How I Survived Homeschooling in Bill Gothard’s Cult: Part One

CC image courtesy of Flickr, Norbert Posselt.

HA Note: The following is reprinted with permission from Alexa Meyer’s blog Life of Grace and Peace. It was originally published on June 26, 2015 and has been slightly modified for HA.

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In this series: Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Conclusion

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Part One

With much encouragement from my husband I’m sharing my experiences with Bill Gothard and the ugly influence of Gothard’s Institute for Basic Life Principles (IBLP) and Advanced Training Institute (ATI – his homeschool program) teachings on my life. After reading many of the experiences of others, I felt that my story would just be redundant since we all seem to share similarities. My husband assures me that what I learned and how I dealt with Gothard would help someone – and so I hope.

The beginnings of what I think of as my personal “Dark Ages” started in my 13th year (Aug. 1988), a year after being pulled out of public school to home educate. There’s nothing like being told the day 7th grade started, and after taking all the trouble to get ready that morning – clothes on, check; hair done, check; makeup, check; pep talk, check – to “never mind going to school, you’ll be doing that at home from now on.” With my foot out the door and my bag over my shoulder, I thought it was a joke. When I realized they were serious and asked why, I was told that I was “out of control and rebellious, so to bring you into line you’re being taught at home.” That inspires cooperation!

From what I could tell, being rebellious meant that I wasn’t open to them, sharing my every thought, dream, etc., I was physically pulling away from them, not wanting to hug my dad frequently, spending time by myself, asking questions (which evidently meant I didn’t agree with them).

Basically, I wanted privacy and for my dad to stop paying attention to me (attention that made me uncomfortable), and they wanted to control everything about me. They had already tried Josh McDowall’s stuff with me the previous year, which I thought was a little overboard since more rules and guilt trips don’t help anyone. I’m sure that I was a little sullen and mouthy since by my understanding all my crying out for help to my mom, and sometimes my dad, didn’t get any results. My dad continued to sit too close, tickle my knees or ribs at will, make me hug him frequently, sit alone with me and pry into my deepest thoughts, humiliate me in front of my peers and adults by sharing my personal habits or spiritual revelations I had, make jokes about me, twist and turn my words (manipulate) back onto me when I would sit down and express my concerns about them – I could go on, but I don’t want to bore you. In addition to asking my mom to talk with dad about giving me some space, I asked my youth pastor to just come sit with me during a talk with my parents and help me make sure that my point got across to them. Nothing, of course, came of that. I tried several times at many “family devotions” during and after dinner, to confront my dad (like I had been taught to do-Matt.18) about this strangeness I felt between us. I was always “wrong (i.e. don’t know what you’re talking about), confused, misguided, so you should spend more time searching your heart and the Bible to see what Jesus wants you to work on.” I tried this approach from the age of 11 to about 15, and then gave up since everything I said was always turned back on me (it still is to this day).

After my “rebellious” first year home schooling, my parents decided that I needed Character Building. I guess I wasn’t enough of a character already! So after talking to a friend who knew a friend who had a similar “problem”, my parents were introduced to Bill Gothard’s Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP) – or Basic Training – through the Character Sketches. (These character sketch books were full of character words, their meanings, stories taken from the Bible, and an animal assigned per character word to teach the how to demonstrate the particular character, i.e. faithfulness.) I remember the first time I looked through that book thinking “Seriously?! I’m supposed to learn how my parents want me to behave by reading how animals behave? We’re going to spiritualize animal behavior?” It seemed really kooky to me, but I wanted to keep the peace, so I cooperated. Boy was I in for a treat at the IBLP seminar we went to that spring (1989)!

At that first Basic seminar (I was 12), my dad made sure we all met Gothard. It was very brief, but I didn’t like him and thought it strange how like my dad he was – same first name, hair and eye color, body build, voice tones, manner of speaking and hand gestures.

The most unnerving trait they shared, which became apparent about 2 years later when I met him again, was the sexual undercurrent.

