I’ve been pretty busy elsewhere this week, but I wanted to drop you a line here to keep you updated on goings-on.

Mostly I’ve been doing a lot of writing. And procrastinating by cooking soup and creating salads and new takes on mac & cheese.

A few things to share with you, though.

The first is: I finally wrote a love letter for Ben Moberg’s series over at Registered Runaway. I initially resisted his invitation because I get really fed up with loud LGBTQ allies talking about being allies for the sake of talking about being allies. I want to live that, not talk about it. But something happened this week that pushed me over the edge, so here you are:

My parents used to have a tile they got when we drove through New Mexico on our pilgrimage east, and it hung in our entryway at home for years and years. Mi casa es su casa, it read.

…because invitations are sometimes hard to accept if they aren’t made loudly, let me make it very clear: mi casa es su casa.

This house always belongs to you, too.

Secondly, I’ve accepted an offer to join the blogging team over at The Friendly Atheist. Hemant Mehta reached out to me a couple weeks ago and I think he’s great and I’m excited to be contributing to his Patheos blog as a Christian culture commentator. I’ll still be blogging here, too, so no worries about that!

Also, I don’t think it’s particularly relevant to this whether or not I’m an atheist (this isn’t me coming out as one); my writing and analysis on Christian culture issues fits the tone and themes of his site well.  I’m excited for my first post to go up there tomorrow, especially I’ll be talking about the latest updates on SGM “scandal.” (I’ll add a link here when it’s live.) The post is live!

Thirdly, I’m finally posting my explanation of why modesty culture = rape culture, and Convergent Books is kind enough to host it for me. Part 1 is up today!

Fourth: Third: The Swan Children is accepting submissions for our July issue now! Read our latest update here and submit here.

And finally, the YA Wallpaper has a new video up! We’re talking about Meg Wolitzer’s new book (which isn’t out yet), so SPOILER ALERT.


“The hardest part is realizing you’re in charge” – Helen Bishop, Mad Men

One of the things that has been a constant struggle for me, as a woman leaving the world of Christian patriarchy, has been reconciling reality to my learned “right” responses. I have to be gutsy and take charge of my life and heed my personality type and my needs and make sure I’m living in a way that works best for who I am. But it’s hard to learn to do this, because I grew up considering myself strongest when deferring to other’s needs and wants, most godly when negating my desires, and most strong and female when abandoning my preferences to respond and absorb the desires and choices of others.

The term I’ve heard used for this is “learned helplessness” and it’s frequently a gendered problem, but I think it’s not just an issue for women. It’s also an issue for everyone in the “new reformed” circles of young Calvinists.

This is, of course, at the root, a face of that age-old “predestination vs. free will” discussion, but I’m going to lift it from those over-simplified terms because I find that they are useless in the face of reality, where I see a good deal of both/and going on in terms of one’s ability to choose freely and one’s inability to change circumstances. I’d like to lay it aside with the understanding that I think the two concepts probably coexist, and I’m not sure exactly how. Paradox, yes. It’s beyond me just now.

So, first, as a woman dealing with The Most Unpredictable Year Of Her Life Ever!, I’m finding that I have to unlearn a lot of places in my personal character where I’d relaxed into patriarchal norms just because I could when I was married. Things like changing my oil, moving boxes on my own, driving across the country alone, booking a hotel room, getting a credit card, de-icing my car before work, etc. — these were things I had to take on and own for myself.  Some of that is just general cultural gender role stuff. Other things are more Christian patriarchy-related, like realizing that the church search was up to me, if I was going to find one out here in LA, realizing that I don’t have to ask anyone’s permission to live my life, or that I don’t need to call anyone to tell them when I’m coming home.

But as I’m talking to other girls trying to take on adult decisions outside of the meet-a-man-and-follow-him-forever Christian patriarchy narrative for women (say, as a woman ends up out of her parents’ house and not yet married, or 30 and living at home without “prospects”), I hear from them over and over again statements such as: “I don’t even know what I like!”  Outside of the girl-to-woman-to-wife-to-mother narrative of patriarchy, they don’t know what who they are, why they want to do what they want to do, or how to make decisions without leaning overmuch on the advice of peers and elders, because they never learned to listen to themselves. Women in Christian patriarchy exist as negative space, conforming to the solid definitions of the men in their lives. And I’m still shaking off stray pieces of that mindset. It’s like sand and children: you’re always finding particles in weird places months after you’ve left the beach.

