Coming Out of the Cult Closet

by AJ cross posted from her blog I Am Phoenix

The last year has been full of shifts, most of them tumultuous, but most of them ending up being quite positive. In the actual moment, each change didn’t feel positive. It felt like I was wearing skin that didn’t fit me anymore, and I was trying to wrestle out of it. Much like a critter shedding it’s old skin. Painful, itchy, uncomfortable, exhausting. But then each time I shed an old layer, it felt great afterwards to relax and sit in the sun, so to speak with spanking new skin that felt all new and glowing.

Ever since I woke up a year ago, it has been impossible for me to sit very long with anything that doesn’t resonate with my inner nature, which is a place of pure love. Fear is the opposite of love, so anything that was tinted with fear felt ‘off.’ Old habits and old beliefs that didn’t match me anymore started falling off of me, layer by layer.

I quickly began to see that the religious cult that I used to be associated with did not match me anymore. My husband Karl was still an active member in the cult and in Christianity when I woke up.

Interestingly enough, it was me who introduced him to the religion in the first place. Aghhhh. I wrote about my motivation in doing so back in Part 1, where I explain much of the back story in the last six months.

I only introduced Karl to religion as a formality, so that God wouldn’t judge the living daylights out of me and make my life hell on earth for sinning (dating a nonbeliever). I also wanted Karl to ‘punch his ticket’ and enter the religion just so that my family would let him in their front door. I didn’t want Karl to get all religious on me. I just wanted him to do the passing requirements.

But Karl doesn’t do anything in halves. He either does something 100% or he doesn’t do it at all. So he fell into the vat of religion, submerged himself, swam around for two years, then finally came up for air. He was completely brainwashed. He didn’t understand then why I was bothered by the religion. To be honest, I never felt comfortable with he religion, I only went along with it on the surface level. Being married to Karl and actually having to live out the religion in practical day to day life was an affront to my spirit. Seeing what religion did to Karl was my last straw in wanting no more to do with it, and my being his religious punching bag was an additional last straw, if there can be more than one “last straw.”

We butted heads and had many disagreements over the last two year about our beliefs. At first, I just took it, and was rebellious inside of myself. Then finally I started voicing my opinion.

I have always been quiet, easy going, soft spoken, mild mannered, and peaceful. It is difficult for me to work up aggression, and it is very uncomfortable for me to disagree with people. In the past, I have always gone the extra mile, in and out of jungle gyms full of obstacles just to avoid conflict. I would rather hurt myself than have to verbally disagree with someone. Especially someone who is loud, likes to fight, and is a patriarchal bully in the name of God. Anger really bothers me. To other people it may be a normal part of life, but for me, it feels like actual knives in my skin, and it physically hurts.

Being such a peace loving person, it was easy for me to fall into the role of quiet submission that is demanded of females in the cult. A female was forced out of fear from childhood on upwards to respect the “chain of command” and blindly obey the male authority figures in the cult. She wasn’t allowed to ask ‘why.’ and she wasn’t allowed to speak up. To do so would result in various forms of punishment dealt by a male in the name of God. A female was not allowed to have healthy boundaries, and was taught to “give up her rights.” She was not entitled an opinion, and she was not allowed to fight Godly’ discipline,’ whatever form that discipline took. It was easy for me to fall in line with these expectations. I didn’t know any better back then, as we weren’t allowed to socialize with people outside the cult. All the women kept their heads down, their bodies covered, and their mouths shut. We had broken spirits. The men broke us. We didn’t have fight left in us.

So it was easier for me to fall into line in the cult because I loved peace so much.

However, being a peaceful natured person also made it twice as difficult to go against my nature and fight my way out of the cult by standing up to the patriarchs.

Needless to say, I have had my work cut out for me over the last year. I have had my patience tried sorely, and I have been verbally attacked more than I ever have in my whole life, just because I was standing up to the cult in my own home.

The most difficult part of this past year was standing up for what I believed in front of Karl. The cult turned him into a religious monster. All I did was fend off attack after attack from him.

