Tag: Remembering

27Feb

How I Talk to Little Girls (And Why)

It popped up on my Facebook feed last summer once, twice, fifteen times before I started seeing it discussed on prominent blogs. Entire circles of social media lit up at once in a universal Aha! moment at the idea that we are doing a grave disservice to little girls when we compliment their beauty. Lisa Bloom’s article is fascinating and powerful (if you haven’t read it yet, it’s well worth three minutes of your time!), and I am grateful that voices like hers are being heard over the endless glittery din of beauty propaganda. I appreciate her point that commenting on a girl’s beauty disrespects her mind and sets her up for a lifetime of body image issues. However, I also disagree.

I grew up within an extreme religious subculture that required parents to squelch their parental instincts in favor of specific protocol. Our lifestyle encouraged education and Colonial-era homemaking skills while discouraging physical beauty, so most of the compliments I heard growing up fell under the category of accomplishments. My parents freely celebrated my brains and talents, but what I heard even more acutely was the silence when I’d model a new dress.

We didn’t have a television and I wasn’t allowed to look at magazine covers at the grocery store, but some innate girlish part of me had an idea of what beautiful looked like, and I knew it wasn’t me. Few things throughout my childhood hurt as badly as looking in the mirror each morning and feeling sure that if I were even the tiniest bit pretty, someone would have mentioned it to me. I despised my fair skin, my strawberry-blonde hair, and my gangly legs with their perpetually skinned knees, and I absolutely loathed the freckles splattered across my cheeks. In fact, I carried such a low view of my appearance with me to university that I had no response the first time a classmate told me I was beautiful. Clearly, the man was a few fries short of a Happy Meal. (Love you, dear!)

Self-esteem is an ongoing issue for me, but I determined early on not to pass my history of mirror-hate on to my two daughters. The first half of my strategy is by far the hardest: appreciating myself. Every disparaging comment I make about my figure, every gesture of disgust or embarrassment, every dismissal of compliments is soaked up immediately by my girls’ big blue eyes, and it’s scary as hell to remember that I am their introduction course to womanhood. My words about myself will affect what they see in the mirror for their entire lives, and you know what? That day when they survey their own stretch-marked mama bodies and feel like someone rearranged them without their consent and consider the merits of muu-muus and wonder where to even begin with the concealer, even then they will be radiantly beautiful. Which means I have to accept the possibility that I am too.

The other part of my strategy is less about reversing thought patterns and more about giving my instincts permission to love unabashedly. My girls are both artistic, imaginative, curious, and kind; they do brave things and learn from mistakes, and I let them know how much I admire them for it. They are also beautiful. It’s the truth, and my defense against mother-bias is that I’ve never met a little girl who wasn’t beautiful. Their innocence and mischief, their uninhibited smiles, the darling gaps of missing teeth, the residual glow from heaven’s handprint… pure beauty, yes?

I can’t keep such precious, transformative truth a secret, so I tell them. I talk with my daughters about books and brains, but I also let them know how their loveliness fills my eyes to overflowing. It’s just a comment here or there, nothing pre-meditated, but when their daddy smiles proud and tells them they’re beautiful, both six-year-old Natalie and four-year-old Sophie respond in delight: “I know!” There is no trace either of self-deprecation or of conceit (though I’m working with them on a more socially acceptable response) and not even a whisper of wishing they were different. They are beautiful, just as themselves, and they know it.

I follow the same philosophy when talking to the girls’ friends. Their appearances are never the focus of conversation, but I also don’t ignore their new haircuts or sparkling smiles or the outfits they cheerfully cobbled together themselves. I am all too aware of the images and ads that will dog them their whole lives about not being skinny or tan or fashionable enough, and I hope that my voice carries more than its share of weight when it tells them that they are enough. Even in first grade, they are inside-and-out beautiful, and I want them to know this to their core before marketing campaigns try to convince them otherwise.

