Life Focus: The Price of a White Polo

21 November 2013, 06:00

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I could share countless stories of spiritual, physical, and mental abuse from my time spent in the Life Focus program. But one  experience that stands out in my mind was when I was confined to the Prayer Room during  Life Focus IV.

The “scandal” that began a witch hunt started with a young lady from the EQUIP program. She was being friendly with me, and I, being raised to be polite, innocently chatted with her. Nothing more. That night at 4:00 a.m. I was yanked out of bed brought into the leader of Life Focus’s office. All the other team leaders and assistant leaders were waiting in the office. I was grilled about the whole conversation. She had asked me to come to the 7th floor laundry room to hang out and chat sometime while she was doing laundry (because it was so boring). I had told some of the guys on my team about it because I was 16, and guys like to impress other guys. I am 99.99999999% sure that it was a totally innocent request, and that she really was just extremely bored during laundry time. I was grilled about this incident and I had 9 adult males basically glowering at me with accusing eyes.

I freaked out.

My mind told me, “Life Focus is for problem boys, and EQUIP is for good girls. We’re both going to get in trouble if I tell the truth, so I’ll lie for the greater good and then I’ll be the only one who gets in trouble.” So, I lied. I told them that I made up the whole story.

I was put in solitary confinement for a week. The room I was in had a sheet of plywood over the window, so no natural light could come in. My watch was taken away. I didn’t have a change of clothes. I had a toothbrush and toothpaste. There was no soap in the shower, and no towels. I had no reading material other than a Bible. I got 2 sparse meals a day (unless our more generous assistant team leader brought me food—then I had enough to stretch it out into 3 meals). Part of my punishment was to complete a Wisdom Paper on every verse that had to do with immorality in Proverbs (I guess this was because they assumed I was planning on immoral acts in the laundry room…which in my estimation was ludicrous). One day I was told to memorize all of Proverbs 31 before I could have any food to eat. That’s a LOT of memorization…and I was basically going to be starved until I could do it! Good thing for me I already had it memorized about 3 years prior, so I was able to just refresh my memory and then quote it in about 2 hours (the look on the leadership’s face was amusing when I rattled off the whole thing with only about 3 mistakes).

I was finally let out, and then publicly humiliated. They took away my white Life Focus IV uniform polo, and made me stand up in front of all the guys and apologize for being a liar and harboring immoral thoughts (yes, I was made to do this. I was told exactly what I was to say). I was also then instructed to not talk about the incident again, even to my parents. (Why? I don’t know. Perhaps they thought it would be an embarrassment to the training facility?) A few days after this mandatory public repentance one of the guys asked me, “So, did all of that stuff with the girl really happen?” I got along with this guy the most and I trusted him, so I said, “Yes, it did, but I’m not suppose to talk about it, and I’m not going to talk about it.”

That was a mistake. Little did I know—the resident snitch in the group was standing just a few feet to my left. He instantly ran and tattled to the team leaders. About an hour later we were all in the auditorium, practicing our recitation of the book of James. The Life Focus leader came into the back of the room with the Director of the Indianapolis Training Center, whispered something to him, and then pointed to me. I knew something was up.

I got pulled out of the group as soon as we were done and taken up to the Director’s office. I was then told that, “You’ve been going around bragging about your little thing with a girl here in the Training Center to all the guys, and we told you not to.” (Which was a blatant lie, because I was not bragging, and it was not “all the guys.”) I was then asked again if the stories were true about this girl, so I admitted to it. At that point the gig was up, and I don’t know that I really cared anymore. I was shown a group picture of the EQUIP team and was asked to point out a picture of the girl. By “asked” I mean “Show us who it is, or else you’re going back to solitary.” I refused. I knew that we would still both be in trouble if I did, and I was also smart enough to know that she was innocent of any ulterior motives, so I determined I was going to “take one for the team” (like I always did at home when something would happen and we’d be forced to sit at the table in silence until someone admitted to it. I can’t count the number of times that I admitted to something that I didn’t do). I flat out refused. Then they threatened to bring in all the girls one by one, stand them in front of me, and ask me if that was the girl. “We will be able to tell by your reaction if you’re lying or not, and then we will know who she is.” Now that was a horrible idea. They didn’t know me, and they didn’t know my “tells” that would give away who the girl was….or even if I HAD any tells! I knew this was a bad idea, and had the potential to implicate the wrong person. So I said, “If you do that, I will close my eyes and not respond to any questions.”

