Social Issues

raised to be a monster

from Pan’s Labyrinth

I sat on the couch in the nursery, playing with some loose threads while I watched Mrs. Grace* entertain the baby on her lap. She’d been playing peekabo for the past few minutes when she suddenly saw the baby, Anna*, notice her necklace. It was an antique pendant watch with delicate scroll work, and Anna seem fascinated by the movement of the hands. Mrs. Grace dangled the pendant in front of her, telling her “it’s ok, you can touch it, go ahead.”

I watched as Anna turned to look at her mother who was sitting across the room. Mrs. Dianna slowly shook her head, pursed her lips, frowned, and made a subtle wagging motion with her index finger. Anna turned back to look at Mrs. Grace and very seriously shook her head.

I sat there, impressed and in awe. Anna was an infant– just a few months old! How had Mrs. Dianna done that? I marveled. It was amazing what consistent discipline could do!


When I was sixteen, I got into an argument with a boy at church. He was a public school student in a church that idolized homeschooling and had been severely mocked for it by most of the kids at church. He’d called homeschoolers uneducated idiots, I’d called public school students homicidal maniacs, and we’d ended up yelling at each other and then not speaking for the rest of the night– or the week.

The next week the ride home from church was dead silent. I could tell that my father was angry about something, but I had no idea what, although I had the sense that it was directed at me in some way. When we got home we went straight to the bedroom and he pulled out a yardstick and told me to bend over. He told me that I was being punished for being cruel to a boy at church, which left me confused and frightened. I had no idea what he was talking about. I protested and tried to explain my confusion, but it didn’t matter. I received a spanking– and, true to the Pearl’s methods, he continued spanking me until I displayed repentance and contrition and all signs of rebellion were gone.

He broke six yardsticks over me, eventually switching to his leather belt. The spanking went on for forever, because I continued to say that I was innocent, and that was rebellion. The next day, I couldn’t sit down, and when I looked in the mirror I saw that I was beginning to bruise– badly. It was the first and only time a spanking had ever left a mark, and it left me with a vague sense of pride that I’d endured so much.

A few days later, when I was sitting on the edge of my seat, leaning forward, at the dinner table, my father grew frustrated. “What are you doing that for? Stop being so melodramatic.”

I calmly explained that I couldn’t sit down normally, and I saw my father’s eyes widen. He told my mother to look at me, and when we emerged from their bathroom, my mom looked at my dad– but I couldn’t read her expression. “I think her tailbone is broken.”

I watched my father’s face as it cracked. Horror burst into his eyes as they filled with tears. He pulled me into a fierce hug, and I could feel him cry into my hair. He apologized, over and over, begging my forgiveness.

I was confused as I stood in his arms, frozen and stiff. He’d done exactly the right thing. He’d done what I’d been trained to believe was the only possible way to “train up a child in the way he should go.” He was only doing the best possible thing for my spiritual well-being.


“I can still chase you down and beat you.”

I winced. It’s nothing, Samantha, I told myself. Don’t over-react. It’s just a joke– a joke most parents use at some point. It doesn’t mean anything. I felt my knee start bouncing and tried to calm myself. He doesn’t actually mean “beat.” He’d never do that.

As the sermon continued that Sunday morning, my mind kept flicking back to that moment. And I kept reminding myself that “beat,” in my culture, is a euphemism. It doesn’t actually mean beat for most people. Hardly anyone would do anything substantially more than a swat or two.

And, then, suddenly, he started talking about a couple of new parents bringing their baby to church, and man, don’t you just wish you could spank that baby? And then he laughed, and said “of course I’m being facetious. No one would actually do that, that’s crazy.”

But all I could see was Anna’s face, staring at her mother, as it transformed into a mask of fear and terror. Her mother hadn’t had to lift her hand, or yell, or rage, or do anything. She simply pursed her lips and wagged her finger, and that was enough to ensure that Anna was frozen and helpless. I just barely managed to survive getting out of the auditorium. The entire time we made small talk in the lobby, I wanted to vomit. During the drive home I chatted idly with my husband, flinching every time Anna’s face appeared in my memory, her eyes wide and her lip quivering. I made it all the way to lunch– and then I broke down.

