Sacred Grooming, Part One: A Secretary’s Account of Life With Bill Gothard

20 January 2014, 06:00

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So, today I get brave. For the first time in my life.

A long time ago, when I was very young and naïve, I worked for Bill Gothard as his secretary at the Oak Brook, IL Headquarters of ATI [the Advanced Training Institute] and IBLP [the Institute in Basic Life Principles]. For years I have looked back upon that time as a golden time in my personal history, a year full of adventures and challenges and travel and spiritual growth.

I became close to my boss, a man who became my mentor, my confidant, my counselor — someone I called "my own familiar friend." Someone I trusted. Someone who had my unquestioned loyalty. A friend whom I protected, with secrets that I thought I would take to my grave.

And then I began to hear the rumors — spreading to my ears even from halfway across the world. “Did you know Bill Gothard wanted to marry you?” I heard this not once, but several times. I always dismissed it as vicious jealousy and completely untrue. Until someone wrote to me two years ago asking me if the sexual harassment stories on the Recovering Grace website were true.

Recovering Grace? I had never heard of it.

I logged on, and I read. And my whole life was changed. Reading those accounts was like reading my own history. Everything I had built my beliefs and friendships and trusts and memories on was swept away in one small, yet gigantic, 800 words or so.

For the next year I sought to get to the truth. In my search, I sought the help and advice of a professional counselor to walk me through the processing I would need to do to unravel my history, making sense of it and coming to terms with it. During this time, a former IBLP Board Member confirmed to me that it was indeed true that Bill Gothard had thought about marrying me. He was 59 and I was 20, barely 21 when I left. But that, in itself, did not shock me. If anything, it made me feel pity for him, a sadness for my old friend.

The passing of time, of growing up, forced me to reflect on many things that happened then, on the behavior, on my responses. To ask whether this had been a healthy relationship. The secrets — my secrets — were being shouted from the rooftops, and it wasn't me doing the shouting. 

I am the last person in the world who wants to judge another fellow human being. Who am I to do that, when I will be throwing my own self before God and begging for His mercy?

Read my story and see for yourself.

— “Meg”

 [Editor’s Note: The young woman referred to only as “she” and “her” in the following account is Meg herself, but she has written it in the third person. The author was twenty years old at the beginning of the events. The following is a true story.]

Tress with Ice Crystals in SunlightA Beginning

The snowy streets of suburban Chicago were icy and bitterly cold. She was standing on the edge of the road waiting for him. The wide bare trees above her head cracked and snapped in the frozen air. She had on a long navy skirt and a blouse under her white sweater. Last night the girls in the house had celebrated Christmas by having a Christmas sweater party. A pretty vintage picture had been ironed onto the front of this sweater, and she was wearing it now as she stood at the end of the snowy driveway, her bare hands rolled up in the sleeves to keep them from getting too cold. 

A car turned into the street and pulled up beside her. She got in and immediately relaxed in the warmth. Her boss said good morning to her and smiled at her as she pulled on her seat belt. She looked cold, he said. Did she have any gloves? 

No, she said, she didn’t bring any.            

Bill pulled the car over to the side of the road on the short drive to the office. He had brown leather gloves on his large hands and he took them off and gave them to her. Here, he wanted her to have these.

“Are you sure,” she asked, as she thanked him.

I have plenty more,” he said. “I don’t want you to get cold.”

She warmed to him. As she slipped the gloves over her cold fingers, she looked over at him, watching him as he turned the wheel of the car back out onto the road. He was so kind. So thoughtful.

Taking Care of Her

She sat in a chair in his office, waiting. She had on her favorite brown dress. It was full length with tiny pink flowers scattered all over the fine linen. It tucked in nicely at her narrow waist and the large collar with its v-neck made her neck look long and narrow. Her vanity loved the way it draped over her legs as she folded them. The back office door opened and he came in. She stood up. “Hello,” she said, extending her hand.

“Well. Here you are.” He shook her hand and waved for her to take her seat again. He sat down in his large office desk chair and leaned back. His desk was wood grain and very wide. It didn’t have much on it except for a phone, a computer, and a small pile of neatly stacked papers. There wasn’t a pen in sight.

He began talking. He said he brought her up here to see him, as he wanted to make sure that she had everything she needed. He asked whether there was anything he could get or do for her.

She hesitated at first, and squirmed in her chair a little. “Well… well…” she looked up at him. “I am running out of money,” she said suddenly and quietly. “I’m needing to get a few winter things.”

He leaned down and opened up a drawer, taking out a wad of cash. He handed the bills across the desk to her. “Here,” he said, “take this and go and get whatever you need.” He said one of the girls would take her, and if she needed more just to come and ask; he didn’t want her to feel that she couldn’t ask. “I’m here to look after you,” he said.