Finally they had enough…and put me back in solitary. This time it was on the 11th floor, and I had a window. I spent 8-10 hours a day sitting in the windowsill, watching the traffic go by. Finally the time came to finish Life Focus. I was released, but had to spend the last 3 days sharing a room with Dad. I didn’t get to see the guys very much at all during the final days, even though we had grown pretty close during our time there. I was not allowed to “graduate” (whatever that actually entailed), and was basically shunned by the team leaders.

Nick Bylsma is currently married and works as an IT Network Administrator for local government. He's also an aspiring actor. You can view some of his shorts skits and films on "RowseyFilms" on YouTube, as well as "A Man and His Dog," also on YouTube. Although Nick's family continues in ATI, he left it as soon as he finished high school and has no plans to ever be affiliated again.  
All articles on this site reflect the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of other Recovering Grace contributors or the leadership of the site. Students who have survived Gothardism tend to end up at a wide variety of places on the spiritual and theological spectrum, thus the diversity of opinions expressed on this website reflects that. For our official statement of beliefs, click here.

33 Comments

  1. Nick Bylsma November 21, 2013 Reply

    I am on a film set this morning/afternoon. But I'd be more than happy to answer questions (when I can) if anyone has any.

    In retrospect, I'm almost a little glad this happened to me. I've always been pretty mentally strong, so this didn't affect me for years and years or anything. Some of the guys there would have had a hard time dealing with it, and I like to think that maybe this happening to me sent them a 'keep your nose super duper clean...or else' message that kept them from some of the same issues.

    Not that I think it was in ANY WAY the right way for me to be treated.

  2. DT November 21, 2013 Reply

    Thanks for sharing this. These programs taught me to bottle up my feelings and never express honesty. I'm glad you were able to be honest and rise above it, even when you were there! You have a tougher mind and will than I do.

  3. MatthewS November 21, 2013 Reply

    Nick, thank you for having the courage to share these experiences. It is very wrong to treat people like you were treated. No program should be allowed to continue treating people like that.

  4. Linn November 21, 2013 Reply

    Programs such as Life Focus are just institutionalized child abuse. If I, as a school teacher, were found treating my students in this way, I would be turned over to Child Protective Services, lose my teaching credential, and possibly be brought up on criminal charges. I think it is a shame to the name of Christ that "Christian" associations are allowed to perpetuate this kind of abuse by its own members.

  5. LJ November 21, 2013 Reply

    Sad, sad, sad . . . . How many young people were treated in a similar way and have suffered for years with the trauma it created? Thank you for sharing your experience. May it help others to find healing and freedom from those abusive days.

  6. grateful November 22, 2013 Reply

    sorry, but I can't believe this is not embellished. if this is true and did go on, why was there no legal action ever taken?

    • Hannah November 22, 2013 Reply

      Welcome to ATI. The parents were so trusting and blinded by idealism that anything the institute did or said couldn't be wrong. So when their kids suffered, no one believed them. Wrong on so many levels.
      If you find this difficult to believe, count yourself fortunate not to have experienced it--and then stop discrediting the experiences of those who went through it.

      • grateful November 22, 2013 Reply

        was not trying to discredit, just find it difficult to believe from my perspective - all I know is positive feedback from ITC, and that from one or two individuals who worked there many years ago. Typically there are two sides to every coin. I've never been there and I would have thought that enough level-headed people would have been associated with the complex that this type of abuse would have stopped rather quickly (or not been allowed in the first place).

        • MatthewS November 22, 2013

          grateful, you didn't come across as flippant.

          I understand a healthy skepticism. I personally saw some things that bothered me but nothing like this. But I was only at Indy for a couple weeks and I was in Moscow in the early days when things were different. These things are so hard to believe anyway. Without photo or video evidence, it's almost impossible to really make your brain accept it. I know that some people do exaggerate their stories. I also know that when you get close to some of these guys and try to talk about their experiences, they don't start shouting how bad it was, they start changing the subject and losing words. There is an intensity to some of their emotions that they don't have words for. You can see (figurative) wounds, and wounds come from somewhere. I'm not saying that like it's supposed to convince anyone else, I'm just being honest with where I am at and what I've seen.