I lived in fear of him for over a year, but I kept fighting it and never once did I revert back to being the fearful submissive female I used to be, the one the cult demanded me to be.

If I had just simply given in to him and went submissive and quiet, our home would have been peaceful. But I just couldn’t live with all that fear, hatred, judgment, hypocrisy.<

I couldn’t live in a lie.

I couldn’t agree with the cult any more.

I didn’t write about the drama when it was going on, because it didn’t have a resolution. But I can write about it now because….. drum roll…. Karl exhausted himself with me, I didn’t give up, and the light started breaking over his head as well.

He doesn’t believe in the cult anymore, and he isn’t a Christian anymore. He is still shaking out the kinks, but I think I am safe around him now, and I don’t think I have to worry about him attacking me and trying to bully me back into the cult.

So the biggest achievement of this past year has been that I have stood up for myself repeatedly in front of Karl for two years, and I have survived the skirmishes. The icing on the cake is that he has started doubting the cult. He is starting to see for the first time how awful it is, and looking back, he says he can’t believe what he allowed it to do to him.

The other big achievement over the last year has been my standing up to another patriarch, my brother in law Clark. Clark is married to my sister Louisa. He has abused her for over a decade, still does so, and is in Christian ministry.

Clark also mentored my husband last summer, until I caught him abusing his friendship with Karl and sent him a letter telling him in no uncertain terms that I was appalled and that the mentorship was over.

It was a big deal, standing up to Clark. I have known him and interacted with him for over a decade and never had issues with him in the past. But then again, I was so asleep and blind back then.

Now I am awake, and ever since Clark stepped into my life as Karl’s mentor and started poisoning the waters behind my back, I rose to the occasion. True, it took a few months to actually rise to action and I moved in slow motion, but I eventually did confront him. I wrote in detail what happened here, where I shared  how I mustered the courage to confront him and what happened after I sent the letter

I realize that it would be no big deal for most women to grab the bull by the horns and lamblast a man like Clark instantly, and think nothing of it. I admire women like that and always have.

I’m still learning to set healthy boundaries, and this blog is where I record my transformation. By most women’s standards, I’m probably still in kindergarten as far as my experience with and proficiency in “standing up for yourself.”

But I tell myself that it is OK. My early formative years were complicated and twisted, and the learning simply didn’t happen as a child like it does for most. I was brainwashed and threatened, and through fear I let down all my healthy boundaries and was patted on the back for being Godly.

Thank goodness I see the light now. Things occasionally still feel unnatural and bumpy even now, and it still takes me longer than most people to make a comeback and express myself. But I am making progress. That’s truly what counts.

But back to the letter. Several months after I sent the letter to my brother-in-law Clark, I still felt very repressed because I had promised Clark that I wouldn’t tell his wife what happened, and I wouldn’t tell my other sisters what he was saying in the name of God behind their backs.<

I fought with myself  every day that summer for months on end, torn between keeping  a toxic secret and standing up for myself and my sisters.

I have these beautiful friends online who often post inspirational messages about honoring the self, loving yourself, being brave, standing up for yourself and respecting your boundaries. I don’t even think these friends know how much these little reminders have buoyed me up and helped me believe in myself. Having their support kept my subconscious self in a strong, loving vibration.

By the summer’s end, I got to the point that I realized that my heart was telling me to stand up for what is healthy and right for me, even if my husband and brother in law would get mad at me. I was done bottling up other people’s toxic secrets.

So I worked up my gumption and called my mom and told her. I was shaking and crying because I was afraid of what Karl would do once he found out, and afraid because I was not being a good submissive wife. Karl had flipped out and threatened me not tell anyone. Under cult rules, he has the right to intimidate me.

After I told my mom, she was outraged at what Clark said and did, and she told me she was so glad I told her. I went limp with relief. She also told me I should tell Louisa… right away.

Gosh, I didn’t know my mom was such a rebel. But then, she could afford to be in this instance because it was no skin off her back that I told. She wasn’t the one spilling secrets, she was just a passive bystander who happened to hear. But as for me, at this point in time I still had one foot locked in the old fearful, submissive way of life, where it is dangerous to go against male authority.

