Better to Marry than to Burn (part 1)

Adam* and I began our premarital counseling during my first year of college. We started meeting with the local minister, Donald Corbin*, who was hesitant to work with us because neither Adam nor I were baptized members of The Church and because I was still a teen. The Church taught there was a “natural order” to everything, including marriage: baptism first and then marriage. And there were to be no marriages before the age of twenty without parental (as in the father’s) consent.

Adam was 23 and I had just turned 18. Neither of us considered ourselves “ready to be baptized.” We hadn’t discussed baptism or joining The Church because it wasn’t something we thought about. Adam attended Sabbath services because his mother and a brother were members, he had childhood friends who were now members themselves, and he was dating me. I attended because I still lived with my parents and I was forced to. That, and I enjoyed socializing with my friends who attended with their parents and who went to the same parties, dances, sport events, hikes, swims, and other Church outings.

For years, I had gone through the motions. I’d sat through services, passed notes to my friends, daydreamed, and did whatever it took to get through the boring sermons. And during the non-boring sermons – the ones that held my attention by deriding children and youth and degrading women and girls, the ones that told me and my kind what we couldn’t do or wear or look at or look like or listen to or read or watch or talk about or talk like or think about – I sat with my rage and stifled every impulse I had to stand up from the crowd out of my cold metal folding chair and yell: BULLSHIT!

Like most kids in The Church, I knew what was forbidden. That much had been beaten into all of us. But I hadn’t paid enough attention to understand the doctrines or the convoluted prophecies or something as basic as the order of the Holy Days or this thing they called “God’s Plan” or the three resurrections. I wasn’t interested in committing to a belief system I didn’t understand or fully accept yet.

Yet.

I held on to the expectation that there would be a time when I would understand, when I would feel the compulsion to join and become a full member of The Church. Friends my age and older were already being “called” and “converted” or were going through “baptismal counseling” or attending “God’s College” (Ambassador College) despite how The Church had been a source of so much of our childhood misery. I assumed these young people knew and understood things I didn’t yet. I knew enough to know I didn’t know enough to make a decision about baptism yet.

What I didn’t know at the time was that “yet” would never come for me. Or for Adam.

“Mr. Corbin,” as we called him because we addressed all ministers as “Mister,” began counseling with me and Adam, albeit reluctantly. Corbin was a legalistic stickler, even more so than most Worldwide Church of God ministers, and he made clear at every meeting how much disdain he had for us and how he in no way approved of us getting married. His disapproval would prove so strong that his wife would boycott our wedding as a show of righteousness and “to set an example” to others in the congregation.

He told us we really should have been working toward baptism and not marriage. And then in sermons, he told us again about what lukewarm hangers-on we were and all those others who attended with “converted” spouses or parents but “neglected their own calling.” He called us out, not by name, but with enough identifying information. He said we were Laodiceans, neither hot nor cold and thus ready to be spewed from God’s mouth.

Laodiceans and “The Laodicean Era” and other “Church Eras” were just more Armstrongism prophecies that didn’t make sense to me yet. Still, I knew that being called a Laodicean was one of the worst things someone within The Church could be called. I knew enough to know when a minister called anyone a Laodicean, it held the threat of abandonment and death – of being left behind when the faithful from The Philadelphia Era (the Worldwide Church of God) would be swept away to The Place of Safety while God destroyed the rest of The World.

Corbin was only obliging us at my father’s request and he didn’t even like my father. It was apparent from the day they’d met some four years earlier (after our move to Knoxville) that they had a deep and mutual dislike for one another.

My father had moved into the Knoxville congregation already a deacon, ordained years ago in North Carolina. Many of his close friends were ministers with whom we socialized regularly, shared meals, and visited in their homes. So, my father assumed he would have the same relationship with this minister and similar access and status.

Corbin, authoritarian that he was, rigidly heeded Headquarters’ warnings about not “fraternizing with” members from the congregation. Ministers were told they should spend time with other ministers and not with their inferiors lest their loyalty to Headquarters be compromised or they be swayed to show leniency or favoritism toward individual members.

So when my father called Donald Corbin by his first name as he had done with his minister friends, Corbin bristled and said, “That’s Mr. Corbin to you, Tom*,” deliberately calling my father by his first name rather than returning the respect and calling him Mr. Llewellyn*.

The rest of us non-deacon, non-elder, non-minister members and non-members of the congregation were expected to address all ministers and deacons as “Mr.” and their wives as “Mrs.”

By Corbin’s estimation, my father and our whole family were too “worldly.” My brother’s hair was too long, my mother worked, my skirts were too tight, and my brother and I were a little too stylish and overly obsessed with our physical appearances. On top of all that, which of itself looked really bad, we had used those “worldly” CB radios to communicate back and forth between vehicles during our move. Sometimes we even talked to truckers!

Right after our move, Corbin called us (and others) out in a sermon. Again, he never mentioned anyone by name because he didn’t have to. “I’ve seen CB antennas on cars in the parking lot – cars that belong to what should be God’s people. If you’re out there on the highway with the rest of The World talking on your CB or going along with every trend like everyone else in The World, then you are no better than The World!” (Or something like that.)

Members could always tell what Corbin (or pretty much any Worldwide minister) thought of them by what he included in his sermons and whom he chose to shame.

So, here Adam and I are four years later, sitting with this minister and his contempt for us.

That I was an extension of my father must have made it worse for Corbin, but in an odd, confused sort of way, as I was a non-person: both female and a child in his eyes. But if my father had given his permission for my marriage then my father had the authority to request Corbin perform a ceremony that went against his conscience, against Church teaching and, most importantly, against Herbert W. Armstrong’s written word.

Armstrong, so sure of himself and his “research” into the customs of ancient Israel and the “fact” that “God did not even count people in the census as adults until age twenty” declared 20 to be the magic number. In The Missing Dimension in Sex (p. 226-8) he proclaims “with sound judgment guided and approved by God” (a phrase he repeats twice) that no one under twenty should marry despite what human laws might say to the contrary. He did concede that he found “no punishable prohibition against marriage before the age of twenty” in the Bible and that it might be acceptable in rare circumstances.

I don’t know what that conversation or series of conversations between my father and Corbin went like, but I do know my father and the patterns of ministers and the things that were said during our counseling and after our wedding. The gist of my father’s request probably went something like: This girl is a particularly lascivious sort and will probably have sex soon if she hasn’t already. She could end up pregnant. Isn’t it better to marry than to burn? (1 Corintians 7:9)

The first thing Corbin said to us in our counseling was that he had had trouble with some other young couples in the congregation having premarital sex. In one instance, he even had to perform a quick wedding and baptism because of an “out of wedlock pregnancy” involving an “unequally yoked” couple  – one baptized and the other unbaptized. Shock! Then he was forced to suspend them from Sabbath services for three months to “correct them” and teach them (and all of us) “a lesson.” Of course, everyone knew who the couple was because Corbin had preached about it (not naming names, of course). The young man was Adam’s former roommate in college and the older brother of my closest Church friend. The young woman was the sister of Adam’s sister-in-law. When the young woman returned to services after her three-month suspension, she was visibly pregnant, which made the shaming all the more effective.

