I’ve been following the news around the Duggars closely for the past few weeks. This story, and the conversations people have been having about it, has hit me square in the gut. And I think that is the only good part of this whole disaster. The victims have been publicly shamed, their victimization publicly dismissed by their parents. It’s awful and disgusting. But people are now talking openly about how many of them – how many of us – grew up in the damaging environment of fundamentalist Christianity, and the ways it scarred us.
Our culture isn’t quick to acknowledge that fundamentalist Christianity could be dangerous. Islam, yes. Sects like Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons get more judgment from outsiders. Christianity, though, is the status quo. Maybe fundamentalists are more extreme than others, but they basically believe the same thing as the rest of America, right? This is often the reaction I get when I begin to describe my childhood to people. They just can’t believe it. “Were you part of a cult?” they ask. “Well, kind of,” I say. “It’s not called anything, though. Just fundamentalist Christianity.” And they look shocked. For this reason, I’m so, so glad that people now have to confront the reality of the way millions of children in this country are raised, and some of its horrible repercussions.
Like the Duggars, I was homeschooled from second grade through high school. Although we didn’t use the exact curriculum they do, I did read mostly A Beka Books and Bob Jones textbooks for history and science. I suspected them of lying to me even as a child. I remember one history book in particular that had a chapter extolling the supposed virtues of Ronald Raegan; I thought rebelliously, “Propaganda!” I never understood evolution until college. I remember going to lectures on the “truth” of creationism with friends in high school. My parents homeschooled me partially to keep me away from the “corruption” of public schools, but in their defense, we did live in a small, poor town and the schools were sub-par at best. My mom does have a college degree and she gave me a more than adequate education, going to great lengths to make sure we did chemistry experiments and made it through pre-calculus. However, most of my homeschooled friends weren’t so lucky. Many of them “graduated” with something less than an eighth-grade education.
I was raised to hate myself. “You’re selfish and prideful,” my parents would frequently say to me. “You’re so unsubmissive!” The year I turned 10 I begged God to rid me of my pride. I can’t remember all the hours I spent in prayer emotionally flagellating myself for not being a good enough Christian. The reason I was so lonely, the reason my dad didn’t love me, surely must be my pride and selfishness. People outside the family were fooled. “What a nice family you have!” they’d say to my mom. “We’re so jealous!” My dad’s relatives admired how well-behaved my sister and I were. They didn’t know that I used to daydream about my mom leaving my dad so we could all live with a family friend I saw as a surrogate father, the only adult man who had ever paid any attention to me. They didn’t know that I was suicidal throughout middle and high school.
My parents taught me that being a woman meant submitting to a man all my life. When I entered puberty, they began calling me “unladylike” for not fitting feminine stereotypes closely enough, and especially for talking back and not following the rules. I got the message. I was of the age when girls already feel their physical appearance is inadequate, but it definitely wasn’t helped by this type of gender role enforcement. I avoided eating onions for 8 years because of an offhanded comment about how they made you smell gross (women can never smell gross!). I cultivated what I believed at the time was a keen interest in high heeled shoes, developing a bunion by my early 20s from wearing them so much (yay!) Small, stupid things, but they made my life harder, and they made me self-conscious all the time. At the same time, in the world outside of my house, people made fun of me for my naiveté and I quickly learned to keep my mouth shut. I struggled to make friends; girls who were raised like me were better than me, more submissive, more obedient Christians, and girls who weren’t religious treated me like a laughingstock.
My parents also taught me to “guard my mind” – in other words, that masturbation or even sex dreams were a grave sin. I remember waking up from a sex dream at 13 and experiencing tremendous guilt. I begged God for forgiveness and channeled all my energy into school. I successfully avoided masturbating until I was 20. My family taught me to dress modestly so I didn’t “cause men to stumble” (or, more like, yelled at me and called me a slut when I didn’t conform well enough.) I remember a time a friend of my sister’s came to visit from Wisconsin, and the youth group leader, who I now know is a total creep (he says he “struggles with a pornography addiction”) berated her in front of everyone for wearing a shirt that was supposedly too low-cut. She went home in tears. I remember my mom telling me that a good wife is supposed to submit, sexually, to her husband. Later I found out that was because she herself was constantly raped. Rape culture was the norm in my community. Although I avoided being molested as a child, I know many women who weren’t so lucky, and many terribly disturbing things happened at the youth groups I attended. All of these experiences and beliefs primed me for a terrifying abusive relationship where I was constantly put down and raped. It’s been years since that relationship, and even longer since my childhood, but even after therapy I still experience feelings of guilt and shame over my own sexual desire. At least now I know how to address them as the lies they are.
The important thing about my story, though, is that I’m not even close to the only one. I’m not some outlier stuck in what everyone labels as a crazy cult in the middle of nowhere. I grew up in a family no one really guessed was that crazy, from the outside. And now, in the last few weeks I keep hearing more voices telling stories that are a lot like mine. That’s one good thing that’s coming out of this Duggar thing, at least. People need to hear these stories, and they need to realize that they’re far more common than they realize. They need to realize that fundamentalist Christian culture, even in its most benign form in the most loving family, sets you up for self-hatred and abuse.
Fundamentalist religion doesn’t necessarily cause abuse; I think it’s kind of a chicken-and-egg scenario. Believing abusive things such as fundamentalist Christianity endorses often leads to abuse, and abusers are drawn to such beliefs. Either way, we cannot ignore this connection any more. Too many children’s happiness is at stake.