Similar to this is the “sovereignty of God” talk from the new Calvinists. I’ve been doing a linguistic experiment for the past year or so: every time I feel the impulse to thank God for something or claim his foreknowledge or sovereignty for something, I check myself to see if I’m just talking about an element of my life that’s because of social privilege. If I am, then I don’t do God-talk about it, because that’s just disrespectful to people who love God and live rightly, but still suffer because they’re lacking good things due to privilege. An example: a college graduate might thank God on Facebook for getting her through a private Christian school with good friends and a job offer ready for her in June. The impulse is nice, but it’s infuriating to someone who maybe didn’t have parents who could afford to pay for college, was marginalized socially and had trouble making friends, or got the short end of the stick with the economy and can’t find good work after graduation. It’s not wrong, but does it feels unfair to thank God for something you worked for and earned, or something that was handed down to you by genetics. It feels like it makes light of the hard work you did, or the hard work that less-privileged others put in to try to achieve the same ends.

On the other side of this mindset is the reaction to horrific live events with emotionally numbed reactions: cancer? God’s sovereign plan. divorce? it’s okay, God’s still good. grief? lack of faith in God’s sovereignty. I don’t think this sort of response is meant to be flippant or numbly blasé, but that’s how it comes across. It doesn’t allow for the full range of human emotions to be expressed in normal reactions to traumatic events, but instead cauterizes the emotions with shaming for lack of faith.

Agency is a funny thing. I don’t like that I feel more uncomfortable having agency than I do with feeling helpless. Between the God-is-sovereign catch-all explanation for anything hard or anything good and the patriarchy’s gender roles, the way I thought of myself I was not as an actor in my own life, but a pawn on a chessboard. Things happened to me instead of me making choices.

I don’t think God meant us to half-live our lives. I don’t think he meant for us to wait for life to happen. I don’t think a life of faith is lived in absence of risk or owning one’s full potential or full emotion or choice. I don’t think God wants us to constantly be yammering about how good he is when it’s not something that showcases his kindness in an honest way. It’s a waste of breath. There’s a difference between feeling genuine appreciation for quotidian graces and clanging a cymbal about how awesome God was to give you privilege.

The tension between brash American self-made bootstraps man mindset (which is also unhealthy) and the self-imposed helplessness of Christian patriarchy and new Calvinism is appropriate, I think, and should be embraced. There’s a glorious dignity to being human, and it should be embraced along with a peaceful awareness of one’s size in the face of the universe. These are not things to be taken lightly.


No one is really surprised that Doug Phillips had an affair and is stepping down from Vision Forum Ministries. And no one is really surprised at his statement–it’s the same slightly pompous and affected tone adopted by any politician caught in the spotlight of a scandal.

But what really fascinates me is first, the similarities between Doug’s statement to the statement put out by CJ Mahaney when he first stepped down from SGM in the aftermath of Brent’s “documents,” and secondly, how very differently these stories are playing out.

The SGM “scandal” [read: cruel abuses of power over minors and parishioners and unrepentance when confronted] and the Doug Philips “scandal” [read: yet-unspecified abuses of power and unrepentance when confronted] are playing out very differently and will continue to do so. And in the end, I suspect that Doug Phillips will be a ruined man, and his sins will be the lesser, while CJ’s sins will be the more substantial and detrimental, and he will never quite be brought to justice for how he abused his position of authority.

There are two reasons why:

1) Doug Phillips and his followers practice intellectual integrity (because they are Reformed) in a way that SGM and CJ Mahaney never did or could (because they were never truly of the Reformed tradition)

and

2) Doug Phillips and his movement relies on youth in leadership to sustain its momentum.

