MY ISOLATION, MY PROTECTION: living isolated, in fear of the world; Shunning
My parents taught us assiduously to be skeptical of anyone outside of our family. People in the church were okay, but still not to be trusted or relied upon; we could only rely upon each other. The IFB church helped in this regard, believing anyone in any religion, even a different form of Baptist, were wrong, misguided, in error, going to hell. The Southern Baptists were liberal, loose and soft on sin. This because they danced, allowed their girls to wear pants and just by the very nature of the South, were more relaxed in manner.
By teaching us that they, and we by extension as long as we remained “in the fold” created by them, had the One True Path and that we would get contaminated by others’ sins to be led astray, we learned to turn inward. We learned to mistrust everyone and everything, buying into their persecution complex, their belief that “everyone is out to get me”; failing that, at least to taint us by association or participation in their sinful ways. Thus, we needed to concentrate on building stronger and stronger ties within the family and the church, so that we had a rock-solid foundation and would not waver when faced with someone in the World who would inevitably tempt us. We would be able to stand strong.
They created such a picture, instilled such a fear, a wariness, a suspicion and guardedness of anyone outside our home, outside our family, that the only logical response was to turn inward. To return to our home and family. No one outside our Inner Sanctum could be trusted. We knew we could not trust our parents or siblings – they proved that by repeatedly betraying us. Yet without a viable safe place to turn, because the World and all its offerings could not be trusted, our only option besides sleeping under a bridge alone, was to stay. The evil we knew remained better than the evils we did not know. They made us understand that if we left, we would be utterly and completely desolate, alone, lost and vulnerable. We could return home; they would take us, but we knew our transgression of leaving would mean a lower rung on the familial ladder.
With the exception of Bonnie and Pat, a female/female couple who lived next-door to us in the Blue House in Waukegan (1982-3) long before we knew anything about gays or the Fundie stance against homosexuals, we were never friends with our next-door neighbors. Constantly and tirelessly instructed to not talk to them. Now, I look at that as another indicator that we were abused: they did not want the people who lived closest us too close. They might have seen something, heard something.
I would never have termed it isolation before writing this, but in re-examining my childhood, the proverbial Red Flags pop up where I least expect them, often in and among things I thought innocuous up till now. This is another one.
At that time, especially in the small rural town in the mid-west where we lived, very few people went to church. Not enough that we were odd because of the size of our Quiverfull family (though relatively small by Quiverfull standards, still much larger than anyone around us), and how our family operated – which was very different than others around us, much more stringent – we were now also strange because we went to church. Were professing born-again Christians, which no one around us was at the time. Now most people consider themselves Christians, and nearly everyone attends a church of some sort. But in that time, and in that area of the country, going to church was rare and made us an oddity. On every front we stood out, could not escape or avoid standing out.
I hated standing out. Hated being different. Desperately wanted to blend in, disappear into the background with the blessing of anonymity by being normal. We were not normal.
The first level of people we were not to associate with was the general public. They fell into the category of “unsaved” or “heathens”, and were Verboten. The barest of pleasantries in order to not be rude or disrespectful was sufficient; anything beyond that simply could not be. We were to prevent friendship or on-going relationship of any kind.
Further, we were taught that friendship with one of these Unsaved, one of these Heathen, simply was impossible. Because we did not share the most important and foundational component, belief in Jesus and salvation, the only way to have a friendship with someone like this would be to elementally reject and set aside our faith. Because it could not happen, I didn’t try, and thus missed out on countless friendships after entering the public school system. They couldn’t be my friends: they couldn’t relate to me or I to them. Their values would contradict and conflict with mine, and I didn’t want to be contaminated by associating with them. We were pure water, they polluting oil, and could not mix ever, no matter what, unless they accepted Jesus. Only then could we let them into the most personal and private areas of our life.
The second layer of isolation involved our extended family. My mother’s family were Catholic, and we in the IFB world knew they were going to hell for venerating Mary over Jesus, the doctrine of trans-substantiation (and yes, at 8 I knew the title and the definition of this and how it conflicted with our doctrine, as well as Bible verses I was to use to show Catholics how wrong they were), and other things that they took every opportunity to tell us. My father’s family were Protestant of some sort, but I never knew what type of church they attended, if at all. Because the type of church mattered.
Extended family occupied a circle inside the general category of Unsaved, but only just. They were not in the inner circle; that place belonged only to our family, my parents, sisters and brother. I could probably count on one hand the number of times in my first two and a half decades that I saw any given aunt or uncle, grandparents, cousins. My parents strictly controlled the amount of time we were permitted to be around them. Held their own families at arm’s length.
I knew my mother’s father had been abusive. She has told two or three stories about him, one involved him chasing her mother with a cast-iron skillet to hit her. I knew of his physical abuse, and I suspect sexual abuse, though she remains coldly silent about him. Any words she says about him are thick with anger, hatred, bitterness.
The first time I talked to him I was seventeen. He called our house, and I answered the phone. He introduced himself as Mike, asked to speak to Mag. That was the only time I’d had any contact at all with him, this man vilified by my mother’s few words.
