On November 6, 2011, Recovering Grace blogged about a news article on Joshua Komisarjevsky’s family and their involvement with Bill Gothard’s Advanced Training Institute (ATI). This is my take on that sad story.
Benedict, Joshua, Naomi and Jude Komisarjevsky
Jennifer, Michaela, and Hayley Petit. Three lives cut tragically short in a brutal robbery, rape, and murder. William Petit, sole survivor of the family, his life forever changed. The Cheshire, Connecticut home invasion murders have received nationwide news coverage since they occurred on July 23, 2007. The unbelievable callousness of the murderers contrast dramatically with the pain of a husband and father who tried and failed to save the most precious thing in his life–his family.
Steven Hayes was sentenced to death. Joshua Komisarjevsky is currently on trial and faces either the death penalty or life in prison without parole. Click here to read more details about the case.
Brief Bio of Komisarjevsky
Joshua Komisarjevsky was adopted at two-weeks-old by very “religious” Christians. The father, Ben, was described as critical, cold, and controlling. The mother, Jude, was quite submissive. When a child, Jude was molested by a foster child in her family. This factor probably worked against her, since she did not seem to know how to handle the problems that later occurred in her home with her own children. Joshua was molested by an older foster child, and several years later Joshua, in turn, molested his younger sister.
The Komisarjevsky family was involved with a conservative, strict church that taught separation from “the world.” According to the Hartford Courant online, “Their church rejected psychology, psychiatry, or any kind of mental health treatment, and so did Komisarjevsky’s parents.” The children did not receive sufficient mental health treatment once the sexual abuse was discovered.
Just before turning 15, Joshua set a boarded-up gas station on fire. He was hospitalized in a mental health ward because police recognized that he was depressed and suicidal. He had also begun experimental drug use. Joshua was receptive to counseling treatment and medications at the time; however, his father did not want him on medication and instead sent him to a faith-based residential treatment program.
The Komisarjevskys studied Bill Gothard’s teachings through the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP). They were enrolled in the Advanced Training Institute (ATI) and utilized the homeschooling curriculum for several years. Gothard teaches throughout his materials that the causes of mental illness are guilt, irresponsibility, believing lies, fear, inanimate objects, and psychiatric fallacy. He emphasizes that the individual who has a problem is at fault, and he recommends self-examination, prayer, and taking back strongholds. These teachings have had a devastating effect on many people who have followed his leadership, yet continued to struggle with mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Gothard’s teachings must have influenced Komisarjevsky’s parents, as they decided not to utilize mental health services when he began displaying obvious warning signs as a young teen.
Gothard’s View on Mental Illness and Treatment
On BillGothard.com under the section “What I Teach,” Gothard states that mental health problems are caused by guilt. Gothard emphasizes that guilt is a main reason that people feel stress, which develops into mental dysfunction, such as depression or anxiety. Finding the root of the problem and fixing it will alleviate the guilt, leading to moral freedom.
He wrote an entire book, How to Resolve 7 Deadly Stresses, based on the theory that lies can cause stress and physical disease. Where do these lies come from according to Gothard? In the study guide for this book (“The Lies We Believe that Cause Stress and Disease”), the problems listed include using our intellect to question, choosing to believe lies, and culture. To overcome these lies, Gothard created “power statements” to repeat several times to oneself.
Gothard promotes as fact that painful memories are caused by incorrect responses to an offense. He emphasizes the need to learn why God allowed hurtful events to happen and to thank Him for allowing the events. The next steps to resolve painful memories are discovering the benefits of the offense, blessing and forgiving the offender, and asking forgiveness for our own offenses.
Click here to see a YouTube clip of a seminar in which Gothard states the following: a “Jewish psychiatrist shocked the psychiatric world. He made a statement and demonstrated through his work that much of what we call mental illness, such as schizophrenia and so on, is not mental illness at all. It’s varying degrees of irresponsibility. If we allow ourselves to act irresponsibly, we will soon begin to think incoherently.”
When asked for comment regarding Komisarjevsky, Gothard is quoted in the November 6, 2011, Hartford Courant online stating that he is not a fan of professional psychological or psychiatric treatment. “We are counseling thousands and many of them have already been counseled by a psychiatrist…and they’ve gotten worse.” He said psychiatry and psychology don’t deal with the spiritual factor, which his programs do. “We get down to the root of the cause and find out why they are having a problem. We don’t focus on demons [although] they are real. They are there. We focus on the person’s will and when they have a will to get free from these things that are destroying their lives,” Gothard said. “It’s so easy to say the devil made me do it. We want to have a person deal with their own responsibility, not blaming their parents, not blaming the devil.”
Despite his statement above, for many years Gothard has blamed inanimate objects for troubles with behavior, thinking, and health. Many families associated with ATI and Gothard’s teachings have purged their homes and resorted to the infamous Cabbage Patch/Troll Doll/Rock Music burning sessions.
Debunking Gothard’s Teachings
Gothard’s ideas regarding mental illness are full of dysfunction and error. His story about the “Jewish psychiatrist” was so general that it completely lost credibility. To base a whole theory on one unnamed person’s opinion is irrational. I did some research to figure out which psychiatrist Gothard was referring to. The signs point to Thomas Szasz, who authored a number of books, including The Myth of Mental Illness, published in 1961. That’s 50 years ago! His major goal was deinstitutionalization—to fight against involuntary mental institutionalization—not to point out that irresponsibility is the root of mental illness.
