued...

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Our Courtship Story: Kidneys, Needles, and Y2K

Continued from Life at IBLP Headquarters and Finding Each Other, Part 6

Remember getting your first email address?

I was introduced to email when I started work at IBLP’s CharacterLink. I was twenty-two and thoroughly impressed. The week before I’d been using a a rotary phone at home, and now I could type messages that arrived almost instantly at someone else’s desk? Get out! My dad got his first account a week or two later; he was in his forties. I remember talking to customers—customers whose names I recognized, whose books I had read, whose sermons my parents had followed, whose kids were held up as role models to me—who had been frightened of the dangers of the Internet but were so excited now about this rapid new mode of communication.               

Our customers, for the most part, did not own televisions. Many did not even subscribe to newspapers. Bill Gothard himself had told his followers that he would not risk the dangers of reading a newspaper with its unwholesome advertising, but let his sister clip out items of interest from U.S. News & World Report to leave on his desk. And these men--these homeschool dads now in their 40’s and 50’s--would give me their credit card number, we would give them an account and, just like that, they were ushered into the wild and wonderful world of 1990’s email.

This was a world of endless forwards and chain letters and “Reply all” and spammers offering to extend your piano by four inches. Google hadn’t been invented yet, mind you. And while existed, many new email users were unaware of it. The male sexagenarians who led Gothard’s Institute may not have had a lot of experience evaluating claims. Perhaps their schools had not offered exercises in distinguishing fact from opinion. For those who had spent many of their adult years overseas with limited means of communication, email’s rapid torrent of words and images must have seemed miraculous.

I had only been using my email account for a year when Bennie McWha, an ex-missionary who ran IBLP’s Indianapolis compound, stood up at lunch before we dispersed for the holidays and read to us from an email he’d received. As far as I could tell, he was deadly serious. The email—an urban legend that had circulated for years—described a traveler who awoke in a bathtub without his kidneys. McWha wanted us to be cautious as we journeyed to our homes, lest we meet a similar fate. I was incredulous that a man of God would spread such a fearful hoax to a group of terribly na├»ve kids. But there it was. We joked about it for years afterwards. (All the more so because it went along with a Dilbert strip we had adopted as a motto during our CharacterLink days in Oklahoma.)

At IBLP Headquarters a few months later, I tried to chuckle at the right times when one of the men, who no doubt thought he was sharing something special, read to the staff from pages of one-liners he had printed off email. Of course, they were the same ones that had appeared in everyone’s inbox sometime in 1998, but these guys were like kids in a candy store. At the Institute Christmas party, we had played a parlor game based on the names of Christmas carols; now you could just read all the entertaining answers in one email and be done with it.

Then there was the Y2K scare. Like many other evangelicals, Bill fell for it. I say fell for it, but really he spread the panic. Staff ordered large quantities of survival supplies (including kerosene stoves and lanterns) which ALERT packaged into kits and marketed to ATI families at Knoxville that year. At several hundred dollars apiece, many families could ill afford the Y2K kits, but maybe the peace of mind was worth the investment. We were glad Otto Koning didn’t burn down the Production Center the day he demonstrated the kerosene lantern (“just like the ones we used on the mission field!”) in front of the assembled staff. It did not light as smoothly as he expected and a pillar of flame shot out of it!

As a secretary in the Publishing Department, I occasionally handled copyright permissions—both granting and obtaining them. One week, Bill had come across an article he really wanted to distribute at an upcoming seminar and it was sent to my desk. I looked it over, and multiple red flags went up. I may not have gone to college and learned about citing sources, but I had spent a year surfing the wild worldwide web and I’d learned a thing or two about credibility. This article, something purporting to be about heart health, didn't pass the smell test. I looked up the website for the organization that had published the piece, and quickly grew more convinced that no educated professional would take this pseudo-scientific group seriously.

