by AJ cross posted from her blog I Am Phoenix
I have always had a hard time standing up for myself. I chalk it up to the way I grew up. I grew up in a cult where women and children weren’t allowed to speak up for themselves, especially when we were abused. We weren’t allowed to ask “Why?” even in a quiet voice. We were to take abuse quietly, submissively, like Godly females would. Otherwise, all hell would break loose. So, my sisters and I grew up with blank, obedient minds. We were trained to obey male authority without question, and we had a healthy fear of the chain of command above us. We were Godly, submissive sheep who obeyed at the blink of an eye. We grew up with no defenses around us, like innocent blind kittens, just taking whatever Godly abuse was shunted our way, scared, but too blind and afraid to make a sound. God, it was horrible.
When I was in my mid 20’s and left my parents’ house, I knew I wanted no more of that. That kind of submission felt like choking.
The way that I left my family and the cult back when I was in my early 20’s was a physical separation, in that I physically left my parent’s house, and physically moved several cities away so that I no longer had any connection with the cult or anyone in it. But even though I left in person, I hadn’t cut the ties mentally or emotionally. My subconscious mind was still being powered by the toxic beliefs I was programmed and brainwashed in. I wasn’t convinced that I was free even when I left.
I have an older sister named Thalia. She is made of steel with the heart of a bull. In many ways she is my hero and she is the one my siblings owe their liberation to. When she was 24, she physically took ahold of herself and my trembling, peace loving 25 year old sister Louisa, and they escaped from the house. Thalia rented them an apartment, and together they went to college. Any kind of education above high school was considered evil and punishable, but they did it. By the time I was 19, my younger sister had already applied to college, so I figured I may as well do the same, even though I felt very guilty.
My younger sister Christy has always been bold and brazen. One day she informed me that she and my younger brother were escaping the house and cult, were leaving the next day and did I want to join them. I was paralyzed in fear, but the next day when I saw them loading their furniture into the U-Haul, I decided I may as well ride the wave with them. So we moved. We were all three in college, and suddenly, we were free.
I won’t go into detail how weird it was being suddenly free, out in the real world after being overprotected and isolated from life outside the cult. My sisters and I were raised to be unable to function in the real world, so that we would be pliable and innocent and ready to be shipped into the hands of our future patriarchal husbands. Who were waiting there with open arms, ready for their submissive, uneducated wives.
Trust me, our father was not silent about my older sisters’ escape, or about the second wave escape I was in. My father was livid and kept warning us that God was angry and was going to send punishment down on us in the form or our cars breaking down, our health failing, us getting bad grades, going insane, and never getting ahead in life. My brothers and sisters laughed it off, but being sensitive and not wanting to cause trouble, I was more than a little worried.
In the cult I grew up in, there’s this concept called the chain of command. It’s illustrated by an umbrella. The father is the umbrella, and his wife and children are under it. The wife and children are to be in blind submission, and are taught to give up their rights. The father has ultimate control. His umbrella is two fold in that it represents his authority and his protection of those under him.
The catch here is that if you try to leave the umbrella of “protection” and authority, God will send judgment on you in the form of destroying your career, health, happiness, sanity. Demons supposedly will come up and plague you as well.
This threat kept me in a state of subconscious fear for decades, but I decided that if I didn’t think about it and lived an oblivious state, I would be fine.
And I was apparently fine for some time, out in the world.< I decided though that in order to be completely safe, I needed to steer clear of Christian men because they might go fundamental and cultish on me. So I dated mostly nonbelievers. I was so scared by what my dad did, though, that I was too afraid to get close to guys, and lived on the fringe, skittish, and always ready to leave a man if he started showing scary signs. I remained detached, unfeeling, never letting myself get too close to a guy, always ready with one foot half out the door. Even though I dated mostly nonbelievers, I knew that I could never marry one. For two big reasons. First, because I would never be able to bring him through my parent’s front door. He would be rejected, as he was not of the faith. He and I wouldn’t be welcomed for holidays. We would be completely cut off from the family. >And second, my family and church would call down God’s judgment on us for me being “unequally yoked.” My life would fall in tatters around me. God’s judgment would affect my health, marriage, career, success and happiness in life. My life would suck, and I would live in guilt.
It is this second reason that made me decide I absolutely would never marry someone who wasn’t a Christian. I was not going to jeopardize myself. God is a god of wrath, and he hates sin. If I were to blatantly marry outside my faith, I would be punished severely, on a perpetual basis for the rest of my life. I was not going to let that happen.
And yet, if I married a Christian, I could very easily end up with a one who went fundamentalist on me and started choking me with the old submission tactics. I was dreadfully afraid of this possibility.
