Another week, another story of everyday sexism. My sister (a different one — she’s 17 and doing dual enrollment at the local community college to finish up her last year of high school via homeschooling and will start college on the east coast this coming fall) was supposed to go to prom this past weekend, but everything went terribly wrong. When I saw her Facebook status about it (which used the particularly perfect phrase “rape culture activists”), I asked if she wanted to share her story with you here, and she took a little time this evening to write up this fantastic post for you all. This story is actually pretty common — things like this happened a lot in the homeschool ballroom dance + grassroots theater circles in Richmond. But I’ll let her speak for herself. I’m so proud of her.

***

So, I’m a high school senior, a homeschooler, and a girl, and something really awful happened to me last night, and it made me really mad. Not so much because it was something that did permanent damage to me, but because it is something I have seen happen over, and over and over to people I love and care for very much, and on what better day then mother’s day could I make a stand for the mothers, and the sisters, and the daughters and the friends who have been victims of this painful, traumatizing evil. So here is my story.

Last night was my senior prom. I live in Richmond, VA and several weeks ago my boyfriend got our tickets to the Richmond Homeschool Prom. The theme was “Twilight in Paris.” I got my dress, my shoes, we got our flowers and we waited eagerly for Saturday to arrive. My dress was gorgeous, silver, and sparkly and I got it at Macy’s and was very excited to find it after searching over 6 stores for this dress. The only dress code specified on the registration form was that “Ladies, please keep your dresses fingertip length or longer.” Like a good little homeschooler, I made sure that the dress was fingertip length on me; I even tried it on with my shoes, just to be sure. It was fingertip length, I was ecstatic, and I laid down several weeks worth of tip money I had been saving up to buy it.

the dress

the dress

Fast forward to prom night. I’m all dolled up, channeling my inner Marilyn Monroe with my blonde hair and bright red lipstick. I’m a tall and fairly curvy girl and you know something? I looked hot. Not trashy, but you definitely would look twice when I walked through a doorway.IMG_20140510_185847

IMG_20140510_190019

And you know what happened? I got kicked out of prom because of it. Stay with me, I’ll explain. I showed up at prom with my boyfriend, and I was wearing the really cute silver dress that was fingertip length on me, and on my way in Mrs. D (one of the two ladies organizing the prom this year) stopped me and said, “honey, that dress is too short.” I said, “what is the rule?” she said, “fingertip length” and I put my arms down by my sides and showed her that it was fingertip length. After which she made a face at me and was like, “well make sure it stays pulled down, it’s too short.” I want you to know that she is a very short woman, and I assumed that she probably just didn’t understand that when you’re 5’9″ and leggy, everything looks shorter on you then it would on anyone else, even if it’s still inside the dress code. So, I tried to help her understand by saying, “I just have long legs, everything looks short on me, but it is fingertip length I just showed you.” To which she responded begrudgingly “Okay but you need to be careful and just keep pulling it down, but not too far!” I was annoyed with her pettiness, especially because I had so carefully complied to their rules, but I said “Yes ma’am,” and went into the ballroom.

When I got into the ballroom I laughed, because I was surrounded by girls in much shorter dresses then me, albeit they were shorter, and therefore stood out less in the crowd, but it was still frustrating. I joined my group of friends, (there were six of us), and told them what happened, they were all appalled, especially considering we’ve been attending this prom all four years of high school and usually wore much shorter dresses then we chose this year. We were also a little grossed out by all the dads on the balcony above the dance floor, ogling and talking amongst themselves. We weren’t dancing, but swaying with the music and talking and enjoying ourselves, when Mrs. D again approached me, and gestured me off the dance floor. She took me into a corner in the hall way, with another woman, (who I’m assuming was a parent/chaperone) and told me that some of the dads who were chaperoning had complained that my dancing was too provocative, and that I was going to cause the young men at the prom to think impure thoughts. At this point I said to her that I hadn’t been dancing at all! Much less seductively, and that even if I had been being inappropriate, they should issue a warning instead of just kicking me out.

Then she proceeded to reiterate that my dress was too short and I that I was going to have to leave. I again showed her and the lady with her that the dress met dress code standards, the only thing the dress code said was it had to be fingertip length, and they never had us sign any sort of agreement to abide by that rule in the first place, and second of all my dress was in compliance with the one rule. Mrs. D said again “The dress is too short” and I asked the chaperone standing next to her what the rule was and she reiterated that it had to be fingertip length, I showed her my fingers and said ” Is this fingertip length?” and she said “yes, but I can’t make that call it’s on Mrs. D.” Then I told them I was trying to understand what they were kicking me out for since my dress complied with dress code and everyone I had been standing with would vouch that I hadn’t been dancing inappropriately. (At this point one of the girls in my group came back and said that she’d been by my side the whole 15 minutes we’d been there and I hadn’t even danced more then 2 seconds and it was completely appropriate.)

At which point they told her that she wasn’t welcome in the conversation and when I protested and asked that she be able to stay to verify what they were saying to me they got very rude and said if she didn’t leave they would kick her out too. Then she went and told my date what was going on and he got very upset , and came over and was respectfully asking them to explain to him the situation, and they told him that it was none of his business and they were kicking me out and he needed to leave. At which point he said “That’s fine, she wasn’t doing anything wrong but if you’re kicking her out then the group that she came with is leaving too and you’ll need to refund all of our tickets.” And Mrs. D said “No, we will refund Clare’s ticket but nobody else’s” And then my date got very angry (but was still being respectful not raising his voice or anything). And he explained that we all drove together and if I had to leave everyone else would be forced to leave with me and therefore they needed to refund everyone. I want to reiterate that my date was being very respectful, but he was also obviously frustrated with her for refusing to communicate with us in a mature or respectful way. Then she got very rude, repeatedly saying “I will not debate with you about this,” when my date was simply asking questions to help him understand the situation, and Mrs. D sent the chaperone to get security at which point both my date and I respectfully demanded to speak with the lady in charge of prom, and Mrs. D refused to let us.

Security came and my group went to get their stuff, I was crying and I asked the security guy if my dress was compliant with the dress code and if he had noticed any inappropriateness in my behavior and he said he didn’t think I did anything to get kicked out but it wasn’t his call. He helped me get my stuff and walked me to the front door, my date was still talking to Mrs. D and demanding our groups refund. She said, “Ok, I’ll give you all your refund if you go to the front and leave now,” and so the group walked to the front where I was, and only I was given my refund ($25). The group I was with got very upset because they had been promised their refund since we had all come together and if I was leaving they had to leave too, at which point we were told that the leadership would converse and make sure we all got our refunds, later that night when one of the girls in our groups mom called and asked how they were going to refund her, they stated “We aren’t going to do refunds.”

When we walked out of the prom, frustrated and angry and feeling very disrespected and violated, some of the people in my group shouted profanities at the security guards, and I personally flipped them off. I putting this part in the story because I want everyone who reads this to know that we shouldn’t have reacted so immaturely to their unfair and disrespectful actions, and we’re all adult enough to admit that. But what I want to know is if the people involved in this situation at the Richmond Homeschool Prom are adult enough to own up to their wrong actions as well. And refund my group as they verbally promised to do, and issue an apology for kicking me out of my senior prom because their husbands felt as though my body was something they had a right to control.

