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The relationship between my step-dad and myself has always been a little different than a normal father-daughter relationship. For most of my life, I thought of him only as my dad, never putting “step” in front of it, because he was the only man to ever fill that spot in my life. I started using “step” at the end of our relationship, to help myself disassociate from him.
He was my mother’s neighbor and first met me on the day I was brought home from the hospital. He and my mom started dating not long after, married when I was two years old, and would eventually have five children together. Many of my memories of him as a child are happy ones… things like fishing trips, building snow forts, going for bike rides, and eating honey-vanilla ice cream with the family. But as I got older, more of my memories became ones filled with anxiety, stress, fear and uncertainty. When I was around 9 or 10, my mom and step-dad took me aside to tell me that he was not my biological father. They told me a few facts about the situation and asked if I had any questions. I didn’t, and life went on.
In the beginning, we were a pretty normal American family, if somewhat on the conservative side. We listened to Christian contemporary music, went to beaches in the summer wearing normal swimsuits, watched cartoons on Saturday mornings, and went to church every Sunday. With each year that passed, more changed. Stepfather had been involved with IBLP practically since it’s inception. He went to the seminars every year, took groups with him, and led follow-up groups.
When the Advanced Training Institute (ATI) started up, he and my mother applied, but were denied on the grounds of her previous divorce. Despite that, my step-dad tried to implement as much of Bill Gothard’s teachings as possible into our daily lives.
In my early teen years, they would reapply to join ATI and finally be accepted. In my early memories, I remember being cautious around him, as if I was nervous about something. I don’t know why that was, just that it was there. Sometimes I’m not sure how far to dig or how far to carry out the theories of memories being blacked out, so I’ve chosen to let whatever may or may not have happened in the past remain a mystery.
There would be an occasional loud argument between my parents… I wanted them to stop, and was torn between protecting my younger siblings from the anger and wanting to barge in and yell at them to stop. From a young age I was protective of my mom and I worried that something bad might happen to her when they argued.
When I was about 12, we moved to a city a couple hours away, where my stepfather had gotten a well-paying job. This was the beginning of a horrible period of life. We started attending a new church, where there were no Sunday School classes or youth activities, and the ladies all wore long dresses. Every other word out of their mouths was “godly” and there was much discussion about whether or not something qualified as this. I remember my confusion (at 12 years old) at having to change my entire way of living because of these people. I remember how the wives all seemed to watch their husbands with eagle-like eyes, waiting to pounce if they perceived that the men were lusting after some other female.
I remember the day I went into his home office to ask him something. He was working at the computer. I stood by his side and he put his arm around me as we talked. I was probably about 13. “How about you sit on my lap?” he asked, and I did, like any young girl would with her daddy. He typed away, his arms around me and I remember being happy that my daddy loved me. Then he leaned back in his office chair and pulled me back against him. It felt strange… dirty and unnerving. He ran his hands along my body and said things that sounded innocent but in reality were only feeding his lust. I thank God that I don’t remember anything else because the horror of those kinds of memories are not something I want to add to the ones permanently etched in my head.
I remember stopping at a store after an orthodontist appointment to get a treat. It was like a daddy-daughter date. I must have been around age 14. I was wearing my favorite skirt–a flowing, boldly-colored flower print that swirled when I walked. It buttoned on the side. We got our treats and went back to the car to head home. I remember that we didn’t leave right away, but instead sat and chatted as we ate our snacks. He wanted me to sit on his lap. I remember a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach, but complied with his request anyway, because after all, he was my daddy. He ran his fingers along the row of buttons that fastened my skirt and came to a place where one was missing. “Uh oh! That’s not good… you don’t want any men to see your leg!” But while he said this, his fingers slipped under the fabric and he massaged my thigh. This was very upsetting and confusing. I remember swatting his hand away, trying to appear playful and innocent, when I actually felt dirty and ashamed. And betrayed. I never wore that skirt again.
There may have been other similar or worse instances, or maybe not. Honestly, I don’t care to remember any more than I do. The man who was supposed to protect me from evil was the one introducing it into my life. Through this period of time, his requirements for our modesty standards became more and more extreme with each day that passed, and would often change without notice. For several years, I couldn’t wear anything made out of knit fabric or flowing, rayon fabric because the item of clothing might cling to my figure and be alluring to men. Button up skirts had to be sewn shut, lest anyone see my leg in between buttons. All buttons on a blouse had to be buttoned, up to the neck. Necklines could not show even a hint of collarbone. T-shirts were not allowed–all shirts must have a collar. Socks must be worn with all shoes, even sandals in the summer. Nylons were not allowed because they were too much like skin, and the sight of skin was sure to cause men to lust, so only opaque tights were okay. Makeup was forbidden, as was curling or perming my hair, because curls were sensual. For a few years, we were not even allowed to wear anything made of denim, because blue jeans were something that the (rebellious) hippies wore. There was much more, and it changed all the time. What I’ve figured out is that he made a rule against whatever his current inward struggle was at the moment. Countless times, I would dress for the day, wearing an article of clothing that had previously been “approved” only to be told that it was immodest and to go change. He was harsh in his reprimands and punishments, making me feel as if I was trying to be seductive and entice men.
