On “Passing” and Sticking Out

When I first left home for college, I wasn’t afraid to stick out. I still shared my parents’ beliefs, and there was something satisfying about the shock on a person’s face when she learned that I had twelve siblings. I don’t think anyone could have known me for five minutes without knowing that I was homeschooled K-12, because I let them know proudly. I gladly defended creationism in class, and the incredulous stares didn’t bother me, because I knew I was right and they were wrong. I had been raised God’s way, and they had grown up in “worldly” families.

As my views changed, sticking out got old. REALLY old. I stopped broadcasting creationism or arguing that women’s place was at home, because I no longer believed those things. But some things were harder to change. Passing as normal is much more difficult than simply leaving the beliefs I was been raised with.

One sticking point is my lack of cultural knowledge. Someone mentions an actor or a personality everyone has heard of, and I get a blank. Some of that can be fixed by learning more about popular culture, but there’s so much I’m missing that it doesn’t always matter that I now know who Leonard DiCaprio or Justin Beiber are.

A second thing that makes me stick out is that I don’t have the educational experiences others have. Someone mentions something about band, everyone else jumps in with input and anecdotes, and I’ve got nothing. It doesn’t matter that I now know what high school pep rallies are, because the currency of the discussion is personal experiences not abstract knowledge.

A third factor that makes me seem different is the large number of siblings I have. I generally don’t mention it if I can help it, but sometimes I can’t get around it. Today, for example, I was sitting in the doctor’s office answering questions about my medical history, and you should have seen how high the nurse’s eyebrows went up when she heard the answer to her question about how many brothers and how many sisters I had. Having twelve siblings definitely makes me stick out.

So what does it mean to “pass”? It means nodding and pretending you know what someone is talking about when they mention Chaz Bono. It means trying to find some common experience, anything that seems normal, to share when people are talking about their experiences in public school or the teen years. It means not mentioning how many siblings I have if I can possibly help it. It means pretending to be normal.

Then there is the question of what to do if it doesn’t work, and if your attempt to “pass” fails. Do you explain, or just let it go? Sometimes I explain that I was raised Quiverfull, and what all that entails. Sometimes I just shrug, and change the topic or leave the conversation. It’s about picking your battles. When is it worth it to explain, and when is it simply not worth it?

It will also get easier to “pass” as time goes on. The longer I’m out in the normal world, the more cultural knowledge I’ll pick up, and as my daughter goes to public school I’ll gain even more understanding of the common experiences everyone else has. I’ll never live down having twelve siblings, but the older you get the less that comes up. Perhaps passing for normal will become easier with time because, as the years go by, I will become more normal.

If you were raised Quiverfull, fundamentalist, or what have you, what stories and tips do you have about trying to pass as normal?

Note: This post is not to say that it’s a problem to stick out, or that I’m ashamed of my past or feel that I need to do anything possible to fit in with the group. I would never try to “hide” where I come from from my friends, and it’s not that I have a problem sharing where I come from with total strangers or chance acquaintances. Sometimes those sorts of discussions can be really interesting, and very educational. It’s just that sometimes having to explain can get old. Sometimes the looks can get old. Sometimes I want people to see me for who I am now, not for who I was. For example, if you grew up in the Branch Davidarian cult but left during young adulthood, would you share that with everyone you met? Of course not! My past may affect me, but it doesn’t define me today, and it’s not something everyone needs to know about. It’s just that, with things like my lack of cultural knowledge or my dearth of common experiences or my mega sized family, it’s sometimes hard to keep my past under wraps even if I want to. And that, not a desire to hide who I am, is the point of this post.

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A Matter of Patriarchy
Nine-Year-Old Sluts and Masturbating Dinner Guests
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Anonymous

    I utilize smiling, nodding, and changing the subject tactics quite a bit. I've also concocted a narrative of my life that is factually true, but emphasizes the normal aspects while omitting the cultish ones. I use that in small talk, but will be more honest with someone I am becoming closer with. I've also become more aware that most everyone has something they like to hide or gloss over, and it amuses me to wonder how many times other people are using the same evasive techniques I practice and neither of us even notices. Like, try hiding an eating disorder, for example, or an addiction. I know people that have become adept at doing this. We've all got skeletons, but mine are quiverfull. :)Leah

  • Anonymous

    P.S. My family wasn't quiverfull, strictly speaking, but that's the subculture I come from so I apply the term to my past loosely. Leah

