Sunday, May 25, 2014

Our Courtship Story: Taking the Plunge

Continued from Fear, Desire, and More Goodbyes

Spring 2000   Kansas and Michigan

I took a part-time job at a window company in town where I could wear long skirts and the devout Catholic manager agreed to keep the office radio turned off on days I was there. I loved the filing and organizing and answering the phone and getting to know my coworkers. My brother Michael and I also began meeting other young people at a large church nearby. We missed the camaraderie we'd experienced at training centers, and this was a way to get out and begin adjusting to mainstream Christian culture.

Chris, meanwhile, was doing job interviews and taking temporary assignments back in Wichita. He also missed his friends and attempted to connect with the singles' group at his parents' Baptist church. When he was offered a permanent position at the telephone company, he checked his calendar. Before starting the job on June 1, he would squeeze in a trip to Michigan to visit our family. He contacted Michael and they worked out the details.

In the car one day mid-April, Chris confided to his mom that he thought God was telling him it was time to get married; he just didn't know who.

"Oh? What happened to Jeri?" his mom wanted to know.

"I thought you and Dad nixed that idea!"

"No, we loved her! We just didn't think it would be helpful to encourage you then, since the time wasn't right. So we didn't say anything."

Well! With his parents on board, Chris lost no time. That very night he drafted a letter expressing his my dad.

To explain this, I have to back up nine years.

* * * * *

One Wednesday in the depths of Michigan winter when I was fifteen, I got a phone call. From IBLP Headquarters. Twenty-year-old Kristine told me she had been assigned by Mr. Gothard himself (who must have just returned from his annual vacation in the Northwoods) to work with me to prepare me for work at Headquarters! Kristine would keep me accountable and help me develop disciplines for ministry and report to Mr. Gothard and Rick Lambert on my progress! It was a dream come true; I flew up to my room, took off my glasses, pulled out my retainer, and dramatically cried tears of joy into my pillow.

For the rest of that week, I worked extra hard on my assignments from ATI, got up early, began shopping for clothes I could wear in the IBLP offices, and Dad and I went through Gothard's Principles of Courtship booklet. It bothered me not a whit that Gothard had never been married. Hadn't he told us the tales of his college girlfriends just the summer before in Knoxville? I knew more about his youthful love life than I knew about my own parents'. I knew they had regrets, and Gothard didn't let on that he had any of those.

None of my friends were dating yet, but I was in the throes of puberty. Though I rarely interacted with males my own age, I felt guilty for letting boys "occupy my thoughts too much". My social life being largely limited to Sunday church services, I wrote the following after attending an ATI conference the summer I was fourteen:
I wonder if Jim [another homeschooler at church] and I will be able to be friendly with each other now that I’ve committed myself to courtship. Will the boys at church be able to see a difference in me?
Later on:
This was a very interesting morning at church. I remained cool and and collected when D---- nodded at me as I walked downstairs. Give me a break; why must he be so friendly?

Another week:
As I was walking into the sanctuary, D---- tapped me on the shoulder. I turned and told him firmly to keep his hands off me. He had no business doing that. In his easy-going manner, he said, “Well, don’t hit me.” I decided to ignore that and join my family in the row. “Commit thy works unto the Lord, and all thy thoughts shall be established.” I was able to fully concentrate on the service and focus on the Lord.

Studying the rules of courtship with Dad made me feel grown up. Dad had still been a teen when he married Mom, after all. Not only did we go over each page of the booklet, we even took the fancy commitment page along to church the next day and put our names on it in the presence of our pastor (after I'd spent my morning "quiet time" reading the erotic poetry of the Song of Solomon!). I could not possibly imagine how many tears that paper would cost me a decade later.

The next day I reflected on what our "covenant" meant and wrote in my journal:
I have enough trust in my father to leave this part of my life in his hands. I see him as such a godly man, so alert to God's promptings, that I am confident that he'll recognize when the 'right one' for me comes along.
"Pure" was a key word in IBLP culture. "Moral purity" didn't just mean no sexual intercourse. It could also mean no sensual imagery, no kissing, no sexy or revealing clothing, no romantic feelings. "Dating" became a dirty word. Followers of Gothard who were "committed to courtship" had sworn off "a dating spirit". Dating was casual and worldly. Courtship was intentional and very, very serious. (Some couples did not touch at all during courtship, not even holding hands, just to be safe. After all, as another IBLP publication pointed out, no one thought the Beatles just wanted to hold your hand!)

