Oklahoma City, 1998
I was living at the IBLP training center on Main Street (henceforth, the OTC) and working full-time in the CharacterLink offices, a roughly finished corner carved out of a cavernous warehouse owned by Kimray, Inc., across the street. CharacterLink was IBLP's solution for ATI families who wanted Internet, but were afraid of their males accidentally coming across pornographic images which would cause Satan to claim tracts of their souls and poke holes in their umbrellas. These men were the priests of their homes and we were standing in the gap between them and sin, previewing pages as they requested them. If they installed the program we provided, and followed all the rules, we could guarantee that they would not encounter temptation.
I shared a roomy "office" with Lisa*, an ATI daughter with a southern accent. Together we made up the customer service department. When we were not creating new accounts, which took very little of our time, we were skimming through websites from the queue to either approve them (sometimes grudgingly, with flags for "Catholicism" or "immodesty") or block them. Looking back, the whole enterprise strikes me as hilarious. A handful of virginal twenty-somethings who were not permitted to date or wear blue jeans were trying to censor... the Internet?
My younger brother Michael* had joined the CharacterLink team and worked in the technical support office, adjacent to ours. Living a thousand miles from our family for the first time and working together every day bonded us in a way we hadn't experienced before.
In June, a new guy arrived. Chris had already spent three years working for various IBLP programs, but his expertise was in computers and he had requested this assignment. At the hotel-turned-training center, he was assigned to share my brother's room, while across the street he was given a desk in the office adjacent to customer service The tech guys walked anxious homeschooling moms and dads through the steps of plugging in modems and installing CharacterLink software on their home computers. We often joked that it would be easier to just mail out a CD full of downloaded content and call it "the Internet".
|IBLP's Oklahoma Training Center|
Me? I reserved judgment a little longer. This was my "turf", after all. I had my friends, I understood the rules, and I was naturally suspicious of new people sent from Gothard's Headquarters. They could not always be trusted. But this slight dark-haired guy in chinos and polo shirts soon earned my respect, and my friendship.
Unlike most of the single men at the training center, Chris was not afraid to treat women as equal peers. (Not that I ever considered myself a woman back then; amongst ourselves, we were girls--young ladies in the cult's formal jargon.) He seemed... relaxed. I was twenty-two years old and this was a new experience for me. I was used to shrinking through hallways lest I accidentally contaminate a guy by brushing against him with my abundant skirts. Another man at the training center once asked a coworker to "drop" a paper clip into his open palm so that their fingers would not actually touch.
After years of missing out on friendships due to following IBLP's unwritten guidelines, Chris had determined to ditch the familiar misogynistic codes where he could. So he was friendly with Lisa and me. He would come through the connecting doorway just to chat with us. He was interested in our opinions and included us in discussions and planning. He made us feel like people.
|Our CharacterLink offices were in the near corner|
of this warehouse
I don't remember if we ran an errand or what. But I do remember that I was in a car with a boy. Two boys, in fact. For Chris and I, who had never even been on a date, that alone made it a guilty pleasure. In fact, on a guilty pleasure scale ranging from nail polish to a sexual orgy, this placed somewhere off the page, nearly exceeding our stunted capacity for both guilt and pleasure! Never mind that the boys up front couldn't see me, skirt tucked tight around my knees, hair whipping across my face in the hot Oklahoma wind. We sneaked back in the same way we left, feeling daring and a wee bit rebellious. I wonder now if Aaron realized what an escapade he was part of!
By July, Aaron, Dan* and the other members of the Oklahoma CharacterLink team moved on, leaving just the four of us--Michael, Chris, Lisa, and me--to hold the fort and run the show. For two months, we worked together every day. At some point, we started calling ourselves "the CLink". We dutifully started each morning with a "staff meeting" and a prayer. But our cynicism was growing by the week. We were overworked, underpaid, and for what?
Some of our customers wanted access to sites with images of women in bathing suits while others didn't. A customer, or more likely a customer's teen, requested access to a dozen nudist/naturist camps in Scandinavia. I had only the vaguest idea of what "pornographic" meant. My mom had used that word for the magazines in the grocery store checkout lane, and the Victoria's Secret catalog. But when I blocked the Victoria's Secret website, my supervisor (a married woman) reversed that decision. If we weren't blocking that, what was the point? Oh, well. We all knew how to get around our own product, after all.
Jaded, we checked the Dilbert webpage for a new comic every morning, and quoted our favorite strips frequently. As we got bolder, we occasionally strolled down the street to the stunning Myriad Gardens and held our "meeting" there amid the flowers before the phones started ringing at our desks.
|The Myriad Botanical Gardens|
*Names are pseudonyms.