A Survivor’s Conversation With Christianity

by M. Dolon Hickmon

Six years ago I sent a letter to the husband-and-wife authors of a well-known Christian parenting guide. Criticized for its emphasis on corporal punishment and for being circumstantially linked to at least two child-abuse deaths, their book has nevertheless attracted a faithful following. As a result of their book’s polarizing effect, the guide’s authors have for many years featured in public spanking debates.

When I wrote to these authors, I was newly reconverted to the faith of my childhood. It was to be my second go-around with Christianity. The first ended at the age of seven, when I realized that my prayers were doing nothing to keep my abuser from terrorizing my brother and me with the belt. As a second-grader, I struggled to understand how a living God could be so utterly disinterested. I resolved the dilemma by blaming myself. By puberty, I was privately thinking of myself as an atheist.

Still, when I contacted the married authors through a form on their ministry’s website, I was Christian. How that came to be was complicated. Fittingly enough, the story began with an act of God.

Hurricane Charley was supposed to dump lots of rain, but miss my part of Florida by hundreds of miles. Instead, the eye passed directly overhead. Due to the inaccurate forecasting, malls and schools were closed, while shelters never opened. My refuge was the thirty-year-old mobile home that I shared with two other guys. We joined our neighbors in covering windows. By afternoon, the TV was showing intense destruction farther south.

The eye was twelve miles away when our power failed. We waited in stifling heat and darkness. The wind rose to a roar. We heard sounds of flying branches and peeling siding. Our carport blew away, and debris punctured the outside walls. Finally, a gust of wind picked up the entire trailer. I felt a floating sensation as we were lifted into the air. Then pop, pop, pop, as the wind tugged against metal tie-down straps. The house settled and was snatched up again and again. A corner of our roof flapped, then opened like a sardine can. Objects the size of tractor trailers could be heard blowing down the street.

We’re going to die.

I tried reasoning with myself, but my self insisted.

Storms kill people in trailers all the time.

Panic made me want to do something stupid, like run outside. At nearly the same instant, my friends, who had been barely speaking for the last week, faced each other and apologized.

After that, nobody talked.

I faced mortality from what I believed to be one minute away. With my toes dangling over eternity, I never prayed. Rather, the experience reminded me of a particularly fearsome whipping, back when I was no older than seven.
Afterward, I couldn’t shake the memories that the ordeal had triggered: the belt; tears on carpet; my voice begging. Over weeks, more recollections emerged: my older brother wetting the bed; the belt; humiliation; him pleading.
I called my brother on the telephone. “Could these things have happened?”

He laughed. “That’s the least of it.”

Memories haunted me, and at the center, there was our old church and my abuser’s worn-out Bible. I lost my job, all my friends, then my mind. Therapy didn’t work. Medication didn’t work. Nothing worked.

I tried suicide.

An uncle fetched me from the hospital. I hadn’t seen him in twenty years. He’d become a jail chaplain, the kind who wore a braided beard and motorcycle club patches on a black leather vest. His advice: Forget everything you know about Christianity—start again.

I was exhausted. I wanted someone to take care of me. I turned to Jesus.

I joined a church, played guitar at the prison, and taught Bible studies to inmates. Before long I was leading a men’s fellowship. There were benefits to keeping busy, but the nightmares and flashbacks never stopped.

My re-deconversion began at a Wednesday evening church service. Children were told to remain with their parents, rather than leaving for Sunday school. An associate pastor then used his Father’s Day speaking slot to explain the process of cutting and sanding your own wooden paddles. Parents didn’t have to worry, he explained, because the handles would break off if you hit your children too hard. Paddling could leave marks, but if you hugged your kid afterward, that was fine.

I sat in the pew, heart racing. It was the lesson that my childhood pastor had given, thirty years ago. It was why I’d thought being beaten into submission was normal. It was the reason I’d never complained to anyone.

My uncle had convinced me that our old church was strange. He’d insisted that in all his years, he’d never heard anything like it. But here were the same lessons, preached to a six-thousand-member congregation.

I was angry, then confused.