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00987022971262088932 Pam

    I hear you, loud and clear!!I have found, though, that when I'm able to be a bit more open about my past, people have been really understanding and kind, and not judgemental like I thought they'd be. Since homeschooling isn't *quite* as strange as it used to be, I've found that people are more curious about my experience than anything else. And let me tell you – when people want my opinion about homeschooling, I am more than happy to give it to them, even if my opinion is blunt and would offend some!(I basically think it should be illegal, with some caveats, but I say it really nicely and back up my opinion with why I feel that way).I've also said things like "my parents are very religious, so growing up we didn't celebrate Halloween" or "my parents are spiritual pilgrims so we ended up going to a lot of different churches" or "my parents were really strict, so I wasn't allowed to wear a bikini" or (when someone knows a bit of my past) "that movie/song came out during my 'dark ages' so I've never seen/heard it" to sort of give a quick version of why I don't share someone else's experience. I figure people who grew up Jehova's Witness, or in a strict LDS family, or in a really intense hippie family would have similar experiences to me, and that makes me feel less weird. Ok, also, one of the best ways I've found to "pass" is by how I dress, do my hair, and present myself. Even though we were never officially "plain" or anything like that, I did go through the prairie dress/jumper phase (decade +), with the long hair, no makeup, etc etc. So, for me, if I feel pulled together in a cute outfit with my hair the way I like it and some makeup on, I feel normal and that helps a lot.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10562805251128821984 Libby Anne

    Leah – You have it both easier and harder than me. You don't have to explain away a dozen siblings since you only have a few, but you do have to explain not going to college or having a job between when you were 18 and when you were married. Pam – I've used the "my parents are very religious" thing too, and sometimes that's enough to make people say "oh, I get it." No need to get into a lot that way. I haven't used the "my parents were really strict" line, but that's a good idea too!Finally, you're right about dress mattering. I even dyed my hair at one point, figuring surely that would help! And it did, some. I'm not a fashion diva, though, so half the time I'm afraid I'm wearing the wrong thing anyway!

  • http://www.revivingmotherhood.wordpress.com Stephanie

    I agree that looking normal helps. We looked somewhat Amish for most of my growing up so it has taken a long time to look normal and even now I'm not confident about it, but apparently other ppl don't notice so I figure I must be pulling it off OK. It's something I study bc I know perceptions matter.I do the nod thing sometimes. Sometimes I just say, "I had a weird upbringing, think the Duggars." To closer friends I sometimes explain as best I can, but they don't get it. But when it comes to having a lot of siblings, being homeschooled, or knowing a lot of strange but interesting skills (how to milk a goat or can vegetables), it doesn't bother me. I'm actually proud of those things. They are part of what makes me unique and makes my story different. People usually think it's cool. I do appreciate fitting in, but I also love to talk to people and hear their stories, and I think the really crazy stuff can be some of the best and makes people interesting and fun.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10374620768794536239 Sheena

    Well, I'm sure my first technique is one that you're already practicing…Not bringing up the "difference" every time it comes up. For example: I never really celebrated Halloween as a kid, and only went trick-or-treating once, in high school (I haven't again since; that situation was tied into a "friendship" with a serious manipulator, and I'm trying to keep my distance from anything relating to that individual). When others start chatting about Halloween parties, costumes, and so on, I mention those little things I can relate to — like "oh, yeah, the giant bags of mixed up candy are awesome". But, until recently, any time someone mentioned Halloween, my face went blank; I had no way to relate to the idea, and didn't know how to deal with it other than to mumble something about "um, I've actually never dressed up for Halloween" (It's helped that I've jumped in to a few costume parties since).After the obvious first step…I do my research. I listen to others' conversations about things I missed out on, find info on the internet, and ask friends with more knowledge what I need to know. Of course, it helps to find and embrace your own interests; instead of sitcoms and celebrity gossip, I will mention science-fiction and DIY. And I've inspired at least a few friends to start knitting, which is kind of fun :)

  • Brawne Lamia

    As someone who grew up completely mainstream, public school, a slightly larger than average family (4 kids), I have to say, even I get lost in the realm of pop culture depending on who I talk to. I work with middle school aged kids and generally have no idea who they're talking about. My sister doesn't get all of my references and I don't get all of hers, and we're only a year apart. So, while I know you know less pop culture from growing up than we do, just remember, we all tend to do the smile and nod thing in that regard. I don't know if that's reassuring at all.

  • LunaMoth

    I grew up only knowing Christian words to a bunch of popular children's songs/nursery rhymes. "The Song that Never Ends" became "god's love is love that never ends." Chopsticks got Jesus lyrics. I had no idea that chopsticks was anything but a Sunday School song. So I'm hanging out with people. SOmeone is messing around on the piano and starts playing chopsticks. I, imagining that this person is a Christian and wanting to make them feel less awkward about playing a sunday school song, start singing about Jesus and Heaven and stuff.Yeah. Doing things like that makes passing hard…and there's really no way to recover from it. People stare and ask what the heck you're doing and how in the world do you explain that you didn't know Chopsticks wasn't a Sunday School song? The horror.There aren't many things that I might assume to be Christian that really aren't. But man–making those mistakes terrifies me. I can get away with nodding and smiling and can tell people, "Yeah, my parents were really religious." when explaining why I've never done something absolutely normal before…but still.