A few days later, I texted Louisa and told her I needed to tell her something. She called me back, and I told her what her husband was saying and doing in the name of God behind her back. She was appalled. She eventually told him, and apparently he cried and said he didn’t know how to control his tongue, and was so ashamed.

Louisa actually told me that I shouldn’t have waited so long to tell her what her husband said behind her back. “Next time,” she told me, “You tell me right away.”

Again, I was shocked that both Louisa and my mom backed me up in being the unsubmissive leaker of information. I thought they would chide me for not playing my submissive Christian role and for going against the wishes of two patriarchs, both Karl and Clark.

However, neither of them were doing anything taboo. Neither of them were threatened by a patriarch. It was me who was going against a patriarch’s wishes, and it was me who was earning for myself another verbal attack at home.

I actually never told Karl that I let the cat out of the bag. Until the other day. He acted worried, but then because he isn’t in the cult as much now as before, he let it go. I was wise to not tell him back then.

And even more than that, I was proud of myself for listening to my heart and standing up for myself and my sisters.

The rest of the summer went by quickly after that.

Since then, I haven’t been to the family’s homestead or to any of my siblings’ homes. Also since then, my husband and I bought a new home that is almost two hours away from my family’s town. We used to live only five minutes from most of my family members.

Also since than Karl and I have skipped both Thanksgiving and Christmas at my family’s homestead, and I haven’t called my mom.

My mom is such a gentle and good soul, but I have needed this break from family drama. I did talk on the phone with my mom twice in the last few weeks for the first time since the summer. She actually called me both times, which is extremely rare

Both times on the phone, my mom said that my dad wanted to see a copy of the email from Clark, so that he could apparently chastise Clark.

I was shocked. As a patriarch, each Christian man in the cult has unlimited power, and simply isn’t chided by another patriarch. It has been this way for over 40 years in my family, since long before I was born. Each patriarch is given unlimited control, and they don’t cross each other or discipline each other, especially when one is abusing his power. Abusing someone in the name of God is a patriarch’s unquestioned right. It just simply happens, and the patriarch gets away with it.

If my dad were really going to check up on my Clark, that would throw the whole system out of whack. I couldn’t believe this good news.

Then I could believe it.

I have a set of affirmation cards that I flip through and read to myself often, that I eventually will do EFT with. The one card I’ve been reading several times a day is “I stand up for myself, and life supports me in unexpected, loving ways.”

So I’ve been expecting and thanking life several times a day for being such a lovely, supportive scaffold for me, and for surprising me in unexpected, loving ways.

And because of this, I wasn’t so surprised that my dad suddenly might want to put a check on the abuse of another patriarch’s power for the first and only time I’ve had cognition of.

So I stewed for a month or so, debating if I wanted enlighten my dad on what Clark was doing. I resisted it, because what Clark was doing was no more outrageous than anything my dad has done. Why would my dad want to chastise his son-in-law for things he was just as equally guilty of? Why tattletale on the pot, when the kettle is just as black?

But eventually I decided to send the letter outing Clark. In the letter to my parents, I also explained that I didn’t feel comfortable visiting their home while Clark was there, sine he was gunning for me (a non-Christian), and I didn’t prefer another skirmish with him.

My dad wrote back to me quite a nice letter. But he didn’t say anything about confronting Clark. And he also gave me some life advice straight from the cult handbook. Which was kind of him to want to give me advice. But since he gave me advice, I decided I would have to write back and say that I didn’t belief in the cult anymore, and didn’t feel comfortable taking that advice.

The letter I wrote to Clark was like tiddlywinks and child’s play compared to the one I sent to my dad. The one I sent my dad laid it all out there.

I expressed things I have been too scared to tell my dad my whole life.

Writing it was cathartic, and I felt like I was coming out of the cult closet for the first time in my life.

After I sent it, my whole body was burning hot, and it lasted for an hour. I felt so clear headed and empowered after I sent it.

I poured decades of anger, repression, tears, confusion, fear, and pain into that letter.

Then I pressed ‘send.’

That night I slept soundly.