I believe that we are doing a grave disservice to little girls when we ignore any part of who they are in an effort to control their priorities. I believe that our instinct to celebrate their loveliness in addition to their intelligence and courage and talent exists because we are meant to be holistic beings—soul, spirit, mind, and body. I believe that beauty and brains are in no way mutually exclusive and that we need to stop perpetuating the myth of Either-Or. I believe that our children need to hear every bit of the good we see in them and need to hear it often enough to start answering from a place too far within them for media onslaughts to touch…“I know!”

13Mar

I Want to be Well

Sometimes PTSD steals my breath out from underneath and suspends me midair like a hooked fish, gasping for the oxygen that chokes me.

Sometimes PTSD steals into my dreams on tiptoe, so softly that I don’t realize I can ever wake up again.

Sometimes PTSD steals a conversation away from its original intent and plunges it headfirst into dark water—bottomless, surfaceless, directionless, hopeless.

Sometimes PTSD steals with bone-sharp fingers the joy from happy moments and plants new sets of memories with old pain.

Sometimes PTSD steals away for a week or a month, maybe even a few at a time, to let me get back to living in present-tense, but it often returns when I’m least prepared.

Sometimes PTSD steals glances at the liquor shelf or the medicine cabinet; they’re only brief glances, but I catch them all the same.

Sometimes PTSD steals over my body and paralyzes me from the waist down, the shoulders down, the brain down.

Sometimes PTSD steals a march on my logic and arrives at conclusions that circumvent reality now in favor of reality then.

Sometimes PTSD steals my heart from the ones who cherish it the most.

Always, PTSD steals.

~~~

[Impolite-but-apt vocabulary warning]

17Sep

The Outcome

Part IV
(Preface here, Part I here, Part II here, Part III here)

Since leaving home, I have struggled my way to forgiveness countless times. Each memory starts the struggle over again, so my mind has gotten pretty good at sticking its fingers in its ears and chanting “La la la, I’m not remembering this!” So why, in my effort to forgive and forget, am I bringing up the past I don’t even want to think about?

It’s for women like my mom who may not particularly want kids or have the ability to teach them well but who are being guilt-tripped into thinking that God wants them to birth and educate an unlimited procession of children.

It’s for men like my dad who take as gospel that God is giving them both the responsibility to control their children and a Get Out of Jail Free card to use whatever means necessary.

It’s for parents who think they are supposed to ignore the mental anguish of making their own babies suffer because souls are on the line.

It’s for sincere-hearted people who are told they are unworthy to interpret God’s influence on their lives and agree to let more charismatic people tell them what to believe.

It’s for children who feel in their heart of hearts that they should never have been born because that is the message imprinted every day on their bodies and minds.

I have gotten in touch with some of the other survivors to come out of the cult that influenced my childhood, and the behind-the-scenes truth could not be farther from the idyllic appearance that drew my parents in. It was much as you would expect knowing my story. There was rampant abuse perpetrated by church leaders and parents alike. Families were threatened, coerced, and manipulated into staying on the compound. People with illnesses or injuries were forbidden from seeking medical help. The families that looked so pristine at church meetings hurt each other horribly behind closed doors. The one that particularly inspired my parents recently escaped the group’s confines and fell to pieces on the other side; the parents are now divorced, the children that left with them are bitter, and the children and grandchildren that stayed behind have disowned the rest.

Another family that we had close ties with also crumbled. Their situation was not as extreme as ours, but they took the doctrine of isolation very seriously and crippled their children’s relationships outside the family. Their oldest daughter, now in her mid-twenties, is pregnant with her third child and going through her third divorce. She does not have custody of her other two children, and she wants nothing to do with her old home. One sibling has taken her side; the others look as lost in photos as her parents.

And my family? Before my parents finally abandoned their crusade against imperfection, one sibling attempted suicide multiple times. One became an expert manipulator and a bully. One acted out on friends with the same violence we encountered at home. One became an unapologetic atheist. One suffered from a compulsive stress-related disorder. A few developed learning disabilities. I had unrelenting nightmares. Holidays and special occasions were battlegrounds. To this day, we don’t discuss personal things, and we don’t bring up the past. We’re a far cry from the shiny, happy family my parents envisioned, and I understand all the more why God doesn’t use force to make us into better people: because it simply doesn’t work.

When Christians use the word “grace,” I don’t fully understand what they mean, but I know I experience it every day, both in my ability to wield it and in the gentle way God is centering my life around hope. I have to think that if my parents had encountered that kind of grace (or understood it for what it was), our family would be drastically different today… none of us condemned by impossible ideals, none of us trapped into violence, none of us terrified or broken by each other’s hands, none of us still living under the thumb of that old bully Shame. The scandalous truth is that perfection is a myth and that’s okay. I believe our capacities for kindness and understanding increase dramatically when we accept that, and it adds one more poignant hope to my list: that my family’s story is not yet finished.

