On How To Help Spiritually Abused Women. An Interview with Vyckie Garrison of No Longer Quivering

This is the fifth interview and seventh overall post of my blogathon for the Secular Student Alliance. Please support the cause of freethinking in high schools and colleges.See links to the many diverse conversations from the blogathon, updated throughout the day, at the blogathon conversation table of contents.

Vyckie Garrison, single mom of 7 kids, is a former adherent of the Quiverfull movement – a growing segment of Christian fundamentalists who advocate biblical patriarchy, prolific motherhood, homeschooling, courtship & betrothal, and other crazy shit like that. Garrison tells the story of how she came to embrace the extreme lifestyle and why she left at her blog No Longer Quivering.

Daniel Fincke:  So Vyckie, you have recently announced the “Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network”. What do you mean by “spiritual abuse”? Have psychologists done any specific work on this concept that you know of? Is it possible to be “spiritually abused” and not feel like you are? Could you feel like you’re happy and yet objectively be a victim of this?

Vyckie Garrison:  I define spiritual abuse as regular abuse compounded and exacerbated by adding “the God factor” into the mix of turmoil and confusion of unsafe, unhealthy relational situations.

I recently detailed this dynamic in an article entitled, “Happily Abused: How to Use a Woman’s Faith & Trust to Make Her a Willing Accomplice to Her Own Abuse”. The gist of it is this:

Abusive situations are disconcerting enough – but when an abused woman is also required to figure out what God would have her to do, the result is an overwhelming entanglement of spiritual discernment, hermeneutics, theology, faith, trust, devotion, spiritual discipline, eternal rewards and judgement, divine intervention, hierarchical authority, angels and demons, sacred vows, and spiritual-mindedness which thoroughly complicates and convolutes and radically reorients the perspective of literally every practical consideration.

The question which the victim asks herself is no longer, “He is hurting me – what should I do?” – instead, it becomes, “He is hurting me, but God loves me and He knows what is best for my life – if I take matters into my own hands, am I really trusting the Lord? Does God have a greater purpose for my suffering? Does God want to use my patient endurance as a witness to draw my husband to Himself? What is more important – my immediate personal safety – or the eternal salvation of my husband’s soul? Is self-preservation godly – or am I seeking instant gratification and the comfort of the flesh? How will I ever be made pure in the refining fires if I remove myself from the heat? Does the clay say to the Potter, what are you doing with me? Is there any biblical justification for leaving my husband when he hasn’t actually hit me or committed adultery? Have I prayed enough? Is my heart right with God? Is Satan deceiving me into destroying my own family? Maybe I just need to have more faith and to be long-suffering and try to submit more wholeheartedly and sincerely? What would Jesus do? Would he defend himself? Would he give up and walk away? Would he withhold his love and forgiveness?” … and on and on and around and around … until the woman is thoroughly overwhelmed and paralyzed by indecision. She cannot even say for sure whether or not she’s being abused, and she never gets around to addressing the only truly relevant question: What should I do?

But wait … it gets worse!

The most insidious spiritual abuse occurs when Believers begin to not only “find contentment” in their abusive circumstances but to find spiritual meaning and divine purpose in their sufferings. This sort of mental gymnastics can easily manifest as a form of Stockholm Syndrome when victims who believe that they have no options – no way out – delude themselves into feeling they do have a certain amount of control when they “choose” to embrace, support and defend their abuser. It is oddly empowering to an abused person to say, “This is what I want – yes, it may be painful, but it is actually beneficial to my spiritual growth. I thank God for this and rejoice in my sufferings because in the end, it all brings glory to my Savior!”

It is at this acute degree of absurdity that the spiritual abuse victim will begin to participate in and even facilitate and inflict abuse upon herself. After all, she “reasons” (though in truth, little of this dynamic is consciously understood) that if God wills her suffering, it must be right and ultimately good, and therefore, why would she want to alleviate or prevent it? Rather – she looks heavenward for the strength to endure and her mind seeks the eternal vantage point from which her present trials seem petty and insignificant.

She stops looking for a way to escape the pain, and instead – she learns to live with it, welcome it, and even thank God for it.

The Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network is a way to bring together those of us who are writing about our experiences to collaborate and cross-promote in order to raise the issue of spiritual abuse in the collective consciousness of online readers.

