I haven’t done homeschool reform advocacy work in a few years and I haven’t written on this blog in over a year. I have no idea if anybody still reads it anymore, but I realized I still had something left to say about trustworthiness and my experience with it being weaponized in relation to these topics. I also wanted to give an update on a few things I have going on.
This photo was taken the morning of January 24th, 2019, a couple hours before a surgery to remove two large endometriomas, one of which had burst. It is the last photo I have where I still have both cojones, as in the surgery I lost an ovary and a half. I post it here because I think it is an example of how to face heartbreaking or scary things head on and move forward better for it. When you know it needs to be done, you just do it.
Late last year I received a long-delayed diagnosis of a physical health condition, endometriosis, then had a major surgery for it, and likely will need a second more specialized one. Turns out I had unknowingly been having cyclical (but not menstrual) problems all my life, and an increase in levels of pain and fatigue over the past decade without information about what was causing it.
Endometriosis is truly is no joke, and at surgery I was found to have a frozen pelvis and a top 5% worst case, with fibrotic endo on my digestive, urinary, reproductive, and respiratory systems (diaphragm), as well as up and down my abdominal sidewalls. I was at risk of losing my kidneys and having blood flow cut off to major veins, and had to have close to two square feet of tissue removed from my body by two of new England’s top excision specialists, which took six hours.
I have healed well but still have diaphragmatic endometriosis, including a little piece directly under my heart, that continues to cause me pain.
I learned in the middle of this experience that endometriosis is still on the front end of what badly needs to be a scientific and medical paradigm shift: the messy process of the disease going from being treated like a menstrual disorder to being treated (rightly) like a birth defect.
I have started thinking a lot more about paradigm shifts and echo chambers and cultural values, and this article called “Escape the Echo Chamber” by C Thi Nguyen sets up the framework better than any I’ve read. But the bottom line is that who is trusted is more important than who is right.
Paradigm shifts and the taboos and cultural traditions around them are never easy, because they change the rules around who and what to trust, and it takes a lot of energy to do something like reevaluate your sense of self in light of a diagnosis or life shock. But I’ve realized while doing it now that I’ve had to do this before – when leaving the Quiverfull movement as a girl, and when leaving my first marriage, and in recontextualizing my professional role. I’ve got experience with the pattern and how you learn new things when you leave a paradigm and spiral back around, interpreting situations much differently than you initially did.
One thing I see in a very different light today is the work I did in the as-of-now short-lived homeschool abuse survivors’ policy reform movement. I don’t know if it was always doomed to fail, but who I chose to work with meant it had high odds of failure baked in.
Turns out when you build a movement, you not only have to be a leader (and this is hard), but you have to choose your first followers carefully. They are the ones who teach everyone else how to follow. I didn’t know that at the time and got very unlucky in that regard.
I put everything I had into Rachel Coleman, who is also the author of the pseudonymous Patheos blog Love Joy Feminism, under the name Libby Ann. Her blogging was prolific and had wide readership and she loved my work as much as I seemed to. The match-up seemed perfect. But what I didn’t know until later is that it was a Gilderoy Lockhart type situation.
She quietly stole a lot of people’s work and elevated it as her own content. She did this partially by gleaning information and analysis written by other survivors in online groups and on blog comments and pages and shared in private chats, and then writing about it without attribution, like it was hers. When the work had to be attributed because the origin was known, she co-opted it by using another kind of script we grew up with – befriending the author and working within a social network that was becoming a bit of a bubble (all survivors, friends with other survivors) and later making the actual author/owner of the work seem untrustworthy, so the role of carrying an iteration of it forward and therefore ownership could then be hers.
I trusted too early, given our similar backgrounds and research interests, and mistakenly thought we were friends for close to two years. We spoke nearly every day, often multiple times a day. But after it soured, it soured bad. She and the rest of the small team signed and sent me a horrible 13 page fundamentalism-rooted letter firing me from my own org (which has since remained under her leadership, but badly stunted) and she deleted my bio from the website, started calling herself “founder” instead of co-founder in media pieces, and got quoted on the front page of the New York Times using my words.
I sometimes wonder if the intention of the letter (which I have attached here, along with my response to it at the time) was not just to bully and shut me up so this could happen, but to truly get rid of me.
If you know someone has PTSD and just went through a divorce, sending such a letter seems like less of a careless angry thing, and more of a targeted psychologically abusive act, a strategic punch designed to cause the recipient to feel so low that they may conclude they do not deserve to live.