Glad to be saving Gothard and his ministry from an embarrassment, I contacted his office with my observations. To my surprise, I was told that Bill wanted to promote the piece anyway. The quasi-medical information may have been misleading, but it supported other points he wanted to make. I was to go ahead with the project and have copies printed. I swallowed my pride, and obeyed my “authorities”, wondering if attendees would be put off by encountering such quackery at a seminar they trusted. I think I realized at that point that my values did not parallel those of the Institute.

When summer rolled around, Bill and all the important staff went off to Knoxville for the big annual ATI conference. Chris, Michael, and I were part of the remnant left behind. After the hectic weeks leading up to the conference, the Headquarters campus felt strangely deserted. Brook Manor was nearly empty, most of the girls having gone to assist their department bosses in Knoxville. I remember that I cooked chicken and rice in my crockpot one day and took it over to the Staff Center so a small group of us could eat dinner together.

Friday evening, with the place still virtually empty, I invited Michael* and Chris, who were rooming together again at one of the IBLP men's houses on Pinehill Lane, to join me out on Brook Manor’s back deck. I dared not let them indoors, but the deck, facing the trees that bordered Bronswood Cemetery, was secluded while being publicly accessible. We sat on chairs and talked. And talked. We talked about life, we talked about God; we talked about our families, our plans, our experiences and concerns with the Institute. We talked late into the night, ignoring the darkness and our bladders and the cooling night air.

Then Michael, our indefatigable night owl, announced that he was ready to go home to bed.

Chris and I begged him to stay a little longer. We were savoring the rare opportunity to communicate deeply for hours. Since our weeks in Indianapolis, our friendship had not flamed with such intensity. To me, it was not sexual or even romantic in any way--I still thought Chris was scrawny, hairy, and sometimes dressed funny--but it was emotionally intimate; Chris was the best friend I had at that moment, and certainly the closest male friend I’d ever had. We would gladly have talked for hours more, but we both knew he could stay only as long as my brother (three years our junior) was there to chaperone. When Michael decided it was time for bed, our magical coach turned back into a pumpkin. Reluctantly, but oh so obediently, we said good night and went our separate ways to sleep. Little did we know how long it would be till our next heart-to-heart talk.

I think it was after Gothard returned from Knoxville that I was given a new position--as secretary to Robert Barth, director of the Legal Department. It had been my dream to work in the Legal Department from the time my family had first toured the Institute's Headquarters nine years earlier. I had spent over a year enrolled in IBLP's law school, and I admired Professor Barth and the rest of the aspiring lawyers who worked for him. I was, quite simply, starstruck. I trained a replacement to take care of Mr. Fredrickson, Mr. Garvin, Miss Julie* and the rest on the third floor, and I moved my personal items to the large desk across the hall from the computer server room. I discovered that I wasn't very good at typing from my new boss's dictation, but I was determined to learn. He would not be disappointed in me!

Change was afoot at Brook Manor, as well. With someone else going home, a single bedroom was vacating, and after six months, I now had the seniority to take it if I chose. My roommate was a dear friend, but our friendship has always been strongest when we are not sharing a bedroom. I could remember having my own room for several months when I was ten or eleven, and for several weeks on a ship in Russia when I was seventeen. Since then, I had always shared with someone else. What a treat to have a quiet secluded space all to myself! Chris, who had had a room to himself his whole pre-IBLP life and was afraid I would get so comfortable I wouldn't care about hanging out with him and Michael anymore, said I would "ferment" alone in there, but I was excited as I gathered up my possessions from the corner room with attached bathroom and began transferring them to the next room over. Sharing a bathroom down the hall would be a small price to pay for the luxury of privacy.

The next morning, Bill must have checked his email. Michael and I were sitting together in the morning staff meeting when, after the usual hymns and prayer, Bill advised us all of yet one more reason to commit never to enter a cinema: AIDS-contaminated needles in theater seats. Michael and I immediately recognized yet another urban legend and while I smirked and raised my eyebrows, Michael--never one to mask the truth--let out a short guffaw. Voluntary or involuntary, his insubordination was noted. 