She smiled at him. “Thank you so much. I am so grateful to you.”

He appreciated her honesty, he said. It was refreshing.

She felt she had a tiny glimpse of the man behind the public persona. A man used to being fawned over and pandered to and waited on. A man who wanted for nothing. A man who had crowds and crowds of people seeking just a moment, just a glimpse, just a small piece of who he is and what he represents. A man, she thought, who could quite easily lose his authentic self. She looked up at him with new eyes, understanding eyes.

Settling In

The first night she spent at Headquarters, the hypnotic sound of singing monks had drifted into her bedroom. Over and over, the same low tuneless singing filled her ears. She turned in her bed and looked over at the little travel clock on the dresser beside her. 2:17 a.m. Chicago time. She pulled her pillow over her head and pressed it against her ears, but she knew it wouldn’t block out the sound. What was with these girls and their obsession over this awful — she couldn’t call it singing — chanting that they insisted on playing all night long.

When she had first stepped into the house that evening, after the ride from the airport, she found that her new bedroom was small but comfortable: a single bed with a pretty floral duvet and a small bedside table. The wardrobe was massive. She was quite sure it would swallow up her meager supply of clothes.

The girls had all been in the kitchen, busy making something that smelled good. One of the girls did a quick run around the room naming all of them, which left her head spinning. They seemed friendly. They smiled a lot. She had forgotten their names already.

The room was large and bright, with wooden paneling on the cabinets and a tiled floor, but what stood out the most were the bright red apples. There were prints of bright red apples everywhere: the rug on the floor, the tea towels, the picture hanging over the sink, the glasses, and even the little stack of coasters on the island. One of the girls saw her looking at the coasters. “Our roommate did that,” the girl said. There was laughter and one of them giggled. Two months was good, she said; the roommate had changed it up frequently. They’d had apples, corn, Raggedy Ann, Precious Moments, cowboy themes, and roses.

She looked around them all as they shared the joke. It struck her that they were all so young. And very pretty. And very thin. There wasn’t an ugly one among them, and nobody was even the slightest bit on the plump side.

She thought about this as she now tossed on the bed, keeping the pillow pressed around her ears, the dreary chanting of the monks still humming in her ears. That’s when her fingers found the leather bracelet around her wrist, and suddenly she forgot the monks, Chicago, and this new job, and she thought of him. The boy. What was he doing right now, while she lay here? What was he doing all the way back there in her own familiar city? Would he be thinking of her? She was thinking of him.

The Letter

“What are you writing?” he asked.

She looked up from her office desk and saw Bill standing before her. It was late afternoon and the light outside was dimming. In the quiet lull around her, she had switched on her lamp and pulled out some writing paper. “Just a letter to a friend back home,” she answered. She covered the paper with her arm as she reached to put the pen back in the holder.

His curiosity was awakened. He came around the side of the desk and leaned over her. He asked to whom she was writing, tapping his finger on the writing paper.

She stammered. “Oh. Um. Just an old friend. A boy.” The boy she’d told him about. They’d broke up just before she came to Headquarters, but he was still her good friend. He’d always be a good friend, she said.

He nodded slowly and took her hand. “Come over here,” he said, “I want to talk to you about this.”

They sat down on the pale couch he kept near his desk. He used that couch a lot for counseling. For the people that came through this office seeking his advice, his words of wisdom, his insight into their personal tragedies, this couch became their confessional, their altar before God, their laying down of worldly cares in the search for something higher, more pure, more worthy.

He spoke softly, his hands reaching out again for hers. He held them both in his, squeezing them, reassuring her. She felt safe.

“If you and I are to be one in spirit, we need to be open with each other.” He said he didn’t want her getting distracted by old relationships while she was there. He said they had a goal to reach, a God to serve. “Why don’t you tell me about this boy,” he said. “Let’s talk about it together.”

She looked up at him. He looked so kind. So sympathetic. So understanding.

She found herself pouring out her story to him; her sad little love story about a girl who loved a boy, about friendship and companionship, about teenage love. She told him about growing up and realizing that the boy didn’t need her anymore, that he doesn’t love her anymore, that he doesn’t want her anymore; that heartbreak can be cruel and that it won’t go away, even if you go to the remotest place on earth. She told him that she would still lie awake every night thinking of the boy, that she would try to forget him and find she couldn’t, that her heart was tied to the boy’s.

Envy

She was busy working on some of Bill’s documents at the computer when the girl came in. The girl didn’t knock at the door, just walked straight in and stood beside her and breathed out a slippery “Hi there!”

She looked up from her work, took off her reading glasses, and stood up to greet the girl. She had been in this office for a week now, and this was the first girl who had come over to say hello. It felt nice to be acknowledged, nice to think there was someone who wanted to be friendly.

