Sometimes Outward Appearances Lie

Mary’s story is one of the most horrific yet posted on Homeschoolers Anonymous. I say “one of” because there are others just as bad, and some worse. Growing up, Mary was starved, thrown outside for days at a time in the cold with no coat until she nearly froze to death, and deprived of sleep as a child until she could barely stand. And yet, all those years, no one who knew her family knew any of this was going on.

As for my parents, I can assure you that they were not the “fringe” in homeschooling. My dad has an amazing job and they are very well off financially. Dad served as the president of the home schooling organization in our state for quite a few years. They have volunteered at church since I was little, helped out in AWANA, taught Sunday school, kept the nursery, volunteered at other church events, helped organize and plan the homeschool conference in our state every year, volunteered in debate, teach Good News Clubs, host homeschool events in their home and generally keep their reputation about as squeaky clean as is possible.

. . .

My parents did a masterful job of covering up and to this day are revered and treated as role models by church members that I grew up around. There have been a few people that have believed me and my siblings, but the vast majority of them are convinced that my siblings and I are making everything up to purposely ruin our parents’ lives and are convinced that all of us older ones are living in rebellion and have rejected God and everything else we have been taught.

Sometimes outward appearances lie. This same is true of Chandra’s family—Chandra suffered horrible abuse at the hands of her parents, especially her father, and yet her parents were leaders in their homeschool community—and no one knew any of this was happening. Sometimes outward appearances lie.

I was recently conversing with some friends I’ve made over the internet who were also homeschooled, and the following exchange took place:

Andrea: “My parents did a good job hiding all the shit too. To this day my grandparents won’t recognize how awful it was. And the last part of Mary’s story, where everyone at her parents’ church thinks she’s this heinous daughter—omg, I get that. Same thing happened to me. Same. Exact. Thing. Why do all these stories have to be so alike?

Rebecca: “They are all using the same system. I am the ‘prodigal daughter.’ I was talking with my therapist, who I’ve been educating for three years on my background, and asked her if she homeschooled (she doesn’t talk about herself.) She said she didn’t, but knew people who did. I asked her how their experience was, and she said their experience was great, not like mine. I asked if that was according to the parents or the kids, and she said ‘the parents’. The following week, she told me how much she appreciated me bringing that up, it made her realize that things may not be as they seem, which was actually helping her in some situations.

“She said some of their kids went to the best colleges. I said, ‘I went to Oxford.’ And she looks at me and says, ‘yes, I guess going to a good college doesn’t mean that they are happy with every aspect of their experience.’

“She’s a good person, smart, but she never thought through this before.”

Andrea: “Oh that is such a good point. It needs to be said. People say the same to me because I’m in law school. It makes me want to pull out my hair! I mean, the only ones who can speak out about it now are the ones who have gotten out and most likely gotten an education, because that’s what empowers them to speak! So it’s more likely that the people you hear from, all round, will be well educated.”

Here’s the thing about abusers: They’re often really good at hiding it. They’re also really good at spinning things, especially to the outside world. While the homeschooling family I grew up in was fairly authoritarian, it was not abusive in the way as those of Mary, Chandra, Andrea, and Rebecca. Still, my parents have spun what happened to me when I came of age and our relationship broke down. Their friends from church and in the homeschool community heard a very different version of events from what actually happened. My parents are still viewed in their community as the ideal Christian homeschooling family, and like Mary, Chandra, Andrea, and Rebecca, I am the prodigal daughter.

In some cases, like mine, outward appearances don’t tell the whole truth. In other cases, like those of Mary, Chandra, Andrea, and Rebecca, outward appearances lie completely. I’ll finish with this from Mary’s story:

At church we were the model family. My siblings and I lived in utter terror of what would happen to us if we dared misbehave or say anything that they deemed inappropriate while at church or anywhere else out. Nearly a weekly lecture that we received on the way to church was that anything that happened in our household was not to be talked about and was not anyone else’s business. On Sundays, when we had been made to stay up the entire night before, they would force us to drink coffee so that no one would notice how tired we were.

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.

  • Kai

    Could you link to Mary’s Story? Somehow I can’t find a search function at Homeschoolers Anonymous.

    • Katty

      Found it! The link is: http://homeschoolersanonymous.wordpress.com/category/marys-story/
      (Though a link in the text of the OP would still be nice, of course.) ;-)

      • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

        I hope you have tissues handy when you read it …

      • Katty

        Oh, I had already read it. It really was one of the most terrifying stories on HA. (But maybe your comment was addressed to Kai anyways…)

      • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

        Oh. Um, yes it was. Oops.

      • Katty

        *lol* No worries! And I agree – tissues and possibly an iron stomach so as not to succumb to nausea will probably come in handy.

  • Mel

    That is sad, but true.