As time went on, I became increasingly anxious about being alone with him and often avoided outings where we would be alone. I didn’t know what I was scared of and only knew that things were not right, but I didn’t know what to do. And so I did nothing. Unconsciously, I withdrew, building walls to protect myself. I pushed the bad memories into the far recesses of my mind, locked the door, and forgot about them. The conflicts between us only grew worse as the years passed. I don’t remember any more instances that included touching after age 14, but the emotional and psychological abuse was almost worse. While I inwardly withdrew, I was being taught to honor and respect and obey my father, because after all, God had placed him in my life as my authority and protector, and as that person, my father would know and do what was best for me. God was supposed to direct me through my dad’s directions. And so I continued to try and please my step-dad, and working hard to obey whatever he said. I prayed often, begging God to help me understand what I was being taught through the difficulties in this relationship. I’m not sure I really found any answers… but there were always more frustrations.
I unconsciously began to fight back against my hurts in whatever way I could, which most often was in the form of questioning the things he posed as absolute truths, or disagreeing with conclusions he set before us. I always tried to use the proper respectful tone and attitude when addressing him, being kind and sweet and humble, but he did not appreciate this in the least. He wanted us to always agree with him. Any questions, disagreements or differences of opinion were called “talking back,” and resulted in some form of punishment. I was often called rebellious and stubborn. It crushed me inside to go through this day after day, year after year. I was working so hard to do what God wanted me to and respect my authorities, but all I seemed to get in return was punishment and criticism.
I spent the years of my late teen and early adulthood years at home, helping my family with school and housework, and “working on my character.” I gave much effort to trying to prove that I was a young woman of high character and trustworthy, so that I might be deemed responsible enough to go away and take part in some of the ministry opportunities that ATI offered. Every time I came up with an idea, I had to fight for it. I wrote essays and did Bible studies on why I felt it was God’s will for me to do it. More often than not, my requests were denied and I was told that it wasn’t God’s will for me and that I was wrong. My desires must have been out of line. Discouragement and disillusionment often overshadowed whatever I did. No matter what was bothering me, I tried to not let it show on the outside. I made it a goal to look happy and content, no matter my circumstances, and tried to make life as fun as possible for my younger siblings. There were a few times that I was allowed to go out and “serve” and I remember them being the highlight of my life at the time.
Life with my step-dad never got better… only worse. He was authoritarian to an extreme and was severely controlling–with everyone in the family. He decided that he would be self-employed as a computer programmer so that he could be home with us at all times. This would have been fine if he had been able to support the family, but we lived in want more often than not. We rented old, ramshackle farmhouses that were falling apart and drove vehicles that were always on their last legs. We screened our phone calls so that we didn’t answer when bill collectors called. He would interfere with our school work, interjecting projects that he deemed necessary instead of academics. We had to make out schedules every day accounting for every minute and every activity and submit them to his approval. We were not allowed to do things with others (friends, church groups, etc). I remember my mom having to get approval just to go to the grocery store, and before she was allowed to leave, he would check over her list line by line, remove what he didn’t think we needed and add whatever he was craving at the moment, no matter how pricey. He would give her barely enough cash to cover what she needed. I remember once or twice when we didn’t live up to his expectations, he disabled the car so that we couldn’t go anywhere.
Arguments between him and my mom became more often and more severe. Most of the time they were verbal. I told myself that if I ever saw things get physical between them I would take my siblings and leave, and I knew my mom would too. We lived on eggshells and did everything possible to not break them. Displeasing the “king” meant something unknown. His anger never took a form that other people could see, but it was there… brooding, simmering, silent and eerie. It scared the living daylights out of me to think what might happen if he were ever to snap. On occasion he would destroy an item when he was angry at us… as if he knew that to take his anger out on us kids would only land him in hot water. Chop up a new pair of shoes? No one would care about that. Smash a plate? That could easily be called an accident.
An even more rapid decline in home life and relationships came when my parents went through a set of marriage counseling videos. I was 21 at the time. I remember the day like it was yesterday–a summer afternoon (I think it was a Saturday), with my parents holed up in their bedroom watching one of the videos. A couple hours later, they emerged, looking somber. I was called to the porch off their bedroom, and my mom sat down with me. She was very somber and I wondered what was going on. A feeling of dread filled my stomach. “Your father has confessed what he did to you a few years ago… touching you in wrong ways.” Her eyes were filled with sorrow and tears. “I’m so sorry, honey… Is there anything else you want to tell me about it?” I was shocked that he had told, and didn’t have anything to add. She asked me to tell her what I remembered, so that she could compare it with what my step-dad had confessed. The stories matched.