I quickly decided that not marrying at all might be the safest course of action in my life. I didn’t rule out marriage, but I decided that I should remain alert and highly adverse to it.
So I leaned happily into my life as a single girl, having relationships and boyfriends, but never progressing towards marriage. As time went by, men my age starting talking about marriage, so I had to think of a new strategy.
Every now and again, I would date guys younger than me, and this gave me a much welcome breather. Most of the younger guys hadn’t been bitten by the marriage bug.
Things went along OK until I got sick and moved back home.
Even though I had physically left the cult some ten years earlier, suddenly I was back again. It was so odd. I had forgotten about it and had somehow blocked most of it out of my memory. That is the only way I was able to return.
Unfortunately, even though I returned home, my parents refused to take me in. I was too worldly and tainted. Supposedly, I blew it by leaving home in a state of disgrace with my siblings instead of being transferred as property under the chain of command to a husband who would be my authoritative master. So I blew my chances back then, and it was my tough luck now.
So Thalia took me in. We all lived within minutes of the rest of my family, and my parents. A huge hub. There I was, suddenly back in the cult, with all the judgment and threats in the name of God whirling around.
I thought I would recover my health quickly, and I looked forward to my stay being only temporary. I had forgotten how toxic the cult was and didn’t think it would affect me much because I was a grown woman. Little did I know that my age wouldn’t matter, and that as a single woman out from under the chain of command and a man’s umbrella, I was a prime target for Satan and my family.
About two years into the illness while living near my family, I met a man who was so kind and understanding. He was there for me when I was contemplating a move and didn’t know what my next option should be. My parents still refused to have anything to do with me. So my boyfriend at the time asked me to move in with him.
I knew that God would judge me for shacking up with a guy, and I already assumed that the fibromyalgia, CFS and adrenal burnout I had was a punishment from God. I figured it was because I had left the church, stopped praying for many years, sinned too much, had too many boyfriends, etc.
I knew I couldn’t afford to do any more sinning, because I sure didn’t want to make the illness get worse.
So I definitely was not about to sin more and move in with this guy without being married to him.
He seemed like a good guy, and he really liked me. He seemed safe enough. He wasn’t devout, and he was a new Christian.
Why, I had been the one who ‘converted’ him! On date number three, I encouraged him to say the “sinner’s prayer,” I wrote the date down in my calendar as proof, and then I dusted my hands of the whole thing. Did the basics, and that’s all we’re doing.
I figured that he would be a safe man to spend my life with. He was too new in the faith to have gotten any weird ideas, and I was there to guide him away from patriarchy. And he was thoughtful, kind, supportive. He loved me even though I was very ill. He told me he would always be there for me. He knew I might not ever get better. He didn’t mind. He loved me above and beyond what the illness had done or could do to me. Sigh.
Did I dream this guy up? He was a keeper. So we got married. Me in my riding boots, a skirt and top from Gap, and a pony tail. We got hitched at our local mayor’s house a 5 minute car ride away.
And after that? Did his Christian tendencies stay good and harmless?
Well, long story short, he fell prey to my family’s cult beliefs and he became overnight the reincarnation of my father. I was a child again, falling, falling, choking, gasping, trying to scream but gagging the screams out of fear of punishment from God.
I went through two of the worst years of my life. The stress of the religious, emotional and physical abuse, the yelling, screaming, judgment, things being thrown at me, storming around… it helped my already fragile health spiral downwards and I became broken. I was already raw and sensitive because living in my family’s hometown at that time had triggered flashbacks from childhood, but being with Karl was like reliving some parts of my childhood abuse all over, except this time I was the wife instead of the child.
And Karl had found a friend. He found a friend in Louisa’s husband Clark. My sister’s husband has been beating her and abusing her and her children for more than the last decade. He is a devout Christian and is in Christian ministry. He is a Biblical scholar, and fine upstanding member of his local church.
Even though he beat my sister and she finally left, after a year she went back. He said he was a changed man.
She believed him, and so did I. Neither my sister nor I had any boundaries whatsoever at that point, so if a Christian man says he is changed, who are we to question? Neither she nor I took even a second to think anything was amiss.
So when my sister’s husband asks me if I minded him becoming Karl’s new Christian mentor, the first words out of my mouth were, “Of course!”
With lots of smiles and nods.
The mentorship went along quite swimmingly. At least, I thought so. Up until about six months in, when I started to realize that the whole thing was unravelling in front of my eyes, and I was the fool who let it even begin.