Daniel Fincke:  So, if I read the above correctly, there is a dimension of felt suffering that is definitely part of it. You wouldn’t call just any woman who lived under the extreme pressures of quiverfull spiritually abused, would you? Does there have to be a struggle between her and that system, or compounding emotional abuse unique to her husband/church/family? Or would you say that the system of quiverfull is inherently abusive, even to women who do not conceive it as a matter of personal struggle at all but would report and genuinely feel totally happy?

Vyckie Garrison: I actually do consider Quiverfull teachings to be inherently abusive. To the extent that a Christian fundamentalist couple adopts the patriarchal ideal in which the husband is the spiritual head of his home and the wife is his submissive “helpmeet” – their relationship is a dangerously dysfunctional dynamic involving a serious imbalance of power which promotes narcissism in the husband and martyrdom for the wife.

What I have discovered through my work with spiritual abuse survivors at No Longer Quivering is that it is most often the women who introduce the biblical teachings about wifely submission to their husbands and really make a push for that sort of dominant/submissive relationship.

The reason this happens is these Christian wives are frustrated by their deadbeat husbands’ lack of leadership – or else, they are married to micro-managers and are desperately seeking to put a positive, “godly” spin on the situations in which they feel trapped.

Here’s the thing: when presented with the option to have a submissive wife, non-abusive husbands are not even tempted. They don’t want it. A husband who is not already a control freak will say, “No thanks, dear. I want a partner, not a doormat.”

On the other hand, those men with a tendency to be insecure (and therefore power hungry and controlling) latch onto the idea of wifely submission with gusto! These men are absolutely thrilled to discover biblical sanction for their domineering, abusive relational tactics.

Daniel Fincke: So, if by turning to quiverfull of her own initiative a woman successfully made her husband rise to his responsibilities, and he wasn’t an abusive sort, but just went along for the ride, could it not be spiritually abusive? There are a lot of fundamentalist marriages that seem happy and they fit that model. If functionally people find they work for them and they fit their own temperaments or are using these techniques to thrive, is it abusive? Even in normal fundamentalist situations? Even in secular relationships where patriarchal patterns still predominate?

The question really gets to whether you think the abuse is intrinsic or whether suffering has to be a part of it, I think. And if it is intrinsic, how do you convince people who think they want it that they don’t? And how do you answer charges that you’re undermining their autonomy to question what will “really” make them happy?

Vyckie Garrison: I have no doubt that the women in patriarchal relationships are truly happy – that is the essence of why Stockholm Syndrome works! It is a way to reconcile the cognitive dissonance abused Christian women feel when they are being denigrated, humiliated, and disrespected and yet – they want the relationship to work so desperately and they are trying so damned hard to please their husbands … and God too.

Quiverfull patriarchal teachings offer a spiritual way for women to believe that their suffering has a heavenly purpose and there is eternal value to their daily self-denial and sacrifices.

Now – I do not want to be guilty of employing the “No True Scotsman” argument – but I do know that many, if not most, Christian couples who say they believe that the husband is the head of the home, do in fact have an egalitarian relationship.

These are the sort of Christians whom, in my fundie days, I’d have considered shallow, “feel good” believers. In other words, “Not True Christians” – LOL

I know Christian women who love Jesus and are committed to serving Him, yes – but they are not fundamentalists and don’t take every word of the Bible literally.

I asked one such friend, Heather, once what it means to her that, as Paul says, the man is the head of the home. “Does that mean your husband gets to make the final decision whenever you two can’t come to an agreement on a particular issue?

“No,” she responded. She paused to think about it for a minute, and then told me, “I guess I don’t really know what it means.” I appreciate her honesty.

It is never my goal to talk a woman out of her sincere Christian belief in Jesus – not even Quiverfull women whom I believe are playing mind games with themselves in order to justify their cooperation with their own oppression and abuse.

At No Longer Quivering, we don’t point fingers at women of faith – we simply share our personal stories and say, “Here’s how it worked out for me.”

Often, in reading those stories, Christian women (and yes, non-fundamentalist and even secular women, too!) recognize their own situations and they write to me saying, “This is what I have been doing! No wonder I am struggling! No wonder it’s not working out according to plan!”

