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My story is about a leader maintaining a double life for decades and then demanding to pay for his deeds with words and tears. He is outwardly sorrowful that his words and favor are no longer valid currency.
My parents were regional and state leaders in the homeschooling movement for years before we joined the Advanced Training Institute (ATI), and my father served many rotations as a church deacon and elder. In homeschooling and church circles he was well liked and respected, a warm and jovial presence who put others at ease and smoothed complex situations with his down-to-earth diplomacy. He was a successful corporate professional, a savvy dresser, a caring father, a great deal-maker, and a serial adulterer for at least twenty-five years.
He first cheated on my mother in the late 1960s, within two years of their marriage, and would continue an intermittent series of short and long term sexual relationships with strangers and colleagues throughout the ’70s. His extensive work travel made it easy to initiate and conceal relationships out of town, but just before my birth in the late ’70s one of his local affairs was discovered. He had hidden his extramarital relationships carefully, but my mother had found occasional evidence that my father always successfully explained away. When undeniable evidence of his local affair surfaced, my mother followed the teachings of the day by standing with her husband in a show of submission and solidarity, loving him and believing in his repentance, walking hand in hand with him through his workplace where many knew of his affair with a coworker. My sister was younger than ten, and she remembers not understanding when a woman called the house and soon hung up, and the hushed tones and tears that followed. I was born in the immediate wake of my father’s repentance. Growing up, I was told that around the time of my birth my father, a Sunday School teacher, had a dramatic conversion experience and announced his newfound salvation to his startled adult Sunday School class at the Methodist church.
My parents soon hosted a home church of a more conservative denomination, a church that grew into a larger congregation and changed to a different denomination. By 1983 they were homeschooling, though we wouldn’t join ATI until the early ’90s. Before and during ATI my parents were leaders in an active homeschooling community that was more Evangelical than fundamentalist, and placed a high value on education. Even after we joined ATI, my mother supplemented our curriculum extensively, providing me with a very good education by ignoring the ATI advice of the time that Wisdom Booklets should be our core curriculum, not just a supplement. I began traveling to ATI conferences, courses, and volunteer opportunities, and the cracks in my parents’ marriage began to widen in ways that were visible to me but hidden from the outside world.
I was spared most of the isolationism and strictness that characterized many ATI households because much of the ATI mindset ran counter to my parents’ sensibilities, yet circumstances left me mostly in the company of parents whose marital strains I did not understand, and whom I consequently tried to “fix” using the formulas I’d learned through ATI. They in turn seemed to attempt unity through trying to “fix” their teenage daughter. The only child left at home, I felt caught in a constant round robin pairing off my mother and me against my father’s alleged shallow carnal values, my dad and me against my mother’s alleged puritanical craziness, and my mother and father against my alleged rebellion. It felt like sometimes I was the golden child, sometimes I was the nearly hopeless reprobate, and sometimes we were all just folks, without the extremes. I loved going to ATI training centers to meet new people and to get out of the pressure cooker. The training centers were a different kind of pressure cooker, but one where I could be a new person. It would be nearly twenty years before I realized that the things I was taught in the ATI youth programs were not the same things my parents were taught. In training centers, Bill Gothard pushed harder and harder to “take the young people farther” than he could our parents, urging ever greater and more extreme “commitments to God” that were actually commitments to Gothard’s personal house brand teachings.
In the late ’90s I caught Bill Gothard’s eye at an ATI training center, and he recruited me to travel with him and work at IBLP Headquarters. Gothard had several conversations with my father, both on the phone and in person, as he pressured my parents to release me to serve at Headquarters. My dad conversed with another ATI father who had served at training centers and seemed to suspect something was amiss with Gothard’s behavior toward favored young female students, but the other man seems to have not yet understood that the behavior was grooming and predatory. It was still more than a year before I would learn not only of my father’s history of serial infidelity before my birth, but also that his affairs had continued on and off well into the ’90s. It was nearly fifteen years before the other ATI man would learn the extent of Gothard’s misconduct with ATI students.
Among the women I know and know of who were singled out by Gothard as teens, each has at least one narcissistic parent, or a sexually abusive family member, or both. Gothard probably easily identified my father as a narcissist. I now wonder whether Gothard, with his lifetime of counseling experience, picked up on signals that my father was also promiscuous and a habitual liar, and mistakenly thought I was sexually abused at home. Whatever the communication exchange, my father was persuaded. My father was a sophisticated businessman, usually an accurate judge of character, and an accomplished philanderer; he seems to have had every life tool to identify a predatory figure like Gothard, and yet he either didn’t see the situation for what it was, or saw it and thought it still a viable route for his daughter to get a desirable position. I went.
The summer after I returned from Headquarters, the dam broke on the family history. At first I could not believe it. It wasn’t that I refused so much as I could not process it as possible. The stories and news were so foreign to me. We had been a banner homeschool family, sensible, educated, devout, socialized, cultured, healthy Evangelicals, and yet here my father was at the center of lie detector tests, doctors persuaded to lie about venereal disease, experienced licensed marriage counselors snowed by lies for years, so many encounters and affairs that even he didn’t know the number (his estimates started very high and kept getting lower), and at least two abortions. Over the previous years, every time my mother had suspected that my father was lying again, my father had convinced me and others that she was paranoid, delusional, and held unattainably high standards for him. It was finally revealed that his double life sprawled far beyond her darkest suspicions.
So when you say that you cannot believe that Bill Gothard, wise and beloved teacher, is guilty of fifty years of extreme authoritarian spiritual abuse, at least forty years of sexual harassment, at least one case of criminal sexual abuse, and a lifetime of deceit, I understand.
