Browsing Tag

abuse

Social Issues

Living in the Loopholes: Home Education and Abuse

As y’all know, I spent this past weekend in Raleigh, NC presenting at The Courage Conference with my friend and colleague Carmen Green. Preparing for that took a lot more out of me than I thought it would– we both wanted to emphasize story telling instead of getting deep into the weeds on the facts and legalities, so I spent the bulk of last week digging through the Homeschooling’s Invisible Children database looking for stories that illustrated each type of abuse we wanted to talk about. That took a toll, and then the conference was also emotionally draining. It was a good experience and I’m very glad I went, but the focus was on abuse and two days of that is just going to be hard.

I was looking forward to meeting Boz Tchividjian, who founded Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE) and whose work I’ve talked a lot about. He was as incredible in person as I thought he’d be, and it was comforting to meet an older white man who actually gives a shit and is actively doing something to fight abuse in Christian culture. I also got to meet Linda Kay Klein, who is as impressive in person as she sounds on paper. She has a book on purity culture coming out next year (Man-Made Girls) and I’m now desperate to read it. The second I have a copy, I will be posting a review. Her talk on the modesty doctrine was funny and insightful and tender and beautiful, and I was definitely impressed with her.

You can still actually “attend” The Courage Conference if you’d like to– you can buy online tickets to see video recordings of the main speakers, and I think it’s worth the $20. Also, in coordination with The Courage Conference, I’ve made it possible for you to see the workshop Carmen and I did. If you make at least a $5 donation to my Patreon this month, I will contact you with a password to view the video after Patreon processes everyone’s transactions.

Also, here’s the PowerPoint presentation if you’d like to take a look at it.

Many thanks to everyone here who made presenting at this conference possible. Your readership and support over the years is why I continue doing this sort of work. The workshop we gave seemed to make a really big impact with the people who came– many said they’d learned a ton that they could instantly put to practical use to fight abuse. You made it possible for us to do that, so thank you.

Social Issues

The Courage Conference: Homeschooling & Abuse

I mentioned this in passing a bit ago, but wanted to take some time to really give this the attention it deserves. I will be presenting at The Courage Conference in Raleigh, NC on October 20-21. Here’s the description of the conference from the website:

The Courage Conference is a non-denominational event that will offer a judgement-free place for survivors of abuse (and those who love them) to gather and hear inspiring stories from other survivors about moving forward in boldness and healing. The event will also educate pastors and church leaders on the topic of abuse and introduce them to safe practices and resources for their faith community. The Courage Conference offers a unique opportunity to hear from advocates and trained professionals through inspiring keynotes talks, Q&A sessions and workshops in addition to connecting attendees with local and national resources, so you don’t have to do this alone.

I’m excited about the lineup of speakers, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to talk about a topic I think is not well understood. Abuse in homeschooling environments can be so headline-grabbing (children locked in closets and starved to death, chopped up and stored in freezers for years, beaten to death) that most news outlets seem to get pretty myopic. While all of those happen and definitely deserve to be addressed as the atrocities they are, the focus on what are, in actuality, a handful of cases out of millions of homeschooled children lets homeschoolers who are abusive in much more mundane ways escape notice. People can say “we’re nothing like that” or “I don’t know anyone like that” and then dismiss the need to examine their communities for the ways it might enable abuse.

These communities end up fighting any kind of oversight and frequently use the sometimes-myopic treatment of the press as a way to cry persecution. Why should they be punished with regulations and oversight because someone somewhere did something unspeakably awful? It happens again and again in the conversations I find myself in about homeschooling and the need for oversight. We end up talking past each other– they think I’m thinking of Lydia Schatz when I’m talking about my own experience and how every single child I knew in my homeschooling communities were physically abused. Not locked in closets, not starved, not murdered, but still very much abused. They feel comfortable with “self-regulation” because no one they know is an axe-wielding child murderer, and they get to ignore the other forms of abuse that may not be obvious to them.

My presentation, which I’ll be giving with Carmen Green who’s founded the Center for Home Education Policy and who you can read about here (I was background research for that article, btw), will be going over all of that for about an hour. What does abuse in homeschools actually tend to look like, and what can we do about it?

Anyway, if you can make it to Raleigh, NC in two weeks I hope to see you there. If you know of anyone who might be interested, please pass along the website. The conference still needs some funding, too. I appreciate that the organizers are trying to make this as affordable as possible, so maybe if you think educating religious leaders on abuse, trauma, and how to help is important, throw a few dollars their way?

Feminism

Redeeming Love: Assumptions

Before I get into today’s post, I know there’s a lot on our minds. You know my thoughts on gun violence, and it is beyond enraging to me that more people are dead and hundreds more wounded because Republicans can’t be arsed to care about people. What that white man did in Las Vegas was preventable, and the argument that mass shootings — any shootings at all– are the necessary price we must pay for a hobby is despicable. Get informed about gun violence, responsible regulation, and start agitating for policies to make our country safer from white domestic terrorists and abusers. Our thoughts and prayers are useless if we’re not prompted to action.

And now, because we have to keep putting one foot in front of the other, the Redeeming Love review continues. As always, be aware that this book is an unending shitshow of abuse and assault.

Plot Summary

  • Angel hitches a ride with a trader to Sacramento.
  • She gets a job with mercantile-owner Joseph, who’d ordered a stove for Michael.
  • He keeps her occupied while he sends word to Michael that she’s there.
  • Michael comes, sexually assaults her.
  • She agrees to go back with him this time.
  • Miriam gets a crush on Paul; Paul feels uncomfortable lusting after a 16-year-old.
  • Both Paul and Angel decide they want Michael to be with Miriam.

***

There’s not a ton of plot movement; honestly, I’ve read a lot of Francine’s writing and I’m confused why this is one of her most popular books. The pacing in this is just … it’s so bad. It’s 450+ pages and honestly I think it could have been easily reduced by a third and we wouldn’t have lost anything. All the agonizing and soul-searching happening in this section is Francine beating a dead horse with Angel’s self-recrimination. She feels ashamed. We get it. However, this is what happens when people take moralizing sermons and try to turn them into books. The point of Redeeming Love isn’t to be a well-written, entertaining story– it’s the theology. Francine really has to drive home to us that we are like Angel, and we need to be convinced of our lowliness, our wretchedness.