What happened last night was so wrong for so many different reasons:

  • I was told that the way I dressed and moved my body was causing men to think inappropriately about me, implying that it is my responsibility to control other people’s thoughts and drives.
  • I was talked to disrespectfully, ganged up on and treated as less then a person by people in authority, and when I requested to have one of my peers present to validate later what was said in this “meeting” I was denied that right and my friends were threatened for sticking up for me.
  • We were verbally promised a full refund for our group, we received only a refund for my ticket, they need to refund 5 more tickets for our group.
  • I felt violated by the sheer number of male parents that were assigned to do nothing for five hours other then watch girls in short dresses and heels dance to upbeat music. I think that it is sick and wrong that they assigned them to sit on a balcony above us and look down on us and single us out for our clothes or dancing.
  • I never signed any documentation agreeing to adhere to any sort of dress code, and the dress code that was verbally communicated to me was followed to the letter, and yet I was still kicked out.
  • I was informed by more then one friend who stayed at the prom throughout the course of the evening that there was some truly dirty dancing, and that there were several couples making out and grinding on the dance floor, and yet out of a group of 500 people, only one person, (me) got thrown out for inappropriate dancing.

The whole situation made me feel violated, walked over and ostracized. My group of five people had to leave the prom because I stuck out, I have long legs and I was wearing a sparkly dress, I didn’t look like most of the 13-15 year old girls there, I looked like a woman. And goddamn it, I am so tired of people who abuse their power to make women feel violated and ashamed because she has an ass, or has breasts, or has long legs.

This is a message to the women who understand that sometimes, it doesn’t matter how much you pin a dress, you’re still going to have cleavage show when you bend over. This is a message to girls built like me, who can’t find jeans that fit because your ass is just too damn big! The girls with long legs, who are forced to prove that their dresses fit the dress code, just because they have more leg showing then most girls.

This is what I want to say. You are beautiful, no matter how you are built, no matter how you chose to dress or dance or what words you chose to say in the heat of the moment. And even more important then knowing that the fact that your looks, and your body and how you dress doesn’t get to define whether or not you’re beautiful, you have to know, that people are responsible for their own thoughts, desires and actions, and it doesn’t fucking matter if you’re just swaying along with music, or if you’re grinding up on your date, or not even dancing. You are a person, with a soul, and with potential and with purpose, and the way that other people treat you, should never be based on how you dance, or dress or talk. You are a person, I am a person, is it really too much to ask that we be treated like people? Talked to as equals? As responsible adults who get to have opinions and likes and dislikes too? How is it that what I look like and how I dress constitutes the level of respect you give me? How is it that you refused to refund me when I asked for it, but when my male date asked for it, you agreed to refund my ticket to him? I’m only 17, but I can see there’s something wrong about this, please, please tell me I’m not the only one who think it doesn’t matter how people are dressed or how they move their bodies, we should still treat them with respect and decency. And enough with the slut shaming. Please. Goddamn I’m not responsible for some perverted 45 year old dad lusting after me because I have a sparkly dress on and a big ass for a teenager. And if you think I am, then maybe you’re part of the problem.

Clare is doing well and is supported by a good group of friends. She will respond to comments as she can, but this week is her finals week and she may not be readily available.


I have a lot of mixed feelings about the Dave Ramsey-is-insensitive-and-privileged party.

He wrote a ridiculous post about “habits” of rich people in which he showed that he is super out of touch with what it’s like to be poor, and is a subscriber to prosperity gospel stuff, which is a lovely Gnostic sort of plague on American culture, shown most clearly in political discussions in which the word “entitled” is used to reference the assumption that “people who aren’t as well off as us must be lazy.”

Rachel Held Evans and a few others responded to him, on Twitter and through blog posts and made some good points, and now RHE’s post is going nuts on my Facebook feed.

His privilege is clearly an issue. We are right to be angry at his post and the assumptions therein.

Looking at his teachings more broadly, I’ve observed that long-term, Ramsey’s financial ideas are not especially sound. They don’t teach you how to use credit responsibly, they don’t teach you how to invest, they don’t teach you many important financial management principles that one needs to build wealth well in America.

And for someone like me, who grew up without ever going into debt, who didn’t have student loans, and never owned a credit card, it was downright damaging to my financial stability this year. I couldn’t get a small loan to buy a used car, I haven’t got any sort of credit score or history and therefore I haven’t had a “safety net” of a good visa card, etc., etc. I have had to play catch up to just exist in the credit system so I can do basic life things, like: get approved for an apartment on my own. Thanks, Dave Ramsey! I felt like a trope, the helpless, financially dependent female. [And yes, I have been very lucky to have experienced the privilege that later caused me financial complications this year.]

But I did sit through a handful of his seminars and read at least one of his books, and discussed in great detail his principles with various family members who took his courses over the last decade or so.

And I have to say, it’d be “stoopid” (as he says) to write off his teachings completely. Yes, he’s rich, white, and an arrogant dude. It’s silly to teach that debt is “slavery” and sinful. Sure, debt can be “stoopid,” but it’s just bullshit to think that Jesus is going to love you less if you have student loans.

But if you’re middle class, white, averagely financially literate, and born after 1960, it’s likely he’d be good for you. Ramsey is a skilled manipulator and motivator — part of why 1) he has so many blind followers, and 2) part of why I’m really glad he’s not a pastor — and he exercises his very specific abilities to help a very specific set of people.

Not everything he says is sound — I’m not sure cash is more “painful” than a debit card to use — but he helps those who are either in denial or just numb with fear about their debt by shaking them awake and getting them to start practicing some measure of control and awareness about their spending habits and the long-term ramifications of various debts.

His “snowball” method is not the best way to get rid of debt, but it is motivating and helpful if you’re so scared of your loans and the numbers just seem insurmountable. His “gazelle intensity” is silly, but can be effective, like having a workout coach push you for the first six weeks of your New Year’s exercise plan. A tool is a tool is a tool.

So: Dave Ramsey is a privileged bully, yes. His financial advice is bad long-term. And I hate that he uses shame so much. But, he is very useful for those who need a little courage to start to embrace the challenge of America’s favorite daydream, the self-made man. If they can.


I feel like Stuff Christian Culture Likes is the comedy version of my Immodesty Rail pieces. If you don’t know Stephanie Drury‘s work yet, check it out. Her best work may be her themed Twitter search-and-retweet moments.

So, along those lines: stuff Christian culture likes [to do]:

Demand inappropriate justification for deeply personal decisions.

Maybe this is also a Southern culture thing. But if the South is Christ-haunted, the culture there is certainly also very inbred with church culture.

