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Along with the shaming punishments, my parents bolstered their position on constant and continual confessions for anything and everything so that they could then bestow the power of “spoken blessings” upon us. They were increasingly obsessed with anything and everything of a sexual nature. And by this, I mean confessing to something as small as noticing that, yes, the girl across the hall in church had a pretty face, would bring long, serious, invasive and strange questions and then further punishments. Or having to trudge up the stairs to admit to a nocturnal emission and then burst into tears for being so carnal or evil and having no way to control it. And our college-educated parents would condemn us for being so weak and open to defeat in our sleep and claim that even before our father was saved, he had never masturbated or had a wet dream in all his life. The odd dissonance in all of this was that the invasive and boundary-less conversations around the table now turned to sexual things, and my parents were adamant in sharing way too much. When we would beg them to stop, they’d say we had started it, or asked for it, or that they were only making sure we weren’t completely naïve like other ATI (Advanced Training Institute) kids.
My father began to accuse my friends of being too close to their sisters and brothers, and make comments about them acting incestuous. The term was a new and terrifying one to me, and I began to avoid those who were simply affectionate in normal ways with one another, while withdrawing more and more from my own sisters and paying them less attention. When I worked up the nerve to comment that I thought my friends’ actions were no different than how my dad acted towards one of my sisters in particular, he exploded and whipped me for my disgusting disrespect. During this time, I began to pick up on similar stories and rumors surrounding other families at various ATI gatherings and conferences, but kept my mouth shut rather than tell my dad, who would likely accuse me of trying to ruin ATI.
My time came to leave for ALERT when I was seventeen. The night before I left for Basic Training, my siblings came into my room and wept, and sobbed, and carried on. My sister innocently snuggled up and kissed me, which caused me to explode and speak some evil and horrible things to her. I kicked her out of the room while letting the others stay. Morning came, and I refused a hug from her, mumbling something to my dad when he left me at the airport that my sister had issues, and then I left.
In my first call home, my brother quickly took the call and went outside, trying to ask me if I hated our sister, as she was always in trouble and our parents were going to send her away to a place for girls “like her.” My parents came after him, hollering for the phone. Two weeks later, my brother was sent off for the first of many extended stays at the ITC (Indianapolis Training Center).
ALERT Basic will leave you with some funny triggers, like rapid reaction to any sirens that sound nearby. It also leaves you with some unpleasant reactions at times. Mine was hollering. I couldn’t handle hollering in the home environment once I returned from Basic. I watched my mom take out a wooden spoon and began to slap it across my baby sister’s hand over and over and over as she cried. She was supposed to stop crying for the smacks to stop, but she was only four, and in no way capable of stopping. I pulled my mom off her, wrenched the spoon away, and broke it in half. Then I sorted through all the kitchen drawers and cabinets, breaking each and every wooden spoon I found. My defiance was unacceptable, so ALERT was called, and Gothard himself was called. I tried to explain what was happening in our home, but instead got the pre-packaged defiance, rebellion, and authority talks from him. My brother came home from the ITC so broken, he refused to talk to anyone about anything that had happened there and retreated further into himself. I got sent back to ALERT so that my “rebellious spirit” could be dealt with again.
Once ALERT was completed, I came home and announced that I was done: done with ATI, IBLP, ALERT, the Institute lifestyle, etc. I enrolled in a secular college against my parents’ wishes and began studying the Bible in earnest (a habit I’d picked up at ALERT of all places), while still refusing to go with my family to their ATI church. I attended a collegiate seminar for Christian apologetics to better shore up my “biblical knowledge” during that time. The foolish kid that I was, I was still thinking I had all the answers to life’s questions wrapped neatly in some seven steps or forty-nine points. God used that apologetics seminar to break me from the mold, placing me with Christians from all walks of life and in all manner of appearance. One young woman in my group shared her story at the end of the week about growing up in a cult where anything and everything was deemed “seductive” and “defrauding” on the part of the women. I remember wincing. She shared of abuse that she had normalized and how she had lost her understanding of normal and proper affection when she sought to give it to other people.
I left feeling horrified of myself. Had I missed things in the home? Had I been so wrapped up in me? Was there more going on, and had I looked at my sister as failing or “having issues” rather than loving her? I remembered things that my brother had tried to tell me once–that the forced exhibitionism was also happening with our sister, as well as some inappropriate contact with our father. I came home, purposing to win my relationship with her back. That was all well and good, but I stopped there. I was fearful to dig deeper. Fearful of being accused of trying to destroy ATI, or my family, or my parents’ marriage. Fearful of my siblings being taken away from me.