“He thinks it’s funny because he doesn’t think anyone would do that, but I’ve known people who not only do that, they think it’s biblical. Oh, God, I was one of those people. I thought that there wasn’t anything wrong with spanking a baby. I believed that it was biblical and right to spank a baby. I was one of those monsters!”

And my husband held me as I sobbed.


I’ve told that story about Anna and the pendant countless times since that day. I’ve expounded on all the marvelous benefits of child training often an early, and the importance of consistency and, of course, never spanking in anger. I’ve talked about that night when my father broke my tailbone as if it were a funny story– a hilarious anecdote that I shared when a bunch of us homeschool kids got together and started swapping impressive spanking stories. I was basically repeating, verbatim, the teachings of people like Michael and Debi Pearl, who wrote No Greater Joy and To Train up a Child. One of my mother’s best friends had given her both of those books, and I read them like they were gospel growing up. When I was a mother there would be no screaming. When I was a mother I would house-proof my baby, not baby-proof my house. When I was a mother . . .

Telling these stories, today, however, I’m trying not to cry. Because, looking back, I can see the twisted evil of everything I witnessed and experienced.

What makes it so evil is that what teachings like what’s found in the pages of books like To Train up a Child turn good, amazing, loving, responsible parents into monsters. My parents loved me– they love me so much I can barely understand it at times. They’ve constantly supported me, they’ve stood up for me, they’ve defended me . . . they love me, and they always have. It’s because they loved me that they fell in with these ideas. They desperately wanted to be the best possible parents that they could be– and they believed that what they were being taught was the only way to be good parents. Do this and your children won’t depart from these ways when they are old. They didn’t know better, and they looked around at all the parents who were following these methods, and their kids were so happy, so content, so well behaved.

So, in the name of how much they loved me, they were led to do abusive things.

It has nothing to do with my parents being abusive people. They are not abusers. What is so frightening about these teachings is that they blur the line so badly. They’re insidious, because to parents who have absolutely no desire to harm their children, these teachings, on the surface, seem alright. There seems to be cautious admonishments for parents to have discernment– all the while telling them that if you do not drive rebellion out of their heart you are damning their very soul. And when you’re involved in these sorts of circles, it turns into a downward spiral. The methods escalate, the attitudes become more severe. Parents are sucked into viewing their child as the enemy– you are in a constant, never-ending battle for the fate of your child’s soul, and you cannot give up.

Writing about this is difficult– I’ve been avoiding talking about this for months. Because these sorts of stories– they are not representative of who these people are, especially not my parents. But, with all the stories that have been coming to light in the past month, I felt it was time to speak. I’m not Lydia, or Hana— but most of us aren’t. Most of us have stories like mine– stories of parents who were only trying to do their best.

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  • I don’t want to “like” this, for fear it will make others think this sort of discipline is what I condone.. (no way in hell buddy!)

    This is exactly why we gently raise my boys. I don’t want them to know what it is to be hurting so badly on your backside that any position (sitting, laying, standing) hurts.

    This is exactly why this is illegal here. 🙁

  • I hesitate to comment on this because I am so ashamed. I was one of those young parents who was taught from the pulpit that a spanking wasn’t good enough UNLESS IT LEFT A MARK on your child’s buttocks. The first time that happened, I was so horrified, and to this day it sickens me to remember what happened. I got rid of the paddle that day and never used it again. The damage done is not only to the child, but to parents who buy into the theory in a book, and then see for themselves the outcome. Your father’s reaction mirrors mine. I can never take that moment back. It’s something we have to live with forever. I know it;s hard for you to write about this, but it is so very valuable for people to understand. It’s also a place of healing for those of us who believed a lie.

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  • Your story needs to be told and retold. Hugs to you on your healing journey.