And, then Corbin told us there was the other marriage where a spouse hadn’t disclosed their non-virgin status. Fraud! And how the marriage was now dissolved. Of course, Adam and I knew this couple and the details of found letters and shocking honeymoon discoveries because Corbin had preached about it and shamed them for it and also because congregants picked up the information trail and gossiped about it. Everyone knew.

Corbin asked me first, “Are you a virgin?”

I answered, “Yes.” What I didn’t tell him was that I had had a variety of sexual experiences. Adam and I had several types of sex together even, but not vaginal intercourse. So, yes, by Corbin’s and The Church’s technical standards (the only standards that mattered) I had not engaged in THE unauthorized sex act.

And then to Adam, “Are you a virgin?”

“Yes.”

And with that began our awkward and invasive premarital counseling with one of God’s True Ministers.

 

*The names have been changed.

Better to Marry than to Burn (part 2) continued in next post.

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Worldly Education (part 2): Set in Utopia / Heritable Disease

Continued from Worldly Education (part 1): High on a Hill

Down off The Hill and spread out over the lower elevations of the UTK campus, the midcentury buildings housed the humanities classes, administrative offices, and student union. The architectural style of these buildings was as natural and invisible to me as the utopianism of the era from which they and I had sprung. Although they weren’t exactly the bright and wall-free classrooms of my 1970s grade school, they were of their time and embodied the same institutional optimism and notions of education and progress with which I’d grown up.

I’d grown up in The Church, of course, with its own brand of utopianism – apocalyptic millennialism – and the attendant fear, stifling dogma, and rigid dos and don’ts of that impoverished ideology. But I’d also grown up in the open classrooms of a progressive and moneyed public school system. I’d been fortunate enough to be a child in a time of we-can-do-better and increasing environmental awareness. I’d been given the freedom to wander the classroom spaces according to my intellectual curiosity and creative impulses. I’d been assigned hopeful projects and handed a small tree every year to take home and plant.

Utopianism had taken purchase in me as one of the few ideas that resonated between the two worlds of Church and school that I navigated so precariously.

Cover of Coming: A New Age! published by the Worldwide Church of God (1978). Retrieved from the Herbert W. Armstrong Searchable Library.

During my first year of college, I spent most of my time on campus wandering in and around the midcentury institutional buildings, taking required courses, eating meals, studying, and searching out offices that handled university business. I drifted between classes and ducked away in this building or the other, discovered and explored new spaces, and found hideaways to read or nap or write a paper or smoke a cigarette.

The autonomy of college suited me. It reminded me of the better parts of my elementary school education (when I hadn’t been trying to explain my parents’ inexplicable religion or “setting myself apart from The World”). I loved having space between classes and the power and freedom to manage my own time and projects and meet my own deadlines. It was the kind of power and freedom I had tried to steal back for myself by skipping classes in junior high and high school.

I’d wasted too much time sitting in classrooms, suffering through Sabbath services, and being housed and watched over in ways that seemed more like crowd control than secular or religious education.

I also loved the anonymity of the densely-populated university and how I could get lost in the crowds of students as they rushed onto the sidewalks and streets, waited in line for meals, scrambled for tables in the dining halls, and scouted the library for quiet places to study. As long as I didn’t bring any attention to myself, I could weave through campus without detection. I could navigate The World and school like the ghost I’d always been.

Photo by Saul Young of the Knoxville News Sentinel. Retrieved from Sentinel archive.

I was only in college a couple of weeks before I brought unwanted attention to myself. It was fall and I knew I’d be headed to The Feast with my parents soon. I knew I’d have to work up the nerve to initiate that same old dreaded, shame-filled, invasive, and humiliating conversation.

I’d have to tell my professors, as I had all my teachers in all the 12 years previous, that I needed two weeks off “for religious reasons” and remind them I’d be out of town and ask for work ahead and try to convince them that I could indeed follow a schedule and keep up and, yes, I know my grade will suffer, but probably not as much as you think because I’ve been doing this for 12 years. But I’d need to say it all with far fewer words and, hopefully, out of earshot of other students.

The first instructor I met with was an English professor or, more likely, a graduate student, although I didn’t know the distinction at the time. We met in her office, a dark cubicle in the basement of the humanities building. She was a straight-to-the-point youngish woman with an Australian accent, or maybe it was English. I was too young and inexperienced to know the difference.

She asked what my religious affiliation was.

I hated even to mention the name, but I answered, “Worldwide Church of God.”

She must have had some familiarity with The Church because she began to grill me about my parents’ beliefs as if they were my own and to insinuate that at this point in my life, on the cusp of adulthood, I would either have to own and account for those beliefs or abandon them.

“Why would someone your age have this religion?”

I told her, “I grew up with it.”

“So, you inherited it from your parents?”

I nodded, yes, while bristling and taking silent offense because I knew she was right.

I hadn’t made this choice for myself. I had inherited it, not like a legacy or a pile of money, but like a disease.

*Worldly Education (part 3) to be continued in a future post.

Worldly Education (part 1): High on a Hill

The University of Tennessee campus and the surrounding neighborhood comprised a community of about 60,000 people – students, faculty, staff, neighbors, small business owners, and workers. And, although Knoxville wasn’t a particularly big city (or even a city I liked), the campus felt like a small city within the city with a culture and energy of its own that I enjoyed more than the other parts of town.

The northern edge of campus bordered the historic Fort Sanders neighborhood. Most students lived in “The Fort,” as they called it, either in high-rise university apartments or large Victorian houses that had been chopped up into individual units. I loved the Victorians – how distinct they were from one another, how they reminded me of the house we lived in back in Raleigh, and how they’d maintained their beauty despite their decrepit state or how the slumlords had mangled them.

On the cusp of The Fort across a small arched bridge from the campus proper was the dorm I ‘d stayed in a few months earlier during summer orientation. I’d shared a four-bed suite of two rooms and a bath with three other girls. The girls were from a large wealthy suburban high school further west of the city whose parents were willing to spend money on increasing their privilege. My parents, despite The Church and how much money they gave to it, had been willing – in this instance and a few others – to invest in a future they told me I’d never grow up to have. They’d paid for accommodations and a few days immersion, but weren’t willing to “waste money” on a dorm full-time or have me living in The World out of their control. I was okay with this. Adam* and I would be married soon enough, and, then he could take over my tuition payments. I could start commuting from my own home.

Between campus and the western side of The Fort was a section of Cumberland Avenue – “The Strip,” everyone called it – lined with restaurants, bars, shops, and music venues frequented by students. Adam had taken me to The Strip on our first date a couple of years earlier. I remember being surprised at how a “nice” restaurant could be so casual and how grownup I’d felt in that rundown part of town ordering a glass of wine and not getting carded because I was having dinner with a grown man.

Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

The Knoxville campus was UT’s flagship and typical of a large public research university – a hilly few miles of busy walkways, streets, and steep stairs cutting through and encircling a hodgepodge of architectural styles that I’d learn to name from my art history courses: Collegiate Gothic. Midcentury Institutional. New Brutalist. Postmodern Pastiche.

The collegiate gothic buildings housed the sciences and stood on what students called “The Hill,” the oldest part of campus and highest point on the landscape. It took climbing multiple flights of stairs to get to the top of The Hill and I could easily be late trying to get up there, especially if I was walking from the other side of campus.

