“It wasn’t just Dad.” I hear my realization of just over a year ago echoed in the voice of my younger sister today. The idea that our dad was abusive is long past established and worked through. The idea that he was one of many, and that his ideology is culturally embraced, not a broken deviation? That’s news. “Is it even possible to be a Christian, a Homeschooler, and not be an abuser?” And so the next miserable leg of the journey through brokenness begins for her as it did for me.
The news about Doug Phillips is everywhere this week. I’m used to this type of thing: my world is full of horrible stories about organizations I deeply love and respect being outed as nothing like I thought. The safe places in my childhood were the horror stories of people I now know and love. The pockets of past peace for me are disrupted daily and I shift again to take in the additional details. Holding on to the good in my own story is harder and harder. Telling about the bad is harder too. There’s too much. And not enough. But it’s different this time.
Doug Phillips was a big name in my life. My “vacations” were going to Homeschool conventions with my mom (truly good memories still, and precious times). The same conventions at which Phillips routinely spoke, or at least at which his books and videos where sold with much energy. When my family had our first boy we had no idea what that would mean for our strongly female family, so my mother turned to a culturally trusted resource on boy child rearing, and Doug Phillips books landed on our shelves. I didn’t know what “patriarchy” was at the time. Does a fish know of water?
“I was thinking of you when I read the part of the story about what Phillips said at Lourde’s graduation,” I tell Emerald over the phone today. “It read like Dad’s note cards for his speech at your graduation, didn’t it?” “I’m really relieved you saw that,” she says flatly, not sounding relieved. “It helps to know I’m not crazy. Not overreacting.”
“The heart and soul of [this] graduation was… to honor the Lord for bringing their daughter into mature Christian womanhood.” They are Phillip’s words, but I hear them in my dad’s voice.
A small, homeschool graduation in a church with ugly carpet. My father stood on stage, arm possessively around Emerald’s shoulders, tucking her into him like a briefcase, an embrace that I could read from a mile away as taking, not giving. On my sister’s other side my mother stood ignored, cold shouldered, not given space in their moment. It wasn’t like my graduation, or Saturn’s, full of joy and celebration as a family. This was his moment to parade his prize before the world and teach us all a truth using her as an object lesson.
Each family was given a moment to present the diploma to their graduate. My dad took more than a moment. With shoulder squeezes that made me flinch from the audience he spoke long and loud of my sister’s superior virtues. The academic nature of the gathering was incidental, it seemed. She was a woman of God. Respectful, honorable, good at helping around the house. Seeking God’s will and listening well. She would make a great wife. She also looked like she was about to vomit on the stage.
Less than a week before the graduation the realization of the grossly emotionally incestuous nature of our father’s relationship with her had crashed over my sister, shattering her world in ways I have yet to see even lose their roughest edges. Surviving until the graduation was her goal, and she stood there under the arm of her abuser hearing her naivety and misplaced submission sung as life and soul saving beauties. She stood beside her mother as his every word carried the weight of “you are a better woman than she, you would have been a better wife to me, you will be a better wife.”
“Torres’ attorney, David Gibbs, told WND, ‘Because of Doug’s position of trust, Lourdes had no ability to consent. When you look at the absolute control that that man had in her life, he was her pastor, he was her teacher, he was her employer, he was her patriarchal head of the home. In a sense, he was her counselor. Doug established the system where obedience to God required Lourdes to obey him and fully submit to whatever he wanted to do.’ ” (from the same article)
That is what is so hard to explain. That is the unifying abuse that I, we, are horrified to learn is more widespread than we had ever imagined. No matter what it was we were to submit to, the system of obligatory submission is false and broken and abusive. I am deeply grateful (and often confused) that our abuse was never sexual, and very rarely and mildly physical. But our stories are the same, though the details of others may be more graphic. When I read the story of Lourdes’ encounters I felt cold, I started shaking, a triggered response from my own youth. I know that moment when a trusted authority, THE only authority, violates a truth they themselves asserted, and turns it so that your resistance is the sin. I know the pain and confusion mixed with love and a desire to submit. I know. My sister knows.
This is a very difficult concept to understand if you did not grow up in patriarchy… Teenaged girls… are taught that their purpose it to serve as a daughter, and then as a wife and mother. They try to fulfill their purpose in life by working hard, taking care of younger siblings, and generally not trying to rock the boat. They do not ask for things that they want or need, they do not tell their parents if they are pain, and they do not ask questions about their futures or their bodies…These girls are trotted out at family and church gatherings to showcase their homemaking and child-rearing skills. To fail at cooking a dish or to not be able to handle several children at a time would be an unbearable humiliation. No self-respecting girl would allow that happen, and after a girl has put all of her time and effort into being a homemaker and mother for a few years, she is taught to take pride in it, and also starts to take pride on her own.
(Sarah Henderson “Oh Daughters of Fundamentalism, Take Upon Yourselves the Cloak of Self-Deception”)
The week after her graduation Emerald moved out of our dad’s house and into the basement of the house Saturn and I shared. This left our last two siblings there, defenseless and abandoned. We all hated it. We had each tried to rescue them, to run interference. Failing, we each had to save ourselves. My sister spent the next month a shadow, barely eating or drinking, rarely leaving the basement. She had been emptied and had no idea with what to fill herself.
Less than 2 months later my mom left my dad, took our youngest siblings and hid out in a shelter. Every day there she had to look up the definition of “abuse” to be sure she qualified. To be sure she deserved the bed she was taking up in the shelter. She didn’t have bruises, after all.
There is no tidy ending to this fragmented post. There can’t be. There is nothing at all tidy about this. There are too many sharp edges of broken worlds.