Monday, September 22, 2014

Why I Write

Yesterday I received this comment from a reader:
"Thank you for sharing your story. I found it searching for the testimonies of those who have been through the ATI program. After watching the Duggar show, I started considering whether I should homeschoool and use the curriculums they recommend for my child. Reading this and your other insider accounts of life in ATI and the Gothard circle have put a real face on the smiling Duggar children as seen on TV. I will not in any way become involved with ATI or Gothard."

There will always be those who think we should be silent, that we should "move on", that we should forgive and forget, that the good outweighs the bad, that we should be grateful for what we gained and ignore the rest. But the paragraph above explains what compels some of us to keep speaking.

Because though we escaped the IBLP/ATI cult, the cult lives on, making parents a deal that is good to be true, offering them a magical solution to a problem they may not have even known they had. "Commit yourself to this lifestyle and you too can have smiling and obedient offspring!" 

The radiant young people the Institute dressed in navy suits and paraded on stage at seminar after seminar to testify to the wonders of the "Life Principles"--they were real people, but we were often only permitted to see the mask. The obedient smiles and the testimonies scripted according to Bill's four-point formula covered up the messy humanity of us all. 

Our parents saw the smiles and the articulate, clean-cut teenagers and they wanted that outcome for their families, too. 

Of course they did. 

How could they have known... That a girl teaching attentiveness ("Showing the worth of a person by giving undivided attention...") had been molested by her father the week before? That a young man teaching English to Russian teens had been exiled from his home with no recognition of his high school graduation? That a bright-faced teenager harmonizing "Holy Father, Grant Us Peace" was being savagely beaten at home? That a young woman's IBLP paycheck was paying the mortgage for her deadbeat stepdad?  That children in some ATI families were getting no education but what they taught themselves, and no adults were checking on hundreds more? That those fresh-faced children were being hit on by the very adults on the Institute staff who kept talking about "moral freedom"? That since only one sexual orientation was acknowledged, a request not to be assigned to share a hotel room with a crush would be denied? That their guru himself was a pervert and shyster, making up rules for his followers to keep, while obsessively indulging his own lusts--not unlike the hypocrites Jesus denounced in Luke 11:46?
"Alas too for you expounders of the Law!" replied Jesus, "for you load men with cumbrous burdens which you yourselves will not touch with one of your fingers." 
Gothard knew some of the families he led were dysfunctional, yet in his twisted mind, it was more important to protect his "ministry" from being discredited than to protect children from physical, verbal, or sexual abuse in their own homes. So he encouraged mothers to stay with abusive husbands, and teens to submit to abusive parents. He even paraded some of those same families at conferences and ATI training centers. Those who dared tell the "emperor" (Gothard) that he had no clothes were quickly sent where they would not be a threat to his institution.

Our parents were sold a glossy lie. There was no real magic, only plenty of sleight-of-hand. And even as we their sons and daughters began to notice the fetid mold under the facade, it sometimes took years for us to find words to express how what we experienced left invisible bruises deep inside.

Sociologist Janja Lalich found the words,
When you discover one day that your guru is a fraud, that the "miracles" are no more than magic tricks, that the group's victories and accomplishments are fabrications of an internal public relations system, that your holy teacher is breaking his avowed celibacy with every young disciple, that the group's connections to people of import are nonexistent when awarenesses such as these come upon you, you are faced with what many have called a "spiritual rape". 
As attractive as it sounds to simply "move on", it does not solve the nightmares or insomnia, the fatigue, the flashbacks triggered by the most ordinary activities, the days of trembling or numbness, the brittle relationships. It doesn't heal our damaged bodies or our wounded hearts. Recovery becomes a sometimes daily challenge, a long-term investment for our selves and for the people who love us. 

There are too many of us survivors already. I want to do all I can to keep that number from growing.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Mixed Messages

I have written before about how spankings were used in my family, and how I regret using spanking even in a more limited way on my own children.