For example: when a divorced Christian (or a Christian dating a divorced person) is asked by another Christian if the divorce occurred on “biblical grounds” (or a similar question). You think you’re supported by someone, you think your trauma (if you’re the divorcé[e]) or joy (if you’re dating one) is safe to share with this particular person, and then you get hit with the icy water of presumption and judgment. And in that moment between the asking and the telling, you know that your ability to be vulnerable with this person ever again is dependent upon your answer. You are on the defensive, and you have to prove to the other person that your choices are worth their respect, that your decisions are good enough for them to take you seriously–either just as a mature adult, or as a “true” Christian.

It’s kinda traumatizing, and it’s irrational. It’s the milder, more benevolent version of that same sort of thinking that leads people to ask a rape victim if s/he was asking for it.

And I don’t think Christians mean to be so hurtful and oblivious–the discourse of most American Christian culture is premised on the assumption that love looks like challenging each other to be our best selves (in some way or another), instead of loving each other as if we were our best selves. The burden of hope should be placed on the possibility of being one’s best self, not on the act of achieving that possibility. It’s basic Works vs. New Identity in Christ stuff.

When I first told people what had happened, what my ex had decided, someone close to me asked me “What’s your theology of divorce?” and I was just devastated. Compassion and care and offers of support and help should have been the first response I got from this individual, not a one-line request to justify my actions (or, really, my ex’s actions). 

Similarly, demanding to know if there were “biblical grounds” for a divorce is like asking if a rape was legitimate. You don’t do it.

The concept of “biblical grounds” itself is flawed in the same ways that the idea of “biblical manhood and womanhood” is flawed–cultural norms are interlaced with the textual directives and you cannot draw a simple, direct parallel across the ages and say that the Bible’s most direct standards for grounds for divorce are culturally appropriate today. There is definitely ethical overlap, but the framework must be contextualized for the sake of interpretational integrity.

Beyond that, the thing that most people who haven’t personally experience a divorce (and even some who have) overlook is this: it’s more common for people to take the decision to go through with a divorce much, much more seriously than they do the decision to get married. They just don’t jump into it in a rush, eyes blinded by emotion. Some do, naturally, but it’s legally much easier to get married than to get divorced, and there’s a usually whole lot less incentive to change the status quo by ending a marriage. It’s hard to untangle two lives, it’s hard to go through the legal process and emerge intact, and it’s socially much, much harder to tell your friends and family that you’re divorcing than it is to tell them you’re getting hitched.

Black and white assumptions never help anyone. Compassion is an act of the imagination, at its root, and so before you go and ask if a marriage ended on “biblical grounds” or “who was at fault?” take a moment and put yourself in their shoes, and imagine what it must be like to be in that place.

Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.

[for some good voices on divorce and healing, check out: Natalie Trust, Letters From Scarlet, and A Christian Girl’s Guide to Divorce]


In which I will probably sound a lot like Lauren Dubinsky, who is usually right about this stuff.

The credits were rolling on the Disney princess movie. I was in a swoony-moony eight-year-old’s post-Disney euphoria, soaking up the soundtrack swelling as I leaned back on my elbows on the living room carpet.

I don’t remember which parent said it or the exact words, but what I heard was something to the effect of

“Now, Hannah, we know that this is a good story, but the Bible teaches us that following our hearts is bad, and you can see how she made choices that hurt her family and friends because she was being selfish and followed her heart.”

This little moment was followed up later by years of Bible memory drills and post-spanking lectures:

The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, who can know it?”

This verse was later reinforced by SGM teachings drawn from various bits and pieces of reformed theology.

  • You are the greatest sinner you know. 
  • I’m doing better than I deserve. 
  • I just don’t know if this is a good choice, because I need to pray and discern my motives. 
  • This is how this situation makes me feel, but I need to pray about it, because I might be reacting wrongly, because my heart is fundamentally evil, you know.

This was my justification for faith: people do bad things even if they want to be good. So T.U.L.I.P. and the SGM gospel had to be true. They were logically sound.

If you grew up like I did, you know what I’m talking about. And I’m not here to argue the logic of the theology. I know it “works” but I also know that it takes a toll on the heart, and that room for the miraculous and the impossible and the creative grace of a vastly loving God are so much more important to sane orthodoxy than systematic theology.

So I believed this. I doubted myself. I tried to act on reason and Scripture. If you look at my prayer journals (because talking about my feelings wasn’t okay, in my mind, unless I was “praying” about them) from when I was dating my ex, you’d see me agonizing about issues in our relationship (that never got better), and then you’d see me talking myself out of being worried about them because of reasons like: God is Sovereign, and God Led Us Here, and Love Endures and Hopes All Things. And I shoved red flags into a “hard things I can live with” pile.

I did this with everything, not just dating. Actually, I probably did it MORE with other parts of my life. I didn’t aspire very high with my college options, because I thought I should go to a Christian college so I’d have accountability from other Christians in authority over me, because, obviously, my heart was deceitful and college is a time when people explore, which naturally leads them into sin, so. Don’t follow your heart. Stay safe. Stay in authority structures that will keep you safe from you.

I chose to not make an issue about moving to my ex’s hometown when we got married, because I wanted to respect his preferences and he wanted to be near his family. I didn’t even make an issue out of the fact that I was the one who wanted to go to grad school and had definite ideas about what career I wanted. And later, we talked about grad school options, and assumed he’d “go first” and then I’d do my schooling later. Even my job choices were dictated by practicality and security, not passion.

Choice after choice after choice was pushed and nudged and bumped into place by systematic self-distrust and self-effacement in my head. I don’t regret the choices I made, not really. How could I? These choices have made me who I am. But they took a toll on me.

I stopped doing things I loved. I stopped being creative. During college, I didn’t do anything creative–I just did school and spent time with friends. I wrote a little poetry, but mostly for creative writing class. I painted and drew one semester, but again, for a class. I was happier than I’d been in a long time, but I still did it for the grade. I didn’t dance much. I didn’t cook or bake much. I didn’t write fiction or draw. If I was dying for creativity to stay sane, I’d indulge and make a batch of cookies or go for a walk. But it wasn’t a healthy habit–it was loosening the cap on a high-pressure container to let a little gas out so I could screw the lid back on, tight. So I could keep going, being productive, achieving goals, looking ahead.

And yes, I got shit done. But big changes happened to me, and I’m realizing I don’t know who I am now. What does “new” me like? Is that what “little me” liked? Were these things I identified with in the height of my fundydom really part of me, or just part of the alternate self I created to stay sane and fly under the legalism radar?

On Saturday I sat out on a slab of concrete above the James River in Richmond and started to make a list of things I knew about me. Trying to reintroduce myself to myself, in a way. I got overwhelmed pretty shortly after starting this list, because, shit, my life and choices don’t really give me space to breathe and be me. I’m not feeding myself, the breathing living creative soul-self. And I can’t just shove that aside and give it attention every few months to keep it from dying. I can’t just make choices for the sake of “balance” when my creative self is atrophied and disoriented–there is no balance without health in all parts.

Fighting fragments of evangelical Gnosticism keeps getting stranger and stranger. It’s not just the body we’ve forgotten, but the heart, too.

