out-fundying the fundies
Warning: this post may contain traces of nuts***
Coming out of a cult-like mindset is a journey of a thousand steps. As I’ve said before, for me it was discovering an increasing number of things I didn’t share with the QF/Christian patriarchal/Fundamentalist camp that formed a large slice of my escapee education pie. ‘Leigh’ (not her real name) unwittingly taught me one of my most memorable lessons.
I first heard of Leigh when a mutual, and very lovely, fundy friend asked if we could put Leigh and her son up for the night at short notice. My friend regularly had them to stay but unexpected circumstances prevented her offering a room this time. I said I’d be happy to find them some space.
Leigh and her 23 year old son James (also not his real name) needed to fly to across the continent two or three times each year. James was studying for a degree through a university in a city near us and was periodically required to attend in person to sit his exams. Apparently this was the only uni in Australia that offered the course James wanted to study but allowed students to complete it from home. Home university – within limited approved course choices – is pretty popular in QF circles.
Leigh arrived in a particularly dull and dowdy home-made floral frock, her uncut hair wound up tight in a large bun and wrapped in a crochetted ‘covering’. This bun cover was not intended to be decorative but was worn as a religious garment, a symbol of her submission to her husband. Leigh wore no make up or jewellery, her calves were swathed in a pair of peculiar fuzzy socks and I’d seen more stylish footwear on psych ward night nurses.
It quickly became apparent that Leigh liked to hold court from a position squarely in the centre of things. She fended off all direct contact between my family and James. Whenever we could get the lad to answer a question for himself, Leigh would either finish his sentences for him or chip in and correct the details with a brusque, ‘No, no, James. It wasn’t like that!’ It seemed James was used to being harried by his mother but, despite his charming manners and respectful fascade, there were unmistakable signs he was embarrassed and annoyed at her constant chiding. I managed to get Leigh to loosen her grip once or twice and allow James to play table tennis with my boys in another room. The boys said James was transformed from a nervous, twitching mummy’s boy into a regular, jovial bloke at these times.
Leigh, not unexpectedly, turned out to be one of those fundies who likes to let loose every hobby horse in her not-inconsiderable stable right up front without regard to the possible opinions of her beleaguered audience. Indeed, she didn’t allow for alternate positions at all but treated us to an unabated tub thumping from the moment she arrived until she finally trotted herself off to bed that night. I’ve met a lot of these sorts of fundies and suspect they persist in such thick-skinned, anti-social, brow-beating monologues in part because of a short-sighted assumption that if one has ‘Christian homeschooler’ tattooed across one’s forehead one must also be in happy receipt of the whole box and dice. In addition, I suspect they think it good policy on the off chance they have struck some poor fellow not fully right-minded quite yet. Then, as their victim is lucky enough to be in attendance while the fundy pursues their favourite subjects ad nauseum and without drawing breath, there is a fair possibility the wayward one may be brought round. I’m ashamed to say I have indulged in this sort of arrogance myself on many occasions.
So…Leigh began by holding forth on the ‘right’ kind of homeschooling. ACE, of course. I gathered as she continued that in general the only ‘suitable’ material for the consumption of children was overtly Christian both in authorship and message. She assumed we were in agreement about the evil practice of reading literature portraying animals or inanimate objects that talk. The kids smiles froze and they shot panicked glances my way. I crossed my fingers and hoped Leigh wouldn’t look too closely at any of my many bookcases containing as they did contraband favourites such as The Hobbit and D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths. Still hoping she wasn’t a Pantry Checker (I’ve known a few), I made a metal note to remove my wine to a safer location under my bed just in case.
Leigh went on to treat us to sermons on modesty and feminine submission. My girls and I were past wearing skirts by this time but, suspecting our houseguest may tend to the conservative side, I had dug one out for myself so as not to cause offense. I had stopped short of imposing that on my girls.
At that precise moment twelve-year-old K unwittingly entered the room dressed modestly enough in jeans and a blouse. It was now that Leigh revealed she had rebellion-spotting super-powers. These enabled her to detect the tell-tale whiff of a rebellious seed ‘…even as young as 12…’ She narrowed her eyes to suspicious slits and cast a despising glance K’s way. Leigh had, apparently, the only ‘saved’ kids left in town. She said they started homeschooling with 40 other children each and every one of whom she assured us had ‘gone off the rails’. She said that she was well-known for being the only parent of their acquainance who had been able to raise ‘godly’ children. Subsequently, Leigh volunteered a deal of her time to support less successful mothers in their grief. Occasionally she took one or two wayward souls into her home for a time, fixed them and then sent them back home for their hapless mothers to ruin again.
At one point I asked Leigh why she accompanied James each time he flew to Queensland. I thought she must have friends or relatives nearby that she wanted to visit. With a disappointed look, Leigh, sat up a little straighter and explained that obviously it wasn’t safe for James to catch a plane and then a bus on his own so she came along every time to make sure that he’d be safe. What made Leigh think she’d be able to keep a grown man safer than he could keep himself was not specified.
As it happened, I’d managed to kick the hobby horse closest to Leigh’s heart. She took the opportunity to explain that she lived on a farm (brownie points there for sure) and shopped in the small, quiet country town nearby. But, she said, she would never let her two girls – aged 18 and 21 – walk from one end of town to the other, a distance of some 500 metres, unchaperoned – even when she was shopping nearby. She was worried that men might try and….I’m not exactly sure what men might try and do but it was something and it was bad. Consequently, her girls had attained adulthood with virtually no opportunity for unsupervised conversation with a non-family member.
