Saturday, September 28, 2013

Character First and Bill Gothard

Truthfulness: Earning future trust by accurately reporting past facts

The Character First program has silently glided into numerous places where Gothard's other materials would undoubtedly raise alarm: public school districts, city government, state government agencies, law enforcement, and prison systems. When journalists or concerned citizens have challenged adoption of the Character First materials--by their local schools, for example--Character First has been quick to deny association with religious extremist Bill Gothard or his Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP).

I believe the official statements are deceptive. Yes, Character First is no longer financially connected to the IBLP organization. However, its links to Gothard's Institute are undeniable. This post will describe Gothard's original character program and trace its evolution into what is now the Character First curriculum.

Gothard's Character Quality Chart

49 Character Qualities

According to one of his many websites, "Bill Gothard is the founder and president of the Institute in Basic Life Principles, which is a non-profit corporation established for the purpose of introducing people to the Lord Jesus Christ. He is dedicated to giving clear instruction and training on how to find success by following God’s principles found in Scripture." Theologically, the Institute promotes many Christian fundamentalist beliefs. IBLP posts its corporate statement of faith on its website, including assertions that "hell is a place of eternal conscious punishment for... all unbelievers" and that Adam "did not evolve from preexisting forms of life".

My parents attended Gothard's Basic Seminar in Houston in late 1979 or early 1980. They were enthusiastic about applying the content. After they attended an Advanced Seminar, I remember them showing us illustrations from the textbook giving us a quiz to help determine what our "motivational gifts" were. Gothard's teaching on spiritual gifts (influenced by Bob Mumford, John Rea, and Arnold Bittlinger, among others) amounted to a kind of personality test. There were seven possible labels, corresponding to descriptive terms used by St. Paul in the twelfth chapter of Romans.

Gothard has always loved the number seven (also God's favorite number, according to him--with twelve and forty following in order of divine preference). Seven is supposedly the number of completion, of perfection. So there are seven "gifts" or motivations, each with their own characteristics, strengths and weaknesses. In a perfect world, everyone uses their gifts for the good of everyone else. So far so good.

But spiritual "gifts", which made up a large part of the vocabulary used by IBLP insiders, were only one of the towers of the IBLP edifice. They rested on the wider base of the 49 Character Qualities. Gothard wrote "operational definitions" for these qualities, and assigned seven to each motivational gift as its unique values or strengths. I am unable to determine which Gothard came up with first, the seven gift types or the forty-nine character qualities, but he combined them very early on, settling on the final definitions sometime after 1976. Each quality is contrasted with its opposite, a negative character trait which must be overcome.

The Gift of Teaching
  • Dependability vs. Inconsistency
  • Diligence vs. Slothfulness
  • Patience vs. Restlessness
  • Reverence vs. Disrespect
  • Security vs. Anxiety
  • Self-Control vs. Self-Indulgence
  • Thoroughness vs. Incompleteness

The Gift of Exhorting (encouraging personal development)
  • Creativity vs. Underachievement
  • Discernment vs. Judgment
  • Discretion vs. Simplemindedness
  • Enthusiasm vs. Apathy
  • Faith vs. Presumption
  • Love vs. Selfishness
  • Wisdom vs. Natural Inclinations

The Gift of Giving
  • Cautiousness vs. Rashness
  • Contentment vs. Covetousness
  • Gratefulness vs. Unthankfulness
  • Generosity vs. Stinginess
  • Punctuality vs. Tardiness
  • Resourcefulness vs. Wastefulness
  • Thriftiness vs. Extravagance
  • Tolerance vs. Prejudice

The Gift of Organizing (administration)
  • Decisiveness vs. Double-Mindedness
  • Determination vs. Faintheartedness
  • Humility vs. Pride
  • Initiative vs. Unresponsiveness
  • Loyalty vs. Unfaithfulness
  • Orderliness vs. Disorganization
  • Responsibility vs. Unreliability

The Gift of Serving
  • Alertness vs. Unawareness
  • Availability vs. Self-Centeredness
  • Endurance vs. Giving Up
  • Flexibility vs. Resistance
  • Generosity vs. Stinginess
  • Hospitality vs. Loneliness
  • Joyfulness vs. Self-Pity
  • Endurance vs. Giving Up

The Gift of Prophecy (speaking warnings about sin)
  • Boldness vs. Fearfulness
  • Forgiveness vs. Rejection
  • Obedience vs. Willfulness
  • Persuasiveness vs. Contentiousness
  • Thoroughness vs. Incompleteness
  • Truthfulness vs. Deception
  • Virtue vs. Impurity

The Gift of Mercy
  • Attentiveness vs. Unconcern
  • Compassion vs. Indifference
  • Deference vs. Rudeness
  • Gentleness vs. Harshness
  • Justice vs. Fairness
  • Meekness vs. Anger
  • Sensitivity vs. Callousness

Along with the seven "universal, non-optional life principles", these forty-nine character qualities form the central core of Gothard's teaching because of his belief that "one of God’s primary goals for believers is to transform them into the image of His Son so that they may be a reflection of the character of Christ." Gothard teaches that these qualities express God's character and that we become more Christ-like as we train ourselves and each other to demonstrate these characteristics. "Life will take on a whole new meaning as you begin to understand the importance of character and see the lasting rewards of a life that exhibits the character of God." (IBLP website)

Character Clues

Character Clues Game
For decades, Gothard's Institute sold a game called Character Clues. It consisted of a stack of laminated cards, each with the name of a character quality in different decorative fonts. The other stack contained Gothard's definitions. Each card also had a code in the upper corner, to distinguish which "spiritual gift set" it belonged to, as shown in this chart.

Playing Character Clues was a two-step affair. For the first few minutes, we would frantically swap cards with other players, trying to collect one complete set of seven. The rest of the "game" was to memorize the definitions and be the first to call out the quality as the definition was read aloud. We used to play it at home, and later on Game Nights with the staff at the IBLP training center on Main St. in Oklahoma City. It was impossible to play with friends outside the Gothard cult, as we could spit out the definitions in seconds and anyone else would be lost trying to understand how we could jump to "Obedience!" from "Freedom to be creative...".

Character Sketches

Another of Gothard's character projects were the Character Sketches nature series. He originally envisioned seven volumes, but the project ran out of steam after only three (published in 1976, 1978, and 1985). Each handsomely-bound and beautifully-illustrated volume presented nature stories in which the featured species demonstrated an aspect of the highlighted character quality. The story was followed by a biological sketch of the animal habits, and then by an interpretation of a some Bible story in which the character demonstrated either the quality or its opposite. Gothard's younger brother Steve was heavily involved in the creation of these books in the 1970's.

