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



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  • Idoya

    thank you

  • I love you very much and I think of you every day and this new life that you are living which is different from the one you were brought up to believe was the path for you. You have a good head on your shoulders! Your story of how your parents locked you in the car reminded me of when my mother physically held me down against my bed and made me SWEAR that the Catholic Church was wrong in all of their teachings and that visiting Mass with a friend of mine wasn’t going to change how “our family” believed and what my “family heritage” taught…because apparently my christianity was something I was born with and something that had been handed down through my parents and grandparents, like antique furniture. Whenever I questioned a belief I had been raised to believe, I was constantly accused of losing my “family heritage and culture.” When I eventually joined the Catholic Church, I had family members calling me to tell me how disappointed they were with me and how ashamed they were with me. The guilt trips didn’t work, and I showed them that I wasn’t leaving the family to join a cult.

    Good luck to you in your new journey. You know I will always be there for you 🙂

  • There’s so much about this that resonates with me, even though I grew up neither Quiverfull nor part of SGM.

    This part especially:

    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.

    That was me until I was about 23. And I’m just now learning that my relationship with my parents (or perhaps rather their relationship to me?) crosses boundaries it shouldn’t in the name of Christian parental love and concern. It’s so difficult. So, so difficult.

    • “There’s so much about this that resonates with me, even though I grew up neither Quiverfull nor part of SGM.” – ME TOO!!!! I was sending portions of this to my husband at work and said, this is scary how much I relate to all of this, and I wasn’t in a church like that.

      This did help me view my mom in a different light, too. We have lots of other issues there, and I’ve been trying to be compassionate and understanding. This gave me another facet to help.

      • There are elements here like Dani & Caris that I relate to as well minus the spiritual abuse (christian mum – I think, & non christian dad). Church was something that I ‘did’ until I met Jesus personally.

        This bit particularly struck big chords “I was morally and emotionally infantile.. successful passive-aggressive.. intellectual irrationality through simplistic logic, and unable to name for myself my own feelings, experiences, loves, fears, passions.” All these things as an emotional foundation.

        I am so thankful that you have written this Hannah & recognise the difficulty of writing to be truthful yet not slanderous. I hope to be able to write out one day. Applauding from the sidelines.

  • Thank you for telling your story in a way that shows that your parents were victims, just as you were. I always get nervous whenever talking about the mistakes my parents made, because I truly believe they were good people doing their best, and they themselves were not spiritually abusive toward me; rather, that they exposed me to teaching that was spiritually abusive and just didn’t realize it. While I don’t think I experienced what you did to the same extent, I can see a lot of my story reflected in yours. Thank you for having the bravery to tell it, and thank you for suggesting this link-up!

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  • This really helped me process my relationship with my own parents. Thank you.

    • Jennifer Stahl

      Me too

  • I totally relate to the bit about judging other people, pointing out their “sins” because that’s apparently “the most loving thing we can do.” Like the time I told my friend her fb profile picture was showing too much skin. Now when I remember that, I cringe. Oh man, I’m so sorry.

  • oh, wow. there are tears streaming down my face and a lump in my throat as big as texas. i have seen this. i have been this. i have done this to my children.
    it has only been in the last year that the chains have begun to fall. each one leaving me with blisters. thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing this story. i am so touched by your bravery.
    and i would love to link up, but i have only written of this experience in my own life as analogy thus far. if that is welcome, i will link it, but if not, i understand. either way, i am floored by this. totally floored.

  • Thank you for articulating the words I could not find about my own parents. I repeated myself the abusive beliefs and tactics I was taught – I did no better for a long time than they did. I just happened to have more resources at my disposal to learn differently and a community to help pull me out. They were doing the best, most godly thing they knew. To me that is probably the saddest thing of all.

  • forgedimagination

    I could practically copy/paste this as my story– down to almost every single detail. Trying to articulate about what happened with my parents is always so difficult for me.They were even more manipulated and abused than I was, but it’s difficult because as the child in this equation I didn’t really have a choice– although they only had the illusion of a choice.

  • Kristen Rosser

    Thank you for hosting this and for sharing your story. I would like to contribute to the synchroblog with this one post that covers all three days’ worth of discussion topics:

    http://krwordgazer.blogspot.com/2013/03/spiritual-abuse-awareness-week-my.html

    • Great! I’ll add your link. 🙂

  • Like Dani and Caris, I can relate to practicing relationship through “speaking the truth in love”. I was on the offering and receiving end of the those conversations. I remember vividly one of the first times I was confronted I was told “If I didn’t love you, I’d let you stay how you are. But I’m saying this as proof of my love.” There was always the veiled threat of excommunication if change was not forthcoming.

