Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Cult Identity

Heavens, it’s been nearly 20 years now. 

Since Shyamalan’s The Village came out in theaters and we were never the same. 

We were spellbound. Our hearts warmed with recognition. This place, these people. How did we know them? Had we been there? Oh, we’d lived there. Shyamalan was telling our story. 

It was 2004; I don't think we were even on Facebook yet. Even so, word of the film spread on ex-IBLP social media like wildfire. The Village became our meme. It united us. We might not have school colors, yearbooks, or reunions, but we had a reference at last! The next time we were at a loss to describe our upbringing to a normal person, we could ask, “Have you seen The Village? I grew up there.” 

Metaphor? Perhaps, but also an identity. We were the courageous ones who’d crossed the boundary though terrified and thus laid bare the lies. 

That same summer, a new blog appeared: a place for the “rehabilitation” of ex-ATIers. We laughed—it was a joke, right? For years, X-ATI GUY’s posts helped us heal by naming our wounds and creating room for us to share memories, shame, disillusionment anonymously. We’d all been involved deeply enough to know Bill Gothard was a hypocrite whose popularity was, thankfully, on the decline. No way would we let the next generation experience what had happened to us. 

We began to poll each other, “Was IBLP a cult?” The verdict was still far from unanimous. The Village was still in theaters when the first Duggar special aired in September. We didn’t watch TV yet, let alone cable, so it took a while for us to hear about it through the grapevine. The Duggar name had gotten around because of Jim Bob’s election win—a badge of success for any Quiverfull father. When I actually watched an episode of the show, I found it disturbingly familiar, like watching an imprisoned former self. How were families still following Gothard? In the year of our lord 2010? Despite the internet, all the information available, all the failures and scandals, all the stories we could tell? 

I was finally healing, learning to parent without violence, catching up on my own education, reaching back to recover the girl I was before my parents adopted Gothard’s garbage. My sisters, born into a fully Gothardized home, didn’t have that luxury. And here were the Duggars, bringing ever more babies into the cruel fear-based system I’d already spent a decade disentangling from. Regular people found this entertaining? 

    * * * * * * * 

It’s been weeks since we watched the docuseries that brought a record number of new viewers to Prime Video. All five of us watched the episodes back-to-back while I kept my hands busy with a crochet hook because, after two decades out and twelve+ years of therapy, I have a pretty good idea of how my body responds to flashbacks and how to handle them. 

It was jarring to see Bill’s face again, against those godawful blue curtains, in our own living room. The man who told us to turn the hotel TV sets to the wall because “I will set no wicked thing before mine eyes…” But there he was, mumbling forth the swill that my parents drank so eagerly and then force-fed to us. We recognized faces and places, books, songs, uniforms, the old mental hospital where American homeschoolers spanked Russian orphans. 

It was strange to see our actual history packaged so that our kids or, well, anyone could see it, albeit through a screen-size window. Validating, yes. And also, as the ensuing emotional storm slowly wears itself out, profoundly sad. I've leaned hard on my friendships these weeks and utilized most of the healthy coping activities collected in my toolbox over years: dance, art, gardens, hikes, sex, fiction, yoga... 

Watching Shiny Happy People is like glimpsing Titanic’s murky wreckage through the Titan’s tiny viewport. The producers focus on one celebrity family (because ratings) but the real scope and scale of the tragedy? The broken families, the scarred hearts, the body count? The why and the how and the price tag? Scarcely comprehensible. 

It’s good to see bits of the disaster we lived through (truly the tip of the iceberg!) documented before Bill himself kicks the bucket, but when it comes to explaining and recovering from cult life, I guess it still takes a village.

Paper cutouts of a Quiverfull family. The children are lined up like stairsteps while the pregnant mom holds a camera.

1 comment:

  1. I haven't yet seen SHP, but my wife has (she survived Jonathan Lindvall's cultic homechurch). I am glad to see the rest of the world get at least a glimpse of the damage Gothard caused to so many of us. Now to get a similar expose on wyte evangelicalism, which isn't really different at its core.