ALERT, another of IBLP's spin-off programs, is a year-long character-building course for "Christian young men" that kicks off with military-style basic training in Big Sandy, Texas. ALERT also sells the Character Sketches series and lists their author as Larry Guthrie.

Dr. Larry Fields Guthrie earned his Ph.D. at the University of Illinois in 1971. Before becoming an Associate Professor of Education at Indiana University Northwest, he taught high school science for seven years. After the university fired him in the late 1970's, he found employment at Gothard's Institute as a staff writer and research assistant for twenty years. A natural storyteller, Guthrie likes to spin the termination of his employment positively, saying that he had recently given his heart to Jesus and willingly gave up academia to serve Christ elsewhere.

Dr. Larry Guthrie
According to IBLP's Embassy Institute: "One day, while teaching at Indiana State University, Dr. Larry Guthrie was informed that his book publishing record was insufficient and they had to terminate his teaching. However, God had given Larry a keen understanding of the world of nature and a remarkable ability to capture the attention of audiences as he explains life principles from the world of nature. Larry wrote the nature sections of the Eagle Story, Character Sketches Series, and other books." However, since Guthrie's appointment at Indiana University continued until May of 1979, it is unlikely he authored any part of the first two Character Sketches. Other sources indicate he wrote for Volume III of the series, and also for Volume IV, which was never completed.

In addition to whatever nature studies he penned for Character Sketches, Guthrie "also wrote science and medical curriculum materials for the Institute's home education program, the Advanced Training Institute of America. Dr. Guthrie is the former director of the Children's Institute which offers character training and instruction in basic Biblical principles to children ages 6-12. Over the past 10 years, these week-long children's seminars have enrolled over 175,000 children in 50 cities and eight foreign countries. Dr. Guthrie also served as Director of Curriculum Development for Character First! Education, a national non-profit character training program for public schools with headquarters in Oklahoma City." Described in 2010 as a "vital part of the IBLP ministry for many years", Guthrie is still a popular keynote speaker for regional homeschool conferences, presenting lessons about obedience to parents, attentiveness to instructions, and escaping the temptations of Satan.

In 2009, Guthrie became the chairman of the board for IBLP's Verity Institute:
"Verity Institute exists to develop leaders who love Jesus Christ and the Word of God. Established in 2001, Verity Institute was founded to disciple college students to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ as they pursue higher education. Verity helps students avoid the pitfalls of traditional college campuses such as non-Christian professors, secular humanism, and loose campus morals. In our innovative, 21-month program, Verity students complete a Bachelor of Arts or Science degree through an outside, fully-accredited university at a fraction of traditional costs for higher education."

Character Booklets and Children's Institutes

In 1991, Bill Gothard made connections with the Russian government that resulted in a partnership with the Department of Education in Moscow. In 1992, the Institute hosted an official delegation from Russia, including a young Boris Yeltsin, grandson of the Russian president, at its headquarters outside Chicago and at Gothard's retreat center in northern Michigan. In 1993, I was one of the homeschooled Advanced Training Institute (ATI) students invited to represent the Institute in Moscow's public schools, private schools, and orphanages. I was seventeen and it was my first experience outside the U.S.

Strict IBLP rules applied within our group: there was to be nothing even resembling dating, no music with a rock beat, no foolishness or loitering, no chewing gum. Males wore ties for most activities; females had to wear dresses, skirts, or loose culottes. On Sundays, we fasted from food until supper. As a student enrolled in Gothard's homeschooling program, these rules were quite familiar to me and did not seem burdensome. In our training meetings at the outset of the trip, we were urged to "clear our consciences" for our own protection, not holding any secrets from our parents. I dutifully wrote a letter home confessing to my parents that I had masturbated when I was younger. Dad faxed back a reply: "We forgive you!"

Our team was directed by George Mattix, now Director of IBLP's International Department. On our way to board the Aeroflot jet, we were handed brand-new booklets defining the character qualities we were about to teach and offering suggestions for activities. Each week we presented lessons in "character" to Russian schoolchildren, using illustrations like the inner workings of an ear, or Abraham Lincoln's honesty, or even the seven days of creation from Genesis. We invited the teachers and older students to evangelistic meetings with hymns, skits, and personal testimonials about how well biblical principles work.

We also helped put on Gothard's Basic Seminar at a cavernous Moscow stadium. To make attendance as convenient as possible, we served sack lunches and improvised special activities for children. This very first "Children's Institute" was deemed such a success that Gothard announced a similar conference for children during the summer ATI training seminar in Knoxville that year.

Soon Children's Institutes, under the direction of Dr. Larry Guthrie as noted above, were being held in conjunction with IBLP Basic Seminars around the country and internationally. At the one I participated in with Dr. Guthrie in Detroit in 1994, we taught the children that Satan could gain access to plots of "ground" in their souls if they were not obedient. Clearly, the Children's Institutes taught more than just the character curriculum, but since many of us had already been trained to teach those first character qualities and the activities were already packaged, the children always got a heavy dose of Attentiveness, Gratefulness, and Obedience.

Gothard himself later attributed the Character First Education curriculum to the earlier program used in Moscow.
"I originally created the materials for the program in 1991, for Russia," explained Gothard. "After I presented a seminar on Basic Life Principles in Russia, President Boris Yeltsin contacted me and asked if I would create a character program for Russia's public schools. So I created a program for them, which they still use."**
"I revised the materials we did for Russia, and they tried them out in eight Oklahoma City schools," said Gothard. "By 1998, 33 Oklahoma City schools used the program and in 1999, 50 use it. Across the nation, over 700 schools in 40 states are using Character First!"
(Source: "Staying In Character: Program Helps Promote Admirable Qualities"
Chicago Tribune; April 23, 2000)

Gothard advertised his new "universal" character materials to pastors, homeschooling families, community leaders, international contacts, and anyone else who would listen. "Character explains why things happen to us," he taught. God is continually working to mold our character into perfection ("to conform us to Christ"). Recognizing people for their achievements only breeds competition and conflict. The better way to motivate people to do good is to praise them for displaying good character instead.

**After falling out of favor with Moscow's Dept. of Education, due in part to their abusive discipline of Russian orphans, IBLP was pressured to abandon the Russia ministry. But hundreds of IBLP followers, including Texas Republican kingmaker James Leininger and his wife and daughters, got to cut their teeth on character education there.

Character Training Institute

Character First would dispute Gothard's claim to have created the program. Six Character Booklets were eventually marketed to IBLP seminar attendees and ATI families, but before another set could be completed there was something new growing on the horizon.

Thomas Hill
Tom Hill, an Oklahoma City businessman who was not only a longtime supporter of the seminars and a personal friend of Gothard but was also serving as chairman of the Institute's Board of Directors, launched the Character Training Institute (CTI). In 1992, Hill took Gothard's 49 character quality definitions and sanitized them for secular use at his company. In most cases, removing the religious component from the definitions required only some deft excision. The result was simply an ambitious self-improvement program. Hill saw potential in selling this character training package to other corporations and non-profit organizations--including government offices.