I took a required psychology class on The Hill during that first semester. I scouted out the room number in Ayers Hall ahead of time so I wouldn’t be late for my first class. While everyone was still tucked away in their classrooms, I walked up and down the big stone stairwells and empty hallways with my short heels echoing until I found the right room.

The gothic-esque university halls were what I imagined “pagan churches” must have looked like inside and out. I’d seen them along the road from the backseats of cars throughout my childhood, but had never been inside one. They were the kinds of places decked out with Christmas trees and Easter crosses at which our little friend Peter Hibbs* used to point and shout: Pagan! Pagan!

As my father drove us to so many boring rented halls – school gymnasiums, theaters, community centers, union halls – for Sabbath services, I’d admired from afar the pagan places and the forms they took with their heavy stone and grand windows and spires that “reached up to heaven.”

“Reaching up to heaven” and “aspiring to be God” was how God’s True Ministers taught us to look at a building, describe it, and condemn it and all the people in it in the same breath.

“Here’s the church, and here’s the steeple. Open the door, and see all the people.” Like the little finger rhyme I’d learned in first grade from the girls at school, everything “not of God’s Church” was wrong.

I remember thinking I could make the rhyme right by not forming my fingers into the shape of a steeple. Making a church without a steeple wasn’t that different from how we were taught to pray with our hands clasped, fingers intertwined, and heads bowed in submission. It was wrong to pray “as the Pagans do” with their flat hands together pointed toward heaven and eyes looking upward.

The ministers and our parents taught us to look down. We looked down on everything and everyone with the same equitable contempt. If a thing or a person didn’t originate from Herbert W. Armstrong’s One True Church, then that person or that thing was of The World, evil, and marked for destruction. We would spare nothing and no one because God would spare nothing and no one. Everything – buildings, people, institutions – would be “brought low” and into submission.

Everywhere we looked outside our enclave, everything we saw was pagan. Pagan. Pagan. Pagan. Pagan.

According to Armstrong, the epitome of paganism was the Catholic Church, which he called “The Whore of Babylon” and the mother of “harlot daughters” (Protestant churches). By Armstrong’s logic, western education was The Whore’s bastard son. And it was no mistake or coincidence that all these “worldly educational institutions” shared an architectural style with gothic cathedrals and “set themselves up in high places.”

“Satan puts his churches and places of worship at the tops of hills,” Armstrong preached. And what was “worldly education” if not “humanistic religion?”

Ministers repeated the story. I internalized the story, not because I cared about it or believed it (yet), but because I’d heard it so often. I knew it by rote.

Humans always strive to be higher than they are. They place themselves above God. They set themselves up as their own authorities. They become purveyors of their own truth, which is not God’s Truth. They honor human knowledge while discarding the Bible – “the very foundation of all knowledge.” Such is human vanity and the intellectual vanity of “so called educated experts.” Humans have always done this. This is why they banded together to build the Tower of Babel. Humans wanted to reach heaven, to reach God, to become Gods themselves. This is why The One True God had to interrupt and confound them with different languages. He had to stop them from pooling their resources and working together. He had to put an end to their progress lest they advance too quickly.

“Didn’t even Satan the Devil tempt Jesus Christ – appeal to his human vanity – from a high place?” ministers taunted.

Stay away from high places.

Without a broad view from a high place, you won’t be tempted. You won’t fall.

*The names have been changed.

Worldy Education (part 2) continued in next post.

Previously on… / Project Reflections and Thanks

For the last three years, I’ve been writing about my experiences growing up in the Worldwide Church of God. I’ve been publishing sections of that project on this blog and will continue to do so as I finish up a book manuscript this year. I’ll write and post chronologically, as I have been, with topical posts and interludes interspersed within the overall narrative arc.

Thank you to everyone who has been reading and for the generous messages, emails, and encouragement as I trudge through this difficult material. For those who are new to this story, below are some highlights.

Dress Bows, Discipline, and the Long Saturdays” gives a sense of what it was like for me as a young child observing the group and normalizing the abuses I was born into.

Excerpt: Sabbath Services were held in rented halls, usually community centers or school gymnasiums, and were set up with folding chairs. From a kids view, these spaces were a forest of panty-hosed legs below skirts that had been measured with rulers or by kneeling (hems had to touch the floor when a woman was on her knees) and hoards of suited men. All the men wore suits and carried briefcases full of Bibles, notebooks, hymnals, Basil Wolverton’s The Bible Story, and coloring books. The women carried purses with everything except makeup and diaper bags full of cloth diapers, plastic pants, toys, homemade health-food snacks, wooden paddles, and bulky blankets. The blankets were used as sleeping and play pallets for babies who were “blanket trained” with the paddles, switches, and slaps to stay quiet and within the confines of the pallet.

When children were old enough to sit in chairs, parents occupied them with coloring books or small Bibles. If they made noise or were too squirmy, parents took them out to the “spanking room,” a secure space set far enough away as to muffle the cries of children being spanked, whipped, or beaten. My father, not wanting to get up during services, preferred instead to reach over and grab a hunk of arm or leg muscle and pinch as hard as he could and threaten us with the belt when we got home. The men tended to beat their children with belts while the women preferred slaps, switches, and wooden paddles. Obedient children and paddles were status symbols. Each of the women had at least one paddle-ball paddle – with string and ball removed – proudly sticking out of her bag.

“Through a Glass Darkly: Virginia and the Radio Church” contains more details about my childhood and draws parallels between right-wing extremism gaining traction in the U.S. and my authoritarian upbringing in The Church.

Excerpt: The Church taught parents techniques for gaining absolute control over their children and then testing the children’s obedience. Obedient children made for future members who would do what they were told without grumbling, without questioning.

So, when my father heard somewhere that the safest place in a car during a crash was on the back floorboard, he devised an obedience test. A drill.

As he drove, he would randomly shout, “Play wreck!”

My brother and I would drop and curl on the back floorboard. We’d wait there quietly until he assured us that danger had been averted and that we had permission to get up.

“We Harlots and Temptresses: On the Anniversary of my Father’s Arrest” explores what it was like to be a teen girl in a group that hated women. This post also discusses my father’s recent incarceration (and eventual conviction) for Aggravated Sexual Battery and Rape of a Child and suggests that Armstrongism enabled and encouraged abusers like my father.

Excerpt: My father landed in a simpatico place when he fell in with Armstrongism. For someone with so little regard for women and girls, he couldn’t have found a better support system. The Church was a finishing school for misogynists. It provided my father with biblical justification for what he already assumed to be true and gave him the authority to act on his hate.

The Church confirmed that women and girls (albeit potential saints, loving wives, and devoted mothers) were incarnations of Mother Eve, the original sinner, and Bathsheba who – by their reading – should have never been bathing on that roof in the first place. Women were harlots and temptresses. They were indecisive, overly emotional, and unfit for preaching or speaking publicly among men. They were born to submit, rebellious by nature, and in need of “proper education.” They were also dirty. When they were menstruating, they were especially dirty.