While I waltzed up to my new office immediately after the closing prayer, Michael was confronted by Gothard himself. Later in the morning, Michael came looking for me. He’d been sacked, effective immediately. I was stunned. Hadn’t we been more subversive numerous times before? And now, to be fired for laughing at something that was clearly untrue being used as a scare tactic? It wasn't like either of us had been to a movie theater since we'd been scared by The Secret of NIMH way back in 1982!

After our many months of obedience and determined, albeit strained, loyalty, this was an insult. Even when w disagreed with the many ridiculous rules, we had tried always to be guided by honesty. If it was forbidden to laugh at a nude emperor, perhaps the Institute was worse than we feared. I commiserated with my brother and spent the rest of the afternoon trying to process the news. My life at Headquarters would certainly be different without his companionship, and his car. What would happen to my friendship with Chris, without Michael there to link us all as a "natural grouping" and to keep any activity from being perceived as a [forbidden] date?

To be continued...

Monday, April 14, 2014

Road to Recovery: Panic Attacks Workbook

If you struggle with frequent anxiety or panic attacks, you may want to consider this handy resource. I discovered David Carbonell's website last year, and found his counseling approach so reassuring that I later ordered his Panic Attacks Workbook. Though I only worked through the first five chapters, they were immensely helpful. Dr. Carbonell reminds me Mr. Rogers, which puts me in exactly the right frame of mind to relax and learn.

I picked this book up again this weekend and realized that there is a lot more useful material to read! Even if I don't have such severe panic attacks ever again (and I really hope I don't) I would like to work through the rest of this book. And because it is a workbook, it gives the reader the chance to reflect and interact with the information and develop strategies for managing stressful situations and emotions before they get out of control.

This workbook is less than $20 on Amazon, and it is worth several hours of therapy, at least. I should add that it is geared toward treating anxiety, panic disorders, and phobias, but not specifically PTSD. Many of the tools would apply to managing flashbacks as well, however. Carbonell also offers advice regarding when self-help is not enough and what situations would call for other professional help.

Here are a few excerpts I found particularly reassuring when I first started working through the book:
I think we will eventually find out that most people have an inborn tendency to respond to stress and change in one particular way or another. If you have panic attacks, this is yours.
Adults with panic disorder seem to have often grown up in an atmosphere, that for one reason or another, failed to teach them the world is a safe place where they could happily pursue their own enjoyment.... [M]aybe the parents were themselves anxious and overprotective...Or perhaps the child learned to spend too much time and effort taking care of others...
For most people who develop panic attacks, it begins in their twenties or thirties--the years of establishing an independent life for yourself when you are most likely to experience these kinds of changes.
There is no reason to feel guilty or ashamed of having panic attacks.
(from "Why People Develop Panic Attacks and Phobias", page 28)

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Film Review: Noah

If you are looking for a thorough, objective analysis of the movie, you might just want to skip this post. Instead of giving the film the deep treatment it probably deserves, I am only offering my very subjective and personal observations. I will say up front that I had no expectations of the story following the Genesis version of the myth. I was actually startled by how much it was informed by that account.

I saw "Noah" by myself while the kids were at school. I had read enough contradictory reviews to be curious, and when I realized it was directed by the same guy who gave us "The Fountain", I knew it would offer thoughts worth pondering. And I was not disappointed.

The story of a global deluge is very familiar to me, and not just from the Fisher-Price set, though our toddlers played with that, too. Growing up, nearly every question about biological or geological history was answered with, "Well, the Flood could have done that." The Flood was the reason for petrified forests, petroleum, peat bogs, fossils, dinosaur bones (the eggs were harder to explain, but probably them, too), and the Ice Age. (Living in Michigan, we couldn't deny the historical presence of glaciers.) The Flood explained the diagonal rock strata along the Pennsylvania turnpike, the formation of mountains and islands, attempted justification of American slavery, and why humankind formed early civilizations in Mesopotamia.