What employer wouldn't want to emphasize to their employees the importance of Availability ("Making my schedule and priorities secondary to the wishes of those I serve") and Thriftiness ("Allowing myself and others to spend only what is necessary"), or want their staff to exercise Self-Control ("Rejecting wrong desires and doing what is right")? Subscribers to the Character Bulletins got a fresh character quality sheet each month with stories and motivational tips.

The CTI office was run  from the Oklahoma Training Center, owned by Hill's Kimray Inc. and provided to IBLP as a base for multiple programs. Character First Education was also stationed at the center and operated by IBLP/ATI staff families and students. Technically two separate offices, there was a lot of overlap between the two Character Firsts. Many Character First materials were prepared by homeschooled students selected from Gothard's Advanced Training Institute.

The center in Oklahoma City began offering week-long training for "Character Coaches". Teens and adults could become certified to pitch and/or teach the Character First program in their own communities, carrying it back to their local churches or school districts. In July of 1997, my dad took the whole family to Oklahoma City so four of us could take the course with him. I was in my early twenties and had zero interest in being there, but as a "stay-at-home daughter" I believed Dad was my "authority" and the trip was mandatory. As consolation, I tried to convince myself that God was somehow going to use the rather unpleasant week towards my perfection. 

Dr. Joseph Ahne is a certified CTI trainer. At a training center conference in 2005, he had this to say:
“They don’t tell you this here, but it’s all biblically based,” Dr. Ahne says. “They use the animals to illustrate the points that are all from the Bible. You see, it’s about becoming like Christ. Through teaching the character, we’re teaching people how to be like Christ. We could all use that.”

“We use this,” he says, pointing to the Character First binder in the middle of the table, “because we can’t take religion into schools and government. But it’s all based on the same thing.”

Character First Education

Character First Education launched its pilot project in February, 1997 in Oklahoma City. Teams of homeschooled teenagers (recruited from Gothard's ATI program) would be brought to the Oklahoma Training Center at 520 W. Main Street, provided to IBLP by Kimray Inc., to spend months at a time teaching the new Character First curriculum in the public schools under the direction of Kent Fahrenbruck. These "Character Coaches" paid for their training and for their room & board while they were at the center. For many of them, Character First was their first experience entering a public school. They were expected to be at morning Bible study before school and to help with chores around the training center after dinner (usually housekeeping or kitchen cleanup). And the strict IBLP dress code applied: no blue jeans, and women could not wear slacks of any kind.

Robert Greenlaw
Robert Greenlaw's family was enrolled in Gothard's ATI homeschooling program. Robert attended his first "life principles" seminar before he was 14, learned about the natural tendencies of his "spiritual gift" at the Advanced seminar, spent time at IBLP's Moscow Training Center, and led Children's Institutes at Gothard's seminars. In 1996, he helped develop the Character First Education program. Today, Greenlaw manages all Character First publications and training development.***

Many Character First Education materials and artwork were simply borrowed from other IBLP programs, especially from the Children's Institute curriculum developed by ATI students and staff to teach children the seven "life principles" Gothard claimed to discover in the Bible. For example, the Attentiveness song from the Character First Education program is identical to the Attentiveness song taught at Children's Institutes:
"When there's someone else who's saying something that I need to hear,
If I'm easily distracted, it will not be very clear.
I must listen very closely to the things they have to say;
I will choose to be attentive ev'ry hour, of ev'ry day!
"I'll be attentive, so very attentive!
I will show the worth of what they have to say!
And when I am tempted to not be attentive,
I will choose to be attentive anyway!"

The Oklahoma Training Center became a veritable labyrinth of different jurisdictions with varying expectations, codes of conduct, and dress codes. My roommate was an intern for the CTI, other friends were there as volunteer teachers for Character First Education, some teens were sent by their parents for character-building "life experience" training (usually kitchen or maintenance jobs), a team of young adults had an outreach project to at-risk kids in local shelters, and I was working (as a volunteer for six months, and then as a minimum-wage employee) for the IBLP Chicago office from my desk in Oklahoma City. Whether or not we personally endorsed Character First (I sometimes referred to it as Karachterfurst), we were all expected to support the character effort. I helped package many more Character Cards than I cared to count in the training center dining room after work. Despite my misgivings about the CTI, I enjoyed the bustle of helping with Character Bulletin mailing projects because the flurry and rhythm reminded me of my previous volunteer work for political campaigns.

During my year at the Oklahoma Training Center, no staff women were permitted to wear jeans or slacks, all families residing at the center homeschooled their children, student volunteers were expected to fast on Sunday, kitchen workers were harassed for using white flour, and playing "contemporary" worship songs like "As the Deer" on the grand piano was frowned upon. We had a group Bible study before breakfast, corporate prayer time before lunch, and Gothard's Basic Seminar was shown on video some evenings.

***Ken Pierpont, another personal friend of Bill Gothard, describes Robert Greenlaw as "an absolute poster-child for IBLP. Mr. Gothard should be proud of guys like this."

Character First for Law Enforcement, Prisons, and Cities

Ray Nash for Congress
The Character First program has infiltrated city governments and law enforcement across the country. By 2006, 160 cities had passed "character resolutions", adopting CTI programs or materials. Ray Nash, former sheriff of Dorchester County, South Carolina is also a Character Training Institute instructor:
Nash has conducted "Police Dynamics" training for numerous U.S. and international police departments. "Really, what Police Dynamics is, in a nutshell, is biblical wisdom that’s been packaged into a law enforcement message," Nash told Rev. Mark Creech in a November 2004 article for Alan Keyes’ RenewAmerica Web site.  (Cult of Character)
Through Police Dynamics, Nash says he has trained over 10,000 government and business leaders from dozens of countries. Nash retired from law enforcement following a scandal in 2008. He went on to serve as Criminal Justice Adviser for the US Embassy in Kabul. He has a private investigation company and ran for a seat in Congress earlier this year.

Character First's prison curriculum, which contains stories from the New Testament and numerous teachings from Gothard's Basic Seminar, was developed in cooperation with the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. According to an investigative report by Silja Talvi in 2006, in Oklahoma City,
"...even the local county jail’s elevators feature Character First posters in Plexiglass displays, and juvenile detainees study character concepts with the jail chaplains. Each employee receives a Character Bulletin with his or her paycheck, explains Chaplain Argyle Dick. “We hire for character, and we fire, most of the time, for lack of character. … We are always looking for new ways to saturate even more of our employees with character.”
The Character Council of Central Oklahoma has even entered into a “covenant” with the regional career tech programs, covering 12 campuses. “That’s our plan for getting character qualities into the hearts and minds of all students,” explains Dr. Earlene Smith, the Education Committee chairman for the council.
The Arkansas Dept. of Corrections uses Character First with its employees. Inside Arkansas prisons, a revision of the Character First program has become the more religious "Principles and Applications for Life", also led by "character coaches". Ohio added Character First to their offender education curriculum. The city of Conway, South Carolina has Gothard's 49 Character Qualities posted on its municipal website.  A news article earlier this month featured a photograph of Oklahoma Insurance Commissioner Doak speaking in front of a CharacterFirst poster.