 Women were to remain hidden from view. They should never catch the eye of men who might rape them, seduce them, or steal them from their rightful possessors – fathers, husbands, and ministers. Godly women were dowdy women, never in the spotlight, always in the shadows. Nature itself taught this. Female birds were but pale, washed out versions of their species. God never intended any females to upstage their male counterparts. Women were meant to cower in corners, hide under leaves, and keep the nest.

“The Bride Makes Herself Ready” shares more specific accounts of how the ministry degraded women and girls. It also gives some background into The Church’s legal troubles with the State of California and the aftermath/crackdown within the group that followed.

Excerpt: The local minister of the Knoxville congregation at the time was particularly sadistic in putting women and girls back in “our place” by reminding us that those immodest females who flaunt their bodies in bikinis and skimpy clothing would be the same women and girls trying to hide themselves when captured as prisoners during The Great Tribulation. He threatened that we would be like the women in photographs from the Holocaust, desperately trying to cover their breasts and other sex organs so as not to be raped by soldiers. We were to be stripped down naked, humiliated, and raped by soldiers if we proved unworthy of God’s protection in The Place of Safety.

“Atonement, Fasting, Nausea, Purity, and the Obedient Wife” shows how intricately connected the rigid gender roles were with Armstrong’s doctrines about being “born as God beings.”

Excerpt: Purity and obedience were supremely important to “God’s End Time Elijah,” as Herbert Armstrong referred to himself. Armstrong emphasized these qualities to the neglect of the more traditionally spiritual and communal observances of Atonement. He and his ministers taught that Atonement was about obedience to The Law of God and the prefiguration of prophetic events – namely, the casting out of Satan the Devil (the scapegoat by Armstrong’s interpretation) and the removal of Satan’s influence from the millennial World Tomorrow. Fasting was meant to cleanse The Church – aka The Bride of Christ – so that she might “present herself without spot, wrinkle, or blemish” to Jesus Christ at the Second Coming. If The Church remained an obedient wife worthy of “God’s perfect seed” – the Holy Spirit – she would then “give birth” to all baptized members. Those members – “God’s children in embryo” – would be “born again as Spirit Beings” (assuming they were individually worthy), become “part of the Godhead” or “God’s family,” and rule the earth “with a rod of iron” in the World Tomorrow.

This category of posts about the Feast of Tabernacles (3 parts in reverse chronological order), are about the highlight of our year. The posts try to capture some of the joy and sheer absurdity of this group of weirdos and abusers descending upon tourist communities around the world.

Excerpt: For eight plus days, we would get a taste for abundance, an appetite for the millennium and for gluttony (which is not a bad thing when you spend the year living parsimoniously and eating ideologically). We’d eat out every day. Adults would drink every night (rather than just on the weekly Sabbath as most were accustomed or could afford) and wouldn’t pay as much attention to what we kids were doing. We’d have more freedom. We’d swim every day, play on the beach, and go to amusement parks. It would be like a vacation only all our friends and favorite relatives, almost everyone we knew, would be on vacation with us.

Everyone would stay up late laughing. We’d open adjoining hotel rooms for parties. We’d swap stories of demons and possessions like the woman who was overtaken by a spirit calling itself “Patsy Cline” that “could sing just like her.” We’d learn how to cast them out – “In the name of Jesus, I command thee be gone!” – and feel safe again. We’d learn about being rescued by angels and levitating cars and being miraculously healed from disease.

This category of posts about the Christmas (3 parts in reverse chronological order), which was an indescribably isolating and traumatic time of year for most kids in The Church.

Excerpt: I knew it was wrong (silly even) to stand there and move my lips and pretend to sing. I might as well be singing if I did that. But how were we to deal with a situation where one minute we’re singing Frosty the Snowman or Winter Wonderland and then Boom! the next song the class is expected to sing turns out to be Little Drummer Boy or Deck the Halls? What about when we’re blissfully cutting snowflakes but then the teacher turns the activity into wreath or ornament making or Santa drawing or a surprise class Christmas party? How do we handle the Christmas play when the whole school is attending? Do we stay home? Do we sit alone and unsupervised in an empty classroom? Do we go to the school library?

The way the ministers talked about Christmastime, it was as if the whole season of winter was wrong. Maybe we shouldn’t even be singing things like Frosty the Snowman. Maybe Frosty is just another name for Nimrod (ah, the many faces of Nimrod).

As one minister explained to us, “God puts His Holy Days in the better months of the year, not in the dead of winter. Satan puts his most important festivals at the worst time of the year.” Then he went on to rail about all the candy and sweets served during the Pagan Festivals! All made with white sugar! So many abominations.

I began to wonder if winter scenes might be “Satan inspired” – slippery slopes to “Christmas keeping.”

“The First Adam / God Hates Divorce” offers a small taste of the cruelty that can come out of this sort of group and how even a mother can turn on her own child.

Excerpt: When I finally left The Church and Adam in my early 20s, my mother threatened me. She stepped in front of me as I made my way down the stairs and out the door of her house. She blocked my way, shook her finger in my face, and screamed, “You are no longer under God’s protection!”

I asked, “How can you threaten your own child like that?”

“You’re going to be burned up with the rest of The World!” she told me.

She threatened me like this for years. She stalked me and my friends. She showed up outside my classroom and studio at the university wagging her finger in my face, angry spittle flying out of her mouth, proclaiming, “Somebody’s going to get killed!”

When the threat of God’s Wrath and End Time Prophecy didn’t work, she began telling me how I was going to be homeless, how I’d be a lonely old woman, how I’d be broke and living on the street. No one would want to love me or even like me, for that matter.

I put up with this abuse for years out of guilt or some misguided understanding of her position. I figured she resented (not me personally, but) that I’d shown her a way out of The Church, her subservience, and the abuse she continued to endure. She didn’t like knowing that she didn’t have to suffer, that she could have a better life. She despised that I wasn’t suffering, although often I was – much of it at her hand. She hated my freedom.

In the upcoming months, I’ll post sections about my double life as a married teen in The Church and a university student in The World and how this period of my life mirrored my childhood spent navigating public schools with the burden of my parents’ beliefs. I’ll explain how I got sucked into The Church’s ideology (although not completely) through my youthful search for Utopias and Theories of Everything. And I’ll share how I grew out of those beliefs and escaped.

Control, Isolation, and Other Reasons We Were Forbidden to Vote

During election seasons, Herbert W. Armstrong published articles about the evils of voting and the importance of separating ourselves from The World. In articles like the one in the Oct-Nov 1984 issue of The Good News, he conflates all forms of government – whether they be monarchies, democracies, dictatorships, etc. – into a monolith he calls “Satan’s form of government” or “human government.” Church members, he writes, are “called to be separate from the world and all its affiliations, whether social, political, economic or religious” (p. 24). They are forbidden to “take any part whatsoever in the politics of this present evil world, or in any man-made form of government that is DOOMED very soon to be destroyed and replaced by the theocratic government of THE KINGDOM OF GOD!” Any members or do-gooders from other religious organizations who might try to “make this a better world” have a “wrong viewpoint altogether. This is not a world of God’s making. This is SATAN’S world!” (p.6).