Based on a timeline that hung in the hallway of my childhood home, I thought Noah built his ark around 4000-3000 B.C. (Answers in Genesis pegs Noah's worldwide Flood at 2348 B.C.) The movie seems to deliberately avoid a specific timeline. And at every point the story feels more like mythology from Middle Earth than like historical documentary. At its core, it is a well-told fantasy tale.

There were a few ideas presented in the film that would have seemed stranger to me had I not first heard them floated (pun intended, folks) by the likes of Ken Ham and Carl Wieland. For example, Noah uses an herbal vapor to put the animals to sleep for the duration of the voyage. AIG's website suggests this as a possible solution to the eating and pooping conundrum: "It is, of course, also possible that God put the animals into a sleep for most of the time that they were on the ark."

Also in adherence with Ham's interpretation of Genesis, Noah is a strict vegetarian. And the ark appears plenty spacious for the numerous species on board, almost as if Aronofsky checked AIG's website to suggest specifics: "Without tiering of cages, only 47 percent of the ark floor would have been necessary. What’s more, many could have been housed in groups, which would have further reduced the required space." The fountains of the deep, just one among many fabulous special effects, did not surprise me in the least because Ham's version of the Flood always included such subterranean water sources combining with the 40 days and 40 nights of rainfall. I could also accept the advanced metallurgy, having read in Creation magazine long ago the suggestion that antediluvians could have built rockets and used batteries!

Those were aspects of the story that seemed almost familiar to me. The things that actually surprised me were:

  • Noah wearing pants. I partly went to see that, I admit. But way more than that was...
  • Mrs. Noah, and Noah's daughter-in-law, wearing pants!
  • Methuselah. He was a strange, wizard-like character. His creepy cave reminded me of the owl in the Secret of NIMH movie. I had never been able to imagine him dying in the flood. Now I can.
  • Noah becoming a crazed lunatic and the whole family being trapped with him on the boat for months. Talk about post-traumatic stress. As if they hadn't all been through enough already.
  • The miracle forest. I mean, the landscape was pretty much post-apocalyptic up to that point; nothing remained of that lush world the creator had first thought up. But then Noah plants Methuselah's magic seed, and poof! up sprouts a wood as fantastic as Jack's beanstalk or Jonah's gourd. 
  • The rock giants. I get that they came from the Watchers myth, but I had a hard time taking them too seriously since they looked like a hybrid between one of Peter Jackson's Ents and a Transformer that got too close to hot asphalt. Fascinating guys, and they got to do the real work of building the ark since Shem, Ham, and Japheth were too young to care much.
  • No agriculture. No animal husbandry. No farming of any sort. We never really saw Noah's family eat. They drank hallucinatory tea, apparently. And made a point not to eat meat--raw or otherwise. And it was vaguely suggested that they packed some food, but we didn't see it, or see any way they could even obtain it, other than gathering a few tiny berries. When Ham offered a bit of food to a hungry girl, I watched eagerly to see what it was, but it only looked like a crumbled granola bar and the camera went by it quickly.
  • The patriarchy. Oh, the damnable patriarchy! I should have expected it, of course, but it's been a while since I spent two hours immersed in that system again, and it was portrayed in a truly disturbing way. All the way down to Noah trying to control his sons' sex lives.
  • The cavalier way Noah used fire on the ark. All that dry wood smeared with flammable petroleum products. Did he have a death wish?!
  • Noah's wife threatening to leave him. Honestly, I might have pitched him overboard by that point, but I guess that would have deviated irrevocably from the biblical account.

In my opinion, the big theme this film brought up was the question, "How do we decide who is worth saving?" Depending on the audience, the question might bring up theological issues of salvation and damnation. Or it might be about humanitarian response to disaster or suffering. It might apply to national or international conflicts, political power and interests, or forming policies for addressing homelessness. It might be about whether and how we fight poverty or how we view immigration and human rights. It might apply to medical decisions. Mental health issues. How we deal with crime as a society.

In this movie, the writers raise a lot of questions, but leave it to the viewers to wrestle out the answers. By the time the ark went aground, all of us in the theater were probably ready to get vicariously drunk. I certainly was, and I've never even been drunk. It just seemed the most fitting response to Noah's whole shitty experience.