Either in the Courtship booklet or at a seminar, I promised to save my first kiss for marriage (i.e., the wedding). I didn't really know what the fuss was about kissing, anyway. I still craved attention and touch, though. With six younger siblings, I was now more caregiver than child. A few weeks after signing the paper above, I wrote in my journal with a melodramatic flourish of martyrdom:
This evening I gave God my right to have Dad show outward affection to me. Since I may remain single all my life, it's a big decision to give up that right but I know that intimate fellowship with God can make up for it.
Don't ask me what the hell that meant, but I include it because it was clearly important to me at the time. I was a lonely and very confused adolescent. Perhaps I was beginning to feel conflicted about my commitment to purity and my desire to be hugged and kissed at bedtime along with my baby siblings. My father was now "the man in my life", and would hold that role indefinitely, as far as I could see. My future happiness lay in his hands, so it was essential that I keep him happy with me. 

That summer I spent two weeks away from home, listening to Gothard instruct us in his "principles". I took careful notes on the sessions on courtship:

Singling out one person of the opposite gender 
and cultivating interest through 
thoughts, looks, notes, talks, or events
  • Wrong Motive--getting vs. giving
  • Wrong Goal--pleasure vs. commitment
  • Wrong Idea--license vs. self-control
  • Wrong results--hurts vs. edification

A father's agreeing to work with a qualified young man 
to win his daughter for marriage.

Courtship was supposed to promote self-control and objectivity and eliminate "defrauding" (temptation that is someone else's fault) and the much-feared "bitterness". It was believed to foster loyalty to parents and "restraint of affection". After years and years absorbing ATI culture, Chris knew these rules like the back of his hand. So once he knew he had his parents' blessing to pursue me, there was no question that the next step was to contact my dad.

Jeri at 15, headed to an IBLP conference

Continued at Best Laid Plans

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

For Easier Reading

Readers who have found the courtship saga difficult to follow will be glad to know there is a new Table of Contents page.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Our Courtship Story: Fear, Desire, and More Goodbyes

Continued from A Road Trip and the Red Pill

October, 1999

The guys stayed at a hotel, while I stayed with Lisa. Being conservative homeschooled girls who scarcely knew anything about sex, we didn't have anything resembling a bachelorette party. We may have had a timid conversation in which we pooled our ignorance of all matters sexual. Or we may have just planned details for the next day's schedule.

The wedding being on Sunday, we had breakfast at McDonald's, then attended Lisa's IFB church in the morning before changing into our wedding finery. The guys' hotel had a power outage, so they had to wait for hot water and we were just glad they made it in time! The ceremony, the couple's first awkward kiss, photographs, a beautiful reception, and then they drove away for the honeymoon while we singles committed to "moral purity" tried not to think about what that meant. As we we waved Lisa off to a life of wedded bliss, however, our guiltily naive imaginations could not have dreamed of the horror awaiting her. Far from protecting her, the courtship model set her up for years of silent heartache and abuse.

That night I shared Lisa's old bedroom with her maid-of-honor. As sexually mature but inexperienced young women who still lived with our parents, we talked late into the night about what it meant to "guard your heart" and be a "one-man woman". It was a relief to talk frankly to someone else who had wrestled with the same questions--like whether it was unwise to kiss another woman's husband when he also happened to be your dad.

Gothard's teaching on sublimating sexual energy
Weddings were undeniably about sex. Before the rings were exchanged, all heterosexual physical contact was charged with danger. Even hand-holding might tempt one to "go too far". There was the "appearance of evil" to worry about. Two people of different genders had to be chaperoned for their own protection. Billy Graham was said to avoid ever being alone with a woman to keep his reputation above reproach. At IBLP training centers, many offices had glass doors for "accountability". And of course, full-coverage loose-fitting garments were believed to be a guard against temptation.