The first reason is going to be most clearly seen in the comparison between how Brent Detwiler was treated by his old friends when he, following the accountability system that these men and CJ had put in place, confronted CJ about his abuses of power. These guys had a system in place. Brent was the historian and the enforcer personality, and like the good dutiful type-A personality that he is, he believed that the other men in the group believed in the system just as much as they said they did. He trusted them to hold CJ to his own rules, and to help him enforce these rules by preestablished corrective actions.

But these men, for whatever reasons they had, did not put the rules above the man, and followed the whims of CJ rather than the system that they’d put in place. And in doing so, they unleashed a tireless foe in Brent, who has been aggressive and honest in his years of working against the corruption in SGM. To his detriment, I may add, as he’s lost everything because of it. And CJ is fine. Happily pastoring in Nashville and still invited to speaking gigs and lauded by the other “reformed big dogs.”

Contrast that with the snippets of insight into what’s going on in the world of Vision Forum, compiled in a post on Homeschoolers Anonymous. Vision Forum (which is the core of a larger social group of Christian Reconstructionists that spreads into lots of interesting places, if you ever want to Wikipedia link hop). It looks like the guys in Vision Forum value the system like Brent probably wishes SGM leaders did. They are grieving on Facebook after confronting Doug Phillips and getting cold responses (which is, essentially, what the SGM gents were worried about), and are severing ties with Doug as quickly as they can. It’s speculated that the fallout from all of this is that he may lose his house and his business before new year’s.

Why such a difference in group response? I think the answer lies in the values embedded in these two groups’ internal discourses, and may be further reduced to a theological difference. SGM was “essentially charismatic and reformed” at the time all that political drama went down between Brent and CJ. SGM was courting the attention of folks like Piper and Dever, but still enjoyed being unique, retaining that status by still being “charismatic.” SGM worked because it saw itself as a special snowflake church group–we can’t be a denomination because nobody is like us! We’re CHARISMATIC and REFORMED. The Presbyterians will love us for our sermons, the Baptists for our music, and the non-denominational groups will love how we pray and raise our hands during worship.

Contrast that with Vision Forum, which prided itself on changing every part of culture through Christian alternatives to every part of culture. Politics? We got ’em. Films? Sure thing. American Girl dolls? Try our Titanic doll. Books? Our hardback vintage ones are better and the heroes are more relatable for homeschoolers.

But more than just that, Vision Forum is the brainchild of Christian Reconstructionism, which is, in a bastardized summation, Reformed thinking + white dominionism reduced down to racist, sexist culture-change moonshine. [If you need a better summary, let me know and I’ll find one. I don’t have the emotional resilience today to take Reconstructionism very seriously.] The point of it seems to be that culture must be 100% fixed to match OT “Biblical” standards, and I mean that — if you dig deep enough, you start finding that their leaders wrote treatises endorsing stoning of rebellious children and race-based slavery. And these guys are speaking at YOUR local homeschool convention.

My point, however, is this: they are highly rational. They believe theology can and should be systematized. They believe that science, done right, will prove creationism. They believe in the ideology not because it fixed their need for a religious addiction (which is my theory about SGM), but because they needed rational fundamentalism more deeply than they needed to be human.

And so, when the system says Doug is wrong, Doug has to go. [Whereas, when SGM’s system suggested that CJ was wrong, the system had to go.]

The second reason is a little more simple than the first. Doug and his crew were out to change the culture, comfort be damned. CJ and his crew were out to lead a group of people and keep themselves financially stable — they didn’t quickly bring fresh blood into the inner circle. But like a shrewed ideologue, Doug Phillips relied on the energy and naïveté of youth to make his movement thrive. His agenda was political — he didn’t need to protect his inner circle so much as he needed cheap labor and innocent energy. These kids (like Bradrick) were raised to be culture warriors, and they believe in the system (which brings me back to my first point).

I guess all that I’m trying to say here is: if you’re going to run a cult and get away with it, make sure people love you more than your ideas. And don’t sleep around or blackmail people. Your sheeple don’t like it much.