All the scenes in Noah are vivid, all are artistic, and a few are breathtaking. But the real drama in this version of the Noah's Ark tale takes place inside Noah's head and in his heart.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Other Voices

I was told this week, anonymously, that if I was less "obsessed" with Bill Gothard I would be taking more responsibility for my life. 

So I devote this post to some of the other voices, and there are many hundreds, probably thousands, of us, decrying the teachings of this man who duped first our parents and then us. Perhaps the wider lens will better express why we are so passionate about sounding the alarm. Because while we survived, we do not wish our turmoil on anyone else!

Rebecca, who blogs at A Beautiful Ruckus, has written an excellent piece about her experience in ATI: "In Which I Talk About Surviving Bill Gothard's Cult".
"Maybe you are wondering why I feel the need to write a post going all the way back to my teen years. That's a fair question. The answer has a couple of parts, but I'm sticking with the main one for now:
"Because there are women and girls still in this program
and in other programs like it."

* * * * *

Alissa Wilkinson, a movie critic for Christianity Today, captures the challenge in this post:
Over and over, I have attempted, and failed, to explain ATI to people who have never heard of it. Those who have not encountered ATI think I’m making it up; those who had brushes with it in their own youth usually have to make jokes in order to ignore their own memories.
* * * * *

"Laura" did a bang-up job of summarizing the ATI lifestyle in her entertaining post for Homeschoolers Anonymous: "The Many Valuable Lessons I Learned in ATI". The following is only a tiny, but factual, sample!
  • Whole wheat bread is the answer to all of the world’s health and nutritional needs.
  • A desire for white bread was a major factor in beginning the French Revolution.
  • You’ll know you’re getting enough fiber when your, um, bathroom business floats. 

Of course, ATI is far more serious than an obsession with whole wheat. As Lana Hope on her blog Wide Open Ground pointed out last year:
The ATI curriculum is a system that wounds children who have emotions and fail to live up to the holiness standard, all in the name of God. Not only does this god despise public education, peer pressure, rock music, cabbage patch dolls, eating pork, trolls, birth control, and people who wear normal clothes, but this god also expects little children to master character traits, for teens to parent younger siblings while always feeling “grateful,” showing “initiative,” and “patience,” and for children to stuff their frustration and emotions because that’s “self-control.” Let me assure you: this is spiritual abuse.
I’ve had friends tell me they watch the Duggars’ show because its funny to watch. “I don’t believe that stuff,” they say. What they don’t understand is that by laughing at the show, they are laughing at children who are being spiritually abused, and by using these children as their entertainment, they are encouraging this nonsense to spread around.
* * * * *

Micah J. Murray at Redemption Pictures recently wrote about growing up in Bill's homeschool cult. He quoted the lines we survivors hear so often:
Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. There was some good and some bad. Just take what good you can and leave the rest.
I don’t know how.
The worst thing about brainwashing is that you can’t see it for what it is. You never think you’re in a cult when you’re in a cult.
Until the day you can’t deny the reality of what you’ve seen, what you lived. Until the day you speak out loud what your mind has known for a while,
I grew up in a cult.

In 2011, Robin Ganstrom wrote a post warning other families about the ATI cult, based on her twelve years of involvement. You can read the whole thing at Darcy's Heart Stirrings.
"ATI is is a HOTBED of spousal and child abuse, too. I have seen it so many times. In ATI, men are taught that they are the ultimate authority in their homes, and the whole umbrella of authority/chain of command teaching is emphasized over and over, starting in the Basic Seminar."
* * * * *

Years ago, X-ATI Guy started a satirical blog. For many of us his site was like the Interpreter's House in Pilgrim's Progress, our first stop on the way out of the cult toward health and recovery. He was edgy and daring, and he made us feel safe for the first time. Under the cloak of anonymity, he spoke for us all.