But after the minister said the magic words "Mr. and Mrs.", the fundamental structure of the universe was altered. All sexual feeling between the same two people was to be embraced, celebrated. A married woman had a worthy excuse to wear sexy lingerie. She could seduce her man on purpose. Then a man and woman were supposed to feel desire, instead of suppressing or sublimating it.

It had been nearly a year since Chris's inner voice had told him, "Marry Jeri", but he had sublimated the idea perfectly. I still had no idea that he was romantically interested in me. I wanted to be married; hell, I just wanted a guy to tell me I was attractive. As far as I could tell, there were still no possible suitors on the horizon. Little did I know that the next time the CLink had a reunion, the wedding would be my own!

The guys and I packed up and headed back to Chicago the next day. As always on a return trip, I felt more contemplative than I had on the drive south. We stopped in Lexington, KY to dine at the Olive Garden, and I remember a conversation about clothing and fabrics. I had put Chris in a box based on what he wore at training centers and was surprised to learn that his preferences actually matched mine in many ways. Even though I considered myself to know Chris rather well, there were always new discoveries!

It was late when we arrived back in Oak Brook. Michael and I transferred our suitcases to his car and Chris got the crockpot I'd forgotten in my sudden move a few months earlier. I was staying in Michigan and Chris was planning to move back to Kansas at the end of the year. Though our friendship was solid, no plans existed to suggest we would ever see each other again. Before Michael and I left, Chris and I stood in the drive of his house at Headquarters and shook hands goodbye. For the third time in our friendship, our skin touched. A hug would have seemed more appropriate, but we would never have dared risk so much. Our future happiness in life depended on maintaining our moral, emotional, and physical "purity".

We did not write to each other after that. We never emailed, or talked on the phone. We did have occasional contact on AOL Instant Messenger, but only when my brother Michael was around to be in on the conversation, too. Chris knew I wanted voice lessons and had encouraged me to pursue them, which I did that winter. And since he had been well aware of my crush on Matt, I confided to him when it melted away. Naturally, Chris wondered if this was a cryptic message. Was I telegraphing to him that I now returned his interest? Surely I was aware of how much he liked me??

Chris was already planning his departure from IBLP, but now a few things converged to help him pull away. On a visit home to Kansas, Chris caught a BBC show on TV. Signs and Wonders was about a young woman caught up in a cult, and her family trying to rescue her from the cult's clutches with the help of an exit counselor played by James Earl Jones. The film struck a chord with Chris, especially in its depiction of the way the cult used fear to maintain mental control of its members. Years later, Chris wrote this reflection:
"[Signs and Wonders] tells the story of the daughter of a pastor who gets drawn into a cult. They do a good job of giving a brief view into just what a cult is like and about. When she is rescued from the cult she does not want to leave. They have told her that if she ever leaves "People will cry, people will die, things will fall out of the sky." She quotes this often, and when she sees the front page report of a plain crash after she leaves, she is sure it is her fault.
"...What hit me was how much the cult's use of fear was identical to Mr. Gothard's teaching that if you get out from under your umbrella of authority, Satan will have free rein in your life. All of us ATIA students and IBLP-goers were taught that if we didn't obey our parents or whoever they sent us to (IBLP leadership), we could have every horrible thing happen to us!
"At one lunch Mr. Gothard brought us the report of an ATIA father who had been killed recently. At first I thought this was a prayer request for the tragic event of a very involved father of many children suddenly being removed from his family. However, Mr. Gothard went on to tell us how he had been killed while working on a riding lawn mower with his son on Sunday afternoon. He told us that because he was working on Sunday he was out from under God's protection. He also told us that his father would never do any sort of work on a Sunday like that.
"That was the last straw for me. It is so clear an obvious how Mr. Gothard uses the fear of Satan's attack to enforce his will on people, and teaches others to do the same."
At a gathering at director Mike Bell's house, Chris watched a video message from attorney, pastor, and ATI dad Roger Magnuson. In the video, Magnuson lamented that some church youth groups were holding swing dances, which he considered abhorrent because Frank Sinatra was so obviously a sexually immoral person. Instead of agreeing with Magnuson's perspective, Chris was hung up on the dancing part. Christian singles had dances? How fun! He wanted in on that! Maybe he didn't fit in so well at this place after all...

