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