In this talk, Robbyn Peters Bennett succinctly explains the damaging side effects of using physical violence to modify children's behavior.

In a 1978 speech, children's author Astrid Lindgren told a story about a little boy whose mother announced her intention to switch him. 
The boy was gone a long time. And when he came back in, he was crying. He said to her, "Mama, I couldn't find a switch, but here's a rock that you can throw at me."
Indeed, when I was a young person, I read this Bible passage of "God's Law" at least once a year, in which parents are enjoined to stone disobedient children as a last resort:
"If a man has a stubborn, rebellious son who will not obey his father or mother, even though they punish him, then his father and mother shall take him before the elders of the city and declare, 'This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious and won’t obey; he is a worthless drunkard.' Then the men of the city shall stone him to death. In this way you shall put away this evil from among you, and all the young men of Israel will hear about what happened and will be afraid."      Deut. 21:18-21 (TLB)

The reason our parents were not obligated by this particular passage was that God himself had had his own perfectly obedient son killed, resulting in a surplus sufficient to cover all of our stubborn rebellion till the end of time. But that was small comfort when the wooden spoon came out and we were ordered to lean over Mom and Dad's mattress for being "disrespectful", "strong-willed", or "a bad example".

Once a month we read aloud, "Chasten thy son while there is hope, and let not thy soul spare for his crying." My parents took the verse literally, and it was a rare week when one of us did not bear the evidence on thighs or buttocks.

The morality of attacking one's offspring with sticks was not open for debate in our home. Had not God himself said, "If you are not disciplined...then you are not legitimate"? The beloved maternal role model of my childhood was Marmee in Little Women. Her bold declaration, "I don't approve of corporal punishment, especially for girls", made me think I was reading very subversive thoughts indeed!

When a child is struck by those on whom he depends for safety, his young brain struggles to comprehend the mixed signals of danger and love, kindness and abuse, to say nothing of the twisted sexual component. Sometimes the task of untangling those threads lasts far longer than his childhood did.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Our Courtship Story: Silenced

Continued from Uncertainty and a Breakthrough

Jeri early in the summer at SIL

"That's the first positive signal I've gotten from you," typed Chris.

He was more than ready to initiate "courtship" again. But our imaginations painted the process very differently. In my mind (influenced by the handful of courtship "testimonies" I had read), Dad would give Chris pages of questionnaires to fill out. They would have regular phone conversations talking about me, my strengths, weaknesses, and preferences. It might drag on for months, and I did not want to be living in my parents' crowded house waiting for it to unfold without being allowed to say anything myself. When the time was right, Dad would either give Chris his stamp of approval and turn him loose to "win my heart", or maybe he would help Chris plan a romantic surprise to launch the new with-marriage-in-mind phase of our friendship.

As far as Chris was concerned, my dad had already told him he approved of him. He was well-liked by my whole family, in fact. Asking for Dad's blessing (again) would be a formality, but he anticipated no trouble. He wanted me to be happy, so if I wanted him to wait quietly while I got ready for my trip, that was fine with him.  

Eight hundred miles north, I smiled from my seat in the computer lab. The summer semester was fast coming to a close. My visa for the Philippines had been approved. I would purchase my ticket when I got home. Meanwhile, I would focus on my Mandarin grammar project, prepare for final exams (my first ever!), and just enjoy my last weeks of independence with all my new friends. 

And then... I got mail. A card from my mom, to be exact. I had been emailing home throughout the summer, telling about my classes and my tamer adventures. Since I had no intention of being a "sneak" or of "rebelling" (a sin frequently compared to sorcery), I had mentioned my AIM chats with Chris in an e-missive from late July. And now Mom was concerned.

We had not gotten permission to communicate directly, she said. If I was having second thoughts about Chris as a suitor, we needed to go back to start and begin again on the right foot.

