Thursday, February 13, 2014

Guest Post: Memories of Knoxville

So happy to introduce a guest post from my husband! 

Chris devoted five years of his adult life,  from 1994 to 1999, to Bill Gothard's cult, working at IBLP training centers in Moscow, Indianapolis, Oklahoma City, and Oak Brook, Illinois. 

We have been unpacking a lot of memories this month. This is one of many that was jarred loose. 

In 1997, I was living in a sort of lock-down facility for juvenile delinquents in Indianapolis, Indiana. I wasn't delinquent; I was supposed to be a mentor. But this was in no way a normal facility. It was an old hotel that a religious organization bought and remodeled with our slave labor. (We paid to be there!) Then they convinced some judges to assign a few young offenders to our facility. Each of these teens was paired with one of us. We lived together nearly 24/7 and we were supposed to teach them wisdom, character, etc. 

IBLP had a large home schooling program (ATI)  and every summer they had a week-long conference in Knoxville, Tennessee where families from all over the country would gather on the University of Tennessee campus to hear speakers drone on about how bad rock music was, or how great breasts were, er, I mean, breastfeeding was, or tell us how to avoid the "high places" of modern education by basically screwing over our teenagers. Apparently homeschool parents aren't supposed to educate their children about reality.

In June that year, I got to go to this conference, with the juvenile delinquents from the Indianapolis center. I really have no clue why leadership felt the need to send these kids to a conference for homeschool families, but it was what it was.

A few days before we went down we were "given the opportunity" to go out into the neighborhood around the center in inner-city Indianapolis and clean up litter in the streets and vacant lots. We worked at this for a few hours, and then we went to some church for lunch. I peed, washed my hands, and ate. Later, we loaded up the vans and drove down to Tennessee for the conference. 

On my first day in Knoxville I found out why you wash your hands before you pee if you suspect any contact with poison ivy. Because I washed my hands, they were not affected, and I had long pants and shirt sleeves on, so I had no poison ivy outbreak anywhere else--just my crotch!

We stayed in old dormitories on the university campus, without air conditioning. In the June sun, the rooms were stiflingly hot and we had to have the windows open. Outside the window, about three feet out, was a road, and on this road was constant traffic, car horns and fire trucks--big hook and ladder trucks--rumbling back and forth every fifteen minutes or so with their sirens wailing. If that wasn't enough, the car alarms in the parking garage would go off periodically.

I lay there in bed in the stifling still heat night after night,with my crotch burning and itching and the constant noise outside, just staring at the ceiling, hoping for . . . and then eventually exhaustion take over and I would startle awake an hour or two later to find everything had gone deathly quiet.

For some reason the street outside would just die sometime between midnight and 1 a.m. It was almost spooky. I'd get up and walk to the window and be amazed at how still it was. Where had everybody gone?

But then I had had just enough sleep for my brain to pay attention to the heat and the itching again. So I got to stare at the ceiling in quiet for hours drifting back to sleep only an hour or two before the sun came up and rallied us to our feet again.

The rooms were gross, by my standards. Someone had apparently come in with a power sprayer and painted white over everything, including the dust and dirt. The showers were small and moldy, and it was an unpleasant job to try to get oneself clean enough every morning to start sweating the day out in a dark suit.

One solace in all of this is that we sometimes got to eat at the cafeteria at the arena where the conferences were held. The food wasn't great, but it was cafeteria-style, so we could pick our poison.

One day I sat with a friend of mine. We got along well, but could only talk once or twice a month because our assigned delinquents were not allowed to talk to each other. So we treasured our rare moments together.

He told me once about his grandfather, who as a kid had gone out into the woods with some friends and they all cut off one of their toes, because it seemed like a cool idea at the time. That is the kind of stock some of us came from.

I remember both of us getting these ridiculously enormous strawberry-flavored milk shakes. We sat over them and talked about how many terrible chemicals must be in them, how they probably had nothing related to milk in them, how they were probably just big vats of artificial plastic something. I guess that conversation was as close as we could muster to cutting off our toes.

We spent much time walking up and down the hills of Knoxville in the sweltering heat, in suits and ties. Going to our rooms, staring at the ceiling at night, walking to meals. And then the purpose, the event, was to sit for hours in the back of a stadium watching some old man in another navy suit go on about... well, whatever. Maybe about how America was going to hell, but we were going to save it... or something.

Then one evening, some overweight blowhard was going on and on about God or something when he just fell over. He fell hard and even from the back we could hear his body hit the stage. Part of me thought maybe it was a stunt, and everyone kind of froze, but a guy that big couldn't pull off a stunt like that without hurting himself. Some guys on the front row jumped on stage to practice their CPR training on a real cadaver and the rest of us sat back kind of stunned, and hoping this meant we could leave early.

Mickey Bonner's last moments
One of the guys we had brought from Indianapolis was saying, "I knew that dude was going to have a heart attack. Did you see how his face was turning completely red and then blanching white, over and over while he was talking?" Wow, who knew this delinquent was paying so much attention to the speaker?

Eventually someone got to the podium and asked us all to kneel and pray. Everyone got up and turned around to pray at their seats. I'm sure I did, too, but I had to wonder, What do we pray for a dead man? Maybe I just prayed for my crotch to stop burning and itching so badly.

Eventually an ambulance arrived and they took the body away. He was quite dead, probably before he hit the floor. Honestly, he wasn't doing much better when he was speaking. What was the point? What was it all about? Why the hell?

So that was Knoxville '97: poison ivy, living in a noisy shit hole, while we watched people talk themselves to death on stage.

P.S. from Jeri: That night was the only time either of us have seen someone die. Something like that sticks with you. And, strangely, we were both in the auditorium that night, with no idea that we would be introduced a year later. But more on that in a post soon!


  1. I was there that night, too. Sitting halfway up the lower section of the bleachers, to stage right. I was kinda dozing off - I believe it was Thursday night so I was very tired by then - but I remember seeing a paramedic doing CPR on Mr. Bonner as they wheeled him off the stage on the stretcher.

  2. I had completely forgotten about that!! I was there too, I remember woman around me crying and crying, and I couldn't muster a tear. I didn't know the guy, and hated being there. It was all so bizarre to me at the time.

  3. Wow, Indy. Had a wild young men's counseling seminar there.

  4. I was there that night too. Sort of. I was at the conference, but it stormed that night in Knoxville and instead of going to the live event in Thompson-Boling Arena, my parents and I watched it on a live-feed in the lobby of the dorm we were staying in at UTK. I remember it like it happened yesterday. Crazy. And yes, I remember how insanely hot it was, how loud the sirens were at night and how disgustingly bad the food was.