My brother ran away, so I went out and found him and brought him back. I’d come home from college to help my sisters with the cooking and the homeschooling of the younger ones. My sister was always exhausted, pretty much running the home all alone now that I was in school, and not allowed to have any friends of her own. I guess I thought she looked happy enough though, and I forgot my former fears. There hadn’t been any other episodes lately that I knew of and I felt so proud of myself for ‘forgiving’ her.
I was gone for a summer, and then came back home to near total and complete turmoil. My family had moved to an even more legalistic ATI church, where my sister had somehow struck up a relationship with a young man my folks were thrilled about, but that my brother hated. Providentially, my brother had came across some correspondence where he learned of deviant behavior being urged on and demanded of my sister by the boy. After confronting the boy, my brother brought the wrath of the boy’s father on himself. He came to me in tears, begging me for help because our father wouldn’t listen, but instead accused him of trying to destroy a godly man because my brother didn’t like ATI. I attended church the next weekend, and watched the father stare at and glare down my brother. So I made my way towards him. He made it known to me (while planting his finger repeatedly in my chest) that my sister was now going to ‘belong’ to their family, in some twisted definition of courtship, and I was to stay out of the way. I grabbed him and held him to the wall, threatening things I know I never should have. My father and the ATI menfolk instantly jumped on me, and I was reprimanded for my blatant disrespect to authority and my obvious anger issues, which of course, in ATI-world, proves a deep-seated struggle with lust and demons.
The entire ride home we were screamed at for trying to make them look bad to their ATI friends and ruin their reputation. But I refused to apologize or return to the church. This wasn’t enough for the other guy’s father however, and he came to our home to tell my parents that they were aware of abuse in our home, and that my siblings would secretly hide out in my room and plan to run away with me someday. I came home to even more accusations and insults about how I was manipulating and trying to take the family away and usurp the authority of the home. The other family was insistent that I be removed from the home if they were to remain friends with my parents. And so I left.
Two weeks later, I received a text that I was to be attending an ATI-related “relationships and counseling conference” with my dad, so that he and I could work things out. While wary, I did want my relationship with him back. The “fun dad” had long ago been sucked away after joining ATI, and the hero visage of my dad was long lost as boyhood faded into adolescence. But at 19 years old, I still craved a closeness to him, still thought I could make my parents change, and still believed I could save us all.
So we made a cross-country trip together for a “conference” I had never heard of. We laughed, we talked, we had fun times together that we hadn’t had in nearly ten years. It was like having another dad altogether. Then we arrived. Not at a conference. Not at a seminar. At a counseling center managed by ATI-associated, non-certified, non-professional counselors. Immediately all guards went up as I was asked to sit and speak with three counselors in the room along with my dad. I was asked if I was angry with my parents for anything. Was I bitter? Was I seeking to cause rebellion in the home? Was I talking about my parents behind their back or sharing family business while at school? Any time I tried to explain or make a point, my dad would interrupt with an explosive denial to everything. Then they pulled out a letter from my mother and made me look it over. It was six pages detailing every instance of rebellion in my life from age five to the present day. Some things I had no recollection of, some were a little funny, and some, like “stealing from my father” because I had snuck cheese and crackers for my siblings who were on a forced fast, brought back more memories that I’d somehow forgotten.
I began to slowly lose it while sitting on the couch, and started weeping. Then they asked if I’d ever touched my brothers and sisters inappropriately. WHAT the heck!?!?! I froze, and then exploded. They said that my sister had told other family members that there was inappropriate contact happening. While the family was sure it had been on my parents’ part, my parents had found out that I would allow all my siblings to sleep in my room and that I had been listening to “demonic” music, so I must have opened myself up to such behavior. I was dumbfounded, staring down my dad, who only pursed his lips and looked as condemning and serious as the rest of them. I wanted to run–I needed some way out. There was none. I said “NO!” over and over. I begged them to ask my siblings, but the counselors said I had influenced them so badly in my rebellion that their word couldn’t be trusted.
I glared at my dad for what seemed like hours, and he just stared calmly back. I was accused of breaking down my father’s hedge of protection by going to a secular college, listening to contemporary music, having unapproved friends, and watching movies. And because of this, it must have opened up my sister to Satan’s darts and caused her to act out in a way that she never would have with this boy. So, ultimately, I was at fault and would be held accountable for all the actions of my siblings, especially for the ones of my sister with this boy.
When I got angry, they said it meant I was guilty and hiding some deep-rooted sin.
When I sobbed, I was being manipulative and trying to evade their demands for me to draw stronghold diagrams.
