Warning: This story series contains descriptions of physical abuse.
by Tess Willoughby
Hannah was born at home in spring of 1996. By this time, Nate had a better job at a personal injury law firm and we were able to get a three-bedroom house.
Satan must have followed us, because now there were lesbians having sex in the mailbox and Nate had no idea how the pervert porn peddlers got his name and address again.
I was still in a stupor, still worshipping my cult leader. The lights were on in my brain but no one was home. I think, however, that my brain’s doorbell started ringing in 1996, and Tess’s Good Sense began its three years of patiently knocking, waiting to be invited back in. Doubts, in huge bold type, slipped under the door and were increasingly hard to shove back out onto the doormat of my mind. Even a Branch Davidian or a card-carrying member of the Manson Family would begin to get suspicious when the porno people guessed their leader’s name and address twice.
Nate’s theology had more twists and turns than a ‘coaster at Busch Gardens. I could not keep up, and the numbers of True Christians with whom we could associate grew smaller and smaller.
By degrees, Nate became:
1. A Reformed Baptist—a Calvinist who holds that only “the elect” are predestined to be saved and he’s one of the “elect,” only Nate was the Baptist brand of God’s chosen few, as opposed to the more common Presbyterian variety.
2. A Reformed Baptist Theonomist—all of the above plus embracing Old Testament Law. Nate forbade me to serve bacon, ham, or shellfish. We wore only 100% cotton or other natural fibers.
3. A Reformed Baptist Reconstructionist—all of the above plus a belief that the Old Testament Law as given to Moses should be the one and only law of the United States. This would reconstruct America. In Mosaic Law We Trust.
4. A Reformed Baptist Reconstructionist Polygamist—ditto, with the possibility of the reconstructionist taking multiple wives, the better (and faster) to reconstruct America, my dear.
This was a bit much.
However, Nate was quick to assure me that while God would have no problem with Nate “using his freedom” to take one or more mistresses and call them wives, and while Nate had no problem with polygamy per se—he was actually pretty comfortable with the concept—I, Tess, was so loved by Nate that my husband would set aside his liberty in Christ to sleep with other women out of his great love for me.
Nate did not understand why I was not bowled over with love and gratitude. After all, “God’s Law says . . .” Look at Abraham, Isaac, David, Solomon.
Above all else, we Willoughbys needed to get our theology straight. Biblical correctness became Nate’s consuming passion. We left a church that we had attended for two years because the church split between “preterist Reformed Baptists” and “full preterist Reformed Baptists.” Don’t ask me what this means. It turned nasty, as meaningless church splits tend to do, and the plain vanilla preterists called the full preterists “Hyper-preterist heretics.”
Nate decided that both camps were heretics and did not have enough respect for Mosaic Law, so we would align ourselves with neither group and strike out on our own. And we were on our own, believe you me. Nate ate like a Jew; shunned like the Amish; dunked like a Baptist; was predestined like a Presbyterian; and lusted after a harem like a Mormon or a Muslim, but congratulated himself on his righteous chastity in settling for just boring old me. Nate said that I did not receive the Holy Spirit directly (no female did) but that God was in fact mediated through male authorities—a throwback to medieval Catholicism and the Maleus Malificarum that kicked off the Inquisition and witch trials.
If I put pork sausage on a pizza instead of tasteless turkey sausage, Nate went berserk and preached for half an hour. The evil in our home spread apace: Satan was insinuated amongst our pizza toppings now. I mourned all my girlfriends the heretics, in the church we had left behind. Their Christianity seemed so damned simple and streamlined, despite whether they occasionally got too hyper with their preterism. My brain reeled with the complexity of our family’s new and improved faith.
Oh, and I forgot to mention. I got pregnant. I wish I could say it was with the correct lingeré this time, but I was as unsexy as ever. Sometimes I even wore lingeré that Nate had personally picked out in the store, but on me, it “did nothing for him.” It didn’t matter that there was always something wrong with a certain get-up—I had to put it on anyway. Out of the clear blue, Nate would look at me over his liberal rag of a newspaper with a certain look in his eye, and I would feel sick in the pit of my stomach.
“Do you want to go get dressed up?” Nate would ask, but he wasn’t really asking. I would take the long walk down the hallway to the master bedroom, alone, often terrified of pregnancy, and knowing the lingeré would be wrong. This was our routine twice a week for four years. I was supposed to be already turned on by the time Nate got to the bedroom, from sheer anticipation of his studly self. I cheated with K-Y jelly and hid it in the closet.
In spite of my many sexual shortcomings, Nate managed to get through his five or ten minutes and hit the shower, and then, from 1996 on, I would be struck with terrible post-coital abdominal cramps for several hours. Once they were so excruciating, I had to sit down in the middle of a supermarket aisle. At their mildest, these cramps were ten times worse than any menstrual cramps, and pregnancy intensified them.
By the time I got toward the end of the pregnancy with Matthew, the cramps were debilitating and I could not have sex at all. Nate initially insisted on marital relations anyway, but finally accepted the fact that I was incapacitated. Even Nate wasn’t callous enough to have his way with a woman with gritted teeth and pouring tears more than once or twice.
Matt’s first year of life is a blur. Even photographs summon no memories of him as an infant. I was failing at home-schooling, after some years of relative success, and trying to hide it from Nate. My oldest three were accomplished readers, spellers, and mathematicians, but Hannah was two and barely saying a word. I was exhausted 24/7 and entirely without outside human contact, except for phone calls to relatives. Because Nate had formerly accused me of sin for nursing too much and suppressing ovulation, I nursed Matt in secret—in the middle of the night, in the bathroom, in the closet, like a wayward woman sneaking around with a lover. I evaded Nate’s condemnation.
The isolation was getting to me. I lobbied for Nate to find us a new church. He finally found one that was acceptable, although it was very small and he constantly picked fights with the pastor over dogma. In this new church, I had a new restriction: I was not allowed to sing.
My mom had me singing in church by the time I was three. I sang in church my whole life, sang in high school chorus, took voice classes in college. I love to sing, and I especially love to sing in church. Nate decided that the Bible verse that says women should keep silent in the churches applies to singing. No wife of his was going to sing solos in church in front of everybody. I was going to keep silent in church. I was free to join in with the congregation on the hymns and to say “hello” to folks, but that was it.
I lived for Sundays. My silence seemed a small price to pay, just to have human contact outside my four walls once a week. Something else was different about this church, I noticed immediately. The men in charge were not “in charge.” They didn’t beat their chests and throw their weight around. In fact, the soft-spoken guys up front who led the services were so madly in love with their wives that the wives were pretty much in charge. Of everything. You’d have been hard put to find any “male authority” being “exercised” over anybody. The pastor was more likely to jump up and get lemonade for his wife at a picnic than she was to get up and get lemonade for him, and the big theme in this church was “servanthood” without any sex differentiation. Nate did not notice these warning signs in his new spiritual leaders at first. He was very preoccupied with the goings-on at his law office.