          Just thinking back, what I experienced in Indy was mostly positive but I could see hints of how some of these things could happen, too. Indeed, everything was very controlled. For example, it would be rebellious for you to adjust the speakers in the room that would play the music and announcements of their choice. You were not in control of where you were physically in the building, what you ate, what you listened to, when you got up, when you went to bed, when the lights needed to be on or off - these are basic things that were just as controlled there as in a typical prison (I've taught classes in two different prisons). I had just spent longer than a semester in Moscow where I had been carried away by gypsy kids (rescued before we were robbed), was peed on in a Metro station, had regularly navigated my way through the Metro system having learned enough of the written and spoken Russian to be able to do so. I had represented the ATI program at dozens of schools and had spoken with numerous school principles. After all that, we were basically locked in the hotel there in Indy upon our return, not allowed to even go to Walmart to get some basics that we wanted after having been out of the country for about 5 months. It communicated more than a lack of trust, it communicated a lack of basic respect. Just as an aside, when we were finally allowed to go to Walmart, it was the first shiny floor I had seen in months. I literally had to wipe tears away, the experience of being in a well-lit building with clean, shiny floors was that powerful.

        • ChooseAndAct March 13, 2014

          Have you ever heard about the Stanford Prison Experiment? I think it might shed some light on how things could be so bad. From the other articles about Life Action (and my own experience with student leaders at a few conservative Christian colleges), it seems pretty relevant.

          I know Wikipedia isn't the end-all of information, but here's a link to whet your interest.
          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_prison_experiment

        • MatthewS March 13, 2014

          This TED talk has some thought-provoking points from the same guy. He refers to the Stanford Prison debacle as well as Abu Graib. http://www.ted.com/talks/philip_zimbardo_on_the_psychology_of_evil

          I think his point that sometimes it's not about a few bad apples but rather about a bad barrel is keen.

    • BeverlyB November 22, 2013 Reply

      Hi grateful, I spent a year at the ITC, and I do know it was a regular practice to withhold food from minors and forbid eating on Sundays (until dinner) for "spiritual" reasons. That was something no one even blinked at (parents included), so for them to withhold food from minors as punishment and use it as motivation for memorization, or other "spiritual" goals was a very easy next step. When you're a student and brainwashed in the system, you just accept it as part of a good spiritual life and you don't question it. That's how the leadership got away with it. That and they told us as students not to tell our parents about a lot of what went on in the Training Centers. The principle of "authority" was used to get away with that---Your parents and God have given us authority over you, therefore whatever we do (punishments, corrections, etc) is from God. If you complain to your parents, you've got a bitter and rebellious heart, and you're ultimately complaining against God (...who will, of course, strike you down---was the not-so-subtle implication). Does that make sense? The Training Centers got away with a LOT of verbal and emotional abuse, let alone physical abuse, because we were conditioned not to say anything or question our authorities, which ultimately would be questioning God. I guess this is why I feel so strongly about fighting against spiritual abuse. I don't think Jesus would have approved or wanted His name associated with half of the stuff we experienced at the Training Centers. I didn't experience nearly the amount of abuse that the boys in Life Focus experienced, and yet it's taken years for Jesus to undo so much of the junk and the wrong attitudes about Him that I picked up there. I've found a lot of healing and am SO grateful to know and experience Him as he REALLY is, not as the harsh, judgmental God we were told (or implied) that he is.

      • grateful November 22, 2013 Reply

        I have read enough on this site through the years to recognize there is/was a lot that took place that is unfathomable and apparently well hidden, sometimes I'm just blown away I suppose; you (Beverly) lend a very credible aspect to stories like this. As stated above, my only source I know very closely that was involved with the ITC has only positive things to say.

    • Mary Ruth November 22, 2013 Reply

      Was this account exaggerated? I was at ITC for 3 years during this time. I saw many Life Focus groups go through. This is typical. Every class there were situations like this happening. I remember when the window in "solitary" (room 326) was boarded up because it had been broken out. I also know the rules that existed for communication between guys and girls especially Equip girls and Life Focus guys. They were extreme, with punishments like this for breaking the rules. (I was an EQUIP girl, but not the one in the story.) He's also right, the girl could have gotten in really big trouble. I saw it happen. She could have been stripped of her position as leader, put in solitary, and possibly had her whole reputation and possibly the reputation of her family ruined. Something like this could have made that EQUIP girl treated like a juvenile. I saw it happen. I have great respect for Nick. He protected the reputation of a near stranger at great personal cost. You ask why no legal action was taken. Frankly, I have no idea. Legal action was never taken. Not even for far greater situations.

