I saw this stunning collection of photos on off-the-grid living and it got my wheels turning, and perhaps pinged my PTSD a little too. (Warning: one photo includes a naked guy, so if such things offend you, consider yourself forewarned. If not, or you are nonetheless compelled to look out of perverse curiosity, here you go.) Anyway, apparently I wasn’t the only one who made a connection between fundamentalist homeschoolers and this off-the-grid stuff. One commenter named lisainidaho said:
“Most are off grid for the same reasons that we were: it costs an enormous amount to bring in power or it’s just not possible to bring in power. I know some of the religious types depicted in the above photos and they are on-grid. They do disturb me, personally. Their children are kept isolated by homeschooling and many “home church” as well. They live at home and “court” to find spouses, which seems very much like arranged marriages to me. It’s sad that these kids never know or get to choose a different lifestyle till they are already married. I think the article is actually more about extreme lifestyles than people who live off grid.
Because they sure wouldn’t get many interesting pictures at our place. Unless they were hiding with a camera on any given morning when the sheep had broken loose and I was chasing them in boots and pajamas, swearing up a blue streak, or chasing bears off the porch.”
My parents were some of those on-grid off-grid people she was talking about and I grew up living that way. My younger siblings now only see enough residual stuff from this lifestyle to say “yeah, Mom’s being weird about this,” but it used to be pretty extreme. While I can calmly talk about the physical and verbal abuse now, and the educational and medical neglect, it’s hard to discuss being unwashed and poorly fed and being told this was all for health and God and conserving the environment. Being dirty has such a stigma. So I want to say first off that I learned about appropriate personal hygiene and household cleaning routines as part of my grandparents’ “intervention” and quickly got on board. Today I smell like peaches and gardenias and I use soap. Not patchouli soap or sandalwood either, or that horrible Irish Spring stuff, but good French milled soap that has “Marseille” stamped into it. One of life’s little pleasures for me is taking an uninterrupted shower, being a soap snob, and then covering myself in monoi oil lotion because it’s gotta be some of the best smelling stuff ever invented.
Anyway, my family did not farm or live out in a rural area. We were crowded in a dilapidated one bedroom apartment in the city and then in a small old house in the suburbs. We had a backyard garden some years (yay for zucchini and bell peppers!). We got electricity and water (the A/C and heater were both broken, the water tasted like chlorine). We got food stamps and WIC and USDA commodities (yay for those blocks of government cheese!). So I guess some people would say we were on the grid and on the dole. Personally I am thankful for that stuff or else I don’t know what us kids would have eaten. (Most Quiverfull are against accepting government services, and my family felt guilty about it, but did it anyway.) We were pretty off the social grid, and the medical and commercial ones. Almost all my clothes were secondhand and generally donated, even my underwear, which I didn’t change often because I didn’t have enough of them. I sometimes received clothes my Grandma sewed as a present, and my Mom unsuccessfully attempted to sew things sometimes, but thankfully she would never have made me a camo dress!
My Mom bought soap, toilet paper, shampoo, and light bulbs even though she would have done without them altogether if she’d have figured out how. She didn’t wear bras except at church and only shaved her legs because she said she’d already started years ago and Dad was against her stopping. She did not feel either were natural. She often said I should never start shaving or wearing bras and was visibly disappointed when I declared my intention to do both at age 13. We did not buy or use toothpaste and until my appalled Grandma found out and gave us more, a single toothbrush was shared by us kids because my Mom said she wasn’t going to go out and buy plastic petroleum product stuff. She cloth diapered the babies and felt bad for even buying those plastic pants that went on the outside. We didn’t own a vacuum cleaner so the carpet only got swept. It was gross and smelly, like almost everything in that house. We had a cockroach and termite infestation. A few parts of the floor were too termite eaten to safely step on and we were reminded not to mess with it and make it worse. When it rained we put buckets and pots under the leaks coming from the brown spots on the ceiling in each room and there was one moldy, peeling wall we were told not to touch. My Mom was afraid of it potentially being lead paint. The mold and mildew were “natural” so not something she worried about, even though she likely should have. They never complained to the landlord because they didn’t want to be evicted for having too many people living there, and my Mom said she preferred the insects to the idea of him spraying poison.
