Daughter of the Patriarchy: Admissions

by Sierra

“When I was your age, my parents wouldn’t send me to college,” my mother was telling me. “I had to work my way through on my own. I don’t want you to have to stop. I will do everything I can to help you keep going to school. Your education is the most important thing to me.”

We stood in the kitchen, a printed letter lying on the counter between us. It was not good news.

I glanced up at my mother with a strained smile. I knew that if wishes could be cashed at the bank, I’d be writing my admissions essay to an ivy-coated castle. Instead, I was trying to find a way to pay the bill from my last semester of community college in time to register for fall classes. It was already August.

My work at Wal-Mart paid eight-fifty an hour: better than all the other work options for teenagers in the area. My schedule was already as close to full-time as it could be without requiring the company to offer me benefits. My hands were tied: I could take another part-time job, but when would I go to school? It was all I could do to keep our car paid for and insured while my mother handled the rent and utilities. College tuition had slipped between more pressing matters like food and transportation, and dragging it back to current status again would not be easy.

Still, I was grateful to have a mother who dared to disagree with the life track laid out before me. A Catholic turned evangelical, my mother was a radical believer in forging new paths. She had, after all, followed her heart out of her family’s religion when I was still a toddler. Going to college was my chance to discover what God had in store for me as an individual, she thought. I knew already that beliefs like these made my mother an outsider, a liberal and a radical in my church of stay-at-home daughters and unremitting parental supervision. What I did not yet know was how short and how tight the bonds were that held my friends.

“Why don’t you fill out your FAFSA?” my mother suggested. “Maybe you can get grants or student loans. They might offer you more if you apply to a four-year school. Let’s drive around and look for a college where you can transfer your credits.

I loved Rowling College on sight. The sprawling green lawn, ancient shady oaks and dark grey stone of its oldest building washed over me in a wave of color and charm. “It looks like a little Harvard,” I told my mother breathlessly. A more culturally adept young woman might have said it looked like Hogwarts.

The admissions counselor radiated warmth and hope. She beamed at my community college transcripts. No, it didn’t matter that I didn’t have SATs, she said. My grades proved that I could handle introductory classes. I felt a bubble of excitement rising in my throat, and firmly swallowed it. I would assume that this all was beyond my grasp, I decided. If it proved true, I would be pleasantly surprised. If it didn’t, I would not allow myself to feel the disappointment. I can go back to college later, I reasoned. There is a manager position opening at my store.

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Throwing Out the Moral GPS

by Sierra

Growing up in fundamentalism was like living with a moral GPS navigator installed in my head. Every decision was mapped out already; all I needed to do was listen to the voice telling me where to go. Sometimes I could stop and look at the map. Most of the time I was looking ahead, trying to live, listening and following directions as best I could.

The GPS gave me directions for living: Read the Bible and pray every day. Obey your parents. Be respectful of elders.

Those directions made sense. They were there to help me get where I wanted to go: straight ahead. There were no twists and turns yet.

Then the directions got a little stranger: Listen to one of Branham’s sermons every day. Wear long skirts. Be modest. Grow out your hair. Throw away worldly music. Throw away makeup. Look down on public-schooled kids. Don’t watch TV.

The GPS gave me directions for my relationship with my parents: Ignore your father’s rage and violence. Win him to Christ by silence. Submit to him as your earthly head until you are married. Follow the chain of command.

It gave me directions for relationships with boys: Don’t touch. Don’t laugh too much. Don’t be alone with them. Don’t give away pieces of your heart. Wait for God to bring you your husband.

It gave me directions for lifetime ambition: Your greatest calling is to be a wife and mother. Choose a vocation you can pursue at home, while raising children. Learn to cook and sew. Don’t venture out into the world.

The cacophony of advice was deafening. More troubling still, I felt a tug, a conflict in my soul. There was something wrong with the directions.

“Turn right.” They said. “Turn right. Turn right. Turn right.”

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Daughter of the Patriarchy: Doing the Math

by Sierra Turning eighteen was magical. Suddenly, all the job applications I seemed to be throwing down an empty chute were bounced back with interest. Sven had already landed a job at Wal-Mart in his town. Now it was my turn. I nervously sat through my job interview, not daring to hope that I might [Read More...]

Daughter of the Patriarchy: The Waiting

by Sierra

I loved driving. I’d always known I would. As a child, I collected Hot Wheels cars until they numbered in the hundreds. When I was twelve, my mother decided to teach me to drive in case my father’s rage spilled over completely and I needed to escape. It was both terrifying and exhilarating. The car felt huge and seemed to move so much faster when my hands were on the wheel. I crowed with pride as I successfully navigated the winding roads of our rural neighborhood, passing a UPS truck with wide eyes and short breath.

As I grew older, I periodically stowed away money for a car. At my bakery job, I thought I might finally have a chance when I amassed $1,000 – a year’s savings. Anxious to get wheels, I researched motorcycles and mopeds, which were both cheaper and had a younger age restriction, but was repeatedly told that young ladies shouldn’t ride motorcycles – how could I, in a skirt? I was prepared to make it work until winter convinced me of the foolishness of that plan. I focused my energies again on hunting for cheap cars.

Time and again my savings evaporated: my father took the thousand; rent and food took the rest. I was a contributing member of the household; that meant petty savings for a teenager’s car was low on the priority list. Each time my mother’s outdated and under-maintained car ran itself into the ground and she was forced to buy or lease another, she promised that next time, I’d get to keep the old one. It never happened.