I knew this pastor! He seemed decent. He knew how to juggle.

I approached him after service, and he agreed to a meeting in his office. I relayed a few details of the maltreatment I’d suffered and told him how the evening’s sermon had affected me. He attended, seeming as if he might cry. But when I asked him if he could see how his advice promoted physical abuse, he didn’t get it.

“I said discipline in love and never in anger! I said that you must make clear what was done wrong and hug the child afterward. In this way, the child’s dignity is increased.” The pastor smiled beatifically, as if that settled that.
I answered, “My abuser loved me, and I always knew what I’d done wrong. His attitude was not anger but grim determination. He was taught that beatings would work–and that if they didn’t, his only choice was to beat harder or longer. He hugged me when I was done crying. That made me feel worse, not better.”

The pastor showed me verses from the book of Proverbs; told me those verses were promises—and God couldn’t be a liar. I was willing to believe, but things had happened to me that his verses could not explain.

The pastor’s voice took on the tones of debate; but for me, there was nothing to argue. He’d chosen not to believe my explanation of events—but I couldn’t choose to have had a different childhood.

He suggested that we agree to disagree. From that, it was clear that he hadn’t grasped the stakes: on the question of whether or not to spank, and if so, when and how, it is possible to share a faith and yet differ. But his sermon had reopened the fundamental religious dilemma of my childhood. My faith was critically wounded, though it would take years for me to be able to explain why.

After that meeting, I pored over a century of Christian parenting counsel, including tomes by James Dobson, Richard Fugate, Larry Tomczak, Roy Lessin, and Michael and Debi Pearl. They presented similar views, with nearly identical scriptural underpinnings. Yet when I compared my memories of abuse to the authors’ instructions, there was nothing added or left out.

This matters, because abused children rifle through our books; they hear our sermons and eavesdrop on adult conversations. I know because that is what I did. From these and other inadvertent sources, I tried to discern whether my brother and I were in need of protection.

Here are the messages I gleaned from the church of my childhood: that beating children is acceptable—good for them, in fact; that bruises and welts are of little consequence; that fear is desirable, as is pained screaming and broken sobbing. I’d heard that kids were to be whipped for the least act of disobedience, with belts and sticks and plastic racecar tracks; on bare skin, and as often as an adult thought was necessary.

A child abuser, on the other hand, is someone who doesn’t love you. A parent who never gives hugs because he is angry all the time. A child abuser is a drinker, a druggie, or at best some kind of wild animal. An abuser has no reasons or explanations. He just burns kids with cigarettes and gives them broken arms.

My abuser loved me and hugged me, and he overflowed with explanations. I once got an hour-long lesson on disobedience for leaving a crayon on the floor. While the belt clapped with the measured rhythms of chopping firewood, I struggled to commit verses to memory and to answer quizzes on the metaphysical meanings of the word honor in scripture. Afterward, I was too sore to sit or lie down.

The Bible says, “Don’t exasperate your children by how you treat them.” But I’d been told that it was an adult’s job to make me regret the bad things I did. So instead of feeling exasperated, I pitied my abuser. After all, I was forcing him to do something that he assured me he did not enjoy.

I tolerated being degraded, because that was what I thought a Christian child was supposed to do. I believed that in time I would come to appreciate my abuser’s good intentions. Instead, what dawned during my twenties and early thirties was that I was emotionally ill from being traumatized.

Adults can debate whether my abuser was angry, in some calm, deliberate way; we can say that inflicting emotional injury is the opposite of administering loving discipline; we can draw fine lines between childishness and disobedience. However, such subtle thoughts are lost on a five- or nine-year-old.

The cautions that bracket pastors’ paddling advice are inadequate—not because a few wackos might take the wrong portions literally (though many have), but because abused children certainly will. The evangelical boilerplate protects churches from lawsuits, but it doesn’t tell the youngest Christians that they must protect their bodies and sanity by making an outcry when they are maltreated.