Luckily my scrappy nature means I have so far survived all punches and psychological abuse and character assassination and medical emergencies I’ve faced in life, including this one, but they sure weren’t under any guarantees that that would be my reaction, and it would be reasonable to assume that something like this could push anybody, especially someone you already had a reason to be legitimately concerned about, over the edge.
Afterwards I slowly discovered that I wasn’t the only one this group had done this kind of thing to and in that light, some of Rachel’s previous ethical lapses (which I had chalked up to as journalistic inexperience and guarding of a pseudonym) seemed a bit more jarring. They included being double quoted in news articles as both Rachel Coleman and Libby Ann, without disclosing to the journalist that she was in fact one person, as well as getting paid as an atheist blogger by Patheos while maintaining another blog (Rethinking Vision Forum) where she anonymously covered some of the same topics from a Christian perspective.
Such double-dealing tactics have been beneficial to her and a few others she associates with personally and professionally (some of whom signed the letter or later joined the org), and they have successfully cut down several others until she was more or less the only one in the initial group left standing tall.
I was publicly silent about it (although not privately so) because I hoped that the problem – which was really a social one rather than an individual one – would eventually right itself. But it has not, and even though more than half a decade has passed, me not openly setting the record straight is something that has weighed on me. So I am putting this out there to do so now, and then put it behind me after that.
You might wonder why I stayed publicly silent initially, when that is not typical of me. Part of it was that I didn’t want to see smug fundamentalists who desired nothing more than to watch us fail in ugly shameful ways get what they want, and part of it is that I simply didn’t have the bandwidth to deal with the awfulness. I was dumbstruck by it and for a long time didn’t know what to say. It had gone from something that had seemed wholesome and welcoming and trustworthy to a trigger-happy circular firing squad that I didn’t want any part of.
You only have to look at what Ryan Stollar did to The Naked Pastor or what Homeschoolers Anonymous did to Ryan Stollar to see exactly what I didn’t want to have happen to me. I didn’t want some online bullying war where insinuations and accusations and screenshots of some of the personal conversations I’d had were selectively posted all over the internet, or in blog posts dragging me through the mud.
I also thought Rachel was young and would likely realize at some point that she had been using the old script (the one the smug fundamentalists taught us in the course of church and homeschooling) and feel horrified by what she’d done, or at least that the reform movement itself would be more elastic and put a stop to the continuation of such behavior once a pattern became obvious. Neither thing seems to have happened, and I’m honestly not sure if the pattern ever did become obvious to the majority of those in or formerly in the network.
It also still sucks to write about any of this because I truly loved and still love and value the original work I had done and what we had then built together. I didn’t ever want to destroy anything about the reputation or continued usefulness of the policy recommendations (which were and remain solid and excellent) or the work I (we?) had dreamed of doing – creating a multi-disciplinary advocacy organization doing the ground work of improving children’s safety through responsible homeschooling laws.
But now a few years later, I wonder if I could even destroy anything of value by outlining what really happened, as it seems to have been rendered ineffectual already.
Betsy DeVos, a fundamentalist homeschooling mom, is the U.S. Education Secretary and she’s expanding the exact scenarios we were supposed to be standing up against, and they’ve not done anything useful about it, unless you count getting quoted or posting op-eds in newspapers while passing off even more other people’s work as their own, or amateur attempts at growth which include inflated research and policy titles, calls for unpaid “senior policy intern” positions, and still no real board of directors.
I had to stop looking at any of it because it was painful to see my policy dreams and ideas get shredded and turned into some sort of sad former fundamentalist homeschool kid resume padding. I’d honestly much rather receive a horrible 13 page letter every day than see my serious work turned into someone else’s toothless research blog vanity project.
But something that hurt almost as much as the sordid professional situation was seeing how little I was valued as a human being on a personal level in the larger survivor network. Part of a betrayal is the feeling of pulling a knife out of your back while simultaneously learning the hard way that most of the surrounding ties, deep though they feel at the time, are also incredibly brittle.
I had thought I found friendship and a community that respected and cared about me, and up to a point I was happily riding that wave. But really it was quite like the cultish church circles we grew up in. In cults things are accomplished by cultivating insecurity, desperation, fear, and exhaustion through constant detailed demands. Initial love bombing ended up with me put on a pedestal that was quite easy and almost inevitable to be knocked off of.