In Sacramento, Angel spends half a chapter wandering around looking for employment and walks past a bunch of brothels and saloons, rejecting each as an option. She’s pretty firm about this, too– she knows she can be successful at that, but it’s not what she wants anymore so she keeps walking until she finds Joseph’s store and he offers her a job. However, later in the narrative Francine has Angel remember this day differently. Angel thinks to herself, and says out loud to Michael, that not returning to prostitution was a close thing, and she was indescribably lucky that she found Joseph when she did.

This is another place where Francine’s theological purposes replace good writing. Angel is consistent in her desire to forge a new life for herself away from prostitution, since this has been a common thread in her thoughts since Michael imprisoned her at his farm. However, Francine is re-telling the story of Hosea so she has to have her Gomer character be “enticed” or “tempted” or whatever. Hosea is a framing of Israel’s relationship with idolatry, and Francine has to preserve that framing even when it doesn’t make sense for the characters she’s written.

When Michael shows up, the first thing he does is sexually assault her:

Michael caught hold of her and swung her around. “Oh, yes I do [know why you left]!” He pulled her into his arms. “You left because of this.” He covered her mouth with his. When she tried to push free, he cupped the back of her head. She struggled harder as the betraying warmth stole over her. (305-06).

Hoo, boy. This is the same rape myth that pissed me off in the “Breaker of Chains” Game of Thrones debacle. It’s the myth that women don’t know what we want– if we resist, if we say no, we don’t really mean it. Here, that myth is combined with the prevalent idea that women are supposed to find sexual violence arousing. Angel is being attacked by a man she was actively backing away from — tripping over tables and boots– but when he assaults her she feels a “betraying warmth.” How many times have we seen this exact scene in other books, in TV, in movies? A woman backing away from a manly man who mans very manly-like until her back hits a wall and he’s suddenly there with his manliness and oh swoon.

Confusingly, Angel’s reaction to this whole confrontation again makes sense as an abuse victim. She begins “shaking violently” as he tries to get her things together to leave. Every other description of her emotional state and actions fits right in to what I feel when I’m trying to function through panic attack. Once again, though, Francine is going to ignore that she’s writing a textbook abusive relationship. In this scene, Angel accuses Michael of feeling a “sense of power” and he admits it, but then says “But it’s not a power I’m going to use against you.” Right. Like you didn’t just use your physical power one page ago to sexually assault the woman you have manipulated and kidnapped repeatedly.

Goddess above this is awful.

***

Speaking of manipulation, there’s two incidents I’d like to address although they’re separate from the Angel-and-Michael main plot. The first is Joseph’s behavior in Sacramento. He gives Angel a place to stay and a job, and Angel starts to feel a small sense of redemption and self-respect. She’s doing what she’s always wanted, even if it doesn’t quite look the way she expected. After a couple of weeks, she’s feeling more confident and ready to move on to something more permanent. The second she mentions anything to Joseph, though, he spends the entire day being very strange and confusing. He lies and says his wife suffered a back injury so he needs Angel to stay, and then keeps changing his mind and creating work. At the end of the chapter, Francine reveals those were all delaying tactics so that Angel would still be at the store when Michael shows up.

This is hella manipulative. He outright lies to her and keeps her occupied with busy work all day– work that’s the equivalent of digging holes and filling them back in again– all so that Michael can find her. In fact, he wasn’t just waiting for Michael to show up for the stove, he’d written to Michael and told him Angel was there. But of course Joseph knew better than Angel on what was good for her, so it’s alright.

This happens again with the Altman children back at the farm. Miriam lies to Angel that Ruthie is stuck twenty feet up in a tree and convinces Angel to climb it and rescue her. She’s never climbed a tree before, but she overcomes her fear anyway because she cares about Ruthie and doesn’t want her to get hurt– or, since she’s twenty feet up, possibly die. Once she gets up there, though, she realizes that Ruthie has a rope tied around her and is perfectly safe. She’s understandably upset that she was manipulated, but it’s all in fun and Miriam just somehow knew that Angel needed to climb a tree for some reason, so it’s ok. This is good-natured and loving and adorable and ends with Michael tying up another rope in the tree and making a swing that everyone plays on.

I’m not surprised that Francine has written “friendships” that work this way. Deceitfulness and manipulation are commonplace in conservative evangelical social circles, and it’s acceptable for people to behave like this as long as you’re well-intentioned. The idea that other people know better than you is just par for the course when friendship itself is predicated on the idea that being a friend means being a “iron that sharpeneth iron” or inflicting “faithful wounds” on each other.

Redeeming Love doesn’t have a single example of love, friendship, romance, or healthy relationships anywhere in it. Every relationship is manipulative and passive-aggressive at best, toxic at worst; yet, these toxic relationships are being held up as godly, loving examples.

Feminism

Redeeming Love: Family Love

And now, after a long hiatus, we’re digging back in to the Redeeming Love review. If you want to catch up with the review series, you can find the other entries here; there are plot summaries at the top of each post.

[content note for discussions of emotional abuse and trauma]

Plot Summary:

  • The Altmans move into Michael’s cabin.
  • Angel begins liking them, even growing to love some of the children.
  • She becomes convinced Miriam, the sixteen year old, is a better partner for Michael.
  • The Altmans’ buy a section of Michael’s land a build a cabin.
  • Francine reveals that Angel committed incest in order to punish her birth father.
  • Michael and Angel have sex again after she tells him all of that.
  • Then she disappears.

***

At this point in the narrative, Michael stops his physical and verbal violence. He’s not dragging her around, literally kicking and screaming, he’s not abducting her, he’s not telling her how much he’d love to kill her, and every other horrific thing we’ve seen him do up to this point. No: now, we start getting much subtler emotional abuse from him. This isn’t usually how abusers operate; usually it’s the reverse with emotional abuse escalating into physical violence (and abusers may never use physical violence at all). However, despite the order Francine has written, this is where we start seeing the abuse take its toll on Angel.