      • Heather November 22, 2013 Reply

        Well I've heard a rumor that, ah.. money changed hands, hence no investigations, the local law enforcement and politicians let them be. Again, just a rumor, and it's possible that it's not true, but given everything else I've heard about this place, it's equally possible it IS true.

      • Shari November 22, 2013 Reply

        When I was at ITC for various music courses, I heard bits and pieces of rumors about "prayer rooms" and "solitary" but I was always made to believe the folks in there were dangerous juvenile delinquents who hadn't become Christians yet, and that this was a necessary step in their proven and "successful" program to bring them to the light. Now that I think about it, I'm realizing that I never thought twice about how they always kept the doors to the outside locked. You always had to buzz in or out so the receptionist could open the door for you. I assumed it was for our safety. But now I see the ultra-controlled environment for what it was and it freaks me out just thinking about it.

      • Nick November 23, 2013 Reply

        You must have been there when I was :-). I was part of the LF group where the guy (Sean) broke out the windows and climbed up to the roof, slit his wrists, and threatened to jump.

        I think there's going to be a part 2 to my story, because there's more to it!

    • Nick November 23, 2013 Reply

      I assure you that it is completely true. I was 16, so I didn't know anything about taking legal action. And, if I did...what could I prove? I wasn't physically abused or anything. It would be the word of a 16 year old "problem child" against the word(s) of a group of adults. No one would have believed me at the time.

      My parents still don't really believe that any of it happened, which is frustrating to me.

      • grateful November 23, 2013 Reply

        If you are walking today with the Lord, I applaud you! (and of course the goodness and power of God) I would probably be an atheist or as anti religious as I could be if all this had happened to me. God bless.

        • Nick November 23, 2013

          If you go by the "standards" of ATI and Gothardites, I'm not "walking with the Lord". I drink alcohol on occasion, I watch R rated movies (and have acted in some), I swear, I don't go to church, and I have 3 tattoos.

          But, one of those tattoos is an ichthus, because I still believe in God, and I'm still a Christian. I'm just mature enough to know that not everyone has to do the same thing to be a Christian. Being in church doesn't make you a christian, any more than wearing white/navy does.

      • Sue January 23, 2015 Reply

        Shame on your parents but forgive them anyway

    • Lisa Blake April 29, 2014 Reply

      I believe it! This happened to my cousin there!

  7. Dave November 22, 2013 Reply

    ....and so all of this stuff that these kids are subjected to helps them to know Jesus Christ? Right? Isn't that supposed to be the goal of Christian ministry? But silly me. Bill Gothard and his genius pals don't grasp that. They don't know that. And so it continues...one destructive system after another. The church will never learn.

  8. Kelly December 11, 2013 Reply

    First, I would like to say that we are so glad to have found this website!We are parents and we have never used ATI or IBLP, but we know others who have. Some of our friends have had their sons go to the ALERT program in TX and my son has wanted to go for a few years now, but has just now saved up enough money to do it. He is 19, but I feel like the expense is such a great one and after reading several stories on this site, maybe he wouldn't even be safe going. All the responses I have received from families(people who use ATI) about the ALERT program is positive...almost too good to be true. That concerns my husband and me. We understand it will be a very intense physical training program for him(he isn't that physical, but plans on working at it). Have you heard anything about the program? My husband and I have a hard time thinking that it is all a bed of roses. If ANYONE out there can fill us in on some information about this program we would surely appreciate it. We read David Auge's site and noticed that he mentioned other programs with Indianappolis that were terrible to him, but it seems that the ALERT program was okay, but didn't give any details...good or bad really. Our son would REALLY like to go, but as parents, we are concerned. I have looked on the sites here, but can't find anything about the ALERT. Please help us. Thank you so very much!