  • Alena@TheHomemadeCreative

    My father was an actual abuser, and my mother became one eventually, though she’s trying to find her way back, now. Spankings and beatings…they tell me there’s a difference, but all I can see is pain intentionally inflicted. I had a more positive view toward spanking until I had my daughter, but after one light swat to the thigh when she was scratching me while nursing and wouldn’t stop with gentle verbal correction, and her whole face was so shocked, and then she started sobbing and clinging to me (and this was a VERY light swat, with my fingertips, through clothing)… I was positively wracked by guilt. I know wonderful parents who spank their children. I don’t know how to reconcile it. We do not spank, though I sometimes forget and return in the moment to a swat, and then feel like a monster for days. I’m proud of you for speaking out. Thank you for helping me do the same.

  • Fortunately for me, I left fundamentalism before the developments of the home schooling, Pearls, and kissing dating goodbye.

    In our less sophisticated circles, we cited “Spare not the rod and spoil the child” and “Raise up a child in the way it should go and it shall not depart.” But we did not have an organized system of rules for God’s plan for the family.

    When I read these things, I want to cry. Even though this is not my experience (and my experience was bad enough), I have purchased a couple Pearl books and am ordering kiss dating goodbye. I know it will be horrific reading, but I must.

    Thanks Samantha, and others, for opening my eyes to this systematic horror.

  • This also reminds me of a time I was at church and the 6 month old was crying. He kept crying and would never get quiet. Finally after 20 minutes or so, one of the other nursery workers said to the 6 month old, “Be quiet, or I will go get your dad.” The baby was instantly quiet. Then she looked at me and said “oooh, now that’s scary.” But at the time I thought it was a good sign.

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  • I have to admit that I really struggled to read this. First, it reflects my own experience. All I can say is, “I understand completely; and I’m so sorry you experienced this.” But, second, I don’t know how to react to your claim that your parents weren’t abusers. Obviously, I have no right to tell you who your parents are or aren’t. I also understand and agree to some degree with the distinction you want to make. There is a world of difference between someone who knows that what she is doing is wrong and harmful and does it anyway (perhaps even just because it is harmful) and someone who does harm genuinely believing that it is right. However, I am afraid that if “genuine belief” exculpates, it exculpates far too many. Do we say that some suicide bombers aren’t murders because they genuinely believe they are doing God’s will? Are people who have been taught and genuinely believe that black skin is a curse from God not really racists? Don’t they bear some sort of moral and epistemic responsibility for the views they choose to accept? Why, then, should we say that people who blindly follow the Pearls, or similar teaching, aren’t really abusers, simply because they loved us? Love is a good thing. It made my parents much better parents than they would have been otherwise. But it didn’t prevent my dad from being an abuser or my mom for supporting his abuse.

    • *murderers*

    • Ruana

      I agree. The existence or otherwise of abusive behaviour is not determined by the intentions of the individual engaging in said behaviour. The parents’ behaviour was abusive, therefore they were abusers, no matter how sincerely they meant it for the best.

      • While I appreciate what you and Aleheianna are saying, I don’t think the world is this black-and-white. I’ve been in relationships with people who were abusers. I’ve experienced spiritual abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse, verbal abuse, emotional manipulation– all at very different points in my life from people I would all label, without compunction, as abusers.

        There is a difference between someone who is an abuser and someone who does hurtful, damaging, wrong things very innocently. Human beings are capable of doing incredibly harmful– unspeakably harmful– things to one another, all while not understanding at all that what we’re doing is harmful.

        The second my parents realized that what they were doing was harmful, they stopped. That’s the difference. An abuser doesn’t care.

    • I don’t think “genuine belief” excuses anything. What my parents did to me was wrong– and they have repented of it and sought my forgiveness. After the incident I described here, I don’t think my father ever used corporal punishment on me ever again. What they believed about what they were doing doesn’t make it ok, and I would never condone this sort of behavior from anyone. It is always wrong. However, it is a mitigating factor.

