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all the way out in ‘impius’ magazine

August 22, 2011

Although I explained I am in no hurry to take on a new label of any sort and don’t think of myself as an Atheist at all, the editor of Impius, the new magazine of Sydney Atheists, kindly asked me to contribute an article for the inaugural edition. He wanted to include it in a section entitled Lifting the Veil which he plans will feature reader’s exit stories in future. I can’t paste the whole article here for copyright reasons but here’s a smidge. You can find the rest here. (It’s on page 28 of the August – October, 2011 edition.)

***

The way out

Although not so long ago it pained me greatly to own it, I can now admit without too much blushing that I am a Recovering Fundamentalist. As unlikely as it seems to me now, I spent 20 years inside patriarchal Fundamentalist Christianity. I was converted as a very mixed up 19-year-old in a leapy, clappy megachurch, spent several years as a Pentecostal minister’s wife, and gradually transformed into a modest-dressing, homeschooling mother of a large tribe of children. We were ostensibly a happy, functional Christian family, indeed my friends tell me I was something of a hero in the circles in which we moved. People admired me and wanted what I had – a seemingly happy marriage, a beautiful bunch of smart, happy, respectful children and a lovely, organised home. It was invisible to me at the time, but there was all manner of misery lurking just beneath the surface. Eventually our family imploded and I staggered out of ruins, bringing my children with me.

A quiver full of sorrow

My Christianity evolved over the years I was a believer, but one characteristic which began to develop quite early was sympathy toward a set of ideas now referred to as ‘Quiverfull’ Christianity. The name comes from a bible verse from Psalm 127 which states:

Children are an inheritance from the Lord,

Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them…

There is no one Quiverfull denomination and no one guru, although its beginnings can be traced to a handful of influential American Fundamentalist authors of the 80s and 90s. It is best understood as a particularly powerful sort of cult-like thinking that pervades the mind of many believing couples and makes, as my friend, well-known Quiverfull walkaway Vyckie Garrison has said, ‘every family their own little cult’, striving to please God by emulating a prescribed ideal: the ‘biblical Christian family’…. continued here

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frank shaeffer on michele bachmann, mary pride and ‘godly, grovelling women’

August 22, 2011

”]”]For those who have missed it, this article by Frank Shaeffer on Alternet is definitely worth a read.

crushing daisies #2: the little house on the prairie fashion club

July 1, 2011


When we were Quiverfull, our family wasn’t nearly so extreme as some regarding dress standards, but we did insist on longish dresses and hair for the girls for several years. This wasn’t all religious nonsense: those Osh Kosh pinnies were tough as hell and could be passed on through all the girls in the family and still look as though they’d hardly been worn. And, despite how my girls remember it, they were actually in fashion at the time. I wasn’t  just sewing our own stuff (although I did that too), Osh Kosh pinnies were bought off the rack in Myer and Target by regular folk as well as fundies like us. However, I’ll admit that we kept it up for longer than was appropriate. And we did choose clothing on the basis of a biblical notion of feminine modesty.

One day, some months after we’d come out, my then-17-year-old daughter K reminded me how damaged she had felt by this over-emphasis. She told me that in her view it had three significant effects – none of which I had intended to convey. For one, she grew to have an abiding disrespect for men and boys who apparently couldn’t keep their minds away from her private parts. K says she felt disgusted at male weakness and their apparent obsession with all things sexual. For years she struggled even to imagine enjoying a healthy partnership with a man.

In addition to helping us spot like-minded families in a crowd, dressing as we did had served, conveniently, to keep a distance between us and ‘the world’. K tells me that, even though she ended up going to school for grades 11 and 12, and is now happily managing university, for a long time she felt 16 years behind the eight ball when with her peers. Dress and other conservative choices we made kept my kids from engaging with their own culture. In an effort to follow the advice of patriarchal teachers such as Jonathan Lindvall we ‘dared to shelter’ our kids from many things that would help them function in a 21st world.

Finally, and perhaps most disturbing is that K says she grew up believing that there was something very wrong with her body. Having to hide herself away under a veritable mountain of denim, and promptly being admonished when any bits weren’t properly covered left her confused and, she says, appalled at her own foulness. She tells me that, before she even came to the dreadful realisation that God planned a very limited range of life choices for her, she knew she hated it that he had made her a girl. It’s impossible not to connect the dots and see this as a factor in K’s subsequent fight with Anorexia Nervosa.

How incredibly sad is that? I am heartbroken that I participated in crushing the self-worth of such a beautiful, intelligent and energetic young woman. And I feel very lucky indeed that she loves me still and allows me to walk beside her to build her up and help her realise her full potential.

