Let’s Talk about Rachel Dolezal’s Parents

Let’s Talk about Rachel Dolezal’s Parents June 17, 2015

By now you have surely all heard of Rachel Dolezal, who resigned earlier this week from her position as head of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP after her parents revealed that she is in fact white. For years now, Rachel had been passing herself off as black. What Rachel did is inexcusable. She lied to people and violated their trust, she engaged in cultural appropriation and perhaps even plagiarism, and she used her assumed blackness to her advantage and for her own personal gain.

I refuse to follow any of this with a “but.” There is no but.

This story broke after Rachel’s parents were approached by a reporter with questions about Rachel. They told they truth, they say, because they refuse to participate in Rachel’s lies. But is that their only motivation? If they were so interested in truth, why didn’t they speak out about Rachel’s identity before now? In order to understand more about Rachel’s parents and their motivations, we need to look at Rachel’s upbringing and her parents’ religious beliefs. And here we enter the world I grew up in, a tangle of conservative Christian homeschooling, religious child abuse, pro-life activism, and international adoption as a domestic mission field.

Like me, Rachel was homeschooled and grew up in a religious family. Her parents used a conservative Christian curriculum provided by Christian Liberty Academy Satellite School, a curriculum that, rumor has it, came with an HSLDA membership and a copy of To Train Up a Child. The family were strong young earth creationists, and Rachel’s father worked for Creation Ministries International. Beginning in the mid-1990s, Rachel’s parents began adopting black babies, reportedly in an attempt to affirm their pro-life stance. It is not uncommon for evangelicals to adopt as a way of creating an in-home mission field.

For those who are familiar with this subculture, you probably know where this is going. The CLASS curriculum is recommended by white supremacists, and as Kathryn Joyce has documented, black children adopted into evangelical families are often treated in a highly racialized way, punished more harshly than their white siblings and taught to denigrate their own culture. There were so many red flags in this story that I was antsy even before I read the following from Homeschoolers Anonymous:

We have also heard testimonies from numerous homeschool alumni who grew up knowing the Dolezal family that frequent and significant child abuse occurred in the family. The parents allegedly forced both Rachel and her older, biological brother Joshua to beat their younger, adopted siblings with plumbing supply line and two foot long glue sticks, a practice inspired by Michael and Debi Pearl’s book, To Train Up a Child. (Forced sibling-to-sibling corporal punishment is sadly not uncommon in some homeschooling circles.) Such a practice conjures up troubling images of Larry and Carri Williams, another homeschooling family that abused to death their adopted child, Hana. According to our sources, infant spanking (in public in their church parking lot, even) and blanket training were also common in the Dolezal family. Additionally, Rachel’s adopted brother Izaiah Dolezal has himself raised public allegations against his parents involving physical punishment, forced labor, and isolation in out-of-state group homes.

This information raises the specter not only of Hana Williams, but also of Lydia Schatz, another adoptee who died at the hands of her evangelical homeschooling parents, beaten to death with plumbing supply line. Both girls, like Rachel’s adopted younger siblings, were black.

Rachel has also accused her parents of abuse, but given that she lied about her race, and potentially about the hate crimes she reported over the last few years, I want to emphasize that the above information comes not from Rachel but rather from numerous homeschool alumni who knew her family growing up, and from her young brother, Izaiah. Indeed, the court apparently found merit in the allegations, because they made Rachel Izaiah’s guardian when he was 16.

From NBC:

Izaiah listed his safety as one of the reasons he wanted to live with Rachel, saying, “my adoptive parents use physical forms of punishment as well as sending children away to other states to group homes (where two of my siblings are) if we don’t cooperate with their religion and rules, they make us to manual labor and send us away.”

Rachel’s adopted brothers Zach and Ezra are critical of her, and Ezra in particular denies the abuse, but this isn’t surprising. It is common in large families where abuse was present for one or more of the children to defend their parents against accusations made by other siblings. In contrast, Rachel’s adopted sister Esther has remained supportive of her.