We hugged, prayed, and cried, and then my step-dad came out. What stood out to me then, and to this day, is that he never apologized. He said something like “I told your mother what happened, and it won’t happen again. I hope you can forgive me.” I think I said I forgave him, because it was the right thing to do, but I remember wondering why he didn’t say that it was wrong, or that he was sorry. “Your mom and I were talking and we think it might be a good idea if you went ahead and went to the training center like you’ve been asking about. Some time apart might be good for us all.” As much as I wanted to get away from the mess at home, part of me felt like I was being punished and sent away from my family. I loved my mom and siblings fiercely and knew that I would miss them a great deal. However, I knew that being away from my step-dad would be a huge relief. Step-dad called the Director of the training center and arranged for me to go. It was only an hour away so I could go as soon as I wanted. The training center staff never knew that there were problems in our family. Step-dad was a master at spinning things so that he never looked out of control or was ever put in a less than flattering light. I was going to serve and minister, plain and simple.
I would spend three years at that Training Center. It was my escape, my haven. I would meet friends who have changed my life and still are close to this day. I was allowed to think on my own more than I ever had been before. It was in many ways, a good place for me. Because I lived so close I spent many weekends at home, and during these times I witnessed the continual decline at home. One of my last visits home, I remember an argument that turned physical and my step-dad shoved my mom very forcefully. She stumbled and cut her foot on something. I was outraged and so very scared. I didn’t want to leave at the end of the weekend because I was afraid for my family. But I couldn’t stay. My mom began seeking a way out. I told her I would support whatever she decided to do. She said she wasn’t sure about leaving, because she didn’t know where the younger kids stood and she didn’t want to leave any of them with their dad.
One day she called me and said, “We’re going to leave.” I was somewhat shocked, but glad. “Your youngest sister came to me and said ‘Mommy, if you ever need to leave Daddy, I will go with you,’ and I know now that all the kids will go. We have talked to [so-and-so] and are planning to leave next week when your dad is away at a meeting.” I told her I would do everything I could to be there.
The next week was tortuous. What if my step-dad found out? What would he do? Would he hurt my mom? I could confide my secret to no one. Finally the day arrived and I drove home at the set time. There was our friend with a van in the driveway, helping my mom and siblings load the things they wanted to take. I walked through the house and helped, making sure that I had everything I wanted. I didn’t know if I would ever be back, and while the house was falling apart, it still held some fond memories. We hurried to pack, watching over our shoulders and holding our breath every time we heard a car coming up the hill. Finally we were done. The house looked as if it had been burglarized… half the items were missing. My mom wrote a simple note and left it on the kitchen table. We got in the vehicles and drove away, feeling sad, scared and strangely hopeful. What would happen next? What would life be like without the oppression we had lived under for so long? I was worried that when I went back to the training center and the authorities found out what had happened, I would be in trouble for taking part in helping my mom leave her husband.
It didn’t turn out that way. The Director called me into his office and asked what was going on. He had gotten a phone call from my step-dad, and asked me for clarification. I remember trying so hard to stay strong, but tears filled my eyes and I began to sob, “There has been a lot more going on that you will ever know,” I managed to say. He just quietly replied that I was to let them know if they could do anything.
Several times over the next few months, my step-dad tried to come see me and get me to talk to him or pass messages on to my mom. He would call and want to find out where she and the kids were. I began to not answer his calls, and finally asked him to not see me or contact me. He didn’t stop, and I had to file a Personal Protection Order against him. Some would say this was harsh treatment of a man who never beat me. My response to them is to not speak or judge me until you have been in my shoes, please. I doubt many of you would have not done just as I did.
Long story short, apart from appearances in court, that was the last thing I willingly had to do with my step-father. I don’t care to ever see or speak to him again. He never apologized to me, or to my mom or siblings about the way he treated us. To this day, he thinks that we are simply rebelling and misguided, and prays that we will one day return to him, repentant. He is disillusioned, and I feel sorry for him.
I spent the next couple of months continuing to work at the training center while my mom got settled in a house provided by the shelter. Then I joined her and my siblings in their new life. I started working at the local Christian school where they were attending to help offset the cost of their tuition, and I also waited tables in the evenings and on weekends. My grandma helped me secure a loan and I bought a nice used car. My mom began to learn how to live life on her own again, and how to support her children. My siblings have now all graduated from high school (with the exception of the youngest who will be graduating this year). We have all had huge adjustments and learning curves to overcome, but I’m proud of the progress we have made. Marriage and family are not things that I take lightly–I will fight with all I’m worth to protect them–but when someone betrays you repeatedly and continues to beat you down with words, actions, and attitudes, then leave. Leave and run for your life. There are ideals–such as, marriage is forever–and then there is real life. Sometimes people are just evil.
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