I’ve been quiet here since I’ve been traveling, driving solo from DC to LA, but the other night I had the happy experience of an evening with Sarah and Micah Murray, and we talked a lot about our stories and processing the conservative Christian world we’ve come out of. And I had a flash of epiphany this morning as I drove away, so you’re getting an Immodesty Rail post instead of a happy-Hannah travelogue post.

***

When I started courting, I was hyper aware of how everyone else I knew had done this thing, what the stories in Josh Harris’s books showed as the “godly” ways to “walk out” their courtship in “good faith,” and what was necessary for having a healthy romantic relationship. Or at least, I knew what I thought a healthy relationship should look like and I had a pretty good idea of how to make mine look like a happy, godly thing for others to later emulate. This wasn’t conscious — this was just SGM culture.

See, the overall focus of everything in SGM (for me) was: be a good example for others. Every piece of my teenage and college years was set up in reaction to either 1) what my elders would think, and 2) what those younger than me would interpret as license to mimic if they watched my behavior.

Welcome to legalism.

And my ex, being who he is, was also really aware of what was and wasn’t socially acceptable in these circles. As a result (because, luckily for me, I was also aware that I was dating a person), I was tuned into this, too.

Given what we saw modeled for us in courtship culture (and, honestly, serious/”mature” Christian dating culture overall), his initial behavior as my boyfriend was much like this:

From xkcd

And it seemed like the reason he did this (well, the primary reason), was because of the culture in our Christian community where everyone assumed responsibility for policing each other (accountability) and thus you had to behave a certain way to assure everyone that you were being “above reproach” and “mature” and “godly” with your relationship choices. It was basically dating as social performance art.

Being uber happy with your new relationship — in a verbal performance sort of way, because physical demonstrations were too risky/sinful — was the best way to keep everyone off your back. I think, maybe, I engaged in this a lot more than he did. I’d be aware of the social expectations and talk up the positive things in our relationship and try to gloss over or tone down the negative elements. I felt compelled to talk about things that were too intimate to appropriately share (swapping dirt with your girl friends is one thing, but it’s entirely another to share that stuff with everyone to try to preemptively keep them from being “concerned” about you), and it drained me a lot. I felt like I was always on the defensive, needing to justify my relationship and my choices.

I’m not actively assigning motives here, but after all of that I tend to wonder a bit about why courting (or newly dating post-fundy life, or even newlyweds from this background!) couples tend to frequently feel the need to spam social media with announcements of how happy they are, how grateful they are for their bf/gf, how blessed and undeserving they are in/of the relationship. And I don’t really care about PDA if it doesn’t seem like a performance to make a statement.

But that all brings me to the problem with this defensive reaction to accountability in a legalistic atmosphere. Your simple motives aren’t good enough, and you are forced to second-guess yourself and over-think things to the point of cultivating insecurity and codependency. Decisions are made by committee — you talk yourself blue in the face telling everyone you know about your decision dilemmas, and ask endless questions about motives and fears, and then take steps based on where you are at the end of the accountability gauntlet. And advice from mentors and peers and parents is great, but this isn’t that. It’s losing yourself and appropriate sense of boundaries and privacy for the sake of fear, and you often forget to enjoy the ride of a new experience because you’re so afraid you’re doing the wrong thing.

I missed a lot of the joy in various “firsts” because I was so busy over-thinking everything and tense and afraid of doing the wrong thing. And that’s just silly. Dating is supposed to be about learning, not getting everything right the first time.

Why are Christians so afraid of making wrong choices and learning through mistakes? If we’re a practicing a faith that’s centered in grace and redemption, we shouldn’t be obsessing over having the Instagram-perfect, thoroughly “accountable” relationships like in the glossy courtship books our parents handed us. We should be enjoying learning about the beautiful things that can be had in community and learning about ourselves and each other, without fear.

***

All that said, I doubt I’ll ever recommend a relationship book to anyone ever again. Instead, I’ll shove a copy of Daring Greatly in their face and grin and say “this will change your life.”


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.


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)


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.)


Hi. I’m tardy. But that’s okay, right? We’re all messy here.

You wouldn’t believe this week. But I’m going to rest this weekend. It’s so needed. 