~~~

Additional reading:
Sparrows Flutter
by Hillary McFarland
Why Good People Do Bad Things Inside a Cultish Church
by Elizabeth Esther
To Those Who May Be Shocked, Disappointed, and Hurt by the News of My Apostasy
by Vyckie Garrison
Barry’s Post
by Barry Bishop
Patriarchy and Our Daughters
by Taunya
In Which I Discuss the Unthinkable
by Laurie M.
Christian Brainwashing?
by Betsy Markman
Word Games
by Lewis Wells
Christian Families on the Edge
by Rachel D. Ramer
Antidotes to Spiritual Abuse
by Eric M. Paździora
Moving On
by Darcy

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (by Jesus)

16Sep

The Hope

Part III
(Preface here, Part I here, Part II here)

As I reached my teenage years and my privacy began to be invaded in increasingly traumatic ways, I reached out to friends I had met through our on-again-off-again homeschool group. My parents found out and cut off my contact with them, my lifeline. I plunged into a depression so severe that only my dysfunctional view of God kept me from suicide. I knew that God was on my parents’ side, which meant that he was against me, which meant that I had a one-way ticket to hell waiting for me just on the other side of death. No matter how unbearable my life seemed, it was still preferable to being burned alive for eternity.

Around this time, I started being sent to seminars and camps where I was taught how to debate with anyone who might try to sway me from my parents’ beliefs. My desperate knowitallitude was in danger of growing insufferable, but it was during one of those courses that everything began to change for me. I was fifteen and going through a class that fit the entirety of history into our fundamentalist worldview. I had heard it all before, but something clicked in my head that year and I realized with startling clarity how limited our little group of God’s elect really was. We were so adamant about being the only right ones that we were proudly dooming all other ethnic groups, political opinions, religious affiliations, and even hairstyles throughout all of time to a hell that was already overpopulated with abortionists. It just didn’t make sense anymore, and the most startling thought of my life took hold of my mind: What if God isn’t exactly how we believe?

Within a year, I left home to go away to school. Looking back, I regret that I didn’t do anything to help my siblings at that time, but thinking for myself was still so new that I was feeling my way in complete darkness. There was hope in the darkness, though, and that hope was worth pressing through every doubt and fear to grasp.

Hope that I wasn’t some sort of cosmic mistake.
Hope that God loved me.
Hope that God loved other people too, even people with mohawks.
Hope that the pain I had gone through wasn’t my fault.
Hope that doubts wouldn’t destroy or doom me.
Hope that I would be beautiful one day.
Hope that peace and authentic happiness were waiting in my future.

I’m still finding my way, and I probably will be for the rest of my life; formative years are not easily replaced. However, every one of those hopes has proven itself true—and not just true because an opinionated author said so but because I’m living it.