If my heart is so desperately wicked, why does following my gut leave me more rested and healthy and satisfied than constant self-control and vigilance in rational, Church-people-approved life choices? If my heart is so desperately wicked, why do I love beautiful things? If my heart is so desperately wicked, why does caring for myself allow me to care for people better? It can’t just be the one thing. It much more likely to be both/and.

Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secretes are hid: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy name: through Christ our Lord. Amen. [Book of Common Prayer, 1662]

***

Edit: Here’s why this is a big deal. Go find a QF daughter or a woman who has spent significant time in either a legalistic church/family situation or a hyper-reformed group and ask her (if she’s still “in”) if she knows what her strengths are. Ask her what she likes about herself. Ask her what she wants her legacy to be. And if she’s “out,” ask her what she would have said when she was “in.”

I bet it’ll be really hard for her to say.


Last Sunday night, I got a call from one of my post QF/CP buddies–we’re both the oldest from big homeschooling families with some unhealthy dynamics, and we both left that world when we got married (which torqued both of our fathers, for different, but similar reasons). She and I have been discussing with some of our post-QF/CP peers the needs of new adults trying to get out of borderline abusive or codependent or controlling family situations.

“Hännah,” she said. “I need advice.”

And then she spilled a story about her family’s downward spiral into isolation, fear, and control (increasing after she left and got married as a reaction against how “bad” she turned out), about how her sister “Jennifer” was demeaned by daily screaming from her mom, Bible-based lectures from her dad on why her interest in being vegan and an animal rights activist were rebellious and wrong. Despite many requests to be allowed to make herself vegan food, she was never given permission to even make herself a salad. She wasn’t allowed to touch fruit or vegetables unless given permission, which sometimes meant that food would rot in the fridge even though she wanted to eat it. Jennifer’s parents also threatened her pets, telling her that if she did not eat meat for dinner, she would wake up the next morning to find one of them gone.

The final crushing moment came last weekend, after her high school graduation, when she wasn’t singing in church (out of self-consciousness) and so, in a fit of anger, her parents removed all of her access to the outside world, taking away the power cord to her computer and her cell phone charger. She managed to get a few calls out, begging for help, with the battery power left on her phone.

She called her sister, and asked her to come get her out.

Her sister called me. “What should I do?”

But we knew there was really only one option, and so she and her husband put in 28 hours of driving in three days and went to rescue Jennifer. They got her out after a confrontation with her parents that required police backup, and cost Jennifer her three pets, her graduation gift iPad, her computer, her art supplies, her summer clothes, and her life savings of nearly $3,000.

Jennifer plans to become a concept artist for computer games, and wants to start college classes in the fall in order to pursue her art, but she will need a computer and art supplies and a number of other essentials to start life over in a new state with little to her name.

So, dear readers, I’ve never done this before, but I think this is a worthwhile cause. Would you be willing to chip in $10-15 to help raise $500 for Jennifer’s new laptop?

Update: Use the button below! Comment with your email address below, and I’ll email you my PayPal address and get the fund directly to her–and I’ll tell you how much we raise sometime next week!

I’m also putting together a care package for her, so if you want to write her a note of encouragement (Jesus jukes need not apply) or send her a gift card for clothes or art supplies, let me know and I’ll send you the details on how to make that happen.

Thanks, everyone, for all your support. It means so much for those getting out to know that they’re not crazy or alone, and that good human relationships should not involve conditional love or manipulation.

Jennifer is a pseudonym. Names have been changed to protect identities.


I’m on a roll on post ideas, thanks to long conversations with Jori during my visit with her. She gave me permission to tell a story of hers here, for the benefit of anyone else who has perhaps been in a similar position. She says, “Maybe it’ll keep someone from having a similar experience, or maybe a parent will think of it years later and react differently when a daughter comes to them with something like [this].”

Trigger warning: rape, victim blaming.

I think I was 17 when it happened.

I knew it would happen sometime, being a female. But I was surprised it hadn’t happened to me sooner. Before it happened, I had wondered what it would be like when it happened, what I would say, how I would react, who I would tell. If I would cry, if I would know how to respond.

When it happened, it felt surreal, like it was happening to someone else in a cliche movie scene. But it was real life and it was happening.

We were sitting in our favorite coffee shop in Midlothian, the golden morning sunlight painting the wood floor in patches and warming the leather chairs we sat in, both of us with our legs curled up and my shoes were on the floor.  It was the first time we’d seen each other in 6 months, after her family moved to South Carolina. She was holding her cup of coffee in both hands under her chin, her fingers pressing into the ceramic as she held onto it for safety. I was nibbling at my very favorite steaming-hot chocolate chip scone. She didn’t look at me when she started telling me the story.

“So, I met this guy online.”

I froze, transfixed, suspended from reality. It was it. I could feel it.

“We met up at a library while my mom was running errands.”

“He took me to his car. And he wanted to have sex. And I didn’t.”

“And he raped me.”

She was shaking. Her coffee cup was trembling. Her eyes were bright and tearless and wide open, and now she looked at me. “I haven’t told anyone else yet.”

I didn’t know what to say, whether to hug her or hold her hand or to act horrified or shocked. I sat very still. “Oh Jordan,” I said. And I think I picked up my coffee again and sipped it, trying to think.

In retrospect, I think we handled it well, the two of us. She was honest with herself about what happened. I asked her if she had been hurt, if she had taken a pregnancy test. If she was comfortable reporting. That she should go to a doctor to get checked out and I’d go with her if she needed it. Had she told her parents.

She didn’t cry. She was composed, articulate, but shaken and very, very sobered.

We talked for a long time. She made plans to tell her parents, to tell the police, to go to a doctor. I gave her a long, awkward hug, and we parted ways.

I came home quiet, dazed. I went to my mom and said that I needed to talk to her alone, now. I told her the story. She was stunned. “Do you think she’s telling the truth?”

“Well, she wasn’t crying, but I think she was just still in shock. I’m pretty sure she was telling the truth. Why would she lie about something like that?”

“Yeah, I suppose so.”

“Mom, you should call her mom and make sure they get her to a doctor and get checked to be sure she’s okay.” [my mom is an RN and frequently provided a reality check for our anti-doctor homeschooling friends]

“Yeah,” she said. “I’ll do that. Just let me know when she’s told them so I can.”

“She’s planning on telling them tonight, I think. So call them tomorrow morning, I guess.”

“Okay, I will.”

***

54% of rapes are never reported to the police.

97% of rapists will never spend a day in jail.

And only 2-8% of rapes claims are “unfounded” (e.g. the authorities didn’t have enough evidence, decided the girl didn’t resist “enough” for it to be “legitimate,” or were patently false.)

***

[two weeks ago, in FL]

Another coffeeshop, catching up after too much time apart. Another pause, another sip, another heart-spill.

“There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you. Remember how when you came back from SC to visit, you told me that you’d been raped. And how after you told me, your parents took you to the police station and you signed a statement saying it was all a lie, and then your parents made you come over the next day to apologize to me and my parents for lying about it?”

She laughed. “Yeah, that was awful.”

“What really happened? I kind of assumed it was real but your parents didn’t want to believe it, but…? All I remember is that the next morning your mom called my mom and told her that you made it all up, and that you guys were coming over so you could apologize for lying to get attention.”