Tonight I offer you my post for SAAW day 2! I’m going to write this SAAW response now, and then write the day 3 response tomorrow, if I can. There might be naps or Buffy in between.

***

Day 2 (March 20) is hosted by Joy Bennett of Joy In This Journey

Day 2: 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/

On Wednesday, I was returning to the office after running downstairs to Illy for coffee (it has been such a sleep-deprived week. You have no idea.) and I got into one of the six elevators and pressed the button for the 5th floor like I always do. The elevator creaked and sighed its way up and then hovered and rested softly at the landing. The doors shuddered, then stayed shut. I was trapped. I pushed the “door open” button several times, then the button for the floor, and then I realized it wasn’t going to open.

I paused, sipped my coffee, and eyed the emergency call button. I took another sip. Then I began hitting buttons again, but nothing happened. I wondered about what it would be like if the elevator dropped, and tried one more time before making the emergency call.

The doors slid open, and I stepped out with a deep breath and headed back to my desk. I didn’t feel panicked and I should have called maintenance about it, but I didn’t. It should have been scary, but it wasn’t.

Spiritual abuse combined with my intense childhood years in a big family leaves me a bit odd. I am numb or too okay in situations where I should be experiencing an emotional reaction, yet other things which should be fine and easy are instead crippling and laced with fear.

I won’t freak out in a scary situation where I’m alone or feel like I’m responsible for someone. That has been drummed out of me–I’m the oldest, I’m the responsible one, I fix things, don’t make it worse. But if I’m with a male I subconsciously see as an authority figure? FREAK OUT. I let myself be “weak” out of habit, almost as if I’m trying to manipulate him into taking charge. I may be a functional egalitarian, but my subconscious sometimes won’t let me shake off the hierarchy of complementarian gender roles.

Because I had a particularly bad instance of translation in the NASB used against me in a damaging way, I find myself really struggling to not snark or react strongly to the use of that translation.

When the ESV is used, I hear the voice of the senior pastor at my old church, reading Ephesians, Galatians, Nehemiah, Jeremiah. And I can’t hear the beauty of those books without the layers of legalism and sin-obsessed guilt he laid upon those passages as he preached his way through them, while I took scrupulous notes.

The phrase “do unto others” makes me feel suffocated. It’s a good truth, but we heard it so often in our family that it became a tool to guilt each other into compliance.

“She’s such a/you’re such a blessing,” “by the grace of God,” “thank God,” “I just feel a check in my spirit,” “I felt the Spirit leading me to,” “thank you for serving” — all these phrases make me cringe. I deliberately avoid these phrases (although sometimes, like on Sunday night, I really am led by the Spirit to do something and then my language gets flustered), because these are the things said in SGM to frame discussions, decisions, and limit the scope of reasoning to a simplistic universe. These phrases are stifling, and lack descriptive inspiration, and I refuse their loaded SGM meanings any place in my world.

When I meet a gregarious, smart, thoughtful man in authority, I have to check myself against either completely distrusting him or completely accepting him, because of the pastors I was under and the loyalty they demanded.

When someone is 100% happy with choices and ideologies that would have perpetuated the spiritually abusive patterns I lived under, I have to hold myself back to keep from judging them or feeling like they’re fake. What may have been damaging for me might not be damaging for them, and if it is in fact damaging, they may not be able to recognize that yet, and I can’t fix them or rush them to change. It’s not my place. It’s not my decision.

I get impatient and uncomfortable with “contemporary worship music”–it feels like a performance of “worship” and it drags me back to when how you behaved during the Sunday morning song set in church was a performance for those you hoped would notice and think you humble and godly. And similarly, long sermons with any theologically questionable roots (or a too self-assured pastoral tone) make me really twitchy.

The worst though, are sermons about things like the prodigal son, about God’s unconditional fatherly love for us, his constant love and acceptance and grace. These are the best sermons, but the worst days. If I can’t sit through it, I usually end up crying in the hallway somewhere until I can see straight and go back in time for communion.

These are my scars, the ones most obvious to me. I am healing. I am strong. But these have become part of me, too.