Coming home late another night from the Production Center, Chris (twenty-three years old and a full-time employee) was surprised to get a call from Mike Bell. As it turned out, Bell had spies doing nocturnal surveillance around the neighborhood, making sure that curfew was enforced. Chris explained that he had been paged to deal with a server issue and had just come home to bed. Bell was satisfied, but the incident made Chris aware that this employer-employee relationship had a freakish component! Maybe this place really was a cult.

After ensuring CharacterLink's servers were patched and ready for Y2K, skipping the annual staff Christmas conference, Chris said goodbye to IBLP and moved his belongings back to his parents' home in Wichita.

Continued at Taking the Plunge

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Our Courtship Story: A Road Trip and the Red Pill

Continued from Breaking Away

October, 1999

The school year had begun at home and it felt strange not to be studying anything myself. It was good to have another road trip to look forward to, though! There were flurries of email in the weeks leading up to our adventure. Lisa* was getting married in her home state, and I was a bridesmaid. She’d invited Michael*, Chris, and Dan* to be ushers and other friends from Oklahoma would be there. Nearly a year after our little office diaspora, the wedding would be a “CLink” reunion!

With a little help from my sister getting the zipper just right, I sewed a modest bridesmaid dress in Lisa’s favorite blue. I’d never been in a wedding before! I was barely acquainted with her fiancĂ©, but her parents had approved their courtship and Lisa seemed excited and happy. I was doubtful that I could be happy with such a man, but it was Lisa’s life and she didn’t let on that she had any reservations. In some ways I envied her, picking out a ring and having her life planned out. I wanted to be a wife and mother, but that life was dependent on a man finding and choosing me, with my dad’s permission.

Many years earlier I had made the “seventeen basic commitments” Bill Gothard asked of attendees at his Basic Life Principles Seminar: "I purpose to honor the Scriptural principle of letting the father of the girl determine whom his daughter should date and marry. I...will refer all interested young men to him."

At the mature age of fourteen, I had swooned over the redheaded young speaker and zealously joined in his pledge to remain single (and singlehearted) to focus on serving Christ for the next two years. And when that time was up and no possible young suitors appeared on the horizon, I upped it again, and again as a futile talisman against those "dangerous crushes" I had been frequently warned against but which seemed to arise independently with alarming regularity each time I conversed with an intelligent male who treated me like a peer. There had only been about half a dozen over the last twelve years and I was finally learning to ride them out, like a two-year wave. My most recent infatuation had been a coworker in Oklahoma. I hadn't seen him for well over a year now and the attraction was finally beginning to wane.

On a weekday afternoon Michael and I drove through the autumn colors to Chicago and turned into the familiar IBLP campus. Memories swept over both of us as he pulled the car into the driveway of one of the men’s houses on Pine Hill Lane. But as soon as we got out and greeted Chris and Dan, everything was cozy and comfortable again. These were our friends.

We loaded our luggage into Dan's car, and took off into the night. Conversation flowed easily as if we had never been apart. Chris had just seen a science fiction movie that blew his mind and, as Dan navigated the crush of semi traffic, he began to tell us about it--apparently in real time. I listened for a while, but the security and relief and exhaustion of the moment lulled me to sleep. When I awoke forty-five minutes later, Chris was still talking. It took him nearly two hours to describe the feature-length movie for us. I teased him about that for years afterward.

The movie was, of course, The Matrix. Though it was still in [forbidden] theaters, Chris had viewed a pirated copy in a 4" window on a friend's laptop while sitting on a bed in a basement bedroom at IBLP Headquarters. To this day, he describes it as "a spiritual experience". Ever since Michael's and my departure, Chris had been asking himself Who am I? And why? That day, he chose the red pill.

Morpheus: The Matrix... is the wool that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.
Neo: What truth?
Morpheus: That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else, you were born into bondage, born inside a prison that you cannot smell, taste, or touch. A prison for your mind. Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself... After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill and the story ends. You wake in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill and you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember -- all I am offering is the truth, nothing more.

