Spiritual Sounding Board (SSB) just posted the first of four installments explaining why people get caught up and stuck in high demand systems — but with a notable focus on manipulated young women. I’d already been working on material describing the “Second Generation Adult” (a person who grows up in a high demand/spiritually abusive/cultic group), and I also wanted to revisit the concept of “bounded choice.” Sadly, the events surrounding the close of Vision Forum became a perfect framework against which to explore these pressures and how they intensify for young people. I’m honored that SSB saw the value in posting the information there.
As briefly noted in the previous post, defenders of the patriarchy movement within the Christian home and classical school movements have made the claim that their critics are just gleefully delighted to see scandal visit Doug Phillips. This couldn’t be further from the truth for me. The new issues with Phillips have been an occasion to revisit the memories of my own grief when deeply involved in a similar group during the 1990s. And as my husband has put it, I’m already on record regarding the problems with this movement in both doctrine and practice, long before there was open talk of scandal. (There have been plenty of other scandals in secret prior to the one that recently caused Vision Forum to close its doors. This one just made the news because brave people have come forward to tell the sordid details.)
Understanding Why People Stay and Stay Silent
Writing about this issue has been a difficult one, particularly after I read the graphic court documents that Lourdes Torres-Manteufel filed recently, alleging abuse at the hands of Doug Phillips. I’ve thought little about him and more about her and the pressures she faced. I found that I could only begin with how and why that court document challenged me emotionally. Though I am not ashamed over traumas that I’ve suffered, the nature of the events are not anything that one rushes to tell the world. But I found that I couldn’t single out any one element of the trauma to present another.
I'm pouring it all out as an explanation to people as to why just looking into these situations from outside of the bubble of the shame of sexual abuse, childhood, a high demand/spiritually abusive/cultic group, parental pressure, a desire of a girl to please her parents, submission to men, the duty to obey an authority, religious purity, and the direct pressure from the group’s guru make things much more complicated (particularly a naive young woman). Each factor robs a person of an element of their real choice and the right to self-protection.
It is very easy to look into a situation from afar or from outside of the bubble of a closed system to pontificate about what that person was free to do. This becomes particularly more complicated when an adult looks at a child or a young woman who has been raised in a sheltered culture of “purity” but expects that person in the middle of a horrible situation to make a clean choice. They forget or don’t consider the limitations, yet they will demand a high and often unrealistic standard of the person in the thick of trouble. The series on SSB explains some of these complex factors.
I have an opportunity to reach out to people like Lourdes and to defend her against these critics who say that she did have viable choices. Though telling about my trauma and how I healed just deepens my own healing and makes it meaningful, it is still a risk. But I will brave it to help those who have suffered. As Lourdes has stated that she has followed the course of action that she chose because it is what God requires of her, I believe that writing about this part of my life is what God requires of me in this season.
The Personal Challenge
The risky and most painful part of the telling of all of this comes through in describing my family situation. I cannot sever from my own sexual abuse experience which I use to illustrate bounded choice. Though I have touched on this topic before, talking about arrows and complicated forgiveness, it is still very difficult. The sexual abuse is the least of it all.
My parents are the finest of people, and if I had to choose only one person in the world to be like, that person would be my mother. She is kind, compassionate, generous, moral, delightful, thoughtful, loyal, and good. I love my parents beyond my ability to express, but shame and trauma experienced by all of us have left us all the worse for wear. And the depth of my love for them has made all of this so much more painful.
As I described in an old post years ago, who I am and who they want and need me to be are two very different people. Because of their own trauma, particularly that which was suffered by my mother, they can’t seem to get beyond their expectations for me. And as I’ve described it, I feel that they ask me to destroy who I really am to become what they expect — and that changes too often for me to even chase it anymore. I feel that they have asked me to make a choice between who God created me to be and who they want me to be (and I can’t be that fantasy person anyway — not for lack of trying).
I can’t manage to play act to please them anymore like I did in my younger days, but then somewhere during the course of my healing, I decided that it was wrong to do so. And I decided that if I wanted to figure out how to cope with the shame of failing to be who they wanted, the only healthy thing to do was hand that shame back to them. It was never mine to start with. I chose to honor God and who He made me to be and to call that blessed. It is wrong to destroy it or admit to things that are untrue to gain their favor. So I lost their favor and their presence in my life.
I look a great deal like my mother and see my father’s expressions in my face in the mirror every day. I sound a great deal like my mother — so much so that I once had a kitten who would get confused when she would visit. He would get about six inches away from my mom and would realize that she wasn’t me. They are with me in everything I do and who I am, and I love them for it. I celebrate it. But I do it with melancholy.
Love, Care, and Kafka
As a benefit of the excellent education that my parents sacrificed and paid for me to have, I was introduced to the writings of Franz Kafka. (My love for reading I derived from my mother who labored long reading to me as a child for which I begged incessantly.) Kafka was a Bohemian Jew — a misfit — best known for his work, The Metamorphosis. A few years ago, I was surprised (yet not surprised at all) to hear an expert in trauma, John Bradshaw, refer to Kafka as the “master of shame.” Kafka describes it acutely, and I felt that he understood my pain well.
I found that his short story, The Judgement, described my feelings of futility in earning my parents’ favor — and if I was in their favor, they never found a way to express it to me adequately. I chose against the route that the protagonist took in that work, though that was difficult. If you’re familiar with the story or have the opportunity to read it, it may give you a window into some of what I felt.
I also found The Hunger Artist to be remarkable, and in closing, I will offer an illustration from it.
"Because I have to fast, I can't help it," said the hunger artist. "What a fellow you are," said the overseer, "and why can't you help it?" "Because," said the hunger artist, lifting his head a little and speaking, with his lips pursed, as if for a kiss, right into the overseer's ear, so that no syllable might be lost, "because I couldn't find the food I liked. If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else.”
Like the Hunger Artist, I sought satisfaction, but in the form of my parents’ favor. I would have done anything to earn it. We learn in the last breath of Kafka’s character that he fasted because he couldn’t find any food that satisfied him. He wanted it just like everyone else, but what he needed couldn’t be found. When I felt as though I was as weary as him, I realized myself that what I sought could not be found because my parents didn’t have it for themselves. How can you share with someone what you do not have to give and what you need for yourself.
I know that my parents would have given me in abundance their love and good favor if they had managed to have any to spare. They never withheld anything else that I needed. Had they found the food that they needed, they surely would have given it to me and would have sacrificed their own needs to meet mine. But they never managed to find it. They were robbed, like their parents were robbed of what they needed by way of love and acceptance. They gave me what they did have in abundance. Sadly, that was shame.
I am grateful to God for meeting my needs, binding my wounds, and for satisfying my soul. But if I were writing the tale of my life instead of God, I would have given it a quicker and happier ending. But as I say often, we can all be glad that I’m not God. I am blessed, my good parents are blessed, but I wish the story had played out with much less trauma, pain, and solitude.