Here’s the letter I wrote to my dad:

No worries, I don’t hold grudges, you are forgiven. As is Clark.

But forgiving doesn’t mean I agree with everything he does or the advice you gave, even though I know it came from a well-meaning, good place.

I do not agree with the Bill Gothard doctrine. I find it to be a doctrine of fear, and one that easily allows a misuse of power by men. It is doctrines like this that keep innocent women like Louisa stuck in abusive marriages, out of fear of demonic attack.

I do not agree that an umbrella with holes is better than no umbrella at all. To say that is to say that it is better to have an abusive husband than no husband at all.

What is also implied is that it is better to have an abusive husband than an attack from demonic influences.

First, I don’t fear demons at all. The rain falls on the ‘good’ and the ‘evil’ alike. Good comes to people whether they are ‘good’ or following ‘the rules’ or not. If you are afraid of demons, then they are there and they will attack you. If you believe in them, they are there because you create that reality as truth simply by your belief. But if you do not live in a place of fear, and you only see love, there are no demons and you are safe.

As such, with no demons to fear, a female doesn’t have to worry about demonic attack, and shouldn’t be forced out of fear to stay with a man who is abusive.

Also, the Bill Gothard doctrine gives men too much unchecked power, and takes away vital rights from women. It should be a woman’s right to stand up and question something that her heart tells her isn’t emotionally healthy, but under this doctrine, women don’t have that right. You often yelled at us and made us cower and said, “Don’t EVER ask me WHY!?!” in an angry tone, and we as females never had a right to even gently ask questions. That is bully like behavior, in the name of God. We were afraid to question, and any time a person is not allowed to question something, that is a red flag.

I have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in large part because I was extremely afraid of you growing up, and still am. To get angry when a female child tries to express something and to tell her that in the name of God she doesn’t have that right to speak up…. is unhealthy. I have never been able to speak up and as a female, this has allowed me to be a victim in numerous life situations as an adult. I put myself there because I thought it was good and Godly not to speak up, but in fact this belief served to fail me and I paid the price for it.

I am living proof that the Bill Gothard doctrine is dangerous and unhealthy for women. It is an ego boost for men though. Men get nothing but added privileges so as a man, it is understandable that you probably see nothing wrong with the doctrine. Unless you can live in the shoes of a woman and pray meekly for/live with a man like Clark, then you can never experience how deadly this doctrine is, and how it can cut to a woman’s soul.

I don’t agree with the belief that a woman’s prayers alone can patch a man’s umbrella. That is like saying that a man has no responsibility for his own harmful actions towards women and children. That if he is being abusive and irresponsible, that it is not his fault, but it is the fault of the woman who didn’t pray enough.

Is this Clark’s only problem then? That Louisa hasn’t been praying hard enough for the last decade plus?

Is his holey umbrella that way only because Louisa didn’t pray enough?

Obviously, prayer is not the only answer in patching an umbrella.<

The main responsibility to patch an umbrella is the man holding it. If a man is being awful towards other people, it is HIS responsibility to patch himself, not just his wife.

Yet the wife is held accountable, and the holey umbrella above her is seen as a reflection of her own lack of prayer and submission. And she suffers in silence. She has no power, and she can’t tell anyone. If she does, she is shamed and told to pray more. She is trapped, but feels this is Godly. The blame is put on her, not the man.

And nobody comes to help her. Nobody. Nobody chastises the man. No, it’s the woman’s fault for not praying or being submissive.

Apparently, it is my fault that Karl was treating me badly. There is no help for me except prayer and my being more quiet, supportive and submissive.

I do not agree with that advice. Every cell in my body cries out that is not right. That is cruel advice.

I also do not agree with the Gothard doctrine because it puts unchecked power in the hands of a man. There is no system of accountability above the man except God. I think this is dangerous because it allows the man to just continue on with no interference. Nobody said anything to Clark all those years back, no one is saying anything to him now. Karl starts following in his footsteps, and they both go along merrily, safe because they are Christian males, while your daughters take the brunt of it.

The men continue to get away with it, and your daughters are told to stay with them, be submissive and pray.