It’s interesting to me that Francine would most likely be quite horrified at the idea that she’s written a nearly textbook example of an abuser in Michael Hosea, and yet Angel still responds to him in the way a victim responds to abuse. Like here:

Watching John, Angel was reminded of all those weeks Michael had cared for her after Magowan’s beating. She remembered his tender care and consideration. He had tolerated her worst insults with quiet patience. (244)

This is about the halfway point of Redeeming Love, and up until now Angel has maintained that Michael took her somewhere she did not want to be, and was keeping her there against her will. Every attempt at escaping him was met with violence or threats of murder. She was firm in herself, firm in what she wanted, and very firm of her idea of Michael: really no different than every other man she’d known who believed they could take and control anything they wanted, including her body. She’s never been an autonomous person and Michael is just another roadblock to the independence she craves. Remember, Francine has set up this desire for autonomy as literally a temptation from Satan himself.

But now her framing of what happened when he abducted her is shifting. He didn’t force a marriage onto her while she was delirious and then drag her out to the middle of nowhere: he was tender, caring, considerate. She was actually the one with the problem.

Or here:

Tirzah. His desire for her was in that name. Angel felt a tingling warmth run down into her belly when he said it. Tirzah. (261)

Before when he called her anything that wasn’t her name, she would assert herself and correct him. Now, though? Now she’s accepting it. She’s accepting his gradual over-writing of herself and her identity. She’s adopting what he thinks she is and should be. “She didn’t even belong to herself anymore” (252), and the resistance is slowly being beaten out of her.

This couldn’t get any more textbook. Abusers need victims to identify themselves as the problem: a problem that is fixed by subverting our identities and desires in favor of what the abuser wants. Angel is slowly capitulating to Michael’s assault on the very core of who she is as a person, and learning to accept his view of their relationship: he the tender lover, she the stubborn fool.

We can also see another abusive dynamic here:

He wants children, she thought … What if he knew she couldn’t have them? Would his love for her die then? (247)

This is not an unreasonable question, although Francine expects her reader to answer the question with “of course not!” Except Angel knows what all victims know: an abuser’s love is conditional. It’s extremely common for male abusers to be extremely reactive concerning a female victim’s reproduction, too—whether they became pregnant when their abuser did not desire it, or aren’t becoming pregnant when their abuser wants them to.

The other characters also participate in normalizing everything Angel’s been subjected to, even though they don’t know Michael abducted her and married her when she was barely conscious, or that he’s taken to calling her whatever he feels like. In one scene, a younger child calls her “Mandy” (they all think her name is Amanda), and then the eldest child, Miriam, says “I think I’ll call you Miss Priss” (251). No one is allowing Angel her name or identity. Later, Miriam declares “I love you whether you like it or not” (235).

The relationship between Angel and the Altmans display the same relationship style that Francine wants to emphasize: God’s love is irresistible, unending, unyielding, relentless. The Altmans’ relentlessly “love” Angel in a not-romantic analog to Michael’s treatment of her. In the narrative, this slowly wins Angel over just like she’s slowly being absorbed by Michael’s vision for her. They give her gifts she doesn’t want and scream insults at her when she says she doesn’t want them (“idiotic child” 252), they do everything around the farm even when she begins to feel useless, and every time she says something about herself she’s contradicted by who they think she is.

Anytime she tries to assert herself, (“Angel,” she said under her breath. “My name’s Angel.”) it’s portrayed as either resentment or bitterness. Through these chapters we start to get another heavy-handed helping of Francine’s evangelical Christian view of bitterness. Miriam accuses Angel of purposely carrying around baggage with her that she could voluntarily set down, and on the next page makes it clear that the “baggage” she’s talking about is “bitterness” (254-55). Later, when she emotionally withdraws some from the group, Miriam complains to Michael that “she’s hurting herself” (271).

Angel’s reactions are all extremely typical of abuse victims. Keep in mind that Angel was raped constantly and physically abused beginning at age 8 and that experience has continued pretty much non-stop for over a decade. When she responds a way anyone with trauma would, however, it’s not portrayed as reasonable or something a compassionate person should accommodate. Instead, her behavior is universally condemned by the other characters in the book.

Angel has flashbacks and triggers, and after experiencing an episode is anxious and irritable, a nearly classic example of PTSD. Other symptoms of PTSD: avoiding crowds, wanting to keep busy, avoiding relationships, viewing the world as harsh and dangerous … Whenever Angel displays one of these, however, someone comments that she’s only hurting herself or she’s bitterly clinging to the past.

This is a pretty common view of PTSD among American evangelical Christians. Their solution is as simple as Miriam’s: just stop carrying the baggage. But when Angel tells her it’s not that easy and a lot more complicated than that, Francine makes it clear that Angel’s view is the wrong one and it’s just her sinful nature and Satan whispering in her ear that makes her think so.

***

Also relevant: the entire Altman clan thinks Michael is just so perfect and wonderful and godly and loving. Gee it’s great that most Christians don’t view abusers this way. It’s not like we put them up on pedestals or elect them President or something.

Feminism

abusers and the good times

I bought Adele’s 21 album spontaneously. A few of her songs were coming up somewhat regularly on the Pandora station I listened to at work, so when I spotted her album standing in line at Starbucks while on a road trip up to New Jersey I couldn’t help myself. That afternoon was the first time I heard “Someone Like You” and I did not understand it. At all. Later, some colleagues were talking about their favorite breakup songs and after sharing mine– “King of Anything” by Sara Bareilles–  someone said “Someone Like You” was theirs. I snatched at the opportunity to understand what the hell “Someone Like You” is about and why it’s not really really creepy. The conversation didn’t really help, but the last thing they offered has stuck with me:

“Sam, you probably don’t get it because you’ve never broken up with someone you were still in love with.”

I wanted to argue– but I couldn’t. I was still in love with my ex at the time he broke our engagement, but the heartbreak only lasted about a month and then I was nothing but pissed at him. Since those days I’ve come to appreciate the blinding fury that propelled me through the early months of escaping an abusive relationship. For me, there wasn’t any redeeming quality to that relationship. There was nothing worth holding on to, nothing I could remember fondly. He was an abuser, a rapist, and that was all there was to him and our “relationship.”

