Confrontation

I want to tell you everything that happened.
I want to tell everyone.
I want to scream it, from the girls’ dorm down to the soccer field. From the high school in the midwest to my home church on the west coast.
I want to print it on the back of every bulletin. I want to carve it in the trunk of every tree on campus. I want to spray paint it on the roof of every one of your churches and schools.
I want the truth to be as unavoidable and inescapable for every perpetrator among you as it is for every victim.
And if you still won’t do anything about it, at least the rest of the world will know what you are, and what you’ve done.

“Mark and avoid those who cause division and offense.”
It was you who taught me that; don’t you remember?
That’s what I’m going to do. I’ve been doing it out of order, perhaps – I’ve already been avoiding you for years now – but division has been created, and offense caused, and it is long past time for the marking to begin.

On leaving

Trigger Warning: Spiritual abuse, references to sexual abuse (not explicit)
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Nearly the entire time I was a member of the church I was raised in, I experienced a difficult to describe discomfort, an aching inside, and I felt alone in that feeling.
After I left, I discovered I had never been alone at all. I’ve heard from people who wanted to leave, but cannot risk losing their families and the community of the church. I’ve heard from people who have objections to teachings and attitudes within the church but cannot express them without risking being ridiculed and shamed (or excommunicated). I’ve heard people express the same vague feeling of something being wrong, the same quiet hidden pain, that I felt for years.

I left because I felt like I had no choice. I took the teachings of the church very seriously, because I believed very passionately that the Bible was the literal word of God, as the church taught, and I believed all of the church’s teachings were in harmony with the Bible up until the day I decided to withdraw my membership.

One of the church’s teachings revolved around a sort of extreme “closed communion.” “Closed communion” means communion is only offered to members of the church. To become a member of this church, you had to formally profess that you were in complete agreement with all church doctrine (based on the church’s “fellowship” doctrine). There is no room for disagreement, and no gray areas; you are either in or out. Most members were born into the church, attended a church-run elementary school, and “confirmed” in conjunction with graduating from 8th grade – meaning, most of us made this formal profession of agreement between the ages of 12 and 14, and are expected to hold on to the exact same beliefs for the rest of our lives because we essentially made a promise before this whole group of people and our entire families to do so. It’s a lot of pressure for a young person, during an already difficult time of life naturally filled with growth and change – but while everything else about your life is developing, you’re told that the development of your religious beliefs must stop here. No more growth, no more change, no evolution of thought – your beliefs are to remain fixed at that point, at that age.
After being confirmed, I went on to the church’s high school, and while there I was treated terribly and terrible things happened, and nobody did anything. When we tried to speak up or reach out for help, we were usually ignored. If we refused to be ignored and kept trying to speak, we were warned about committing “slander” and were ordered to simply accept the authority of the faculty and were accused of lying or being bitter and were doubted at every turn and sometimes we were blatantly lied about and misrepresented. Any implication that a faculty member had made a mistake or done something wrong was simply unacceptable and responded to as if it were downright impossible, and then turned around on the student in the name of “giving the benefit of the doubt” and “putting the best construction on everything.” It became clear that even when there was absolutely no doubt about a situation in the mind of a student, and even if that student was supported by witnesses or evidence beyond reasonable doubt, the student would still be doubted; we had been taught that all people aught to be given the benefit of the doubt, but for some reason that didn’t apply to us. Either we had been lied to, or weren’t really seen as people, or perhaps both. When there was no room to create this doubt, things were quickly hushed up and swept under rugs in the name of “forgiveness.” Forgive and forget – or get out. To a teen whose entire family was “in,” getting out wasn’t truly a viable option, similarly to how not being confirmed was not truly a viable option. We were fed strings of false choices, and by the time we reached adulthood, must of us had come to believe that truly were no choices. Believe, agree, submit and be saved – or be shunned and damned. With no experience in the outside world, and without any experience forming relationships that weren’t mediated by the church and its rules, there is even less of a choice for those deepest within the church. Being a member and not rocking the boat for them isn’t a matter of belief, but an issue of survival.

I knew it was wrong. I felt the wrongness of it so deeply that it made me ill sometimes. It took me several more years, however, to see this wrongness as a matter of belief. I thought if I held on until adulthood, when there would no longer be some conceivable motive to invent, then people would believe me. I thought if I held on, even though I couldn’t help myself or protect my friends, I could at least make things better for the children that would come after me. So I held on – and nothing changed. I am still accused of lying, or exaggerating, or of “misunderstanding.” I’m told that I am bitter, that I am vengeful. I am told things that I know are simply untrue, and I am not given the benefit of the doubt. The best construction is not put on me. Still, I am not fully human. After several years of this, I began to realize that there was a fundamental difference of belief at play: I believed that the way were treated was morally wrong, and the church did not. I believed that every student was a person deserving of rights and worthy of being listened to and heard, and the church did not. I believed that I was fully human, and the church did not.

