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I grew up in Bill Gothard’s Advanced Training Institute of America (ATIA, later renamed ATI) home school program from 1985 through 2005 — twenty years! I worked at five different Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP) training centers run by Bill Gothard and his staff, as well as working at IBLP Headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois, for nearly three years. During those three years, I worked personally for a year with Bill Gothard himself on an almost daily basis, running the Headquarters kitchen as well as working in a side business run by IBLP. I was later on the IBLP staff for nearly two years after I was married.
My life at home in my early twenties was miserable. I felt trapped in a world of working towards everyone else’s goals except my own. I had dreams of working in the medical field, but ATI told my parents that higher education through a college was dangerous and wrong, and that women were to be quiet, stay at home, cook, clean, and care for children. Many people have asked me why I did not run away or try to escape. It’s simple: I had almost no money, since my parents needed and took much of what I earned. My parents controlled every part of my life, including who my friends were and what I did every moment of every day. I was taught that God would curse me if I tried to do anything on my own. There was no leaving without my parents’ permission. I was in a mental, emotional, economic, and spiritual prison. My parents now regret many of their earlier decisions. My mother is an amazing woman, who now inspires me to still work toward my dreams, even though I’m nearly forty years old.
I was first sent to IBLP Headquarters after being sexually assaulted on my twenty-fourth birthday by a male ATI student of adult age. My parents, my family’s pastor (also in ATI), and our ATI Family Coordinator spoke to Bill Gothard and, at his advice, sent me to the Headquarters publicly from our church, in shame, to be an “encouragement case.” [Editor’s Note: The Institute historically uses the term Leader in Training, or LIT, to designate a juvenile delinquent assigned to the Institute by a court system, or placed in unofficial Institute custody by the LIT’s own family. The term “encouragement case” is historically used to designate a young person who is not officially an LIT, but is regarded as a troubled individual who must either earn their way to a morally respectable status, or may be re-designated as an LIT.] They all said I must have encouraged this guy’s advances, and that I was partly to blame. No one suggested that I should call the police. Sex education had not been a part of my schooling at home. It took me years to understand that what had been done to me was a crime, and that I could have gone to the police and pressed charges against my assailant.
I discovered later that the young men at IBLP headquarters were specifically warned to avoid me, because I was “that kind of girl.” Bill Gothard knew I had not asked to be sexually assaulted and had been following the “rules” by having my parents’ permission to be in the public place when the assault occurred. I had served in a couple of different ATI training centers in the years prior to the assault, and I had no reputation for chasing or snagging guys. In his office, I told Bill every detail of what had happened during the assault, and he had me pray with him that God would forgive me and bring about great things in my life. Bill advised me to avoid talking to men, and to focus on serving well in whatever job I was given.
After working on staff at the Headquarters for about a year, I nearly walked in on one of the married directors having sex with his secretary. I was very naïve, not sexually educated, and I did not even realize what was going on behind that locked door. I cannot believe I was so ignorant, but I was. The very next morning, Bill Gothard called me on the phone in my office to tell me that, according to this director, I needed to go home that day and “work on my relationship with my parents.” Confused, I tried to talk to Bill, reminding him about the mild physical abuse and severe emotional abuse I had received at home. He brusquely cut me off and hung up, saying that the decision had been made and that I needed to go back and learn to respond correctly to my parents.
Several months later that director revealed his infidelity, and another staff member gave Bill the information that I had been sent home after doing nothing wrong. Bill himself called and apologized, asking me to return to Headquarters and work in two different departments. I often worked 100+ hours per week between the two job responsibilities but was, for the most part, paid only minimum wage for 40 hours each week. This was standard practice for my coworkers as well. We did not have electronic time card machines or computers to keep track of our work hours. Instead, we were given cards and told to hand write our hours worked each day. We were strongly “encouraged” to not report our overtime hours on our time sheets. We were told that the ministry just didn’t have the funds to pay everyone for overtime, and that we were working for a heavenly purpose, after all. We were told if we felt truly led to the ministry, we should not report our worked overtime because IBLP could get into trouble for not paying us for it. I am certain Bill Gothard knew about this, since he controlled every small decision made, especially regarding IBLP money. [Editor’s note: During the time that the author worked at Headquarters, Bill Gothard personally confronted and rebuked at least one staffer for accurately reporting hours worked, chastising the young man for not “volunteering” the hours he worked beyond forty per week.]
When I was in Bill’s office, he hugged me, sat hip-to-hip with me on the office sofa while we talked and prayed alone, and played footsie with me a couple of times. At the time I thought of him as a grandfatherly type, and I idolized him as a modern day apostle Paul, as my parents also did. Bill picked me up in his car alone several times, and I saw him pick up other girls alone in his car to spend hours alone with them in his office. I honestly did not think much about it at the time, although I was uncomfortable and wondered why he was breaking his own rules.
There were only two of us, the boss and I, working in one of the departments to which I was assigned. Bill had fired more than forty of the other staff members from that department, because they would not do what he wanted. Being regularly alone with a male is not allowed for a female at Headquarters usually, but Bill told me that there shouldn’t be any trouble because this guy was younger than I was. My boss and I were under such pressure to complete the tasks that the previous forty staff members had that we often worked through the night, not leaving our desks except for restroom breaks. After a number of months, our mutual respect grew to admiration, then adoration.
The guy told me that God had told him I was going to be his wife and asked whether I was willing. I said yes, and in the months that followed he and I prayed together and made future plans together. We planned when we would marry the next year, where we would live, and talked of having children. I wanted to go through the proper channels for a courtship and marriage, but my fiancé did not, saying that, due to our age difference, he needed to break the news to his parents in his own way and time. Since I was his subordinate, and thought I was going to be his future submissive wife, I complied obediently. We eventually started kissing; there was heavy petting and hugging. We came up with excuses for our behavior, knowing it was against the rules, but telling ourselves that we were engaged to be married.