***

One of the most common statements I hear from people recovering from abusive relationships is something along these lines:

It would be easier if they’d been horrible 100% of the time, but they weren’t. Sometimes, they could be so sweet and caring. It makes me second-guess whether or not it was abuse– how could they be an abuser and be so gentle and loving sometimes?

Here’s the thing I want every abuse victim and survivor to understand: your abuser was horrible all of the time. Yes. Even when they brought you soup when you were sick, or bought you flowers for no reason.

Being “nice” is part of the abuse.

I think we all understand this intellectually. Lenore Walker created the “Cycle of Abuse” model all the way back in 1979, and the pattern she identified hasn’t changed in the decades since she wrote The Battered Woman Syndrome. Most of us are familiar with the three phases: tension building, event/episode, and the honeymoon period. On one level, we probably all know that the times when our abuser is being nice to us is the honeymoon. I bring this up every single time someone asks “why did you stay?” Abusive relationships are not actively violent every single second of every single day, 100% of the time. If it was unremitting agony, no one would stay. Abusers are absolutely dependent on the honeymoon phase — however brief or long it is– to keep their victims with them.

However, there’s more to it than that. Yes, abusers have to be “nice” sometimes or we’d quickly realize there’s nothing to keep us in a relationship. Why Does He Do That? isn’t a perfect book (for one, it relies on gender essentialism for significant parts of its argument) but one thing I do agree with Bancroft on is that if there’s a universal quality in abusers, it’s entitlement. Whatever abusive tactics they use, the goal is to guarantee their victims give them what they feel entitled to. The reason why we can identify similarities and patterns in abusive situations is that abusers are only doing what’s the most effective at getting another human being to cooperate with their entitlement.

On top of guaranteeing cooperation, abusers use “niceness” in the same exact way they use emotional or physical pain. There is not a single shred of genuine care about you and what your needs are. They are not bringing you soup because they were motivated by compassion during your illness. An abuser, by being nice, is getting what they want from you the same way hitting you or demeaning you gets them what they want. Sometimes they want you cowering in fear, but sometimes they want to be worshiped.

Something all survivors understand is that abuse resets your expectations. What you consider acceptable changes to accommodate the escalating abuse, and after a while the constant anxiety and hypervigilance becomes our baseline. When we get any relief from that, or any glimpse of kindness from an abuser, there’s a tendency to fall to our mental knees in gratitude. We’re used to violence and disparagement, and suddenly we’re offered a ray of hope.

Abusers know this.

They’re looking for it. They feel entitled to that gratitude; they crave it. Victims, like anyone else when they’re offered what looks like kindness, express their thanks in one way or another. Except that thankfulness is heightened because we’ve been trained not to expect it, and the end result is that an abuser does something “nice” in order to bask in our gratitude for their mercy. They’re doing it because it allows them to feel magnanimous and noble– look at them, doing something good for the miserable little worm they live with. Their victim certainly doesn’t deserve their kindness, but aren’t they just the most good and loving person for bestowing it?

A second side-effect of all of this is that abusers have to go barely out of their way at all to “earn” a worshipful reaction from their victim. In conversations I’ve had over the last eight years I’ve heard so many people talk about all the good things their abuser did for them like those infinitesimally small acts were fireworks in the park. Oh, but one day they did the laundry when I was so ill I couldn’t get out of bed! They cooked dinner that one time! They thought of me when I was giving an important presentation and sent me an encouraging text!

The abuse makes us lose sight of what an above-and-beyond act really is. The “nice” things abusers do are almost always things that any basically decent human being would do for someone they care about. I had to be married to Handsome for literally years before I understood this. Yes, I appreciate all the things he does and tell him so. But him doing the dishes? Not a spectacular thing. I cooked us dinner, he does the dishes. It’s not that he’s so awesome for doing the dishes, it’s that he’d be kind of a jerk if he never contributed.

So, yes. Even the good times were bad.

I understand clinging to the scant good memories we have– some days in the midst of the abuse it’s all we have to go on. Most of the “grandest” gestures my abuser made came during the darkest days, and I was just so awestruck at the time. I’d exclaim about how wonderful he was to all my friends and they’d look at me sideways because I was going on and on about a note he’d written on a 3×5 card. Just … Christ. That was not that great, but I’d learned to expect otherwise.

Them being “nice” to you sometimes shouldn’t make you question whether or not it was abuse. The tricks an abuser uses to keep you trapped or to bask in your gratitude aren’t niceness. It’s just more of the abuse.

Photo by Roman Pfeiffer
Feminism

why aren’t Christians outraged by sexual abuse?

Because I wrote an article for Relevant a while ago (“What Christians Get Wrong about Sexual Abuse“), every so often I get e-mails from their editors asking for pitches on specific topics. This week, they asked for an article titled “Why Aren’t More Christians Outraged by Sexual Harassment Scandals?”, referencing the recent firing of Bill O’Reilly for sexually harassing women at Fox News. I pitched them something, and they published it yesterday.

You can read the whole thing here. I’m a little annoyed at Relevant‘s habit of sanitizing my writing. They removed me quoting Trump’s “grab them by the pussy” line, as well as the word rapacious and various other things. But … considering my first draft included the line “women are just supposed to be animated sex dolls that occasionally do the dishes” (which I cut in later drafts, upon reflection) I may be just a little out of touch with what an evangelical audience can tolerate. Possibly. Have I mentioned lately how much I love you all for reading me even when I’m horrifyingly honest?

The comments so far have been, ehm, interesting. There’s lots of lovely people saying surprisingly lovely things, and a few people who are … goddess bless them they’re just so clueless.

The semester is really close to wrapping up– my last item is due May 5, and then I have the summer off. Sticky notes for post ideas are piling up on my desk, and I’m excited to get back to that. For now, I’m going to enjoy a lone day off and play some Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited.

