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This is my real name, and below is my real story.
It was the final session of the 1992 Knoxville conference, and the choir and orchestra were starting to gather for the big rendition of “It Will Be Worth it All.” I was supposed to be playing flute in the orchestra, but my flute was missing from the orchestra room where I had put it. I was standing beneath the stage in the “restricted” area trying to figure out what to do, when Bill Gothard tapped me on the shoulder. I was pretty flustered at meeting him in the flesh! He asked me my name and how long my family had been in ATI. His very next question was if I was committed to courtship, as he gave me an obvious once-over. I’m sure I looked like a “rebel” as I pushed the limits with the mandatory blue and white. I had on a straight skirt that barely covered my knees (with a sizable slit in back!) and big hoop earrings. I wasn’t a rebel. I was a good girl who loved God and had a good relationship with her parents—I just didn’t go for the neck bows and navy blue jumpers. I told him that I had never dated but had just committed to courtship that week. His next question was, “Have you ever considered coming to Headquarters?” I told him that I was only 15, and that I knew that was too young to work at IBLP Headquarters. He said he couldn’t believe I was only 15 and that I looked much more mature than that. He told me to write him a letter about myself and what I had learned that week at the conference and to give it to him before I left that day. Then, referring to the Headquarters question, he said, “We’ll see,” gave me a little wink, and went up on stage.
I sat down right then and wrote a letter about the life-changing week it had been for me. I wrote about the “crossroads” I was at in life, but that I had chosen to follow God and not the world. I signed it, “Your Obedient Daughter.” When the final session ended, I tried to give it to the security guy under the stage. He told me that I should give it directly to Bill. I looked at the long line of people waiting to talk to him beneath the stage and told the guy that I couldn’t wait in that line. I needed to find my family. He told me to go on stage and just give it to him. I gave Bill my letter and he held my hand as he said a long, drawn-out “God bless you” and looked deep into my eyes, which were filling with tears. Overwhelmed with gratitude for this man, I misread the emotional moment and spontaneously hugged him. He stiffened like a board and I quickly drew back, horrified at what I had done, and realizing that several hundred people were watching us from below the stage. I quickly told him thank you and goodbye and walked red-faced off the stage. Later that day, I sobbingly told my family that I had done the “stupidest thing ever”—hugged Mr. Gothard! I told them about the events of the morning. My younger brother thought it was hilarious and teased me during the 15+ hour drive home that we’d probably get kicked out of ATI since I tried to “hit on” the founder.
Actually the opposite happened.
We had barely arrived home from the long drive when Bill called to say that my letter had deeply touched him and he wanted me to come to HQ as soon as possible. My parents were as astounded as I was! They told him that it would be an honor, but we honestly did not have the money for a plane ticket at that time. He said that he would completely take care of that. They agreed for me to go to Headquarters for three weeks—I was so excited.
As soon as I arrived at Headquarters in Oak Brook, Mr. Gothard called the apartment where I was living and said that he wanted to see me in his office right away. One of my roommates said with raised eyebrows, “Oh, I guess you’re a VIP!”
Bill welcomed me warmly and told me that he looked forward to getting to know me, that his door was always open to me, and to come to him if there was anything I ever needed. As if to prove his point, he got some cash out of his desk drawer and gave it to me to get “whatever I needed.” (He did this on several other occasions, too.) I was relieved that he didn’t mention the hugging incident at Knoxville and felt like that was behind us.
I felt very comfortable with him as a fatherly friend and was in his office daily—either of my own accord or because he summoned me. He asked me extensive, probing questions from the beginning about possible sins I had committed and needed to repent of. I really couldn’t come up with a whole lot. I was a first-born, a rule-follower, and I hadn’t rebelled against my parents for much of anything. I didn’t even mind being home-schooled. Finally, we stumbled on to something. Even though I didn’t like rock music, I admitted to liking a few pop (love) songs that I had heard. He had me dissect the words of the two songs that I liked, and I saw how ungodly they were. We knelt beside his couch to confess this to God. That was the first time he held my hand as I prayed and cried.