Leigh had chosen careers for all her children that would keep them safely with mama for the long haul. She and her husband had built a studio in their home so that James could try and earn a living teaching kids and still be able to eat all his meals with his ma. Leigh had helped her daughters establish a business making and selling unattractive modest clothing to other fundy women. The business name was based on 1 Timothy 4:12 and revealed the object was not just to keep certain body bits under wraps but to be – and be seen to be – better than everyone else because of your exemplary dress standards. Anyway, those young adults were kept safely under Mother’s gimlet eye 24/7 and were apparently not due for parole any time soon.
It eventually became plain that the rest of James’ life was pretty well stitched up for him. He had managed to select a prospective life partner from a mother-approved shortlist. This gal was from a similarly-minded fundy family who lived in another state. (It is common for QF families to start making connections like these as their children reach their teens – marriage partners not being thick on the ground in your average homeschool kitchen. In Australia ACE families seem to do this best.) James had met his chosen at a fundy-only 21st birthday party and after much prayer and character-sussing on both sides a betrothal contract agreeable to both families was negotiated.
All that remained was for the lass to come and enjoy an extended visit where she would be subject to a final bout of scrutiny from her mother-in-law-to-be. In due time James’ beloved arrived, endured 10 days with Leigh, then rushed home to her own mother refusing to speak to James or any of his family ever again. This hard-heartedness despite Leigh’s offer to section off a bit of unsaleable land on which James could erect a house for himself and his bride, and a promise that, faithful matriarch, she would be on hand every single day to mentor the poor ignorant thing and help her properly raise the hoped-for tribe of grandchildren. Ungrateful wench! Leigh could not find it in her heart to forgive the girl or her family and would not brook my gentle suggestion that it was perhaps better after all to call it off now than after the wedding.
Don’t ask my K about bedtime that night unless you want an earful. At 8.30, after phoning her husband and tersely delivering a full menu of instructions and reminders, Leigh announced that it was well past James’ bedtime and insisted he head off at once. James offered a sheepish goodnight to my pre-teen children who were still up and about and headed obediently for his nigh-nighs. And he almost escaped without further humiliation. At the last moment though Leigh called him back, offered her cheek and insisted on a ‘kiss for Mummy’. Honestly, we were all starting to feel a little ill.
The following morning Leigh was up and floral-frocked nice and early. She wandered the halls for over an hour (I kid you not) until everyone had seen her with her Bible (in hand-made quilted cover) and so knew she’d been at her ‘devotions’ while we were all still dribbling on our pillows. It was the day of James’ big exam so I asked him what he’d like to eat. He cast a worried glance at his mother whose glare left us in no doubt that I was sadly mistaken if I thought James was the honoured guest at this little party. Nevertheless I made James coffee, bacon and eggs and porridge and told him to help himself and have as much as he liked and not feel it was too much trouble. Leigh was pissed at all the attention James was receiving and also because, the service being a little slower than usual that morning, she had to shout from the dining room and hurry me along with her cutlery. All this without a word of a lie. And there was so, much, more more besides.
Leigh is not exactly typical of the women I met in QF fundamentalism. Certainly, she was uncharacteristically rude. But her meanness and self-absorption aside, she is really only slightly more extreme in her views than many – both women and men – I knew personally. Still, I was staggered at her self-rightousness and the depth of her self-deception and appalled at the abusive and inappropriate control she inflicted on her children.
Truthfully, Leigh scared the shite out of me. I realised that Delusion was a near and dangerous enemy and wondered if I was looking at a portrait of me in twenty years time. I determined then to ask others to hold me accountable as I searched my heart and pleaded with God to show me whether I might be on the same path. I told every friend who would lend me an ear about Leigh and reminded them that if they saw characteristics like that in me and didn’t tell me, they couldn’t rightly say they loved me. I decided I didn’t want to build myself into the kind of woman whose kids don’t visit her once they are given the choice. It was a good plan.
Sadly, although Leigh is a shocker she is not unique. Neither was she relegated to the outer corners of QF Fundidom. Leigh had real cred and was an honoured stateswoman in the QF pool in which she swam. I don’t doubt she had moulded many, many young women in her image over the years. I met her when I was already on the way to asking some difficult questions about the belief igloo I’d built around myself and my family. Consequently, Leigh repelled rather than attracted me. I wonder how I’d have responded if I’d still been in the throws of fullest QF zeal. I know this for sure, if she came to stay today I wouldn’t fail to challenge her nonsense. What a coward I was then.
James was a nice young guy though and I suspect he’ll make a decentish sort of man if he can ever get out from under his mother’s thumb. Perhaps he has. I sure hope so.
I’d also like to say that I hope this post serves to more clearly define the parameters of fundamentalism such as I will use the term on this blog. When I say fundy, I mean legalistic, self-righteous, delusional folk like Leigh. Sometimes I’ll be referring to homeschooling, homebirthing, home churching, home businessing, frock-wearing, KJV 1611 sorts. Other times I’ll include independant conservative and charistmatic/pentecostal believers. I do not mean to cast my net around Christians who simply believe the Bible is true and seek to live as though Christ is real – whatever I happen to believe myself. I fully intend to criticise a bunch of church practices that may be common across the board but I want it known that I love and respect many of the mainstream Christians I know who identify positively with the term Fundamentalism as they understand it.
And, I should note too that I have a lot of love and respect for QFers who are sincere believers and seekers after the truth – whether they are still in or have found their way out. But I’m not wasting any warm fuzzies on Leigh or her sort.
Acknowledgement: Graphic taken from http://www.stufffundieslike.com/2010/07/friday-challenge-diy-gear/#comments