Oh...shit. If the word had been part of my mental vocabulary in those days, I would certainly have used it. As it was, it was as if all the oxygen had been sucked out of my atmosphere. My breath shortened and my heart raced. Notes from Mom often carried a punch, but this one was particularly upsetting. Mom hadn't even been involved in the situation up to this point. I may have signed my name next to Scott's with our pastor as witness, but I had never made any promises to let her guide my selection of a life partner. Mom was someone I alternately feared, assisted, or took care of. I was not prepared to let my present or future happiness depend on her whims.

Still, she was my parent, and obedience to parents was of paramount importance in our paradigm. Dishonoring a parent's wish could result in God removing his physical or spiritual protection from one's life. And I needed all the guidance and safety I could get. It would do no good to travel to a island nation across the globe only to be hammered by Satan's henchmen!

The answer, I decided, lay with Scott. Nothing in Mom's note suggested that Dad even knew about what she'd written, much less agreed with her assessment of the situation. As her husband, he was both her "head" and mine, and he possessed the authority to undo her orders. Heck, he'd done that before, coming along behind her to mop up confusing or anxiety-inducing restrictions. I would call Dad, let him know what Mom had said, and ask him to clear it up.

Cell phones still being luxuries, I squeezed into one of the phone booths at one end of the student lounge in the common area below my dorm room and began dialing the string of numbers on my long-distance phone card.

Dad listened while I explained. Though Mom's instructions seemed to be news to him, to my surprise he supported her. Regarding Chris, he said that more interest on my part should signal the need for more distance between us. I was incredulous. As long as I was actively opposed to Chris as a suitor, our friendship was no big deal, but once I began to consider him as a possible mate, I should avoid him? I don't think I had much to say after that.

I hung up the phone and exited the booth feeling both sad and angry and fighting not to let the tears spill over. I was nearly twenty-five years old and I was pretty sure not one of my classmates or even my missionary instructors would be able to understand how utterly controlled I felt. How could I be a marionette with strings my parents could pull from three states and one Great Lake away?

Well, there was only one week of the course left. If that was how it was going to be, I might as well enjoy it! So knowing a guy might be a good match meant I should ignore him. What if you knew a guy didn't have a chance?

The next time Chris tried to engage me on AIM, I told him I wasn't allowed to talk to him. But that weekend I played ping-pong with Paul. We went, with a small group, to Shakespeare-in-the-Park and "ended up" sharing a quilt on the grass. On Sunday, he complimented my appearance, even noticing the clip-on earrings I almost never bothered to wear. We ate meals together. I savored his attention. Paul even dared to inquire about how courtship worked in my family. I told him the truth, implicitly warning him off. Sweet man that he was, I was certain he could never win my parents' endorsement. At least Chris had a chance. But I still felt bad comparing my two gentle and dark-haired friends: one I had known just two months and another I had shared significant life experiences with over two years.

Days before I left the university campus, I wrote in my journal about "our bloody version of chivalry":
"If I were to refer Paul to Dad, it would prove what I have said about Chris: I have not given him my affections. My heart is free...  
I am willing for Chris to resume communication with Dad. Whether I am ever included or not, they should part as friends and clear up the judgments they have passed on each other over the summer. I love them both, and want them to be friends.
...If I have been a ray of brightness for Paul, here, I am content." 

Continued at Holding Pattern

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Our Courtship Story: Uncertainty and a Breakthrough

Continued from Breaking Up With Fundamentalism

July-August 2000     Grand Forks, ND

I was studying hard, playing hard, and wringing as many fun new experiences out my summer as I could. 

Jed* continued to follow me everywhere. Sometimes I humored him. When it rained, I took advantage of his eagerness to keep me dry under his big umbrella. When I wanted exercise but didn't want to stroll around campus alone, I tolerated his company. Other times I got my friends to run interference. One gregarious young Canadian was particularly adept at intercepting Jed while I made my escape from the cafeteria, the chapel, or the classroom. Though I was not particularly flattered by Jed's attentions and dodging them became a sort of game, the idea that some men did actually find me attractive gave me a sense of power and vulnerability I'd never felt before.