When I was sixteen, my mother and I moved to a farmhouse apartment in a rural area with only one general store within twenty miles. I applied for a summer job there, but was last in the queue of several farm kids and was never called back. My mother commuted to the bakery, an hour’s drive, and I was left to fend for myself in the house. My halfhearted attempts to master Algebra II soon dissolved, and I began to spend my days online, as I had done three years earlier. This time, I was playing a video game: Dark Age of Camelot, an online roleplaying game. All pretense of homeschooling was silently dropped. Our house was not in order; public school was not an option. And so I vanished into a game.

Sven and I played the game first together, igniting no small controversy in the church. The fantasy genre was already suspect: everyone knew that good Christian kids didn’t read Harry Potter, much less play any game resembling (God forbid) Dungeons and Dragons, where kids practiced actual incantations and learned to command the legions of the devil. (Oh, how many high schools would mysteriously burn to the ground if that were true!)

Sven and I defended our pastime vociferously: we knew no occult spells. Sure, there was “magic” in the game, but we were only pressing buttons to launch imaginary fireballs at opponents. There was no devil here. Our loudest opponent, a 26 year old, insisted that the only way to avoid witchcraft was to avoid the appearance of magic.

He was holier than we were; he only played Grand Theft Auto.

As my life dwindled to Sunday church services and fellowship, occasional trips to northern New Jersey to work at the bakery, and the closed Algebra book on my nightstand, I investigated more areas of Dark Age of Camelot, playing in zones where Sven didn’t play, and interacting with other people. Eventually, I made friends. I joined a group called “Lema en Estela,” where I found I could live in another world: one where I didn’t have to demonstrate my piety. I could be imaginative here. I could compete and win without being told that I was violating God’s order. I could make jokes without being told to be sober and serious, for the hour was late. More important, I could have long, friendly conversations with people who accepted me for who I was.

Soon I’d abandoned Sven’s realm to spend all my time with Lema en Estela. I was hiding, but I was safe there. Safe from the impending failure that was my high school education. Safe from my father’s intrusions back into my life. Safe from the judgment of the adults at my church. Safe from the false girl friends who used me to get to Sven. Lema en Estela, as ephemeral as it was, was a beautiful refuge from what otherwise was an empty time. [Read more...]

Daughter of the Patriarchy: Surveillance

by Sierra

Thick summer haze blended with the spirals of smoke belching from the backyard grill. A teenage girl in a sepia-colored seventies outfit poked at the flames with a stoic face, silently urging them to gulp up more pages from the notebooks she fed them, one after another. The fire surged with joy and then abated, leaving only charred fragments sinking into dust or drifting lazily into the air. The grill was stuffed, but not for long. Soon the makeshift altar had reduced its sacrifices to embers. The girl sighed with relief, though the anger blazing in her chest had not subsided.

Her mother had read her diaries. They had to be burned. Her most private thoughts unmercifully exposed, her trust breached, the girl vowed to herself that no one would see those words again. As I would discover thirty years later, she also made a promise to her future daughter: she, unlike my grandmother, would never so mistrust and mistreat her own offspring.

“I trust you.” My mother said, over and over again. “I will never invade your privacy.”

I kept journals sporadically, largely as an outlet for childhood frustrations. When other girls shut me out of their circle, I scribbled furiously about it. When I realized guiltily that Christ had commanded us to love everyone, I hastily amended, “Ignore my last entry. I love everyone, those girls especially!” Sometimes the pages were filled with incoherent childhood rage: “STUPID STUPID STUPID!!” I vented. I knew more emphatic words, but good Christian girls never swore.

Despite knowing that my diaries would never be read by mortal eyes, I nonetheless resisted uttering any religious fears or insecurities. I had been told that Satan could not read our minds but could definitely hear what we said. I surmised, though I was never told, that the devil was probably smart enough to read, too, so I avoided showing fear or doubt in the pages of my journals. I alluded in the vaguest possible terms to crushes I had on boys, convinced that to have a crush was to succumb to sinful lust and thus to leave an opening for Satan. Those thoughts were evil, and must be repudiated and denied.

In time, new media burst on the scene. I sent my first email at 11 years old. My mother, still adamantly adhering to her promise to trust me, didn’t stand over my shoulder or vet my communication. I was free to email my friends at church as though we were having a private conversation. At least, that was my assumption. I was quick to discover, yet slow to appreciate, how different the lives of my peers were.

The internet was new to most people I knew, but some guidelines had been established rather quickly: the first rule was to remember that the people in chat rooms weren’t always who they said they were. The second was related: never share identifiable information. Armed with this common sense, I boldly entered chat rooms and held conversations with strangers. Their potential wiles and innuendos flew over my head like a fleet of supersonic jets. If they were there at all, I was none the wiser for a long time.

Among the interests I pursued on the internet were websites for other children who played the Catz video game, which allowed the player to raise and breed virtual pets and show pictures of them to others. I also discovered MIDI files, which exposed me to music I had never heard before and yet held none of the threats of Satanic infiltration like rock music on the radio. MIDI files had no beat or lyrics. They couldn’t infiltrate my brain with images of sex and drugs. This latter discovery soon led to my first jolt of surprise at the exceptional quality of my mother’s trust.
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