As he does so frequently, Gothard simply pulled a random statement to validate his point. During his time of practicing as a psychiatrist, Szasz thought mental illness lacked physiological signs, a theory that has been soundly debunked. Physiological and chemical changes in the brain have been scientifically demonstrated for decades. Mental illnesses are now regularly approached, measured, and tested in scientific fashion. The list of groups that reject Szasz’s opinion that mental illness is a myth include the American Medical Association (AMA), American Psychiatric Association (APA) and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Szasz’s writings have been rendered hopelessly obsolete, and citing him was a very poor choice. The very thought that genetically-linked mental illnesses “such as schizophrenia” are due to irresponsibility of the individual is laughable. An unrelated factoid of interest is that Szasz was partnered closely with the Church of Scientology on research, so Gothard is actually glorifying Scientology’s line of thinking!
Gothard’s statements about lies causing mental problems is also puzzling. He believes that using our “intellect to question” leads us to “lies that we believe.” I think the exact opposite is true; using our rational minds to question things that don’t make sense is something that is very much encouraged as a responsible, healthy thing to do. Questioning leads to truth. The lies of “culture” could be interpreted in many different ways, but we have to think that Jesus related to the people He ministered to in their culture in a way that they understood. Why would we need to remove ourselves from mainstream culture? Wouldn’t isolation from society compound depression, loneliness, and social fears? Gothard fails to make sense.
It’s tragic that Gothard pushes the notion that painful memories are caused by “incorrect responses to an offense.” What about someone who has been raped? What about the one who has lost a child? What about the individual who has been repeatedly abused? I find it insulting to ask a victim to thank God for allowing it and then requiring them to examine their own “incorrect response” to the offense. Asking them to find the “benefits” of the offense and blessing the offender? Absurd! Someone who has been deeply hurt or victimized needs to process what happened and release the emotions. That is the way to start healing.
In an article on BibleandScience.com, the author tells the story that at a pastor’s conference, Gothard “warned us that if your daughter has a Cabbage Patch doll she could become mentally ill because their middle names are demonic. So I went to Toys-R-Us to see what some of their middle names were. They were just common names, not demonic. If Cabbage Patch dolls cause mental illness then most children should be mentally ill.”
Consequences of Spiritualizing Mental Health Problems
Gothard’s teaching that mental problems are caused by guilt is overly simplistic. What about important factors such as grief/loss, abuse, or genetic predisposition? Why point the finger at someone who suffers from a mental disorder and tell them it is their fault, that they must be reacting to guilt over some hidden sin? Adding blame to a person’s pain can only compound their overwhelmed feelings, adding to their pathology. This can lead to lowered self-esteem, less productivity, clouded thinking, and even loss of valued relationships. Sometimes people turn to self-medication through alcohol and other substances. Or self-harm and cutting the outside of one’s body. These are behaviors that punish oneself for transgressions and provide distraction from the painful emotions inside, by bringing dysfunctional relief. Ultimately, feeling that it is one’s own fault for mental illness compounds the problems and could lead to thoughts of hopelessness and suicide.
The biggest problem I see, beyond the blatant misguidance, is that Gothard completely ignores many important factors. Scientific research is full of evidence that physical, sexual, emotional, and/or spiritual abuse have a major impact on emotional functioning and the ability to interact with others. Grief over loss is a process, and often counseling can help. Genetics also play a major factor in mental health. For example, if a parent struggles with depression, there is a higher chance that the child will suffer from depression as well. Physical health problems can greatly impact a person’s mood and their ability to think, especially if there are thyroid problems. Ignoring any of these factors is an injustice to the sufferer. Our health care knowledge has come too far to foster the ignorant ideas that Gothard puts forth.
Komisarjevsky wrestled with numerous issues as a child and adolescent. First, we do not know the mental health of his biological parents, but his adoption would be a source of insecurity. Next, early in his life he experienced sexual abuse that was not addressed by his mother, despite her awareness of it. This sent the message to young Joshua that his was a secret so dark that it shouldn’t be discussed, which caused him to bury it for a while. Komisarjevsky went on to become a sexual abuser to his sibling, whom he cared about. By ATI standards, his painful memories were his fault for an incorrect response to being abused, and his sister’s painful memories would be her fault.
We can imagine that Komisarjevsky was discouraged from questioning what he was taught and what he experienced. In confusion and hopelessness, no doubt exacerbated by physically-induced mental issues, his attitude shifted to defiance of authority, vandalization, and drug use.
Finally, as Komisarjevsky became a teen, and his troublesome behaviors became more and more obvious, he felt unable to discuss his true feelings with his parents for fear of repercussions. He most likely realized that he was unable to fix himself, and he was equally unable to relate to a God he couldn’t please. He must have felt more and more isolated, tormented, and left alone to decide his destiny.
The horror that unfolded that summer day didn’t happen by chance. It developed over the course of years, festering under the guise of maintaining a “good family image.” I don’t believe that Bill Gothard or ATI are completely to blame for the tragedy that Joshua Komisarjevsky caused in Cheshire, Connecticut. However, I do believe this is a crystal clear example of the repercussions of spiritualizing serious health conditions.
If you or someone you know are dealing with mental health issues, please get professional help. Don’t allow someone else to blame you for your inability to “snap out of it.” If you are having thoughts of hurting or killing yourself, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or visit their website. There is help. You will heal. Reach out.