Feminism

Redeeming Love Review: Non-consensual Marriage

Plot summary:

  • Michael gives in to “God,” goes back to Pair-a-Dice for Angel.
  • He discovers that she’s been beaten.
  • Marries her while she’s nearly unconscious and delirious.
  • Then he takes her back to the farm, where she recuperates.
  • Angel tries to learn how to cook and lay a fire, but fails.
  • She tries to seduce him, but he refuses.

***

I’m going to skip most of chapter six, which is mostly just Francine getting Michael back to Pair-a-Dice and the Palace to “get” Angel, where he finds her beaten and nearly unconscious. This firms up his belief that he’s been ordered by God to take her away, but he decides they have to get married before they leave town.

Right now I’m wondering why on earth Francine thinks they have to get married right then. The next few chapters reveals that he’s not intending to have sex with her until she’s not doing it as a “chore,” so there’s no motivation to marry her for that reason. Everyone knows she’s a prostitute, so it’s not to “protect her reputation” (like what frequently happens in other Christian romance novels). So why marry her right this instant, when it’s absolutely clear that she’s in no state to consent to being married and he knows that she wants nothing to do with him?

I don’t want to be so cynical to assume that Francine has these two get married at this point so that Angel is trapped in a marriage she doesn’t want, but there’s no other narrative reason I can see that makes sense. It’s possible she has them get married so that she doesn’t offend the delicate sensibilities of the modern conservative evangelical reader, but as far as story telling goes this is pretty horrible. It’s especially horrible considering the fact that laws of coverture where still in place. By marrying her, knowing that if she knew what was going on she never would have even said “why not?” (note there: she doesn’t say “yes,” and Michael is such an abominable monster where that is good enough for him), he now actually, literally, legally owns a woman he knows doesn’t want to be married to him.

And that’s how this whole situation starts.

There’s one significant issue being woven into these chapters that needs to be highlighted. At several points, Francine gives us something like this:

Angel couldn’t tell whether her sarcasm had gotten to him or not. It occurred to her belatedly that she might anger him and this wasn’t the best time to do so. She swallowed more soup and tried not to show her fear. (105)

and this:

What did he want from her? And why did she sense he was more dangerous than all the other men she had ever known? (110)

Angel’s backstory has made it clear that she’s experienced a lifetime of abuse, and people like me see Angel’s reactions to Michael’s every facial expression and vocal tone as hypervigilance, but frustratingly that’s not an interpretation we can take for granted in Redeeming Love. People like Francine aren’t entirely ignorant about what some of the consequences of abuse might be, it’s just that they look at something like hypervigilance and see bitterness instead. In this story, the reader “understands” that Michael is nothing like the abusive men Angel’s experienced. We’re supposed to take him at his word when he says he’ll never hurt her, that he loves her. Instead, we’re supposed to look at Angel’s mental commentary as a sign that she is bitter, and her own understanding of the situation isn’t to be trusted. She’s over-reacting.

The reality is that the opposite of this is true. In my experience, many Christians, especially those who ascribe to “nouthetic” or “biblical” counseling, take Francine’s point of view: trauma can result in bitterness, and that bitterness can poison a victim’s entire way of thinking … but they couldn’t be more wrong. In reality, victims are usually more capable of spotting abuse than people who haven’t been traumatized. Couple this over-writing of how victimhood is typically experienced with the fact that this section is called “Defiant” and she starts these chapters with quotations like “I am dying of thirst by the side of a fountain,” it’s clear that the reader is supposed to see Angel as stubborn, bitter, and inherently untrustworthy as a narrator.

What makes it worse is that Michael is doing things that are abusive.

“By the way. My name isn’t Mara. It’s Angel. …”
“The name Mara comes from the Bible,” he said, “It’s in the book of Ruth.”
“And being a Bible-reading man, you figure Angel is too good a name for me.”
“Good’s got nothing to do with it. Angel isn’t your real name.”
“Angel is who I am.”
His face hardened. “Angel was a prostitute in Pair-a-Dice, and she doesn’t exist anymore.” (105)

One of the first things an abuser has to do is erase their victim’s innate sense of personhood and their right to their own sense of self. They intentionally strip their victim of their own identity, and replace it with what they want their victim to be.

Then this happens:

“Look,” she said tightly, “I want to start getting up and about on my own. With something on.”
“I’ll provide what you need when you need it.”
“I need it now.” (113)

He does give her clothes to wear in this scene, but it’s brutally clear that he did it because he decided she needed them, not because she said she needed them. Another thing abusers have to do is make sure their victims are dependent on them. Sometimes this takes the form of financial abuse, sometimes they make their victims feel that they’re incapable and incompetent, but it’s all about making sure they can’t leave you. This particular scene is troubling because it’s one of the ones that connects Michael’s character to God’s: a common Christian concept is that God provides us exactly what we need when They decide we need it, and not a second earlier.

Oh, and then this:

Michael studied her with patience. She was small and weak but possesed and iron will. It shone from her defiant blue eyes and the rigid way she was holding herself. She thought she had enough to overcome him. She was wrong. He was doing God’s will, and he had plans of his own, plans that kept growing, but he had said all he was going to say for a while. Let her think on it.

“You’re right,” he said. “I don’t own you, but you’re not running away from this.”

He’s saying he doesn’t own her, but he does feel entitled to her. He explains his “plans” in a bit– additions to the house, watching their children grow up– but at this moment there’s something missing from his statement: she’s not running away because he won’t let her. If you’ve read Redeeming Love before, you know that the implied threat there is ultimately carried out.

This is what makes me say that Michael is an abuser: his overwhelming sense of entitlement. That is the single biggest problem that all abusers share. Universally, abusers feel entitled to their victim. They believe that they have the absolute right to marry a woman who’s been beaten into delirium and rename her and threaten her and tell her she’s going to have his kids while she is vocally objecting the entire time. Can you even picture a man who you barely know sitting across from you on a coffee date telling you that you’re going to marry him and have his children and oh, by the way, you keep saying you want to leave but I’m not going to let you?

The fact that Francine and a vast majority of the people who read Redeeming Love think that Michael is an excellent stand-in for God is detestable and horrifying.