She sighed. “Yeah, and they made me come over and we all sat on your couches and it was so serious. Dad told me what to say – that it was all a lie to get attention and none of it was true, and I was sorry for being so proud and selfish.”

“Yeah, it felt really strange,” I said.

“You were really quiet that whole time,” she said. “I always wondered what you thought, since your parents kind of did all the talking for you.”

“It was really awkward. I didn’t know what to say. I think I still mostly believed you, but didn’t know what to think. They made you apologize to that other friend you told, too, didn’t they?”

“Yeah, we went over to her house after yours and did the same thing there. I wonder what she thought of it, too.”

***

As we rehashed what happened that night after she first told me about being raped, a whole new story emerged, one that should shock and horrify any compassionate human, but one that doesn’t surprise me at all, given the culture of the church we grew up in.

I haven’t named this church much before, but it was KingsWay Community Church in Midlothian, Virginia. But I think it’s worth telling you what church it was, and give you the context. This story is one of many like it and it needs to be told. We both attended KingsWay for approximately 10 years, and her dad had been a pastor there for a year or two before they moved to SC.

This story exists partly because of SGM church culture, a subset of that fundamental/evangelical church culture which unintentionally protects abusers and silences anyone who questions patriarchy or misogyny or abuse. SGM is currently facing a lawsuit alleging that the leaders protected abusers and looked the other way when children were molested.

Jori’s rape didn’t occur on the property of a SGM church or at an SGM church event. The rapist was not an SGM church member. But her parents’ response (being a former SGM pastor and his wife) to her story was a response that is very much in keeping with how SGM pastors have historically responded to congregants who were abused. And, for anyone wondering: lots of churches are leaving SGM over the lawsuit, but KingsWay hasn’t left and does not appear to have plans to disassociate itself with SGM.

Jori’s experience was somewhat amplified due to some quirks of her family unique culture. Her family, when we were close, tended to take things to a somewhat dramatic level to prove a point or just because they could. [This was often a really fun thing — they were the best for creative party games and building things and bringing hilarity to life. But it had a darker side, as Jori discovered.]

Her parents were, like mine, adherents to that school of Christian parenting thought where “first time obedience” is paramount to how godly children relate to their parents. This teaching is authoritarian and usually Calvinist, saying that children are born in rebellion to God and so the parents must “shepherd” and “train” them to be obedient and therefore godly and God-loving. Infants are often spanked for “rebellious” crying, children are punished for interrupting their parents even if the cause is an emergency, and if you tell your parent “just a minute” when they tell you to come, you’re in rebellion and need to be spanked/punished.

This mindset functionally trains children to have no ability to reject adult authority if they’re uncomfortable with something, to have no sense of personal space, privacy, or healthy boundaries, and saps any will in children to stand up for themselves. If they do say no to someone or something they’re uncomfortable with, their “training” has conditioned them to feel overwhelming guilt for being “rebellious” or “disrespectful.”

KingsWay taught these parenting techniques and carried parenting books on this method in its bookstore, promoted them for care group studies, parenting classes, and gifts at baby dedications. Jori’s parents adhered to it all back then, given their time in the SGM Pastor’s College and on the KingsWay leadership team.

Jori later realized that the parenting methods her parents used essentially conditioned her to be both a victim of non-consensual sex (you can’t actively resist an authority figure who wants you to please them and pressures you with guilt trips) and a victim of soft brainwashing — your experience is invalid if it contradicts what the authorities say it should be.

***

When Jori got home that evening after telling me and one other friend about her rape, she felt good about telling her parents, ready to open up to them after receiving affirming and kind responses from her friends. They’d listen, they’d help her report, they’d take her to a doctor and get a pregnancy test and STI testing.

The response she got could not have been more different.

Instead of believing her, they accused her of lying, of having consensual sex and then regretting it, and making up the rape story to cover for her actions.

“This sort of thing doesn’t happen to godly girls,” they told her. “You put yourself in a situation for this sort of thing to happen.”

Their reason for not believing her? She seemed too composed. She wasn’t disheveled and in tears, and she hadn’t come to them with the story right after it happened. She was too articulate and detailed with her story — it couldn’t be true because she didn’t seem utterly devastated.

Jori is a very smart person, and after such strict parenting and high pressure in our church to have your emotions under control all the time, she became highly skilled at playing social roles that were expected of her. But when something traumatic happened to her, she wasn’t able to connect with her emotions to display them for an audience on command — she was too far gone into trained disassociation with her own feelings.

Angry that their daughter was shameless enough to have sex for fun and then make up a story like this to cover it, and still refuse to admit that she was lying, her parents decided to drive her to the police station for questioning.

When they got there, her dad told the officers that she was saying she’d been raped, that they knew it was a lie, and they needed help finding the loophole in her story.

The officers began questioning her, and again, her lack of tears worked against her. She told me, “I didn’t react the right way — I didn’t burst out crying. And the rest of the night they tried to prove that I was lying.”

For several hours they questioned her, and she didn’t give in. Her story became more clear and detailed as time went on, and these small adjustments caused them to doubt her even further.

At last she decided it wouldn’t be worth it to keep fighting their accusations.

As she told me that morning a few weeks ago:

“‘Okay, it’s not true,’ I said, because it was going nowhere and was so humiliating. I just wanted to leave. They made me sign a statement saying that I had been lying and closed the case, and then lectured me, saying ‘You could have gone to jail for lying about this.'”

The next day her parents showed up at my house and made her apologize to me for lying.

And for the next several years, Jori shut down her memories of the event, telling herself that it must have been consensual sex that she, like the terrible person she was, had gone looking for behind her parents’ backs and then lied about.

Today, she says:

“[my parents’ reaction was] very damaging to me, and I was depressed, scared, and utterly confused for years as a result. But, I’ve moved on from it. I moved on from the actual rape years and years before I moved on from the terrible reaction to it, but it’s old history now.”

***

There are two things going on here.

The first is: fundamentalist Christian parenting methods train children to not resist sexual predators and to not be able to identify it if they’re molested, raped, or harassed. [this is why the Church remains an unintentional haven for sexual predators, and why reporting sexual abuse in the church to authorities is still a question for debate, not an assumed course of action to protect victims.]

The second is: our culture doesn’t like to believe rape victims when they have the courage to speak up, and the negative response they get often leaves them feeling like they must have made it up, that they’re terrible people for thinking that they were really raped, and that they shouldn’t have said anything in the first place.

These assumptions remain for a variety of unfathomably inhumane reasons, assumptions coming from privilege and class hierarchy, assumptions coming from residual patriarchy, assumptions coming from female inability to identify their sexuality apart from the male gaze. [these reasons are why third wave feminism is really necessary.]

Of course, there’s a lot more to it than just these things. But this is a starting place. Jori’s story didn’t happen because her parents are terrible people. It happened in a Christian cultural context that didn’t have space in its ideological framework for a woman to be calm and collected when reporting a rape, for a woman to not be raped in a dark alley by a stranger, and for a woman to have any sort of sexual autonomy outside of the parent-led-courtship-and-abstinence relationship model.