Daniel Fincke: Why are you not interested in dissuading them of their false beliefs? Is it because you’re afraid of scaring them off if you do?

Vyckie Garrison: As a woman who devoted 25+ years of my life to Jesus – I do understand why people believe. I am very familiar with the cognitive benefits of trusting an outside authority when you have no confidence in your ability to make good choices for yourself.

The highly dysfunctional home life in which I grew up guaranteed that I really did need to be “saved.” I felt that empty hole in my heart acutely from an early age. The world can be a big, scary, disorienting place – especially when abusive relationships in one’s childhood do not adequately prepare a person to successfully navigate all the bumps and turns in the road of life.

I view my Christian experience as an important part of my journey toward maturity and wholeness. I think of my faith like a lifeboat which I built as a vessel to get me “through the rapids” of my life, but there came a point when, rather than Christianity carrying me safely through troubled waters, my journey took me in another direction which didn’t necessarily involve water at all – so then, I feel like I picked the lifeboat up and carried it on my back over dry land. I had outgrown my need for that sort of faith, so it became a hinderance to my journey rather than a life saver.

Because of my intimate understanding of the way an abused woman’s mind works – I do not feel the need to control another woman’s journey, but rather – I try to support her where she is along her own path to emotional health and wholeness.

Daniel Fincke: Do you think there is any way that a confrontational atheist who does want to debate religious and philosophical ideas can go about it with a woman who was spiritually abused which won’t fall into another unhealthy control dynamic?

Vyckie Garrison: Again – I can share from my own experience here, because my own “awakening” came as a result of a year-long email correspondence with my atheist uncle, Ron.

My parents divorced before I was old enough to remember my biological father. I did not know him at all until I looked him up on the Internet at age 37. The whole reason I did the search was because I felt obligated to obey the 5th commandment and “honor” my father by contacting him to share the Good News.

Turns out, my dad is already a Christian. He was thrilled to learn that his long-lost daughter was a devoted Christian mother of seven beautiful children – and the editor/publisher of a local “pro-life, pro-family” newspaper, The Nebraska Family Times.

We talked on the phone often and he came to visit us once. After a few years, I had the opportunity to take my family to meet my father’s mother and siblings who all lived in northern Arkansas. My dad warned me ahead of time that his brother, Ron, is not a Christian and he can be “tricky” – he advised me to be careful and try to avoid Ron as much as possible.

But I’d been hearing a different story from my mother for my whole life … she remembered Ron as a kind, intelligent man who was friendly and treated everyone well, including her. My mom often said to me, “You remind me of your Uncle Ron – you would really like him.”

And when I met Ron – I did like him!

There was an instant connection between us, and when I returned home from that trip, there was an email from Ron in my inbox saying he’d really like to get to know me better and would I be open to exchange an email or two?

“The exchange of ideas, delving into the meaning and purpose of life … all of this is excellent and I look forward to the particulars of whatever we may unfold. But … you must know that for my part, the bottom line will always be Jesus. And not some ambiguous Jesus-as-I-perceive-him – but the Word become Flesh as He has revealed Himself in history through the Holy Scriptures.”

That’s how I began what turned into the writing back and forth of nearly 1000 emails between my uncle, Ron – a self-professed skeptic, secular humanist, and iconoclast – and me; a fully-convinced fundamentalist “Quiverfull” Christian.

I told myself (and my dad, who flipped out when he learned of our correspondence) that there was nothing to worry about. I had studied Christian apologetics, I had a sure testimony – plus, I had Jesus in my heart and the Holy Spirit to guide me. The Lord was on my side, and He would be the One to convince my atheist uncle of the Truth with which I was already intimately familiar …

In our letter writing, I did not feel that Ron was directly challenging my Christian beliefs – he never got into a tit-for-tat apologetics debate over the truth/reality of my religious experience. Instead, he asked a lot of questions and showed a genuine interest in understanding what I thought about the various issues and why.

This was an opportunity for me to start thinking again. It forced me re-evaluate all of my presuppositions and to take a more objective appraisal of my fundamentalist assumptions as I tried to anticipate how my explanations would sound to an unbeliever – my brain was in a whirl of activity as I tried desperately to make it all sound as logical to my uncle as it did in my own mind. The only “problem” was that I realized that my “logic” only made sense so long as I confined all my thinking to the narrow worldview of absolute biblical fundamentalism – a mental constraint which Ron did not share and it wasn’t long before I began to think outside the box too.