(To be continued…)

15Sep

The Reality

Part II
(Preface here, Part I here)

From babyhood, I was expected to be perfect. (These are the 49 characteristics of perfection, if you’re interested.) Any mistake was evidence of rebellion in my heart, rebellion was “the sin of witchcraft,” and witchcraft could only be driven away through physical pain. If you’ve ever met a typical two-year-old, you can probably imagine how many hours a day were devoted to driving away my rebellion. It didn’t work, of course; I still hadn’t achieved perfection by age five, or eight, or twelve. I tried though. My eternal salvation was on the line every second of every day, and I was terrified of ending up in hell for failing to be polite enough or understand my math problems or keep my younger siblings from making messes.

We read long stretches of the Old Testament every morning with whipping implements nearby in case anyone squirmed, and I learned in a very tactile way about God’s violence. (I still can’t open the first two-thirds of my Bible without risking a panic attack.) I often had to copy down biblical passages that directly condemned me as additional punishment and then show up to church where my dad was a pastor and put on a show of saintliness. I would have hated God with every breath had I not been so scared.

I had plenty to fear: hell for myself, hell for my younger siblings, demons who could read my thoughts, a vengeful God who could read my thoughts, violence at home, ridicule outside our home, church staff who would fire my dad if we misbehaved, trick-or-treaters who would bring Satan to our own front door, policemen who would take us children away if they spotted us, doctors who would take us away if we ever went to the hospital, the government who would take us away if we got social security numbers, my body that could cause men to stumble, my emotions that betrayed my sinful nature, my mind that questioned what I was told, and my heart that was black with wickedness.

My parents were able to use scare tactics and violence to control my siblings and I unchecked for a few reasons. First, the isolation of homeschooling meant that my parents didn’t need to answer to anyone. They didn’t have to take us for medical check-ups or immunizations, they didn’t need our education levels checked, and we rarely had visitors. Our church could have posed some opposition, but with my dad being a pastor and my siblings and I looking for all the world like a row of docile ducklings, I think people tended to brush away misgivings. My parents had uncontested authority over us, especially my dad as the God-ordained head of the family, and absolute power without any checks or balances has the ability to turn even well-meaning people into monsters.

Second, the methods used on my siblings and I instilled in us a deep, unrelenting shame. Horrible things were done to us, and they were all our faults. We were vile creatures; God saw us as worms. Our needs were laughable. Our bodies belonged to our caretakers to treat as they saw fit. We were expected to submit willingly to abuse and then thank our abusers with joy; it was utterly humiliating. And because every bit of it was God’s will, we had no right to protest. We were silenced by religion, fear, and shame… and despite this, my parents never did feel like they had the control over us that God commanded of them.

(To be continued…)

14Sep

The Net

Part I

(Preface here)

I should start by acknowledging that this will not be easy, and not just because of the subject material. The net around my childhood was woven from spiritual, physical, intellectual, and psychological components, and I still can’t identify all the hands that helped to create it. A lot of my memories have been repressed or distorted, and I have no desire to unearth every detail. However, I know for certain that in the net’s efforts to guide me, it nearly strangled me… and that my parents were the ones caught in it first.

Early in their marriage, they became involved with a religious group that could accurately be termed a cult. The leader required members to donate all their money, cut off family ties, and accept his every word as divine revelation. I would find it amazing that one man could dupe so many people into mindlessly obeying him except that I know his tactics by heart. All he had to do was quote a few Bible verses out of context—“Lean not on your own understanding,” “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked,” and “Your ways are not [God’s] ways”—and top it with a few scoops of religious guilt, and sensitive souls were easily convinced that the warnings in their hearts and minds were just part of Satan’s ruse. If you’re not allowed to think for yourself or trust your own instincts, you have no option but blindly following someone who claims to have first dibs on the truth.

While my parents never officially joined the group, it made a deep impression on them. They saw large families of helpful and obedient children with a refreshing disregard for what the rest of the world thought about their uncut hair and homemade jumpers. Women taught their children at home and tended sickness with natural remedies. Men worked the communal farm or crafted artisan furniture. Instead of watching TV in the evenings, everyone would gather to sing and pray. To an impressionable young couple looking in, the group was clearly following the lifestyle that God wanted for his people.