Like most extremists, Armstrong mocked and reviled incremental progress. Improvement “within a corrupt system of human government” was not on his agenda and never would be. “Installing God’s Government on earth” meant overturning everything that existed and either destroying or dominating everyone who lived. Nothing was salvageable or worthy of “making better.” No one “in an unrepentant state” was worthy of living. A scorched earth – ground zero / year zero – was the only acceptable foundation for God and His Church to build their authoritarian theocracy and begin their “rule with a rod of iron.”

Armstrong’s The-Chosen-must-disengage-from-this-evil-and-irredeemable-World-before-God-destroys-it rhetoric isolated Church members and their children from the communities in which they lived. My parents and other members eagerly dehumanized those outside their special group of God’s Chosen. They mimicked and took delight in Armstrong’s bloodthirsty language of End Time destruction. As a result, they (and we kids too) grew less empathetic toward people in The World – those who would be left to die after God swept us (the special chosen few) off to The Place of Safety.

I’m still uncertain whether Armstrong believed literally what he preached. It hardly matters. The effect of his rhetoric and the intention of that rhetoric – to control members, to isolate them from their neighbors, to shut out contrary viewpoints, to keep them obedient, and to ensure that their money continued to flow into his organization – was the same no matter his personal convictions about End Time Prophecy or Church doctrines (like not voting). Armstrong actively manipulated and discouraged adult members, and us kids by extension, from harboring thoughts of empowerment or progress – from imagining there might be anything redeemable in The World. By keeping us uninvolved and unengaged, we were kept from the very experiences that might prove him wrong – that might prove some good, some betterment might come from our collective (even, God forbid, democratic) engagement with others.

Image of vintage-inspired political fabric retrieved from NinaMade’s Etsy shop.

Once during the question and answer portion of a Wednesday night Bible Study in Knoxville, a member submitted a question to Donald Corbin*, the local minister leading the study. Members didn’t speak during the question and answer, but wrote questions down on notecards, which Corbin read out loud and answered.

I don’t remember the words exactly, but the question went something like: Would it be wrong to vote for a proposition that calls for painting address numbers on the curb in front of homes? The numbers would make it easier for firefighters and police to identify houses during emergencies. Isn’t this a good thing that would help people? Isn’t voting for numbers on a curb different than voting a person into a government office?

Absolutely not, Corbin said. Voting is forbidden. This is not an exception. He went on to say something similar to what he and other ministers often said: We can’t be engaged in The World even if “we think or feel like something might be a good thing.” Don’t be deceived! Our “good intentions,” which emanate from the human mind are “enmity against God” and our hearts are “deceitful above all things.”

Ministers consistently told us that our judgments were wrong – that we should always mistrust ourselves. They mocked and laughed off our “gut feelings” as something we needed to “take to the bathroom.” We should instead “develop character,” which didn’t mean develop a conscience from which to make thoughtful and independent decisions about voting or other personal matters. “Developing character” meant simple and absolute obedience – obedience with a “right attitude.”

Corbin and other ministers used any opportunity, like a simple question about voting, to scold us for becoming too cozy with outsiders and to demand that we isolate ourselves even more than we were already isolated. If we showed any signs of engagement with The World and the people in it, we needed to disengage immediately because Satan’s Government was going down, and it was going down quickly. Those with impulses to improve anything about The World should instead be repenting, readying themselves, and praying for Christ’s Return and the end to This Present Evil World.

Maybe it was easier for my parents and other members to pray for ill-will – to wish harm upon everyone outside their tribe – when they had no contact with others or stake in their success or survival. Maybe it was easier to imagine leaving everything and everyone else to die if they never cared about them in the first place. Or, maybe it wasn’t that easy for any of them. Maybe they had to override some compassionate and ethical impulses – those “gut feelings” or those twinges of conscience – in themselves to adopt that “Godly,” detached, top-down view of The World.

I have no doubt, however, that these domineering ministers wanted us to feel powerless, isolated, and threatened with losing the only community (The Church) we had left. This was how Armstrong trained them to maintain control over members and their finances.

They wanted us to be comfortable with being told what to do. They wanted us to feel as though we had no autonomy or power over our simplest and most basic decisions. They purposely quashed any notions we had about making a difference in the quality of our lives and the lives of those around us. If we had the power to make a difference, then we might not need The Church. We might want to leave The Church. We might want to stay in The World when ordered to “get on the planes and head for The Place of Safety.” We might even want to preserve The World or look for ways to make it better rather than tear it down and build something else on the rubble. We might foster progress rather praying for an authoritarian overthrow of the government. We might become more self-reliant rather than wait on God to step in, destroy everything, and take over. We might begin to think for ourselves. We might stop giving 30% of our income to The Church.

We might band together with others in a democratic process to affect change in The World.

We might band together to affect change in The Church.

Herbert W. Armstrong (HWA) explaining his organizational diagram of the Worldwide Church of God and his place (boxes marked HWA) in the hierarchy. March 6, 1981 Worldwide News, p. 3.

Above is an unintentionally hilarious organizational diagram (close-up below) in which Herbert W. Armstrong (HWA on the diagram) demonstrates to a “congress of the leading ministers of God’s Church worldwide” (in 1981) how he, and he alone, is in charge of “all branches of God’s Government here on earth.” He explains (images and full transcript in link above) how he managed the legal battle with the State of California two years earlier by forming “a new corporate organization: Herbert W. Armstrong, Apostle for the Worldwide Church of God, a Corporation Sole,” which didn’t “require a board of directors” (p. 6). “We are now incorporated under myself,” he says (p. 6). In the transcript, he goes on to describe his diagram: God is at the top, Christ is directly underneath, and he, God’s “Apostle,” directs every branch of The Church from its “unincorporated, spiritual organism” to its incorporated entities.

This is the only organizational chart I’ve seen that doesn’t actually branch (only appears to branch) and doesn’t delegate or share responsibilities. In the image, Armstrong stands alone and uses a pointer to direct the eye. Not only does he tell, but he performs his micromanagement of all the ministers in the room and all the members in The Church. No one notices, or if they do, no one calls attention to the ridiculousness of this chart and Armstrong’s monologue. They already understand not to question authority.

“God’s government” is absolutely not democratic, Armstrong reminds the congress of ministers (and all members who will be expected to read the transcript in full) as he describes his consolidation of power. God’s Government is top-down, autocratic, and requires absolute obedience. Offices in The Church are not voted upon. Rather, God appoints ministers and others “through His Apostle” and that Apostle has the right and the obligation “for the sake of the health of The Church” to disfellowship (excommunicate) anyone at any time – to banish them out into The World from which he and his ministers had isolated them.

The transcript (p. 12) states that Armstrong’s talk was met with applause, which I don’t doubt to be true. I’m also sure that applause from the room full of male ministers was enthusiastic.

Organizational diagram of the Worldwide Church of God printed in the March 6, 1981 Worldwide News, p. 4

* The local minister’s name has been changed.

The Bride Makes Herself Ready

It was the 1980s and The World had yet to end. I’d accomplished in my young life what I’d been told would never happen. I’d made it to high school, despite the prophecies and predictions. I’d go on to graduate and attend college in this long decade of Reagan and the Cold War and, as The Church characterized it, “wars and rumors of wars.” I’d also get married – the other thing my parents and The Church told me would never happen.