Lisa Sorg reported in 2006 for the Texas Observer,
“Burleson heralded as city of character,” boasted the headline in the April 28, 1999, edition of the Burleson Star, the town’s newspaper. The City Council, school board, Chamber of Commerce, and Ministerial Alliance Auxiliary had signed a resolution making Burleson a City of Character. “I do think it’s a religious deal, and I’m not afraid to say it,” Jeff Turner, then-superintendent of the Burleson school district, was quoted as saying.

Sorg's article goes on to observe:
"Obedience figures largely in the Character materials. In the book, How to Build Character as a Family, obedience is mentioned no less than 10 times in a 68-page discussion of character traits, and is described as a protective force. Security: 'I will look to my authorities for protection.' Flexibility: 'I will respect the decisions of my authorities.' Honor: 'I will obey cheerfully.' Justice: 'I will respect the authority of the law.' Loyalty: 'I will not mock authorities.' Obedience: 'I will obey my authorities immediately.' Enthusiasm: 'Not only does enthusiasm brighten the face and give light to the eyes, but it also acts as a natural medicine that builds strong and thick bones.'
"Each character trait also has an opposite. The opposite of obedience is willfulness..."

Why Character?

According to Gothard's website:

  1. Every quality personifies Christ. Jesus Christ is the full expression of every positive character quality. He is truth, love, forgiveness, gentleness, generosity, patience, kindness, and every other quality.
  2. Character explains why things happen. God promises that all things work together for good to those who love God, because they conform us to the image of Christ. (See Romans 8:28–29) If we are lacking in a particular character quality, God will often allow circumstances and even tragedies to develop that quality in us. David said, “It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn thy statutes” (Psalm 119:71.)
  3. Qualities are needed to praise others. We are commanded to encourage and exhort one another on a regular basis. One of the most effective ways to do this is to recognize positive qualities exhibited in the life of another and praise him for it. In order to do this, we must be able to identify specific character qualities and give their definitions.
The emphasis on Gothard's 49 character qualities made the IBLP environment incredibly toxic. We were "saturated with character" and we could never live up to the impossible standard of perfection held in front of us. We were encouraged to overwork ourselves to please our authorities and win praise for diligence and endurance. We were constantly on guard against temptations to choose "foolishness", "extravagance", or "slothfulness". Not surprisingly, many former ATI students are now in therapy for deep anxiety issues and stress-induced health problems.

Additionally, as numerous former Gothard followers have discovered, developing character traits like meekness and obedience can set individuals up for abuse. Gothard has long been criticized for counseling victims to give up their personal rights, to remain in abusive relationships, and to look for how their own poor choices (lack of character) could have caused the abuse. He is also known for habitually blaming victims of sexual violence. The secularized Character First approach does little to correct that imbalance in favor of abusers.

"Clearing the record of those who have wronged me and not holding a grudge."

"Confidence that actions rooted in good character will yield the best outcome, even when I cannot see how"

"Accepting others at different levels of maturity"

Today, I still wince when I drive past a public school sign announcing the character quality of the month--unless it happens to be "RESPECT", a virtue Gothard failed to recognize. To its credit, Character First has replaced Gothard's subservient Reverence with Honor, which it now defines as "Respecting others because of their worth as human beings". The sentimental Love has become the more office-appropriate Benevolence, and the antithesis of Justice is now "Corruption" rather than "Fairness".

Though Gothard may believe perfect character is an exact representation of God, Character First, now owned by Strata Leadership LLC which counts the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, the Virginia Department of Social Services, and Hobby Lobby among its clients, is less committed to the original 49 qualities. Good character is not set in stone, after all, and society's values need room to evolve. The Character First website states"We reserve the right to change qualities and definitions as needed..." 

I praise the CTI team for this display of a trait long demanded of Bill Gothard's supporters: the character quality of flexibility.

READ MORE about Bill Gothard's political connections, his educational philosophy, and about growing up as an ATI student.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Beauty in the Heartland

Today I am taking a break from working on serious posts. Today I am savoring the beauty around me: the natural beauty of the heartland, beauty created by those who care in my community, the fun of getting to know a new friend, the comfort of spending time with my husband and best friend, pride in my children as they explore and mature, a relaxing audio book from the library, entertainers that make me laugh, photos that document the beauty I've noticed this month.

This year our usually clear sky has been dotted with clouds far more often than is normal for around here. When I call attention to the gorgeous piles of cotton in the blue overhead, my daughter rolls her eyes, "It's just water vapor, Mom." Exactly! What a treat to see sunlight bouncing off piles of water vapor! 

One morning this week I just had to stop and snap a photo of the bank of clouds lined up low on the western horizon.

Then I headed to the nature center to sit on a bench by the pond, sipping hot coffee, nibbling a fresh pumpkin spice donut, and celebrating the first chilly morning of autumn. I have finally come to appreciate a certain loveliness in the prairie.

And this morning I introduced a new friend to one of my favorite garden places. 

Recently, my family and I have explored two new parks. One has magnificent trees and a creekbed; the other has a pond and a bike trail. Both have playgrounds with merry-go-rounds and both are near our favorite ice cream place.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Voiceless Women: Lives of the Wesley Sisters (Part 2)

The following are the stories of the lives of Susanna Wesley's seven daughters. For further reading, see Part 1, Voiceless Women: Susanna Wesley's Daughters.

Emilia, "Emily"

Emilia Wesley was a good scholar, talented and smart, well-read and capable. John, who became a university professor, said she was the best expert on Milton he ever heard.

Emilia was five or six when the family moved to Epworth. As the oldest sister, she was typically responsible and her parents depended on her; she lived at home well into her twenties. Emilia cared for her mother and baby Kezzy after the Fire, managed the parsonage when her mother was ill (with meager resources), tended the clock and locked up the house at night, took leave from her teaching job to nurse her married sister Sukey through an illness. She was fond of her mother, and had strong maternal feelings for John, who arrived when she was eleven. Though she was a dutiful daughter, she was also the most critical of her father, especially of his financial irresponsibility, describing the family’s circumstances as those of “intolerable want and affliction”.

