Set Free by Grace

26 April 2013, 06:00



922636_97439258It was around 6 a.m. on a Sunday morning in June 2011. I was home for the weekend from the eating disorder hospital where I was in treatment. Asleep in bed, I woke up when my phone beeped for a text message. The name on the screen put fear in my heart. Terrified, I opened the message. Five simple words: “Turn your eyes upon Jesus.” But now I was in a horrible panic.

You would think this title of my favorite hymn would encourage me, but coming from my abuser it had multiple layers of dark, twisted meaning. He was my Christian therapist, but he had used me sexually for three years. During my “therapy” he would impersonate Jesus, talking to me as if Jesus was speaking directly to me through him. If I was particularly struggling, these words would be used to get me to focus on what he was saying, to get me to comply.

On another level this text was his attempt to save his skin. I had recently reported the continuous rape to the Board of Directors of his non-profit organization. They had just called an emergency meeting for that week. This was his attempt to get me to withdraw my accusations.

How did I fall prey to such a twisted man? I am a woman who was raised in Bill Gothard’s Advanced Training Institute (ATI) program.

Over the past two years as I have healed from the ravages of abuse, I have found power and healing in telling my story. I remember the first time I told someone that I had been sexually abused. I stuttered over the words, cringing in shame and crushed by guilt. The more I tell my story and people witness the atrocities that happened to me, the more I have healed. Today I tell you my story without shame.

I was very young when my parents first went to a Bill Gothard seminar. They sincerely believed that his teachings were Biblical and would “turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers” (Malachi 4:6). When I was going into second grade, Bill Gothard opened a pilot home school program and my parents enrolled us as a second year family. I was raised for 10 years in the ATI program — a program which shaped every part of my being.

As a child I was very fearful. I craved security. Since that is exactly what the program offered, I embraced it wholeheartedly. I fully accepted every aspect of being under my authority’s “umbrella of protection.” I believed that if I aligned even my desires (not just my actions) with the desires of my authorities, I would be the most happy. I remember one time a girl from my church made the comment, “Your parents are really strict!” I disagreed. I replied that actually they don’t have “rules” for me. Instead they have trained my heart to want the very things they want for me, so I simply do what they expect without them having to tell me. This was something the ATI program taught parents to build into their children, and I was proud of the fact that I did it so well.

As a result, my teen years were calm and peaceful. I never rebelled. It never even crossed my mind to think differently from my parents. If an authority wanted me to be a certain way, then that was God’s best for me. By this time, I was completely unable to think independently, or (God forbid) ever say “no” to an authority. If my authority’s wishes were truly God’s will for my life, why should I ever say no?

Ironically, this was exactly the outcome ATI was designed to create, and from the outside I was a complete success. However, in my heart all was not well. I began to live in daydreams and feel horribly guilty about them. That was the beginning of the dichotomy between my tumultuous inside life, and the perfect image I showed everyone on the outside.

My family left ATI when I was nearing the end of high school. In the Baptist circles I grew up in, Bill Gothard was seen as too ecumenical. But as far as my life went, the damage had already been done.

After high school I went to an elite Bible College. The lifestyle requirements were very similar to ATI, including the practice of courtship, so I fit in easily. Because of my skills in taking to heart everything my authorities desired for me, I was a success in Bible College. I quickly was placed in positions of leadership. Now I had an even bigger image to maintain and I worked even harder to mask my inner deficiencies.

Around this time, my brother married, and he and his new wife lived with my family. My new sister-in-law turned out to be violent. My well-ordered and peaceful world fell apart and turned to chaos. I would go to bed at night to the sounds of this woman beating up my brother. Over the years, she attacked my mom and dad, my brother, and even me. The structure of our home that was built by ATI did not have the tools to deal with this. My parents, following Matthew 6, simply “turned the other cheek” and allowed the violence to continue. Now the dichotomy between my perfect Christian life on the outside and my hurting disillusioned self on the inside felt even greater.

After graduating from Bible College, I made preparations to go to Bolivia, South America as a full time missionary. I was to be a teacher in a Baptist school for deaf children. I moved there in March of 2004 and in just a few months my life unraveled. I looked at all the stuff I was doing to be a successful Christian: daily devotions and prayer, proper dress, proper music, living in moral purity, working in the local church, evangelism, discipleship, and of course being a full-time missionary. But inside I was so desperately empty! Did God love me? Or even accept me?

After three months I was desperate for help but did not know how or who to ask. And so I made a very loud cry for help: I overdosed on sleeping meds. My coworkers and mission board were shocked. My dichotomy was exposed. Everyone in my world could now see the truth about me: that this “successful” Christian was really a great big FAILURE!

But I saw hope from one source. My dad had a friend from college that he had kept in touch with over the years, and this friend had a daughter and son-in-law who ministered to broken Christians. Because they were family friends, I was happy to hear from them, and when they started emailing me, I was amazed. They helped me see that God loved and accepted me unconditionally. I was so desperate for this truth after my suicide attempt that I decided to move back to the States and receive counseling from this couple.

