Thursday, October 16, 2014

From There to Here

On a long drive home the other night, I was pondering our journey away from the IBLP cult. The further we get from it chronologically and ideologically, the greater the gulf between us and our associates (fewer in number all the time!) who still defend Gothard, his teachings, or his organization. It also becomes increasingly difficult to explain, or even remember, how we reached the conclusions that shape our thinking now.

We used to identify with the Institute in Basic Life Principles, after all. We supported it, sacrificed for the vision of its founder. Even today, many of our closest friends are fellow survivors of the cult. Even when we meet for the first time, there is an instant connection of shared experience. We have traveled to the same places. Our teen photos match. We find ourselves lapsing into the familiar old vocabulary we can't use with anyone else. We were shaped by the same influences and like military veterans, they bond us decades later.

I am always interested in hearing others describe the various paths they took out of that "ministry". Some jumped away suddenly, not looking back. Others got snared by other controlling groups after leaving IBLP. Some got stuck for years in abusive relationships. Some were re-socialized in the military, or in college, or working overseas.

When people ask me, "How did you get out?", I am often unsure how to answer.

"Well, that's a long story..."?

The truth is, we moved away ever so slowly. We were genuinely afraid of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. In our over-analytical way, we spent nearly a decade evaluating each teaching, each experience. Just as we had always understood why we adopted the beliefs we held, we had to be reasonably certain before we rejected them.

For me, tendrils of disillusionment had long intertwined my loyalty. Because even as a homeschooled young adult, I had reason to doubt Bill Gothard's truthfulness. For a time, I truly believed that he wanted to share God's truth with his followers, but numerous situations cast doubtful shadows on that premise. Yet even as the evidence mounted that Gothard himself valued expediency over transparency, I still assumed the best about the rest of his staff. I believed that, like me, they meant well. All the church leaders I'd ever heard of had feet of clay, after all. And since I accepted most of his teachings as Biblically-based, his personal character flaws did not seem a reason to challenge the rest. Besides, IBLP was my ticket to adventure, and certainly the only place I was likely to meet a man my parents would approve for me.

But at last Bill fired me from his organization, evicting me from my rented room overnight. Later we learned about the sex scandal where Gothard's director of the ATI department left his eight kids and ran off with his secretary. If I was jaded before, that really didn't help. The affair bothered me less than the hypocrisy. Character, my ass! I realized I hadn't known about a lot of what was really going on behind the facade around me.

Still, all my friends were connected to the Institute in some way. I had no close connections on "the outside". Even if I had no more loyalty to the 'Tute, I was not prepared for life without it.

Chris left Gothard's employ (on good terms), but the cult teachings ran deep in both of us. The legalism bothered us a lot. We wanted our faith to be more authentic and less austere. Above all, we did not want to base our life choices on fear. We began experimenting personally with jettisoning certain "standards", to see if our relationship with Jesus was affected by, say, listening to Christian rock, or cautiously watching R-rated films.

When we started courting, we compared notes. Our standards were still much stricter than our peers', but we were growing as individuals, daring to make a few of our own choices. When we married, we chose a church without obvious fundamentalist leanings. We stopped following Gothard's financial "principles". We still visited the IBLP campus when we drove through Chicago, stopping to say hello to people we still considered friends.

Not being sure what denomination of Christianity we belonged to anymore, we visited different churches in town. Each had a unique flavor, but it was not obvious where we fit.

It wasn't long before our pursuit led us to examine the richness of older traditions: we visited a Catholic Mass, we read a book by a married couple who'd converted from Protestantism to Popery, and we paid $20 a session for abstinence counseling. (For real!) At the same time, we were taking a Bible class at a conservative Lutheran church (their doctrinal covenant specified that the Pope was the antiChrist). While the study influenced our view of eschatology and we even considered having our babies baptized, we concluded that deep down, we were neither Lutheran nor Catholic. And, after spending years in interdenominational settings, we didn't want to belong to any club whose members all agreed on exactly what the Bible meant.