We didn’t have paper towels or trash bags or Saran Wrap in the house. We used old rags and grocery bags instead. Our version of Tupperware was a bunch of empty margarine tubs that Grandma had given us. There were few things more depressing than looking for leftovers when I was hungry as a child (Mom often fell asleep or got distracted with a project or an argument and forgot to feed us) and seeing five identical unlabeled margarine containers in the fridge, knowing that not one of them had anything in it that I actually wanted to eat, some of them had sat in the fridge longer than a week, and unless my Mom decided the contents smelled bad we would need to eat it so as not to be “wasteful.” Several times we got what she called “the flu” and I now suspect was food poisoning.
When we got USDA commodities us kids were so thankful for simple things like cereal and juice and cans of corn and carrots because it was stuff that would not have been purchased for us. Going to the grocery with my Mom was annoying because she’d spend forever looking at ingredient lists on the back of containers and sometimes the type of packaging itself, agonizing over them. My Mom refused to buy anything that had any artificial flavorings, colorings, or ingredients she didn’t understand. Grocery trips stressed her out beyond belief. I remember almost starting her on a meltdown once when I was trying to convince her to buy cereal and said “riboflavin is a B vitamin Mom, not an artificial ingredient. I’m sure of it. Can you just put it in the basket and we keep going?” Nope, that box was going back. She wasn’t sure about that riboflavin stuff. According to her, my commentary and demands only made the shopping worse, so she started refusing to bring me.
My Dad took me to Wendy’s once when I was 6 after he and my Mom had gotten in a particularly nasty argument about her cooking. He got himself a burger, and me chicken nuggets and a miniature frosty. I thought it was amazing stuff but my Mom had a fit later, feeling that was one of the most offensive things he could have done. I never had fast food again until I was a teenager. Every now and then when my Dad would come home with a treat like french bread or donuts, it was truly cause for celebration even though we all knew Mom was livid. She didn’t stop us from eating it though. She couldn’t. My Dad was head of household and as wrong as she thought it was, felt she could not override his decision. I went to only three restaurants as a child before I spent what would be a life-changing summer with my grandparents.
When my Dad started his home business we were not as abjectly poor anymore, and my Mom and I became unpaid employees of his tree cutting service, answering phones, filing paperwork. Because all this all natural and “from scratch” household stuff took a lot of work and energy, and my Mom kept having babies every two years, and she served as de facto secretary and office manager of the home business, and she suffered from terrible nighttime insomnia that left her dozing off all hours of the day, homeschooling was practically nonexistent. I was the only kid who learned how to read.
We did not go to doctors or dentists and we didn’t get baths or our teeth brushed all that often because my Mom was “conserving resources,” trusting in faith healing, and using rumors she’d heard or imagined were good natural remedies or preventatives for illness. I had been vaccinated at a free clinic held at a local housing project, but several of my younger siblings weren’t. To be blunt, we’re quite lucky none of us died and there were some close calls due to medical neglect. I almost did, one of my brothers almost did too, and don’t even get me started on untreated infections or how I lived in fear of dying by one.
Things got worse when we started “home churching.” It is one thing to be isolated and stuck in a crazy situation, it’s another thing when you see it clearly through the eyes of a child, realize you have internalized it and it has become a part of you, that you also are visibly dysfunctional, tainted, emotionally ill, often not in charge of even your own reactions. After we stopped going to church, the only time I ever left the house was occasionally when I begged for permission to go with my Mom to the grocery store and she agreed. Since we didn’t have to be presentable even once a week anymore, things like hair brushing, haircuts, baths, and nail trimming could be let go for longer since my Mom said she needed to “conserve” her time. I started biting my nails, obsessively picking at my skin, and yanking out the knots in my hair. These things felt like a mental relief, so I chewed my nails down to the quick, made my skin bleed, and developed trichotillomania, a hair-pulling disorder that left me with bald spots. When the hair pulling was discovered, rather than recognizing it as a sign that this lifestyle was hurting me, I got yelled at, called stupid, and threatened with a beating. After that I started wearing my hair up and out of my own reach. I used some hair ties I’d found on a trip to the local park since no one would buy me any.