One evening after we'd finished studying, Paul* asked if I wanted to get ice cream. I was getting to like Paul more every week and I did want ice cream, but the invitation put me on guard. I had made so many promises not to date. Going off-campus for ice cream after dark sounded suspiciously date-like. (Chris's dad's definition of a date--"when the girl doesn't pay"--came to mind, but I doubted my own dad would be convinced.)

"I'll go if it's a group."

Paul's big brown eyes held a puzzled expression.

I tried to explain that I did want to go with him. Just not alone.

"If you can find someone else to go, too, I'll go!"

Paul started knocking on doors in the girls' dorm hallway, recruiting other seekers of ice cream. As I watched him, I felt self-righteous and silly at the same time. In the end, I can't remember how many of us went, or if I even rode in his car. Any romantic warmth that may or may not have existed at the moment of his invitation had been effectively quenched.

I wasn't sure how to feel afterward. My "Commitment to Courtship" had been tested--for the first time, perhaps. Had I turned down a date? Or kept it from becoming a date? Had I been rude, or read too much into the simple offer?

The next day I told Chris about the incident while I watched him on the webcam. "Did I do the right thing? Do you think I confused Paul? He's such a nice guy. What should I have done?"

Chris patiently did his best, from his lack of experience, to reassure me, while Jed played solitaire at my elbow. I was comfortable talking to Chris about anything, but we danced around discussions of our own relationship. I didn't want to flirt with him. He described me once as "indifferent". But as we had more conversations that lasted into the wee morning hours, I knew I was not "indifferent". I was uncertain. I Uncertain about my purpose as well as my desires.

Every time I admired something I liked about Paul, I found myself comparing him to Chris. I appreciated Paul for being Paul, but he was continually reminding me of Chris. And I began to ask myself, if Chris was the rule by which I measured other men, what did that say about him?

"Do you want to be a mom?" A group of us were walking back from the cafeteria one night and this question from the sweet young student from Moody Bible Institute beside me took me by surprise. 

"Yes, I do," I answered, honestly.

"You'll be a great one." He smiled softly at me, but I knew he was also dreaming of his girlfriend and the family he was looking forward to starting in the not-too-distant future. It had been a long summer apart.

I was touched by his compliment. But it was the question that etched me deeply. What kind of person asked girls if they wanted to be moms? In my culture, one was not deemed ready for marriage until one was also prepared for the challenges of parenthood. I was certain that if I expressed any misgivings about maternity, my parents would never give their consent to my marrying. My reproductive instincts were primed and ready, but then, I had always considered them inextricably tied to my sexuality.

One morning in my dorm room late in July, a luminous new thought dawned on me.

Chris wants to marry you! I told myself.

Marry me? My self was dumbfounded.

That was why he wrote a letter to Dad! I'd interpreted his attempt to initiate contact as a mere "signal of interest". I had not truly absorbed the depth of his intentions. Marriage! He didn't want to merely get to know me, he wanted to start a family--with me! I had expected, from the books and stories I'd read, that I would just know when a man was interested in me. That I would be thrilled when he finally asked my dad for his endorsement. I had never pictured this out-of-the-blue interest from someone I had not already marked as a "possibility". I had to rearrange my fantasies to fit this new reality.

I was, and am, a terrible secret-keeper. The next time Chris and I were online, I told him what had begun to sink in. "I know I should have figured out that that's what courtship is for, but... I just realized that you want to marry me."

At his desk in his west Wichita basement, Chris sighed. This was going to be a long process!

"If you still want to, after I leave for the Philippines, it's okay with me if you resume communication with my dad," I told Chris. "I don't want to be around while you guys are working things out. But I won't interfere this time. Just wait till I'm in Asia."

Continued at Silenced

*Names are pseudonyms.