The connection between conservative religiosity and greater proneness towards corporal punishment and authoritarian parenting styles in general is well known. But in contemporary American purity culture this can go to uncommon extremes. Michael Pearl’s well-read and oft-recommended book To Train Up A Child essentially teaches parents to aim to crush all willfulness, any hint of defiance, in a child through ruthlessly calculative beatings that are relentless until the child has not only succumbed but has shown no willingness to even express his negative emotions about the experience lest the beatings just continue and continue. It’s like something straight out of 1984. It’s not enough to punish. The ultimate logic of authoritarianism is that all resistance of spirit has to be crushed. The goal is total and complete domination not just of body but of soul. Pearl is promoting despicable, horrible child abuse. And thanks to the theological blanket that this is wrapped in, Pearl and his followers are not only indifferent to the damage they’re doing to children but are made to feel especially righteous in what they do.
M Dolon Hickmon suffered this brand of child abuse and novelized his experience in the recently released 13:24: A Story of Faith and Obsession. The book explores many more themes related to child abuse than Hickmon directly experienced and addresses its topics through a crime story. George Waye reviewed the book here on Camels With Hammers on Monday. In response, PEI Curmudgeon’s Blog also reviewed the book and then yesterday published an enlightening interview with Hickmon.
In the following section, with light reveals of some of the themes in the plot, Hickmon talks about some of the perversely cruel psychological satisfactions that are part of at least some abusers’ mindsets, including his own abuser’s:
JU: I thought the child pornography connection took away from the impact of the extreme, religiously motivated discipline/abuse. Why did you feel it was important to include the issue of sexually motivated spanking on top of what is usually associated with certain groups of Fundamentalist Christians?
MDH: First, let me say that the premise of criminals trading videos of children being whipped was not one of my inventions; that entire plot was lifted from a news story that I read while in the early stages of formulating the novel, and I have found a considerable number of similar real-life cases since.
The immediate appeal was that it gave a sound framework to tell a series of stories involving different family prototypes and different kinds of victims… Something that influenced me long before I started writing 13:24 was George Bernard Shaw’s 1914 Treatise on Children and Parents. In a section called The Whip, he wrote about the practice of whipping children for disobedience: “Wholesome people would not argue about the taste of such nastinesses: they would spit them out; but we are tainted with flagellomania from our childhood […] Other methods and other punishments were always available: the choice of this one betrayed the sensual impulse which makes the practice an abomination.”
To me this was an eye-opening accusation, because the ‘sensual impulse’ that Shaw dared to put in words involves much more than the sexual kinks of sadism and masochism; it covers all of the unspeakable emotional needs that can be gratified by humiliating and dominating a helpless human being.
I have never thought that my abuser was sexually gratified by beating kids, but when I look back it seems obvious that he was enslaved by a need to feel irresistibly powerful and in control. He had to dominate us completely. And even though his abuse was destroying his children, ruining his marriage, threatening his finances and his standing in the community, he could not subdue his craving to indulge. I saw him repeatedly try and fail to swear off using the strap. And there was no help for his addiction in the church, because there was no recognition that there was any intrinsic reward to be had from whaling on one’s kids.