But the thing that most confused me and totally threw a wrench in my whole fundamentalist paradigm is this: my atheist uncle is a genuinely nice guy. I fried my brain trying to figure out how that could be possible. I’d been convinced that no man can be good without God (my “Big Guy in the Sky” god, to be precise) – and yet, Ron is a good man. That fact totally did not fit with everything I believed about “Truth” and Faith and the nature of God and humanity. In the end, it was our friendship that won out over my ideology.

So to answer your question … (✿◠‿◠) … no, I don’t believe it is effective to “confront” a fundamentalist via debate and argumentation – but it is possible to influence True Believers and jump-start their thinking processes by the sort of compassionate, non-judgmental person that the fundamentalist can relax and be real with. If a Quiverfull Christian were to admit her struggles to her “like-minded” circle of friends, the whole company would be obligated to engage in a the-Lord-works-all-things-together-for-good dialogue of faith, trust and obedience. Most likely, she’ll stick with the smile and skip the guilt-inducing ritual.

If you are honest – without the need to justify or rationalize or pretend – it will be a huge relief and a nearly-impossible-to-resist opportunity for a fundy to open up and be real too. If she can admit to you that sometimes she feels like sassing her husband – and you don’t make her feel like she ought to be ashamed for even thinking such subversive thoughts, it won’t be long before she’ll tell you things you would never believe would enter a fundamentalist’s head!!

Don’t beat her up with her imperfections – her own heart and mind are already doing plenty of that – not to mention her fundamentalist friends who are her only “support system.”

Quiverfull believers are human – and as Brian McClaren states, we are all people in a predicament – only fundies can’t admit their personal predicaments because it’s a bad witness. So they smile and they tell you they’re okay and everything’s good.

Don’t feel like you have to “witness” to a fundamentalist the way she does to you, but do point out when you take pleasure in the good things in your life.

It is true that when challenged on their narrow-minded views, fundamentalists will interpret such “persecution” as evidence that they truly know the mind of God and are righteously doing His work. But it is also true that some will listen and a few will change.

Daniel Fincke:So your site tells the story of people who are still Christians, if I understand correctly? How is that they trust you when you are an atheist? How do they feel about associating with you on a site so critical of a brand of Christianity? How do you build that trust in them too?

Vyckie Garrison:This is actually a frequently asked question to which I’ve responded with an NLQ FAQ: Is No Longer Quivering an Atheist Website?

Short answer: While I make no secret of my unbelief, I mostly am only in-your-face about my atheism and anti-theism on Facebook and my Twitter account, @NoQuivering. Which is why instead of doing a blog-a-thon for SSA Week, I am planning a tweet-a-thon this afternoon.

Daniel Fincke: Has the Quiverfull movement taken notice of you and marked you as a threat or tried to dispute claims about the movement you make? Or have they tried to hide you from sight, lest you lead the flock astray?

Vyckie Garrison: The leaders in the Quiverfull community try to ignore me for the most part.

When I first started No Longer Quivering, a friend of mine – the editor of a popular Quiverfull magazine to which I was a regular contributing writer – posted an article entitled, “My Friend Died” – she wrote that I had died spiritually which is “the most grievous death of all.”

That hurt, because we did know each other fairly well and rather than contact me personally and show a genuine concern for my well-being, my friend wrote me off as “dead.” ٩(͡๏̯͡๏)۶

But – while the leaders ignore No Longer Quivering, secretly, the Quiverfull women are reading. What started out as a trickle of wives commenting and sending emails – has now become of flood of fellow escapees and we are happy to welcome these women into the NLQ community of support where together we are processing, healing and encouraging one another as we work through our experiences of spiritual abuse.

Your Thoughts?

See links to the many diverse conversations from the blogathon, updated throughout the day, at the blogathon conversation table of contents.

Fight spiritual abuse before it happens. Donate to the Secular Student Alliance.

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://hall-of-rage.dreamwidth.org hall-of-rage

    This is so heartening. The idea that compassion really will help people whose religions are subjecting them to emotional abuse, and in particular that No Longer Quivering is growing.


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