Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Cult Identity

Heavens, it’s been nearly 20 years now. 

Since Shyamalan’s The Village came out in theaters and we were never the same. 

We were spellbound. Our hearts warmed with recognition. This place, these people. How did we know them? Had we been there? Oh, we’d lived there. Shyamalan was telling our story. 

It was 2004; I don't think we were even on Facebook yet. Even so, word of the film spread on ex-IBLP social media like wildfire. The Village became our meme. It united us. We might not have school colors, yearbooks, or reunions, but we had a reference at last! The next time we were at a loss to describe our upbringing to a normal person, we could ask, “Have you seen The Village? I grew up there.” 

Metaphor? Perhaps, but also an identity. We were the courageous ones who’d crossed the boundary though terrified and thus laid bare the lies. 

That same summer, a new blog appeared: a place for the “rehabilitation” of ex-ATIers. We laughed—it was a joke, right? For years, X-ATI GUY’s posts helped us heal by naming our wounds and creating room for us to share memories, shame, disillusionment anonymously. We’d all been involved deeply enough to know Bill Gothard was a hypocrite whose popularity was, thankfully, on the decline. No way would we let the next generation experience what had happened to us. 

We began to poll each other, “Was IBLP a cult?” The verdict was still far from unanimous. The Village was still in theaters when the first Duggar special aired in September. We didn’t watch TV yet, let alone cable, so it took a while for us to hear about it through the grapevine. The Duggar name had gotten around because of Jim Bob’s election win—a badge of success for any Quiverfull father. When I actually watched an episode of the show, I found it disturbingly familiar, like watching an imprisoned former self. How were families still following Gothard? In the year of our lord 2010? Despite the internet, all the information available, all the failures and scandals, all the stories we could tell? 

I was finally healing, learning to parent without violence, catching up on my own education, reaching back to recover the girl I was before my parents adopted Gothard’s garbage. My sisters, born into a fully Gothardized home, didn’t have that luxury. And here were the Duggars, bringing ever more babies into the cruel fear-based system I’d already spent a decade disentangling from. Regular people found this entertaining? 

    * * * * * * * 

It’s been weeks since we watched the docuseries that brought a record number of new viewers to Prime Video. All five of us watched the episodes back-to-back while I kept my hands busy with a crochet hook because, after two decades out and twelve+ years of therapy, I have a pretty good idea of how my body responds to flashbacks and how to handle them. 

It was jarring to see Bill’s face again, against those godawful blue curtains, in our own living room. The man who told us to turn the hotel TV sets to the wall because “I will set no wicked thing before mine eyes…” But there he was, mumbling forth the swill that my parents drank so eagerly and then force-fed to us. We recognized faces and places, books, songs, uniforms, the old mental hospital where American homeschoolers spanked Russian orphans. 

It was strange to see our actual history packaged so that our kids or, well, anyone could see it, albeit through a screen-size window. Validating, yes. And also, as the ensuing emotional storm slowly wears itself out, profoundly sad. I've leaned hard on my friendships these weeks and utilized most of the healthy coping activities collected in my toolbox over years: dance, art, gardens, hikes, sex, fiction, yoga... 

Watching Shiny Happy People is like glimpsing Titanic’s murky wreckage through the Titan’s tiny viewport. The producers focus on one celebrity family (because ratings) but the real scope and scale of the tragedy? The broken families, the scarred hearts, the body count? The why and the how and the price tag? Scarcely comprehensible. 

It’s good to see bits of the disaster we lived through (truly the tip of the iceberg!) documented before Bill himself kicks the bucket, but when it comes to explaining and recovering from cult life, I guess it still takes a village.

Paper cutouts of a Quiverfull family. The children are lined up like stairsteps while the pregnant mom holds a camera.

Saturday, April 30, 2022

 As I participate in this year's Conference on Religious Trauma, this piece has been inspiring me. 

(Like most of my trauma-inspired art pieces, it sits in the closet. No one wants to look at that every day!)