When I finally got time alone with one counselor and tried to talk about the abuse at home, he left the room, conferred with my father, and then returned and accused me of lying and of having bitterness buried so deeply within me because of my irresponsibility.
Because I had attended a secular college, I was surely opening myself up to defrauding images, was probably eaten up inside with lust and perhaps had acted out on my siblings, or influenced them through my lusts to have lusts themselves that they had acted out. On the third day of these 4-hour sessions, I wasn’t sleeping, I couldn’t cry anymore, and I was lying under the bed in the hotel room to be away from my dad.
I was then told that my sister would be sent away to be trained along with women ‘like her’ who displayed defrauding behavior. And so I snapped. Why was it her fault? What of the evil boy? I pleaded for them not to send her away to the girls’ home (ironically enough, this home is now under investigation for many abuses itself). I broke down, pleading. I’d say anything, do anything–just don’t send her away! I drew another stronghold diagram, yielded my rights to my own reputation, repented of rebellion (as evidenced by insisting on going to an accredited secular college), made up stories of new sins for myself, confessed sins I’d never done, promised to come under authority, to obey without questioning, to honor my parents, to not ruin homeschooling for everyone else….and on it went.
I was sitting on the floor, head between my knees, wanting to wake up from some awful dream that just wouldn’t stop, as prayers were said, expressing thanks to the Lord for the mighty work He had done in breaking me and bringing me to repentance. One counselor then looked at me and said,“You know, God can use this mightily in your life. He’ll bless you for protecting your family, and teach you to know the blessings of revilement. This isn’t anything strange. It happens fairly often within ATI and other similar families.” I stared at him. All those stories bantered about in hushed voices in the Training Centers, then, were true?? And all the rumors I picked up on in church as ATI family after ATI family imploded in spectacular fashion over the years…? I had to shut out the thought.
The trip back was bad. It began with Dad trying to act like there was some mighty work of God to come through all of this, and that our family would now be closer through it. We stopped to stretch our legs, and I turned to him. I think I was angry, but it felt like I was dying somewhere deep inside when I finally said, “Dad….Just once–just once–would you please stand up for me, stand up for your kids, and choose US over this fake, perfect little box, the principles and rules, and your pastor or Bill Gothard? Just one time? Why do I always have to be the one to make the sacrifices?”
He didn’t answer, but just got back in the car. No more words were spoken the entire trip.
When we got home, I thought I could single-handedly fix it all. My sister wouldn’t be sent away, my brother could come back home, I could make demands for more freedoms and outlets for fun for the youngest ones. I would make us get out of ATI, and help lead my folks out of this nightmare.
I thought I could change my parents. I thought I could be a perfect example of sacrificial love, and they’d realize I just wanted us to be a loving, imperfect family again.
I got so caught up in how I was going to be the perfect sacrificial son, that I ignored asking what was really going on, and what had really happened in the home and by whom. My sister was back to throwing herself into the running of our home, but the happy disposition was fading. My parents couldn’t seem to stop letting her know how she’d failed to keep herself pure for some perfect guy, and no one worth anything would care for her. I’d come home from school to find her crying on the couch, as words like “Jezebel” and “whore” were being thrown at her. I’d step in, fight with them, and tell her to never blame herself or think of herself that way. I told her if anyone ever dared accuse her, to just blame me. But then my parents would mock her when my back was turned for being a burden on me.
There were never improvements–the family counseling my parents had promised we’d get was never done, because all counseling outside of ATI counsel was “of the world” and made up things and disorders no one really had, which were all just varying levels of hidden sin and irresponsibility. But I was made to talk once a week with another ATI counselor, who would twist my frustrations into being a problem with me, and then report everything back to my parents. A meeting was called, and the “counselors” informed me that I didn’t care about my family enough and that I wasn’t trusted to protect my family, but if I wanted to prove all of this wasn’t the case, I needed to cut myself off from all outside friendships and yield more rights.
And so I gave up all my friends, but at the same time I also decided I could no longer live at home. I was proud of myself at the time, demanding certain rights for my siblings–outside activities, a social life, a few friends–with the agreement I would keep withholding our sacred family business. It was a worthy enough cause for me to be the scum, if it gave my siblings some freedom, right?
A couple of years later, at 22 years old, I was courting a lovely young woman and somehow still juggling staying under parental authority in order to maintain ‘the blessing,’ while constantly out of favor with my parents because I refused to allow them to dictate the rules of my relationship. And the fact that this young lady was neither in ATI nor intimidated by my mother, only made things worse. I took a semester off to spend more time with her and her family, being against the rapid-fire courtships typically espoused in the patriarchy circles. Time had passed, and I had sadly blocked out so much and forgotten so much, our home life seemed to have become somewhat ‘normal.’