I didn’t know how to fully express this, but the realization crept up on me and started eating away at me. I began rereading the Bible in an effort to find a verse that I could point to, and scouring church documents for a doctrinal point that I could highlight, in the hopes that I would find something which would encapsulate this wrongness. I began realizing that it couldn’t be done – not because I was wrong, but because the wrongness I felt was not in the doctrine or the misinterpretation of any individual passage. I was in the behaviors, attitudes, and dynamics of the group. I was discovering the idea that right doctrine does not automatically guarantee good behavior, but I didn’t have words for it yet.
The thing which finally gave me the clear logical justification I felt I needed to leave the church was a belief I had always found fairly trivial: the belief that the papacy is the antichrist. I had understood this teaching to be a common belief, but did not realize it was considered formal doctrine by church leadership. When a church leader informed my husband (who was participating in “adult education classes” at the time) that this was technically official doctrine, it all collapsed for me. The Bible simply doesn’t say that. You can make that argument, sure, but the Bible does not actually say “the pope is the antichrist.” It’s just not in there, and to realize that this was a belief I was supposedly expressing wholehearted belief in by participating in communion – I just couldn’t do it anymore. I didn’t express this as my reason for leaving, because I knew it wasn’t the real reason, but it reassured me that the church’s doctrine clearly was not perfect, and if all else I had learned there was correct, I was morally obligated by those teachings to separate myself because of this one thing – because I didn’t (and don’t) believe that the Bible teaches that the papacy is the antichrist. My motivation for wanting to leave was how deeply bothered I was that mistreatment of students at the high school was not taken seriously, and was often explicitly denied and ignored. I saw this problem as an issue for the entire synod, because it is also the location of the college and seminary where all of the teachers and pastors are trained. Any problems there present a problem for the entire synod, because any toxic issues there will likely be picked up by the teachers and pastors in training there,  and from there are likely to spread throughout the entire church body over time. I had often described the school as “the beating heart” of the whole organization, and up until I implied that this heart might be diseased, the analogy had never been contested. I e-mailed my pastor and stated that I was withdrawing my membership based on concerns of sexual abuses which were being ignored and covered up, and for my own well-being, and that I did not want to be contacted by and would not be meeting with any church officials to discuss this decision.

I was done. I was freeIt felt like I was escaping, and I often still describe it this way. I’ve spoken to enough people who feel trapped and unable to leave the church to conclude that it really was  more of an escape than simply walking away. People have called me strong and brave for leaving, but I don’t feel strong. I don’t feel brave. I feel fortunate. I feel downright lucky that I had experiences with the outside world that showed me that there were better things out there (even in churches with virtually identical teachings), and that I met people who taught me what it feels like to be genuinely loved and supported, rather than dominated and controlled. Part of why I still believe the existence of some sort of god-concept at all is because more than anything else, I feel I was blessed with those experiences, and blessed with that last nudge out those doors. I feel more “saved” now than I ever did there.

More “Immodesty”

After my semi-frantic post last night in which I shared some stories which Clare’s Story and Pearl’s Story had reminded me of, I found myself mulling on some more related memories, and had a couple realizations I’d like to share.

Trigger Warning: Sexual harassment, slut shaming, victim blaming, body policing, suicidal thoughts.
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1) Policing and shaming one child can cause unexpected harm to other children.

When I was about 13, I wore a lot of punk and goth inspired clothes. It was fun, and it was a way to avoid the aspects of more “mainstream” fashion trends that I was uncomfortable with. Unsurprisingly, this included painting my nails dark colors.
I had a childhood friend whose parents were significantly more controlling than mine, and one day we were hanging out and she complimented the dark blue nail polish I was wearing. I offered to let her use it, and her face fell and she shook her head; she explained to me that she wasn’t allowed to wear dark nail polish colors because they were “too sexy.” While my external reaction was roughly “that’s silly, I’m sorry,” internally I was worrying about myself. Was it true – were dark nail colors “too sexy,” or was this as arbitrary as it seemed? Part of the reason I wore the colors I did was to avoid this whole mess of “sexiness;” had I inadvertently stumbled right into the middle of it? Worst of all, did this mean her parents thought I was “too sexy,” or even a slut?” I felt judged by them, and they weren’t even there.
I have no idea if they actually had negative opinions of me. They were never anything but kind to me, but I would always wonder what they might secretly think of me or my parents (for not placing the same type of restrictions on me) after that. Regardless of intent, my friend received the message from her parent’s rule that I was “sexy,” something I was actively trying not to be, and that message was passed on to me. Once again, I received the message that “sexy” or “slutty,” despite my intent and best effort to be otherwise. It was like it was something I just was.