In keeping with the political conservatism of the 80s, Herbert Armstrong was getting The Church “Back on Track,” as he called it. “Back on Track” was his go-to slogan and the phrase he repeated in article after article about how God was using him to get us Back on Track doctrinally, Back on Track about God’s Government (and Armstrong’s supreme place within it), Back on Track about Right Education, Back on Track about The Family, Back on Track about women’s dress and makeup, Back on Track about faith healing, Back on Track about whatever Truth had been “watered down” or lost. He named a lot of “lost Truths” and things that needed to be put “Back on the Right Track.” The Church even had a friendly caricature of him sitting in a kiddie train barreling down a track, Holy Bible in hand, and a large hand of God setting the train down on The Right Track.

Thanks-for-helping-us-get-back-on-the-right-track-Ambassador-college-envoy-1980
Ambassador College Envoy, retrieved from the 1980 yearbook.

According to Herbert Armstrong, things got off track during the mid- to late-1970s, when his good-looking, charismatic, womanizing, country music singing, televangalist son, Garner Ted was entrusted with running The Church. During that era, the elder Armstrong focused on traveling abroad, building his Ambassador Foundation, shaking hands and getting his picture taken with world leaders, and branding himself as an “Ambassador Without Portfolio.” During his absence from Headquarters, Herbert claimed that Garner Ted and other “liberal” ministers had attempted to take over The Church, corrupted the ministry and “God’s college” (Ambassador College) with “Worldly accreditation,” misled Church members, undermined Armstrong’s absolute authority as “God’s End Time Apostle,” and upset the “very foundation of God’s Government.”

In 1978, Armstrong disfellowshipped his own son and several high-ranking Church officials and began wresting control back over The Church and all its operations. He took over the weekly television broadcast, The World Tomorrow, in which he preached doomsday prophecies while flipping through his Bible, pounding on his desk with his fist, shaking his jowls, declaring himself to be God’s Chosen End Time Prophet, and decrying how his voice was “The Only Voice crying in the wilderness.” At Feasts and in taped sermons played to local congregations, Armstrong railed about how Satan the Devil had deceived The Church with secularism, intellectual vanity, mainstream Biblical scholarship, scientific theory, white-coated godlike doctors, wrong foods, women’s makeup (although Armstrong himself wore makeup for his televised broadcasts), and other forms of Worldliness. He began publishing articles about member obedience and introduced the Back on Track slogan.

Loyal ministers repeated Armstrong’s words and messages and/or added their own articles and sermons to bolster his authority. Loyal members shared articles and checked their disobedience with increasing fervor. Some members wrote letters to headquarters thanking Armstrong for expunging liberalism and for “getting The Church back on the right track.” Everyone conformed (or tried to conform or give the appearance of conforming) to the examples set by ministers and their wives. They used the same phrases, mimicked the same styles of dress, ate the right foods, and cultivated “right attitudes.”

Disloyal ministers, evangelists, and lay members either left The Church on their own or were disfellowshipped along with Garner Ted and the other higher-ups. During this membership purge, Armstrong and his loyal army of ministers and evangelists began enforcing Church doctrines from the 1950s, 60s, and early 70s. Many of the doctrinal changes served as obedience tests (Armstrong and the ministers even characterized them as such) meant to further weed out those with “Laodicean attitudes.” Laodiceans were members with “lukewarm attitudes” who, according to Armstrong’s version of “Church Era” prophecy, would be left to suffer or die in The Great Tribulation while the True Believers would be taken away, hidden, and protected in The Place of Safety (caves somewhere in the Middle East).

In January 1979, the State of California placed The Church under receivership (Pastor General’s Report, Jan 30, 1979, p.3) after charges of embezzlement and misuse of funds and concerns about Herbert Armstrong’s lavish lifestyle and private jets. Armstrong urged members to fight for The Church and its properties and “be willing to go to jail.” The Church placed security guards on the Ambassador College campus in Pasadena and refused the California officials entrance, which was met with a reciprocal response of armed guards from the State of California (Los Angeles Times, Jan 23, 1979). While The Church was under receivership and its financial assets frozen, Armstrong directed members to make their tithe checks (over $1 million total per week) directly to Herbert W. Armstrong.

My parents and other members obediently wrote their checks to Armstrong and remained at the ready for the call to further action. Members were well-practiced in obedience and readiness as they’d patiently spent years waiting for the order to get on the planes and “flee to The Place of Safety.”

My parents always told us, “When God tells us it’s time to flee, then that’s when we’ll drop everything and flee.”

Now my father was saying, “When God tells me to fight, that’s when I’ll fight.”

In the July 28, 1980 issue of The Worldwide News, the Worldwide Church of God’s membership newspaper (p.4), Herbert Armstrong offered a $100,000 reward for information regarding the source of the leaks and accusations from within the ministry that had led to the State of California taking over Church records and finances. This only added to rumors and suspicions about who was loyal and obedient and who wasn’t.

The obedience tests and doctrinal changes that followed throughout 1980s (even after Armstrong’s death in 1986 when his loyalists maintained strict control) were deeply personal, often petty, and sometimes dangerous. They included faith healing over medical intervention, no makeup for women, strict dress codes for women and girls, submissiveness of women to “the men over them,” strict hair length for men and boys, restrictions on popular music and culture, no sexual contact before marriage, no handholding or kissing before engagement, no marriage or dating outside The Church, no “interracial” dating or marriage, no “unequal yoking” as arbitrarily defined by ministers, no close friendships outside The Church, no contact with disfellowshiped former members (even family members), and absolute obedience to The Church and its “God ordained” authority.

The goal was to “purify The Church” – to make her the perfect Bride of Christ at The Second Coming – so she could “present herself untainted” without spot, blemish, painted face, immodesty, sexual impurity, ill-health, or bad attitude.

Predictably within this rhetoric of purity and environment of control, women and girls became targets (more than we already were) for emotional, spiritual, and physical abuse from The Church, its ministers, and the militia-like fathers and husbands who “enforced God’s law in the home.”

The local minister of the Knoxville congregation at the time, Donald Corbin*, was particularly sadistic in putting women and girls back in “our place” by reminding us that those immodest females who flaunt their bodies in bikinis and skimpy clothing would be the same women and girls trying to hide themselves when captured as prisoners during The Great Tribulation. He threatened that we would be like the women in photographs from the Holocaust, desperately trying to cover their breasts and other sex organs so as not to be raped by soldiers. We were to be stripped down naked, humiliated, and raped by soldiers if we proved unworthy of God’s protection in The Place of Safety.

On another occasion, Corbin gave a near word-for-word version of Armstrong’s article, “TO BE ENFORCED – Ruling on Women’s Dress,” printed in 1962 and revised in 1966 (excerpt below), which berated women (even the middle-aged and elderly members), who sat in the congregation with their legs open in skirts that rose above their knees. As did Armstrong, Corbin attempted to shame the women and girls (he could have been preaching about any of us) by telling us how he couldn’t control his sexual thoughts when faced with this abomination. How how dare we “tempt him” while he was “preaching the Word of God!”

How dare we!

As Armstrong says in his article (snippet below), women who wear skirts that are “an abomination in GOD’S eyes” deserve a “good lecture driven home by a sound SPANKING” on that part of our bottom that they so “brazenly display.” They should also “be classed as a fallen woman and a common prostitute.”

