Every Thursday night.
From the time I was about 6 until I was about 16, we gathered in the living room. “We” was gradually growing; my parents had seven children, and the last four — the ones born during the height of our involvement — are 18 months apart. A new baby was an almost yearly occasion, filled with excitement and deep joy. And that babe was brought into the room, as well.
It was a deeply profound, memorable time. We did various things for it, but the best part was when we did Character Sketches curriculum. Glossy, clean pages, filled with pictures and exciting stories. Each “Sketch” was a feature of model character, like “Loyalty” or “Responsibility.” And adding to the theme of the character was a story of a bible character — like Mordecai or Saul’s son Jonathan. And then an animal was used to further illustrate how that theme looked or paid off in nature.
We were homeschooled, so our family spent the entire day together; we were very close. And the Thursday night gathering was intimate, beautiful, something we looked forward to every week. We sang songs from the hymnal, trying to approximate the four-part harmony in each one. We prayed together — it was a close, intimate moment with God. And we talked about each sketch, with pride in our most perceptive insights, pointed excitedly at the pictures, and were completely and thoroughly engrossed in each one. And, to be sure, they were beautiful principles — loyalty, responsibility, and courage (the focus of each respective volume of the curriculum) are still deeply embedded features in my character to this day. I’ve tried to explain to my parents, who think sometimes that they failed because I became an atheist, that the characteristics of loyalty, responsibility, and courage are what drove me to humanism; that my atheism is evidence that they taught me those principles well. They don’t believe me, but it’s something I am sure of.
The most beautiful parts of those Thursday nights were when my father let me read a sketch. I respected my father and the principles in the book enormously, so when, one day when I was 12, he let me read one of the Character Sketches myself, I couldn’t stop smiling. It felt like an amazing privilege, and to this day, regardless of what I think about Christianity, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that this family moment is beautiful in my mind.
After this, we would all stand up, and my father would smile a playful grin. We would march by each of our bedrooms in our house, saying “To the room, to the room, to-the-room, to-the-room, to-the-room” in a joking, laughing, mock military cadence. And we would go in, read for a few minutes or so, and go asleep, feeling deeply loved and part of each other.
Character Sketches is the curriculum for the Institute for Basic Life Principles, and the Institute for Basic Life Princheaded upwas, until very recently, headed by Bill Gothard, who violated every single principle in that book.
I don’t talk about this often, because I don’t know what my audience for it would be, exactly. Atheists probably wouldn’t understand this connection, for the most part. And Christians would probably call me childishly bitter. These may be legitimate criticisms. But if you don’t mind…could you look past all that? Just for a moment? I’m going to be honest here.
Bill Gothard’s week-long Institute for Basic Life Principles Institute seminars have been attended by over 2.5 million people. Among them are the Duggar family (whose close affiliation with Gothard led them to cover up their son, Josh Duggar’s, sexual abuse of his younger sisters) and Sarah Palin, who once said that her city of Wasilla (which she was mayor of at the time) met Gothard’s standards for a “City of Character.” He also seems to have had several strong connections to presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. His organization has had an estimated worth of $80 million dollars.
And I think I hate him.
And that’s saying a lot, because I try to respect people. The list of people I hate is short. I don’t even hate Hitler, as much as I’m disturbed by what he did. Yeah, it’s that bad. I can’t stand Gothard.
Bill Gothard had these seminars that were a week long — we went to both the Basic and Advanced seminar; each were about 25 hours long. We went with close friends of ours — people we took classic piano lessons with from a young woman in the movement who lived with her parents (waiting for a mate) about a half mile down the street. When we got together we often played piano, had arm-wrestling matches or push-up contests, went to Bible Bowls, laughed, joked, and discussed homeschooling. Part of the reason we did this so much is that Gothard said that television was evil. For about two years, I believe — from when I was about 8 to 10 — we put the TV in the attic. Instead of TV, we read, played games, played piano, hung out with our friends — that type of thing. Yes, that’s part of the reason I don’t know a lot of shows growing up. When the TV did come down — until I was about fifteen we had very strict rules on what we could and couldn’t watch.
So yeah. Bill Gothard said TV was bad, and our family put the TV in the attic. He criticized rock music, and our family focused on gospel and acapella (till I was about sixteen). He also said that even much of Christian music was too “breathy” and sensual, so we stopped listening to artists like Amy Grant. He criticized dating, and my parents said that all the children would have arranged marriages (again, until about sixteen). He said women should wear dresses, and my six sisters all wore dresses. He said husbands should open car doors for their wives, and if my father forgot to open the car door to let my mother out my mother would just sit there until he did. He said that memorizing Romans 6 was the magic cure for lust, and to this day, even though I’ve been an atheist for three years who hardly reads the Bible and am done “struggling” with lust, I can quote half of Romans 6 to you, verbatim (along with around 200 or so other Bible verses). He said parents should not have birth control, and my parents had four children 18 months apart (stopping only when having another would potentially kill my mother).
