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My parents tell me the only reason we weren’t a pilot family in the Advanced Training Institute (ATI) is the fact that I, their first-born, was only three months old when they applied that first year. Like many others who have shared their stories, my parents are wonderful people who sincerely love Jesus and wanted to raise their children to love Jesus, too. But when they bought into IBLP and ATI, they were sold a bill of goods.
Over the past four years, I have begun to recognize and discard many of the damaging things I learned while still in the system. I’ve also begun to recognize just how much mind control took place under the guise of “ministry standards.” I’m learning about grace and Christian liberty—and catching up here and there on cultural references that used to fly right over my head.
I always loved to read, but while I was growing up my Dad called fiction “chewing gum for the mind,” which meant we read the bare minimum of qualified classics to graduate high school. I immersed myself in the non-fiction world of Christian biographies and American History, and only occasionally snuck some contraband fiction in the form of a (church) library book or two. As a woman, I was fortunate to have parents who believed in equal educational opportunity, so I attended college where I majored in nursing. I continued living at home once I got a job after graduation, and until the age of 27 I was single-minded in my determination to go overseas as a missionary. When I finally realized the person planning to go wasn’t really me—I was pretending in order to earn God’s blessing—I had the awesome opportunity to start fresh.
I did so with gusto.
My deep foray into the world of fiction began with J.R.R. Tolkien about two years ago, and from there I progressed through a wide variety of genres and styles. I have fallen in love with Madeleine L’Engle, Dorothy Sayers, G.K. Chesterton, L.M. Montgomery, and George MacDonald, while rediscovering the joys of C.S. Lewis, L.M. Alcott, Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, and the like. Last summer, my church had a wonderful adult Sunday School class entitled “Reading Literature as Christians,” and thus I added John Milton and John Donne to my ever-growing Must Read list. I now routinely read multiple books per month, alternating between fiction and non-fiction, old and new, Christian and non-Christian. To say I have expanded my horizons would be a gross understatement.
This past fall I had the opportunity to visit friends who are ministering in Eastern Europe, and they suggested reading George Orwell’s 1984 to better understand the society where they currently live and work. I had picked up a copy in a used bookstore over the summer, but had not yet had the inclination to delve into dystopian fiction. Upon my return to the States, I jumped in.
Ten pages into the book, my skin was crawling.
The protagonist, Winston Smith, has taken a lunch break away from work and is sitting in his apartment, worrying about the Thought Police and what the “Big Brother is Watching You” slogan means, when George Orwell slips in a little detail about the telescreen: that marvelous device every Party Member has in his or her home that allows for continuous broadcasting of “information” and monitoring by the Thought Police. The device “could be dimmed, but there was no way of turning it off completely” (p. 6*). On page 10, the telescreen broadcasts “strident military music.” On page 29, I learned that the telescreen served as a universal alarm clock for employees of Big Brother’s various Ministries.
In a flash, I was transported back to my upper bunk on the twelfth floor of the Indianapolis Training Center. Though I only spent four weeks at the TC (a week in 1998 for the Counseling Seminar and three weeks in 1999 for Sound Foundations), I will never forget the way each morning began: a Sousa march played and the Proverb of the day read aloud over the speaker system at 5:30 a.m. The sound could be turned down, but it could not be turned off. The similarities were unnerving.
In Big Brother’s utopia, utter control by the powers-that-be is clearly an overarching theme. The only hint that perhaps the control is not as tight as Big Brother would wish is a curious description of Winston’s rare and brief interactions with a character called O’Brien. Early in the book, Winston and O’Brien have never exchanged words, yet Winston feels that O’Brien shares his unorthodox political leanings. In the moment when they first make eye contact, “…there was a fraction of a second where their eyes met, and for as long as it took to happen, Winston knew—yes, he knew!—that O’Brien was thinking the same thing as himself” (p. 16).
Looking back, I wonder how I missed that this concept threatens the leadership of closed systems. I remember Mr. Gothard talking about this phenomenon on multiple occasions. It was something to be avoided at all costs—the recognition fellow rebels have for each other based on eye contact alone! Those in rebellion, Mr. Gothard claimed, could and would seek each other out simply by seeing each other. If you happened to be in the vicinity of such a rebel-gathering, the judgmental glances would fall on you as well. And since we were taught that external appearance was a clear indicator of the condition of one’s heart, I learned quickly to judge whether or not I could safely make eye contact with someone based on how they looked, dressed, or acted. At ATI gatherings, I was extremely guarded. How could I, in good conscience, make any friendship with anyone who dared to wear a skirt with flowers on it? How could I associate with another girl who was wearing sneakers—or worse, open-toed sandals?! How could I talk to someone who talked to boys and not be implicated right alongside her for being a flirt or a rebel—or more unthinkably, talk to a boy myself? It was impossible, so I kept my ministry smile on and hardly opened my mouth except to utter approved Institute phrases.
“He had set his features in the expression of quiet optimism which it was advisable to wear…” George Orwell writes of Winston (p. 8). “In any case, to wear an improper expression on your face… was itself a punishable offense” (p. 54). While in ATI, I learned the importance of having an impenetrable “ministry mask”—a constant “energy-giver” smile. Of course I didn’t see it as a mask while wearing it. I just knew that without the proper facial expressions and expected verbal interaction, I would get in trouble and thus be ineligible for God’s blessings. That was a serious, scary threat to my first-born, conformist, desperate-for-acceptance tendencies.