It turned out that my brother in law had been talking about his wife (Louisa), me, and about my other two sisters behind our backs, judging us, but swearing my husband to secrecy. But my husband, after many months of keeping it all hush hush, started telling me what Clark had been saying about us.
When I found out what Clark was doing, I told my husband I was going to tell my sisters. Karl flipped out and threatened me. He became violent and I had to go hide in the bedroom. Karl was throwing curses at me telling me how dare I threaten his Christian friendship with Clark.
I stewed about it for a day, trying to tune into my inner voice for direction.
In the past I would have swept something like this under the carpet. I would have automatically assumed a passive and submissive role.
But not now. Suddenly, I was so mad. I couldn’t take it anymore. This was my life, I was an adult, and I was not about to endure a complete replay of my abusive childhood here in my own home. I was so mad. I didn’t care about God judging me anymore for not being an obedient sheep. I was done with being afraid of punishment from God.
I decided that I would directly confront my brother in law. I would send an email to Clark expressing my anger over the way he’s been slamming me and my sisters behind my back secretly to Karl. I would also tell him that I didn’t agree with his “Christian” beliefs at all.
So I sent the email.
He responded back and said that as a Christian, he wasn’t able to take back anything he said. That he was justified under Christ to say what he did. He tried to explain himself, but went further into judging all of us and saying that me and my sisters would have to answer on judgment day for things we had done in the past.
He also said that he was afraid my sister would leave him if I told her what he said about her. So I promised not to tell her. For now it is enough to confront him.
It might seem like a small thing, but I was literally shaking in fear for the several weeks it took me to decide to write the letter. Also, I knew Karl would be very angry at me for sending it. He threatened me not to send it. I didn’t care. For the first time in my life, I was going to stand up for myself.<
Writing that letter was the very first time that I stood up for myself to any of the patriarchs in my family. I’m serious. The first and only time I ever did that.
After I sent that letter, it felt like a hundred pounds had suddenly slid off my shoulders.
I mentioned before that I felt like a caged bird in my family, beating her wings against the bars. The bars are made of fear. Some of those bars aren’t there now because I wasn’t afraid to confront my brother in law and his religious dogma.
It’s almost funny the way things work. I didn’t have the courage to face my dad and his religious, emotional, psychological, and emotional abuse when I was young.
I swept it under the rug for my whole life and lived oblivious of it. But I guess you can’t sweep things under the rug forever, because they will be bumps there under the carpet and even if you place furniture on top of them, they are still there. I put so much furniture on my life carpet that I thought I had those buggers properly hidden forever.
Until recently when who comes into my life but two more situational reincarnations of my dad: my husband and my brother-in-law.
I’ve stood up and spoken my truth to my brother-in-law, and I feel really good about that. At the time I’m writing this post, Karl has started to change. He is doubting the cult, and doing a lot of questioning. We’ve had so many tumultuous interactions with me trying to stand my ground. Some days it wears me down so much. I feel ragged, but I can’t give up. I can’t stifle my voice. Tumult and arguments and stress bothers me so much. I thrive on peace. But I can’t let myself be stepped on, even if it means forcing myself to strain my energy reserves enough to get loud and defend myself.
At the last family party I went to, the patriarchs were sequestered in my brother’s kitchen while the rest of the family was out on the deck celebrating my niece’s birthday. My dad latched onto Karl and began his old routine again, trying to get Karl to learn Greek so he could expound the Scriptures and get the purest interpretation. That’s all they do, study the Scriptures ad nauseum. Apparently, Greek is the original languages the Scriptures were written in, and if you can’t read them, then you really can’t understand the Bible properly and basically are the most ignorant of Christians. Apparently, only a Biblical scholar can really understand Christianity.
The patriarchs in my family see no life or love in their faith, they only dissect Scripture and use it to judge themselves and others in a Pharisaical way.
So when my dad told Karl he had a Greek program Karl could try out, I spoke into the air loudly, without looking at anyone in particular, “Why does Karl need to learn Greek?”
I didn’t want to address the father figure directly because I am still a little afraid to be in his presence (I still feel like he’s going to hit or attack me), but the question was to him. He didn’t answer, but my brother-in-law Clark said, “Because Greek is easier than Hebrew!”
So I say, “So why does Karl need to learn Hebrew? Why not German or Spanish or Italian?”
And the question falls on deaf ears. They are suddenly speaking of something else and are too wrapped up in themselves to respond to a lowly female pawn. What does a female have of importance to contribute to the religious discussion? And so the party went on. They sat sequestered together the rest of the evening.
So I ambled out to the patio and hung out with the rest of the women and children in the family. Who responded quite easily when I chatted with them. The world is still right side up, even when some parts seem upside down.
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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
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