Dreaming of a Way Out: Mina’s Story
HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Mina” is a pseudonym.
Lucky for me, I attended a parochial school from 1st through fifth grade. I loved it. I loved my friends, learning, the teachers—everything about school thrilled me.
However, at the age of ten, after my parents had fallen under the spell of a religious group associated with the Branch Davidians, and they moved my sister and I out of the state and into a single-wide trailer in a very rural area of the country.
We were isolated. And we were homeschooled for the rest of our education, save for one year when a number of the “cult parents” banded together to pay a fellow-follower to teach seven of the children in a spare bedroom.
We were a true homeschooling Christian family. We wore long skirts. We didn’t cut our hair. The men wore beards. It was a miserable existence.
However, I always found hope in the idea that I would turn 18 and could leave.
I longed for a real education, and since I had gone to a normal school for the first five years, I knew what the real world was like.
But the longer we were involved in the movement, the more socially awkward I became during the limited social interaction we had with “the worldly people” we encountered at church, in stores, etc.
As I recall, around age 16, my mother mostly gave up homeschooling.
My mom went into a severe depression, and I don’t recall any sort of structure related to my education. Somehow though, I figured out I needed a GED, and I somehow got a GED study book and figured out where I needed to go to take the tests. I spent long hours in the night studying for my GED. I had no one to teach me and no guidance, so it’s kind of amazing that I figured out what I needed to do to pass it.
My father was a very controlling man and did not believe girls needed education, so my parents were of no help in the GED process. Mostly I studied in secret so as not to anger my very controlling father.
Once I had completed my GED (around age 17) I wasn’t sure what the next step should be.
I had heard one of the other followers talking about her niece who was going to a proprietary technical school. It sounded like a way out, and I asked her for the address of the school. I secretly wrote the school and managed to intercept all the mail addressed to me from the school. You can imagine my parents surprise when two individuals from the school showed up at our doorstep to sign me up.
I think my parents were so dumbfounded that a month after I turned 18, I left home to attend the proprietary school.
I had written a church in the area seeking a place to stay and ended up living in the home of another religious family. But it was less religious, and I could finally breathe. But that’s when the trouble started with my parents – constant calls and letters. Guilt. It was a loss of control for them, so the pressure to return was enormous.
I led a double life. None of the girls in the technical school knew my background. Thinking back, I think most of the girls came from rough backgrounds (they weren’t university material so they ended up in technical school), so my oddness didn’t seem so odd to them. They all had troubles of their own. But for me, who had no idea about the differences between a technical school or a private university, it was an amazing (albeit very expensive) year of “college.”
While it was a technical school, it was VERY hard for me. I would go to school early in the morning to practice things like typing (which everyone else knew), then go to my PT job before coming back to school.
Keeping up was hard – I had no context for the things I was being taught, and I really struggled.
The computers were out of my league and very challenging, since I had never been exposed to a computer.
At graduation (it was a year-long program), my parents put a great deal of pressure on me to return home. They told me the Lord had told them I needed to return, and it became unbearable. While I had no interest in returning home, the guilt was too much, and I did return home and found a job. Once again, I had to lead a double life – behaving one way at work and another way at home. After about nine months, I couldn’t stand it. My parent’s had become very controlling, and I knew I had to escape.
I had met a person who was going to a religious college in TN. I had no way of knowing about other colleges so I determined, once again, to secretly apply. I applied and was accepted. It was a four year religious university. I was beyond thrilled and looking forward to moving away and having a new life.
But my parents disagreed, and in a shocking act of violence (that led to the arrest and conviction of my father), they prevented me from moving.
More shockingly, I had the strength to get the police involved, and this ended up opening a few doors for me. I learned about community college and enrolled. But I was lost. I went to the guidance counselors, but they seemed out of their depth in dealing with someone who had no frame of reference for education. I muddled my way through one year before I quit and went to work full time as a secretary, all the while taking an occasional community college class here or there.
But secretly, I had a dream to become a lawyer. I had never met a lawyer, nor did I have any idea how to get to law school. But that little secret dream kept driving me. And I figured out how to apply to state universities. As I recall, since I had no grade or SATs, the university took me on as a special case. But there was so much I didn’t know, and the first two years were miserable. I felt so dumb.
I just didn’t know the basics that most people learn in high school.
Like math. I simply had no math education, and the college sent me to special high school classes to take math. I had no idea what anyone was talking about most of those first two years of university and, I made no friends. It was a foreign world – from the literature that was read to the science classes. I have no idea how I made it through – but I did. And I managed to graduate with a degree in journalism.
I eventually did find my way to law school.
And while I was older and not as socially awkward, it was still incredibly difficult for me. While other people seemed to know the basics of the constitution and how to research, I had no such skills, and I had to spend extra money hiring tutors to help me. But what I lacked in book skills, I made up for in zealous representation. I knew first-hand what it meant to be the underdog, and I knew how to fight for these people.
I’m now a partner in a large firm, and no one has any idea about my background. When other partners scoff at community college or state universities as being such bad schools, it stings, especially when I recall how difficult it was for me.