"Broken", mixed media (2018)

Full piece: 

It's been both empowering and comforting to listen to the conference sessions and remember how far I've come on this journey over the last decade. Here's to more health and heresy!

Saturday, February 12, 2022

History Lessons

All the news this week (nearly forgotten already--topics move so fast--but we had a funeral and other stuff going on, too) about book banning and book burning and white people's discomfort and Whoopie Goldberg and parents getting mad about teachers using historical facts has me processing more crap from my teens.

Looking back, I find my early lessons on the Holocaust rather horrifying. And not in the way that they should be.

Anne Frank's diary being, for unspecified reasons, a banned book at my "school", I read The Hiding Place about a dozen times and almost daily imagined hiding Jews behind my afterthought of a closet which was too short for dresses. (Ok, if I'm honest, I still imagine it. That closet had a walled-off secret stairway entrance from the basement.)

I read numerous religious WWII paperback adventures about Communists, torture, boxcars, smugglers, miracles, and daring escapes when I was just a kid. Corrie ten Boom's was the only one about the plight of the Jews, and it centered...

...a Gentile Christian! Who survived the concentration camp to travel the globe telling people to forgive their abusers in the name of Jesus.

Corrie, at least the version created by Guideposts writers John & Elizabeth Sherrill, was my hero. I wanted to be strong like her, courageous, daring, smart, and famous, and sabotage a few Nazi radios in the process. I imagined visiting Haarlem just to tour her home and watch shop, the Beje, while I pondered whether God let Jesus-rejecting Jews into heaven.

Our school books gave Corrie her own history unit (Wisdom Booklet #35). They basically reworded The Hiding Place, with less emphasis on Jews and extra helpings of forgiveness for wicked deeds. You'd think it would be difficult to write a page about concentration camps without mentioning Jews, but IBLP managed it. It wasn't that they were on the side of the Nazis, just that they could adapt the story, just as they did the Jewish scriptures, to fit Bill Gothard's agenda by telling victims of violence that God willed their suffering. 

And speaking of agendas, every anti-abortion speech I ever heard included Holocaust references, which I found so offensively boilerplate I determined to write my entire Right-to-Life speech without one.


During my year in the Philippines, my dearest friend was a German woman. Her Wycliffe missionary peers warned me, unbidden, never to bring up the Holocaust as she didn't believe it had happened. Huh? I knew a lot of interesting people with a lot of unusual hang-ups, but this was a new one for me!

Dietlinde had created a dictionary and translated the New Testament for the Muslim Yakan people group in the southern islands. I helped her assemble evergreen boughs into a Christmas "tree" and decorate it with German ornaments and she taught me to drink coconut water and showed me a night-blooming orchid and we had lovely tea parties, but I obediently tiptoed around the Holocaust question.

I encountered Elie Wiesel in a college English assignment, and Shalom Auslander was another Jewish voice who gave me a glimmer of what it means to grow up in the shadow of massive generational trauma.

I no longer think forgiveness is going to cut it.

Anyway... these are excerpts from the homeschool curriculum my parents chose. Maybe you used it, too.

Excuse me now while I ask my kids what they've learned about anti-Semitism, past and, painfully, present.

Friday, June 4, 2021


I’m eating rhubarb pie on the patio, watching a pair of chickadees hover over the wet lawn, listening to the cool wind rustle through the tree boughs, and thinking about the stories we tell ourselves.

Our minds are fueled by story. Stories unite us, warn us, soothe us, infuse us with courage. We use them to transmit our values, to slip truth into dangerous places, to remember, to escape, to fight, to heal, to find each other.

Story is what humans do. Consciously or not, we are constantly building stories to make sense of the world around us. Stories cushion the mind--keeping the brain from breaking every time the heart does.

Over the last year, reeling as loss chased after loss, we’ve needed story as much as ever. 

My sister should have turned 25 this week.
Her ashes have been in a jar for three months.  

Painting the day after I heard.

It wasn’t like we hadn’t braced for bad news.