Perhaps the most damaging parallel aspect within 1984 and ATI, however, was doublethink: a 1984 Party construct of “Newspeak” (the idealized, neutral, minimalist language that was the official form of communication within Ingsoc) that roughly communicates the concept of containing two opposite, mutually exclusive views in the same thought or word. Within ATI, this concept could very easily be illustrated by a superficial look at grace.
While the standard definition of grace in ATI/IBLP is “the desire and power to do God’s will,” Mr. Gothard would also claim that grace is a free gift and not something we could earn. I never heard the definition of grace as “unmerited favor” until I was 21. That’s when the serious cognitive dissonance set in. God gave grace freely, I learned. Grace was supposed to be what enabled me to find and do God’s will—meaning to obey, submit, and love. Yet often I did not feel obedient, submissive, or loving. If God gave grace freely, why did I struggle to exercise it? ATI taught that any failure to obey, submit, or love was my fault, because I did not have the right desire to do God’s will. In fact, anything that went wrong in my life was probably my fault. But where, then, was God’s free grace?
Above all, the powers of 1984 and ATI sought to keep three distinct groups of people separate: in 1984, the groups are referred to as High, Medium, and Low, represented by Big Brother’s Inner Party, the Outer Party, and the proles (or general public), respectively. ATI had Mr. Gothard, parents, and students. In both dystopias, the aims of these three groups are entirely irreconcilable. The aim of the High is to remain where they are. The aim of the Middle is to change places with the High. The aim of the Low, when they have an aim—for it is an abiding characteristic of the Low that they are too much crushed by drudgery to be more than intermittently conscious of anything outside their daily lives—is to abolish all distinctions and create a society in which all men shall be equal. (p. 166)
So rather than leave it to chance, Big Brother and Mr. Gothard instituted rigid guidelines that made any change of position impossible. Parents were constantly in competition with one another, and students were far too tired to think beyond when they might next be permitted to rest.
But it was all for a purpose—or so we thought. Demands to live up to Mr. Gothard’s standards were “softened by promises of compensation in an imaginary world beyond the grave” (p. 167), should we be able to keep them. In other words, God’s eternal blessing was tied to our performance of a set of man-made rules. Scripture itself was misused repeatedly to keep us from questioning either our authorities or the outside world. “Indeed, so long as they are not permitted to have standards of comparison they never even become aware that they are oppressed” (p. 171).
I could go on. I could talk about how every minute was scheduled at any ATI event. I could draw parallels between the concept of courtship and the Oceania Ingsoc Party line on marriage (even the slightest sign of affection between a man and a woman before their relationship was approved by an outside committee would mean they would never be permitted to see each other again—and I’m talking about the book, not ATI). I could point out that in order to live within the system, you really had to be dead inside—and if you insisted on being alive, you knew it was at the cost of an earlier death. I could dig into the pain of forced confessions—whether the acts were committed or not, and knowing that there was no escape from shame and other consequences, no matter how extensive (or truthful) the confession.
But just one more observation—and this one straight from the book, which was published in 1949:
Unlike Winston, [Julia] had grasped the inner meaning of the Party’s sexual Puritanism. It was not merely that the sex instinct created a world of its own which was outside the Party’s control and which therefore had to be destroyed if possible. What was more important was that sexual privation induced hysteria, which was desirable because it could be transformed into war fever and leader worship. The way she put it was: “When you make love you’re using up energy; and afterwards you feel happy and don’t give a d*** for anything. They can’t bear you to feel like that. They want you to be bursting with energy all the time. All this marching up and down and cheering and waving flags is simply sex gone sour. If you’re happy inside yourself, why should you get excited about Big Brother…?” (pp. 110–111)
The banishment of every sexual thought, of every hope of marriage, of any chance of normal male/female interaction was clearly the goal within ATI. Singleness was a sign of complete commitment to God—and the Institute. Mr. Gothard was revered for his choice of holy singleness.
1984 is a depressing study on what goes wrong when power and control are summarily handed over to one person, without thought or question. The last third of the book chronicles the vicious process of Winton’s “re-programming,” ironically at the hands of O’Brien. Big Brother wins; Winston’s life becomes nothing more than an animatronic shell dedicated to the adoration of the force that destroyed him.
ATI had its own facilities for reprogramming wayward students; we referred to them as “Training Centers,” and one considered it an honor to be invited to serve in any capacity. The stories of Training Center abuses perpetrated in the name of Christ which have surfaced on Recovering Grace are nothing short of sickening.
How have so many of us, then, avoided an utterly shipwrecked faith? The setup was perfect for the absolute disintegration of our lives. Many souls were shattered; proof of that is emerging daily. Label us bitter if you will, but my response as a voice within Recovering Grace is common: I only want to spare others the years of spiritual paralysis I experienced as I unraveled the false teachings of Mr. Gothard, IBLP, and ATI. For me, meeting the real Jesus has been a matter of eucatastrophe. The word, an excellent one coined by J.R.R. Tolkien and defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as a sudden and favorable resolution of events in a story, encompasses the idea of “grace that cannot be counted on to recur.” My story has not ended like 1984 because I have encountered real grace, and it has changed my life.
I no longer think that ATI was founded in the year 1984 by a mere coincidence. I no longer think the application of the “Basic Principles” is original to Mr. Gothard. I can no longer pretend ignorance to the ultimate aims of the Institute—not when there is so much evidence that power and control were the driving forces behind the seminars, the programs, the “ministries.”
I wasn’t just born in 1984: I lived it for decades.
WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH
*Page numbers refer to the ©1984 Commemorative Edition with Preface by Walter Cronkite and Afterword by Erich Fromm.