Telling about being raped should never, ever be more traumatic than the rape itself.

***

If you or someone you know is in need of help, start here:
(this list is stolen from Dianna Anderson)


Two weeks ago, I was walking along the water in Hallandale Beach, FL, talking with my childhood best friend, Jori. We were comparing notes on our childhoods — an uncanny thing if you’re like me and negative memories get locked up in the subconscious. Both of our families were large, creative, unruly homeschoolers, loving to read and play games and create imaginary worlds and art. We spent a lot of time in each other’s homes, as our parents would swap sets of kids for weekend getaways (you watch ours for our anniversary and we’ll do the same for yours!) and were close in that way where you stop pretending to have it all together when these people are around. My mom made them do chores at our house, and her mom had us babysit for her grocery shopping outings when we were at hers, and so forth.

We were both the oldest, and both introverts in loud groups of people living in tight quarters. Jori and I were both really good at hiding out to read in peace, and really good at “having it all together” to keep the family drama to a minimum and set good examples for the younger kids.

There was a blog, then a book, that influenced me a lot during these years. The premise was that young people could be responsible and mature if they were expected to be responsible and mature. That teenage-dom was a cultural farce to promote immaturity. That 15 year olds could be adults if they tried.

These ideas went hand-in-glove with the way my parents raised me and what our church expected of Jori and me. Godly teenagers don’t give in to hormones and emotions and set an example for their peers and take their faith and life seriously. Good children respect their parents and are responsible and mature and don’t set bad examples for their siblings.

I was always complimented by the moms of my friends and my parents’ friends for how mature and responsible and articulate I was. I did all the right things. I helped out with my family, I was the good kid. If I was upset about something, I talked about it with my parents. If I was really bad, I broke curfew by 20 minutes coming home from a babysitting job or a church function.

When I went to college, I made myself really obnoxious to my peers by being a snob about pop culture and refusing to do spontaneous, sophomoric stunts (like pull all-nighters or drink energy drinks or go to Niagara Falls for the weekend instead of writing a paper). I was painfully responsible. And painfully awkward and naive.

My friend Ashleigh posted yesterday on this, and her comments about getting married young were so similar to my own experience:

When John and I were engaged and I was approaching both my high school graduation and my wedding day, people who asked about my post-graduation plans would furrow their brows and cluck their tongues, warning against getting married “before I knew who I was.” My eyes would roll into my skull while I sweetly recited a sentence or two about growing up together, being confident in my own being, not seeing the need to wait until I reached an arbitrary milestone and suddenly knew who I was before I married this guy.

Naivety is both endearing and infuriating.

At 17 and still even at 23, I believed I was above the process, I could avoid the messy years by simply not living them, jumping ahead, becoming the older version of myself sooner rather than later.

But 25 crept up on a muddy, bruised version of me. Hair flying, face streaked with tears and sweat, grieving the security I had taken for granted, I remembered the line from that Anne Hathaway movie.

Apparently everyone is a little bit lost at 25.

I’m discovering something: there were a LOT of us who grew up this way in the conservative homeschool culture. We were the high school poster kids for successful parenting in the Christian world. We did all the right things we were supposed to do, and then we set out to be successful adults for real, only this time we were entering normal society to do it.

Life doesn’t really go the way you expect it to go. And humans are not machines you can program to walk the straight and narrow all their days by restrictions and moral instruction.

People are messy creatures, who love and feel and breathe and weep and rage. I don’t think the system accounted for us loving and grieving and asking hard questions. Growing up is hard and messy and a messy season or three will happen to you, no matter how hard you try to have it all together and do all the right things.

Jori and I were talking about the people we knew from our childhoods, about how it seems now like it’s just a waiting game to see when people from that legalistic subculture will hit their breaking point and let go and be messy. Even adult women, moms of many years with grandchildren and grey hair are bound to go through this — if they never let go and learned to be comfortable with themselves and with not knowing all the answers to deep questions.

The saddest stories, though, are those who fight it, who hide their struggles and isolate themselves to keep up the facade of idyllic Christian homeschoolerdom. It’s not worth the depression and loneliness and anxiety.

I feel like I aged backwards — like I went from age 12 to being 30-something and mature, to finally letting myself free from all these expectations and let myself be messy and explore and enjoy life, and now I’m back at an age that’s closer to my real one, loving life and learning lots and meeting people and experiencing things. Embracing the questions and the process of stretching and growing. It’s been so good for me, and all of those on the “other side” who talk to me about this backwards growing up and the freedom they’ve found have similar stories. The healing and wholeness and delight in being yourself, loving yourself where you’re at, and not performing for your church or homeschool community.

If you’re on the brink of this, if you feel yourself losing control of things, needing rest and grace and acceptance, let go? God’s love for you is not based on doing hard things or being the right person or having it all together. In fact, it’s going to be harder for you to accept God’s unconditional, boundless, intimate love for you if you can’t accept yourself where you’re at, not where you think you should be.

Breathe into the stretch. It’s okay. You’re held.


Trigger warning: spanking.

There are two things I’m afraid to write about, for myself. The first is music, and my relationship to it. The second is anger and my fear of myself when angry.

SGM taught that anger is a sin. I remember my mom coming home from care group and telling me that it made so much sense now that she had been enlightened to see it: anger is a sin and it grieves God.

And so I fought my anger for years, like I fought against desire. It’s absurdly obvious, now, how interrelated those two were with the levels of stress in my life at the time. I was angry a lot. I was horny and masturbated a lot. And I really, really hated myself. I was so afraid of who I was becoming and I didn’t know what I could do to change. I prayed all the time, I only listened to Christian music and sang worship songs, I read my Bible every day, I journaled. And I cut out reading any mystery or fantasy, in hopes that I would get my spiritual life in order so I could overcome my two deadly vices.

I still don’t quite know what to make of anger. I’m reading a book that talks about how some kinds of anger are healthy and good, piercing facades to motivate change and wholeness. How some, bad forms of anger are only out to consume and devour. I’m not sure what to think of this.

Anger is really lonely. Anger, for me, was/is usually driven by fear — of not being good enough, of being misunderstood and thus rejected, of being abandoned or neglected.

Today I read two articles. One was a HuffPo piece on Post-Partum Depression and how it causes rage. And I read it and I suddenly was back to last year, when I was on a BC that didn’t work well with my body, which caused mood swings and made me so afraid of being alone. Something would trigger it, and I’d get intensely afraid, and my ex wouldn’t hear my fear, but only anger, and he’d need space and walk out the front door, and then it would become anger. And I’d angry cry myself to sleep and have nightmares of being abandoned.

And I’d remember, when I was crying that when I was a kid, I only every cried when I was angry. I remember telling people this as a sleepover trivia game piece. “I never cry. Only when I’m angry because they don’t understand.”

You have no idea how fearful it is in a legalistic home, with an authority who practices that smoldering, quiet anger, to be misunderstood as the one at fault. You’re brought into the bathroom and you plead and beg and say that there was a mistake, you were loud because the other sibling did x, it wasn’t you’re fault, and you get told to pull your pants down.