The problem was that they were not Baptists, nor did they live a lifestyle separated from “the world,” as I had been taught to live. All my authorities (my parents, my pastor, my Bible College) were adamant that I should not go to this couple for counseling. They tried hard to warn me that I was too vulnerable and would compromise my higher standards by being around them. But for the first time in my life I had resonated with their message of unconditional love, so I disagreed with my authorities and directly “disobeyed” them. I was 25 years old.

But I did not learn to think for myself overnight. While I soaked up my counselors’ love and acceptance, trying hard to believe that God really loved me that way, I also became very codependent on them. I was trained to be dependent on others my entire life, and one solitary act of independence could not immediately change that.

As it turned out, my counselor took full advantage of my trained submissiveness and began grooming me for sex. As my counselor, he controlled me emotionally, molding me to the place where I believed I could not survive without him. Over three long years he used my body again and again. I would ask him to stop, but he said God was okay with it, and that when the time came it would stop naturally.

Over the years I was receiving “counseling” from this couple, I learned to self-injure, had multiple suicide attempts, ended up in a psych unit four times, and developed an eating disorder. Finally, I had the courage to ask the counselor’s wife for help and I told her everything. She and her husband had a “reconciliation” meeting with me, in which we were each to apologize. However, they had my apology already decided. I was to ask them to forgive me for seducing him. I was stunned because I had no clue how I had seduced him. But being submissive, as I had been trained to do, I confessed to seduction. As a result, I believed I was a whore and an adulteress, and could never tell anyone my horrible secret of what I had done. The sexual abuse stopped for a while, but because I never asked anyone on the outside for help, it eventually started all over again, and I still felt powerless to stop it.

Mercifully, God rescued me from the cycle of abuse. A man on their Board of Directors (who had been told of the abuse by the couple after our mutual apology session, but had been sworn to secrecy by them) suggested that I move away. I had gone back to school since my return to the States and had become certified as a Sign Language Interpreter, so for the first time in my life I actually had the means to be independent and self-supporting.

So at the age of 32, I began the journey to find a home and a job out of state. I was so excited that I actually had the ability to be independent! While Bill Gothard’s ATI program seemed like a thing of the past for me, my parents still lived in that mindset and lifestyle. I remember so well the day my parents helped me move. We were up early that morning to load everything up and make the drive across the country to my new home. When we arrived, I excitedly showed them around, proud of my new-found independence. But my mom was horrified. She began to lecture me, saying I had done all of this without being under my father’s authority, and wasn’t I afraid of the judgment of God?!

The next day as we were eating lunch, my mom tried again. She said, “Who you used to be is who you really are, and the way you are now is because you are deluded.” It hurt deeply, but I was tasting freedom, and wanted it too badly to give up.

With a great desire to heal, I found an eating disorder treatment hospital and made an appointment. I still believed that my counselor’s sexual relationship with me was all my fault, that I had seduced him, and that I was a whore. The shame I felt was so intense. But that day in the nutritionist’s office, I heard for the first time that what I experienced was outright sexual abuse, and that my counselor had violated counseling ethics in using his position of authority over me to rape me.

After nine weeks of treatment in the hospital I had the courage to tell my parents about my sexual abuse. They were heartbroken and very supportive of my healing. But after a few days, the inevitable came out: My mom asked me if I felt conviction from God for any of my sins. I wasn’t sure at first what she was talking about, but she explained. It was obvious to her that since I had chosen to go against all my authorities’ wishes when I chose this counselor, I had sinned. And of course the sexual abuse was the natural consequence of that sin. I was crushed. Why, when I was already drowning in shame, did Gothard’s principle of authority have to be used to pile on even more? It was this very principle that had held me hostage by an inability to say “no” strong enough or loud enough to those in authority who were abusing me.

Being in treatment gave me the strength to contact a couple members of the Board of Directors and tell them what my counselor had done. The text I received that day in June from my abuser was his last effort to get me to withdraw my accusations before the Board of Directors met. Thankfully, by then I had the skills to calm down and stand firm. In their meeting, the Board mandated that he stop counseling, and later that year they voted to close his non-profit organization. More details have come out since and I’ve learned that I was not the only woman he abused.

Today I am completely free from anorexia, from wanting to injure myself, and from wanting to die. Even more amazing, I am free from the bondage of shame. It has been a long journey, but so worth it. The most beautiful discovery along the way has been a true understanding of God’s grace. When I found the book “A Matter of Basic Principles” and saw Bill Gothard’s definition of grace explained, I finally understood myself and what drove me to work for God’s acceptance. I have discovered that real grace is not something I have to earn; it is completely free. Even more, God delights to lavish it on me! I believe now that my brokenness is a beautiful medium for God’s grace. And so as Romans 5:3-5 says, “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

Gwen's family was enrolled in ATI from 1985--1995. As an apprenticeship student she worked at the very first Children's Institute in Detroit, Michigan, as well as several others. She also attended the first counseling seminar held for ladies at the Indianapolis Training Center. She now works full-time as a Sign Language Interpreter. The vibrant communities she loves to be part of include a CSA farm, an emergent church, and of course her dear friends in the Deaf community.

If this sexual abuse series brings up any emotions that you would like to process with a professional counselor, please e-mail us at: [email protected]g. We would be happy to recommend some professional counselors who are associated with the Recovering Grace ministry and who are familiar with the fundamentalist background of ATI and IBLP.


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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