Feminism

what hast thou wrought: Christians and Trump

I’ve read a lot of articles about Donald Trump. If you look at my last “stuff I’ve been into” post, there’s about a half-dozen articles on him that represents the best-of-the-best of my reading on the subject. I’ve got a lot of angry-and/or-panicking friends on social media, so I’m inundated with quite a bit of material that represent a gamut of positions. My friends range from hard right, center-right, center-left, and hard-hard-hard-hard-left, and one of the biggest conversation topics shared among all these groups is this question:

How can Christians be voting for him?

I’ve already explained why I think Christians shouldn’t be voting for Trump, but now I’d like to take a stab at why Christians– namely white evangelicals– are supporting him in even greater numbers than they supported Romney. There’s been multitudes of ink spilled attempting to answer this, and the obvious answer is white supremacy. Evangelicals exist as a voting bloc because of racism. Trump with all of his flagrant racism is calling to one of the most basic motivations of the evangelical movement, and we ignore this to our detriment. Another obvious answer is misogyny. He embodies everything wrong with masculinity in American culture– braggadocio, chauvinism, narcissism, anger, insecurity– but it’s appealing to those among us who see powerful women and feminism as an innate threat to their manhood or their sense of social order.

The internet is filled to the brim with articles covering all those reasons, as well as plenty of articles pointing out all the ways that Trump’s actions, history, and proposed policies are antithetical to everything Christians have been saying they expect in a presidential candidate for decades. Like having family values. Or being a Christian. So, a lot of my friends are confused: how is this possible? On top of the fore-mentioned white supremacy and misogyny that are integral to evangelical culture, I’d like to highlight two more elements that make supporting Trump a foregone conclusion for so many evangelicals.

Abortion

Yes, this is also obvious. Wayne Grudem even included Trump’s supposed pro-life platform as a part of his argument for why Trump is a “morally good choice.” What’s been confusing to many of my friends is that Trump’s “pro-life” position is recent and possibly a lie, so how can evangelicals be staking an election on something they can’t possibly be sure of?

The answer is simple: Hillary Clinton is pro-choice, and will appoint pro-choice judges to the Supreme Court. Trump, while perhaps not personally pro-life, will most likely appoint pro-life judges to the Supreme Court.

They have to take that chance. They have to because being anti-abortion is all they’ve got. Modern evangelicals and other conservative Christians aren’t, by and large, holistically pro-life in the sense that they consider human life sacred and inestimably valuable. They’re pro-war, pro-death penalty, anti-healthcare, against policies that could end starvation and hunger, anti-gun control, and many even believe that parents should have the right to murder their children once they’re not, y’know, fetuses. They’re not pro-life in any meaningful way, but they are anti-abortion and pro-birth, and holding onto that position makes them incredibly powerful.

With their stance of being a single-issue voter in their back pocket, they control elections. They get to say who stays and who goes, who gets power and who doesn’t, all through this one platform: overturning Roe v. Wade. It’s the Southern Strategy reborn, and there’s no way in hell that they’re going to let go of this, no matter how deep into the muck and slime and mire they have to go to justify it. They’ve staked their soul on this ground. This is the line in the sand they’ve drawn.

Granted, there are plenty of anti-abortion Christians who aren’t being cynical and hypocritical about this. Their theological system simply cannot let them back down from this political position, because if they were to accept the concept that private faith and public life aren’t necessarily eternally bonded concepts, a lot of other things start unraveling. Or, if they were to shift their thinking about abortion from a biblical perspective, the whole house of cards might come crashing down. They can’t afford to question this, because questioning their stance on abortion means questioning everything. It means reassessing their identity, their character, their morality. It means re-examining almost everything they’ve ever done and said to women, to children, to their LGBT brothers and sisters … to orphans and widows and prisoners.

I’ve done it. It’s painful. Too painful, possibly, for many.

Redemption

The one element that I haven’t seen anyone talking about is the redemption narrative intrinsic to the evangelical faith system. To many of my friends and colleagues, it’s inconceivable that Christians could look at Trump– a man who sexually abused his wife, who raped a child, who harasses women with impunity, who sent Hillary Clinton a death threat— and think yes, this man represents my Christian values. How could James Dobson say he’s “tender to things of the spirit” or Jerry Falwell claim that he “lives a life of loving and helping others as Jesus taught in the great commandment,” much less do so with a straight face? This man is an abominable monster, and yet Christians are flocking to him. How can this be?

The answer is in two parts. First, “Creation, Fall, Redemption” is essential to understanding the evangelical viewpoint. Mankind fell into sin in the Garden, but Jesus promises us redemption and ultimately resurrection. To them, this narrative is woven into Scripture from beginning to end, and our lives reflect this pattern, this Truth about reality. We are born Fallen but can be Redeemed no matter what, no matter when.

Trump can’t be excepted from this narrative. He’s a fallen sinner, just like the rest of us, and God can redeem him, too. The fact that he’s converting to conservative Christian-style politics is a checkmark in his favor– in a culture where religion and nationalism are horribly mixed, Trump’s promises for “Christians to be powerful again” ring true in their ears. In this only-Republicans-are-really-Christians climate, it’s the only “spiritual fruit” they need. To those who believe that We Are a Christian Nation, Trump’s “Make American Great Again” speaks to their dominionist, theocratic vision for their country.

Secondly… I’m surprised that anyone is surprised.

Yes, Trump is a child rapist. Yes, Trump abused his wife, making her feel “violated.” Yes, Trump has harassed and attacked multiple women. Yes, yes, yes. But if you look around Christian culture, it’s populated by people exactly like him.

Joshua Duggar attacks his sisters and girls from his church, and it’s written off as “normal.” Bill Gothard sexually abuses teenage girls for decades and he’s still the head of a thriving ministry. Pope Francis has participated in a horrific and disgusting cover-up of child sexual abuse, and he even lands a cover on the AdvocatePastors, youth pastors, evangelists, missionaries, priests– they can rape women, men, children, and it doesn’t matter. They’re protected, even given positions of power. They can rape children, be convicted and sent to prison, and still get to write feature articles for Christian leadership magazines. Their churches and missionary boards will cover it up and shelter them.