So this is what my personal experience with the off-grid on-grid lifestyle looked like. Thankfully we had a phone because at age 12 I secretly called my grandparents and begged for rescue. They too found the situation awful when I described it and did all they could, short of involving authorities, to correct the abusive, neglectful, and generally filthy environment my parents had created. Because my parents religious beliefs involved obeying parents, my grandparents’ efforts may not have been outright welcomed but they were generally not prevented. Both sets of my grandparents worked hard and spent money, buying and fixing up a small house for our family to live in, tutoring us, purchasing clothes, and teaching us about social skills, hygiene, and self-esteem. Thankfully they succeeded and us kids were able to learn quickly. Otherwise I can’t imagine I’d be blogging about this today.
As I’ve said in a previous post, families that are already dysfunctional generally only get worse with off-the-grid living. It is easier to lose touch with reality when you get removed from society’s expectations and it is just as easy to retreat into horribly barbaric behavior as it is to get back to something simple and pure. I think way too often the kinds of decisions that got my family and many others into living the way we did were more a series of knee-jerk reactions than anything else, a gross overreaction to things gone wrong in mainstream society. The cure can easily become worse than the disease though, and loathing for mainstream society and it’s potential pitfalls (orienting yourself “against” it) can overshadow love for family and friends and the environment, preventing adherents from enjoying the simple yet important things in life, the very reason they claimed to get into this stuff in the first place.
I took one look at that chalkboard picture in the photo set and it gave me the heebie-jeebies. That board reflected what the world can look like when things get miserly, legalistic, and fear-based. Everything becomes a risk and an agonizing decision. One wrong move could destroy you. It is an awful way to exist. A commenter named Sea Gulls sarcastically summed it up right, I think: “Glad to see that the little homeschooled girl’s education looks totally sane and not at all batcrappery.” Sadly, I would know how much batcrappery it really is. All that stuff about a new world order, a one world government, the mark of the beast, a fascination with fascism, communism, and dystopian worlds was the sort of stuff I sometimes heard at church when I was little. I expect it was much better that I was generally left on my own to read whatever books my Grandad sent me without any censoring or oversight. I consumed tomes of classic literature and interpreted and analyzed it myself without anyone telling me what it meant. It helped me think and decide I wanted out and once I made up my mind I fought for it with everything I had.
If there’s one thing this lifestyle teaches you it is resourcefulness, the internal strength to ignore the disapproval around you, the will to fight to the point of foolishness for stuff you believe in, and the inclination to use whatever means necessary. As soon as I was old enough I just turned it around on them and I did so viciously, harshly, thinking, speaking, and acting in ways that shocked them and sometimes feel scary to recall. I am glad there were no guns in my home because I probably would have got it in my head to use one. That’s honestly how extreme stuff was, how desperate of a position I felt myself in. If I hadn’t had my grandparents on my side, showing me what love and caring looked like, I honestly doubt I could have won over the negativity I had absorbed.
Today nobody would know this had ever been my life because I worked very hard to overcome it, stop the counterproductive behaviors, get a good education, hide my past, and live very differently. Still, it has not been easy, it has left it’s mark, and it makes me furious that other kids must deal with this foolishness here in America. Personally, whether someone wants to be on or off the grid, I say screw all that extreme libertarian government-staying-out-of-your-business dogma. If something is really wrong, designated people should step in to make it right. I think my family should have had a social worker assigned to them when something first seemed like it was going wrong. That should probably have happened starting at my birth, when someone called an ambulance to rush me and my mother to the hospital. A lack of prenatal care, improper handling of an unexpected breech delivery, and untrained home birth attendants from church were almost the death of me and my Mom. If my parents had had some guidance and oversight things might not have gotten so bad in the first place. As it is, I did not want to be raised like this. I just lived there, knowing in my heart that my life was worth something more than just as a belonging of theirs, dreaming of the day I got to escape.