      • I think I took your claim to mean more than you intended it to. I agree that it is a mitigating factor–A really important one. I would probably still call a person who practices systematic abuse (even with pure motives) an abuser (at least at that point in his/her life), just as I would call someone who habitually lies, a liar. But maybe this is just a matter of semantics rather than substance. The important part is that it was wrong, they were misguided, they realized their mistake, and then they changed.

  • Samantha – This was heart wrenching to read, but necessary to talk about. Thank you for being so bold.

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  • It was very brave to bring this up. It can help to look up the work of Alice Miller. She wrote about how the pre-WWII child rearing in Germany, which was very strict and coercive, led to reflexive obedience… to the Third Reich.

    But it is important to remember the motivations. Yes, actions like this are abusive. But the Authority Figures who claimed this was godly; they are abusive with far greater power, and must bear the majority of the blame.

  • Mom

    She forgot to mention how the boy that incited the incident blame-shifted the entire argument to Sam when he recounted it to his mother. In grace, I do understand because his whole life was constantly being called on the carpet in front of the church and he was being manipulated in the most horrible way possible, and after being the ‘pastor’s’ pet project for several months, became interested in one of the ‘pastor’s’ daughters, which then resulted in one of the worst cases of abuse from the pulpit causing the family to leave the church…. about a year after this argument.

    We handled it very badly.

    We heard from his mom that this argument had made him suicidal, and he had blamed Sam. She called us not to get Sam in trouble, but she couldn’t get out of him what Sam had said to him.

    We over-reacted.

    I say we because I disagreed with how it was addressed and stared mutely at the closed door. Fundamentalism had robbed me of my power to open the door and stop it. Fundamentalism had robbed my husband (who never read the Pearl’s book yet heard it’s BIBLICAL tenants from the pulpit on a weekly basis) of common-sense.

    Her tailbone was bruised pretty badly, and once restored to his rational self my husband repented and this incident I think was the first foot of the path for us AWAY from fundamentalism.

    All he wanted was for Sam to tell him what she did that had made ___ want to kill himself.

    We now know, nothing. And everything. These were 2 kids who were handed SWORDS from the pulpit and told to SWING AWAY. No grace, no love, no understanding, no valuing differences, no logic. They were CHILDREN.

    It was us the parents who needed a sound beating for putting our kids in such a place.

    • Thank you so much for saying these things publicly. I know it would mean the world to many of us if our parents could realize and admit that their approach was wrong and very, very damaging. Even though I will probably never hear that from my parents, it means a lot to hear it from another parent.

  • Mom

    To those who would label me an abuser.

    I take responsibility for my actions. But my actions didn’t occur inside a bubble, If you’ve never been IN a cult, you will never understand it. ANY of it…. you CAN’T. All belief systems can become a cult, and that’s the scary part.

    We don’t hate any of these people, I’m still friends will everyone else who got out. This young man’s mother is one of my dearest friends and just about the kindest person I know. We were not monsters.

    We were sold a lie from the pits of hell by a man wielding a Bible like a sword. There was not a decision we made without explaining it to him, or someone else. We didn’t have friends outside the cult, that is how a cult or any abusive relationship functions. It cuts you off from the world outside, controls your decision making process, replaces the ideas in your head with the leaders, dire consequences (but not TOO dire you need SOME hope) are threatened, constantly. Outside sources of information are filtered through the mesh that’s been erected, and any disagreement is not allowed, that’s sowing discord and that’s rebellion which is akin to witchcraft.

    It isn’t done overnight, and it isn’t UNDONE overnight either.

    I’m just grateful that I survived it with my family and my faith intact.

    • Mom… when Samantha recounted your’s and your husband’s shock at the broken tailbone, I realised you weren’t abusers. As someone in another comment said, an abuser wouldn’t care. He might feel a bit of remorse but he’d keep right on with the abuse, perhaps toning it down a little to avoid repercussions.
      It seems to me EVERYONE who gets involved in this sort of culture becomes a victim somehow; unless they start to like it. I’m glad you have survived it, and have the courage to tell your story.