And you take it. Because you’re the kid who plays at being orphans, and you read The Whipping Boy and Anne and Little House and you want to be bold and brave and so you don’t cry or wince. Five or six smacks with a strip of tarred conveyor belt, and it’s over. Your face is hot and you look the parent in the eye, and they lean in and put their hands on your shoulders. And oh, they have bad breath from lunch. And they look at you and tell you they love you, but you need to learn x, and you maybe fuss back a little, but in the end you’re apologizing and they’re prompting your apology speech for the sibling who’s waiting outside the bathroom door with a smug look of the one who got away with it.

When it’s over, you carry on like nothing happened, because you don’t want to make a scene and you have to set an example for the younger kids, because if you fought a spanking and they saw, all hell would break loose.

You live like that because it’s right, it keeps order, and avoiding crisis is what surviving in a big family looks like.

But there’s another part of it, too. I read Elizabeth Esther’s post about being spanked and spanking and turning off emotions to break someone, and oh. Her story, her talk about the anger and the cold and the spanking–that is why I am afraid to have kids. My ex would tell me he wanted 10 kids and it’d be great and he’d be a stay-at-home dad and homeschool and I could still work…and I would know, yes, he’d be a great father. Yes, that could work. But I couldn’t escape the chill in my soul at the thought of being a mom.

My parents didn’t use the Pearls’ methods. My mom was a bad authoritarian, thankfully. My dad was a very businesslike authoritarian.

But I still learned to turn off my emotions when I was in a fight with someone “below” me in the family pecking order. If I was an authority, I could become a sociopath to get my way. And I ended up babysitting my siblings a lot. When that happened, they’d push my buttons and I’d snap. I could feel it. I suddenly stopped empathizing. Controlling the situation was all that mattered.

And what made it worse, is that I’d babysit for other people also, all the time. When I did, I’d be fine. All feeling and kindness and firm structure. I could do it. I really enjoyed it, actually. But with my siblings, the boundaries were set differently, and I would be so frightened of myself when I got cold. It’d be an out-of-body experience, watching myself get angry from a distance. We’d get into full-out wrestling matches over who had the ability to phone mom and dad, who had to do the dishes, who had to change the baby. It was ugly. Those evenings, when I was babysitting and things would get out of control and I couldn’t fix it and I got angry? Those are the worst memories of my childhood. It was so wrong. And I’m so appalled by it — even then, I was horrified by it. I didn’t know how to be different. And it scared me.

Just some late-night ramblings on the memories stirred up by those articles, but also: I don’t plan to spank my kids, if I ever have kids. And this is why. This is why I try the best I can to be thoughtful about respecting other people’s bodies, comfort zones, rights. Because I know who I can be. It’s ugly shit. I can be better than that.

(And I don’t think it was just total depravity that made me capable of that.)


Just a reminder that tomorrow we’ll be continuing the Spiritual Abuse Awareness Week over at Joy Bennett’s blog. Here’s the prompt:

Your journey and consequences of spiritual abuse

How has your experience affected you? What has it done to you emotionally, mentally, physically, spiritually, etc.? What has your journey been like? How have you gotten where you are today? Do you feel you’ve healed? What do you still struggle with?

Image by Dani Kelley, http://danileekelley.wordpress.com/

Image by Dani Kelley, http://danileekelley.wordpress.com/

And until midnight tonight I’ll still be taking your stories from the Day 1 prompt.

So moved by and thankful for all those who’ve linked up and shared their stories already. Check out Elora’s blog for more, anonymous survivor stories.


Church Survivors

Image by Dani Kelley, http://danileekelley.wordpress.com/

SPIRITUAL ABUSE AWARENESS WEEK, DAY 1: My story

I can’t find a way to make this a short post.

I’ve been a little loath to answer this specific question since I started blogging. I prefer to tell vignettes and talk about the big picture of spiritual abuse in the church and use my story in bits and pieces to show examples of how certain authoritarian or legalistic ideas trickle down to affect people in real life.

The reason I’ve been hesitant to tell my story is because it’s not just “I was in this one church for 10 years and it was really messed up” – my whole life has been touched by spiritual abuse and I’m only now in a place where I can begin to feel safe.

I started blogging under a pseudonym because my dad felt like I was slandering him online. My “disclaimer” post happened because my mom got a call from an old friend saying: “how do you feel about being smeared on your daughter’s blog?” and that was both inappropriate and upsetting.

Here’s the thing: my parents are just as much survivors of spiritual abuse as I am. Their active engagement with certain parenting theories, their church choices, and their reasons for homeschooling altogether made us as a family incredibly vulnerable to spiritual abuse. They are still dealing with the aftermath just as much as I am.

The point is: it’s not their fault. As their child, I am stuck in the tension between talking about what spiritual abuse looked for me and being honest about that and being mature and compassionate toward my parents as well-intentioned, kind people who didn’t know what they were getting into, even though their choices directly caused me to grow up the way I did.

And of course it wasn’t all bad. I’m not trying to paint a bleak picture of life with my family — there is a lot of sweetness and light there.

But, it’s still true that trying to become an adult with independent ideas in my family (and in any Quiverfull family, I will add) is a harrowing journey that can require the young person to either hide their new adult self, suppress their new adult self, or confront the emotional control impulses in QF parents with honesty and risk fracturing the relationship.

And that is a decision that no child should have to face.

So, if you’re a friend of my parents and you’re reading here, please, please understand me: I am not slandering my parents. Slander is telling falsehoods to attempt to smear a person’s reputation. I have no vendetta against them, I crave for them healing and freedom, not condemnation and guilt. I’m not trying to shame them or rebuke them. I’m just telling my story and please don’t tell me how I should tell it. You didn’t live it.

***

My parents chose to create their family culture around the idea that they could try to get things right where they thought their parents had failed. They saw their children as their Christian legacy, and while they never really engaged the “have more Christian kids to have more arrows in our quiver for God’s army so Christianity can reform and redeem American culture” philosophy which defines a lot of “Quiverfull” families, we were still very much a Quiverfull family.

From an early age I knew that dating was wrong because it was “practicing for divorce” and that I would court to find my husband, that grace was like if mom took my spanking for me when I deserved it instead of her, that I was responsible to behave rightly so that I wouldn’t cause my younger siblings to follow my example and sin/make bad choices, that I was homeschooled because that was the way God wanted parents to raise their kids, according to Deuteronomy. I was taught that I had to be sure I was saved, that rebelling against my parents would be as bad as practicing the sin of witchcraft (and the story of Saul was a byword for that happened if you were okay with witchcraft). I believed that people with mental health issues probably had demons, and that Jesus was coming back soon and I would be held responsible for the lives of sinners I was close with and hadn’t preached the gospel to.

I went up for altar calls three times after I initially prayed the sinner’s prayer with my parents at age 5 or so, because I knew I was often angry with my sister for being annoying, and God’s word said that if I hated my brother I couldn’t love Jesus. I was terrified that I would disqualify myself from a relationship with him because I didn’t know how to love my siblings.