And then one night I received a frantic phone call from my brother. My sister had tried to commit suicide and had nearly died, so she had been put in some facility for a week, but we had been kept in the dark. I was forbidden to share any of this with my girlfriend, but some little part of me couldn’t keep this up anymore. I’d been trying to figure out how to share my own abuse story, and now I had to shove it away, give up my right to be heard, for the sake of allowing my parents to keep up appearances.
I started down a road that I look back and recognize as the symptoms of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and severe survivor’s guilt. Why did I deserve a godly woman who walked right through my zero expectations and showed crazy, unconditional love? Why did I deserve her mother who would set aside whatever she was doing just to listen to me because it was something I was saying? Why did I deserve her father who I’d later realize took the scenic routes on so many trips out together just to spend that much more time with me? Why did I deserve to get a college degree and find favor with anyone in my industry while my siblings were given no path to a future? I told myself I didn’t. Who wanted someone whose family was falling apart and scattering when I wasn’t there to hold it together?
I pleaded to be allowed to speak with my sister, but my parents refused. I was to conform and blame myself, or lose their blessing. When I said I didn’t want their blessing, it was twisted into saying my girlfriend wasn’t worth it. Like everything else in ATI, when you aren’t the parent, you either lose or you lose. My sister and younger siblings were told I didn’t want them in my life anymore, that I’d replaced them with a new family, that I didn’t think my sisters were attractive because I was courting someone who looked entirely different than them, and other bizarre and manipulative excrement. So, I fell for it. I lied for their sakes. I tried pushing away the ones who truly loved me to show what little love I could to the authorities who didn’t.
By the time I got home, I found that my parents had thrown me under the bus with our extended family, explaining it all away by telling them I had been abused and was therefore abusive in turn, that I refused counseling, and my siblings and I were all liars. I didn’t fight back. Because I knew I had to stay under their authority or lose “the blessing” on my relationship (a blessing I saw no merit in). But instead I began to lose the woman I loved as I pushed away real, unconditional love to spare her from being with someone who had to be the “sin bearer.”
My younger siblings then started coming to me with stories and evidences of my parents’ sexually deviant pasts, and it all slowly began to come together….the highest standards they held us to, but never came close to achieving themselves. Their entire lives were a lie to us.
I finally made threats against them, unless they would go to counseling with real counselors. My sister ran away again. I ended up in a psych ward temporarily for grief of it all, as I watched my family begin the collapse I’d seen in so many others. I found myself handcuffed to a chair with legitimate crazies and druggies telling stories that would make your skin crawl. When I was allowed a phone call and I phoned my dad, he let loose a stream of expletives for daring to cause others to question his home. When I somehow ventured to whisper out that I was concerned about myself, he told me to get my act together and that I’d better not say anything against them. So I lied to the doctors, put on a show, and got released. I drove home and demanded we go to a counselor of my choosing, at a legitimate clinic, and I footed the bill. When we finally all sat down with real professional counselors, my parents immediately went after my sister and brother until the counselor cut them off and asked what it was they were hiding, and what sexually deviant things they were into that they had to make such strong accusations against their children while parading themselves off as righteous. My parents stormed out and demanded their children come along.
I got calls soon after this from more ATI counselors and from Bill Gothard himself, again telling me to yield my rights and expectations, that I would be doing harm to the cause of Christ by speaking out against my parents, usurping their authority, and ultimately damaging my family. Both times I had spoken over the phone with Bill Gothard about the abuse, he didn’t seem to acknowledge it, but instead talked about where my heart was, how a rebellious spirit caused the abuse, and that I needed to submit to my parents’ authority and yield my rights to being “right” and let go of my pride. He saw my courtship (at age 22) as being a newer source of my mother’s latest stress and abuse. He kept emphasizing the importance of leaving home with their blessing and that I had to be back under their authority to honor them. I found out later that my brother had also talked to Bill Gothard in person about the abuse in our home, but my parents had already pre-emptively struck, spreading lies about us to Gothard, so all we got were diagrams instead of getting real help.