  • Linnea

    Yes, I like to say that I am (outwardly) successful in life in spite of being homeschooled, not because of it. My family tried to maintain a perfect appearance, and all three of us kids went on to complete graduate or professional degrees, but I don’t believe any of us are truly successful in ways that matter. We are all broken to some extent as a result of growing up in such a toxic and isolated family.

  • Stev84
  • AnotherOne

    “I was talking with my therapist, who I’ve been educating for three years on my background . . . ”

    This reminds me that one of the issues with coming out of this background, especially for those of us who are older. The people who can help us, like therapists, or just sane, loving friends, have no frame of reference for our backgrounds. I went to a therapist briefly when my kids were small, and she was very helpful in some ways, but we ended up not really talking about my childhood at all. This was partly because I had very little idea of how to explain it to her or educate her about it. She gave me some good tools for handling stress and depression, but she dealt with my problems as post-partum issues, when I later realized my feelings were actually crippling fear of having and parenting children and being part of a family rather than an individual–all stuff directly related to my childhood. But at that point, in my late 20s, I still had very little idea of how to explain or understand the complexities of my family of origin. I’ve more or less come to terms with my family’s peculiar mix of disfunction/emotional abuse, itinerancy, fundamentalism, homeschooling, and poverty, but I’m still at a loss as to how to explain it to people, particularly in the highly educated, generally well-off circles in which I now run. Fortunately, as I age, my childhood recedes into the background and becomes a less significant part of my life. There’s a certain identity-affirming comfort in the fact that I’ve now spent more time out of my parents’ home than in it.

    • luckyducky

      That description of the therapist — not the educating about one’s background aspect — but that she had to educate her therapist that appearances aren’t always what they seem rang alarm bells for me.

      One of those things that lay people with a mild interest in mental health/psychology as a discipline would probably be aware of is that things that seem too perfect to be real probably are not real. Isolation along with carefully constructed public personae should be red flags to anyone working in mental health and even if they don’t recognize it in their nearest and dearest (too close) they should recognize the abstract diagnostic criteria.

      Maybe the therapist’s friends/acquaintances who homeschool are healthy, functional families but it shouldn’t come as a surprise that parents use the isolation of homeschooling as a cover or instrument of abuse or that kids who perform well on academically can also be abused or are even high performing because of abuse (just like young elite athletes).

      • Christine

        I get what you’re saying, but I know a lot of professionals who don’t bother to apply their workday skills to their everyday life. I mean, I’d hope that therapists would be an exception to that, but I wouldn’t worry unless there were other problems.

      • luckducky

        Ah, the two health care (one mental health care) professionals that I am the closest to NEVER seem to shut it off… to the point that we are like “give it a rest, you’re not billable right now” ;).

      • Christine

        Actually, that’s reassuring. If you are expecting me to take this mental health stuff seriously in my life, I’d like you to do it in yours. (Maybe a little less vocally than that though). It’s one thing to not bother analyzing every single building you see to figure out if it meets code, it’s another to not do what you ask your clients to do.

      • luckyducky

        Oh, that is just not part of my experience… the CEs in my life can’t help but point out every single ramp that doesn’t meet ADA, every slope failure, every violation of a SWPPP, etc., etc., etc.

      • Christine

        I would like your friends. (That may be me too.)

    • Sophie

      That phrase really caught my attention too because that is my experience with therapy, the first years were just talking about what had happened to me and after that we got started on how to deal with it. I’ve also had similar experiences with partners and close friends, I really can’t talk about my family without going into the history of what has happened. Otherwise it does just look like I’m being awful to my mother, but those who know my history know that being cold with her is the only way I can cope with dealing with her.

    • Gillianren

      You know, every time I get a new therapist, I have to explain my background, and mine isn’t all that unusual. I mean, think about it. How many people in the world had exactly the same upbringing as you did? Probably your siblings. (Arguably, mine did not; because of our relative ages when Dad died, my younger sister had in many ways a very different upbringing than my older sister and I.) And the more unusual yours is, the less likely it is that your therapist even had anything similar.

      I do, however, believe that brushing off any part of your explanation is grounds for firing a therapist. “Not all homeschooling is like that” or whatever, “I know people who homeschool and are fine,” strikes me as brushing off the person’s experience. Not intentionally, but it’s still something that would make me extremely wary of further opening up to a therapist.

    • Alice

      I also had to educate the therapist I saw for a year. I think she didn’t quite know how to help me recover from the extreme isolation since she hadn’t seen it before, but she helped me with the other things I came in for. I also got the idea that she was accustomed to homeschool zealots attacking people for making the tiniest negative comment about homeschooling, so the idea of agreeing home-schooling could be harmful made her very nervous even though she could definitely see it was.

      I saw a different counselor for about 8 sessions in between that time when I was briefly living in another state, and she was more vocally supportive and realized what a big impact home-schooling had had on me. She encouraged me to talk about it even when I was trying to minimize. Her support made me feel more confidant talking about this subject when I went back to the first therapist.