“Hi,” she replied, shyly.

The girl said that she worked over in the other office, that she was a secretary too, that she just thought she’d come and say hello. The girl worked for the ministry’s second-in-command. She was clutching some books to her chest, but managed to find a free hand to wave in the direction across the hallway to her office; the girl said she’d worked here for four years now.

Wow, she replied, the girl must be really familiar with the place now. She was still finding her way, adjusting to a new city. She liked her work, though. It was interesting.

The girl nodded slowly and her smile faded as she asked, “Have you been a secretary before?”

No, she replied, this was her first job as a secretary.

“Well, I just wondered because this is one of the top jobs around here,” the girl said, “and I wouldn’t have minded this job myself.” The girl continued that there were quite a few girls who had been here for even longer who wanted this job. “I just thought that you must be extra-experienced or something to have gotten it. You know?” she cocked her head on the side, as though in a challenge.

This took her aback. The girl’s smile had gone and she was sure she detected the tiniest hint of hostility in the girl’s blue eyes looking into hers. She shrugged. Oh well, she replied, Mr. Gothard had asked her to do this job, and it seemed the right thing for her at the time.

The other nodded slowly, raised her eyebrows and looked down at the floor quickly. The message was clear. “Sure,” the girl said. “Well, if you need help with anything, let me know, I’m just across the hallway.” The girl’s voice was breezy now, artificially bright and over-friendly.

But she felt the frostiness in it, and the sting of realizing that this girl wasn’t here to be friendly. The girl was on the attack, with veiled hostility at this interloper who had stepped over her, and all the other girls, she supposed, to land a big job. She felt disappointment. She knew she looked vulnerable, fragile, innocent, but mean girls were nothing to her. What mattered was the work. The ministry. Helping him.

Finding Favor

“Why did you choose me?” she asked him.

They were driving back to Chicago. They had been down to Indianapolis for the day and she had been required to work as they traveled, taking down his dictation. She loved this part of her job, the challenge of writing quickly using her limited knowledge of shorthand. She had borrowed a book from the library and had been trying to teach herself in the quiet moments, which were becoming scarce these days as he put more and more demands on her time. 

It was dark in the car with only a small overhead light shining between them. She laid the pad and pen down beside her and looked up. He was sitting next to her, and in the front sat two of her colleagues. One was driving. One was asleep, his head rolling uncomfortably between the car door and the seat.

Bill turned and looked quizzically at her. Why did she ask that, he wanted to know.

Well, she said, she just wondered. He didn’t know anything about her when he asked her to come and work for him, and from what she could gather there were a lot of girls here who would love her job. She felt kind of bad that she was here, with him, and they were not.

He laughed softly. First of all, he said, if he had wanted those girls, he would have asked them. He said he needed someone special to be his secretary, and when he first met her he somehow knew that he and she would work well together. “I think God brought you to me,” he said. He said that she had a heart for missions, and wasn’t just there to find a husband. He smiled at that part. 

She could understand that, she replied, she just hated to think that she was the cause of envy among his staff.

They probably are envious, he replied, but he knew that she could handle that, and handle this position that was highly sought after. “Because you are close to me, it does cause envy,” he said, and that he knew that this could sometimes be lonely, and would be lonely for her. He said to beware of those girls who may befriend her just because they wanted to know him better, or may not be friendly simply because of her position and closeness to him. “It can be very lonely, he said. Was she prepared for that?

Of course she was, she said, she was not here to make friends. “I’m here to serve you, to serve God through you,” she said. She wanted him to know that she really meant that, that she had dedicated her life to God.

He reached down and squeezed her hand.

“You have no idea how happy that makes me to hear you say that,” he said. “I’ve never had someone like you work for me, someone prepared to lay their life down. It means a lot to me. God bless you for that.” His voice was soft and seemed full of meaning. He spoke quietly, close to her ear, almost whispering. She could feel his breath on her face.

She didn’t mind his impulsive squeeze of her hand. She felt that he was beginning to rely on her, to confide in her, and that she brought him comfort, friendship, and confidentiality. His soul seemed to her to crave companionship. Her soul craved being needed.

Her days soon grew busier.

 

[Click here to read Part Two; here to read Part Three, here to read Part Four, here to read Part Five, and here to read Part Six.]

See how the experiences Ruth, Annette, Charlotte, Rachel, Meg, Lizzie, and Grace had with Bill Gothard fit together chronologically here, and behaviorally here.

Meg’s family was in ATI for more than ten years. After leaving Bill Gothard's office, Meg continued to work for IBLP for several years before she met and married her wonderful, non-ATI, Mr. Right. She is now busy raising their family and enjoying a happy and ATI-standard-free life.

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.

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