I did a couple things I never expected to do yesterday. I had a thought-provoking conversation that left me thinking about how it is easy to decide that someone is an enemy, a jerk, a selfish person. It is easy to determine that people are unworthy, undeserving, maybe even unclean. It is easy for them to decide that about you too.
Yesterday I found myself talking about my blog with my Dad. He’d found out about it a month ago. It hadn’t mattered to me. We hadn’t spoken since before Father’s Day. I expected we might never speak again and it might be for the better. But I got off the phone from that thought-provoking conference call and sat in my chair for a bit, thinking. Then I called my Dad.
Why? Well, sometimes you find out information that humanizes people a bit more, that explains why, and that makes you realize you attributed motives to them that weren’t exactly accurate or that didn’t contain some missing pieces of a bigger picture.
The more adults I talk to or learn from who are walkways from the Quiverfull and Christian patriarchy stuff, or even ostensible leaders or former leaders within it, the more I see them as not abusers and power-grabbers per se, but also victims. They often had harsh upbringings filled with authoritarianism and loss or were constantly uprooted, never knowing what to expect next.
My Grandad, the man I looked up to and loved so much, was not the same man when my Dad and his siblings were kids. He’d just gotten back from Vietnam back then. He was a tyrant. He beat his kids, like his father before him. Even my Grandad said it, telling me “I was a son of a bitch, and I was a son of a bitch to my kids.” He realized later in life that kids need something different then what he’d gotten and what he’d given. He told my Dad “don’t raise your kids like how I raised you.” My Dad thought he had found a different way. Except it wasn’t really all that different.
Him and my Mom got sucked into extreme religion like a drug when they were just kids, each not yet 20 years old. They became true believers. They more or less still are. That sort of faith easily attracts young people from dysfunctional families who are looking for guarantees, assurances that family life will be different, better, and that heaven awaits if they follow what I have occasionally referred to as “the faith equivalent of the Nutrisystem diet.” They were trying and failing and starving away on the inside and it was as hard growing up with them as if they had been on drugs.
I thought of Dr, David Gil, a social policy professor I had at Brandeis, in his late 80’s and a holocaust survivor, a man who had testified before Congress against corporal punishment of kids back in the 70′s and had spent much of his career working on fostering reconciliation after atrocities. He’d spoken of society’s ills all coming back to unmet human need. That we have kick the dog syndrome, we have substance abuse, we have wealth hoarding, we have people treating other people (generally weaker people) like objects, and almost all of it is due to stunting – people not being able to reach their full potential during their formative years because the previous generation has hurt them, and the fact that they were born into a society that did not meet their needs starting at a young age. Dr. Gil talked about how people-led movements for equality and social change were all that could alter this dynamic. That it was about interpersonal interaction, sharing, and giving, collaboration rather than competition.
I am not a Star Trek nerd, but this video really moves me. Patrick Stewart’s father was an abuser. He watched his mother get abused as a small boy and couldn’t do anything about it. Later on he learned that it was untreated mental health problems from wartime experiences that caused his father to have so many issues, and while it did not excuse the abuse (because nothing does) it did help him develop empathy for his father. So he is doing work to help veterans and work to help battered women, in order to honor them both, in order to help others avoid being them both. I thought it was so moving because this is someone who gets what the cycle really is like. Hurt people hurting people. We can sit here loathing each other, re-wounding each other, blaming each other, but an eye for an eye truly does make the whole world blind.
I thought about how people often try to improve a dysfunctional world by creating little Utopias and about how people do what they can with the tools they have and sometimes when you have a hammer everything looks like a nail, and sometimes you get caught up in hammering away at everything only to get stopped in your tracks when you least expect it and find that you do have empathy for where someone is coming from simply because you see humanity there. Even if they’ve done things you think are shitty and even if you don’t agree with their outlook much at all. You remember that they are a person too, and if you remember that they are a person they just might remember that you are a person and then as two people you can do the hardest and most special thing that people can do, which is to be people, together.
So many homeschool parents who got sucked into the Quiverfull and Christian patriarchy stuff are still hurting. They secretly bear so much shame. So much self-loathing. So much guilt and fear and they are tired and worn down. They often have too many kids and not enough resources or answers. They are trying to pick up the pieces of their lives, decide where their boundaries are, figure out what’s right and what’s wrong and what’s bullshit. I don’t think a lot of them are doing as good of a job as I’d expect, but then again I do have pretty exacting expectations, very little tolerance for the sort of brokenness that reminds me of my childhood. It’s pretty triggering.
But I am trying to be more forgiving. I am trying to bear in mind that once safety has been ascertained, that forgiveness is an option and sometimes recovery, rehabilitation, and reconciliation are too.
I try to remember that at one time they were all babies – they were all cute and innocent little children making mud pies or pushing their peas around their plates. They were all pimply teens trying to figure out what to do with crushes and first loves and first kisses and broken hearts and whether their friends liked them and their clothes conveyed the right message about who they were on the inside. They were learning about education and vocations and how to pay the bills in a world where none of those things were simple (and still aren’t). They were learning how to be parents and what it meant when nobody had ever taught them how. None of it was easy. They went through hardships too. Hardships that caused damage and misconceptions and harms that they passed down to the next generation and sometimes the people around them in one form or another.