Initially, my family was the only one of its sort in the churches we attended. We’d be the only homeschoolers, the only big family (that was when there were only 5 of us kids), the only ones who didn’t “believe in youth group” and didn’t watch a lot of popular movies and weren’t allowed to listen to “secular” music. But we did find likeminded people in the homeschooling community, some who were as “fundamental” as we were, some who were less strict but still passionate about raising their kids to honor God.

That’s how benign it started. These parents all just wanted to raise their children in a way that would please God and help their kids avoid making “the same mistakes we made” in their teenage and early adult years. But the difficulty with this is that it turned “pleasing God with my life” and “raising my children to honor God” into a formula. Insert One Child, separate from The World, remove Temptation and Rebellion, bake at Christian Community 24/7 for 18 years, and presto! happy Christian heritage passed on successfully to offspring.

If you read the literature my parents and their peers read—Mary Pride, the Pearls, Gregg Harris, Jonathan Lindvall, Bill Gothard, etc.—you’ll see that these people meant well. You’ll see them reacting to abstract cultural issues that disturbed them, and reacting against their own childhoods to try to do better than their parents’ generation. But you’ll also see a heck of a lot of bad handling of Scripture, straw man fallacies, fear-mongering manipulation of idealist motives, and youthful arrogance. Their teachings directly influenced my parents’ decisions and those of many others like them.

I went from a loud, imaginative, inquisitive child to an insecure, fearful teenager who forgot how to make friends or empathize with people because of the legalism embraced by my parents, church, and myself. I became a queen at legalistic self-censure and unintentionally pushed friends away with my self-righteousness in this black and white formula Christianity where I had it all figured out.

I spent a lot of lonely nights in late middle school and high school crying on the couch to my mom about how I felt so unwanted by the girls I counted as my friends, and she’d rub my back and hug me and tell me that it was their loss, and I’d be a wonderful friend.

But what I didn’t realize was that it wasn’t all just “different seasons of life” where they couldn’t relate to my busy life full of housework obligations for my family, my parents’ restrictions on curfew, getting a job out of the house, internet, movies, music, etc. It wasn’t just my academic aspirations in a peer group of wannabe stay-at-home-moms/future pastors wives. My “dry spell” with friendships was, perhaps in part, due to my stuck-up legalism that pushed people away.

If a friend told me about the boy she was crushing on I’d frown, thinking of the boy I was currently trying not to crush on (because it was wrong, duh), and offer a “correction” about how we were just 16, so we shouldn’t be thinking about boys, really.

If a church acquaintance was hanging around with guys after church and wearing a tight top, I would pull her aside and offer the “observation” that it seemed like she was flirting and to watch out for form-revealing tops that might be too “inviting” for “our brothers in Christ” and might “make them stumble.”

If my friend told me she was frustrated with her younger siblings, I would murmur empathy, and then launch into a sermon about how we’re called to serve our families, how it’s practice for our life-long roles at home as women, how we can’t love God if we’re not loving our brother, and Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do To You. I’d tell her that mom made us memorize that verse so we could remember to love each other and suggest that she memorize it, also.

Basically, I was a goody-two-shoes who didn’t observe or have compassion for how my friends felt, because I had been raised (by my parents and my churches) to believe that the kindest thing one Christian could do for another was to call each other out on their sin. That was having grace for each other—correcting each other by “speaking the truth in love.”

In reality, there was no grace, there was no concept of love, and the truth I spoke was condemnation rather than healing and hope. And I was just parroting what I saw around me, living out “the right way to do relationships” with other Christians.

If I did that to you and haven’t been able to apologize to you for treating you like that: I’m so, so sorry. Please forgive me.

You can’t love someone if you think that showing love means looking for their weaknesses and exploiting them to make them feel guilty (“pursue holiness”).

I discovered this for myself the hard way. When I started branching out intellectually and becoming an adult thinker, my dad started withdrawing his affirmation of me as his favored child and challenging my ideas. It wasn’t the sort of casual dinner table discussions of various “grey area” issues you sometimes see between thoughtful teenagers and their parents. It was more of a white-knuckled intellectual hazing—I had to defend my position to him on his terms in order to keep my place in his mind as a fellow Christian.

It started with little things. We’d agree in our discussions of how our SGM church’s polity was hurting people and setting itself up for the pastors to have too much power. But then it’d shift into other things: I’d argue for why ballroom dancing wasn’t too much temptation for me, why I thought I should be allowed to wear shorts instead of cutoffs, why I thought that I should be allowed to go to my friends’ houses on Saturdays when he thought I should stay home and help the family instead.

But then it shifted into larger issues as my world expanded through college, and we found ourselves in arguments where I defended the worth of studying Derrida and he’d accuse me of moral relativism. I’d argue that my boyfriend’s student loans weren’t a moral failing, and he’d tell me that the Bible says that those who borrow are fools.

The watershed moment when I realized our relationship had fundamentally shifted when he and my mom confronted me for kissing my boyfriend without asking their permission, almost a year after we’d started dating. It was moving too fast, they said. It was asking for us to fall into temptation, they said. I was rejecting dad’s authority over me and choosing the path of rebellion.

That morning, when they put me in the car and drove for a couple hours, locking the doors and not letting me leave until I had “confessed” to them my potentially sexually immoral relationship with my boyfriend, was when I realized that my boyfriend had been right when he said that my dad was inappropriately controlling and didn’t respect me as an adult person.

I had thought I had done everything right, that I’d figured out what was right and wrong, that my dad and I were practically best friends, that I’d never have a bad relationship with my family.

But that morning I realized that I wasn’t free, he didn’t treat me like a spiritual or moral equal, that my relationship with my parents was inappropriately codependent, that the world was muchmuchmore saturated with gradients of grey than I had ever dreamed, and that I didn’t have anything figured out.

I was morally and emotionally infantile, asymmetrically maturing in my fluency in Pharisee, successful passive-aggressive social manipulation, intellectual irrationality through simplistic logic, and unable to name for myself my own feelings, experiences, loves, fears, passions. If something about me wasn’t acceptable to the world of SGM and my parents’ approval, it didn’t exist as a valid reality.

They didn’t mean to shape me into that person. But when you create a world that is morally immature and only black and white, you stunt yourself and those under your authority and prevent the brilliant beauty of diverse humanity and the full impact of grace on human relationships from being visible.  And that short-sightedness combined with power over people is the perfect storm for spiritual abuse.

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Spiritual Abuse Awareness Week, Day 1

YOUR STORY & LANGUAGE/CULTURE OF SPIRITUAL ABUSE

Prompt: What is your story? Share your experience — showing the details without going into specifics about places or people involved. What made the environment spiritually abusive? Was it language, unspoken social codes, beliefs, assumptions, expectations? How did these factors enable the abuse? How did you eventually leave, and why?

Join up and share your story! Post on your blog, then come back and link up below. Feel free to use Dani’s image on your post, and tweet your thoughts at us with the hashtag: #ChurchSurvivors