I recognized that particular type of tension because I dodged that sitting-too-close, inappropriate-tickling, alone-at-night-deep-probing-questions, forcing-affection and being-called-girlfriend tension from my father my whole life.

Another thing that seemed strange, yet obvious, to me was how odd it was for people who are married and probably have kids to listen and take to heart a man’s interpretation of the Bible, who has never left home or married let alone courted anyone (to my knowledge at 13) and had no experience whatsoever of raising kids. Wow! Really?! The rules he was spouting seemed endless and silly, focusing on only physical things that we should do, never the true Grace and Peace that Jesus brought us all after the cross.

So after attending Basic and learning all the things we must do to receive God’s favor (Wait a minute! I thought that was un-merited because of Jesus!), and, apparently, to fit in with this club, life became a burden.

It was already rocky enough, what with being the only child who was blessed with her father’s laser beam of religiosity, demanding my every thought, confession, loyalty but never my questions or concerns about anything to do with my parent’s authority. I call that blind loyalty, and ironically my parents taught me, no required me, to be a deep thinker and self-analyzer, to always question things, especially establishments and authority.

Did anyone else’s parents require complete transparency (even if nothing was there), daily Bible study at the ungodly hour of 6am (okay, I’m so Not a morning person!), regular self-analysis to see where you’re wrong and how you can be more like Christ? Or the room raids and confiscations when you’re gone, public humiliations by talking about your private struggles or personal habits? Or have the limits on youth group involvement and the focus on staying pure, pointing out that I’m inherently a sinner, so I have to keep myself pure and modest so I don’t tempt anyone and become a stumbling block? The way my dad talked he had me believing that every guy over the age of 12 had one thing on their mind most of the time, so it was my job not to encourage them. Later I would wonder how to turn him off! After witnessing my father come home from work one day (when I was about 14) and thank us for praying for him that day, because he’d been tempted by a beautiful red haired woman in a suit, I knew for sure that my dad was one of those males he’d been warning me about. It took years of being married to my wonderful, non-ATIA, Godly husband before I released my prejudice against most men.

A lot of the teachings from IBLP my parents had already been teaching me for a while. Some of the new things were the Patriarch stuff, women wearing only dresses, no make-up, long hair, stay at home, having babies (no birth control) and the courtship idea. The teaching that people are supposed to follow all these rules (most of which are made by man), which are “backed up” by Bible verses used out of context, to be “right” with and blessed by God, weren’t new to me. It was, however something that I was finding oppressive and didn’t think was right. What I saw through my parents and the numerous churches we attended was those in positions of “authority” (power, really) abusing their position saying, “Jesus died for you because He loves you and wants to save you. (His blood wasn’t powerful enough? I have the power to make Jesus my Redeemer or Savior?) But He accepts you as you are. Accept Him so you won’t burn in hell (Didn’t Jesus take the judgement of the world and bring Peace between man and God?).” Then after you accept Him – really, who wants to burn in hell? – they teach all the things you have to do to continue to stay “right” with God. The backstabbing, ostracizing, cruelness comes the minute you questioned anything or didn’t agree exactly the same way. Aside from studying how Jesus behaved after the cross (as well as before!) and noticing that He certainly never acted that heartless way, it just didn’t feel right.

It’s what Jesus wants from us, to be hateful towards someone who doesn’t think, act or dress like us?

Really?! That shows Love?

Well, after contemplating suicide three times my 13th year, shortly after turning 14 I raised my fist to God and told Him to take this “Christianity” and shove it! If this was Him I didn’t want to have anything to do with it. He was going to have to show me who He really was for me to have anything to do with Him. He, thankfully, didn’t disappoint me! About five months later He encouraged me to read Song of Solomon. He showed me His Love, He wooed me and became my best friend, confidant, lover, teacher, most especially my Hope. I know to the core of me that He was the only way I made it to 18 reasonably sane and alive.

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