She fell in love with one of John’s friends from his student days at Oxford. The romance lasted three years before her brother Sam apparently interfered, insisting that they break up. Emily was heartbroken. She coped by concluding that Leybourne had not really loved her and they would not have been happy together; however, she never really got over her disappointment.

Emily was nearing forty when she felt compelled to support herself and took a teaching job in London. However, her employer did not treat her well or compensate her properly. After corresponding with her brothers and receiving some encouragement and a loan, she gave her employer notice and started her own school in Gainsborough, which she operated until at least 1735. Back home, her mother missed her dependable companion considerably.

There was another romance in Emilia’s life, but her brother John meddled this time. His disapproval was partly because the man in question was a Quaker, though Emilia described him as “a faithful friend, a unique companion, and a keen lover”.

Emily was 44 when she eventually married Robert Harper, the Epworth apothecary, but she was even poorer with him than she had been with her father. Emilia even had to sell some of her clothes to buy food. Politically, they were strong opposites, which only added to the friction between them. They had a daughter, Tetty, but she apparently died in childhood.

Harper disappeared, leaving his wife penniless, after which Emilia (and her favorite maid, to whom she was much attached) was supported by her brothers, residing in London at the Preachers’ house adjoining a Methodist chapel. Towards the end of her life, dementia softened her memory and sweetened her temper.

Susanna “Sukey”

A good girl, a bit romantic, and very pretty. She and Hetty were very close. Disappointed regarding the prospect of financial aid from an uncle, Sukey impulsively married Richard Ellison, Esq. a local landowner who farmed his own estate. But though she bore him several children, their union was far from happy.

Richard was too “uncultivated” and “morose” for his strong, smart, and vivacious wife. He was also physically abusive, reportedly even when they lived with her parents while she was pregnant. Her mother described him as “little inferior to the apostate angels in wickedness” and blamed Uncle Matthew for Sukey’s throwing herself away on this man who was only a “plague” to her and an “affliction to the family”.

When the Ellison’s home was destroyed in a fire, Sukey called it quits. It must have stirred traumatic flashbacks from her childhood. Like her own family years before, the Ellisons separated to live with relations for a time. Sukey never lived with her husband again, but hid in London with her children, refusing to see Ellison or answer his letters. A master manipulator, he tried to flush her out of hiding by publishing a report of his death in the paper. She immediately went down to Lincolnshire to pay her last respects to the dead, but turned around when she encountered her living husband and realized the ruse.

The two were never reconciled; Sukey lived with her children, and accepted financial aid from her brother John. Ellison later found himself in financial straits after his land flooded, drowning his animals and ruining his crops, and cast himself on the mercy of his brothers-in-law, whom he found more inclined to generosity than was his wife.

Mary "Molly"

Molly was crippled by a childhood injury, thought to be due to her nurse’s carelessness. She was good-tempered, in spite of her disability. Hetty adored her. During the Rectory Fire, someone broke out the parlor window and threw her and Hetty out to safety.

One of Rev. Samuel Wesley’s former students, a John Romley, was given supervision of a charity pupil, John Whitelamb. Romley introduced Whitelamb to his former instructor, who then taught the studious boy Greek in a matter of months. Wesley warmed to Johnny Whitelamb, taking him into his home as his amanuensis and putting him to work designing and engraving plates for Dissertations on the Book of Job. Wesley then sponsored Johnny’s education at university, where John Wesley was by now a Fellow. Susanna called him “poor starveling Johnny”; he could not even afford a gown for his ordination. After his ordination, Rev. Sam Wesley made Johnny his curate in Wroote.

Molly and John Whitelamb were married in December, 1733. Molly died in childbirth within a year. The family rather forgot Johnny after that. Years later, after hearing John Wesley preach in his town, Whitelamb wrote to him and expressed how deeply he felt his debt to the entire Wesley family, how highly he esteemed them, and how he had felt ignored by

The cold shoulder may have been due in part to the Wesleys not knowing how to accept changes in Whitelamb’s religious views. Sometime after his ordination, and probably after the loss of his wife, Whitelamb’s faith was undermined by doubts and he became a deist. When John heard of Whitelamb’s passing in 1769, he said “O, why did he not die forty years ago, while he knew in whom he had believed!”

Mehetabel "Hetty" 

Smart, a poetic genius, educated in language, witty, funny, pretty, and popular with suitors. She was a favorite of her Uncle Matthew, neither of them being as religious as the rest of the Wesley family. It was she who roused the family the night of the Rectory Fire, a piece of the roof falling onto her bed and burning her feet. (Samuel Wesley had actually heard cries of “Fire” coming from the street, but ignored them, not realizing they meant his house!)

Her superior education suiting her well for teaching, Hetty went away to work as a governess. From there, her story reads like a Jane Austen novel. Through her employer, she met a young lawyer to whom she developed a strong attachment. Her father interfered, strongly opposing the match based on information which caused him to believe the gentleman was “unprincipled”. This did not dissuade Hetty, or her boyfriend.

At 27, Hetty attempted to elope, twice, apparently with the lawyer. The latter adventure involved her spending a night with her boyfriend, only to discover that he was not serious about marrying her. When she returned to her parents’ home several months pregnant, she was disgraced and her father forbid her to set foot in the house. He quickly married her off to a journeyman plumber, William Wright, in October of 1725. Only her sister Mary took her side and attempted to dissuade their father from forcing the match. Her sisters were not allowed to attend the wedding, two weeks after being bridesmaids at Nancy’s wedding.

Unwelcome at the rectory, Hetty stayed with her sisters when she visited from out of town and remained estranged her from her father for many years. When Susanna went to visit the Wrights at Anne’s place in Wroote a year later, she requested to speak to Hetty in private. Hetty was unenthusiastic and reserved. Susanna told her daughter she forgave Hetty’s offenses against her; Hetty failed to see how she was in need in her mother’s pardon, but kept her thoughts to herself. Her mother proposed a reconciliatory meeting with her father, but Hetty was not optimistic, foreseeing only more unbearable reproach (her mother thought a father’s rebuke ought not be called reproach, especially since he was a pastor and had a duty to call people out). Hetty repeated that she had no wish for reconciliation with her father and had no interest in ever seeing him again.

Susanna wrote to Hetty’s little brother John after the interview and said if Hetty were truly penitent, she would submit herself to her father. She pointed out to John that Sam did not “restrain” the other girls from spending time with Hetty as they pleased. John later wrote to their brother Sam that their parents and some of the sisters believed Hetty had faked penitence earlier. With this family scenario in mind, John had written a sermon for his parents’ benefit, attempting to explain that even if this were the case, Hetty still deserved to be treated with “some tenderness”.