Chris had already begun pulling away from the Institute, but the powerful imagery of The Matrix fired his imagination. (Sometime later, when he entered his house on Pine Hill Lane and came upon a group of guys watching the film on DVD, they froze. Chris had a clean reputation; would he would rat on them for indulging in "unapproved" entertainment? But they soon discovered there was no cause for alarm. "The Matrix? Cool!" said he, and promptly joined in their clandestine insubordination.) It would be years before we discovered the end of that rabbit hole, but the journey had now begun.

As night wore on and we headed south, Chris took the driver's seat. While Dan and Michael snoozed, I kept Chris company from the backseat. Unable to see each other's faces, we conversed in low tones. Despite being awake "alone" with a boy, I felt relaxed. Physically safe (Chris was the best driver I'd ever known), and emotionally safe. Chris knew me, he was my friend. Not only did I feel free to be my self in his presence, I also felt free to discover who that self was.

The only tidbit I can recall from our conversation that night was when we we passed a green road sign for a community called "Hazard". After the headlights had illuminated the sign and it passed into the darkness behind us, Chris wondered aloud what one might find there. And I promptly answered, "Dukes", startling us both. Somehow being on the road far from IBLP and my parents, I had tapped into memories and connections I had never been able to speak aloud before.

We arrived at Lisa's house and met her family. The five of us, along with Lisa's sisters, visited a local children's museum. I remember Chris taking readily to the puppets. Lisa and her dad took us to a state park where we climbed a wooded mountain trail to the rocky top and savored the view. We all helped fix dinner. And, as it worked out, we took Lisa to the airport to meet her groom when he arrived from Oklahoma. To distract her while we waited for his flight, we explored the airport and had such fun on the escalators as only fundamentalist twenty-somethings who are good friends can manage sober. In fact, we were having such a good time whiling away the minutes that we had to scurry back and find Dean* who was waiting at the gate!

Looking back, I wonder that I didn't have more concerns about Dean and Lisa, but none of my close friends were married yet and I had never before seen what a "courtship" looked like up close. I had read accounts and listened to audio recordings about how a Godly relationship should be conducted, but the hypothetical mixed with fantasy in my imagination. Observing reality that weekend, I wondered how Lisa could be content with the arrangement. Neither she nor Dean seemed lost in love with one another. We were all more relaxed with her than Dean appeared to be. But I chalked their awkwardness up to a host of factors: social and practical limitations created by his disability, their commitment to wait for marriage to express their love, their distance from each other over the last several months. Her parent-blessed wedding would be lovely and then everyone could be comfortable. I hoped.

Continued at Fear, Desire, and More Goodbyes

*Names are pseudonyms.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Our Courtship Story: Breaking Away

Continued from Fork in the Road.

Illinois and Michigan, June 1999

The morning that Michael got sacked, Chris, who was responsible for the CharacterLink servers and had been called in early to deal with an I.T. emergency, had skipped the staff meeting. He never attended another one. Without me to make plans and motivate him, he didn't go to church, either! He was genuinely concerned about Bill Gothard, though, and about the IBLP Headquarters environment. Michael and I were not the first staff members to be sent away that year, and we weren’t the last. A mini-purge was taking place, eradicating voices of dissent.

Chris did some research online, even emailing a journalist. Armed with reports from the CDC, he went to Gothard’s office and confronted him about the way he was running his ministry. Since we all viewed Gothard as a lofty authority figure, it was natural for Chris to use an analogy about a king listening to lying advisors. Gothard was surrounding himself with people who would lie to him, Chris told him. The story about AIDS spreading through syringes in cinema seats was false.

Gothard wasn’t interested in government data. “I’ve been running this place for more than twenty-five years without you,” he told Chris, “and I can keep doing it.” Chris got the message. Bill did not need him, and was unwilling to listen to anyone who challenged his own point of view.

The encounter left Chris feeling “wrong”. But he also saw that Bill held all the cards, and he recognized that he had been told, in effect, to fuck off. He made a public apology to the group, for something (pride, perhaps?) and he privately gave his boss notice that he would be leaving at the end of the year. That would be plenty of time to find and train a replacement for CharacterLink.

