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.

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