I wasn’t sleeping anymore for weeks on end, and it began to show. I became certain that every ATI teaching was somehow based on controlling the children and protecting the abusers. I snuck the Men’s manuals and Character Sketches books from my parents’ house and began writing out how all the issues were defined: Yielding rights; never speaking against authorities; giving up all expectations of others and committing to serve and obey however you were asked; never speaking out or you will be deemed bitter; never opening up or you will be judged a burden or an energy waster; never telling someone anything bad or you could be accused of defiling them with an evil report, even if it is true; live under the authority of even evil rulers; learn the blessing of your own revilement, rather than seek to defend yourself. On and on it went. I thought then about how it all seemed built around some means of protecting abusers. From the stories of the brave, abused women speaking up now on the Recovering Grace site, I ponder even more from whence so many false teachings we were conditioned to believe, came.
I still sought to reason with my parents, tell them I forgave them, and that even my sister chose to forgive them–but there needed to be brokenness before there could be healing. They accused us of self-righteousness and pride, and trying to mock our mother and father. When I arranged for real counseling for my sister anyway, we were accused of selfishness and thinking only of ourselves. And our smallest siblings were told that we didn’t love them anymore and that we were trying to hurt the family.
My girlfriend stuck with me through it. Called to pray over me. Called to read from the Bible to me. Called even as I had decided I was really losing it and kept insisting it was all my fault and all my sin. She couldn’t understand my need to stay crawling on the ground, the need to unceasingly abase myself to prove to my parents I was sorry. She finally called one night with a question, “What does Grace mean to you?”
Grace. The point of it all. The point where I could never ever bridge the obvious canyon between my parents and I. They demanded I earn from them something I could only have by extending it to them first. I kept extending, and they wanted more proof of ‘allegiance to the family.’ They demanded that I pay for my time living at home, and for their costs in sending me to ALERT. I paid it, listening as they said it would show how much I really wanted the family to go to counseling together, not just for my own sake. But no counseling came.
It felt like I was performing emotional seppuku on myself. Could God not see how much I loved them? Could He see I was breaking myself in every way imaginable? Had we bled enough yet? Proven our desire for our family enough yet?
I lost everything. I thought I deserved to. I knew it was within my power to expose my parents’ abuse, but there was no one to listen to or believe us. I pushed away my sweet girlfriend and her family, who had loved me beyond human comprehension, thinking I was saving them. I was obviously a wretched excuse of future husband and father material, seeing how horribly I’d done in raising my siblings. I kept giving up more and more, yielding rights I wasn’t sure I even had, trying to prove I could be good enough, broken enough, sacrifice enough, and my parents would see and be sorry. And somehow our family from before ATI would come back.
But my parents now started claiming that my sister was at fault for disgusting behavior towards both of them, and that they had done nothing. She left home again.
I realized then that I couldn’t save anyone. I felt like I would probably die if no one would listen to me. And so I found a real counselor. Made arrangements for a visit. Nearly turned back a half dozen times on my way to my first session.
The phone rang as I sat in my car, staring at the front entrance of the center. It was one of the old ATI counselors again. And the same accusations again. I hung up. Somehow I walked inside those double doors with the white letters spelling out ‘The Grace Center.’ I could only hand over my journals detailing ATI rules, Scripture applications and teachings, and how I thought they had all destroyed us. I curled into a heap on the floor and wept for the entire two hours. The counselor let me. He then leaned down and made me look him in the eye as he told me, “It’s not your fault.”
Worlds fell away in that moment. The old dead carcasses of others I’d been manipulated and guilted into carrying, slid off. To hear someone else tell me what I had, for so long, silently harbored in secret thought to myself. Did it heal everything in that moment? No. Did it repair unfathomable scars and divides? No. But it changed my entire trajectory.
I got my sister out of the home, and began paying for her to go to counseling as well. I also put my parents on notice with Child Protective Services on behalf of my younger siblings still at home, and found extended family who rallied around us and cared for us.
ATI didn’t openly cause all the abuse. Nor did they espouse or promote it. My parents have deviant pasts that resurfaced and found some strange safety-bed within the authoritarian teachings, and their need for control and power fit well in the context of the program. The ATI leadership and counsel placed so much value on keeping the family together and saving themselves from a black eye, that they joined with my parents in shutting down any dissent. It never seemed to occur to them, in spite our insistence and reports of abuse, that perhaps–just maybe–our parents were in the wrong.
Years later, my siblings and I are all still healing and learning what real forgiveness is, but we have set many boundaries with our parents that had to be set, as well as other checks and balances in place for the protection of our younger siblings still at home. We can’t ever have back the family that existed before ATI, and we can’t erase all the abuse that started after immersing ourselves in IBLP. But there is rebuilding through the ashes. I have amazingly resilient and strong siblings. The counseling continues, and so does the journey–and with it the daily renewing of the love of true friends and family and the unconditional grace of Jesus.
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