“Charles sat quietly while I talked and didn’t say anything for a long time after. Then he said, “Are you angry that your parents didn’t put you in school?”
“It was an advantage!” I said, half-shouting. My response was instinctive. It was like hearing a phrase from a catchy song: I couldn’t stop myself from reciting the next line. Charles looked at me skeptically… “Well I’m angry,” he said. “Even if you aren’t.”
I said nothing. I’d never heard anyone criticize my father… and I wasn’t able to respond to it. I wanted to tell Charles about the Illuminati, but the words belonged to my father, and even in my mind they sounded awkward, rehearsed. I was ashamed of my inability to take possession of them. I believed then- and part of me will always believe- that my father’s words ought to be my own.” – Tara Westover, Educated
One of the hardest things for me, as an abuse survivor, is to acknowledge the fact that my family gave me a skewed picture of what the world around me really was.
They held the narrative of my world for most of my life, as most families do for children. However, theirs was a narrative of control. I was raised to see life as us against the world. Everyone else could be wrong, but we never were.
If one of my parents, particularly my father, were criticized, I would have probably, like Tara, fallen back on parroting the lines I was taught from childhood to defend the truths that we held to. I literally had no other way to respond.
Coming out of that world to see the many ways that I had been failed and hurt… it’s disorienting. It’s realizing that I never fully lived in reality. It is as if I lived in a world where I was told that down was up, blue was yellow, and rivers were made of buttermilk.
-I was taught that I was unlikeable by merit of being a part of my family.
-I was taught that my family were part of a remnant of true Christians, and my parents were the ones who could properly judge who was and was not a true Christian.
-I was taught to view my father as above reproach. He had the gift of discernment. He was God’s servant. He was the leader of my household, and pushback was not permitted.
– I was taught that I was inherently bad. Normal childlike behaviour was treated as sinful. Sinful behaviour reflected badly on my family. I needed to be punished to be taught obedience.
Even concrete things like whether or not I was properly educated were filtered through my parents’ lens. By any standard, my education was neglected. I was homeschooled for the majority of my childhood, with a couple of years spent in private Christian schools. My mother gave up teaching me math in grade 8.
I had a learning disability that prevented me from being able to fully grasp mathematical concepts, and my mother was frustrated and unable or unwilling to find a way to help me. My father had no patience or interest in teaching. So we dropped it as part of my education. I’d already dropped other standard classes such as science, English, etc… largely due to lack of interest. And I was more or less left to my own devices until graduation. What I did learn, I mostly taught myself. My parents called it unschooling and believed it to be the only right way to educate a child.
It wasn’t until over a decade after my graduation that I was able to look back on that experience and realize that my parents were guilty of educational neglect. However, I was never allowed an opportunity to think negatively of my experiences. It was deeply ingrained in me never to question whatever story they gave me about my world. They taught me to see homeschooling and unschooling as the absolute best options for children. I recited the party line, and remained a steadfast apologist for both systems for many years.
Today, as someone who has fallen through the cracks of the homeschooling world, I can’t help but see it as a system in desperate need of overhauling to protect vulnerable kids.
But that is merely one example of how my reality was skewed.
My reality was completely dependent upon the narratives taught to me by my parents who needed to tightly control their own little world. As such, when I finally left home, I experienced culture shock when I realized how wrong they were about so much.
I firmly believe that it was my upbringing in an abusive home that left me unable to see the more damaging doctrines of my childhood faith: Evangelicalism*. The parallels are astounding.
-I was taught that the world hates me because of my faith
-I was taught that few will enter into Heaven, and much emphasis was placed on learning the truth from the right teachers to be saved.
-I was not allowed to question respected pastors, teachers, or even the Evangelical culture
-I was so desperately wicked that I deserved eternal torment. I was taught not to just hate my sin, but my whole self. Because there was not one inch of my existence that was not tainted by my sin. Every time I sinned, I needed to repent because I had just nailed Christ to the cross all over again AND I had ruined my witness to the world around me (Translation: I had just done something “bad” that reflected poorly on my faith/church).
Even the isolation felt familiar.
There’s a very strong “Us Vs Them” mindset in that world. You’re either part of the holy fold inside the safe bubble, or you’re part of the world and your soul is in jeopardy.
Christian leaders and celebrities had the keys to the truth. If they said the earth was 5,000 years old, then that’s how old it was. If they claimed that LGBTQ+ people were abominations, it must be true. If they said Christians must vote in a certain way, that’s how God wanted us to vote. If they said that a woman’s place was in the kitchen, then that’s just what God had ordained for my gender.
They got to define reality for us.
Further, their claims were so tightly wrapped up in the gospel that any questions or pushback were seen as questioning God Himself.
These are not the messages of a loving God. These are the messages of deeply disturbed individuals who understand on some level that to have full control over someone, you have to first break them down.
You have to make them doubt their own worth and their own reality. You have to make them know their place. You have to isolate them. You have to get them to believe that they cannot trust their own reasoning or their own feelings. Trust the leaders. They are ordained by God and will never lead you wrong.
This is the same message I heard from my parents. They were chosen by God to be my parents. They alone hold the truth. They alone could protect me from the scary outside world.
Today, I believe in God. I believe in Christ. Jesus is the Saviour of my soul. But I believe in a God who is loving, kind, compassionate, accepting. I believe this is true for everyone, regardless of background, sexual or gender orientation, or political beliefs. God is for people. Period.
God does not ask me to hate myself. He does not ask me to question my feelings or turn my brain off. These are gifts that He has given me to help me safely navigate the world.
I believe that God gave me the freedom to find where I belong in this big beautiful world. I’m not forced into a pre-ordained box because of my gender or some other arbitrary nonsense.
I believe that healthy relationships, whether we’re talking about a blood relative or a religious community, allow for the whole person to show up. Thoughts, feelings, and all. Where there is disagreement, there is respect for differences and for individual agency.
Healthy is not controlling.
Healthy is not manipulative or coercive.
Healthy does not try to break.
Healthy allows for agency and freedom.
Healthy is nurturing.
Healthy is the acceptance of the whole person.
I’d love to take the opening text that I quoted and flip it a bit.
Even if Evangelicals are not angry that their teachers have taught them to hate themselves, I am angry.
Even if Evangelicals are not angry that their culture has isolated them from the world around them, I am angry.
Even if Evangelicals are not angry that their world has stripped of them the right to trust their own minds and feelings, I am angry.
And I pray for that culture to change and to see the captives set free.
*I am aware that this is not true of all people who identify as Evangelical. However, having spent a lifetime in that world, these are the impressions that I was left with. I speak generally of the culture, and I leave room for individuals who may not have succumbed to the toxicity that I witnessed and experienced.This post is not for those people.