And, most memorable of all, there was Gothard’s advice on discipline. My own experience closely mirrors that of someone else, an anonymous man (not me) who related what happened to his parents — although, thankfully, my own parents did not engage in anything close to the sexual abuse he describes, or break any bones. As the person describes it:
The stipulation was that we had to hold still and submissively accept the beating, and we had to stop crying and be silent and not make a sound. This was a specific part of Gothard’s beating protocol, found in one of his pamphlets: the silent, limp submission to a beating was his metric for a “repentant spirit.”
And the spankings, due to Gothard’s strong standards for submission, came often. My experience echoes this one — like him, I can’t remember what I got spanked for every time, but I can remember several instances — for awhile it was rare that I didn’t get spanked every day:
It’s hard to dredge up specific examples of behaviors that resulted in beatings (I’m going to use the term “beating” rather than “spanking,” because that’s what they were), because frankly my recollection of the events leading up to the beatings are hazy. However, punishable offenses included: Not getting a chore done on time, or to the required degree of perfection (chores included dusting, vacuuming, taking out the trash). Arguing or fighting with my siblings (to clarify, I have an older sister and younger brother), and I mean trivial things like arguing over which record we were going to listen to or who got to play with which stuffed animal. Arriving home late from a friend’s house, arriving home late after school, not getting out of bed promptly in the morning, complaining about going to church. The list is endless.
…[Eventually] punishments extended to include: making a salad incorrectly, accidentally dropping a dish or a milk bottle, getting the bathroom floor wet during a bath, not setting the table for dinner quickly enough, forgetting to put clothes in the laundry basket, putting a book back on the bookshelf in the wrong place. In other words, any trivial perceived imperfection became grounds for beatings.
One of the worst beatings of my life was administered by my mother around nine years old when we were making chocolate chip cookies. I was given the task of running the hand-held mixer, which I was happy to do because then I might get one of the detachable beaters with cookie batter on it after. I was standing on a stool, and I turned to ask my mother a question. Being an absent-minded kid, when I turned I unconsciously lifted the mixer out of the batter and cookie dough flew all over the wall. My mom went livid and slapped me full in the face, knocking me sprawling off the stool. She then dragged me bawling upstairs and beat me with the 3/4″ dowel rod for almost 30 minutes.
And although we were expected to be silent for the entirety of the beatings, the same was not true of our parents. The ultimate authority Gothard encouraged similarly impacted this individual’s family — as did frustration from parents trying to follow Gothard’s guidelines:
[While spanking me] they would yell and scream and bellow. They would tell us what bad, awful, evil, horrible, sinful children we were. In the beginning, there was no pretext of spiritual context; later on as I got older and the beatings continued, my father began making attempts to pray with us after a beating, as if it was a spiritual exercise. For the most part, however, the beatings took place in an atmosphere of apoplectic, psychotic rage, especially when my mother was administering them. It was terrifying. To this day [he is 44] I have nightmares about it.
All of that. I was screamingly told I was sinful, bad, evil, selfish over and over, as I got beat. And then I was prayed with, occasionally. And we’d go relax and things would be good again. You got used to it after awhile. You also began to believe everything that was said about you, and went back and forth between believing you were evil and you were basically a good person. And the hardest part is the environment was there all the time. I was homeschooled; there was no “break” in which I could go to school. 24/7, from six to sixteen, this was a major part of life. The worst part of it was sitting outside the door and listening to my youngest sisters experience this (thankfully, most of it stopped by the time they reached their teens, and for some even earlier).
My parents never broke any bones, and I know they genuinely care about me. We had a lot of genuinely happy moments and made many beautiful memories. They’re sorry for what happened. I’m not terribly angry at them, though. I’m angry at the program they were following that told them the lies driving them to the abuse — abuse they thought was love. No, Gothard never told my parents (or other parents) to do this…directly. He couldn’t. But the control he preached, the stern sense of order, the statement kids should not whimper when spanked…these cues were part of an intense pattern of control woven by Gothard.
So, it was hard, but we followed it wholeheartedly. We told other couples in our church about the program, and they came and followed much of it wholeheartedly, too. We’d have Friday night get-togethers at our house in which my parents would teach singles in their twenties what they had learned from Bill Gothard.
To this day, I have many friends who grew up in the movement. It’s a profoundly unique experience. Other people think they know what it’s like from the outside, but they have no idea. There was, I remember, a deep, profound feeling of close familial connection there. Yes, what Gothard was teaching was hard sometimes. But there was trust that it was right, and that it would make your family beautiful.
Fast forward fourteen years past sixteen (sixteen was when my parents began to significantly waver from Gothard’s teachings — it was more of a gradual loosening of the rules than a distinct decision), to when I’m 30 years old. It’s 2014, and although I’ve left Christianity, I still am attached to my parents, I care about the experiences of my childhood (because they deeply affected me), and I’m already disturbed that my parents have been following a lie. Maybe my childhood screwed up views on things that I’m having to adjust — and likely will continue to adjust for much of my life — but at least the teachers were sincere. They were trying to help us.
It’s March 9, 2014. An article has been written a couple days earlier, on March 7th. And the headlines broke me: