Living with Cognitive Dissonance: Sonia’s Story

CC image courtesy of Flickr, Ryan Hyde.

HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Sonia” is a pseudonym.

My mom told me a while ago, “It seems impossible to live it [the Gothard/fundie lifestyle] in moderation, although that’s exactly what I was trying to do. I didn’t buy the whole program. Instead, I took from it that which I thought was useful and healthy. I rejected a lot, but maybe you don’t have any way of knowing that. There were many women who perceived me to be a great ‘compromiser’, and I mean that word in a very negative sense.” She was right. I didn’t have any way of knowing that. (This reminded me of other posts I’ve read such as “PICKING THINGS UP FROM THE CULTURE, HOMESCHOOL EDITION” and Libby Anne’s “THEN WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL US THAT, MOM?” from a couple of years back.) What I did know intellectually and intuitively ended up producing a considerable amount of cognitive dissonance,
fear, and anguish that has plagued me for years.

My parents didn’t understand that even if THEY didn’t wholeheartedly buy into the entire program, the fact that for the most part they would only let us spend our time around other families who DID buy into the entire program gave tacit approval to the entire program.

Oddly enough, my mom was the one to teach me to think critically, though I don’t think she really expected me to use that skill to the extent I did to think outside my little box. She told me two things when I was young that eventually led to my most significant “lightbulb moments.” First, she told me very clearly that she was educating me as well as my brother because I was smart and it wasn’t responsible to do otherwise on the off chance I had to support myself. (Incidentally, she also said she got a lot of flak for doing this.) Second, when I asked why I was allowed to wear jeans/pants when the other girls weren’t, all I can remember is getting a response to the effect of, “Well we aren’t THAT strict.”

So, after a few years when I started noticing things weren’t adding up, I asked more questions and assumed, logically, that if my parents could bend the rules and pick and choose where they saw fit, I could too as long as I had a logical, reasonable explanation for wanting to do so.

Lightbulb. Obviously, we all know this wasn’t true, but I didn’t know that at the time, so I was very confused. This is where I ran into trouble. Whenever I had ideas that ran contrary to “popular” belief and I brought up those issues, I always came armed with a list of very respectful but coherent reasons as to why there were major holes in what we heard at church. I simply could not understand how my parents, who made the logical decision to ignore two VERY big parts of the dogma, i.e. female education and modesty, did not see the other gaping holes. Most of the time, I felt like my concerns and opinions were brushed off and treated as a nuisance. My speaking out was attributed to youthful rebellion and I was not taken seriously.

One of the issues I kept bringing up because it made no sense was courtship (or arranged marriage as I like to refer to it). For years, I had closely watched all the happy smiles, wedding day first kisses, and subsequent babies that magically appeared nine months after the wedding. I followed the ins and outs of The Courtship Files at my church with rapt attention. I was curious to see what my future looked like. Something in my gut told me that there was something amiss, and I was quite vocal about it to my parents. These marriages seemed to materialize with next to no input from the XX-chromosomed party and after the wedding, all the new brides had this glassy-eyed, “totally blessed” look. Oh, and they would quote Proverbs 31 and Titus 2 and Ephesians 5 ad nauseam and have their members-only Bible studies for newly married couples.

Nonetheless, I really tried hard to buy into it despite the cognitive dissonance because I didn’t have a choice.

I really did try until I encountered a classic, “let’s abuse Hester Prynne” incident during church that resulted in lightbulbs going off all over the place.

This girl from our church had gone away to a conservative Christian college and ended up coming back pregnant. They made her stand up in church on a Sunday morning and apologize for her “sin” when she was probably five or six months pregnant. Even as young as I was (probably 8 or 9), I was acutely aware there was something very wrong about the whole thing. I do have to admit, much to my chagrin, that my first response was to hop on the stone-throwing train everyone around me was gleefully riding because that was the “right” response to “sin.” However, two lightbulbs blinked over my head as I sat there. First, a little voice in the back of my head gave me some advice regarding my own future self-preservation. It said, “You better never do anything this bad because you know that if you did, they would turn on you too in a second. And if you do anything like this, you better damn well keep it hidden.” Lightbulb. Second, I wondered why the pastor and elders standing behind this woman on the podium didn’t also have to apologize in front of the church for their sins too. Lightbulb. I remember feeling much more guarded after that point.

Back to the subject of my own future, the last serious conversation I remember having with my parents regarding courtship happened at bedtime one night sometime during my preteen years. Inevitably, conversations about this courtship thing had begun to take place more frequently. My parents explained, yet again, what courtship meant and what its implications were for my future. I presented every logical objection I could think of as I had done many times before. What if I go to a college in another state? (Remember the educating me thing? Yeah…that.) What if I never move back home after college? What if I meet “the one” before you do? What if I don’t tell you about him? What if “him” is a…HER??? How do you plan to police me that carefully?

To my parents’ credit in this instance, my objections were handled calmly and without anger. However, the conversation concluded with, “We will deal with it when it happens and at that point, you’ll understand how important courtship and this transfer of authority over you are.” I remember very clearly telling them, “I’m not doing it.” They calmly responded that I would feel differently later, and it’s ok that I don’t feel like that now. I responded flatly with, “No you don’t understand. My feelings about this aren’t going to change. I am not doing this.” I was resolute. My parents said that that was ok for now and bid me sweet dreams. What they really didn’t factor in was how deadly serious I was. It is difficult to overstate the degree to which I meant what I said. If my parents had continued on the oppressive courtship track later in my life, I guarantee I would have staged some sort of massive, storm-the-Bastille style revolt. If I had had to choose between courtship and losing any relationship I had with my parents (or God for that matter), I would have chosen the latter in a heartbeat.

After all, I wasn’t just a walking uterus.

I had a brain too.

Fortunately, I was never pushed to make this choice because my parents ended up divorcing. This set off by far the biggest lightbulb. Over the years, I had “appealed” to my parents time and time again and presented coherent, logical objections to a wide range of topics as a result of the many little lightbulbs that were periodically going off in my head. I don’t even remember most of these encounters, but I do remember having the feeling consistently that my parents didn’t really hear me or take me seriously. 

And since I didn’t have the agency to make my own choices regarding my own beliefs, I had to live with what was there.

However, with the divorce came the freedom to start to carve my own path and with that freedom, I had to start reexamining everything I’d ever been told. There were some physical abuse issues involved preceding the divorce which I was witness to. The elder board and pastor of our church said that my dad should move out of our home temporarily, pending biblical “counseling.” Once the church said that both my parents had been sufficiently “counseled,” my parents were instructed to “reconcile.” My mom refused. Such began an extremely tumultuous few years for all of us and the unraveling of the proverbial carpet for me.

I knew instinctively that my parents needed to go their separate ways and that this was the best outcome for all of us.

I simply didn’t understand all the theological discourse that said that people couldn’t divorce for any reason whatsoever, even in cases of abuse.

On the heels of that came the next logical question: if divorce wasn’t unequivocally wrong in every circumstance, as I had been told, what else wasn’t unequivocally wrong? Lightbulb. My entire world was turned on its head and I felt like I couldn’t trust anything I had ever been taught or thought I had known. This was very traumatic, and I spent most of the decade following and more trying to sort out what exactly I believed. I have wondered in the years since why my parents didn’t listen to me or why I felt like they didn’t.

I have wondered why my concerns, opinions, and expressions of distress were not interpreted as red flags or catalysts for change.

For years I felt like I didn’t have a voice and even now, I have a pathological, anxiety-attack-inducing fear of not being heard.

I am, however, very grateful for the lightbulb moments and the conversations they inspired. I hope I remember more of those moments as I grow older and I am grateful for the moments of mental clarity along the way I do remember that allowed me to navigate the twilight zone of my growing up years. Those moments of clarity kept me sane and kept me from being fully brainwashed. They kept my spirit alive to fight, and when I think back on them now they give me a sense of peace that I can find my way in the world, and I can trust what I know is right.

2 comments

  • Diane Alton-Kaighin

    Thanks for sharing and happy your have been released from the brain washing.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    First, a little voice in the back of my head gave me some advice regarding my own future self-preservation. It said, “You better never do anything this bad because you know that if you did, they would turn on you too in a second. And if you do anything like this, you better damn well keep it hidden.” Lightbulb. Second, I wondered why the pastor and elders standing behind this woman on the podium didn’t also have to apologize in front of the church for their sins too. Lightbulb. I remember feeling much more guarded after that point.

    “Swear allegiance to the flag,
    Whichever flag they offer;
    NEVER LET ON WHAT YOU REALLY FEEL…”
    — Mike and the Mechanics, “Silent Running”
    (Of which there used to be a great YouTube mashup music video using the visuals from “Red Dawn”…)

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