I also shared with him that I was convicted about giving up my once-a-month job as a model for a local department store. I had chosen to wear only the more modest clothes, but now the whole thing seemed worldly and had too much focus on the outward appearance. Plus, rock music was played at our fashion shows in the mall. He was totally enthralled with this and immediately told others, sensationalizing it to be much more than it was. I was embarrassed as the word spread around Headquarters that I was a model. I was constantly telling people that it wasn’t that big a deal and that it was very non-professional and small-time. He put me on the spot several times to give my testimony as a “former model.”
He told me that he wanted to keep me close to him, so I started as one of his personal assistants (secretaries) in his office. However, at age 15, I had pathetic secretarial skills and no understanding of how the organization ran or who was important. Plus, he already had a very competent office team and, although they were kind to me, I’m sure they felt like they were babysitting. After about a week, he suggested that the ATI department could use my help in filing everything after the Knoxville conference. I was relieved and happy to work there instead.
Even though I wasn’t working in his office anymore, he made a point to connect with me at either the morning staff meeting or at lunch almost every day, often inviting me to sit across from him at the head table. A few times, I was already sitting at another table visiting with people and he would motion me to move to his table instead. During one of the times I was sitting across from him at the head table, I felt his foot nudge mine. I pulled back instantly thinking that we must have just collided somehow and I mumbled a “Sorry.” I looked up and saw him smiling at me—not at all apologetic. It happened several more times in days following; he would put his shod foot against mine and nudge me slowly, or try to cross ankles with me. Then once I felt his sock foot against my leg and starting to explore up the back of my calf. The tablecloths were pretty long, so things under the table were mostly hidden. However, I remember thinking that if anyone dropped a fork and got down to retrieve it, they would see what he was doing and they would get the wrong impression. I kept my feet swung back under my chair from then on and there was no more footsie (at mealtimes, anyway).
I was amazed that Bill seemed to know where I was, what I was doing, and who I was talking with at all times. He controlled my friendships, telling me specifically which girls to avoid and directing me to more established, trusted, older girls. There was a 17-year-old boy who came to Headquarters about the same time I did. We were in some of the same newcomer orientations together. We had only talked to each other a couple of times (in public), and mildly flirted. Somehow Bill got wind of it and asked me if it was true. I didn’t deny it. He gently reprimanded me and told me to be more careful in my relationships, especially those with the opposite sex. However, he told the boy that he was being sent home. [Click here to read the story of Marcus, who was fired for talking to Rachel.]
Bill was extremely protective of me. Even in those first few weeks, he told me that I had a special place in his heart and he knew God was going to work through me in big ways in the future. My initial three-week invitation to Headquarters was coming to an end and Bill said that he wanted me to stay on indefinitely and could easily change the return ticket. But the last day I was there my mom had a late-term miscarriage and was hospitalized. It was a no-brainer, I had to go home as soon as possible to help my family.
After being home only a few weeks and helping my mom recover, I received a written invitation to go to Australia with a group from Headquarters. That was followed up by a phone call from Bill with a personal invitation both for the trip and to come back to serve in the ministry at Headquarters. Since he already knew that our family’s finances could be a reason I wouldn’t go, he offered again to fly me to Oak Brook, and told us to raise as much money for the trip as we could, but that whatever we couldn’t pay would be covered by IBLP. My parents agreed that I could go on the trip in October and stay at Headquarters for two months after that. However, my mom was insistent that I come home and finish my high-school education before I would work anywhere “indefinitely.” [Side note: My mother, as a former teacher, took our home education very seriously. She was later crushed by an ATI family coordinator who visited our home and harshly criticized her for focusing too much on academics and not making the Wisdom Booklets her primary teaching source. He told her that “knowledge puffeth up,” and that ATI wanted her to focus more on character.]