It has been many years since I stopped enforcing the dress code in our home  – long before we even came out of Christianity. Really, as soon as our girls reached their teen years the foolishness of such a position became clear to me. The fact that my two oldest girls came to me threatening mutiny helped a lot. 🙂 I dropped over-the-top modesty like a hot potato when I realised it was hurting my girls – and probably my boys – and damaging my relationship with them. Thankfully my desire to keep the love and respect of my children overruled my foolish legalism.

I can imagine a flood of  ‘if anyone loves father, mother….more than me’ tut-tutting from some former churchmates as I write. I realise that many will believe my opting to side with my kids will send me to hell, but I have chosen to love them regardless. I’m so glad I realised I loved my children too much to stand on silly, man-made principle – no matter what the punishment for rebellion. Whatever happens and whoever my kids decide to be, the only mother they’ve got in the world is going to stand beside them cheering them on. No matter what it costs me.

Addendum:

When I told K about this post, this is what she said:

“Now I love being a woman. I feel powerful, strong and capable of doing anything I want to do.”

A little joybird just nested in my heart.

shades of nancy campbell

June 29, 2011

Remember the Sunday Night program where Nancy Campbell talked about ‘womb-men’ being ‘educated beyond their intelligence’? For those of you who got a little hot under the collar with that one, here’s some light relief.

anorexia art

May 29, 2011
My 18-year-old daughter K is a brave survivor of Anorexia Nervosa. But it was a close thing – three times we almost lost her. The evil dragon almost took my girl – but we beat him back one spoonful at at time. Well established in her recovery, K is now at the university of her dreams studying the course of her dreams – unthinkable just two years ago. I’m so, so proud of her.
I’m studying at uni, too. This study period I took a unit in digital art. For the final assessment, we were required to produce four related photomontages around the theme of fractured identity. I chose to base mine on my daughter’s anorexia journey – an agonising fight to integrate and restore ownership of her psyche and save her life.
The best evidence to hand suggests that Anorexia is a psychiatric illness with a genetic base and organic symptoms, so I am in no means wanting to lay the blame for my daughter’s condition at the feet of Christianity. But it cannot be ignored that children from Christian homes are significantly over-represented in child and adolescent psychiatric institutions. Many of those young people are victims of Anorexia or other eating disorders.
Because of this, I imagine there might be numerous visitors here whose lives have been touched by this insidious and deadly disease. So, I thought I’d post my art here in the hope it may be an encouragement to someone.

'Anorexia #1: The Arrival'. Jane Douglas, 2011. Digital photomontage.

Anorexia #2: Alone Inside. Jane Douglas, 2011. Digital photomontage
Anorexia #3: The Thread. Jane Douglas, 2011. Digital photomontage.

Anorexia #4: The Way Out. Jane Douglas, 2011. Digital photomontage.

Anorexia #5: The Dollhouse. Jane Douglas, 2011. Digital photomontage.

NOTE: For parents who suspect their child may be at risk, some of the best advice on the internet about Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa and other eating disorders is available at F.E.A.S.T. and Maudsley Parents. I doubt my daughter would have made it had I not been able to access their excellent information and support.

crushing daisies: how fundamentalism harms its children #1

May 23, 2011

Note: This post is part one of a series that originally appeared at my now defunct blog A Dragonfly Diary sometime in 2010. It has been updated slightly for publishing here but mostly left as it was. Because of this, this post reflects my attitude at the time of writing when I still felt a strong connection to Christianity. I’d also like to note that I’m not suggesting it is necessary to leave one’s husband or one’s faith in order to find happiness. That’s just my story.

***

Work, work, work!

Recently I caught the tail-end of the US-made Wife Swap program. The father in one home was a real stick-in-the-mud and a big believer in strictly ‘training’ his children. How I cringed to watch a work ethic so like my ex-husband’s standing pasty-white, flabby and naked on reality TV.

This guy and his wife owned a restaurant and they – and their children – worked 7 days/week so that they could ‘have the freedom of lifestyle’ they wanted. Those poor kids had no free time and lived weighed down by inappropriate burdens their parents inadvertently laid on them. Of course the new mom was a ‘servant’ who didn’t allow her kids to do anything for themselves at all. Juicy conflict ensued as she insisted Dad sell the inn and give his kids their lives back. The new mom encouraged the kids to string worry beads on a thread to symbolically give back the adult worries they were carrying. The poor little mites listed things like ‘I don’t want to worry that the inn will go broke and we’ll all have to live on the streets’. It was all uncomfortably familiar. I’ve seen it in so many QF patriarchal homes.

Some years ago I was invited to take a session at a homeschool mothers’ group. The leader had asked me to speak about home organisation as, apparently someone thought I had got that together. I’m guessing the entirety of my self-congratulatory little speech was pretty cringeworthy but I blush particularly as recall myself quoting from some book I had read on the subject which smirked, ‘Don’t ever do anything for yourself that your kids can do for you.’ I actually read it aloud twice telling them I agreed with it so strongly. And I really did.