I expect most of the time they didn’t mean to cause hurt, but they did and we can’t change the past. We can only look to the future and try to do what we can with what we’ve got. I’m not a fool. I know the odds of my Dad and I having the sort of quality relationship that I would desire in an ideal father-daughter sense is unlikely bordering on neigh impossible. But maybe our relationship can be more than nothing. Maybe it can be more than him getting old and dying and me not seeing him for years before that day. If it has to be nothing I’m ok with that. But something would be better.
And that’s why I called my Dad. I told him that he was worthy of forgiveness. I told him that I forgave him. I told him that I had two rules. He couldn’t tell me what to do and he couldn’t try to rewrite the past. He said ok. Then we talked.
We talked about an old family photo my sister had texted to all of us, when I was just a baby and my parents were young, starry-eyed, and impossibly good looking, and how the picture reminded him of when I was small and he took me to the University of New Orleans once. He said he remembered how happy I was there. I said yes, that I’d remembered that visit, walking up the liberal arts building stairs, him buying me a Coke (a rare treat) out of the vending machine, and seeing adults poring over their books and listening to lectures in classrooms.
He said “I did good things too, you know. I did good things too.”
I said “I know, Dad. I remember the good things too. I remember them.”
He told me that when he watched the Al Jazeera video he agreed with Pat Farenga’s perspective more than mine, that he felt I did a good job but my framework was off, that he figured modern technology and online schools solved a lot of the homeschooling issues I was concerned about, and with my skills (and here he sounded proud) that I should work towards bigger issues, things that could do more for society, that homeschooling was small. I replied that Pat was a nice guy and we just disagreed about a few things, and I figured if I used my education anywhere, I should start close to home, in an area I know, and so that’s what I was doing. I said I didn’t do it to shame him. I did it to help other kids.
So I’m gonna call my Dad again in a few days and see if we can start small, start with more good things, attempt to be family to one another, and meantime I’m gonna work on some child abuse prevention resources so that other families can stop the cycle before it gets as bad as it did in mine.
I’m not going to whitewash everything and act like its peachy keen now (because there has been a lot of damage done and a lot of work still needs to be done to bring things in a positive direction and it’s a pretty tall order) but I am hopeful. There is still room for redemption. There is still room for improvement. We are all still alive. Or most of us are anyway, and those who aren’t should be held in our memories, their stories and hardships learned from, their lives honored, the lessons not forgotten.
It is a punitive, careless, and authoritarian culture that hurts us. This issue isn’t about Christianity. It isn’t about homeschooling. It isn’t about families. It isn’t about faith or love or loyalty. It’s about power. Power that the fearful grasp onto or lash out with. That is what we need to try so hard to end, to use our own power to do.
Sharing is still caring. There is still room to learn and grow and try to make the best of the present, using what we know from the past. There is room to accept broken people and wounded people and people who have done serious harms that are not able to be erased but who are trying to do better now, even if they don’t hardly know the way. We don’t have to do it. We don’t have to do anything. But we can. If we want to.
I’m still pretty early in my career, green in the public policy profession, but today I wanted to share this lesson that I learned, that hit home, that I hope to always remember.
We think we’re just working on metrics, policy issues, and stakeholders and then we run into raw humanity – unmet human need, trauma, and people trying to find a way to get by and make it better than they’ve had it. Maybe this shouldn’t change our goals but our methods. Remind us that it’s never “just business.” It’s always personal.
Everyone is a person.
This is so beautiful, Heather. My dad never beat me although I was spanked so much. So I don’t know what that is like. But both of my parents were victims. They were both hurt from their parents, but they are were also victims of spiritual abuse. My dad will tell me that it was exhausitive carrying the spiritual dad mode. It was so much pressure. It was exhausting. It was exhausting on us all.
Great post. I thought about my own upbringing…we were dysfunctional before dysfunctional was cool. Poverty, moving all the time, never having friends, mother mentally ill and suicidal, infidelity, divorce. When I had a family I wanted something different for them. Structure, support, stability. Fundamentalism gave us this, but it also gave us many other undesirable beliefs and practices. Is my family a cast improvement over my childhood? Absolutely. But, we are now dealing with undoing the emotional and mental harm that Fundamentalism did to my wife and I and our family. Good news? I like where we are headed, and with my children’s families they have abandoned Fundamentalism. It’s messy but it is a wonderful mess. 🙂
I’m glad you had the courage to call your dad. The good thing is that he didn’t say he’d talk to you after you repent and come back to The Lord. Maybe he’s coming to new understandings too.
Heather, I can relate. I was angry about how my parents were authoritarian during high school. However, my grandparents pretty much abandoned my dad when he was in college because they were angry about some decisions he made. They partially reconciled eventually, but never fully accepted my dad again.
