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Set Free from Silence
We realize that healing and recovery looks different for everyone. If you are struggling with the aftermath of any sort of abuse, we encourage you to seek out qualified professional counseling to help you process and heal.
I’ve been seeing a lot of news lately about the Duggars. Comments on the stories run along the lines of, “I bet the victims didn’t receive counseling! I bet they were just told to wear longer skirts. The culture of ATI [Advanced Training Institute] created an atmosphere of abuse.”
I’ve decided to jump on the bandwagon. I am not a Duggar victim — no, that would be too glamorous — but I am a victim of my brother’s sexual abuse. I also grew up under ATI teachings. Most importantly, I am a victor–a strong, courageous woman who has experienced complete healing and grace.
I was five or six years old when I told my parents. I had no idea about sex; most six-year-olds don’t. At bedtime one random night, I overheard my dad answering a question about sex to my younger brother. My dad’s reply was on a 5-year-old level: “Sex is such and such, and it’s only between a mommy and daddy.”
I was listening in the doorway and burst out crying. He looked at me while I cried, “I’ve had sex, Daddy!”
I can’t imagine the pain that my dad felt at that moment. His little girl—his only little girl out of a clan of boys, bursting into tears about something so dark.
My brother was already gone, away at a training center. I’d had time without him. I missed him at first. Then I started putting away a particular pair of pajamas, the ones that unbuttoned easily. They were pink with little flowers on them, and I found I didn’t want to wear them anymore. My brother had liked those pajamas.
I knew when my brother came into the room at night, fondled and caressed me, that something was wrong, but I was so tired. Maybe it was how he rushed to button up those same pajamas if he heard someone. Maybe it was how he thought to buy my silence by giving me gifts. At five, it was hard to say what really was happening. After I heard my dad’s explanation of sex, it was like a light dawned. I knew for sure it was wrong. It had gone on for at least a year.
My parents didn’t go the authorities. If you think about it, it makes sense. My brother was 14 years old, just like Josh Duggar. Just a young boy. My parents were afraid. They were not 100% sure that we would be safe if we were reported. They thought it was possible that not only my brother would be put in some sort of jail, but that all of us would be taken and put into foster homes. We were a big homeschooled family, flying under the radar. What would happen if they knew a big homeschooled family had experienced sibling sexual abuse?
My parents did immediately go to the church. It wasn’t an ATI church, or even a very conservative one. The pastor held a meeting where my brother apologized to me and held a couple counseling sessions with him (not me). Then he let it go. He, like my parents, had no idea how to handle it.
I was left alone. My mom tried to talk with me in the beginning, but she didn’t know what to say. She told me about a sexual experience she had as a teenager, and how she was afraid she would become pregnant. I had no idea how to process what she said. I was seven years old. Pregnancy? What was that? The only thing I took from her attempt to reach me was that mom cried. Obviously, this was a bad subject. Don’t talk to mom.
My brother left the house by 18. There was a lot of friction between him and my parents. I still cried as a 9 year old, when he left. There was still a bond despite the past sexual abuse.
Then came the years of silence. My family closed up. No one talked about anything worthwhile—if we did, maybe that dark shadow would come up. I was terrified that if I spoke, I would destroy those around me, and that the darkness I carried would break up my family. I was filled with continual anger, but it was the only emotion I felt. Animals were the only comfort I found. They were possibly the only thing I had any true emotions toward. I was mostly numb.
When I was twelve, I attended my first Basic Life Seminar. Or maybe it was the Advanced Seminar—I don’t really know. But I remember the part about sexual abuse. It stuck out to me vividly that in a story about rape, the woman didn’t cry out, speak out, or ask for help. So it was her fault too.
It was my fault. I didn’t tell anyone for a whole year at least. It wouldn’t have happened if I had spoken up. At twelve years old, it was hard to remember that I was only five or six when it happened.
When I was thirteen, I read in my Bible, “He heals the broken-hearted, and binds up their wounds.” Psalm 147:3. The first crack in my stonewall façade began. I thought to myself, with tears streaming down my face, “I wonder if God will heal me? It says that He can…maybe He will.” The verse stuck out to me so strongly, I was afraid someone would read into it and know my pain. I wrote it on a little piece of paper, and stuck it in a folder called the “dark dragon,” that I kept in my closet under some clothes. It was the only record of my pain. However, my view of God was changed forever. He visited me in that room, the same room where the abuse happened, and He visited me with love.
I wanted to find this compassionate God. I started with ATI materials. I looked up the part about sexual abuse. I did it secretly, because I was ashamed.
The book explained that the body, soul, and spirit were different parts. It was only my body which had been abused; I should be glad that Satan didn’t abuse the spirit. I read it and thought, “They don’t know anything about sexual abuse. I feel like this goes straight into my soul, and it hurts every single part of me.” I closed the book thinking they were pretty stupid, whoever wrote that book. It didn’t help at all.
Instead, I started studying the Bible because of that wonderful verse. And as I started studying the Bible, I started seeing how many of the teachings in ATI were taken out of context. A point would be followed by many Scriptures, but none truly supported it. I started realizing that it was all pretty silly.
That mindset helped protect me, I think, from a lot of the further trauma I could have experienced from accepting a lot of the teachings. However, I still thought I could have stopped the abuse by saying something. I felt guilty for my “responsibility” in the abuse, and I felt guilty that my brother had such a broken life.
In the ATI culture, I knew that no boy would ever want me as a wife. I was damaged goods, not pure, and had too much “baggage.” When a woman prayed over us girls at church to “remain pure,” I didn’t want to be in that prayer circle. I wasn’t pure. If she knew my past, she wouldn’t want me there.