I returned to Headquarters, and again received much attention from and favor with Bill. He gave me a choice where I wanted to work and I said I would love to learn how to cut hair, since there was a young woman there who had extensive training and was opening a modified “salon” in the basement of one of the girls’ housing facilities. He told me that would be perfect, especially since I was such a great example of how girls should wear their hair—long, soft, curls flowing down their back. He told me often how much he loved my hair and would quote a verse about hair being a woman’s glory as he stroked my hair with his hand or shifted my hair from the front to behind my shoulder or vice versa. He told me I should never cut it short, and once, when I wore my hair in an up-do, he frowned slightly and said that it looked much better down when it “framed my face.” He also noticed when I got a few inches cut off and wondered why I cut it. I explained that the ends were split and unhealthy and it would grow faster this way.
One time, I was invited to join him and two assistants on a road trip to the Northwoods Conference Center. His female assistant was sitting in the back of the car with him answering correspondence and I was sitting directly in front of Bill while the other male assistant drove. We had driven a few hours when Bill suddenly leaned forward and roughly grabbed almost all my hair close to the nape of my neck in his fist and whispered through clenched teeth, “I love your hair.” It took me by complete surprise and I immediately looked at the other two in the car, but they acted like they hadn’t seen or heard anything.
I was 16 now. Bill asked me if I would be willing to do a special job for him. He said that he completely trusted me, and asked if I could be “eyes and ears” for him around Headquarters. He wanted me to let him know if people were not upholding the standards that were necessary to keep the ministry “above reproach.” Essentially, he was asking me to spy for him, but he put it in much more attractive words as a necessary service. He warned me that this arrangement would be strictly between him and me, and I could not tell anyone else about this. I agreed. And, to my shame, I did tattle on several people (never my friends—even if they did bend the rules—only people I didn’t know well or had heard rumors about). I would feel guilty, though, when I heard about action taken against them because of something I had passed on to Bill. I thought I was obeying my authority by giving him info that he requested; despite his teachings on the subject, he seemed quite willing and eager to listen to those “bad reports”! However, from my observation, Bill never used Matthew 18 as a model in his own dealings with staff members. Discipline, especially with males, was quick, severe, and completely lacking in grace or second chances.
One incident, much later during the summer of ’94, concerned a report I passed on to Bill about a staff member named “Charlie” (not his real name) being “mean” to my brother on the lawn care and construction crew. Bill immediately called Charlie into a meeting with me present, and told him that he wanted to teach him a lesson, that “people were more important than projects.” He fired Charlie and sent him home the very afternoon that I reported this to him. I did not like Charlie, but I felt bad that he was given absolutely no chance to change his behavior once it was presented to him. I always felt that Bill did this more as a “favor” to me than a punishment to Charlie, and to show me that I had power and influence with him.
I lived in one of the IBLP-owned homes with four other young women, including Charlotte, who was about my age. There were rumors that she was “an encouragement case.” She didn’t say much about her family, but she talked incessantly about Bill and it was easy to tell that he was the center of her universe. She would randomly brag that she always did her hair a certain way because Bill said he loved it that way, would say she was wearing this certain dress because it was his favorite, and so on. She once told me that Bill had said she was beautiful but that the gap between her front two teeth was “distracting” from her face. He said he would arrange for her to get that fixed.
When I moved to that house, Bill warned me specifically not to discuss anything with Charlotte. He didn’t give me any details about her other than she had “issues” and could not be trusted. He double-checked a few days later to make sure I understood—I was not to be close friends with her. I got it.
Once, when I arrived home late at night after being in his office working on some project, Charlotte came into my room and peppered me with questions, “What did you and Mr. G talk about?” “Did you talk about me?” “Did you do anything other than talking?” I finally told her rudely, “It is none of your business!” She looked hurt but didn’t ask me any more about my relationship with Bill. I thought she was just jealous because Bill paid special attention to me. We remained just casual acquaintances that happened to live in the same house. I had no idea of the pain she had been enduring at that time, but looking back there were many signs that I ignored because I was told by Bill to avoid her, and because I was an immature 16-year-old.