Then I uncovered several serious and disturbing things about my fiancé. He had “borrowed” money from IBLP for his own personal company without permission, saying that he would repay it, but after several months still had not. He had hacked into others’ computers on IBLP property. He had withheld information from Bill Gothard, and given Bill misleading information regarding the department. He even told me of his desire to eventually take over the company and run it for himself.
Around the same time, I discovered the most devastating news of all from one of his family members: he had been courting another girl in another state for months with his parents’ permission, all while still telling me how much he loved me and meeting me secretly on dates. When I confronted him, he said our relationship was over, and that he would ruin my reputation if I told Bill. He threatened to make it look like I had done wrong things by planting false information on my computer. He even pressured me to sneak onto another coworker and friend’s computer to see if she was breaking the rules, and by doing so, I found out she was having a romantic relationship with another guy in our now-expanded department. Later, my boss used this action to turn this coworker and several other friends against me.
In grief and despair, I called Bill Gothard and told him everything. Bill immediately came down to Headquarters from the Northwoods and called me into his office. He let me cry on his shoulder at one point, and seemed to understand. However, when the guy’s family attacked me and falsely accused me of various things, Bill refused to listen to me further. I pleaded with him to believe me, but instead Bill told me I was not to speak to anyone. The family told a number of my friends and coworkers their son’s side of the story, showed up at my Headquarters apartment and forced me to give them my computer that contained incriminating evidence against their son, and called me on the phone attacking me, saying that I was ruining their family’s reputation. My father and I went in person to talk to Bill Gothard, and he just said a lot of things to calm us down, then sent us away.
The day I left Oak Brook, Bill made me stand up in front of all of the Headquarters staff, over 200 people at that time, and forced me to confess to things I had not done. No one at Headquarters would speak to me, and many shunned me for years afterwards. I tried talking to Bill again, in person and on the phone, before I left, and he acted as if he were sympathetic toward me but said the decision had been made and that I was no longer to talk about it. Bill told me that if only I had made a vow that I would never marry a man younger than I, this relationship never would have happened. Bill gave me some cash out of his desk drawer and paid for my airline ticket, since I had very little money, and sent me, at the age of 26, to the girls’ log cabin program in Oklahoma as an LIT to be “reprogrammed.”
I found myself in rural Oklahoma, isolated from the outside world, in unofficial custody from which I had no means to escape. All of my new dreams, hopes, and goals had been destroyed. Everyone I had trusted to protect me and love me had completely shattered my heart.
Nine months after I left the Headquarters, Bill came through Oklahoma and visited the girls’ log cabin program. He told me of some of the truth about my ex-fiancé that had been discovered by others, and he was now planning to send the family away quietly. Bill said he hoped that I had learned my lesson, gave me his handkerchief to dry my tears, and reiterated that I was to talk to no one about what had happened. There was no apology from him, and no attempt at restoring my good name after the untrue confessions he had pressured me to make. I believe he still felt justified in how he had treated me, since I had broken the rules by having a romantic relationship without my fiancé’s parents’ or my parents’ permission, even though we were adults.
Almost two years later I married a truly awesome guy who was also working for IBLP in a different state. Since IBLP was so short on funds, my husband had been asked to work full-time off-property and volunteer his hours working for IBLP. We served for nearly two more years after we married, working as full-time volunteers. I was often instructed by one of the directors to work in the kitchen, to clean rooms, and to answer the office phone, even when it was my husband’s only day off. We had precious little time together as a newlywed couple, and were exhausted from serving. When I asked whether the leadership could please put me on lighter duty, due to the fact that I had just had two miscarriages in one year, I was told that we didn’t need to focus on having children right now, that we instead needed to focus on the ministry.
Eventually my husband and I were asked by Bill, via that director, to either “give 110 percent” without pay or leave our Institute housing. We were then told not to say anything negative about IBLP or our circumstances to anyone and to quietly leave the property. We left. Years later we heard from another IBLP staff member that Bill had asked this director to get rid of a certain number of staff, because IBLP didn’t have the money to support them. The situation had been presented to my husband and I purely as a failing on our part.
I personally know many amazing and dear people who are currently in the ATI program or still working for IBLP. Their personal goals are to serve God and to help people in need. I have many pleasant memories of working with wonderful people in IBLP who spurred me on and inspired me in my walk with Christ. My own parents enrolled because they saw the evil in our world, and wanted so much to protect their children from that evil. It is obvious now that living in a bubble and making vows do not keep people from sin. I have completely forgiven Bill Gothard and the others who hurt me during my years with IBLP. My prayer is that others will read these accounts, and begin to search the Word of God for themselves, comparing it to the teachings of IBLP and Bill Gothard.
After spending years of my life under my parents’ extreme control, as well as the strict control at every IBLP facility where I worked, I still wake up a couple of nights each week with nightmares of being trapped, once again, under the tyranny of being subject to someone else’s every whim. My husband has been understanding and patient, fully supportive of me as I learn how to make decisions for myself, no matter how small or large. It is sad to think that I could have graduated from college, gotten a decent paying job, and saved money for my future family when I was younger. Instead all of my youth was spent working for others, and now instead of starting to reap the fruit of my labors, I’m still plowing my fields at nearly 40.
I have found a deep peace, freedom from man-made rules, and utter joy in living for Christ. Praise God that I am no longer bound by the fear that I have not done enough for Him. My life is not about me and what I do; it’s about a Savior who has already done all for me. I cannot do any more or any less to please Him. I wear Christ’s robes of righteousness. I stand before Him with an open heart, and I know that I am accepted, loved, cherished, and approved by God through Christ. I am free!
So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. —John 8:36
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