Although with just seven children, our family is not so large as many I know, having the first six kids in relatively quick succession does make for a pretty busy household. At various times I inflicted new and proven-to-succeed home management systems on my family in an effort to impart a smidgen of orderliness. I’ve been known to impose Managers of their Homes, the happy face system, Fly Lady and numerous other mercifully short-lived, chart-ticking nightmares on my long-suffering offspring. While those programs are not all bad, in our home they were mostly educational in just two respects: They taught me that (1) nobody likes me when I’m in Household Hitler Mode and (2) I can only tolerate making my kids miserable for a short time.

But even though I failed to stick with a consistant program, my kids used to do a huge amount of housework. That’s not entirely unfair as they did create a lot of mess. And it wasn’t all bad. They learned some useful skills and developed – as promised by the program publishers – the seeds of character. But looking back, they did way more than was appropriate. It’s cute (hmmm, maybe) that a 10-year-old is capable of cooking dinner now and then for a family of nine, but hardly fair.

I don’t think I loaded the kids up was because I was lazy – I’m not. But I do think that I was rather too proud of my little army of worker ants. Obedient, productive kids are a bit of a status symbol in QF. And it’s not like giving up homeschooling so I’d have time to hang my own washing was an option. Having a husband whose only interest outside religion was work – his and ours – did not help. But if I think about it, I suspect my easing up on the kids work-wise coincided with my loosening ties with QF families and what I believed was their ever-present judgement.

And now that the kids are in school, I take a totally different view of housework. I feel that getting an education and having a childhood are the primary responsibilities of children. I do nine-tenths of the housework and this is how I think it should be. I have lowered my standards a lot. If I’m hung up about something needing to be spotless all the time, I clean it.

As well as releasing us from the children’s father’s high expectations (at least, for the majority of their time – when they visit their dad it’s back to the old days), freedom from that marriage has gifted me the joy of enjoying my children with a whole heart.The kids are happier and I have a lot more energy now that I’m not wasting it on badgering them to work, work, work. Hey…..that sounds like the beginnings of an ad for a great new program….NOT!

what’s a smart girl like you doing in a place like this?

May 8, 2011

Photo by Movies4U.

Coming out of fundamentalism is like waking out of a sleepwalking nightmare. The further you get away from the craziness, the more outrageous it seems that you ever found any of it credible – nevermind that you built your whole life around it. For me, the process of deconversion began quite slowly and then suddenly, an avalanche of hard-on-their-heels revelations picked me up and whisked me away, landing me with a surprising but liberating bump on the outside.

For those who’ve never lived inside fundamentalism, I imagine it would seem that anyone who gets caught up in a cult must be incredibly stupid or gullible and probably both. I understand. Those people, then, may find it difficult to accept that I am neither, and nor were the majority of the women I knew in fundamentalism. But that’s not to say that there isn’t something broken somewhere inside us that made us susceptible to the cult’s siren call. In my view, we have something very badly broken indeed. In fact, from where I stand now, I can identify a few of the characteristics that assisted my own entry into fundamentalist Christianity. I’m still nutting this out but here’s a start on explaining how it looks to me today:

***

The water you swim in

My parents did the very best job they knew how to do. Both came from families dominated by abusive men – my mother’s father was volatile and violent, my father’s father, a flagrant philanderer who sexually assaulted his only son almost daily for many years. Raised with such terrifying men, both my mother and my father grew up suppressing their emotions. By the time they came to have a family together, they had virtually expunged emotion from their consciousnesses altogether. We just didn’t do emotions at our house – except for anger, but only the adults were allowed to own that. My sisters and I learned very early that emotions were bad, and good girls didn’t go spoiling everyone’s mood by letting them out. And the best way to avoid that was not to have them at all. As far as the germs of emotions went, our home was absolutely and completely sterile. I have no memory of my parents telling me they loved me or of receiving any kind of affection from them whatsoever. Although as an adult, I have no doubt that both loved me very much in their way.

As a little girl I used to lie in bed at night and cry and wish I could do something that would make my parents love me. By the time I was a teenager, I felt ashamed to think I had ever been so weak. My disconnection from my own emotions was now approaching Hindu guru status: I was impervious to the pain of the dysfunctional relationships that surrounded me, and in complete denial about  my need for – or right to – love and affection.

I now believe the true root of my emotional dissociation, the real monster lurking in my family, is probably best described as co-dependance. With each family member doing victim/aggressor/rescuer dances in turn, our lives were a continual cycle of manipulation, bullying and deceit. Complex rules and expectations were ‘understood’ within the culture of our family and everyone knew precisely what part they are supposed to be playing depending on the subtext present at any particular time. Our parents generally held the more powerful position and we kids learned how to behave in order to stay out of trouble as much as possible.

