Today the big American Prospect “Homeschool Apostates” story came out. A number of us have been working with Kathryn Joyce for some time on the issue and so while I only had a short segment in it, an interview on social awkwardness as a formative experience, the piece is the most comprehensive one to exist on this advocacy work I am helping spearhead as of yet, and it really highlights the issues in a way that I find to be deeply meaningful and sincerely hope will help raise awareness and bring about improvement.

It’s hard to believe that a year ago I had just started blogging and just last summer I created the Protect Homeschooled Children Working Group and the Quiverfull Sorority of Survivors group. That a few months before that I got in touch with Vyckie of NLQ and RL Stollar told me about his idea for Homeschoolers Anonymous. He had six stories to start with and I agreed to be one of the first blog partners. It’s crazy to think that these venues and tools have been so useful, that I have made so many friends and found some amazing colleagues, gotten so many heartfelt messages, and that the coalition-building ideas I had expressed in my masters degree capstone presentation at Brandeis’ Heller School are actually becoming a reality. It is humbling and deeply meaningful and if I was a praying person I would even say it was somewhat of a spiritual experience to have this happen the way it has. I don’t know, maybe it is.

So the Homeschool Apostates story is a big story for many of us and a big deal for many of us advocates and survivors. For the first time our collective story is being told in a comprehensive way. It is no longer unspeakable. That is huge. Grown men have told me that they cried tears over it while reading it today and I may have shed a few myself. We are being heard. We are being heard. It is so good to be finally listened to, to have a voice, to be allowed to raise awareness. Still, when it think about all today, what’s foremost in my mind isn’t Kathryn Joyce’s groundbreaking journalism on the topic or the initial responses to it. Instead, my mind is on a blog post written by Libby Anne.

Yeah, I am just feeling kinda flabbergasted by the Maranatha story

The fact that her father’s friend found her beautiful and “distracting” at age 13 and her father gave her to him in marriage at age 15 and the fact that Maranatha and her husband seem to have then done the same thing with their own daughter, Lauren, marrying her off at age 16 to an older guy is very triggering. At first I wasn’t sure exactly why.

I wondered at first, if like Lana Hope, I was worried about Lauren and other girls like her, haunted by her sweet face in that wedding dress, so young. Too young. There was a debate over whether Libby should have included the photo. Some said yes. Some said no. Fact is, Lauren is a real person, not just a symbol, even if she is being used as one and she uploaded those wedding pictures herself, so it is good for us to be discussing that.

Sometimes it is a hard row to hoe, doing advocacy work. How much sharing is oversharing? How much telling of someone else’s story is overtelling? How much of a space between harsh and firm and realistic and gentle exists? Do we have opponents or enemies or strangers or friends we don’t know yet? Are we accidentally contributing to stigmatization or marginalization? I don’t have the answer to most of these questions. I too am making this up as I go, as are many of us, but I do want to say that as time has gone on I have seen the need for healing rather than divisiveness. I am prone to sarcasm and “verbal artillery” but fact is it is easier to snark on people that you think are “the other.” It is harder to do it when that person is “one of us.”

Fact is, people like Lauren are welcome among the survivors group network if they ever find they need it. They meet the admissions criteria. So are the Duggar family daughters and the Botkins too. We are not here to snark on them, or at least we shouldn’t be. We should tell them that they are one of us and we are one of them. We have just found ourselves on different sides of the divide, at least for the time being. Proponents and opponents, adherents and defectors, believers and apostates, but that doesn’t mean we have to be jerks to each other. We are all trying to navigate this weird subculture we were raised in and the other weird American one it exists inside of and the weird world they are both in, for better or worse, lumped in with all the other cultures that exist around the globe. We’ve got to somehow try and make the best of it.

So the thing that mostly bothered me and kept me up last night, thinking about Maranatha and Lauren, is that I remembered my parents had some of these “young marriage” ideas. Thankfully there weren’t any much older friends of my Dad sniffing around the house for fresh-faced young virgins like there apparently was with Maranatha or Lauren, and they also didn’t push the whole courtship thing themselves because they’d kind of lost control of their herd of children (does anyone ever warn Quiverfull parents that their kids will soon far outnumber them and may stage an insurrection?) and their own marriage was failing. However, they definitely did suggest things that went along with such a mindset.

By the time I was 13 my Dad wanted me gone. I was challenging his authority. He even threatened to put me out on the street a few times. Initially it scared me. I wrote in my diary about it – about feeling unloved and too young and on guard. Then later I kinda liked the idea. I was counting down the years and feeling like I was in a prison and it was at a tipping point. It was unsustainable and I was either gonna shank somebody or stage a jailbreak. My sister and I briefly ran away from home twice to escape prolonged punishments, but thankfully we ran to Grandma’s house, a safe place. Still, finding a guy as an escape from home was ingrained, so it’s what we both searched for.

