About the author
More posts by Moderator
After ten years in the Advanced Training Institute (ATI) and a number of experiences participating in various programs (Counseling Seminar, Sound Foundations, EXCEL, and a handful of Children’s Institutes), there came a moment when it became crystal clear to me that, within the spiritual and social confines of the Advanced Training Institute, I would never find spiritual peace or personal fulfillment.
My family had been one of “those” families — you know, the ones who still had a TV, watched movies, wore jeans — the ones that more committed families loved to judge. We had learned to keep these activities on the down low, but it felt duplicitous. Perhaps this sense of having one foot in the world of ATI and one foot in “the World” was the tether that kept me from fully embracing ATI’s way of life. Perhaps it was the budding sense of ATI’s hypocrisy that crept in as I entered my twenties. I remember lying with my sister in our room at the Oklahoma Training Center during a fall 2001 session of COMMIT. We had just awakened from a mid-afternoon nap, and as we talked about what we were seeing around us, there was a gradual, unspoken realization that this was not where we belonged. (A good example of such a moment was showing up for Friday’s cleaning project only to find out that the popular girls had gone out with the Reed sisters and those of us without connections were the ones making beds and scrubbing toilets). My journal entries from that week expressed doubt, but did not go all the way into outright questioning. By the end of the week, however, we had received definite confirmation that led us to announce unequivocally to our parents when we returned home that we would never attend another ATI function.
In the early post-ATI years I spent a lot of time analyzing my experiences, alternating between bitterness and forgiveness, unraveling the many, many tangles in my spiritual and personal life. In this early period, my journey was a solitary one outside of my immediate family. I didn’t know anyone else who had rejected ATI, and I recall being rebuffed by an EXCEL acquaintance when I mentioned my reasoning for leaving ATI.
I credit much of my transformation to my husband, whose complete unfamiliarity with the program has helped me put my experiences into perspective. I recently read an article that promoted many of the ideas I used to embrace while immersed in ATI, and instead of thinking, “Wow, I used to believe that,” I thought, “Good heavens, who would believe this stuff?” I felt completely unable to understand or identify with the legalism being promoted, even though it once so deeply saturated my life.
In the same way that Bill Gothard asks his followers to cleanse their lives of the evils of dating and rock music, I’ve cleansed mine of the trappings of ATI. Throwing away my notebooks, photographs, and all of my navy and white was one of the first steps I took to divorce myself from the movement. I do understand that my ability to overcome my past in ATI is in proportion to my level of involvement. I never spent much time at Headquarters, and, thankfully, never encountered anything that smacked of sexual harassment or abuse. In the one instance where I was a witness (along with several hundred people) to verbal and spiritual abuse heaped upon two young women at the Indianapolis Training Center for their failure to properly clean their room, I simply reasoned away my revulsion — as I am sure many of us did when confronted with such circumstances.
Gothard tightly constructs his world in such a way that deviations are explained and justified through the violation of principles or commandments, and even to think that the verbal abuse I witnessed was wrong was theoretically impossible within the framework of the Institute and its rules. It’s only when you make the conscious decision to step outside the circle of legalistic discourse that you discover how wrong the things were that you consciously or subconsciously justified.
Since COMMIT and my decision to leave the movement, I have successfully gone on to college and completed both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in American History, and this year I am beginning a doctoral program. Many of the feminist and critical theories employed by academic scholars have enabled me to deconstruct and critique my social experiences within ATI. (Michel Foucoult’s theory on discourse was especially enlightening.)
My husband and I enjoy a rich personal life filled with “normal” things, like movies (my husband has “80s Night” where we watch all the movies he thinks I shouldn’t have missed), having a glass of wine with friends on the weekends, and experiencing a wonderful world of music I didn’t know existed. Whereas I used to be filled with anxiety that my desire not to have children was a terribly wrong one, I now happily embrace my life with my husband as a complete family in and unto ourselves. Most importantly, as a woman I have been able to find a level of personal and professional fulfillment in my work as a historian that is outside the narrow scope of the purportedly “God-given” roles for women promoted by ATI and other conservative groups.
Spiritual transformation has been an ongoing process, not only because of ATI but also because of years within a slice of fundamental religious conservatism that I found as spiritually crippling as Gothard’s teaching. Throughout the early 2000s, I struggled with whether or not I was going to remain within any Protestant denomination, or even identify myself as a Christian. I viewed God as an arbitrary and angry figure waiting to crush me because I wasn’t sticking to the standards that were supposedly drawn directly from Holy Scripture. I explored yogic philosophy one semester in college but was also introduced by a friend to Eastern Orthodox theology.
In 2004 I read several books that completely transformed my understanding of God, His Church, and my faith: The Illumined Heart by Orthodox writer Frederica Mathewes-Green and The Orthodox Way by Bishop Kallistos Ware. In 2005 I made the decision to join the Orthodox Church, where I met my husband, marrying him a year later — after a very fun-filled year of dating, I might add. (And, yes, we did kiss before we reached the altar.) Within the spiritual tradition of the Orthodox Church, I have found confirmation for many of the things that I believed must be true about the Christian faith, but that weren’t confirmed by what I was experiencing in ATI.
There are many paths to recovering from ATI, paths that speak to the richly diverse and transformative nature of God’s goodness and the plans that He has for each one of us. Normalcy is certainly a relative term, and everyone’s normal will be his or her own and not representative of some ubiquitous experience shared by everyone. My story is uniquely my own, and I am quietly grateful each and every time I happen to think of it, that I have been so fortunate as to find a way out from under ATI’s spiritual oppression, into a world filled with color and light.