Still, it came out of nowhere. She’d just recovered from Covid after all. Quarantined, gone back to work. She had work, again, despite the closures, despite everything else. 

Scattered from coast to coast, what else could we siblings do but begin piecing together a story? What happened to her? When and how and why? In an instinctive expression of human grief, we shared memories, pooling our knowledge of Glory Anna's life so we would remember. We all knew her so differently; we even call her by different names.

I mostly recall her infancy—she was born into chaos and conflict. I left home the next year; we only shared a roof for two years of her first five. I listened to stories from the years after: stories that infuriated me, stories that made me proud, stories that broke my tired heart.

I could tell Glory’s story a dozen different ways, each version with a different villain to despise but always the same abrupt ending. (How does the math work? Am I still the oldest of 11? Does our baby sister move up to tenth place? What do we do with the gap?)

The true story? It’s all of them. The story that soothes me is that, though we’d never met as adults—distanced by twenty years and a thousand miles, in the weeks before her death Glory told me the stories she needed me to know. Those are the things I want most to remember. Our parents will include none of them in their stories, as they don’t fit their criteria for remembrance. We tell ourselves the stories that bring us comfort, after all. My bedtime reading is their nightmare, and vice versa.

Religions offer prepackaged story sets that remain popular in part because they claim, to varying degrees, they can keep the weight of the universe from crushing our little minds. Some achieve this by locking the mind in an airtight box while others leave room for add-on stories, or let you choose your own adventure. Stories gave me flight; stories keep my parents trapped and sad.

As a child, Glory was a storyteller. She saw power in stories, a means of escape from small minds and small hearts. When she got older, she tried other escapes.

I hesitate to speak of her death—my neighbors don’t know, nor my in-laws—because I resent hearing “I’m sorry for your loss” when news headlines remind me daily that the world doesn’t actually care. If I was a child, or poor, or black, or gay; addicted, homeless, pregnant, stalked by an ex; Asian, African, Jewish, born in Palestine? The world wouldn’t give a damn about my loss. Ohio didn’t care enough to give Glory unemployment. Michigan saddled her with medical bills. No one checked on us to be sure we were getting an education and healthcare and not just whippings and whooping cough.

When therapy is inaccessible and street drugs easier to obtain than prescription ones, “I’m sorry” feels…offensive. I resent hearing “I’m sorry” while millions of Americans mourn 600,000 Covid dead while being told we just need to “get back to normal” capitalism. People lost spouses, providers, children, teachers. Disease stole parents from 40,000 kids in this country alone. We’re losing our planet, our democracy, and our humanity, but, yeah, enjoy that normalcy. 

I resent hearing it from people who can’t grasp that my loss is just the same as hers: a safe childhood, education matched to our potential, parents who loved us more than their sadistic sex-obsessed god. I lost Glory when she was a toddler and I moved far, far away, crying at my therapist’s because I had my own kids now but still worried over the babies I’d left behind. I lost her again when she was 16, when my own escape and healing meant estrangement from our parents. I never expected it to be permanent. As my recovery progressed, I slowly reconnected with five other sisters, but I never saw Glory again.

I am angry that Glory had to fight so hard just to live in this unfair world. Her loss was far greater than mine because when I left that world at 24, I found the support to heal and build a new one, while she had to support herself however she could, forgoing the education she could have excelled at. She was winsome, brave, intelligent, resourceful, and kind. There is comfort in knowing she can’t be hurt anymore.

Glory tried so hard to live on her own terms; I wish she could still be exercising that privilege today. 

Tonight her siblings will remember her on her birthday. We will tell the best stories and stay away from the sad ones. We may comfort ourselves by weaving tales of dreams, ghosts, dandelions, or mermaids. Because Glory, who refused to be limited to a tangible world, would like that. 

Glory and me a decade ago.

Monday, May 31, 2021

A Time To Give Up As Lost

A time to throw stones and a time to gather stones;
A time to embrace and a time to shun embracing.
A time to search and a time to give up as lost...