When I was still young, our family moved away from the group and settled in a fairly large city where the cult leader’s absence was filled by teachings from Bill Gothard, Bob Jones Jr., Michael Farris, Mary Pride, Gary Bauer, Jonathan Lindvall, Michael & Debi Pearl, and other Christian fundamentalists. To my parents’ credit, they embraced these teachings because they wanted to do the right thing, and I don’t think they ever once realized the insidious spiritual manipulation happening to them. If God commanded them to throw away the birth control and homeschool their ever-growing brood, who were they to argue? If God wanted them isolated from the world, how could they disobey? If God dangled their children’s souls over open flames and said the only way to save them from hell was to beat them until their wills were broken, what else could they do?

I don’t believe for a second that God really wanted any of those things from them. I’ve struggled for a very long time with how to process God’s involvement in my childhood, and the only answer that brings me peace is knowing that he is not forceful. God did not force those fundamentalist authors to stop writing their propaganda any more than he forced my parents to stop reading it. I think God tried to communicate with my parents the way he does with me now, through intuition and thought-nudges, through the emotions that help us sort out good from bad. Had my parents listened to those, they would have seen our home life for what it truly was—terrifying, heartbreaking, and fraught. However, they had been taught to dismiss both mind and heart as misleading, so my childhood was left to the mercy of religious extremists.

Perhaps I should clarify: There was no mercy.

(To be continued)

9Sep

The Stuff of Brains

I’ve never considered brainwashing to be a particularly accurate term. Brainwashing implies a cleansing, the junk drawer of thoughts replaced with a sparkling fresh emptiness. In reality, though, it involves cramming someone’s mind so full of a certain perspective that no room is left for any others. It is a form of control. It is a form of abuse. And it is a significant part of my history.

I struggle frequently with how much of my past, if any, I should share on here [ed: in addition to what I already have], and there is no easy answer. The simplest solution is to keep steering clear of the topic. This doesn’t offend anyone, it doesn’t stir up the memories I least want to revisit, and it lets dark secrets continue to sleep in peace. Hiding the ugly truth was ingrained in me a long time ago as a virtue; keeping quiet feels like the right choice. Almost.

It would feel right if I didn’t know how profoundly healing honesty can be… or how damaging silence can be. A long time ago, a loved one nearly died from causes I may have been able to prevent had I just been brave enough to tell someone. Now, an alarming number of my college classmates are starting eagerly into the same lifestyle that I barely managed to limp away from, and I wonder who else is going to speak up for their children. Am I still letting myself be victimized into silence when the truth, however incriminating, could help set others free?

As I see it, my experiences are my property to do with as I please. The things other people have done to me are not their secrets; they are mine. The dubious reward to surviving a childhood like mine is that I now have full claim to it. I have both the right to reveal it and the power to destroy reputations with it.

But that is not my goal. If I decide to bring my past into the spotlight, it would be for the dual purpose of making peace with it (a daily effort for as long as I can remember) and showing others where the trap doors are hidden. I am not interested in causing more pain… but more pain would be inevitable, and it would affect more than just myself. There is nothing fair about a childhood of abuse, and the injustice seems double in adulthood as I’m faced with the minefield of what to do about it now. I never asked for the responsibility of forgiveness, much less the one of honesty, and each requires more of me than I think I have to offer.

Perhaps the only reason I’m even daring to mention this is because of writers like Elizabeth Esther and Hillary McFarland who have been brave enough to tell their stories and whose candor spreads healing and understanding. Their courage inspires a spark of recognition in me, and I begin to think I could actually do it, I could finally give myself a voice and speak up for those who don’t feel they have one. But then the years of brainwashing—or rather, braincramming—do their work and re-convince me that the simplest solution is the right one.

Almost.

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