  • http://janeyqdoe.com Janey

    I'm not sure if this is as much of an issue in the US because people seem to move away for college a lot there, but do you feel that you missed out on having old friends with shared stories? I have close friends whom I've know since we were 11 and, whilst we don't generally reminisce, I know that one of those things that helps cement a bond is being able to revisit a shared past. Reading this article and the comments got me thinking about it. I know when I moved to another state for a few years, I missed having friends around who just knew me and my story. Does this ever come into play for those of you who left, as I'm assuming you're now too 'worldly' to be allowed contact with old friends still in the movement?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11116252614235163923 Cherí

    Hmm. I can relate to the awkward I-have-no-idea-what-you're-talking-about moments more from high school than now. I was also homeschooled K-12, but I've completed college since then, so I'm a bit removed from it. I think it is partly that I've begun to assimilate, and partly that I've just stopped caring so much. I have found people to be generally understanding and nonjudgmental. When someone makes a pop culture reference and I simply say, "I don't know who that is," most people just explain and go on with what they were saying. Or, yes, I just say nothing and Google it later. I'm an introvert, so me not saying much in a conversation isn't something people find unusual. But really, I think it does get easier.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17555077379240209924 Victor Brown

    I totally empathize with you. I was home schooled until eleventh grade, and it was really a shock to get out into the real world. Whenever someone made a cultural reference, I was completely at a loss in knowing how to respond and I didn't mask it very well. In my Statistics class, the teacher was doing a graph of how many siblings each of us had.Sigh. Most kids had one or two siblings. When it came my turn, I said I had seven. Yeah, there were a few seconds of silence. The whole time I was thinking that my family isn't that big. I grew up around people like the Duggars who had huge families. I don't think I'll really ever be "normal," whatever that means. That's fine though. Many people have accepted me the way I am.

  • http://www.sustainablemommy.wordpress.com Naomi

    I was raised Amish Mennonite, home schooled and church schooled so to some degree I think I'll be making an effort to pass my entire life. That said, it does get somewhat easier with time. (I've been out 14 years now, although I spent the first three years out in a fundamentalist home church that was weird and controlling but not as sartorially distinctive.) I've found that most people are totally cool, but you never know which one person (often apparently well-meaning) will be sickeningly condescending, bringing your background up even when it's totally irrelevant to the situation at hand. The trick seems to be hanging on to your personal info until you get a sense of who is "safe" or not. In a professional context I may wait years to divulge it–if ever. Which means that I'm a total drag at work parties. Since I have darker coloring, I've found that people are often unsure about my ethnic background–a little ambiguity can be helpful, if alienating at the same time.Part of the problem, IMO, is being raised to be sweet, compliant, and non-offensive which totally stunts the development of one's ability to deal with jerks. It's not just that some people can be insensitive, but that I feel defenseless in responding to them. In a way the "nice" but annoying people are even worse, because there's no way to tell them that you don't find their Amish jokes even remotely funny.As a grad student at a large research university in the Midwest, I strongly suspect there are far more students on our campus with conservative backgrounds than we realize. Next summer I'll be teaching a women's studies course on popular representations of fundamentalist women. It'll be nice to feel like something of an "insider" for once. :)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02851254020566558895 E. A. H.

    If you want to learn pop culture quickly, find a friend who knows and loves South Park, watch a few episodes with that friend, and have them explain all the jokes and references. It can be very crude at times, and absolutely hilarious at others, but I always feel more culturally savvy after watching. No joke. :-)

  • LunaMoth

    Naomi, I would LOVE to have a look at the syllabus for that course. :)

  • Anonymous

    "Leah – You have it both easier and harder than me. You don't have to explain away a dozen siblings since you only have a few, but you do have to explain not going to college or having a job between when you were 18 and when you were married."Actually I just say I worked in our family's business until I got married. Which is true, I did bookkeeping and other assorted office tasks for my father for years. I don't tell people I never really had any other options, though, and I try to avoid mentioning homeschooling and working for my folks in the same conversation. As a result, I think people get the impression I've had a rather limited existence, but they don't pick up on the controlling ideology and separatist lifestyle that fueled it. Anyway, that's just how I act when I'm trying to "pass for normal", and so far as I know it works, lol. I'm not always so secretive, though, it depends on the person and situation.

