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Editor’s Note: While most of our articles this month have focused on sexual abuse, this article focuses specifically on sexual harassment experienced while in the employment of Bill Gothard. The dictionary defines sexual harassment as, “The persistent unwelcome directing of sexual remarks and looks, and unnecessary physical contact at a person, usually a woman, especially in the workplace.” This is Part One of a two-part article documenting sexual harassment within the Institute.
I was an ATI (Advanced Training Institute) student in Advanced EXCEL at the Dallas Training Center and was headed to college in the fall. Gothard called me down to his office to ask about my plans for the future and asked me to defer college enrollment to come write a series of courses in my intended area of college study for the new Telos program at the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP). I believed myself unqualified to take on a project of that scholarship and magnitude, but Gothard was insistent that I was chosen by God to prepare this material, and to do so specifically at IBLP Headquarters in Oak Brook, IL. Meanwhile, Gothard wanted me to attend a Character First conference with him in Oklahoma that weekend. Later I would understand that these invitations were based on my physical appearance, not my research and writing skills.
That weekend at the Oklahoma City Training Center, I got an introduction to Gothard’s conduct with young female apprenticeship students who caught his eye. Gothard and the center director showed me to my room that first night, and after some small talk the center director waited awkwardly for Gothard to leave the room with him. Instead of departing, Gothard walked me to the far side of the bedroom. The director shuffled his feet by the door and appeared to be making every decorous effort to indicate it was time to leave. The center director eventually departed, visibly uncomfortable with the situation, and left me alone with Gothard. I tried to simply smile and nod as Gothard took my hand in front of the window and talked about the wonderful opportunities ahead for me. I was alarmed, but had no idea how to object without causing a scene. He pressured me for a firm verbal commitment to come to Headquarters, and I replied that it was not a decision I could make lightly or alone. After several minutes he gave my hand a final squeeze and departed with a grin and a wink. I was 17 years old.
I should have known then that I needed to leave the situation, but by the end of the weekend I had convinced myself that this was a man of God, that I was overreacting, that holding my hand was a fatherly gesture, and that Gothard hadn’t winked at a teenager in her bedroom but rather had something in his eye. I don’t remember whether I even told my parents about this part of the weekend, I self-censored so effectively.
After I went home Gothard called my family’s house regularly until it was determined that I would go to Headquarters, and meanwhile I was invited to travel with him and other members of staff from Oak Brook to a conference in San Jose, CA. Without having yet been assigned a specific job for San Jose, I flew into Chicago, and the group picked me up at O’Hare on their way out of town. Gothard, four male assistants, one other female assistant and I drove to the West Coast ATI conference over several days, and I entered the queasy world of Gothard’s young female traveling companions.
Gothard touched the other girl and me regularly and with increasing frequency. At first he merely offered a hand to help us in or out of the van, and laid his other hand on our backs as we entered or exited. Then he would hold open a door and touch each of our backs as we walked through; this seemed fine the first time, but I wasn’t sure why it was necessary to touch both of our backs with full open hand every single time we walked through a door of any kind. If there was bench seating, his thigh was closely pressed against mine or the other girl’s. He would take and hold my or her hand as we walked to and from buildings. Without asking or announcing, he stroked my hair. If he was sitting opposite me in the van I would often look up to find him gazing at me, and then he would nudge my foot with his. I would smile nervously, pull my foot back, and look back down at my papers. If he was seated next to me in the van he would rest his hand on my forearm or reach over to hold my hand. I learned to hold my papers in whichever hand was closest to him.
He took his shoes off and suggested that the group in the back of the van do the same. I thought he was just being casual until he started playing “footsy” with me in front of the others. Thereafter I kept my shoes on with toes curled to secure them and unsuccessfully tried to angle my legs away from him, but the man has a talent for cornering a girl’s foot in a small space. I could not figure out how to avoid it without making a scene. I struggled to reconcile the cognitive dissonance between assisting the head of a ministry and trying to gracefully fend off a persistent volley of (usually successful) attempts at physical contact.
On the third day of the trip I called my parents from a pay phone at a Cracker Barrel. I left a message about how Gothard kept touching me and trying to engage me in long, intimate gazes, and how I didn’t know what to do about it. By the time I called my parents from San Jose on the fifth day they were frantic, but Gothard had repeatedly admonished me that I should give them a good report “even if I was tired.” Since each of the individual incidents that so troubled me seemed minor, I told my parents I’d just been tired when I left the message and must have misunderstood the situations. I assumed I was just a sheltered girl entering a more sophisticated world.