Chris had once asked me, when we were standing outside the IBLP offices, “Would you want to be married to someone who worked here?”

Unaware of his personal interest in the answer, I answered with certainty, “No, I wouldn’t.” I could not imagine how difficult it would be to live as an IBLP staff wife: the dependency on Gothard’s favor, the fishbowl life, the lack of personal autonomy, and the poor remuneration held no appeal to me at all. Chris took this conversation to heart, and now that he was preparing to leave the Institute, he began applying for jobs back in Wichita.


Meanwhile, back at the farmhouse my parents rented, I tried to adjust to my new environment. Our landlords kept hay in one barn and cattle in the other. Summer was just heating up; when we hung laundry out to dry it would come back scented with hints of silage and manure. Fly tapes hung in sticky spirals from the kitchen ceiling to catch the innumerable flies that made it inside when we opened the screen doors.

One of the barn cats had had kittens and one was always coming up to the back steps. I had never had much use for the cats before, but now the kitten reminded me of Lisa, who loved cats even though she was allergic, and of Chris, who had grown up with cats instead of siblings and whose gentle nature would never approve of me kicking felines out of the way. I realized that my months at training centers had changed me. My friendships there had exposed me to many more perspectives. I had not known I could be “spunky” and still be soft. But now I thought about how the little kitten would feel about being tossed off the steps. I snuggled the kitten and thought of Chris. I missed my friends at Headquarters, and I was sure he was missing me, too.

At night I fell into my extra-short twin bed in the room I shared with my sister and cried myself to sleep. How had I come to be here again? What was God’s plan for my life? I felt life had taken me for a ride in a giant circle and now I was back where I’d begun.

The next few weeks were rough. I’d thought God wanted me to help take care of things during Mom’s pregnancy, but she miscarried. And the kitten died. And a guy we had known at Headquarters drowned in a Kansas lake over the Fourth of July. Two of our friends called from Oak Brook to let Michael and I know about it, which I found very touching. Even though we were grieving for Josh’s family, it was comforting to know that we still had friends miles away who thought of us and wanted to process the news together.

I grieved a lot that summer. I felt aimless, drifting. I helped run the household while Dad took Mom to Canada for a surgical procedure. I thought about college, though I had only the money I'd saved over the last year. I thought about getting a car. I jumped on the trampoline, boldly wearing capri pants under my long skirt. One night months earlier, I had been daring enough to wear the pants without a skirt, at my uncle's house. That had been a different world. A world where I had a job at a well-known Christian ministry, lived and worked in a Chicago suburb, and was constantly meeting new people from all over the country. 

At the end of summer, Michael and our little brother James* and I took a trip to see extended family in Pennsylvania. It was high adventure for us, planning our own itinerary, visiting with cousins who introduced us to The Princess Bride, and listening to the Braveheart and Gettysburg soundtracks. We talked and laughed a lot along the way, and even took a detour to drive through the campus of a private Presbyterian college I had read about. 

Gramma and Grandpop took us on a day trip that started with the most delicious bacon and ended with ice cream and the Delaware River. Bebop took us to the Atlantic boardwalk, and gave us spending money. Grammie made us Boston Cream Pie and took me to the library so I could check my email!

One of the last days of our visit was particularly warm for sightseeing, and I decided to be bold. I put on the pair of raspberry cotton shorts I had purchased as possible swimming attire. Feeling both liberated and terribly uncomfortable, I desperately wished for for a voice of approval. My little brothers weren't really much help, but I took their reluctance to admonish me as endorsement, if not quite encouragement. Grammie must have observed that I was taking a radical step away from my parents, but she kept her thoughts to herself. 

I will never forget that afternoon in the backseat of Bebop's Taurus, feeling a mix of horror and shame as I stared, mesmerized, at my full white thighs that had never felt air conditioning before. Walking around the historical village with my grandparents that day, I realized that my appearance blended in as "normal" for the first time in decades; no one mistook for me a docent! Yet I felt so awkward, as if I was walking around undressed. I leaned into the embarrassment, sure that this first time would prove the worst. 

It had been sixteen years since my knees had been exposed in public!

Continued at A Road Trip and the Red Pill

*Names are pseudonyms.