    • Nick December 18, 2013 Reply

      I would see if you can request access to the ATI Student Recovery group on facebook and ask your question there. https://www.facebook.com/groups/239499482737882/

      I'm the guy in this story, and I would VERY MUCH encourage him to stay away from ALERT and other IBLP programs.

    • Alan January 17, 2014 Reply

      Kelly,

      I went to ALERT for two years from 2006 to 2008. There is legalism taught there too. BUT there is no abuse at ALERT. I recommend ALERT basic training. The rest of the training isn't nearly as helpful. If you have more questions email me at alanholland4u@gmail.com

    • JChris January 24, 2014 Reply

      Kelly, fortunatly ALERT is no longer affiliated with IBLP. I have friends who've gone through the program and were glad for the experience. It's tough, just like the military it tough, and it's also Christian but it's not abusive or extreme that I'm aware.

  9. David January 27, 2014 Reply

    Hey Nick,

    Thanks for this story. Life Focus marked my final involvement with ATI, in fact--I was one of those frowning assistant leaders for one cadre (I forget which, but sounds like it was after yours). Nick's experience is pretty much par for the course. Seems like a consistent thing in LF stories: there's one kid who generally gets picked on more than others, and is humiliated via public punishment to beat down the other guys' acting out. For my group, the "Nick" was a sadly lovable doofus who didn't take anything seriously for weeks--I look back on it and laugh now at how "seriously" we took his antics, but he ended up pretty shaken up by the end of the 8 weeks.

    I remember thinking not long after my experience in "leadership" that, good God, I'm so glad I did not go through this as a student. Being in "leadership" was awesome--I was the guy about 11 years ago (might have been more than one who's done it by now) that got stuck in the laundry chute. Roger Gergeny was director and I gave him this stone-cold stunner of a reason when he asked "WTF why the laundry chute??"

    "It was there. I had to."

    I have other funny stories about that time, and though my group was fairly mild, I like other leaders feel deep regret. I was in touch with the originator and leader of LF for years, and he is a dramatically different (and far more happy) person now... and also full of deep regret. I believe he would certainly be willing to talk to anyone who wanted to.

    My experience with the laundry chute was a precursor to continued deep life change. I grew honest with myself, and stronger as a person. I finished college, drank alcohol, went to a goth metal concert, had sex with girls, learned some dance moves, and generally lived real life for the first time.

    I got to live both sides of a true American cult. I was lucky to get a lot of good help pretty soon after my experiences with ATI ended--I know not all stories like mine or Nick's end up with funny stories and no life scars. Perhaps the main drawback is my extremely low tolerance for cult-thought or much of Christian Culture--some friendships definitely could not continue.

  10. AmberM February 28, 2014 Reply

    Nick... Do you have a red-headed sister and did you teach CF in Oklahoma For about a month in, I think, 2004?

    I'm a little overwhelmed with all the stories since I spent a lot of time at ITC during 2003-04, a month at OKCTC, and a small stay in Flint for a Chalk Art course. But I did get in trouble for playing guitar and singing a 'contemporary' Christian song in the dining area (with a small group) at Flint because someone grabbed a salt shaker and used it to make a 'beat', haha. Thankfully, I was with my Dad and a couple siblings at the time, so I guess we were let off with a warning. :\ Never had anything super traumatic happen to me though... God's protection?

    • Nick April 3, 2014 Reply

      Sorry, you've got me pegged for the wrong person :-) Glad to hear that you made it out ok though!

  11. BethH March 13, 2014 Reply

    It amazes and saddens me that I was able to live there for 6 years ('96-2002) and be so clueless about what was actually going on at times. Maybe its because I was lucky to have a job that kept me isolated from all the crap and politicking that went on. Such craziness. I remember hearing on occasion that "so-and-so got put in the prayer room," without having any idea of how bad things were or even questioning it.

    You're amazing, to have come through strong and able to work through it. Thanks for sharing. Mind if I ask what year that was?

  12. Todd k July 22, 2015 Reply

    Yikes! After reading this article, I am surprised that there apparently was no physical uprising, like in the novel, The Butterfly Revolution.

  13. nicole gardner September 1, 2016 Reply

    I hope this account is included in the presentation of the case- what this poor guy was accused of is NOTHING compared to what Gothard actually did in often going to the copy room when whatever young girl working there at the time was in to make copies.

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