My youngest gets her second Pfizer jab this week.

I bought her a chocolate malt to celebrate the first but the real prize was my sense of relief. 

After 14 scary months, months of loss upon loss, could we be getting back the future tense the pandemic stole from us?

For a long while last year I held hope that we could pick up where we left off. Return to school, resume activities, keep events on the calendar. But as one thing after another was canceled (graduation, vacation, book club, enrollment, music theater, holidays), I got the message. The world we knew would no longer exist when we finally caught up.

I'm ready for the losses to stop, if only to give me space to grieve all the things that aren't coming back. 

There are people I loved who didn't make it this far, people I mourned alone when I should have been celebrating them with the many who miss them. My trust is damaged; my sense of safety--carved slowly and deliberately over a decade--lies slashed and mangled. I don't know how it can be restored. 

But in the last six months my daughter has finally won me over to love Dr. Who (horror, adventure, loss, romance, socially awkward aliens--what's not to like?) and if there's anything we're good at, it's regeneration. Pretty sure I must be 600 years old by now, I've lived so many lives.

Who I'll be next it's too early to tell, but the process is starting as I begin, cautiously, to explore the new post-vaccine world. I'll have the old memories, fresh perspective, and no idea what time means anymore.

One of my first ventures out was a glass weaving class. Four of us, masked, working at separate tables in a spacious room. 

I'd never worked with glass before and the breadth of sensations suited me: smooth glass sheets, the tiny-pizza-wheel scoring tool etching a gritty trail, biting the glass between rubber-tipped running pliers, the snap of a clean break, the clink of cut glass shapes in my palm, the whirr of a motor switched on, pressing glass strips against the grinder to wear sharp edges and corners smooth. I was so engrossed I even forgot to be anxious, or hold my breath inside my mask.  

To weave the strips for my design, half of them had to soften in the kiln to create waves. Interesting, huh? 

I feel like the glass some days: strong, inflexible, sharp, brittle, translucent, slumping where my supports fall away. 

This week, when I take my daughter downtown for her shot, we'll stop by the studio to see how my art came out. I can't wait to hang it on my wall as a symbol of new starts and taking new shapes.

Look, I'm using future tenses again! Yippee!

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Fantasy World

Like many people, I've spent a lot of time in my head the last year. 

It's not unlike my childhood when I pretended my home was *actually* a boarding school for the blind, our bikes were horses, and instead of parents I was surrounded by professional educators who were warm, competent, and certainly childless. 

Or like my adolescence when I spent an inordinate amount of time struggling to picture heaven from all angles: from mathematical (try dividing eternity by 2 next time you have insomnia) to optical (no sun, no night, colors that don't exist on our color wheel?) to moral (how can people be happy in heaven if their relatives are on a perpetual barbecue in hell? is ignorance bliss?)

My fantasy world these days makes NURTURING ITS YOUNG its #1 priority. I dream of a society that refuses to buy police one more tank or even rubber bullet until EVERY school is stocked with paper towels, hand soap, free lunch that smells good, and a full-time nurse. Imagine if we agreed that all children--regardless of zip code or parentage--deserve real food, clean water and air, a safe home, health care, education, protection from violence, and the right to play at recess even if they forgot their ID.

Teaching would be honored, and financially rewarded, as a noble profession, with no tolerance for adults who model bullying in the classroom. (In the same vein, cops who violate the public trust, and men who commit violence at home, would forever forfeit any right to carry firearms.)

Mental health screenings--for all kids and caregivers--would be as regular as dental ones. New parents, or abusive parents flagged by checkups, would receive mentoring. Cities would competitively invest in quality childcare to attract companies. Children would be taught from toddlerhood how to care for their bodies and their minds, how to expect respect, and how to say no. Schools would get all the resources they need to fully fund music programs AND drivers' ed. And the healthcare coverage! Funded by taxing the corporations getting fat off our consumption, helpful drugs and therapies would finally be easier to get than deadly ones, even for teens or young moms surviving on $2/hr plus tips!