How did prayer work out for Louisa? Everyone knew that she wasn’t happy for over a decade, and nobody stepped in to check on her, or ask her if she was ok. Clark was answering to God alone for over a decade, and even so the abuse was going on all this time.

Men answering to God alone is not enough. Prayer and submission alone is not enough. It didn’t get Louisa anywhere, and it still isn’t getting her anywhere.

Action and intervention is what is needed. Louisa and I need to stop being told to meekly take the abuse.

Why do you think that all of your daughters have been in bad relationships, and have been with abusive men, except for maybe (my younger sister) Christy? Even Matt and Joel (my brothers) have been like overly submissive females in that they picked domineering women. Why? Because we have learned from you that this is what meekness is. We have learned that we can’t set healthy boundaries, and this attitude has attracted out of control, angry men who prey on Godly women who are afraid to stand up for themselves.

Perhaps only a female who lives under this doctrine can understand this. Only a wife or female child can understand this. It is the females who suffer, and it is the females who can’t talk about it because they will be shamed or bullied more.

I realize that it is probably difficult for you to imagine what it’s like to be in a female’s shoes under the umbrella. But hopefully you can try to imagine how terrifying and awful and psychologically tormenting it is when there is abuse going on and you think God expects you as a female to take it. Gothard advice isn’t helpful for a female… it actually does the opposite of helping, in that it empowers a man so that the abusive situation continues.

The Gothard doctrine ‘might’ be less dangerous in the hands of a basically decent man who doesn’t have a lot of anger and violence. But it is like giving a free hall pass with no policing and no check-ins if it falls into the hands of a man who is hard headed and already on a violent path.

It is also a woman’s responsibility to be wise enough to know when her man’s umbrella is permanently irreparable and abusive.

Because it is a sad fact that some umbrellas will never regenerate.

Some umbrellas will never be patched.

It’s the woman’s fault if she chooses to waste her life trying to patch what will never be patched. I’m done with watching women waste their lives in this effort in futility, with the man beating her down emotionally and physically in the process as a reward for her giving all her life’s effort to him.

Women who stay under a holey and abusive umbrella do themselves and their children far more psychological, physical and emotional harm than if they were to get out from under the umbrella to make it on their own.

Yet under the Gothard doctrine, women are trained out of fear to never question the man, and they aren’t allowed to think for themselves or question, even when they are abused. They have no defenses. They basically are blind, and many can’t get away because they can’t even let themselves realize the horror around them.

I think the Gothard doctrine is a perfect set up for abuse. Take a man who is out of control, angry, can’t change himself for decades on end, is violent and aggressive, and walks around hurting people without even knowing it. Then give that man unchecked power, and tell his wife and female children that they will be attacked by demons if they try to escape his abuse and his umbrella full of holes.

I think that is sickening.

I have watched with my own eyes and experienced being under your umbrella and Karl’s, and I’ve watched mom and Louisa. I just see sadness and disaster. And I personally have followed the rules to the “T,” so I know that I have given it more than 100%, many times over. I’m not about to waste the rest of my life continuing to be a Gothard guinea pig when I’ve seen time and again it is very harmful for a female, and it only works for a male.

I want No More of It.

It’s unhealthy and has dragged my life down enough.

I realize that you do only mean well. But the beliefs and rigid rules in this doctrine aren’t healthy. It’s better to just listen in to your heart, like Mom does. She was a good person when she was a child before she met you and religion, and she listened to her heart. That’s all a person needs, just to listen to their intuition and heart like she does. You don’t need doctrines or rules or books or sermons to be ‘good’. Just listen to your heart.

Sincerely,

AJ

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AJ was raised in a spiritually abusive cult based on the teachings of ATI’s Bill Gothard. She has five siblings. After enough time AJ developed Chronic Fatigue, Adrenal Burnout and PTSD from the stress of her childhood. Her parents refused to help her in her ongoing health battle. She is married to a man that has recently emerged from spiritually abusive religion and together they are healing and moving towards daily joy! She blogs at I Am Phoenix

The Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network

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

 

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