My first boyfriend was when I was 14. He was 18. I was a freshman in high school, still learning how to be a public school student after all the years of nonexistent homeschooling. This guy had asked me to a high school dance. I had said yes. My parents met and didn’t like him, felt he wasn’t good marriage material (having just got out of foster care, he wasn’t) and said I was “desperate.” But they still briefly talked about me maybe marrying him. I didn’t like him either (kissing him tasted bad and he secretly smoked cigarettes and was trying to convince me to have sex with him) so I broke up with him after two weeks, ending that discussion.

I had another boyfriend at 16. This one a definite rebellion on my part. I thought he was good looking and also he had pursued me. He was 17, a friend of a friend and we met at a movie night. I didn’t know anything other than to say yes or no to being pursued. He was a sweet guy (someone I’m still friends with, actually) but had been shuffled between different relatives for much of his young life and recently gotten expelled from his school for a bomb threat. He had longish hair, a couple earrings in one ear, and showed up to my parents’ house in a Metallica t-shirt, smelling like smoke. A conservative Christian father’s worst nightmare for his teenage daughter I suppose. I may have dated him longer because my Dad immediately loathed him and banned him from the house. There was no talk of marriage to this one. But ultimately I was a “good girl” who didn’t want to drink, smoke, or have sex just yet. I was an honors student and wanted to go to college, so this guy and I didn’t have too much in common. I ended it after a few months.

I got in a serious relationship at age 17 with a tall blue-eyed soccer player, a friend of my cousin’s, as my cousin had set up as blind dates for a high school dance. My mother immediately liked him. He came from a conservative Christian family, was soft-spoken, polite, and made really good grades. They figured I’d hit jackpot. They also had no idea why such a nice young man like that would see anything in me when there were so many other nicer (I.e. thinner and more submissive) girls out there. All agreed that I should consider myself very lucky.

It was probably due to this relationship and the love and stability that it brought that I had the guts to leave home at age 17. I moved in with a cousin to escape the violence, and so I felt this guy had in many ways rescued me. I was madly in love by this point anyway (and I still think that he was the best first love a girl could ask for), but being 17 and seeing a 16 year old boyfriend as your rescuer and thinking you have one chance at love in life adds considerably more depth and complication to the feelings. There were parental recommendations to marry this guy, almost from the getgo. They knew they couldn’t tell me what to do (after all, I was in rebellion and had left) but they definitely suggested it to me, their prodigal daughter. Marriage was put forward as a way to get back on track, make things right with my family and settle down the tumultuousness of my life. My Dad even said it was ok with him if I got married instead of going to college. But this guy and I were still 16 and 17 at the times those conversations took place. Crazy, right?

My sister next in age got married almost immediately upon turning age 18 to a military guy in his early 20’s and then she got out of town. I got married at 23, right after college, (still in rebellion I guess, since I lived with him before marriage) which had meant enduring several years of lectures from my Mom on me “doing things out of order” and “wanting the best of both worlds,” but fact is I had been in a relationship that was much like marriage since age 17 or 18.

Turns out young marriage wasn’t what they taught us it was, for my sister or I. It isn’t the most beautiful thing, a way to have purity and ensure many years of compatible love together. It is a huge risk. sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it is one of the biggest risk factors for divorce, for young parenthood, and for not finishing your education. It is a thing to generally be avoided. My sister and I beat the odds on education – both getting our degrees. I beat the odds on young parenthood (yay for birth control!). We both got divorced.

I cannot tell you how heartbreaking and scary it is to realize that the person you codependently picked at age 17 (and there’s not a model for it to begin any other way) as your rescuer and life partner is someone you don’t want to share your whole adult life with, or more like you have realized that you cannot share your life with them as a spouse and find it to be anything like the life you want to live.

I found I could not do what was asked to do by my background and upbringing. It was not who I was and I could not give up the core of me to save my marriage. I still felt like part of me was dying though. My sister couldn’t put up with the addicted mess her husband became after returning from a tour of duty in Iraq. We both tried. It was excruciating. I cannot describe the anguish. We each went against everything we ever thought we’d be and became divorcees, struggling to find independence of mind, body, and finances (which were all exceedingly hard to do and some of which I admit I haven’t fully accomplished yet).

Still, I just thought it hadn’t worked out for us. I didn’t see the pattern. I also didn’t realize how strong my feelings were on the subject of young marriage until my 17 year old sister got an 18 year old boyfriend. They’d gone to his prom together, as he was a year ahead in school. The prom pictures were gorgeous because he was tall and good looking and my sister is beautiful and funny and brilliant smart (yeah, I’m so proud of her). They were together for a while but she got college scholarships to a different school than he did. So she decided she didn’t want to do the long distance thing and ended it. My mother then pitched a fit, acting like my sister had lost a good man, a good life partner.