It’s no wonder my father felt like he not only had permission, but that it was his duty to call me a whore and beat me as he did.

Women dress 2
Excerpt from a Good News article written by Herbert W. Armstrong titled “TO BE ENFORCED — Ruling on Women’s Dress” (Sept. 1966). Retrieved from the Herbert W. Armstrong Searchable Library.

Much of the control and shaming was directed at women and girls, but couples and men and boys were also targeted. Any of us could be singled out individually.

Corbin fostered an atmosphere of anxiety and suspicion by preaching (as other local ministers in other areas did) about everyone’s “sins” and calling out individuals and couples for defiant attitudes, disobedience, working on the Sabbath, premarital sex, divorce due to “sexual fraud” where a partner claimed to be a virgin and wasn’t, and a particularly scandalous marriage ceremony that Corbin was “forced to perform” due to premarital sex and pregnancy. Usually he didn’t name names, which gave us time to eye one another with suspicion or turn on ourselves in real or imagined guilt. Often he made identities clear by sharing enough details about the individuals and their particular “sins.” If members still had doubt about who was “being made an example of,” they would gossip amongst themselves and take note of who was present and absent from Sabbath Services and surmise that that person had been “ temporarily suspended from services” due to their offenses. In the most egregious cases where baptized members were insubordinate or asked the wrong questions, Corbin (and all local ministers) disfellowshipped them and named them by name.

We needed to know who to shun if they were to reach out to us.

engagement ring
Photo taken by Mark Guim. Retrieved from Flickr via Creative Commons.

It was in this toxic stew of 1980s conservatism, “family values” rhetoric in politics, “Bride of Christ” preaching, and authoritarian abuses at home and in The Church that Adam* and I began planning our engagement and marriage. I was still a high school student, but already I was preparing to be a bride.

After a contrived dinner and an awkwardly staged moment when we all knew what was about to happen, my mother, brother, and I left the room so Adam and my father could talk. In keeping with Church teaching and patriarchal principles, Adam nervously asked my father for “permission” to marry me.

And so I was passed as property from one man to another.

When I was brought back into the room, my father had me agree to one condition. He made me promise that I would go to college and get my degree.

I’d already applied to (or was about to apply) to the flagship state university in our town of Knoxville. While other kids in the local congregation were applying to Ambassador College, I had no interest in “God’s College” and had never even considered that option. Besides, my parents would have never given up the control that would allow me to move across the country by myself. They also, thankfully, actively discouraged me and my brother from considering Ambassador.

“Unless you want to be a minister or a minister’s wife,” my mother would say, “there’s no need to go there.” And she was right.

I did however sometimes have the stray fantasy that I might attend one of those other out-of-state schools, the schools that sent me brochures in the mail with faces of smiling young women and promises of a new life in a new place, but I didn’t want to leave Adam. Also, I didn’t know enough about financial aid to ever apply to any of them. I knew nothing about legal emancipation from my parents. I fancied that in some other financial circumstance I might have been able to live on my own without getting married, maybe in a dorm, but I didn’t know enough about anything to know how that would ever happen.

All I knew was that I was financially dependent on my parents and that they had agreed to pay my tuition to the University of Tennessee as long as I lived at home. I would live there with them and commute until I could live with my husband and commute. Then I would be financially dependent on my husband.

I imagined I would be free.

Of course I agreed to my father’s condition for granting me permission to marry. I would go to college and I would graduate. Of course, I would. For a moment it was almost as if my father believed that The World might continue on and that I might be able to have a life, a career even.

And in the same breath, he turned around and pointed his finger at me and said, “You better not be getting married to try to run away from something.”

From him. My father knew I was running away from him. And he wanted me to know that he knew I was running away from him.

And maybe, just maybe, he wanted me to have a backup plan.

*Names have been changed. 

When I Started to Hit Back: Prison Letters, a Woman’s Place, a Girl’s Value, Baggage, and Shame upon the Family

I took a suitcase full of prison letters with me when we moved from NC to TN. I kept them in the closet of my new bedroom – the one with the bed still on the floor and the walls painted black (before my mother gave it the peach wall and 18th-century furniture makeover). The suitcase was soft-sided blue and green tapestry with a pleather teal-colored strap and a side pocket for stashing pen, paper, whatever letter I was writing, and recent letters I’d received. It had a zipper ¾ the way around the top edge where I could open it, flap back the tapestry cloth, and add to the pile of letters inside or take out old letters and reread them.

The suitcase had been my mother’s Avon Bag, a hand-me-down from an earlier time when my brother and I were little and my mother sold cosmetics to suburban housewives and professional women – “working women,” she called them – while herself not wearing a stitch of makeup or “working outside the home” exactly.

By now, my brother and I were older and The Church “allowed” women like my mother with teen and tween children “to work.” According to Church doctrine, putting Godly women into the workforce was not an ideal situation and would in no way alleviate or redistribute the burden of my mother’s or any wife’s homemaking and mothering responsibilities or mitigate any sin a woman might commit while neglecting her “primary role as the keeper at home.”

“Two wrongs don’t make a right,” my mother answered whenever I asked why my father couldn’t pick up more of the cooking and housekeeping slack.

The open secret was that my mother liked working. She liked her work friends and felt more camaraderie with them than with the uptight, gossipy, and judgmental tribe of women in the Knoxville congregation. She liked having her own money separate from my father’s. Her money was hers while my father’s money remained theirs, since he was “the provider of the family.” His “provider role” freed her to buy what she wanted with her money – expensive furnishings for the house (like that 18th-century bedroom suite she would eventually buy for me), nice clothes for us kids, and luxury kitchen appliances.

“Even the perfect woman of Proverbs 31 ‘whose price was far above rubies’ bought and sold things and made money for her family and added to her husband’s wealth,” my mother reminded us as she took other jobs outside the home.

A couple of years after the move to TN, my mother took a job as a paralegal in a large government agency. She worked long hours preparing deposition documents before trials, which seemed to be most of the time. She got up before dawn and took the bus downtown or sometimes drove. She often didn’t get home until 8:30 or so in the evening. Sometimes my father would call her at work and embarrass her by demanding she get on the next bus or drive home immediately to cook dinner lest he drive down there himself and get her, which he sometimes did.

During the time she worked there, my last couple of years at home, I picked up a lot of the cooking duties. My father occasionally helped out. He sometimes supervised what I was cooking or told me how to do it better, as he often did with my mother.

One evening I was cooking dinner. I was about 16. Adam* and I were starting to get serious in our relationship and that night he was coming over after work to eat with us. It was early in the week, so we still had a lot of food left over from the Sabbath meal. I was mostly pulling together leftovers and adding to them, making a salad, and whatnot.

My father didn’t like that I’d planned to reheat mashed potatoes. He insisted I get fresh potatoes, peel them, boil them, strain them, get out the mixer, and whip them up with butter and milk. And, of course, I argued with him because it made no sense for me to go through all that work and be so wasteful.

The argument escalated. He pulled me out of the kitchen and down the hall into his and my mother’s bedroom. He yanked off his belt and got right in my face with his beet red rage and twitching jaw muscles. He kept yelling and backing me against the wall.