    And I lived in fear of being confronted that way. This kind of spiritual abuse directly from my family was limited (though it did happen). More often it came from my peers and church leaders who I wanted so desperately to please. I’m just coming to recognize the damage it has done in shaping who I am. It’s so good to know I am not alone in this. Thank you for sharing your story and for bringing this issue to the light.

    I look forward to the day I’ll be able to openly share my own story. Right now the relationships I’ve managed to maintain after leaving the church just feel too fragile.

  • I was completely engrossed in your post from beginning to end. What a powerful story. Thank you for sharing it. And your love for your parents, your grace and your understanding, is so wonderful. I’m glad you feel free to share your story, but that you also still have a good relationship with your parents.

  • bonniecasad

    I was your parents, for the first 7 years of my firstborn’s life. All the way through my 4th pregnancy. Thank GOD I wouldn’t put up with the crap they were dishing about women (“No! We can’t do a Beth Moore study, she allows men to sit in her audience!” and from the pulpit, “Husband’s do not let your wives be on the internet without you being present.”- that last one because I was asking theological questions that weren’t in line with the church doctrine.) We homeschooled for many years after we left that cult-ish church, but eventually gave that up as well.

    I love the journey I’m on. It’s been hard and interesting, and I am *so grateful* we got out of the “movement” described here. So many I know are still in it, and my kids could be reaping what I had intended to sew so many years ago.

  • This is brave.

    Thank you for sharing this part of your life with so many people. In echo of other voices here, the compassion and empathy you extend to your parents is incredible.

  • Meg White

    I wish I had your courage.

    • Elora’s taking anonymous submissions!

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  • Sarah P

    i SO appreciate you all coming together to give this storytelling space. when I was sorting through a spiritually abusive church experience, people’s stories seem so disconnected and it seemed hard to find credible resources. this is already helping so much.

  • Wow, as someone who did NOT grow up in an spiritually abusive situation, this series has been very eye-opening. Thank you.

  • Emily R

    Oh how I identify… and this gives me pause: “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.” Oh how I am trying to do just that… God help us.

  • EstherEmery

    Sigh. Still just listening. But I am here, and I heard you. Please keep talking.

  • Eileen

    ” 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…”

    This speaks of the tremendous emotional impact this “confrontation” had on Hannah, for in fact, we drove from Wendell-August Forge, under five miles, to her school. And, upon reaching the parking lot at her dorm, asked her to sit for a minute because we needed to talk. It was apparent that the relationship had substantially shifted. The decision to “not get physical” had been theirs, in light of his need to pay off some heavy school loans, and wait to marry until that was behind them. When they changed course, we, as parents, were left confused and not updated. None-the-less, I think she would have called this a “bounded-choice” as they had both been schooled in the Josh Harris School of kissing “dating good-bye”. The shift was difficult for us all to process, as the following fall, they both took great pains to secure “permission” to get engaged, as though we were still working with a courtship model.

    All this comes, I believe from a religious/church framework build on chains of authority instead of relationship.This was clearly confusing and hurtful.

  • [this is from my mom]

    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…”

    This speaks of the tremendous emotional impact this “confrontation” had on Hannah, for in fact, we drove from Wendell-August Forge, under five miles, to her school. And, upon reaching the parking lot at her dorm, asked her to sit for a minute because we needed to talk. It was apparent that the relationship had substantially shifted. The decision to “not get physical” had been theirs, in light of his need to pay off some heavy school loans, and wait to marry until that was behind them. When they changed course, we, as parents, were left confused and not updated. None-the-less, I think she would have called this a “bounded-choice” as they had both been schooled in the Josh Harris School of kissing “dating good-bye”. The shift was difficult for us all to process, as the following fall, they both took great pains to secure “permission” to get engaged, as though we were still working with a courtship model.

    All this comes, I believe from a religious/church framework build on chains of authority instead of relationship.This was clearly confusing and hurtful.

    • My response to this: yes, the emotional impact…

      The “couple of hours” statement was, I suppose, in reference to the whole outing. I felt like a bug under a microscope that whole time–I could tell something was going on and was nervously anticipating the conversation.