I went back home again after two months as my parents had requested, even though Bill objected. They said that, until I graduated, I could work at Headquarters only in the summer, along with my brother. I fulfilled my mother’s high-school requirements by taking my GED at age 17, then I returned to Headquarters “indefinitely” and chose to work in the Basic CARE Department.
Bill’s office was right next to Basic CARE, with a copy room in between. Since I was the errand-girl and, later, the Basic CARE secretary for a while, I spent a fair amount of time in the copy room. Bill could see me from his office desk and would sometimes come in and close the door (or leave it wide open!) and stroke my back or arm while I was copying. Sometimes he gave me a side hug, or held my hand and leaned into me, all the while praising me that I was “such an encouragement to him” or an “energy giver” or a “great example to other girls.” I always felt so tense and tight in my chest when I’d see him coming over to me in the copy room, since it was a small, intimate area. His personal bathroom was also off the copy room, and I’m sure anyone in his office assumed that’s where he was going. When I would go in to make copies and he wasn’t in his office, I would feel relief and find it easier to breathe, and I would try to get my copies done as quickly as possible before he got back.
My brother was living at the Indianapolis Training Center (ITC) at that time, so Bill invited me to join him and his small office team any time they drove to Indy, so I could visit my brother. If I happened to sit beside Bill in the car or van, he would always sit with his legs as wide as possible so that our outer thighs or knees touched. I would cross my legs to move away from him; otherwise, I would find his leg right against mine. Often his wandering foot would try to find mine. He would sometimes let his hand or a few fingers rest lightly on my leg, especially if there was a book or paper on my lap that would cover it.
On a couple of different overseas plane trips, specifically to Australia ’93 and Taiwan ’94, he sent his male assistant to find me during the flight and switch places with me because Bill wanted to see me. One time we were flying during the night and I fell asleep beside him, sitting in the aisle seat. I woke up a few hours later and there was a blanket over me, and Bill was awake and smiling down at me like he had been watching me for awhile. I apologized for falling asleep and for blocking his path if he had needed to get out to the aisle. He smiled and said that he didn’t mind at all. Another time, a stewardess stopped, looked at Bill and then me, frowned, and asked, “Is this your original seat, young lady?” I said no. She told me to return to my original seat immediately, which I did—with great haste and inexplicable embarrassment—returning his assistant back to the seat by Bill.
Even though it was nothing totally new, I began to feel strange about his attention toward me. It’s a weird feeling when you’re a naïve young girl and someone 43 years older than you makes you feel special and dirty at the same time.
Maybe it was the physical affection that would have gotten anyone else sent home immediately? Maybe it was because more than one person had made snide comments about me being his “pet” or his “type” or his “favorite” or a “Gothard girl”? Or maybe it was because I was always chosen for special trips, all-expenses-paid overseas trips, special privileges and positions, and special speaking and video “star” opportunities? But he had told me from the beginning that I was someone important and “special” to him and to the ministry. I, of course, noticed that I was not the only girl that he paid special attention to. He surrounded himself with both office assistants and “travel buddies” who were usually the most attractive girls at Headquarters. They were almost always very young, too—my age or younger! Even this didn’t diminish the fact that he made me feel like I was very different from anyone else, and he had a special place in his heart reserved only for me.
Bill reminded me often to give only encouraging or good reports to my parents, and would sometimes ask me when I had last talked to them, and what I had shared with them? A few times he suggested I call my parents right from his office and, instead of giving me privacy, he sat there and listened to me talk to them. I felt strangely inhibited talking to them with Bill listening to my every word. However, late one night in my house, I finally told my parents on the phone that Bill Gothard made me feel uncomfortable with all the attention he showed me. I didn’t mention all the physical touching. To my parents’ credit, they didn’t react negatively towards me. Even though they knew very few details, they had noticed and seen the special favor I received from him and it rather surprised them, too. My dad said, “Well, he is single. Maybe Mr. Gothard is acting that way because he intends to court you?” The thought of that made me throw up in my mouth a little bit. I had always thought of him as fatherly, almost grandfatherly. Part of me reasoned that there was no way he could be thinking that, but then his actions said differently… If it had been anyone close to my age, it would be a reasonable conclusion. But I was only 18. He was 61! After that, I started to avoid him more. As I pulled away emotionally, he seemed to notice. On several occasions he reminded me of my first letter to him, when I signed “Your Obedient Daughter.” This added to my confusion. Was he appealing to me as his daughter? I started to find excuses not to go to staff meetings, or on road trips with him and only a few others. I avoided eye contact with him and tried to duck out of staff gatherings before he could talk to me.