If God inspired my pastor’s sermons on child-whipping, why hadn’t he spared a word for that stoic kindergartner, shifting uncomfortably on his insulted bottom? Did God not realize that I’d been grasping at every mention of the subject of spanking, because the dread of being whipped was a physical illness that followed me night and day?
God’s omission is something that I still have trouble reconciling.

But I hadn’t formed such a thought when I wrote to the authors of that controversial parenting book. At that time, I was still Christian. But I couldn’t ignore the feeling of outraged disgust that grew with each word of that parenting book that I read.

My soul said: This is wrong.

It said: With backward glances and furtive fingers, abused children will read this. They will hear these ideas bellowed from pulpits, now and for the rest of their lives. As children, they will blame themselves for being beaten, and as adults they will wonder how a decent God could let a defective and incomplete message to continue going out in His name.

It took years to distill that gut feeling into the words you have just read. The process involved spending hours per day studying and writing about every facet of spiritual and physical child abuse, PTSD, and corporal punishment. Halfway through, I realized that posing the right question would require an accurate depiction of abuse and survival.
The essay I’d been planning turned into a novel.

The result is a psychological thriller, called 13:24. It follows the son of an evangelical parenting expert as he progresses from a childhood in the church to a career as the singer of a Gothic heavy metal band. A murder investigation involving a fourteen-year-old fan leads to a long-delayed confrontation between the rock singer and his minister dad.

Though it reads like pop fiction, the book delves deeply into the political, cultural and scriptural underpinnings of religion-related child abuse, offering fresh insights, which are intended to add light, rather than heat, to public discussions of the role of the church in preventing child abuse.

Below is the note I sent to the married Christian authors, formatted as a request for advice. The circumstances I described are representative, except that I am not the father in the story.

I am the little boy who could not stop screaming.

My son is six years old, and he cries excessively when I correct him with the Rod. I know the crying is unnecessary because he begins before I’ve even hit him. He falls on the floor and screams murder if I even look like I might be ready to spank him.

I’ve shown my wife how he freaks out when I have not even touched him, but she insists on interrupting every time I spank. She’s taught him that he can get out of being disciplined by making a lot of noise. I spank at least twice a week, more often if needed. I use my belt, which is how my dad disciplined me. As I’ve said, my son is very theatrical. I have told him that he can either stand up or lay on the bed for his spanking. He chooses to stand, then hops around as if I am killing him. I aim for his butt, but with him moving I am getting his back half the time. He also likes to fall down and cover his butt by kneeling or squatting. If he won’t get up, I give him a few strokes on the back to encourage him. Sometimes even this doesn’t work and I wind up chasing him around the bed.

My wife insists that I am spanking too often and too harshly. She gets upset if she sees a welt or a small bruise, especially above the waist. My son is quite the little actor. I’m glad we don’t have any neighbors nearby because by the sound of his screaming you would think a murder was going on! Aside from being plain annoying, his behavior is creating problems for me and my wife. She is so overprotective that my authority is undermined. The kids (I have an older son also) are carrying on like monkeys and she will not let me spank, or when I do, she will not let me do more than a couple of “love taps.”

I tried spanking them when she was out of the house, but of course my younger son reported me to his mother and we had a fight. That one ended with her packing her suitcase and going to her sister’s house.

I am at my wit’s end trying to figure out what to do about my wife’s meddling and my son’s screaming! Please help!!

The response, from the female half of the writing duo, was brief:

Your wife is at fault in coming to your son’s defense. Your son uses her. Either she stays out of the way, or you will have to stop being a real Dad.

Exactly what our pastor told my mother thirty years ago.

—M. Dolon Hickmon is the author of 13:24 – A Story of Faith and Obsession. Set against a backdrop of murder and heavy-metal music, 13:24 examines lives touched by spiritual child abuse and malicious physical punishment. Written with input from experts in relevant fields, it is a fast-paced crime thriller that entertains as it informs. Learn more at the book’s website, http://1324book.com.