Knocking women off of pedestals is a favorite patriarchal pastime, a high-yield scapegoating technique, and keeping women afraid of it happening to them – at the hands of both men and other women – is an oft-used and typically successful goal of sexism. There are so many people downright gleeful at the merest hint of a catfight.
I realize now that it probably wasn’t healthy to even try to bring survivors together in the kind of free-for-all online group context it occurred in. Our community was less of a real community than a bunch of high acuity abuse survivors, most of whom needed therapy and employment and intensive social supports to acclimate to post-cult life. But what people got instead was to lean on one another while rehashing and maintaining a strong semblance of the old script with a few new variables plugged in. So it did not ultimately result in the healing I’d hoped for, and might have prolonged the struggle for some.
I saw a lot of people in our circles become increasingly afraid of being called out as a bad ally of what they were told by others in the group was important, getting into and bringing others into new kinds of high-demand lifestyles. I was shocked at how things got so toxic so fast after that, an intense quest for a new kind of ideological purity while bad behavior abounded. But I probably shouldn’t have been surprised. It was the model our elders had given us, and the one that we all knew best.
But at the time I did not understand this concept or this risk. I had left the movement very young and gone to public high school, so I was in between worlds and my paradigm had already shifted a lot. I still responded to some of those high-demand cues, but not to others. Mostly I would feel a crazy level of guilt about something while at the same time finding it pretty easy to tell someone how and why I didn’t like something they were doing or demanding that I do.
I first stood up against the idea that I had to run myself ragged for a cause. Rachel kept saying “kids are dying” as a reason not to take a break, and I – a person who believes in the value of self-care and community care and breaks – started angry-crying during a meeting and said “I’m not going to be a mascot for this.” I saw then that nobody understood. Or maybe they already understood too well that I was not one of them. I wasn’t primed to be self-sacrificial or to sacrifice others for any kind of cause. I didn’t and don’t believe in it and was confused about why anyone would.
While I do believe most of us were trying to help other people, we weren’t healed enough from what was done to us. In my partial paradigm shift I had also forgotten one of the rules of where I came from, where we were all arrows for a cause in a culture war. They still all felt they had to be mascots for something in order to even matter as people, and underlying cult programming running deep in that direction was likely a big part of why they acted the way they did. People willing to sacrifice themselves for a cause are also willing to sacrifice anyone else perceived as standing in the way. That’s how that kind of thing works.
I started to realize this and began to instinctually pull away. I took a break, which Kathryn Brightbill (who I now realize is little more than a class A internet troll) tried to tell me was badly needed because she was “concerned” that I was mentally unwell. It is true that I was unwell (both mentally and physically, as getting off of birth control around the time of my divorce only increased the guts-feeling-stapled-together feeling) but I had already started noticing that rather than being genuinely depressed, I might have just been surrounded by some bad-boundaries assholes. I could gain a sense of wellness from other circles and even from just being alone. Yet spending time with them just depleted it again.
After I became less useful, it was surprisingly easy to tell me I needed a break and then use it to get rid of me. I was also described as “unsafe” to the community at large, and then there was nothing left to be done. Nothing I said after that meant anything but a threat. That’s how it goes in echo chambers.
It didn’t matter that I stood up against online bullying of “bad allies” – what was done to Rachel Held Evans (may she Rest In Peace) was unconscionable – and that I stood up when they tried to smear and divest from Vyckie Garrison and NLQ (where I might note Rachel had been taught how to blog and was given a space to do so in the first place). Nobody in the circle was open to anything I had to say anymore. No points I had could be valid.
Most people just wanted to further their own advocacy goals and not make unnecessary waves. How I had been treated was an unnecessary wave that didn’t actually matter and could therefore be papered over.
I realized slowly that my initial work had been desired, but who I am as a whole person never had been, and I had confused the two.
And in fact talking about how I was treated and what was stolen from me put me at risk of additional threats from the people who didn’t want waves, so when one of them came directly from Rachel’s husband – who said that it wouldn’t be good for me if I talked about what had happened – I had mutual friends pretend it hadn’t happened like that, tell me that it wasn’t actually a threat, that I needed to consider both sides, and outing Rachel’s pseudonym as part of telling any story would be me being abusive to her – as she was someone at-risk. These same people (some of them still blogging about the harm of their own experiences with abuse) claimed to be very much anti-abuse and always on the side of people who had been harmed. I wasn’t sure if it was hypocrisy or a blind spot, but either way the combination was stunning.