Christian culture is a haven for abusers.

It’s a shelter for rapists and molesters because of the redemption narrative they cling to. If a rapist or abuser says “I’m sorry, I’ve repented,” anyone who questions that is harshly censored. If a woman wants to divorce her husband because he enjoyed watching people rape children, she’s censored by her church and shunned. Or if your husband “repents” of sexually abusing a child for years, you’ll be the one seen as “breaking your marriage vows” if you decide to leave him. Even if he’s abusing you, according to John Piper you’re just supposed to stick it out. After all, if you listen to Debi Pearl, maybe if he beats you long enough you’ll bring him to a saving knowledge of Christ. Or, maybe Debi Pearl’s too extreme for you– how about Lori Wick, one of the most popular Christian fiction authors?

This is why Trump is succeeding so well among evangelical voters. He’s an abuser, but now he’s converted to their nationalistic, dominionist, theocratic, white supremacist and misogynistic faith, and through that has been Redeemed.

He fits right in.

Photo by Gage Skidmore
Feminism

a new normal: the aftermath of recovery

[content note: trauma, recovery, PTSD]

I’m almost twenty-nine years old. For fourteen years, around half my life, I experienced abuse in various ways. I was physically abused as a child and teenager. I spent my teen years in a spiritually abusive church where I was emotionally, verbally, and spiritually abused by almost every significant adult in my life. I was sexually assaulted twice as a teenager. As an adult I was in an abusive intimate relationship– the emotional and verbal abuse was intensified, and sexual assault and rape became the backdrop to my life. I went to a fundamentalist Christian “college,” where the spiritual abuse continued.

I didn’t escape abusive environments or relationships until I was twenty-three. I’ve been out for almost six years, but didn’t really start attempting to work through everything until four years ago, and I didn’t start making any real progress until two years ago. The healing process is slow, and sometimes excruciating. One of the counselors I went to a few times– the one who told me I was a “poisoned well” and I shouldn’t consider dating Handsome— said that healing would be like “unkinking a hose,” and a more understated metaphor I’ve yet to find.

Over the past few years, I’ve met a lot of people with stories like mine. For many of my friends, peers, and colleagues, we spend a lot of time looking for help, looking for things to help our lives make sense. In that search, I’ve frequently bumped into books, lectures, seminars, tapes, YouTube videos, blog posts, etc, that all talk about healing from abuse and trauma. The problem I’ve encountered is that many of those things aren’t honest about what this process looks like.

They’re not deceptive, by and large, but they do tend to leave one with the impression that healing is a gradual slope upward, and that it leads to peace and recovery. They paint a hopeful picture filled with grace, compassion, and love– and to be perfectly honest, I think those sorts of resources are needful.

But, when I’m looking in the eyes of one of my dearest friends who feels utterly lost and confused because “hasn’t it been long enough? Shouldn’t I be better than this?”– or other women who are beating themselves up one side and down the other because they “don’t want to be a victim,” and they want to “move on” … I have to look at them and say that

I don’t think better looks like other people’s “normal.” I don’t think you can move on.

Better looks like me cleaning out my bathtub. A fleck of mold got on my hand, and I started screaming. Handsome came into the bathroom to find me curled up in the fetal position with my hand stretched out as far away as I could get it. He carried me out of the bathroom and washed my hand for me in our kitchen sink while I sobbed, then tucked me into bed and cuddled with me for an hour before I could even talk.

Better looks like me washing my hair before every road trip and packing dry shampoo. It looks like me standing in the shower at a hotel, shaking and trying not to scream when the shower curtain touches me, while Handsome washes my body and I keep my eyes screwed tight trying to pretend that we’re at home.

Better looks like Handsome and I getting ready for bed, and he takes off his belt and folds it in half to he can hang it up– and I jump away from him and cringe. I don’t know what, but something about his hand movements has my body convinced that I’m about to be hit. He’s never even remotely done anything that could make me think he’d ever hurt me– not with his words, not with his hands. But it doesn’t matter. I jump away from belts.

Better looks like me turning off the subwoofer during Jurassic World because the throbbing bass makes my chest hurt and my anxiety spike.

Better looks like me searching all over my house desperately searching for my cat during my Fourth of July barbecue because as much as I know that she’s afraid of the outdoors and wouldn’t have run away while the door was open, I also know that I won’t be able to convince JerkBrain that she’s ok and still home until I see her for myself.

Better looks like reminding myself to eat even when I’m sick, even when I feel like I don’t deserve to eat. It looks like me playing Farm Heroes Super Saga while I chew and swallow the meatloaf for dinner last night while I try not to think about what I’m doing– hoping I’ll manage to clean my plate this time. It looks like taking small portions when I’m out with family so they won’t ask questions.

Better looks like a nightstand crowded with meds that I take, every day, even though every time I swallow the miracle that makes my days survivable a sliver of myself whispers that if I were a better, more consistent, more hardworking person, I wouldn’t really need them.

Better looks like getting toward the end of the day and telling Handsome “I can’t make any more decisions.” I can’t decide what I want to do, what show I want to watch, what game I want to play, what book I want to read, what snack I want to eat, what blanket I want to cover my legs … so he makes all those choices for me because he cares about me.

Better looks like being thankful for flexeril because I don’t seem to have night terrors anymore, at least not that I can remember. I can’t remember nightmares, and I’ve never been so thankful that I don’t have to relive my rapes once or twice a week any longer.

Better looks like fighting with JerkBrain every workshift because I know that my body needs me to be gentle with it, that working my fingers to the bone does not determine my value and worth as a person. It looks like reminding myself that my employer finds my contributions substantive meaningful, even though I have fibromyalgia.

Better looks like nearly jumping out of my skin every time I see someone who looks my rapist at an airport or national monument because as much as I know that the chances are vanishingly small that I’d actually bump into him anywhere, I can’t shake the idea that maybe just maybe he decided to fly somewhere at Christmas that would take him through that airport.