When he reached out to grab me to flip me around, I slapped him across the face. As soon as I hit him, I started crying because I knew this would make him angrier and the lashing would last longer and be delivered with more force. I also knew that I had unleashed an impulse in myself that could not be put back into any fearful little box. From that moment, I knew I would continue to strike back out of reflex and muscle memory. It was an impulse I may or may not be able to control. I finally understood myself and what I was capable of doing.

“I’ve spent a lot of time understanding my own violence, which is not of the pussycat kind. There are people who could never commit murder. I am not one of those people,” Jeanette Winterson writes in her memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (p. 46). “It is better to know it. Better to know who you are, and what lies in you, what you could do, might do, under extreme provocation.”

When I was a child, I thought as a child. I prayed to a mightier hand than mine. I prayed for an all-powerful God to do my bidding, to kill my father in an airplane crash on one of his bi-weekly business trips. I never even considered the other people on the plane. They were of no consequence. They were of The World. God had promised to kill them soon enough anyway. I didn’t have to think of them as human any more than The Church thought of them as human. I was just trying to save my own skin like Church members were trying to save their own skins by remaining among God’s Elect like my mother is still trying to save herself by projecting her anger onto an Almighty God who will do her bidding.

As a teen, I put away childish things. I didn’t need to project my anger onto God. I didn’t need to pretend that God was the angry one. I was the angry one. I knew I was the angry one. I grew my anger. I fed it. I owned it. My anger was mine and I loved it. It made me feel powerful. I was powerful enough to slap my father across his face. I was powerful enough to pull a sliding closet door right off its tracks while wearing high heels and getting dressed for Church. I was powerful enough to slam an iron down on an ironing board and crack it at its base while pressing my Sabbath clothes.

The anger grew every time my father went outside and spied on me and a boy through the basement window, every time he yanked me up from someone’s arms and lashed me with a belt, every time he told my younger brother what I was “up to” with details like “he had his hand between her legs,” every time he told any of us that I looked like a slut or a whore, and every time he shamed me and incited others to disregard my agency and my humanity.

That night arguing over mashed potatoes turned into another one of those horrible lashings with a belt, which I was way too old to get – as if a belt lashing is something appropriate for younger children who are less able to bear the pain. The pain and trauma is more when we’re little, but the humiliation (especially for girls with our sexually mature bottoms) is much worse.

Why would a grown man repeatedly beat a mature girl’s ass with a belt with all his might, if not out of sadism or titillation or both?

I knew I had to get out of that house.

Image courtesy of Brice Loveland.

The letters in the Avon bag were from James*, a 22 year old youth I’d met at a public swimming pool in Raleigh who was now serving time in a minimum security prison for breaking into people’s houses while they were at work and stealing things. He’d written them to me, first from the county jail where he sat unable to make bail, and then from the minimum-security prison for non-violent offenders. And I’d written him back. We’d written at least twice a week for a year and a half and would continue to write for a couple more years.

James wrote beautiful letters describing day-to-day prison life, conversations with friends he’d made there, declarations of love, poetry, and artwork. He decorated his envelopes with color pencil drawings of typical prison art subject matter – folding ribbons, intricate roses, interlocking hearts – similar to the art of a certain genre of tattoos. Sometimes James sent me artwork from fellow inmates.

Two years ago, my father (who had been sentenced to prison a year earlier) sent me a few small works of prison art that he’d purchased from other inmates by trading granola bars and other commissary food items. One of them was a birthday present, a purse made of paper woven from magazine pages.

Before he mailed the purse, he told me over the phone, “If you like prison art, keep it. If not, then throw it away.”

“You know I like prison art,” I said.

Prison art envelope created by Jeremy Card. Retrieved from the Human Kindness Foundation via Creative Commons. The foundation’s primary work is “the Prison-Ashram Project, which encourages people who are incarcerated to use their time for focused spiritual growth.”

In reading this, I’m sure some will judge me harshly for being the girl who “deserves it” (whatever “it” may be – abuse at any given moment depending on the mores and punishments of the times) or will judge James harshly for carrying on a romance with an underage girl within a fenced yard of a swimming pool among a large crowd of other youths aged 13-22, all smoking weed and playing pinball machines and foosball tables. These will be the same people who’ll give my father, the elderly gentleman of 74 who had been a minister and a respected professional, a pass for violating a 10-year old girl for a year and a half (possibly longer) and then being convicted of his crimes: Aggravated Sexual Battery and Rape of a Child.

It’s significant that my father’s crimes were not committed during the girl’s puberty. He likely stopped abusing the girl as soon as she began to develop secondary sexual characteristics. He probably became disgusted with her, as he was with all women and girls of reproductive age, if my mother and I were any examples. His favorite nicknames for my mother were “Lard Butt” and “Lard Bucket,” which I think were his “cleaned up versions” of cum bucket. He liked to refer to euphemistic language as “cleaned up versions.”

Also likely, the little girl got some of those emboldening teenage hormones coursing through her system and began to rebel, not to keep secrets, to refuse, or otherwise to “act out.” She probably became “uncontrollable,” just as I became uncontrollable past the age of 12. She probably began to take interest in boys close to her own age, provoking my father to jealousy and further repulsion.

Regarding James, my mother would say years later, “We were so lenient with you. Too lenient.”

But my father would make their “leniency” clear: “Why do you think we let you keep seeing that guy in prison?”

I’d answer, “Oh, I don’t know. Because I couldn’t get pregnant?”

He’d point his finger at me in the shape of a gun and fire, “Bingo! You got it!”

I wasn’t having vaginal penetrative sex with a boy, any boy, except in my father’s dirty imagination about my body. (Not that what I was or wasn’t doing even matters. Feminine sexuality doesn’t deserve physical abuse and slut shaming.) But he thought if I stayed occupied writing to someone inaccessible that that would keep me from other boys and men and from “bringing shame upon the family.”

Little did he know that teens from The Church were not the most loyal or monogamous crowd. We Church Kids had spent all our young lives being duplicitous, living double lives. We were well-practiced in polyamory and were comfortable with Church boyfriends and school boyfriends, Feast girlfriends and local girlfriends. We knew how to juggle multiple worlds and multiple relationships.

Within my little in-group of Church kids in Raleigh, we could be honest with one another. A school boyfriend may not know about a Church boyfriend, but the partner from The Church pretty certainly knew about the other and was okay with that. Other cliques within The Church may have operated differently.

Image retrieved via Creative Commons.

I was 16 or 17 when Adam and I decided to get married. It was then that I made the decision to stop writing to James. In usual in-group/out-group (The Church/The World) form, James knew nothing of Adam, but Adam knew all about James.

I told Adam that I’d stopped writing (although he never asked me to) and that I wanted to throw the letters away. They were baggage I didn’t want to keep.

Adam reluctantly agreed to help.

I put the Avon bag in his car and told him to drive me to the back of a nearby grocery store. There was a dumpster there where I could throw the lot of them away.

“You don’t have to do this,” he said as if it physically pained him to see me do something I might later regret.

“I want to do this,” I told him.

I unzipped the suitcase, climbed on the edge of the dumpster, and scattered all the letters in the trash. I got back in the car. And we drove away.

*Names have been changed.