Homeschooling gave me no skills. It left me without a framework from which to understand the world’s social cues or even how to learn.
ANSWERS TO THE SPECIFIC QUESTIONS
• Experiences with socialization: When you stepped foot onto your college campus, did you realize you were (as many parents argue) well-socialized already? Or did you realize that you were not (and that those many parents misunderstood the meaning of socialization)? What sorts of difficulties (if you did experience difficulties) regarding social interactions and interpersonal communication did you have to deal with?
During the first year of college, I attended a technical school. Because it wasn’t a true college in the ordinary sense of the word, and the demographic that attended tended to be those who came from lower socio-economic backgrounds or who had not done well in school and couldn’t get accepted into a traditional university, I was able to bond fairly quickly with these people. Because they came from situations of poverty and often, domestic violence, we all seemed to have a common understanding that we were the “misfits” and this understanding created the basis for strong friendships.
However, following the year of technical school, I attended a state community college and then a state university, and finding friends and interacting with other students did not go well for me in these educational settings. My peers were often from (at least it seemed to me) affluent backgrounds. They knew things and had experiences I knew nothing about. I was scared so much of the time and made very few friends. I recall a group singing the tune for the game show “Jeopardy.” I hadn’t been exposed to TV, so I didn’t know what they were singing. When I asked, one of the students sighed and asked whether I had grown up under a rock? Indeed, that’s how I felt – I had grown up under a rock, completely devoid of normal social interaction. I had been taught to fear “worldly people,” and figuring out how to talk with “sinners” left me puzzled.
Interestingly, of the friends I did make during my university years, almost all were Asian immigrants, and even today, many of my closest friends are immigrants. I think my homeschooling and religious background was similar to the experience of immigrants who come to America. None of us were familiar with the traditional American culture. In a sense, I, like the immigrants, had grown up eating food, wearing clothing, and holding a cultural belief system that was not part of the traditional US culture – a culture that was as foreign to the immigrants as it was to me.
• Experiences with diversity: If college was the first time you had significant interaction with people of diverse backgrounds (atheist, non-Christian, Buddhist, gay, lesbian, trans*, people from different cultures or ethnicities than you, etc.), what was that like? Did you have any stereotypes in your mind about those people that were deconstructed?
Interestingly, while college really was the first time I was exposed to individuals who were different than me, I was surprisingly very accepting of these people. Because my life had been so sheltered in terms of interacting with “worldly people,” I had no frame of reference. And because my parents avoided all sexual conversations, we never discussed lesbians or homosexuals and I don’t know that I even knew anything about diversity in terms of sexual orientation. Lucky for me, my first ten years of life were spent in a fairly normal way, and in a state that was very diverse, so my experience with racial diversity had been positive and I think actually helped me gravitate to the immigrants who attended school.
• Experiences with academics: If you went to a secular college or a “liberal” Christian college, did you go thinking it would be a battleground for your soul? Was it? Were they any surprises you faced about how the college and its other students treated you?
While I initially had internal conflicts about giving up my religious beliefs (or at least the beliefs I had been forced to pretend to accept) it was actually (and surprisingly) quite easy for me to walk away from Christianity. I immediately began wearing makeup and jewelry (forbidden in my religious home). I did not have any real wrestling in terms of the direction of my soul or whether I needed to convert others. I don’t know how I escaped all that – I think I was just old enough (10) when my parents got into the cult that I already had a strong enough sense of self to see the ridiculousness of my parent’s new found beliefs.
• Experience with studies: Were there any topic matters that you excelled at, that you didn’t think you would? Did you realize your homeschooling education was actually pretty well-rounded, or did you realize it was severely lacking in certain areas?
My homeschooling was severely lacking and I struggled throughout college in every subject save psychology. Psychology came easy. Math, economics, literature, science – none of it was relatable. I had such a poor education, I didn’t know the basics. I didn’t know geography. I knew nothing and I literally had to fake my knowledge. And study very hard-which was tough because I hadn’t ever really been taught to study either. I hadn’t been exposed to world events. I hadn’t been exposed to books except religious books. I knew nothing about the world around me.
It was tough. I remember the professors seemed at a loss as to what to do with me – I tried so hard, but so often my grades were so poor. Somehow I muddled though – figuring out the answers but never really understanding the context because I didn’t understand the world in which I was living.
• Experiences with your parents: Did your parents support your enrollment in college? Did you have to fight with them to be able to go? Were they eager to help you get financial aid? Or did they withhold necessary documents?
My parents hated the idea of college. They saw no reason for a woman to go to school and they provided no support whatsoever – they had controlled my every movement before I went to college and the loss of control was very hard for them. They sent me long letters filled with scripture and prayers for my soul.
My parents had some strange beliefs about the government and hence had not applied for a social security card for me. When I knew I was going to go to college, I got a job at a farm picking strawberries. The employer wanted to know my social security number – which of course, I didn’t have. Somehow I managed to apply for the card and the resulting fury from my parents (specifically my father) was terrible and very frightening. Their fury (when I decided to go to college) actually led to their acting in a significantly violent manner that resulted in the police being involved.