Chris became partial to Pontius Pilate's line in the Gospel of John, "What is truth?" For his thirtieth birthday, we shared our first bottle of wine.

I joined a ladies' Bible study at an evangelical megachurch. We took the kids to Awana there and taught them lots of Bible verses. I sang them hymns when I rocked them at bedtime. I sang solos at our church, and filled in for the pianist sometimes. We were Mary and Joseph in the Christmas cantata, our infant the Baby Jesus.

During this time, we devoured Philip Yancey's books about grace and the mysterious sovereignty of God. His writing felt edgy and real. He wasn't afraid to wonder aloud, and he became our hero.

We watched several seasons of Law & Order while I was pregnant, and each episode sparked discussion about some social issue. We read Shane Claiborne's book about helping the poor in Philadelphia, and we read Jim Wallis' book about poverty and politics, and our worldview shifted some more. It seemed that heartfelt Christianity simply had to have a humanist side. Voting for white male Republicans was no longer a given.

We began researching how cults operate. And we recognized way too much. It took years to accept the term, but we finally began referring to IBLP as a cult. I read numerous memoirs about people leaving cults and cultish religious groups.

And strangely, no matter how normal we tried to be, we found connections to our past all over the city. The church library had a horrid Rod & Staff storybook my sisters used to read. ATI acquaintances worked at the tea shop. We ran into them at the farm market. A couple at our church were zealous supporters of Gothard, annually recruiting attendees for the Basic Seminar, which was held at the church where our kids later attended AWANA in the classrooms where an ATI dad ran a Christian school. I tried seeing a Christian counselor there, but couldn't get past the fact that my issues stemmed largely from teaching the church itself was promoting.

Our midwife had been recommended to us by Dr. Dean Youngberg, an IBLP Board member who attended church with my in-laws. In a strange twist, we later ended up in a Sunday School class led by her ex-husband, studying Philip Yancey's book on grace. In a discussion about legalism, Mr. Brace brought up the Institute as an example and our eyes got big. So much for finding a place where no one knew of Gothard!

Brace kept talking about how he'd tried to rescue his kids from this religious cult. It wasn't till we got home that I figured out who he was. "Chris, we've met the people that man was talking about. His ex-wife delivered our babies!"

When I shopped for educational materials at the Wichita homeschoolers book fair, numerous booths were promoting IBLP-affiliated resources: ALERT, the Seminars, books on courtship, "Godly" music, S.M. Davis DVDs. Teenagers were teaching character songs to a conference of children. When I found myself wanting to scream, I went out to my car and listened to ABBA songs while I ate my sack lunch. When I went back in, I found A Matter of Basic Principles at the used bookseller's booth. Gothard's face on the front creeped me out, but I bought it anyway.

That book clinched it for us. Gothard was a hypocrite and a mountebank. We recognized enough of the names and events the authors included, and we could fill in more stories of our own. It wasn't just in our heads anymore--it was in print! This was incredibly validating. I didn't even care about Gothard's doctrine anymore. He claimed to teach us, his followers, the ways of God, then violated his own principles at every turn. And we wouldn't even learn of the groping scandals for a few more years. We had no respect at all left for the man, or for his organization. We regretted the time we'd devoted to building it.

By this time Chris was working on the college degree he had been told was a waste of time. I began to read voraciously about science: astronomy, biology, geology... I wanted to fill in the sizeable gaps in my knowledge so I could teach my children with confidence. I ended up unlearning a whole lot of young earth creationism along the way.

I kept reading books on theology and philosophy, and began questioning patriarchy. Did God endorse it? Was misogyny a corruption of his intent? What if the genders could be equal? And while we're thinking daring thoughts--what about people attracted to people of the same sex, anyway? Was it a sin to be gay? Did God make people that way? Flannery O'Connor's stories didn't make me feel better, but they did help me ask more questions.