***

I’ve been afraid to paint this particular portrait of my life because I don’t want to be discouraging. What suffering person wants to be told some of this might be forever? I know all those studies that talk about the long-term consequences of child abuse aren’t exactly uplifting. My brain is fundamentally different because of the beatings I’ve received, because of the times he raped me, because of the hellfire sermons I had imprinted into my bones. I have PTSD, I’m an abuse and rape victim, and those realities aren’t ever going away.

This does look better though. It does. Not better looks like me drinking myself into numbness for three days straight and blaring rock music so loud I couldn’t hear myself think. Not better looks like a panic attack making me vomit in a school hallway. Not better looks like not being able to have sex with my partner. Not better looks like waking up screaming.

I am getting better. I’m not the somewhat-terrifying ball of rage I was a few years ago. Some wounds don’t bleed anymore, some scars have faded. I’m genuinely happier, more content, more at peace. But a large part of why my life is so blissful– and I do often think of it that way– is due to the accommodations I’ve made. I take medications. I play smartphone games to distract me from my anxiety and pain. I spent a ridiculous sum of money on my cat, who we nicknamed “Anxiety Sponge” because holding her makes something in my chest unlock. I walk away from my computer and my phone on the weekends and read fantasy books voraciously.

Healing, in many ways, looks like learning to cope. It means finding crutches and using them. I’ve learned, slowly and painfully, that I can’t meet an impossible standard. I’m never going to be like someone who wasn’t abused for fourteen years.

We got a little beat up by people, by life. If there’s one thing I want every survivor to know, it’s that your hurts are real, and they deserve to be treated. Maybe that means surgery, or walking with a cane, or cortisone injections, or whatever you find that works. Find what works and do it. Maybe, like me, it means smartphone games, taking Xanax with you everywhere, and packing dry shampoo so you don’t have to wash your hair in a strange place.

Whatever it is, it’s ok.

Photo by Mitya Ku
Theology

sinful hearts: the consequences of Inherited Sin

One of these days, as I keep promising, I’m going to write an in-depth article on why I’m against the concepts of Inherited and Original Sin, but today I have a migraine that I can’t shake so for now I’m just going to make an observation.

There are many good conversations out there talking about the negative consequences of teaching people that their innermost selves, that the core of who they are, is absolutely corrupt and wicked. I’ve talked about one here– that telling me that I cannot allow myself to trust my instincts caused emotional harm. When you’re utterly convinced that everyone else’s opinion of you automatically carries more weight than what you think about yourself … you’re going to be particularly vulnerable to emotional abuse and bullying.

On top of that, teaching your children to believe that they are horrible, disgusting, repulsive monsters is an inherently abusive thing to do to them. If your theology even remotely resembles the tactics that nearly every abuser relies upon, you need to evaluate your beliefs. My friend R.L. Stollar has an excellent long-form article on this subject, and even though it might take you a while to plow through it, you should. While Stollar is dealing with the way Inherited Sin appears in the fundamentalist homeschooling subculture, the same basic idea– although not taken to the same extreme– is present in the rest of Christian culture and the bulk of Christian tradition, fundamentalist or not.

I don’t need much else to convince me that teaching Inherited Sin is a woefully bad idea, but this morning I saw this come through my private facebook feed:

The truth is that the more intimately you know someone, the more clearly you’ll see their flaws. That’s just the way it is. This is why marriages fail, why children are abandoned, why friendships don’t last. You might think you love someone until you see the way they are when they’re out of money or under pressure or hungry, for goodness’ sake.

Love is something different. Love is choosing to serve someone and be with someone in spite of their filthy heart. Love is patient, love is deliberate. Love is hard. Love is pain and sacrifice, it’s seeing the darkness in another person and defying the impulse to jump ship.

I won’t deny that love is hard sometimes. Forgiveness can be difficult. Relationships can be trying. Occasionally, you’ll saw your tongue in half just to keep the peace. People can be careless, thoughtless, and sometimes you’ll find yourself staring at your reflection repeating “she didn’t mean it that way, you know she didn’t, just let it go” while you practice breathing exercises and your heart pounds with frustration and hurt. You’ll even hurt the people you care about, and you hope they have same patience with you.

However, if you are convinced that all people are born with “filthy hearts” and “darkness,” that they’re innately evil, and that it’s your job to “love them in spite of their filthiness” … you’re going to stay with an abuser, and you’re not going to be surprised when someone is horribly cruel or incomprehensibly selfish. You’ll expect it. “Love is patient, love is kind” will exist against a backdrop of believing that every person was inescapably born to be an abuser.

Becoming an abuser isn’t something that happens to people because they were born monsters. Our culture is permeated with millions of tiny little ways that enable abuse, that teach us all that abusing others is how to win, how to be successful. After all, racism and misogyny are really just abuse writ large.

However, becoming an abuser is not our default. It is not the thing we’re born with that only accepting Jesus into your heart can overcome. What happens is the opposite: only a few people become abusers, and they target specific victims. Most of us can cause harm, could even do abusive things on occasion, but the intentionality of abusers is absent from decent people. Most of us don’t want to break down another human being into a tool we can use for our own gratification. Instead, when we look around the world, we generally see people who have a right to their autonomy.

The consequence of teaching us that we are all born desperately, unimaginably evil is that we won’t be able to recognize true evil when it happens to us. All we truly know is ourselves, and systematically destroying another person’s sense of self wouldn’t occur to us– but we’re all evil, right? So if our partner spends a lot of time telling us how untrustworthy we are, how terrible we are, how we deserve having our possessions destroyed, our body beaten, our souls violated, where is the space to call this abuse in the context of Inherited Sin?

I’m not saying it’s impossible, of course. I was calling my ex an abuser and rapist long before I stopped believing in Original or Inherited Sin. But what I do know is that I told myself love is patient, love is kind when he was abusing me. I comforted myself with the understanding that we’re all Fallen, but God is doing a work in him. I just had to stick it out until Jesus overcame his “Old Man.”

Jesus gave us a tool to help us evaluate doctrine: a good tree cannot bear bad fruit. If the doctrine is good, then the natural outworking and practice of that doctrine will be beneficial, just, and life-giving.

The lived reality of Inherited Sin is none of those things.

Photo by Sophie & Cie