Comments open below

NLQ Recommended Reading …

Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment‘ by Janet Heimlich

Quivering Daughters‘ by Hillary McFarland

Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement‘ by Kathryn Joyce

 

About Suzanne Calulu
  • texcee

    I have memories of being bent over my parent’s bed and whipped with a belt or a switch or my mother’s hand. If my dad whipped me, he often used his leather razor strap. I have a memory of when I was a teenager, being chased around the front yard by my father with a belt in his hand, demanding I come back to him and be beaten. I wonder what the neighbors thought of that little episode! My father was a deacon in our Baptist church and my mother was extremely religious. Mom would often threaten to take me “to see the preacher” if I was bad. The implied threat was damnation of my eternal soul for disobeying her. What a way to express Christian love!

  • The_L1985

    This is absolutely disgusting, especially that D.P. insisted your abuser was in the right! It also triggered a memory that I think I need to write about, myself.

  • Joracat

    Spanking is sick. I am pretty sure I had PTSD from it when I was a teenager. It taught me nothing but hate and disrespect for authority. I left home with my second paycheck. Beating helpless children while they scream and try to get away is love? What a delusion. When I had my son I tried talking and explaining things to him, such as why his behavior was not a good idea, and what would happen as a natural consequence so he could learn to think through the ramifications of his decisions. Took a little longer, but he was worth it. Thanks for writing this.

  • Al Stefanelli

    Outstanding!

  • http://biblicalpersonhood.wordpress.com/ Retha Faurie

    Thank you for writing so well, about such an important topic. I cannot remember my church teaching spanking, but I can remember fears that directly relate to beatings. And the other adults in my life would certainly also have chosen his side, if I ever would have complained of the beatings.
    And when you mentioned the conversation with the pastor on spanking, I remembered a similar conversation I had with the reverend of the congregation I used to be in – not on spanking, but his dangerous teachings on a woman’s roles. It was also a case of him just wanting to spew the standard idea he believes without listening how it affect real people. He literally left me in tears.

  • OK1

    Wow,.
    When I came to Canada, I heard that spanking was wrong and not to be tolerated. I disagreed at times because I felt that the state is taking away one tool from the parents to straighten the children when they stop listening to words.
    Spanking to me was using your hand, spank a few times, and this is humiliating enough.
    But I was oblivious to the existence of families like yours, that systematically misused spanking. I did not know there were pastors and book authors who promoted it as a Godly measure.

    Is this spanking, or is this a brutal beating? If this is considered spanking, it must be prohibited.
    What a heart-wrenching account of how beating affected your life. Thank you for sharing it. How sickening it is that the abuse still goes on.

  • M Dolon Hickmon

    Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a little novel that Abe Lincoln credited with starting the civil war; The Fountainhead introduced the world to Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism, and even The DaVinci Code managed to get pastors talking about the Gnostic Gospels.

    What if a book could get pastors talking to children in their own churches about recoginizing and reporting physical abuse? 13:24 is that book.

    13:24 is currently a manuscript and a group of people who believe that it will make a difference. I have invested in post production and printing but to get the book in front of a mass market. I now need help funding publicity. Backers receive a copy of the book when it prints in December. Your support today allows us to distribute advance reader copies to reviewers at major newspapers and national magazines, in time for possible inclusion in themed issues during April, which is National Child Abuse Awareness month. It also funds a 20 city radio tour during March and April.

    Please visit http://1324book.com during the month of September to see a video, read expert reviews, and see sample chapters. Thanks to GodDiscussion for your support!

    http://1324book.com

  • http://biblicalpersonhood.wordpress.com/ Retha Faurie

    The first thing I thought of when I read this was a true story:

    On Kletskerk (the name will translate as Chat Church), a South African Internet forum about religion, atheist Nathan Bond entered the discussion. He loved telling people how bad religion is for people.

    Nathan is verbally gifted and had a lot of time for Internet commenting. He soon had a large following of unbelievers on that forum. (Despite the name, it was not just a Christian forum.) There was a lot of support when Nathan announced his intention to write a book named “Suffer the little children”, about how religion affects children.