At fourteen, I attended a political camp where a woman, a Democrat in the House of Representatives, spoke about childhood sexual abuse, but also how she went on to be a successful career woman, a wife, and a mother. It struck me for multiple reasons. Firstly, I didn’t know you could be a Christian and a democrat. Secondly, that she was a wife and mother. The testimony of that Representative was my first ray of hope that I could lead a normal life. I was hurting still, but I hoped for more of God’s healing in my life.
Years passed, and I still remained silent and alone, despite the visit from God when I was twelve. Then it was my turn to go to a training center… and can you believe it? I was super healed while there.
A woman spoke to us girls about her past sexual abuse. I asked to speak to her privately. It was actually really easy to arrange; I’d been talking to a boy, and the authorities thought I needed to repent (I think God has a sense of humor—that whole situation was actually pretty funny).
As much as that woman was in ATI, she operated in the gifts of the spirit—specifically the gift of knowledge, and used it to lead me in prayer. It wasn’t from a book, or from the ATI teachings about sexual abuse. It was from her heart, and God moving in her.
When I arrived back at the training center from my meeting, a woman in authority asked, “How did that chat with so and so go?”
“Really great, I feel wonderful.”
“I knew you needed to talk with someone about ‘boy.’ It’s good that it’s been settled.”
I just smiled. Little did she know that we didn’t bring ‘boy’ up once. He really wasn’t the point.
God lifted much of the heavy guilt that was on me, and set me free from the terrible weight of silence. I felt like I could fly.
When I came home from the training center I went to college. It was my dad’s idea, and it was only a community college, but hey—college nonetheless. I lost friends over this decision, because ATI warned against the evil effects of college, especially on young women.
College was actually a great time, funny how it was so evil. During my college years, I researched a lot about sexual abuse, and found some surprising things. An estimated 1 in 4 girls are sexually abused. 1 in 6 guys. There are a lot of hurting people out there, and I was definitely not alone. The emotional and physical toll of my research horrible–I suffered from headaches and vomiting as I confronted my past.
But it was my mission at the same time—to find more healing. He said He heals the brokenhearted, and I was doing everything I could to find that healing.
While in college, I came to the point that I wanted to tell my brother that I forgave him. I didn’t talk with anyone about the plan–no one compelled me. It took me months to gather courage. I couldn’t let myself see his face him in case he denied it, so I kind of yelled it at him from down the hall of a house: “I forgive you for what you did to me.”
After about ten minutes, he called back quietly: “I’m sorry I did it. It was evil.”
Then I met my husband. I loved him with all my heart, but I was nervous about marriage. I wasn’t sure I could be a great wife, or have a healthy sexual relationship.
I told him about my history. One day he said, “I want you to know that I prayed about something…”
“God asked me, ‘Would you marry her if you knew you would never have sex?” I told the Lord, ‘Yes,’ because you’re worth it.”
All the walls started tumbling down. Here was a man giving himself without expecting anything in return. There wasn’t any kind of emotional protection I could throw out to a comment like that. The healing that God began when I was twelve finished after our marriage.
I used to think that God would heal, but would leave a scar, like a remembrance of an injury. You would heal, but you would always carry something that may give you a little pain, or a slight sickness to the gut. I didn’t know that God would heal all the way, or so completely. There isn’t any scar, and there isn’t any pain. He does what he says he does. He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. I went on to have a wonderful marriage, and work in a career I love.
So in the midst of all the news about the famous homeschool family, I want to make a few points:
- My family didn’t tell the authorities because they were afraid we would be torn apart.
- My brother was not provided help because my parents had no idea what to do. Think of the 14-year-olds you know. They are just young boys. It’s hard to think any 14-year-old would do such a thing.
- I wasn’t given help, because I took the cue from my family and kept it all inside. My parents looked at me and thought, “She was so little—she’s probably okay.”
- My parents were torn apart emotionally themselves—here was a situation with a young son, whom they loved, and their little girl. The emotional pain must have been excruciating.
- ATI didn’t cause the abuse. My brother caused the abuse. I don’t think it’s necessarily caused by the teachings. Teenage boys are a huge perpetrator of sexual abuse. A quick online search led me to the victimsofcrime website. Approximately one-third of abusers are teenagers. 60% of child abuse happens in the victim’s own home, or the abusers own home. Only 14% of cases were with a stranger.
- One of my friends at a training center said to me once, “There are so many girls who have been abused in ATI…” Why does it seem like an epidemic in ATI circles? You have a large family, with big age gaps between older siblings to younger siblings, and adolescent boys who are home most of their day, and have a lot of contact with their siblings. Why doesn’t it happen in other families? Well, it does; but also, there’s usually not such large age gaps.
- Would it have helped if I had proper counseling? Probably. The ATI culture was steeped in rules, religion, and shame. I carried the shame of being used, and I carried the guilt of thinking I could have stopped it. I carried the shame of feeling unwanted, of worthlessness because I felt I would never marry, never have children, never soar in this world.
It was all so wrong, but the light that has shined on me since has been bright and beautiful. I have a good marriage, with a wonderful man who loves me fully. I love him without reservation or hurt. I don’t have children yet—but I will. I work in a career I love. It’s not the life laid out for me by ATI, but it’s so much better. I have found God to be much more gracious, more loving, more amazing, and freer than I could ever imagine.
I have talked to a lot of girls (and guys) about sexual abuse since my healing. It’s amazing to be able to tell them that Jesus heals. It’s also an honor to be one of the first people they tell, although that also breaks my heart.
Silence is the code of sexual abuse, even when you’re not in ATI. For years, I was held captive by my silence. I felt alone, and afraid. Unforgiveness is the prison bars. I didn’t realize at the time that forgiving my brother would help me, but it did.
Healing is a process, and it takes a lot of steps for it to happen. It takes a lot of courage to face emotion and pain. However, I have also learned that Jesus takes each step with you, and holds your hand along the way.