Hetty tried running a school the next year, but after that failed, the mismatched couple moved to London. Hetty was extremely unhappy in her marriage, in her words “a living death”, and wished she could have given one of her eyes to her father to avoid being compelled to marry Wright. The pair were not equals in any way; he was uneducated, ill-tempered and inconsiderate while she was both brilliant and depressed. He was considered an honest workman in the town, but he spent his evenings away carousing, which wounded his wife. Their several children died young; Hetty believed this was due to her husband’s lead works, which also harmed his own health and probably Hetty’s, as well.

A brilliant, bitter and sometimes biting poet, Hetty had some of her work published in magazines. Other pieces she burned. She and her father eventually resumed correspondence. She also nursed her Uncle Matthew at the end of his life and he left her a generous bequest in his will.

Later in life, Hetty looked for solace in religion and told a neighbor she looked forward to death because “we, the Methodists, always die in transports of joy!”

In 1903, an English literature professor at Cambridge turned Hetty’s story into a historical novel.

Anne "Nancy"

Comparatively little is known about Anne. She was born around the time of the first rectory fire.

She married John Lambert, a land surveyor, shortly after Hetty’s abrupt marriage in 1725. They rented a red house not far from her family and made it “very pretty and comfortable”. Later, they moved to London. Despite John’s slight drinking problem and some financial challenges at times, Anne is thought to have had the happiest marriage of the Wesley sisters. No record remains of any Lambert children.

Martha "Patty", "Pat"

Her sisters and Charles believed she was Susanna’s favorite. Patty enjoyed her mother’s company and listening to her teach. She was calm and serious like her brother John, less playful and mischievous than the rest of her siblings, less inclined to the sharp satire on which they thrived. Patty was sensitive, compassionate, and shared her brother’s strong tendency toward self-denial.

Patty was living with her Uncle Matthew in London when she met Wesley Hall, an Anglican minister like her father and one of her brother’s students at Oxford, and they were secretly engaged. When he later visited Epworth with her brothers and met Kezzia, he was smitten and began openly courting her with the family’s blessing. They were engaged and nearly married before his conscience drove him to break up with Kezzy and return to Martha. Too embarrassed to confess the truth, he told the family God had given him a revelation that he was to marry Martha, not Kezzia. Loyal to their baby sister Kezzy, the Wesley brothers took Hall’s change of plans very badly and Charles even sent Patty a lengthy and nasty poem accusing her of incest (by taking her sister’s husband).

Patty eventually sent her mother a full account of the business, Susanna understood and said it was all fine if Uncle Matthew had given his permission, and Kezzy relinquished any claim on Mr. Hall. The Wesley brothers did not hear the whole story and nursed a grudge on Kezzy’s behalf for years afterward. When the tale was told, however, even Charles had to acknowledge that Patty was completely justified.

After the marriage, Kezzy moved in with Patty and Mr. Hall. It was there she met and was courted by a gentleman, but he died before they could be wed. Kezzy’s health was delicate, and she passed away, still living in her sister’s home, in 1741.

The Rev. Hall turned out to be, no surprise, fickle and shallow, a man of impulse rather than intellect, “one of the worst and most unkind of husbands”. He was inconsiderate, deceitful, violent and abusive. He had an affair with Patty’s seamstress, which Patty only discovered when the girl went into labor in their home. Patty ordered the servants to call a doctor, but they refused, under the circumstances. Patty ended up going herself for a midwife and paying for the girl’s care, before traveling to London to calmly confront her husband. Another time, Hall brought home an infant he had sired elsewhere and ordered Patty to care for it until he could arrange for another situation.

Patty bore Hall ten children, nine of which were buried as infants. Their only surviving child, his father’s namesake, died of smallpox at 14 years of age. By then, his uncles John and Charles were sponsoring his education and he was living away from home. His illness may have been exacerbated by the neglect of those at the house where he boarded. His mother was called, but did not arrive in time to say goodbye to her last son.

Many affairs later, Mr. Hall abandoned his wife and moved to Ireland “with one of his mistresses” and Patty never saw him again, though their marriage officially lasted forty years, until Hall’s death. Deserted by her husband, Patty was financially dependent on her brothers’ generosity. In later years, the talented and Patty was a favorite of Dr. Samuel Johnson and kept company with other literary figures in his circle.
It excited her surprise that women should dispute the authority which God gave the husband over the wife. "It is," said she, "so clearly expressed in Scripture, that one would suppose such wives had never read their Bible." But she allowed that this authority was only given after the fall, not before : but " the woman," said she, "who contests this authority should not marry."  
                                                                (Adam Clarke's Memoirs of the Wesley Family)

Kezzia "Kezzy"

Born a month after the Rectory Fire. Kezzy went with her eldest sister to work at Mrs. Taylor's school for a while. Her health was always fragile, however, and stress made her ill. She longed for more education, but was frustrated by lack of time (when she was working) or money (when living at home).

After her short-lived love affair with Wesley Hall, she forgave him and relinquished all claim on him to her sister Patty. Kezzy lived with Patty and Mr. Hall for five or six years until her death. Charles blamed Hall for her early death (he suspected a broken heart). Kezzia did have a boyfriend later on, but he died before they could marry.

Voiceless Women: Susanna Wesley's Daughters (Part 1)

Were it not for the fame of her evangelist sons, she would be unknown today. But history has made her a paragon, second only to the Proverbs 31 woman as the ideal to which American Christian mothers aspire.
I cannot remember a Mother's Day sermon that failed to mention Susanna Wesley. And yet, the men who hail the mother of John and Charles Wesley from their pulpits never mention Susanna's daughters. If those seven women were to hear their dysfunctional home held up as a model for others, I wonder what would they say?

The Susanna Wesley of legend was a minister's daughter, the youngest of her father's twenty-five children, a pastor's wife, the mother of 19 children-- including John (founder of the Methodists) and Charles (poet and author of nearly 9,000 hymns), a pastor's wife, and homeschooling mom extraordinaire. Almost the Protestant equivalent of Mary, Susanna's piety is for tossing her apron over her head to find privacy for prayer. What would she say if she knew she had inspired an Internet prayer apron giveaway three hundred years later?