    He asked for money on the forum, to get those who back him to fund the project. Several did. The book was never published. It later came out that Nathan have a previous fraud complaint against him. There was also stories of Nathan scamming a woman (whom he met through the Internet forum) out of her money via romantic pretenses.

    ———–

    Seriously? I am not saying you are like Nathan. What I do say is that books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Fountainhead was successfull largely because they were good enough that an actual book publisher wanted them. I don’t think Ayn Rand or Harriet Beecher Stowe had to print at own cost and sell or give away copies themselves. If I wanted to back up a venture like this (I back the cause of not promoting hitting in church, not sure about this venture yet), I’d wait untill a publisher believes in the book, and then buy it for those whom I think need it, as a “good story” to read.

  • M Dolon Hickmon

    Retha: Reviews of the manuscript are posted at http://1324book.com along with bona fides of my reviewers, editor, cover designer, and publicist. Links to off-site resources are provided so that anyone with a mouse can easily verify their credentials. Why don’t you go check it out and report back?

    In the meantime, my editor is Miranda Ottewell, who has edited dozens of bestsellers, including seven on the New York Times bestseller list this year. You can view a list of authors and titles on her website or better yet, Google her name at books.google.com to see her thanked directly on the acknowledgment pages of hundreds of traditionally published books.

    Miranda certainly has an idea of what makes for good writing and a good story, and she has generously agreed to not only edit, but to let me use her reputation to publicize this project. But if the book is that good, why am I not going through a literary agent and a traditional publisher?

    To begin with, the publishing industry has changed, even from five years ago. Last year, 25% of new novels on The New York Times Bestseller list were self-published and 60% of all books were sold online. That doesn’t mean my novel will be a bestseller, but we do have a fair chance of succeeding without the backing of a big publishing house.

    My main reason for self-publishing is to keep control of the content. Over the last thirty years, child abuse books have become a very profitable niche genre, like romance or westerns. A handful of small presses produce a steady stream of very similar books for a small but voracious audience. Acquiring editors accept tear jerking memoirs that end with an uplifting message, and the most lurid and shocking of true stories. Manuscripts are chosen to suit tastes of the genres readers, not to give accurate information or advance new thoughts into the public dialog. In fact, the limited range of allowable storylines has created and now maintains some very unhelpful stereotypes about victims, perpetrators, and survivors. Every survivor/author hopes to take their personal message to a breakout audience—but genre publishers could not care less: they sell a million books per year by selling twenty versions of the same story to the same tiny audience. Their idea of marketing is to slap on a cheap cover and stick you in the ghetto of ‘self help’. Survivors writing books that help each other through the process of recovery is great, but such titles are of little interest to the public. Simply, we don’t influence the world by talking to each other. We need to reach out with something that the rest of the world can relate to.

    In books, popular-fiction on child abuse is practically non-existent. However, the same is not true about television. Police procedurals with themes that center on child abuse draw audiences of millions every day. The trouble with these shows is that their treatment of abuse is very shallow: shows begin when abuse is discovered and end when the perpetrator goes to jail; character development occurs only in the detectives, who are the shows only recurring characters. People get no real sense of what trauma is and how it affects victims over their lifetime.

    13:24 is a totally new kind of survivor fiction. It combines accurate, medically reviewed information about trauma, spiritual abuse, and recovery with a tight, pop-fiction narrative. Detectives are present, but they are not the primary focus. Rather, the investigation provides a framework to follow the victims, giving detailed accounts of their lives from the onset of abuse through adulthood.

    The book is full-fledged suspense thriller, with a deepening criminal mystery and a heavy action component. Due to its graphic scenes, it is not suitable for many survivors. Chapters are 5-6 pages in length, and I use the music, romance and police work as an emotional stop to keep the heaviness of the abuse scenes from becoming overwhelming. This also lets people take in information in small doses.

    I use a plot device that entwines several abusive families into one police case. This has a huge advantage over a memoir, because we see that all perpetrators aren’t the same, and that all victims and abuse aren’t the same. It also lets me go into some depth about many important topics in a way that feels natural. I deal with church abuse and homeschooling, corporal punishment in schools, protective services investigations, the role of politicians and church money, and many others. I also give a full description of PTSD, including cutting edge research into its causes and treatments.