The handsome, charismatic young man’s career takes off in the ’70s, but he lives it up a little too much, and his personal life nearly implodes at the end of the decade due to his own lies, threatening his livelihood as well. He does a little shamefaced apologizing to his lower subordinates, begins and aborts a private repentance program of cosmetic changes with his higher subordinates, spins the scandal to some of his colleagues as an overblown misunderstanding, winks at other colleagues about how quickly these delicate situations can get out of hand, and does all in his power to suppress exposure of his actions to any wider public. The dramatic revelations and events of the late ’70s are sealed in the vault for the next generation to know of only in distorted whispers of memory, and by the mid ’80s he has remade his reputation as a homeschooling leader, a Christian leader, and an all around top-tier salesman of his products and of himself. His young people are models of home education success. His finances are healthy. His name is respected. His counsel is sought. He is a crackerjack master of ceremonies. He’s the only one to turn to when your castles turn to sand. He is an excellent liar with airtight cover stories. But he is lying to a lot of different people, and every now and then, he slips up. His explanations are always reasonable, though, and if he has caused any misunderstanding or offense, he is terribly, terribly sorry. Just don’t cross him. If you question him, you will see a flash of the true man beneath the smile, a man you would be punished for ever referencing later. His memory will mysteriously drop actions and entire conversations while recalling each of your weaknesses and shortcomings with perfect clarity, and you must be confused if you remember things that he does not. Please, can you not see the strain that he’s under, and that he is trying so hard to help? Can you not see that he has given his life for you, and asks only for your love in return?
For a decade following the second wave of revelations of my father’s secret life, my father played repentance games. He would hold tearful conversations with one party to convince them to speak on his behalf to another. He would go to church and counseling and workshops and support groups, have an emotional breakthrough, then let it drift over the following months. He would move out of the house temporarily when asked, then build an appeal showing how allowing him to return home was the only reasonable course of action. He had spiritual breakthroughs that evaporated in weeks or days or hours. He would say and do whatever was necessary to return to the family status quo, then let breakthroughs and promises slip away, then once again do whatever was necessary to return to status quo, over and over, alternating rage and contrition.
My father is a very complex man, yet so much with him comes down to sexual attention, adoration, and money. He uses money for security and to control others. He uses flirtation and illicit relationships to emotionally feed himself. He needs public adoration to calm his fears of being inadequate and insignificant. It all seems so obvious now. Yet to those outside the inner circle, he is a heartfelt tragic man who lost his family for a few human mistakes. He has told friends that he was unfaithful many years ago, and that my mother just cannot let go of it or forgive him. He tears up as he speaks of it. He refuses to hear that it is not the decades of infidelity but the decades of constant deceit that have brought him to this point. He vocally mourns his semi-estrangement from his adult children, who have supposedly been poisoned against him by their heartless mother. He makes a great show of having forgiven her for this, even as he invents stories of her having tried to take money or influence from him. He declined to cooperate in the finalization of the eventual divorce, declaring that “Christians don’t divorce,” without commenting on how being a Christian didn’t seem to get in the way of his dating life during the forty-five years he was married. He declares, alternating between disgust and despair, that he has “paid and paid and paid” for his mistakes, and refuses to understand why the right combination of remorseful words will not bring back the family life that he asserts was always most important to him.
Bill Gothard has done the same, is doing the same, and by all visible indicators will continue to do the same. My father and Bill Gothard are not the same person, and their stories are not interchangeable, but their crisis management strategy is identical. He will confess to whatever is necessary in order to return to the status quo, pay whatever words he needs to pay, bow his forehead to the earth, apologize for whatever he claims to have forgotten doing that you so sadly misunderstood all those years ago, shed enough crocodile tears to deaden the lawn with salt, and when all around are moved to their own tears of compassion for him, he’ll look up and ask, So, am I back in yet?
I have seen this before. I recognize this dance that is a concealed attempt at transaction. He wants to use words, promises, token gestures, guilt, gifts, and even money to buy back… what? There’s no need to buy one’s own repentance. It’s not possible to buy back the damage already done to others. The demanded forgiveness is or would be freely given, not bought or extorted. So what does he want to buy? He wants to buy his old life back, with full honors and authority intact. This requires quieting the voices of those whom he has harmed, whether by discrediting them or by purchasing their forgetfulness. He’ll spend any words or promises he needs to in order to buy his former reputation and your current silence.
Bill Gothard, please prove me wrong. Show us that your repentance is unfeigned. Show us by publicly owning your power abuses and your deceptions, by acknowledging that the stories are true, by speaking of your specific abusive actions instead of vague generalizations of character failings, by acknowledging that you have used almost every person you have encountered in the past fifty years to satisfy your emotional needs or to build your own empire, and then declare yourself done with empires. Walk away from what remains of the empire forever. Then stay done. Do not attempt to resume a position of authority and honor. Do not teach and preach. Do not disciple. Do not publish. Do not build a new mailing list. Do not start new programs. Do not start a new organization overseas. Do not attempt to re-frame the situation as a referendum on whether people believe God can forgive you, or whether those you have harmed have forgiven you with suitable speed and gratefulness. Do not work the phones for support behind the scenes. Do not appeal to the IBLP board for reinstatement every six months. Do not call in your favors or cash in your secrets about others. Live the life of one who has changed.
If you are serious about repenting, if you are serious about following the steps of apology and making things right that you have so carefully prescribed for others, then you have the rest of your life’s work cut out for you. Ahead of you stretch years of listening to the stories of what you have wrought, of weeping with genuine brokenness and compassion without painting yourself as the victim, and of humbly seeking forgiveness with no demand or expectation of it, nor expectation of release from responsibility. It is a hard road, and one that does not end with you back in organizational wealth, power, or adoration, but it is the only road left that you can walk in integrity. It is too late for payments and transactions, but it is not too late to redeem the rest of the story.