It felt beyond my control, but simultaneously was something “bad” and “wrong” that I was doing; it felt like simply by existing I was “sinning,” and all of this exacerbated the suicidal ideation I was already struggling with. I wanted to be “good,” and it felt like the only I could do that would be to cease existing – but suicide was supposedly a “sin” too, so these thoughts also reinforced the feeling that I was inherently “bad.” I was left with a self-destructive impulse and a death wish that I still carry with me; it felt like the best thing I could possibly do was to put myself in dangerous situations while doing “good” things and hope that I ended up some kind of martyr – and I followed this feeling into all sorts of problematic situations.

2) Policing and shaming provides cover to sexually predatory adults.

There was an instructor (who was and still is also the dean of students) at the boarding school I attended who was notorious for saying awkward sexual things in class and other settings and made many of the students, especially the girls, extremely uncomfortable.

One day I was wearing a knee-length argyle print skirt that had these big buckles on it, with thick black stockings and studded patent shoes. One of the RAs said something about my outfit to the other RA, and the second RA paid a surprise visit to my room as I was getting ready to leave for class. The RA who came to see me seemed utterly confused (I have no idea what the first RA must have said, but apparently it must have been pretty bad), apologized for interrupting my morning and reassured me that my outfit was fine, complimented my tights, and I went on to my first class of the day feeling even more confident in my choice of clothing.

My first class that day was with the previous mentioned creeper teacher, and we had a quiz that day. I had the seat in the back right corner, my roommate had the seat in front of me, and there was an empty desk or two in the front of the row. The teacher was walking up and down the rows, and paused for an uncomfortably long time over my shoulder so I looked up – and his gave was very clearly directed at my lap (which was fully covered by my skirt), not my paper. He then proceeded to sit down in one of the empty desks, lean forward, and look straight back. My blood ran cold; he was very clearly attempting to find out if he could see up my skirt. He was so fixated on my lower half that he didn’t even notice when I grabbed my coat with one hand, and then I leaned out to the side until my head was at the same height as his and looked forward, making direct eye contact. While giving him the stinkiest stink eye I could muster, I put my coat over my lap and asked my roommate if she saw all that. She confirmed that she had, and her perception lined up with mine. I resumed the quiz, shaking with anger and feeling really violated. I briefly considered reporting the incident somehow – but I had no idea who I would talk to, or what I would call it. By the end of class, I had resolved to simply put it out of my mind, because what else could I do? He was the dean of students, and I already had a reputation as a “problem student;” he had more influence over our daily lives than any other single person on campus, and I was already used to faculty members assuming I was lying or had bad intentions. I couldn’t win and I knew it.

However, I did end up disclosing the incident later and having my worst fears (that I would be blamed and nobody would do anything) confirmed. I was having dinner with my family and my pastor’s family while home for a break, and somebody started talking about how wonderful this teacher was during dinner. I became increasingly visibly upset, and announced “well, I don’t like him,” to which one of the adults responded that it was their opinion that many students don’t like him because “he knows what’s going on,” and essentially that only students who get into trouble dislike him. On the verge of tears, I burst out “well you’d probably feel differently if he’d looked up your skirt in class, too.” The discomfort in the air was palpable; my memory of the rest of the night is fuzzy, except for a singular moment when I saw tears hitting my plate and realized I was crying into my dinner. I tried to recount the story to several adults in my life after that night, including that my outfit had actually been explicitly approved and that I had a trustworthy witness (my roommate had a strong reputation as a “good girl” – and interestingly enough,  her father also strongly disliked this teacher) in the hopes that this would give me some kind of credence, but to know avail. It was explained to me – every. single. time. – that he must have simply been trying to make sure my outfit was “appropriate,” and that I must have misinterpreted his behavior (and this is still the response I get if I try to discuss the incident with my relatives now). No action was ever taken. Nobody even spoke to him about it. I was given the impression that apparently people in authority positions were simply entitled to attempt to see my undergarments (or whatever else might be visible beneath my skirt), and that it was my fault if they succeeded. I felt defeated.

There was another similar incident with the same teacher and a different student, in which a memo was sent to the girls’ dorm titled “Robin’s Egg Blue” – named after the color of undergarments the student was wearing when he looked up her skirt. Despite how obviously inappropriate and disgusting this was, no action was taken in this case either.

This teacher is also involved in the biannual “room raids,” in which students’ rooms are ransacked while searching for “contraband” like rated R movies. I very vividly remember opening my normally meticulously folded and sorted underwear drawer, seeing it in total disarray, and feeling violated. No matter what I wore, I still couldn’t keep him from seeing what I was wearing over my intimate areas, and I knew it, and he knew that I knew it. It was, and is, disgusting.
And he gets away with all of it, because these parents have determined that he has the “right” to inspect children like livestock for the purpose of policing their bodies and shaming their clothing choices.
Ugh.