The reports of abuse come not simply from Rachel and Izaiah but also from those outside of the family—individuals with no reason to lie. And we know that abusive parents lie, twist reality, and distort truth. As Carmen Green noted in her comments on Rachel’s parents, “their tone, their word choice–it’s what I’ve seen again and again from abusive parents, hiding behind their own self-righteousness.” So while it’s true that Rachel has made everything she says suspect through her willingness to lie, everything her parents say should also be suspect, because abusers tend to be master manipulators.

In 2013, a younger family member came to Rachel and told her that she had been sexually abused at the hands of Rachel’s biological brother Joshua in the early 2000s. It seems that Rachel believed this family member and has been supporting her through the legal process. The case goes to trial later this summer.

Here are some more details, via People:

The sexual abuse allegations were brought to the attention of Colorado authorities in July of 2013. 

According to a search warrant affidavit, Joshua’s accuser came forward because “Joshua Dolezal has a one year-old daughter and [victim] does not want the daughter to be victimized.”

During a series of interviews, the alleged victim, now 20, told detectives that Joshua, who is 19-years-older, made the victim undress in front of him and forced the victim to perform oral sex on him.

According to the report, the accuser told adopted mother Ruthanne about the alleged abuse but she “did not believe [victim] and told [victim] to stop telling lies.”

Joshua allegedly told his accuser, “Don’t tell anyone or ‘I’ll hurt you.'”

The attacks, the victim said, ended when Joshua returned to college.

Ruthanne says the victim suffers from reactive attachment disorder, a condition in which a child can’t bond with a parent or caregiver, and “seeks to cause trouble in the family.”

“The aligning with Rachel on this is a very bad combination,” she says.

“Our son wasn’t even home a lot of the time it was alleged it was happening,” she says, “and I was a stay-at-home mother and very attentive to the kids because of her disorder. I never left her at home with our son or anything like that.”

Rachel’s mother, Ruthanne, claims the victim is lying, but, as I noted, Ruthanne is (likely) an abuser and cannot be trusted to tell the truth. But honestly, it’s more than that, because the entire way Ruthanne is handling this sounds toxic. You should never never never tell a child who tells you they were sexually abused to “stop telling lies.” Furthermore, I have seen way too many examples of parents using appeals to reactive attachment disorder to abuse or dismiss adopted children.

Was the victim ever diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder, I wonder? I doubt it, because the harsh corporal punishment meted out in the Dolezal home would have been just about the worst treatment for RAD imaginable, and a psychologist would surely have told them that. I think it more likely that Ruthanne tired of dealing with a child traumatized by her strange surroundings and the harsh punishment meted out in her new home, and rather than admit that her methods were abusive she preferred to pin the problem on the child herself.

Yes, I’m entering the world of supposition here. I don’t know. It is technically possible that the victim is lying, but given that Ruthanne is (likely) an abuser, and given that she clearly knows nothing about sexual abuse, including both the dynamics that surround it and how to respond to a child’s disclosure, I think it more likely that she is lying. This is something the courts will try to sort out later this summer.

Perhaps it was simply coincidence that a reporter approached Rachel’s parents now, and perhaps if he hadn’t they still wouldn’t have said anything. But I have to say, the timing is concerning. Did Rachel’s parents out her as white simply because they care about the truth? Or were they also motivated by a desire to discredit her so that they can, by association, discredit the victim she is supporting, and thereby protect their son from the sexual abuse charges that have been levied against him? Did Rachel act inexcusably in lying and deceiving people? Oh, hell yes. But elevating her parents heroes or truth-tellers while ignoring this troubling context is worrisome.

And perhaps that’s what’s bothering me about this story. Rachel’s parents have been paraded and lauded across the media, their words taken at face value, despite the fact that they have been (successfully) accused of abuse and despite the fact that they are defending their adult son against allegations of child sexual abuse. And as someone familiar with the dynamics of abuse, this makes me really uncomfortable.

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