The church that had once seemed moderate to us was veering to the right, and we felt ourselves moving in a different direction. We resettled at a big, compassionate, liberal Methodist church and tried to look at the Bible in fresh ways that didn't trigger cult flashbacks. The kids dressed up for their first real Halloween party and Chris joined the pastor's weekly discipleship Bible study. I asked our female associate pastor to recommend a therapist. We got involved in the church choirs.

We still couldn't shake the triggers, though. I recall breathing through a panic attack even while the hip young musicians on stage performed a gentle, harmonious rendition of the Beatitudes. Had the most poetic lines of the Sermon on the Mount been ruined for me? The lyrics were of comfort and hope, but I sat in the pew quaking. Would my ATI past ever stop haunting me?

Maybe Halloween brought it up, I don't remember. But what began as a study of the Bible's teaching on the devil ended up challenging monotheism in a big way. In one weekend, I lost my fear of Satan. I doubted his very existence. I viewed him as a human construct, an explanation added to make the other pieces fit. And if there was no Satan, well, as it turned out, that changed everything.

My reading of ex-fundamentalist memoirs led me to an ethnology about private church schools. It challenged many of my assumptions about education. Suddenly we could see how our experience being homeschooled had made us more vulnerable to being "brainwashed" by Gothard. We wanted to give our children a better chance than we'd had.

Now that we no longer feared our kids learning about evolution, sexuality, or swear words, and because we now had a radically different view of socialization, it wasn't long before I stopped at the elementary school down the street. I met the principal and she gave me a tour. That fall, our fourth-grader took her first step into the pool of public education. Despite the anxieties we all had absorbed, it turned out to be a good experience! Two years later, I was no longer a homeschooling mom.

Our kids were old enough to ask questions now. And their take on the Bible amazed me. I had become calloused to the cruelty and bloodshed. The stories that had been my comic books as a kid (murders, rapes, genocide, and more!), they found genuinely disturbing. But by this time, I had stopped defending God. Like the Methodists, I saw the Bible as an ancient collection of composite literature. Unlike them, I could no longer admire the God it described.

Even as our daughter was an acolyte and we took communion and recited the Creed and the Lord's Prayer, we felt our faith slipping away. At Christmastime, I tried to rehearse a song with the choir, but ended up sobbing when the lyrics described what a good mother Mary was. It seemed unfair for the Baby Jesus, who had such a lousy human experience otherwise, to get a good mother. More than anything, I wanted to be a good mother.

We kept our Christianity on life support (oh, that marvelous pipe organ!) for a few more months, but it was brain dead when we pulled the plug one Easter Sunday.

Our progress was so gradual, it was almost undetectable to many of our acquaintances. We more or less looked and behaved the same as ever. I started writing here as a private way to process the changes, because I knew no one who would understand.

Eventually, we did try to drop clues to a few people. Maybe they would want to join us on the journey. We left book titles out in the open, offered wine at dinner, invited them to visit the Methodist church with us. But it was too far a leap. Unlike us, they were content where they were. They did not suffer from questions the way we did. We had to keep moving without their company.

 We've found other companions at this stage of our life. Our dearest friends are scattered around the globe. Our cohort are other homeschool graduates who have fought to reclaim their lives, wherever we find them.

For a long time, I wondered if I had lost my tribe, if I didn't belong anywhere anymore. But now I am finding it ever so slowly.

My tribe are brave truth-speakers and wise story-tellers, healing themselves with art and with beauty. They are curious, passionate, and introspective. They color outside the lines. They love across borders. They stare down adversity every single day, then wake up and do it again. Their scars give them depth. They thirst for justice, and hunger for understanding.

It may have taken us longer than most to discover our agency in this wonderfully diverse world, but now that we have, we want to use it to leave the world a happier, safer place than we found it.


  1. This was beautiful. Thank you.

  2. Thank you for writing out your experiences. My non-ati husband is along for the ride with me as I navigate this journey. Your writing helps me articulate my thoughts and experiences.

  3. Every time I hear your story I'm a *little* bit proud as a United Methodist that you at least got to experience once church that offered you some healing along your journey. :)

  4. How are you processing these experiences with your parents