  • smrnda

    Abusive people do this all the time. They maintain a good front and if you leave them, they find a way to twist the story to be about anything except the things they did to you to make you leave.

    On therapists, it’s probably difficult for many therapists since I don’t think most of them know much about these types of subcultures. It’s probably good so many people have shared their stories online.

    • Jayn

      Not to mention that other things can wind up getting blamed on the abused person. My in-laws got divorced around the same time that my FIL stopped practicing medicine, and my MIL felt that she was being blamed by the community for the latter (she had nothing to do with it). While I can’t say how much of that was in her head, I doubt it was entirely baseless.

  • John Kruger

    I have a lot more perspective on the earlier posts about children as an oppressed class now. I suppose as a mostly well adjusted person with a very stable and affirming childhood it is hard for me to see how bad things can get. These stories chill me to the bone.

    If children are isolated from society at large they really are under the complete totalitarian authority of their parents. Allowing this to happen really is too great a risk. Parents have to be responsible for their parenting. I never realized how accountable public education makes parents, or how unaccountable parents can be without it.

  • ILoveJellybeans

    Mary’s story is possibly the most horrific thing I have ever read. I cant believe anyone could hate children that much.

    This is what the HSLDA is defending when they fight against homeschooling regulations.

  • Renee

    I have said it elsewhere, but will say it again- the parents do not have to abuse in order for this to be true. I think stories like these are easily brushed off as “oh, but THEY were abusive!”. I think kids that were not abused, but were simply not taught too well and isolated, are more common. I have seen it, and it is not pretty.

  • Hat Stealer

    Christianity, like all of the big monotheistic religions, warps people, so that they are unable to feel empathy, unable to feel pain, unable to understand suffering or joy, and unable to understand the world around them. The more invested you are in your religion, the more this is true. The only reason these people aren’t suicide bombers is because they weren’t born in the right place.

    • Alice

      You know how Christians always say “You can’t be good without God”? I am really starting to believe it’s easier for atheists and individuals outside of organized religion to be compassionate and moral because they don’t have those natural instincts beaten out of them.

      • NeaDods

        Yup. And on the whole we have no incentive to stick around for abuse or to perpetrate it *just* because we think it will make some deity happy.

        This isn’t to say that some atheists can’t be massive jerks, because we’re all human. But we atheists can’t point to a scripture that says “It’s right to be a massive jerk and I’ll be rewarded for it!”

      • Alice

        Exactly. Even though I’m not an atheist, I really enjoy talking to atheists and reading atheist blogs because the rationality and compassion the majority of you guys have is so refreshing. In contrast, I have to strictly limit how much time I spend in discussions with fundies because I don’t want to die young from high blood pressure.

      • travelerks

        And yet, I credit my christian upbringing with the compassion and morality that I live by. I rejected Christianity many years ago, but I had instilled in me a belief that Jesus was compassionate and moral. I am good without God, and I believe I would have been regardless of my upbringing. But I do believe that Years of Sunday school and a true believer mother helped me become the compassionate person that I am today.

      • tsara

        Sunday School just confused me. Some of the people there would talk about Bible stories as if they were things that actually happened and some people would talk about them as though they were stories, and the ones that talked about them as if they were stories wouldn’t properly answer questions about whether these were stories or things-that-happened, and the other people were all ‘these happened exactly the way we are saying’.

        I didn’t understand that people connected morality and religion until I was at least eight, probably older. CS Lewis taught me that, and also that in order to be a good person you had to do stupid things that showed your trust in Aslan, rather than thinking things through sensibly. (It took me ages to figure out why I was supposed to like Lucy.)

    • Brightie

      Not necessarily. I think it’s more about how individuals teach and interpret it, than about Christianity (or monotheistic religion) itself. Empathy, pain, suffering, joy? Sure Christians can experience that. Passionate Christians who spend a ton of time at their churches and read the Bible on a regular basis can experience that. There are a lot of bad apples, and even for the cool ones understanding the world can be a weak point at times, but religion isn’t always a corrupting force on their brains.

  • Brandy

    This doesn’t just happen to home school families. This is how abusive families work. My mom was a terrorist, and my dad was a major enabler. She would verbally and physically abuse everyone in the house, including my dad if she even had a paranoid thought that one of us was talking about the abuse to others. No one ever knew, but they should have. When I was a kindergartener I went to my teacher crying because I had torn my stockings, and told my teacher my mother was going to beat me because of it. She did nothing. I went to school with spider veins busted on my face, and nothing. As I got older I stopped saying anything because nobody ever helped, and it just put me at risk for more abuse. By the time I became a teen people just didn’t believe me. They would talk to my sugary sweet mama and assume I was just another surly teenager. My husband has seen her monstrous side and tries to tell people, but they rarely believe him either. Abusive people just know how to play the game and make their victims look unbelievable.


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