Warning: This story series contains descriptions of physical abuse.
by Tess Willoughby
1993 was a rough year. It was the year that Nate was fired from his engineering job in Tazewell, Virginia, and first started thinking about studying the law. It was the year when we went to a conference and met a pastor who advocated corporal punishment for wives, and Nate took to his teachings like a duck to water. It was the year I had Jack, who was conceived a few months after Daniel’s birth. Most notably, 1993 marked my first attempt at a separation from Nate.
Daniel had been born at home. Nate and I were part of the Christian separatist movement of the late ’80s and early ’90s, rooted in the belief that liberals and “secular humanists” would destroy the moral fiber of America. Christian separatists— right-wing religious splinter groups including white supremacists, Y2K survivalists, secessionists, reconstructionists, and so on—believed that the upstanding patriotic Christian Americans needed to separate themselves and create a fortress of Christian homes where the true leaders of tomorrow would be raised.
We were associated with the Quiverfull movement too, which meant that we rejected birth control so that we could physically produce a lot of the leaders of tomorrow: God’s Army. Home birth, home schooling, even home church were big trends. Anything that kept the faithful tucked away in their righteous enclaves and away from the godless masses. Whole communities sprang up where Christian right-wingers could turn on (Rush Limbaugh and G. Gordon Liddy), tune out (the liberal media establishment—many of us even tossed out our television sets), and drop out of mainstream American life.
We were the counter-counterculture. We were fanatics. We were darned proud of it. Quiverfull, in particular, was a philosophy that any married couple in the Christian Right could buy right into. It was so easy: Exercise Dominion! Please Jesus! Take over America! Using Tools You Probably Have Around the House!
Trouble was, in our case, by mid-1993 we had no home in which to home-birth, home-church, and home-school Tomorrow’s Christian Leaders. Nate’s boss at the truck manufacturing plant (perhaps a pagan and a liberal?) said Nate was never at his desk doing his job, and fired him. We were still dependent on Heathen America for an income, unfortunately.
We found some friends, the Rivers family, who would let us have a baby at their house. They were not Christian enough for Nate, but were willing to take us in, and I needed my midwife. Nate had forced me to wean Daniel so that I could get pregnant sooner, and everything that I had read supported nursing a baby until two years of age or even older. I felt guilty for pushing Daniel away—he was a wired, colicky baby and weaning was murder on us both.
To add to my anxiety, Nate had become more tyrannical. We had attended a Great Commission conference in which a pastor from West Virginia advocated using physical force on disobedient wives. If a wife flatly refused to obey her husband, this man taught, her husband could “lovingly compel obedience” using physical force.
When I was eight months pregnant with Jack, Nate ordered me to pick a paperwad up off the living room floor. I refused, and he took me by the forearm and “lovingly compelled” me to pick up the paperwad, while murmuring sweetly in my ear, “I’m sorry, sweetheart, but you need to learn obedience.”
At about that same time, my parents disagreed with Nate about theology. We visited my parents’ farmhouse rarely, but Nate reluctantly agreed to take me to see Mom and Dad when Daniel was not quite one-and-a-half and I was sticking way out to there, carrying Jack. I was enjoying a cozy kitchen chat with my mom when Nate interrupted with this remark: “A woman is to be under a man at every stage of her life—her father, her husband, and then, if widowed, her son.” I looked at Nate in stupefaction. The idea of a son’s authority over his widowed mother was a new one, even for me.
My mother had been shelling her garden peas during Nate’s little speech. She stopped, repeated “under. . .a. . .man,” and began hurling fresh peas at Nate’s balding head. Then she stalked out of the kitchen. I was ordered to gather the peas and pack the car—my visit home was over.
Incidents like these had convinced Nate that my Mom and Dad were not Christians—at least, not biblical Christians. They were a bad influence on his family. They needed to be shunned.
It was not enough that Nate was determined that I would never see my parents, and that my parents would never see their grandchildren, because Nate would never return to my childhood home where his brazen feminist mother-in-law attacked him with vegetables. Nate ordered me to call my parents in my final week of pregnancy, advise them of their sinful state, and inform them that my relationship with them was over.I was at John and Diana Rivers’ house where we were guests, waiting to go into labor, when Nate handed me the telephone and said, “Sweetheart, time to call your parents.”
Sobbing, choking, I got the words out that Nate had ordered me to say. My mother later told me that she hadn’t understood a word, but Nate understood that I had proven my loyalty to him alone. Nate very rarely held and kissed me with any tenderness, but he did on that day. He kissed away every tear. He was so proud of me, he said.
I went into labor the next day. Nate let my mother come to help me, even though she was shunned, so that he could watch TV. While I labored, Nate thawed Diana Rivers’ entire stock of homemade chocolate chip waffles that she had frozen for her children’s breakfasts, and ate them all. Nate appeared in the doorway periodically, chewing, his fork dripping syrup, before returning to the television. Jack came out just fine, but the placenta would not be birthed, and I hemorrhaged badly. The midwife had to put her hand through the cervix and yank out the afterbirth. I felt like my guts were being pulled through my vagina.
After this teeth-grinding, toes-clenching-the-sheets hell, Nate came in to crow over another son and patted my swollen stomach. “I should be able to get twelve or thirteen more out of there,” he boasted. My mother looked at him as though she wanted to murder him. I caught her eye. Please don’t say anything, I begged her with my eyes. Please.
Nate was really tired that evening, he said. He really, really needed to get some sleep, he said. We were lying on the same sofa bed on which I had been through seven hours of hard labor that afternoon.
“Nurse the baby so I can sleep,” Nate said.
I nursed Jack. My arms went numb. My breasts ached. My uterus contracted with the stimulation and I wanted to scream. Everything down below was horribly sore. The midwife had given me nothing for pain but an herbal tincture of some kind. Jack would not go to sleep. Diana came in and took Jack for a while, but he cried, and she brought him back. Diana was sweet to me, the perfect hostess, even if Nate did say her doctrine was unbiblical. Too bad we could never be friends.
Jack cried. I nursed Jack again until my arms went numb and my breasts were sore. I put Jack down.
Jack fussed. “Nurse the baby,” Nate growled.
I could not pick up Jack. I was at the end of my strength.
“I can’t,” I said.
Nate jumped up, grabbed me by the shoulders, and slammed my upper body against the back of the sofa bed. It had a wooden frame. I could not make a sound. Blood gushed between my legs.
I went somewhere deep inside myself. I do not remember what happened after that—whether Jack continued to cry or Nate said anything else or what happened to me. I was bleeding hard and I had retreated into myself, and the pain was concussive, like someone striking a big bass drum. Then somehow, it was morning, and my mother was back, and she was forgiven or no longer shunned or something, and I was in her car with my two baby boys and looking back at the Rivers’ house, and I never wanted to see Nate again after what he had done to me, ever.
During my stay at my parents’ farmhouse, Nate called me on the phone several times a day. I slept downstairs because I was too weak to climb stairs. My parents remained ignorant that Nate had hurt me—I kept my wedding vow to never say a word against my husband.
I was back with Nate in two weeks because I loved him. God had spoken to me. My husband was a changed man. We were going to have a whole new life, and guess where we were going? To Virginia Beach, home of the “700 Club.” We would finally be with People Like Us. God had called Nate to go to the law school of the Rev. Robertson himself, Regent University, and his wife’s place was by his side.
I knew God wouldn’t have it any other way.