I realized that I would need to protect myself from whatever this was, and that there was nothing to go back to with this crowd even if I fought for and snatched my work back. I didn’t trust most of this circle to know how to act better towards me or anyone, and without trust you have nothing. So I accepted I had nothing. That is always the true beginning of a paradigm shift.
That then made me realize what I had to do – which was go from scapegoat to escape goat – cut those ties, go quiet/innocuous online, and move forward in a different direction. So I did.
I have a few acquaintances and a handful of friends remaining from a group of 300 survivor-advocates that I once imagined I belonged to. That handful are people who have stood up for me and who I know have my back. Real friends worth more than their weight in gold. The kind of people who will send you favorite books when they know you’ll be in bed recovering from surgery.
Over time I have also received a few heartfelt apologies from others, had one semi-disingenuous but nonetheless important note of partial regret come my way (from Ryan Stollar), several messages of support from people who quietly saw what had happened, and one friend who publicly stood up for me. Several others were puzzled as to where I’d gone and what happened and tried to convince me to try anew, which I politely declined. I appreciated all of that for what it was, but at this point I have accepted that I am a content expert whose time of focusing on a topic has passed. If there is a loss in that, it is a collective loss and not just mine.
I also realized after it settled (and that took a few years) that I had gained a different kind of confidence. I realized that if people want to steal ideas from me in the future, they’d really be better off stealing and keeping the whole me, because otherwise they’re just running off with a bucket of water that is eventually going to dry up, while I remain a fountain.
Now that’s the kind of attitude that likely made some insecure people angry and got me labeled “probably a narcissist” or as one apologist put it, “having the fleas of a narcissist,” but really it’s just recognizing my skill set. I was the ideas person, I’m good at it, and without an ideas person (me or another) and the system level thinking that brings, it just won’t sustain.
To keep the analogy of a fountain, I have also found that I need to regularly tap into new things, fresh sources that keep me flowing and on a path of lifelong learning. After my work was stolen, I’ve since spent the time and energy I would have devoted to it teaching myself about so many things that have nothing to do with fundamentalism or homeschooling: The history of arts and crafts design and how to remodel 1920’s bungalows. The patent law process (having fallen into a job managing patent citation databases). Vietnamese family life (I may not belong among my in-laws, but I am very much included). The way rare and underserved diseases like endometriosis (my own disease) and angiosarcoma of the lung (a rare and brutal Agent Orange-associated cancer that my father in law is battling right now) are handled.
I have learned so many other things accidentally, usually while out looking for something else. I know more about grief and the bittersweet softening effects that failure and loss can create from these experiences. I had one of my high school best friends and grad school best friends both die on the same day last summer, suddenly rendering most of my educational memories (a third of them already altered by Hurricane Katrina) in the “ain’t there no more” category. That shifted a paradigm too.
Life is both fragile and resilient. I am afraid of losing people that I care about and want to support other people fighting not just to exist but to truly live. But I am no longer afraid of rejection by people declaring that I have little or no worth because I don’t adhere to their plans or petty demands. Someone like that exiting your life is a gain, not a loss.
I have learned more about healthy relationships – how cozy it can be to be in one where you actually sort through the dealbreaker arguments, develop real communication, and mutually accept one another for who you are – spending your time sharing inside jokes and planning projects and offering and accepting meals rather than jockeying for power or harboring insecurity and resentment. I have realized how some of the littlest signs of this reflect the biggest underlying values.
My husband and I also adopted a pet together this summer. Tilly is the first cat I’ve had since I was a teen, and she is my husband’s first pet ever. I’m including a picture of her here since the rest of this post is so heavy. Watching the man I love spoil a pet may well be the cutest damn situation that I’ve ever seen and is another sign of healthy relationship.
So anyway, my point in all this is that there are many ways to spend your time in this world, some by choice and others thrust upon you, and at this point I think it was actually good that circumstances outside of my control forced me to move on from immersion in circles centered around my origins and the punitive social scripts within them.
But since all this was left hanging open in silence, I have long felt the need to lay it out there as part of moving forward, and hopefully with this post I’ve done it.
A lot of time has passed, but whether what I’m saying here gets crickets or it becomes some dramatic she said/she said, I’m not going to get dragged into more of it. I’ve said what I had to say. My trustworthiness can no longer be weaponized.