In San Jose, at first I had no task aside from waiting for Gothard to summon me and the others in our party to his room at midday, although I was eventually able to get an assignment working at the book tables in the evenings. I never had a problem with Gothard touching me on the conference floor, when we encountered ATI families at the hotel, or when someone produced a camera. He confined his touch and gaze to times when we were with the core traveling group in the van or in his suite.
On the trip back to Oak Brook we stopped at a restaurant with a gift shop, and Gothard put his arm around my waist, waved his arm, and said he’d buy me anything in there I wanted. I thanked him, declined, and excused myself. I feared that a gift would indebt me in a way that I could not articulate, but that I knew I did not want. I rejoined the group when I was able to make myself laugh and smile again, as Gothard had rebuked me earlier for not appearing cheerful enough.
After I returned home that summer Gothard continued to call, and I convinced myself that I’d just been overly tired and emotional on the trip. He again convinced my family that God was calling me to complete this project for Telos, and that the project was very important to him personally because of some of his father’s dying instructions.
Once I was at Headquarters it became immediately clear that no one in the Telos program was interested in or had even been informed of this project. I threw myself into reviewing and organizing the raw research I’d assembled and began to write what I was supposedly there to write. Gothard would summon me at various times of day and late into the night to help him with correspondence, but my duties in his office usually included being petted on the arm or hair. I tried to keep a desk between him and myself, but that strategy was only intermittently effective. I submitted the first part of the course I was creating for review by the relevant supervisor, and to the best of my knowledge it was never even read. The project had been killed behind the scenes before I’d submitted any material at all, and Gothard had approved this cancellation months before without telling me. Too slowly I realized that I had not been invited to Headquarters as a course writer, but as a decorative object. I had the kind of tailored suits and long curly hair that Bill Gothard liked. He continued to take me to meetings and invite me to his office at night, and I tried to find any viable excuse to avoid being alone with him. Simply refusing the head of the ministry was not an option in this very hierarchical environment, and at the time I was not aware of any other young members of staff who had successfully done so.
What I did not know was that in the Summer and Fall of 1997, after the San Jose conference and around the time I arrived at Headquarters, the father of one of the young men on the San Jose trip had approached the IBLP Board with a spectrum of concerns about Gothard’s conduct, particularly his penchant for taking young girls on road trips and conducting himself in a questionable manner with them while on those trips. I do not know what Gothard’s verbal or written response was to the Board when presented with these concerns, but I know firsthand that his conduct with me and other young women did not alter in the months after the Board asked him to change his behavior. The other girls and I were all between 15 and 24 years of age.
I stayed and worked at Headquarters because it was too late for me to start college that year, and because I wanted to make a success of my first job. I stopped explaining away Gothard’s creepy and invasive behavior with young women, although I believed myself powerless to do anything about it. I repeatedly saw him initiate long hand-holding sessions with various young women on staff wherein he would rub and massage their hands as he gazed into their eyes. I heard him praise two of my housemates effusively for their “discipline of figure” after one of them lost weight during a serious illness and the other started exhibiting all symptoms of full-on anorexia nervosa, while other girls were “reassigned” from Headquarters for becoming too heavy. I tentatively discussed Gothard’s hyper-tactile behavior with girls who were or had been in my place. I saw girls rotate on and off of Gothard’s roster of favored companions and stopped trying to convince myself that every brush of his hand against a thigh must be a unique accident. There were always between two and six girls on this rotation, and I couldn’t figure out how to get off of it.
My solution to this was to become somewhat surly. This was, of course, not a great plan, but it did lessen the number of invitations to Gothard’s office, and I went on fewer trips. Gothard assigned me to rewrite a footnote about divorce for an upcoming edition of the Zodhiates study Bible, and I declined on the grounds that I did not have adequate linguistic expertise. Gothard assigned me to answer a couple of letters with advice that I could not endorse, and I let the letters die in a drawer instead. I tried to find a space between being a favorite and being seen as obstinate, which is a much smaller space than one might expect. Nevertheless, I was still on the escort rotation, seemingly because I still fit Gothard’s favored physical profile.
The way out was photo day. I was ill the day staff pictures were taken, and my photo was of a pale, sweaty girl with sunken eyes and a chapped smile squinting through glasses. These were to be the photos Gothard viewed and prayed over each morning, and I was never called to his office again.
A well-timed virus had accomplished what all my passive aggression could not, and I was finally off Gothard’s list of favorite objects.