This is part of a series on spiritual abuse. The post from day 1 is here, and the link up for day 2 is here.


When Brian contacted me on Monday offering to guest post, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But I was in for a treat and so are you. Brian’s a good storyteller and doesn’t have his own blog, so I’m delighted to be able to share his testimony of surviving spiritual abuse. We need more men willing to speak up, and it’s encouraging to find some who are giving voice to their experiences. 

Also, my apologies for not posting yesterday — I’ll lump the two posts together on Friday, but sometimes shit happens and there’s not much you can do about it. Tomorrow’s link-up will be hosted by Shaney!

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?

When I was in college, God saved me in my freshman year on Halloween in 2004 – no joke!  The first church I went to was a great Bible-believing church; but when I attended another church before the end of freshman year, there was something irresistible about it.  I concluded that God was calling me to be a part of that local church to grow, thrive, and disciple.  During college breaks, I would attend another church that took an hour to get to – yes, that was the closest church.  Members admired my sacrifice to attend their church and hear God’s word preached.

Upon arriving back during my sophomore year in college, one of my friends on campus continued to disciple me, and I greatly benefitted from his investment and example.  I continued attending the church I started going to at the end of my freshman year and there was a specific unspoken expectation of having to attend every church service and small group meeting regardless of any legitimate excuse; otherwise you would be in sin.  Because of giving my life to the church, of course other members at the church appreciated that!  I was so drunk on the Kool Aid.  Then I noticed that some of my friends there haven’t been keeping in contact with me; consequently, I would call them out in the name of fellowship and use Hebrews 3:12-13 as a rod and beat them over the head with it.  Since I had to confess my sin, they must do likewise.  It was also a time of when I was personally walking through some times of doubt, but couldn’t mention doubt because it was sinful to doubt.  Regardless, I was holding prominent positions at my pharmacy school’s campus ministry and felt hypocritical because of these doubts.  Eventually, the doubts subsided and God re-established my grounding in Christ.  After graduating from college, I moved up to Altoona, PA for my first post-grad position and I noticed the bad and ugly of churches.

I attended one church there and noticed that the demographics were very polarized – either parents or kids; no college-aged students or young adults.  As a single man desiring to get married, that was a problem!  Additionally, the environment was so inclusive; outsiders were forbidden to enter their circle unless if they would drink the Kool Aid.   In order to compensate, I went to Penn State Altoona’s campus ministry and there met my eventual wife.  Shortly after we met, we started dating without jumping through any of their “courtship hoops” and abiding by their regulations.  The pastor there had a problem with that and specifically hated my girlfriend because she was an independent, rational, educated thinker.  The small group meetings were so awkward; it was the same pastor and we learned nothing from there.

Fast forward a few months into our relationship.  We hit some relational problems, and the pastor wanted me to see him to “discuss some matters”.  I wanted to voice our interest in membership, but he rebuked me for not leading and going through the hoops of how to conduct a courtship.  He also wanted me to pass on some information to her and I was thinking, “Why can’t you tell her directly?”  Oh well…

So the whole “courtship” paradigm presented was (and is!) utterly stupid, controlling; in a word – unhealthy.

My girlfriend and I continued discussing other issues within the church. Besides the environment full of everyone forced into the same mold, the preaching was nearly the exact same every week; something to the effect of a 5 minute presentation of the gospel, and “God’s grace is amazing” peppered throughout the message.  Boring… Also, with their talk about evangelism – there really wasn’t a whole lot of that going on.  I personally had a significant struggle with that, considering that the pastor’s main focus was to concentrate efforts on children’s and youth ministries (considering college ministry wasn’t there besides my girlfriend and me!).  I remember him berating me about a Facebook status I genuinely posted about how to continue investing in a church with skewed demographics but also being able to fellowship with other college-aged/young adult Christians.  It was disturbing and we finally had a last chance to either hop on board with them or leave.  He even said, “You’re free to go!  But be careful out there…”.  Bullshit.  Next morning, we found another Bible-believing church in the area that all age groups were well represented, Christ was exalted, and (gasp again!), they held outreach events and maintained solid partnerships with other solid churches throughout the region!