    The book will be printed with or without you. The question is whether or not the world will be offered a chance to read it. If the survivor community sits on their hands, then the funds raised are less and the publicity during March and April will be smaller. That doesn’t mean that the book can’t succeed, but it means that we have that much less chance to get noticed. Bottom line: if we don’t try, then we really don’t know what might have happened.

    http://1324book.com

  • Jeanne M Irons

    Please don’t let people’s actions & misinterpretation of God’s word keep you from Him. God loves you & He is kind, He is good, He is true love the way it should be. I was horribly abused also & stayed away from God for yrs. Don’t waste another minute without Him, there are too many blessings you are missing.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    “I said discipline in love and never in anger! I said that you must make
    clear what was done wrong and hug the child afterward. In this way, the
    child’s dignity is increased.” The pastor smiled beatifically, as if
    that settled that.

    (Remember the movie Forbidden Planet when the robot gets conflicted with cognitive dissonance and just freezes up and arcs?) I think you had the preacher on the ropes and his brain fried on cognitive dissonance; all that was left was to retreat into Thoughtstopper platitudes as he couldn’t handle the alternative. It never seems to have entered his mind that an abuser could redefine Love(TM) to justify the abuse. And his “beatific smile” was something I’ve seen on sociopaths; it means “I. WIN. Period.”

    “Men of Sin” will glom onto any Higher Authority — Torah, Bible, Koran, Marx, Freud, Darwin, Nature, whatever — to get Cosmic-level Justification for what they were going to do anyway.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    Beating helpless children while they scream and try to get away is love?

    Remember Screwtape’s letter to Wormwood about redefining words into their “diabolical meanings”?

  • Jean

    How come hitting a child is loving discipline while hitting an adult is assault and battery and results in arrest?

    When I had children, I found I had no idea how to raise them, so I did the opposite of what my parents did. I found that it is a lot easier to teach than to punish. They are hard wired to please you, so all you have to do is explain what is expected. If they goof, remind them. There is no need to hit, deprive them of anything, or shame them, ever.

  • Mark

    I grew up in one of those families where a “spanking” meant a beating which could go on for forever for a serious infraction like talking back to a parent, or being beaten with a clenched fist (good for several broken bones and a crushed larynx) — and if it wasn’t the physical violence, then there was the emotional violence of a father who made little effort to interact with us in any meaningful way, other than the extended lecture on how much he was having to spend on us (itemized, of course) and how we were so “ungrateful”.

    I somehow managed to keep my faith, though I had to revamp what I believed pretty much from the ground up — all the way from my basic notions of who God was and what God was all about. As far as my father is concerned: he remained abusive, cruel and just downright nasty up to the time when he passed away at the age of 88 last year. I didn’t cry before, during or after the funeral and I have no intention of doing so; I have visited the gravesite *once* since he died — and honestly, as far as I’m concerned he’s gone and GOOD RIDDANCE.

  • dcordell

    Religion provides the perfect cover for sadist and psychopaths.

  • dcordell

    Wow. Just wow.

  • Terri

    My heart is pounding right now and I have a lump in my throat. And that sick feeling. I can remember sprinting out of the house and down the street to try to escape the sound of my siblings shrieking uncontrollably as our dad beat them with his belt. Not to mention my own beatings. How well I know the sickening daily dread and fear of the belt. I’m mystified by people who run away; our beatings were far longer and far worse if we made any effort to escape, so we were broken into staying still even under the worst of my father’s rage. I am haunted by these memories, horrified to this day. I still wake up gasping. I’m 42. I’m still a Christian today because I made the decision that all these people were lying about God, and I got to know God on my own terms, as God is, not as those people told me God is.

  • Fiona1933

    I read your sample chapters and what a unique idea: but why is it written in the present tense? I found I couldnt read it. Present tense is fine to give immediacy for a short part but not the entire book. It made the characters seem unreal and distant. Sorry…this is my job, actually.


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