  • Thank you for sharing your difficult story with us.

    I come from a world where when I first learned that spanking existed, with or without paddles/”tools”, I was horrified. To this day, I truly cannot relate. I have not actually heard a single story from a person I’ve met in real life where they told me their parents spanked them in their childhood. People around me weren’t like that. My friends’ parents raised children with “time outs” and a stern talking to and that is it.

    The idea of using physical violence as a reasonable punishment is so foreign to me.

    My mother was abusive to me, mainly verbally, growing up. Over time, it escalated into physical things but she never physically hurt me as badly as some of these parents who spanked did. My mother never made me unable to sit down or broke a bone or left a visible bruise. She did make me bleed with scratches, and hurt me temporarily by pulling my hair, and she broke material objects that I cherished, made messes I had to clean up by throwing around boxes of cereal, etc. When I was 17, I learned she had some specific mental illnesses, which would explain a lot of her behavior. It doesn’t mean she wasn’t an abuser, but it means there was a reason why she was abusive, and it makes it somewhat less painful to know that the person hurting you has some reason for their horrific actions. It’s still awful and frustrating and everything else, but it is such a relief to know that there’s a reason why she acts the way she does, and why.

    I think the problem with the spanking thing is that many children believe it is the only way to not spoil children. It was done to them and they still love their parents. They’ve seen spoiled children before and don’t want their kids to turn out like that. So the cycle continues. But it is not the only way to not spoil children – and while my brother and I also were not spoiled or spanked, we were similarly abused. You get to the point where you would do anything to avoid the punishment, rather than learning right from wrong and to make the right choices in situations.

    Corporal Punishment is one of the many things in the world that saddens me. I hope more and more people leave it behind in the upcoming generation.

  • I read this story a couple of days ago and I can’t get it out of my mind. Graphic and powerful. In all my years of being in the fundamentalist movement, I’d have to say that most of the people I knew weren’t abusers at heart. When they abused their children, it was because their religion taught them to, as was the case with Samantha’s parents. The severe spanking that she received was exactly the kind of discipline fundamentalist gurus encouraged. I don’t know if any of you remember the book Becoming Babywise by Gary Ezzo, a fundamentalist minister, but it came to my mind as an example of encouraging parents to abuse children even at a very young age. In this book, nursing mothers are taught to put their babies on a strict feeding schedule (called Parent Directed Feeding) and not to allow the baby’s cries for food to persuade them to change the schedule. I find this appalling on many levels, and so does Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, professor emeritus of pediatrics at Harvard Medical school. When he was asked his opinion of the Babywise parenting books by an interviewer for the Cincinnati Enquirer, he is quoted as saying, “I’m horrified. I’m absolutely horrified.” And so am I. It’s another example of fundamentalists abusing their children right from the get-go. They do this because they are led to believe by their leaders that such abuse is necessary to raise morally upright children. Hogwash!

  • Julie

    My sister was involved with a church that encouraged parents to whip their kids with a belt or strap, even as young as 2 or 3. And it wasn’t a proper spanking unless the child was whipped naked and it left marks. I was finally able to take some sense into her and she left that cult. It’s just amazing how cruel some people can be in the name of religion.

  • Marcie

    Thank you so much for this. And for writing. Yes, you are so right that it turns loving parents into monsters. I was one of them. I believed with all my heart that I was doing the best thing I could for my kids and that if I just did it right, it would almost guarantee that they would be godly kids and godly adults. I am angry…angry at the ‘teachers” and authors who wrote this garbage, and angry at myself for listening, and even angry at God for “endorsing” verses about how children (babies?) need to obey their parents, and how parents need to use the rod or they don’t love their children, etc. I don’t know what to do about this anger and I don’t know how to move past this. I don’t know what this is doing to my faith in Jesus and I have no one to talk to about this. Thanks for listening.