One of those grandparents had a parent die when he was in college. So there is a long cycle in my family of an absentee or neglectful parent. I realize my dad was operating without parental love and support as he raised his own children. I really feel for my dad, trying to navigate so much of life on his own with just criticism from his parents.
The Doctor: [Pointing to frozen Abigail Pettigrew] Who’s she?
Kazran Sardick: Nobody important.
The Doctor: Nobody important? Blimey, that’s amazing. You know that in nine hundred years of time and space and I’ve never met anybody who wasn’t important before.
The Doctor agrees with you- you must be right! 🙂
Heather, I understand how difficult it is to take the first step to forgive someone. That reflects beautifully on you.
However, the person who wants forgiveness has to ask for it and be willing to atone (make it up to the people harmed to their satisfaction). In my case, with my father, that would mean admitting he harmed me and my siblings and acknowledging I don’t share his beliefs (he’s a fundamentalist Christian; I’m an atheist). Although he grudgingly admits he’s harmed us, his fundamentalism is literally more important to him than I am. That makes it almost impossible to be around him or speak with him in more than superficial ways.
I’m more than positive that he suffered some awful abuse in his past. It’s the only real explanation to his past and current behavior (bordering on clinical depression). Although I can empathize with the boy he was, the man himself is impossible to deal with.
I’m willing to forgive my father if he takes the first step, agrees to my conditions, and recognizes I will pull the plug if he reverts to proselytizing and obfuscating the past. These may be impossible for him to meet, but they’re conditions I don’t think are unreasonable and I’m unwilling to compromise them.
You’re a good person (probably better than I am).
That was both healing and inspiring.You have responded to fear with compassion. Thank you for sharing such wisdom.
I have recently begun to have real conversations with my dad also, and we are slowly, painfully moving toward sorting out these same issues. I think my experience was not as severe as yours, but it was still deeply hurtful and damaging to me, so I am wary and cautious about opening up and working toward some kind of reconciliation, but we have a dialogue now, which was never possible before.
Thank you for the reminder that they were hurting too, and doing the best they could with what they knew; I know my dad was reacting to some of the things his parents did, too. They did want to raise their children different and better, they just ended up going about it in the wrong ways. I hope that we can continue to move forward and have grace with each other, even if we never fully agree or understand each other’s views.
I have done a lot of reading since the Doug Phillips news, and this is, by far, the absolute best article I’ve read. I had to stop and reflect on many points you bring up, especially this one:
“So many homeschool parents who got sucked into the Quiverfull and Christian patriarchy stuff are still hurting. They secretly bear so much shame. So much self-loathing. So much guilt and fear and they are tired and worn down. They often have too many kids and not enough resources or answers. They are trying to pick up the pieces of their lives, decide where their boundaries are, figure out what’s right and what’s wrong and what’s bullshit.”
Bam. Grasp the chest and hold back the emotions. You just penetrated and hit deep. That’s Wendy and me and a lot of our friends. You understand what’s going on very, very well. Thank you for writing this.
I had the same reaction to that part too Chris Jeub. Wow…I feeling the healing balm of gilead flowing from this message and from the comments. So glad to know that I am not the only one who feels this way.
There is a book called, The Gift of The Blessing by Dr Gary Smalley. It writes about being blessed by your parents and what to do with your life when you aren’t. Very informative and thought provoking.
This is somewhat disjointed, but I hope that you can see that I find your writing very thought provoking. 🙂 It’s actually fitting some odd pieces together for me of things I didn’t understand in others.
Some time back, in doing research on Phelps of Westboro Baptist “Church”, I ran across an article/booklet online that was written about his life and family history. The writer claimed that his father had been a bouncer for the railroad company whose job it was to manhandle hobos and free riders on the railway. I specifically remember something about his dad coming home from work with blood on his clothes that he had gotten in the “line of duty”. The author speculated that his dad’s rough and tumble job may have well played out in his dealing with his family at home as well. The author may have included witnesses that corroborated that, but it’s been awhile and it’s a little foggy in my memory. The author’s point was that eventually the Fred Phelps became an outflow of the hate and abuse that he received growing up.
My own Grandma was the daughter of an abusive alcoholic. There were many things in her that were difficult to deal with that I did not understand until I started reading “The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook” by Edward J. Bourne. I was electrified when I read the list of issues that children of alcoholics can have. My Grandma suffered from a majority of them. It made me feel much more empathy for her oddities that were so hard to deal with at times. I’m sure she had many “triggers” of which we weren’t aware.
This all to say, yes, the human element is bigger than we sometimes think. There are people in this world who do weird and awful things because of the baggage they were handed in their childhood that they don’t know how to put down. Others want to escape those mistakes and end up following some bizarre doctrine that promises perfect results if they follow the plan perfectly. It’s incredibly sad. It’s good to not just assume these people are inhuman and incapable of feeling their failures. As a Christian I can’t help thinking of the compassion, forgiveness and healing of Jesus Christ toward trouble people during his years on earth. Where is that in the “Jesus” of the extreme groups? Too often it’s missed entirely.
such a thoughtul, healing article…so glad i read it…wish i had read it sooner…