Escape from Christian Fundamentalism - the Kids Who Flee Abusive, Isolated Christian Homes
Hännah Ettinger, who now blogs about leaving fundamentalism, at 16, just before cutting her hair short against her mother's wishes.
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The following story first appeared on the American Prospect.
At 10 P.M. on a Sunday night in May, Lauren and John,* a young couple in the Washington, D.C., area, started an emergency 14-hour drive to the state where Lauren grew up in a strict fundamentalist household. Earlier that day, Lauren’s younger sister, Jennifer, who had recently graduated from homeschooling high school, had called her in tears: “I need you to get me out of this place.” The day, Jennifer said, had started with another fight with her parents, after she declined to sing hymns in church. Her slight speech impediment made her self-conscious about singing in public, but to her parents, her refusal to sing or recite scripture was more evidence that she wasn’t saved. It didn’t help that she was a vegan animal-rights enthusiast.
After the family returned home from church, Jennifer’s parents discovered that she had recently been posting about animal rights on Facebook, which they had forbidden. They took away Jennifer’s graduation presents and computer, she told Lauren. More disturbing, they said that if she didn’t eat meat for dinner she’d wake up to find one of the pets she babied gone.
To most people, it would have sounded like overreaction to innocuous forms of teenage rebellion. But Lauren, who’d cut ties with her family the previous year, knew it was more. The sisters grew up, with two brothers, in a family that was almost completely isolated, they say, held captive by their mother’s extreme anxiety and explosive anger. “I was basically raised by someone with a mental disorder and told you have to obey her or God’s going to send you to hell,” Lauren says. “Her anxiety disorder meant that she had to control every little thing, and homeschooling and her religious beliefs gave her the justification for it.”
It hadn’t started that way. Her parents began homeschooling Lauren when she struggled to learn to read in the first grade. They were Christians, but not devout. Soon, though, the choice to homeschool morphed into rigid fundamentalism. The sisters were forbidden to wear clothes that might “shame” their father or brothers. Disobedience wasn’t just bad behavior but a sin against God. Both parents spanked the children with a belt. Her mother, Jennifer says, hit her for small things, like dawdling while trying on clothes.
The family’s isolation made it worse. The children couldn’t date—that was a given—but they also weren’t allowed to develop friendships. Between ages 10 and 12, Lauren says she only got to see friends once a week at Sunday school, increasing to twice a week in her teens when her parents let her participate in mock trial, a popular activity for Christian homeschoolers. Their parents wanted them naïve and sheltered, Lauren says: “18 going on 12.”
Mixed with the control was a lack of academic supervision. Lauren says she didn’t have a teacher after she was 11; her parents handed her textbooks at the start of a semester and checked her work a few months later. She graded herself, she says, and rarely wrote papers. Nevertheless, Lauren was offered a full-ride scholarship to Patrick Henry College in Virginia, which was founded in 2000 as a destination for fundamentalist homeschoolers. At first her parents refused to let her matriculate, insisting that she spend another year with the family. During that year, Lauren got her first job, but her parents limited the number of hours she could work.
Even conservative Patrick Henry felt like a bright new reality. While much about the college confirmed the worldview Lauren grew up in, small freedoms like going out for an unplanned coffee came as a revelation. She describes it as “a sudden sense of being able to say yes to things, when your entire life is no.”