Prayer did not shield the real Susanna from life's heartaches. Her marriage was difficult, her daughter crippled, her neighbors cruel. Twice her home burned to the ground. She pushed nineteen babies out of her body and buried nine (including all three sets of twins). She always struggled to afford necessities for her family--let alone furniture, was once abandoned by her husband, lost him to debtor's prison another time, and watched in agony as most of her daughters were abused by their husbands or died in childbirth. Her husband antagonized many of his parishioners and spent out his health laboring over his poetry, or his magnum opus, Dissertations on the Book of Job, a Bible commentary no one wanted to read

Samuel and Susanna's children:

  1. Samuel, b. 1690
  2. Emilia, b. 1692
  3. Annesley, b. 1694 (died)
  4. Jedediah, b. 1694 (died)
  5. Susanna, b. 1695
  6. Mary, b. 1696
  7. Mehetabel, b. 1697
  8. Infant 1, b. 1698 (stillborn)
  9. Infant 2, b. 1698 (stillborn)
  10. John, b. 1699 (died)
  11. Benjamin, b. 1700 (died)
  12. Infant 3, b. 1701 (died)
  13. Infant 4, b. 1701 (died)
  14. Anne, b. 1702
  15. John Benjamin, b. 1703
  16. Infant 5 (male), b. 1705 (accidentally smothered) 
  17. Martha, b. 1706
  18. Charles, b. 1707
  19. Kezzia, b. 1709

Discipline in the Wesley Household

With her hands full and her husband not much help, Susanna ran a disciplined household of necessity. She later reflected on her principles of discipline and child training, which sound remarkably similar to those taught in the American church today:

"When they turned a year old (and some before) they were taught to fear the rod, and to cry softly. By this means they escaped abundance of correction they might otherwise have had. That most odious noise of the crying of children, was rarely heard in the house. The family usually lived in as much quietness, as if there had not been a child among them.
"As soon as they were grown pretty strong, they were confined to three meals a day. At dinner their little table, and chairs were placed by ours, where they could be viewed. They were allowed to eat and drink as much as they wanted, but not to ask for any thing. If they wanted something, they used to whisper to the maid which attended them, who came and spoke to me. As soon as they could handle a knife and fork, they were seated at our table. They were never allowed to choose their food, but always made to eat such things as were provided for the family.
"Mornings they had always spoon food and sometimes at nights. But whatever they had, they were never permitted to eat at those meals, of more than one thing, and of that very sparingly. Drinking or eating between meals was never allowed, unless in case of sickness, which seldom happened. Nor were they allowed to go into the kitchen to ask anything of the servants when they were eating. If it was known they did, they were certainly punished with the rod and the servants severely reprimanded.

"They were so constantly used to eat and drink what was given them, that when any of them was ill, there was no difficulty in making them take the most unpleasant medicine, for they dared not refuse itHowever some of them would presently throw it up. This I mention to show that a person may be taught to take anything, though it is ever so unpleasant in his stomach.  
"In order to shape the minds of children, the first thing to be done is to conquer their will and bring them to an obedient spirit. To inform the understanding is a work of time, and must with children, proceed by slow degrees, as they are able to bear it. But the subjecting the will, is a thing which must be done at once and the sooner the better. For by neglecting timely correction they will be overcome with stubbornness, and obstinacy. This is hardly ever conquered later and never without using such severity as would be as painful to me as to the child. In the esteem of the world they pass for kind and indulgent, whom I call cruel parents, who permit their children to get habits, which they know must be later broken. Indeed, some are so stupidly fond, as in fun to teach their children to do things, which a while later they have severely beaten them for doing. When a child is corrected it must be conquered. This will not be hard to do if he is not grown headstrong by too much indulgence.

"When the will of a child is totally subdued, and it is brought to revere and stand in awe of the parents, then a great many childish follies, and faults may be past over. Some should be overlooked and taken no notice of, and others mildly reproved.

"I insist upon conquering the will of children early because this is the only strong and rational foundation of a religious education. Without this both precept and example will be ineffectual. But when this is thoroughly done, then a child is capable of being governed by the reason and piety of its parents until his own understanding comes to maturity and the principles of religion have taken root in the mind.
"They were quickly made to understand, they might have nothing they cried for, and instructed to speak handsomely for what they wanted. They were not allowed to ask, even the lowest servant for anything, without saying "Please give me such a thing;" and the servant was chided, if she ever let them omit that word. Taking God’s name in vain, cursing and swearing, profaneness, obscenity, rude, ill-bred names, were never heard among them. Nor were they ever permitted to call each other by their proper names without the addition of brother or sister.
"For some years we went on very well. Never were children in better disposed to piety, or in more subjection to their parents until that scattering of them after the fire into several families. In those families, they were left at full liberty to converse with the servants, which before they had always been restrained from, and to run abroad and play with any children, good or bad."
"When the house was rebuilt [after the fire in 1709] and the children all brought home, we entered upon a strict reform. It was then begun the custom of singing psalms at beginning and leaving school, morning and evening. Then also that of a general retirement at five o’clock was entered upon, when the oldest took the youngest that could speak, and the second the next, to whom they read the psalms for the day, and a chapter in the New Testament. In the morning they were directed to read the psalms and a chapter in the Old Testament, after which they went to their private prayers, before they got their breakfast, or came into the family. I thank God, the custom is still preserved among us."

Son John remarked in a sermon years later, "My own mother had ten children, each of whom had spirit enough; yet not one of them was ever heard to cry aloud after it was a year old." Still, harsh discipline was but one of the traumas experienced by the young Wesley daughters.

Childhood Trauma

Susanna and Samuel could not be said to model marital harmony. Emilia once lamented her father's "unaccountable love of discord", and Susanna admitted that she and her husband "never thought alike". Samuel Jr. wished that his parents were as comfortable together and he and his wife were. The children must all have been traumatized in 1701 when their father moved out over a political disagreement with his wife that arose during family prayer. Emily was nine; her sisters four, five, and six. Their parents had buried six dead infants in the past three years.

Samuel had moved back in by July of 1702. He was visiting a sick parishioner when the parsonage caught fire, destroying two-thirds of it. One of the girls got left behind in the burning house, but a sister began calling for her and neighbors were able to rescue her. Someone even thought to save Samuel's books from his study.

In 1705, when little Anne was three and Jack was two, the older Wesley sisters welcomed a new baby brother. Susanna being too exhausted to nurse the child, the newborn was sent next door to be cared for by a neighbor. The baby never came home. He was about three weeks old when the weary woman overlaid him one night, accidentally suffocating him.

Just weeks later, Samuel was hauled off to debtor's prison. Susanna, desperate to settle the debt, sent him her rings to sell, but Samuel sent them back, preferring to trust that God would provide. "A jail is a paradise in comparison of the life I led before I came hither," he wrote.

Neighbors Samuel had antagonized with his politics had no sympathy for the rector's family. They burned the Wesley's flax fields, viciously stabbed their milk cows and called the Wesley children "little devils". The family struggled for three miserable months before Samuel's friends came up with the money to pay his debts. Susanna later confided, "Strictly speaking, I never did want bread. But then I had so much care to get it before it was eat, and to pay for it after, as has often made it very unpleasant to me; and, I think, to have bread on such terms is the next degree of wretchedness to having none at all."