We'd keep strong families, of whatever shape or immigration status, intact--never killing or jailing or deporting parents over pieces of paper. We wouldn't let fostered children simply disappear. We'd interrupt the detention-to-incarceration pipeline with targeted social support until private prisons go bankrupt and law “enforcers” have to stop using body armor manufactured by American slaves. Maybe fewer kids would grow up wanting to wear a bully’s uniform or to escape their lives by dropping bombs on other kids with a remote control and would instead find meaning in trauma-informed social science, biological research, diplomacy, the arts.

We'd cease building prisons and we'd start centers for healing, with trees and gardens and libraries where Neil Gaiman's work isn't banned. Lots of sunlight. Treatment would focus on recovery, restoration, reconnection, relationships. And probably pancakes and puppies.

Maybe my fantasies are a buffer for my mental health, or maybe they're a threat to it. 

I used to imagine I was blind. 
Now imagination is the only way I can live with my eyes open.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020



According to my mom's nursing textbooks, a stage of labor. The worst part, I gathered from her friends. Tugging and stretching from the inside. "If she seems angry, or starts shaking, or says she can't do this--that's normal." Hallmarks of transition.

I was living in the Philippines while preparing for my wedding when a seasoned expatriate instructed me to attend a "transitions" workshop. I scoffed (I was young! I was resilient! I was leaving in a matter of months!) but that was decades ago and I'm still grateful. 

Having been exposed to very little research-based psychology at that point, the tools the instructors offered blew me away. I believe this was my first introduction to the concept of psychological trauma. They explained how our brains process change as loss, how we grieve even through happy transitions, and how to prepare a RAFT to ride out the rapids of inevitable change.

When they explained the importance of goodbyes, I cried. And there, under the palm trees, I began to heal from years of heart bruises sustained while working for the IBLP cult, which excelled at both facilitating deep human attachments and ripping them away.

Transitions, it turns out, are both cause for celebration and the most intense stage of creating something new. 

The following year, despite obsessively reading birth stories to prepare myself, my daughter was weeks old before I recognized the transition stage of my labor. At the time, the outside world fell away as I went deep inside myself, summoning the strength to start a brand-new life.

This summer has been one long series of transitions. I find myself obeying the same instinct, withdrawing and digging deep. It's been...intense.

Daughter to woman. Student to graduate. Child to adult. 

Shopping to pick-up. Friends to family. Travel to staycation.

Middle school to high school. School to home. Home to university. 

Quiet to loud. Inside to outside. Live to remote. Anxious to angry to hopeful and back again. 

Provider to mentor. Part-time mom to full-time to long-distance.

We moved our firstborn to campus last week, with protective masks and mixed feelings of pride, anxiety, envy. 

For us, it was the culmination of 18 years of choices in support of both our daughter and our values (albeit under circumstances we never envisioned). I confess, as the first to leave home myself, I had not fully empathized with the plight of a younger sibling losing a best friend. But parenting is ever an  emotional expansion--experiencing life through multiple proxies at once, each child needing different support.

Considering how many times I have used paint or a new hairstyle to assert autonomy when I felt otherwise helpless or out of control, I wasn't surprised when my youngest chose a radical new cut for her birthday this month. Or that she wanted to update her room. What did surprise me is that she recognized when the pace of change was too much. She knew to slow down what she could and climb aboard her own "raft", comforting herself with the familiar, digging deep, enjoying change by degrees. 

My girls give me courage to keep embracing change and as always, my partner provides steadying emotional support when I get wobbly and think "I can't do this".

We will all be adjusting to this latest transition for a few weeks, then remote high school will upend the routines we've slid into over the last 5 months of "summer" and we'll calibrate yet again, thankful for the technology that connects us to the things we need and the people we love. 

Transition: the process of changing from one state to another. 

Transitions are stages of movement and growth, and they can be intense! But to live well is to change, so I wouldn't want a life without transitions. Here's to making it through the rapids and floating out on the wide calmer waters beyond.