  • http://foreverinhell.com Personal Failure

    My parents really weren't all that religious (church every Sunday isn't religious for Catholics. You have to go every day to count as religious.) They just thought it best to completely shelter their children from popular culture.As a result, I have this conversation a lot (this example happened to me yesterday):Person: Remember Breakfast Club? I just saw Judd Nelson and he looks completely different! You can't even tell it's him!Me: Oh. Really? That is something. *hopes they don't get any more specific*Person: What was that other movie he was in, with Molly Ringwald . . .Me: *great. I don't know who Ringwalk is, either* Yeah, it's right on the tip of my tongue. Isn't that frustrating?Person: I'm sure I'll remember later.Me: *I hope not*I'm completely adrift in any conversation regarding popular culture more than 12 years old, and given the recent spate of 80s movies remakes, I'm having to deal with it all over again.Please, don't do this to your kids. It's mean.

  • http://www.sustainablemommy.wordpress.com Naomi

    LunaMoth, I'll be happy to share as soon as I get it written–just send me your e-mail. :) At this point I'm still collecting readings and trying to figure out the structure.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01428093080664074715 Carolyn

    Maybe it is easier to not stick out in a more multicultural setting? I mean, half my officemates are Iranian now, and many more are foreign students. I now know about the governing structure of Iran, and how one celebrates Norooz – and in return I've explained some local customs. It means that I can't assume much about someone sharing my background.

  • http://www.thedrantherlair.com quietpanther

    I enjoy the expressions I get when I tell people I'm the oldest of nine. Here in the middle of the Bible belt, a family that size is uncommon but not unheard-of. It's always a fun bombshell to drop ^_^Friends who tend to bring up a lot of movies that I haven't seen know about my "mile-long list of movies I really need to see and just haven't gotten around to yet". And Netflix is a huge help. ;-)"Worldly" music wasn't really off-limits in my family (though my parents' collection mostly consisted of '80s and '90s CCM), but I've just never really been into music as much as most people. I'll get weird looks when I've never heard of a popular/classic/otherwise-amazing band/artist, but I generally just shrug it off. If you rave enough, I'll probably check them out, but even my favorite music tends to collect dust….

  • http://profile.typepad.com/6p0154323017c1970c Verity3

    I guess I'm starting to understand more why some people want to lie low and keep information private, as a way of asserting control of one's identity. It makes sense; I'm just coming at self-assertion from the opposite direction, it seems. Growing up, I was so focused on lying low and never sharing anything for fear of ridicule. So now I am throwing myself out there, taking more risks and probably erring on the side of oversharing. (Not that I don't try to take other people's feelings into account; it's just that when in doubt, I'm using a different default.)Hmmm. Perhaps I've overcorrected a little. I've been encountering a lot of different sources lately that suggest I might want to experiment with being a little more guarded again. (But not yet, apparently.)

  • Anonymous

    Wow. Talk about obsession with what other people think. It will be interesting to see if your kids turn out healthier than you. Probably not, because they will most likely be the kind of people who make decisions based on public consensus instead of inner conviction. Maybe it's my age, but I've finally reached the conclusion that if I don't hold majority consensus on something I can live with the hairy eyeballs. Their problem. Not mine.

  • http://www.ayoungmomsmusings.blogspot.com Melissa

    Anonymous- It's not worrying about what other people think, it's feeling awkward and out of place in social event after social event because you have no idea what everyone else is talking about, and when you talk about how to sew a ruffle onto a dress people yawn and walk away, and you have no idea what else to say because you weren't allowed to develope a personality of your own and you only have the very limited and outdated interests your parents allowed you to have, and there is no way you will ever catch up on everything you missed while the world was happening all around you just outside your door your whole childhood. I'm sure libby's kids will turn out healthy, because libby will allow them to have a diversity of experience in growing up so that they can choose what they are interested in and become their own person.

  • Anonymous

    My parents limited my access to movies pretty severely (not even all of Disney animated cannon. Still haven't seen all of Little Mermaid or Lion King.) Christian radio only and the local one didn't even play CCM. You were lucky if you got the Gathers and very rarely, when they were feeling edgy, Steven Curtis Chapman. No TV, although that was more because we got bad reception and didn't have money for cable or satellite. But they did let me loose in the library :DI agree that Netflicks is a very good resource for someone who needs "remedial pop culture". I've also spent a lot of time on Wikipedia and TVTropes reading their pages on various media, so I at least have an idea of what people are talking about when they say they love Buffy or X-Files or something. The NOW That's What I Call Music series of compilation albums are cheap and easy to find and helpful in getting a feel for popular music and helped me find a lot of my favorite bands.I also mostly hang out with geeks/LARPers/SCA types/sci-fy fans too, so there's a more concrete "cannon" of what you're expected to know. Also, science fiction clubs and the like tend to be full of socially awkward people who are all weird in some way anyhow, so one more weirdo doesn't really stand out. Has the added bonus that long dresses and long hair aren't unheard of in such circles, so you don't stand out as much visually while you're transitioning your look.