Baby Charles was born premature and did not open his eyes or cry for weeks. He was still the youngest when the Rectory Fire broke out in 1709. Little Jacky (John), his sisters' pet, barely escaped; the family could see him crying, "Help me!" from an upstairs window, standing on a chair, framed by flames against the midnight. Samuel wrote that he gathered some of the children in a circle in the garden to pray for their brother's soul; thankfully, other men were more interested in saving the boy's flesh. Molly and Hetty had been tossed to safety through a broken window. They lost everything but what they were wearing. Their mother was burned as she waded through flames to escape the house. Her first impulse had been to grab what gold and silver coin they had at the time, but her husband pushed her out the door toward safety.

After the fire, the children were dispersed to friends and relatives until the rectory could be rebuilt. Samuel's brother Matthew, a surgeon in London with no children of his own, took in Sukey and Hetty. Matthew was not particularly religious, but he took an interest in improving the prospects of his nieces. Samuel could not afford furniture for the new rectory. Visiting Epworth thirteen years later, Uncle Matthew observed that the house was only half-furnished, Susanna and the girls only "half-clothed". Matthew wondered what his brother had done with his income.

Samuel's daughters struggled to have presentable clothes to get jobs. Dresses that would grant them entrance to the world of literary culture were out of the question, though those circles would have allowed them to engage with men and women of their intellectual caliber. Meanwhile, Samuel spent large sums on books or travel not strictly necessary for his ministry and dreamed of going abroad as a missionary to China or the East Indies. The sisters complained about the "scandalous want of necessaries" and blamed poverty for Susanna's many health problems.

Home Education

Susanna had been educated by her father far beyond what was typical for a female of her time. At the age of 13, Susanna had the confidence to leave her Dissenter father's church altogether and join the Church of England. She grew into a learned and independent-minded woman. She was about twenty when she married the 28-year-old Anglican minister and poet Samuel Wesley. And she did a tremendous job of educating their children at home.

Like other large families, there were inside alliances. Sukey and Hetty were very close. Emilia was fond of her mother and quite attached to her baby brother John. Hetty adored Molly. John and Patty were the most alike; the others believed Patty was Susanna's favorite. (Charles wondered that his mother, for all her wisdom, did not better conceal her favoritism.) But Susanna did try to schedule equal time for the many individuals who made up her brood, and kept in touch by correspondence when they left her nest.

Not surprisingly, the Wesley kids all developed "a strong method of expressing themselves, especially in Poetry". Literature ruled in their home and for the rest of their lives they were always writing and sending poems to one another, for every occasion: comfort, congratulation, grief, encouragement, advice, or rebuke. Their upbringing taught them to fight with their wits, and, with the exception of gentler Patty, the siblings shared a taste for sarcasm and rapier-sharp satire.

All three Wesley brothers followed in their father's footsteps and were ordained. But alas, though Susanna educated her daughters on a level equal to their brothers and far beyond what was expected of their peers, she could not equip them to survive in a culture and family controlled, by divine order, by men. As successful as she was in developing their minds and teaching them the value of language and of learning, she never could offer them the kind of autonomy she had once claimed for herself. Nor could she prepare them to demand respect, to protect and provide for themselves, or to choose healthy relationships.

In many ways, motherhood was a sorrow and a burden to Susanna. To her brother-in-law, she wrote:"
[H]appy, thrice happy are you, happy is my sister, that buried your children in infancy, secure from temptation, secure from guilt, secure from want or shame, or loss of friends! They are safe beyond the reach of pain or sense of misery; being gone hence, nothing can touch them further. Believe me, Sir, it is better to mourn ten children dead than one living, and I have buried many."

Read what happened to the seven Wesley daughters in Voiceless Women: Lives of the Wesley Sisters (Part 2)

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

An Open Letter to my Mother


I know you worked hard to be the kind of woman, the kind of mother, you thought you should be. What you accomplished under grueling circumstances is truly amazing, and I daily use many of the skills I learned from you.

I have no desire to pain you by dredging up previous difficulties in our relationship or by making accusations or asking for apologies. However, I can now admit that when we visit I often feel nervous, fearful of offending you or of being punished. I feel obligated to accommodate your expectations and guilty if I cannot. I do not feel this way around anyone else. In recent years, this stress has even manifested as physical pain which not only takes a toll on myself but negatively impacts other relationships that are important to me.

I know our history is complicated. Over the last months, I have attempted to preserve a cordial, if limited, relationship. Frankly, I do not want you in my personal space. I do not trust you. I am not comfortable sharing my emotions with you. I feel I have to be a buffer to shield my children from being hurt by you. When I get a note from you, I have to wait until I am relaxed enough to open it. Maybe someday I will be strong enough to hear from you without having a panic attack, but for now intimacy is not worth the psychological trauma it creates. Even reading the words “I love you” in your handwriting makes my stomach drop. My brain instantly recalls the things you did because you loved us, and it scares the hell out of me.

In the future, if you want to show kindness to me, I beg you to pay for my sisters’ college educations, no strings attached. No conditions about whom they date, where they live, what they wear, what they study, where they work. They are all bright and motivated women, these sisters whose cries I heard often from behind closed doors, punctuated with thwacks from a wooden rod pounding their soft flesh to drive out foolishness and break their self-will. The girls whose dresses I sewed, whose diapers I changed, whose hair I washed and brushed and braided. I pureed their baby food, checked their schoolwork, kissed their bumps and scrapes, and tucked them in at night. I saw their bruised bottoms when I helped them in the damp, mildew-laden bathroom. I hung out their laundry in the yard rank with the smell of the cattle next door; I dressed them in snowsuits and fished their thumbs into mittens; I entertained them while doing my chores. I read to them, sang to them, fed them, took their photographs, saved their drawings, and tried to set them a good example.

Twice I cared for your children for a week so you and Dad could get counseling help. You went to people who claimed to have answers but could only point you to the same concepts that created the problems. While you were gone, we fixed the faucet so there would be two showers available to the eleven people in the house. I worried that you would be angry with us when you returned, for changing things. I worried that you might not return at all, but you did, all smiles because God had shown Dad that he was proud and because you had a new necklace.

I am safe now. I am secure, well-cared for, loved and supported, as independent as I choose to be. I am overcoming the hurdles in my way and creating a safe space for my children to grow into independent adults. Won’t you equip the rest of your daughters with the financial resources to educate themselves, and then step aside and let them achieve their goals? You can still give them a chance at the autonomy you never got to experience.

You used to pray that we would be “mighty in spirit”. You should be proud of all your children: we have your determination. We are passionate. We love what is beautiful and true. We fight against abuse and speak out against beliefs or practices that hurt people. We love to learn and to teach and we work hard to take care of ourselves and contribute to our communities.

While you and I have never been close, I need even more physical and emotional distance between us for now. One day I hope to be strong enough to again maintain my equilibrium when we have contact, to gracefully manage the emotional flashbacks or not to have them at all. Until then, I hope you will be kind to all my sisters and treat them with the gentleness and respect they deserve.