The blog was a subversive meeting place, a place we would visit privately and only discuss in quiet corners of the Internet or behind closed doors with friends. "Do you know who X-ATI Guy is? I wonder if I worked with him? Are you X-ATI Guy?"

His humor helped validate and then break down our fears. The sarcasm was cathartic because it put the unspeakable into words. And as comments were added--some bravely, others anonymously--our courage grew. So did our outrage. 

We all moved on, even X-ATI Guy, and found different ways to express ourselves and reclaim responsibility for our lives.

Gothard liked to talk about college students "washing out spiritually". He also loved to quote from Isaiah 59: 

When the enemy shall come in like a flood, the Spirit of the Lord
shall lift up a standard against him.

But I don't think Gothard ever imagined his own homegrown army washing away the multi-million dollar empire that was built out of the souls he bruised. It could happen yet.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Pressing the Pause Button

For those who have asked, yes, I do plan to finish the "Finding Each Other" series. I hope it will be soon, but the words have stalled. Part Two is traumatic; any time I spend in that space has to be counterbalanced with happy living in the present.

Also, our small experience working at IBLP Headquarters suddenly became part of a much bigger narrative this year. Current events do not change the past, but they do affect my emotions as I revisit my own history. I thought I could write it and stay grounded, but some days that is simply not the case.

Thank you, kind readers, for sharing my journey--both the pretty parts and the prickly ones.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Library Shelf: 13:24

13:24  by M. Dolon Hickmon

This fast-paced novel is not just gritty; it is undeniably brutal. It is riddled with unpleasant characters doing offensive things, though which actions are most offensive will depend upon the reader's judgement. The writing, while rich in adjectives, is uneven. In short, this is not the sort of fiction I usually read.

And yet, the vivid story sucked me in from the very first chapter. Even though I had to put it down repeatedly as other situations demanded my emotional energy, the story, with all its dramatic turns and twisting threads, pulled me back again and again. In the end, I found it surprisingly cathartic and empowering.

As Anne Lamott explains, "Most human beings are dedicated to keeping that one door shut. But the writer's job is to see what's behind it, to see the unspeakable stuff, and to turn the unspeakable into words". Hickmon does exactly that. He opens the door on child abuse masquerading as acceptable (even Christian) discipline. And he turns the unspeakable into words.

The result is a grotesquely powerful tale that deserves to be read and spread like wildfire, as long as preachers still instruct god-fearing Americans on how to inflict pain on small children to the glory of God. Most such children--though not all--survive physically, but we live with psychological scars and emotional limps. This thriller uses bold colors and slashing strokes to paint that pain as an image that cannot be ignored.

Hickmon, writing out of his own experience and research, shines a rare light on the cognitive dissonance experienced by children who are beaten to make them good. Through fiction that could just as easily be contemporary headlines, he explores spanking as child discipline, spanking as sexual expression, and the appalling intersection of the two. He examines the ripple effects that the toleration of familial violence has on the larger community. He describes other forms of child abuse, both legal and illegal. My favorite chapter was in the middle of the book, when a character describes what it is like to live with PTSD as a result of his religiously abusive childhood. In that scene, which I reread multiple times, and one childhood flashback scene, I felt the author was telling my story, too.

I am a harsh literary critic, so I will be honest. There were verbs in 13:24 that I found jarring, phrases that felt unnatural. Too much of the dialogue was carried out in complete sentences. The vocabulary occasionally felt incongruous with the setting. Most of the time though, I was so mesmerized by each unfolding scene that I didn't mind a few bumps along the way. When I reached the last page and reflected on the tale as a whole, its imperfections faded in significance as I thought of others who would appreciate and relate to the story, others whose hearts also received the 13:24 brand, others who may feel less alone after reading Hickmon's words about the unspeakable.

He who withholds his rod hates his son,
But he who loves him disciplines him diligently.
Proverbs 13:24

*If psychological thrillers about murder, sexualized abuse, and Gothic metal aren't your cup of tea, you may still want to read M. Dolon Hickmon's thoughts on Proverbs, faith, and child discipline here