Shiny Happy People: My Own Experience With Bill Gothard

Shiny Happy People: My Own Experience With Bill Gothard June 8, 2023

Bill Gothard set traps for people
The theology of Bill Gothard set traps for people, © Christy Thomas, all rights reserved

I was sitting at my computer, gasping for breath, trying to contain the internal anguish as I remembered Bill Gothard. That anguish gushed uncontrollably as I finished watching “Shiny, Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets,” now streaming on Amazon Prime.

As part of it, I saw some old footage of Bill Gothard teaching one of his many Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts (IBLC) seminars. As the camera panned the packed coliseum, I realized I could be one of the people in that film. I was a 23-year-old, overly-devout, newly-married woman when I landed an administrative job with that organization, but, fortunately, in the Dallas office. That offered some distance from his malign presence.

Gothard’s basic theological teaching was all about authority, and every person had a place in his chain of command. It made life so easy; the clarity of it removed all worry of making wrong decisions because someone else would always be making them for me.

What’s not to like?

The need for certainty

It was the need for certainty that drove it. I suppose in many ways I was an ideal candidate for cult-like environments. I’d had a great deal of freedom growing up–dating early, no real rules in the house except never to do anything that might upset my father and also to make very good grades. As long as I managed those, I honestly don’t remember any real restrictions on my behavior.

But I was a miserable teen. I never felt like I fit in anywhere. I never learned to speak the Southern girl/woman lingo. Although I had a very feminine body, I did not have a feminine mind, so was always the square peg trying to fit into the round hole. And, of course, there were those absolutely top grades that were necessary to my very existence.

I felt lost, alone, realizing only much later that I looked outwardly very successful, partly, I suppose by learning that sitting very still would make it less likely that I would indeed upset my dad. So, to others, I appeared composed, poised, together.

But . . . it was, again, the social lingo. I just never could figure out the rules of how to get in the door of comfortable social activities. Perhaps that is why, when I found a deeply rules-based religion, I so wanted it.

The pull into cultlike activity came in my senior year in college. Oh dear, the memories are rushing back even as I write, memories I’d rather not visit, full of pain and pretense and posturing.

I attended an academically rigorous university. Massive amounts of new material come my way daily, both from my studies and from being around such incredibly intelligent fellow students. My internal chaos increased–I had never developed an adequate way to sort through all that mental stimuli.

The internal chaos impelled me into those “safe” arms of certainty. I wanted someone to tell me what to do, to find a way to calm that chaos, to fit somewhere, please. I needed waters I could swim in safely, not flair and flounder and constantly be in fear of drowning.

Bill Gothard offered that certainty

I needed certainty; I needed to stand on solid, unchanging ground, too young and too naive to understand that no such thing as “unchanging” has ever existed or ever will, simply because of the nature of the physical world–it stays in a state of flux.

So I found fundamentalist Christianity. And that led to a fundamentalist-leaning husband looking for his own certainties. We found it in each other and Bill Gothard.

Twenty-four years later, when I finally emerged from that marriage, I was able to say, “We married each other’s pathologies–his, a pathological need to control; me a pathological need to be controlled.”

Here’s the truth: we were both doing the best we could with the knowledge we had. No question about it. But, sadly, that best came within inches of killing me.

I was the worst of all: one who initiated divorce

Ending the marriage was awful for everyone. So much hurt that has never healed. I have wondered if all would have been better off if I had chosen the only other path that was available, which was suicide. I know that is a dramatic statement, but it had become a scarily logical conclusion.

In order for me to stay in the marriage, I had to kill my mind completely. My theological world had, after years of intense study of the Bible, shifted so dramatically that I could no longer abide being told what to think and what to believe.

But, in the eyes of my husband and the leadership of the church we attended, I was the worst of all possible womankind: a rebellious one, a “Jezebel.” And that could not be tolerated. My “spirit of rebellion” was infecting others. I had to be silenced, no matter what it took. Any action against me was justifiable at this point.

For me, to that point, divorce was indeed the unforgivable sin. I had no “grounds for divorce.”

I did it anyway, deciding to choose life over death. I got the blame, and quickly faced expulsion from the religious world I had inhabited for a quarter of a century.

And I could breathe again. Finally. Even with all the expulsion, being effectively shunned, walking around with the metaphorical bright red “D” flashing all over my chest, today’s fundamentalist way of shaming the divorced woman, barely one step away from Hawthorne’s  The Scarlett Letter, I could breathe.

I was alive, unemployed (I was fired from my job in a fundamentalist Christian organization), and pretty alone, but alive.

Watching Shiny Happy People gave me a starting point to reflect on those years and leave behind the fear, instead, embracing my sorrow for those still caught in that tight and tangled net.

For years, I’ve known I needed to write this out. I even have a title, “The Making and Unmaking of an Evangelical Woman.” I have indeed been unmade. And it has been a wild ride, worth all the previous pain. Now, perhaps it is time.

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