My parents were not bad people. In fact, they had a lot of excellent qualities. And despite statistical probability, they didn’t physically or sexually abuse us. They didn’t mean to hurt us at all…they just didn’t know any other way of doing life. They came from a long line of co-dependants – doing the dance was all they knew. It wasn’t their fault they did it, and it wasn’t mine that I ended up with a lot of issues either. When our personalities were forming, they got all bent out of shape. That’s the nature of the monster.

From where I stand now, I see few families where this sickening pattern is not the norm. Indeed, co-dependance seems to be something of an epidemic. And apart from being dreadfully damaging to a child’s psyche and screwing up any chance he or she will be able to enjoy truly healthy adult relationships, co-dependance is an excellent preparation for entry into the abusive relationship that is life in The Church.

Here’s a list of some symptoms of co-dependancy from Mental Health America. Read them with cult membership in mind and it’s not difficult to see why co-dependants enter fundamentalist communities in droves. MHA says that co-dependents tend to have:

  • An exaggerated sense of responsibility for the actions of others
  • A tendency to confuse love and pity, with the tendency to “love” people they can pity and rescue
  • A tendency to do more than their share, all of the time
  • A tendency to become hurt when people don’t recognize their efforts
  • An unhealthy dependence on relationships. The co-dependent will do anything to hold on to a relationship; to avoid the feeling of abandonment
  • An extreme need for approval and recognition
  • A sense of guilt when asserting themselves
  • A compelling need to control others
  • Lack of trust in self and/or others
  • Fear of being abandoned or alone
  • Difficulty identifying feelings
  • Rigidity/difficulty adjusting to change
  • Problems with intimacy/boundaries
  • Chronic anger
  • Lying/dishonesty
  • Poor communications
  • Difficulty making decisions

You’ll notice some of those characteristics seem contradictory. That’s because co-dependants act out of that victim/aggressor/rescuer triangle in different ways at different times in different relationships. But it’s all part of the same ugly, messy ‘disease’.

The most horrifying thing about co-dependancy is that, because you’ve never known life any other way, it’s like water to a fish: you just can’t see it. Indeed you aren’t even aware of its existence. Coming out – and finding an excellent post-cult therapist – opened my eyes to the truth. I remember the shock of realisation that I’d been swimming around in a pool of my own shit for 45 years; not happy, but never imagining either that there were fresher puddles elsewhere. Now, when I’m with my extended family, I can see the strings – it’s actually quite astonishing to watch them all dancing as they’ve always done – but I’ve snipped my own strings away. My family members can tug and tug but I no longer do the dance. I’ve had some extremely ugly responses from those who are not comfortable with the new rules but, understanding boundaries as I do now, I’m not too worried about the shit storm on the other side of my fence. I hope they’ll get used to the new me in time but if not, I can’t help that.

Looking back I realise the churches I attended were just bursting at the seams with co-dependants: aggressors bullying victims, rescuers with saviour complexes feeding off solving everybody’s problems, victims whining and snarking but never plainly asserting their right to be treated as human beings. But however miserable it became, and however frequently folk had to change churches in order to survive, the moral ‘rightness’ of the system, the belief that there was no other way to live, combined with the complete absence of a normal, healthy, internal guidance system, kept us from ever actually considering the possibility of giving the whole thing up as a bad deal. It’s a hideous puppet show played out in a maze of tangled strings. With every little tug, each figure dances in precisely the way he or she has been programmed to from childhood. We lived paralysed in the thick of the FOG of Fear, Obligation and Guilt unable even to understand why our lives were such a mess, much less act to change them.

Obviously there are a lot more co-dependants in the world than there are religious cult members. But there’s more than one way to participate in a cult-like lifestyle. Those without religious or superstitious tendencies may build themselves other forms of controlling and controlled lives that are just as screwed up as mine was; the Church does not have a monopoly on ugly bullies or pathetic victims. But I think it is true to say that the Church has managed to institutionalise co-dependancy and give the roles of bully, victim and rescuer a whiff of supposed holiness which makes them all the more disgusting and infinitely more dangerous – particularly to children raised in its perverse embrace.

Entering a cult is not a journey reserved for stupid people. My therapist has commented that, in light of my family background, there was almost an inevitability to my entering fundamentalist Christianity as I did. With her help. I’ve uncovered several false beliefs that I had unknowingly held all my life – until I reached the place where I began to see the water and its filthy contents. Those beliefs affected my every decision, every relationship, and indeed every single thing in my life. I believe they are largely responsible both for my entering Christianity and for my staying there as long as I did. I’d like to talk about those beliefs – big fat lies really – in my next post.