I was becoming increasingly unhappy at Headquarters, so when an opportunity was presented me to go work as a nanny for a prominent ATI family the summer of ’95, I took it! Bill gave his blessing only because he knew and respected this family so much. He told me that he fully expected me to come right back after my one-year commitment there.
Instead, God opened up a job teaching ESL [English as a Second Language] at a local college after my nannying job, and I never returned to Headquarters. However, I did work on IBLP’s TESL [Teaching English as a Second Language] course at Bill’s insistence, and returned to various training centers to teach it for a week at a time for several years. I also went on several more trips to Taiwan to teach ESL. During this time I also came to several conferences at Knoxville to speak or lead break-out sessions for students. Bill asked me numerous times to return to Headquarters, and again offered me any position I wanted. I remained firm that I would only be involved with the IBLP TESL ministry in a very limited way and didn’t want to leave my job in South Dakota, where I was teaching immigrant students. Even though I couldn’t articulate it then, in my heart I knew I didn’t want to go back to the double standards and mind control I had experienced when I lived at Headquarters. I had tasted freedom in Christ and experienced grace, and it was sweet.
And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. —John 8:32
It has been only recently that my eyes have been opened to see how wrong Bill’s actions have been with young girls (including myself) and also the far-reaching damage that some of his teachings have had on people who have never even met him. It has been difficult to go back into some painful memories of being used and misused by Bill as a minor. When I contacted Recovering Grace, I was told that I wasn’t alone in those experiences. I was one of many girls who are coming forward with very similar stories of being “groomed” to accept behavior that is commonly accepted as sexual harassment. One of the main reasons that I chose to speak out now is that Bill continues to operate as he always has—behind fiercely loyal people willing to look the other way while he does what he wants to do in the name of spiritual headship.
People might also ask how my family even got into this program in the first place. My parents were not unintelligent people. Both had master’s degrees. They went to IBLP seminars and joined ATI because they, as well as probably many other families, wanted something better for their kids than the free love and anti-authority ’60s and ’70s that they grew up in. ATI was touted as much more than a homeschool program, it was a Way of Life—and it certainly was that. ATI provided a certain camaraderie of raising your kids against the norm and hoping that they would change the world. It was idealistic and simplistic in its approach, with formulas for supposed success in all areas of life.
I am not bitter or vengeful, although I know Gothard loyalists would love to portray me, and others, as such for just honestly telling our stories. I view them with compassion because I used to be in that camp. We were “groomed” to have unquestioning loyalty to our authorities, among other things. It seems so obvious and easy to spot once you’re on the outside. However, when you’re on the inside, the teaching and expectations can be very self-deceiving. I also know that there is a third group, neither inside nor outside, of those who are still part of IBLP or support it, but do not do so blindly. Certain things have bothered them for years, but they haven’t spoken up because, well, it’s “complicated” on a few different levels. I understand the hard position they are in, and I pray for their boldness and wisdom.
Many godly and sincere people have gone to Bill and the IBLP board over the last few decades of his ministry with immense concern and have prayerfully used the Matthew 18 approach, but it seemed to fall on defensive, damning, or deaf ears. Because of the lack of repentance and true change, the time for private appeals is past. The time for public appeals and “reveals” is here. My hope is that eyes would be opened to the truth, and that the wounded would find healing and grace.
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