      Regarding the other: we wanted dad’s blessing, which is a concept not constrained to just the courtship model. And dad put us through a ton of hoop-jumping to get there, and I was really worried he’d cut me off, so we jumped.

    • Kathie Chiu

      As parents we don’t realize the impact our choices and how we parent will affect them. I have five children – 3 grown and 2 still young teens at home. The way I parent is amazingly different as I’ve grown wiser with years and realized that grey exists everywhere. Some of the events my children describe are vastly different from what actually happened from my point of view. Your mother is right that the emotional impact is what causes your perception to be different. It sounds like you have a good relationship with your mother in that she can write about this without accusation of you exaggerating or misrepresenting the story. Mother/daughter relationships are difficult to navigate through the teens without the added fundamentalist Christian parenting styles in the mix.

  • Rose

    Wow. Thank you thank you thank you for sharing your story. The world needs to hear it.

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  • I really appreciated reading this as someone who probably would have been someone who you’d have called out for sinning.

    I wasn’t raised in the church (my parents were lapsed protestants of an unknown flavor) however, I was a socially awkward goodie-two-shoes kid who had no interest in the kids who were partying and drinking when I was in high school. I fell into hanging out with a crowd of Christian kids who I remember being a lot like how you were describing yourself here…. The best intentions in mind, I’m sure, but of the mindset that the best way to “help” me was to call me out on my various sins. They’d lavish love on me at times when I was doing things that they felt were in line with their faith and chastise me and sometimes outright stop speaking to me when they felt I was out of line.

    In retrospect, I’d call it bullying in the name of Christ.

    I fell into the church world just trying to fit in. Me going to church was like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. The churches I attended had no idea what to do with the teenage girl who showed up without her parents who was having sex and calling herself bisexual and questioning everything that came out of anyone’s mouth yet still claiming to love Jesus. I did not compute in their world.

    The some of the leadership in the church and some of the adults in the church resorted to the same bullying tactics that their children used.

    After four years in the church, I left at age 21 after a pastor decided to write me a long nasty email about how I was a “poor example of a young Christian woman” and that he believed that my blogging was a result of being mentally unstable and decided to dig into archives that I’d written when I was 14 and 15 years old and pull out passages where I’d admitted to doubting God’s existence.

    I don’t consider myself Christian anymore… and even when I was church-going my faith was feeble at best. Certain one day, questioning the next… but I’m a spiritual being. A lot of my spiritual heritage is Christian, and I hate that I have such a fearful reaction around people when I find out that they’re Christian.

    Forgiveness has come easy for some, and less so for others… The peers that bullied me I’ve been able to forgive, many have had shifts in belief since, but some haven’t. We’re no longer as close, understandably. Forgiving the adults has been harder, but I’m trying the best I can to work through it all.

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  • Ardena Anne

    I can relate in many ways to your story. While my parents are not as fundamentalist, a church where we were the odd man out did skew our handling of “grey area” issues. We would end up being somewhat extreme so we could more set apart from the whacked leadership in our church. A church with strong leadership who are sincere about teaching the Word as it is – not being afraid to offend any sort of extremes is vital for families who are passionate enough about God to work hard enough to have a godly heritage. We can’t blame homeschooling or the quiver full movement for spiritual shortcomings and legalism, there is legalism in all sorts of circles no matter education type, views on gender roles, etc – it just may look different in the different circles. Keep the faith, and don’t be afraid of following the Word when it’s truths are counter cultural when you have been hurt by your family’s counter cultural lifestyle. You can do all things through Christ.

  • Katherine

    Hannah, I want to thank you so much for your post. I had a somewhat similar experience when I went to college and became friends with people who were buried in their theology. It mirrored what you were taught as you grew up, and I quickly learned that their form of ‘love’ was to point out every flaw I had and tell me that God couldn’t love me if I didn’t do such and such. Your story is powerful and compelling and I thank you so much for it.

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  • April Kelsey

    I realize I’m a bit late to the party, but I wanted to say that I was particularly struck by this paragraph:

    “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.”

    This. This was so me and my life once upon a time. I think your words really hit home, like nothing else has before, on just how deep my spiritual abuse went. I tend to think that I wasn’t so deeply wounded just because my upbringing doesn’t seem as harsh to me as those who have endured SGM or IFB. But then I remember all those years I sat in a cubicle, wearing homemade red/white/blue uniforms while I studied under ACE, and realize, yeah: My life was insane, too.