Shortly after my girlfriend and I got engaged, I landed a position 3 hours east of Altoona, thus requiring me to move to the Hershey region while she finished up her semester at Altoona (while planning a wedding!).  With the recent damage inflicted upon us at Altoona, we were very cautious about joining a specific church in the Hershey area.  Same problem: inclusive environment, little evangelism taking place, everyone was the same (e.g. true statistic from the pastor: 95% of the families homeschool their kids).  Since we were different and not following the prescribed “gender role” marriage (i.e. husbands must lead and wives must submit unconditionally), on the fringes we were.  Months later, the pastor there mentioned that a 40-page document about their organization’s former leader was “long” and twisted the report to “guard” us from uncorrupt speech and relationships.  Again – awkward…

With one of the pastors being forced to step down and other bad experiences we had, we left and joined another church just outside of Harrisburg.  Christ is exalted from this church with members from 22 different countries – a very unique treat and gift from God indeed!

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?

I’ve been more raw and brash in my communication.  Spiritually, I sometimes feel burned out.  Disinterested in Christ, no desire to read the Bible, still feel disconnected.  Relationally, I lost some meaningful friendships in the process and struggle with loneliness, even as a married man.  As far as close friends go, I can count with my fingers the numbers of friends I have left.  Simultaneously, our marriage has never been better.  I still struggle with bitterness, anger, and fear, and have been seeking professional biblical counseling for that.  I am still taking medication for depression and anxiety to enable me to better handle my emotions biblically.  Somehow, I know God is using this for good, but am not sure how just yet; heck, I probably won’t find out until after death or Christ’s return.

Why should those who haven’t been hurt care about this issue? What do you wish you could tell those who want to help but weren’t close enough to know or see your situation? What do you wish every pastor knew before starting ministry? What would make the church a safe space for you?

For those who haven’t been hurt, you’re fortunate and I wish I could be in your shoes. Alas, God works in wondrous ways.  Let me address the men and women as individual groups.

Men, don’t be ashamed to share your hurts and struggles.  Sure, it may make you feel more masculine, but there’s a way to take your thoughts and feelings captive to the obedience of Christ.  Example: Psalm 42.  “Why are you downcast?… Hope in God.”  Nothing sinful about acknowledging feeling downcast, but it’s how the psalmist responds to feeling crestfallen.  Hope in God.  If you’re married, you better allow your wife to fully express her perspective on issues.  She’s called a helpmate for obvious reasons; sometimes it’s to deflate your ego as “the leader” and let God control the marriage instead of you.

Women, you’re much more than glorified incubators.  Being a stay-at-home-mom and homeschooling your kids is not all God has for you.  He’s given you a mind to use, analyze, think, and apply.  As a husband, there’s no greater disservice you can do to your husband (if you are married) than to unconditionally support him. Sure, that may boost his ego, but your input is so vital in making sure he guides you both as a team.

For those who want to help, I’m very appreciative.  It’s okay that you haven’t experienced the same hurts we have.  If someone is sharing their story and is still walking through their pain, you don’t even need to say anything initially.  While reading Job, I’ve often wondered how the book of Job would have been written if his friends just sat there with Job and sympathized with him instead of attempting to rationalize the cause of his suffering.  Like in Pilgrim’s Progress, every Christian needs a Faithful and Hopeful.  Point them to who they truly are in the Lord Jesus.  That’s what has been helping me when joining a men’s group.  Nothing else is more efficacious than to realize the worth a human being has in Christ.

 ***

Born in New Jersey, adopted into Virginia, transplanted to Pennsylvania, and am en route to move back to the greater DC region. Majored in Pharmacy, active member of the Pennsylvania Pharmacists Association, and patient advocate. God saved me when I was 18 and has been molding me into the image of Christ for the past 8 and a half years. Happily married for the past 15 months and am expecting to adopt a foster dog by the end of this April.

In short, the message I would like to communicate to every believer is from a modern day holy homey, Trip Lee: Trip Lee – Robot – typography (@triplee116 @rapzilla). “The good life is living by faith in a good God.”


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.

 ***

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