I found out about it and got upset. More upset than I expected. I yelled at my Mom, said to leave my sister alone, let her just be a 17 year old girl for God’s sake. I said that she was far too young to worry about finding a man and my Mom was way out of line. It was only then that I realized how much my heart yearned to have had the freedom that my younger sister had, wished I had felt the sense of agency she felt to be able to end a teenage relationship that wasn’t in line with her educational goals.

It was super hard getting a divorce. I loved my ex. I still do. We still talk. We still feel like family, as weird (or not) as that might seem. But I do not miss him anymore. I do not wish he was still my husband. I have started dating and realized that although dating kinda freaks me out (a topic for another post) there are levels of relationship compatibility and levels of freedom out in the world that I didn’t have with him, and that if I had stayed I may never have known and he may never have known. My family doesn’t understand it. They thought we were perfect for each other. But we weren’t. Looks can be deceiving.

This young marriage ideal sets girls up to be partial individuals, halves of a whole rather than whole, and it put my sister and I through untold anguish. Unnecessary anguish. It is hard to think I didn’t need all that pain. That my sister didn’t need that pain. To think that we could have learned it was ok to have first boyfriends, first loves, and have ordinary levels of heartbreak at a teenage relationship ending, but that we didn’t have to marry them, promise our whole lives, well I have no words. I wish someone had let me know young marriage was far from ideal beforehand, that it was more scary than beautiful. I don’t know what I would have done with it, but I wish I’d at least had that information.

Do these people really think that they can and should stand there and preach to others to do the things that have caused so much pain and heartbreak for many homeschooled young women, including myself? Do they really think that this is a good idea? If so, what planet are they on? Because it certainly isn’t Earth. It certainly isn’t modern times. It certainly isn’t America on the verge of 2014. Because I know. I know firsthand. And what I know is that we have a strong moral obligation to do what we can to protect our daughters and younger sisters from such regressive, stunting things as these environments that tacitly facilitate or even encourage becoming a teenage bride or a teenage mistress to some patriarchal demagogue.

It is not ok. It needs to stop.

I hope people like Maranatha and Lauren and the unnamed woman that Doug Phillips groomed to meet his own selfish needs won’t be too upset at those of us who have spoken out against these patriarchal daughter-centered practices and beliefs. Because we are more like you than unlike you in a lot of ways. We are not the enemy. We are not people poking fun and heedlessly mocking from the other side, thinking it’s a freak show for their enjoyment. We grew up in it too, so I don’t have much patience for those people looking for entertainment value in it either. We have suffered heartbreak and shame and the feeling of being oddballs as well.

Too many of us know, at least to some degree, the confusion and the pain, and that is why when we say we think it should stop, that no more girls should be put through a patriarchal marriage machine that gobbles them up, we speak from a place of experience. In a way, because the children of the homeschool movement are all still so young, people who are not yet 40 have already become the advice-givers, the leaders, the Titus 2 women of the homeschool apostates. It isn’t easy. We aren’t sure of everything. But what we are sure of is that homeschool parents and community leaders must listen and hear us and then say no to the things that hurt us. They must say no to these glittering and whitewashed false ideals held up as purity and goodness and instead see these false stories for the ugliness and harbingers of heartbreak and ruin, based on illegitimate power and control, that they are.

I think it is no coincidence that Doug Phillips was found to have groomed and had a long-term affair with a much younger woman, who by all accounts was raised to be submissive and enfantalized, and that Maranatha had this happen to her too, just within the supposedly appropriate bonds of marriage and paternal approval.

That is why I think Libby Anne was right to include Lauren’s wedding picture. Lauren is a pretty girl, a real person, just like so many of us. She is not an oddball, a freak. She is trying to make do with the world she’s found herself in, same as anybody else. And that is why when hearing that the CHEO conference, which has hosted the recently-disgraced Doug Phillips as a keynote speaker many times is having Maranatha and her husband speak as keynote speakers, I got upset.

When will these people pushing patriarchy understand that absolute power corrupts absolutely?

We do not need to snark on teenage brides or teenage mistresses or act like anyone’s relationship isn’t or wasn’t valid or loving. That is really the wrong direction to focus. They have been through more than enough. We have been through more than enough. Instead we need to set it up so that the next young woman who asks the question “Am I really chattel to this man? Is that what I was supposed to be? Is that what women are, just servants?” can then look out around her and say “no, I am not” with certainty. It is our job to provide that certainty. So today I am really proud of the Homeschool Apostates story and the colleagues I was profiled in it with and want to say thank you to the people who have been there for us as we have shared and grieved and blew the whistle on this stuff.

We are making a dent, y’all. We are making a difference.