On Feeling Betrayed, Validated, and Brave

3 April 2014, 06:00

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Editor's Note: This article was written by a former Advanced Training Institute (ATI) student and Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP) Headquarters staff member shortly after Meg's story was published on Recovering Grace. Many former students, staff, families and volunteers identify with the author's feelings as they hear and read stories that they know are true, but don't want to believe.

ATI Counseling Seminar photographed in Omni Coliseum, Atlanta, GA

Atlanta ATI Counseling Seminar, photographed in Omni Coliseum

And since your history of silence
Won’t do you any good, 
Did you think it would?
Let your words be anything but empty
 
Why don’t you tell them the truth?
 
Say what you want to say
And let the words fall out
Honestly 
I want to see you be brave
 
Show me how big your brave is
 

—Sara Bareilles, “Brave”

Watching the Grammys was a last-minute decision. We’d kissed the kids goodnight but knew our congested sinuses wouldn’t let us sleep yet. So we turned on the TV and I’m so glad we did!

I had never heard of Sara Bareilles—no, I really don’t keep up with popular music—but I recognized Carole King right away. I sat absolutely enthralled with their amazing duet performance, only to be surpassed by their comments of mutual admiration afterward. Somehow the three minutes of interaction between those women affected me deeply. I have watched the segment again and again and replayed it in my head countless times.

Carole King’s words, her music, the emotions she shared with Sara and all of us in the audience, along with Sara’s passion and her song, felt like a gift with miraculous powers to repair some damage done to my heart long ago. I feel like a more complete person than I was before hearing them sing. The rest of the show was fun and amazing in its own way, but that one piece represented to me the magic of Art: sharing a gift with enriching powers of its own.

Perhaps “Brave” struck me the way it did because the last week has been so emotionally turbulent. Not in a bad way, but still…

Last week a shocking new series of revelations appeared on the Internet, exposing Bill Gothard, our cult leader of days long past, for the pathological fraud he was (and is). Reading the story as it dribbles out in serial form has been surreal. With each installment, I can picture my bedroom in Oak Brook, picture window facing Gothard’s office across the driveway.

I learned while working on Gothard’s staff that he was not what he appeared to be. Not what many of his followers took him for. Not who my parents thought he was. While we his brainwashed army of second-generation devotees mentally flogged ourselves for every potential breach of the cult protocol, Gothard did not adhere to his own “non-optional, universal life principles”.

My husband and I each slipped away from IBLP quietly. I was sent away by Gothard in the summer of ’99, Chris left on his own six months later. From that point, we set about freeing ourselves from the legalism and reprogramming our poisoned minds. We weren’t aware of the poison at first, though. We were still nostalgic about our years at the Institute. It was where our relationship began, after all. We’d go back to visit friends occasionally, or just drive around the grounds reliving the good memories. Over time the locations lost their pull on us. We had dreams—sometimes nightmares—about going back to work there.

Judging Gothard’s teaching by its “fruit,” we concluded that many of his ideas were downright toxic. It was hard to speak out, though. So many of our friends, family members, and even new acquaintances were Gothard supporters, or had been exposed to his seminars in their youth and didn’t see anything dangerous in them. We just sounded “bitter,” the strongest pejorative in Gothardom.

When we felt safe we could sometimes talk about how “inconsistent” Gothard was in practice. Even this made some uncomfortable. People feel defensive when you question the authenticity of someone they trust, or trusted once upon a time. The more distance we put between ourselves and the past, the more clearly we could see that Gothard was just another manipulative cult leader. Sadly for us, he was a slick fellow who convinced our parents he had the answers.

I started a blog partly as a safe place to question the Gothard narrative and to recount my experiences and the “bad fruit” it produced. I tried to maintain an even, journalistic tone, even as I personally came to regard William Gothard as a sham and a predator hiding under a guise of exceptional holiness.

Reading the firsthand account of Gothard’s former secretary over the last week, and watching others come out to corroborate her story, has been tremendously validating to me. While her tale might not seem all that offensive on the surface, it is damning when read in light of Gothard’s own teaching and strict standards for others. He made generous allowances for himself, while tolerating nothing less than perfection and submission from his subordinates. He patently violated his own rules, which he marketed as the very wisdom of God. Nothing I have ever said about my former employer was as harsh as he deserves.

As satisfying as it feels to be validated and to watch Gothard’s house of cards collapse, it is exquisitely painful at the same time. I rejoice to see his empire fall, much as a former prisoner would applaud the demolition of the walls of his captivity. And yet, that empire was built of my blood, sweat, and tears. Thousands of us can point to pieces of our selves that we sacrificed to advance that sick man’s vision. We lost much of irreplaceable value.

And that is why tears rolled down my face this week as I stood in my kitchen spreading cheese on lasagna noodles, listening to “Brave” and the rest of Sara Bareilles’ album The Blessed Unrest. They were tears to memorialize the things I was encouraged to “yield” in favor of Gothard’s ideal, for God’s sake. These things died before drawing breath, miscarriages I never knew in an adolescence I never had: my first date, holding hands, a boyfriend, my first curious kiss in a quiet corner, even talking to male peers without feeling queasy, pulling on an old pair of jeans, experimenting with makeup, realizing I was a free adult in the eyes of the law, choosing a college major, getting a degree, a high school graduation for that matter, a prom dress, high school pictures, a wedding dance with my dad, my favorite artists in concert, feeling sexy as I became a woman, feeling the sun on my legs, getting tan lines before stretch marks, years when I could have been earning money or college credits…

   And the pain of steeling myself to believe in “God’s will”! Against my emotions. Against what my body was sensing. Of giving myself fortifying speeches in the corner every time I felt my heart would come out of my chest, reminding myself that my heart was deceitful and wicked and not to be trusted. The times I cried myself to sleep, or pounded out my frustration on the piano in the dining room because the rest of Christendom wouldn’t see “the truth.”

My friends and I made these sacrifices and others to serve our God by working for his “servant” Bill Gothard. Now, I want Gothard’s empire to collapse, for the good of humanity. I am more than willing to help bring it down. At the same time, I recognize that each brick I tear out represents a child’s education, a man’s career, an abused child, a couple’s budding relationship—all burned on the IBLP altar in the belief that God would be pleased.

But Bill was a fraud and his empire was built on lies. And we are all breaking the silence. So after I cried over my lasagna, I danced in my kitchen. Because bravery is a beautiful thing.

Jeri Lofland’s parents enrolled in ATIA in 1987. Jeri worked, studied, and taught at numerous IBLP venues before being fired from Gothard’s Headquarters at 11 p.m. on a midsummer’s night in 1999, after which she began to slowly reexamine everything. Jeri lives, and blogs, in the Midwest with her husband of twelve years and their three children, whom she is teaching to challenge inequality and to question everything.
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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