When her mother died, she and I travelled to stay with one of her brothers and his family. At one point, they received a phone call. She then came to the room we were sharing, agitated and flustered, hands flapping as she paced back and forth. He was coming, she told me. On his way, imminent arrival. When he arrived, she refused to come out, refused to see him.
At the funeral, no one approached him, no one spoke to him. At one point, I walked over to him and introduced myself, Hi, I’m Lani, Mag’s daughter. And then she shunned me for the rest of the service. I knew she was angry at me for speaking to him, and later when we spoke of it, she could hardly spit the words out of her angry mouth. You don’t understand! You don’t know what he did to us.
I responded by telling her I didn’t care; I would not carry on generational bitterness. She exploded at me, I’M NOT BITTER! With some more you don’t understand statements. No, I don’t understand. She never told us, never told us about him or her childhood beyond a few short, tersely-brief stories meant to give evidence and validity to her not wanting us to see him, intended to make me thankful for her protecting and shielding us from his evils.
As a direct result of this isolation from extended family, my siblings and I still do not have relationship with any aunts, uncles, cousins or our sole remaining grandparent, JD’s mother. Any interactions are liberally sprinkled with awkwardness at not knowing them, not having history or memories with them. No holidays spent around Grandma’s table; all our holidays belonged strictly to our family, in our home, but always with people in the church, orphan-families who had no family with whom to celebrate. These were families my parents took under their wing, to instruct them in how to build a solid marriage and raise obedient children.
These occupied the next-smaller circle, inside Extended Family but outside Immediate Family, and this circle also belonged to our friends. That is, our friends inside the IFB church. And there were precious few of those.
The most inward circle was reserved for only our family. No others could enter, until we married. Then our spouses would be permitted entrance into the inner sanctum.
However, in this innermost of circles, the smallest and most restrictive, the isolation bended and twisted and curled around us, like a snake slithering through our midst. We never knew where we’d see it next or how it would encircle us. It was not a biting snake; its wounds were inflicted as it separated one or more of us, using its slimy, scaly serpentine movements to slowly strangle us apart from the rest.
The damage then, was two-part: physical separation in that we would be set aside, apart from the rest of the family, for a time; and emotional separation, where especially Mag would harbor anger against us and not speak to us for the duration of the separation.
Only during the writing of this book did I term the separations for what they really are. I’d labeled my childhood as abusive. I knew that with most religious or spiritual abuse situations members can be shunned as punishment, to coerce them back into the fold, to return from their wayward ways as the scriptural Prodigal Son. I mentally checked off the important aspects: parents beat us, check. Churches abused us spiritually, check. Verbal abuse, check. But we hadn’t been shunned, so I thought whew, we at least escaped that.
In the middle of one night, my thoughts roiled around in the guise of dreams, words tumbled over and over such that one sentence couldn’t end before the next had overlapped. Slowly, they honed in, tightening in my mind, focusing inward to the underlying point: oh my god, she shunned us, I thought, and woke at the same time the thought solidified into words. She shuns us.
The abusive story was complete.
Mag’s version of shunning is a bit different. It is not an all-or-nothing denial of our existence forevermore. She does not physically act or speak as if we are dead or that we never existed. Her method of shunning, or isolating us within the family, is much more capricious, much more fluid. She shuns when and if she feels it necessary to make a point, to teach us a lesson.
In Mag’s world of shunning, she holds the cards, controls the world. She uses it to what she deems her advantage, to keep us off-kilter, always guessing, never knowing where we stand with her. It is emotional manipulation at its very finest, and Mag has honed it to a well-defined art form. It can be so fast as to appear a transitory tantrum, with a large explosion (or a series of small explosions) then, if she doesn’t get her way, she’ll storm off in a huff. When this happens, I’m never sure when she’ll deign to speak to me again. Sometimes it’s hours; sometimes months. Regardless, when she does decide to acknowledge my presence again, there is usually a large dose of residual manipulation in the form of what I term the “wounded bear” complex. She ensures the other person knows she was offended and hasn’t let the offender off the hook yet, all without breathing a word about the event that set her off.
While we were growing up, we had a particularly unique form of shunning exhibited in our family relating to mealtimes. They used food as a leveraging tool, based on our attitude and work that we had completed during the day.
There were times we were not allowed to eat. I recall being made to stand in my place, in front of my chair, during dinner while everyone else ate. This was the picture that accompanied the words in the dream-state that informed me we had been shunned. Standing at the table as everyone held hands around us for the song and prayer required prior to eating, and did not touch us or speak to us during the entirety of the meal.
These meals would drag on seemingly for an eternity, with JD offering extra helpings to everyone multiple times, eating dessert, lecturing on the topic-of-the-day, discussing the day’s happenings. My legs burned, muscles threatened to rebel against being still for so long, and my stomach refused to remain silent. We had to stand with hands down by our sides, eyes straight ahead.
I tried, as always, to control my tears – received not a few You want something to cry about? I’ll give you something to cry about! statements – but inevitably a few would stubbornly refuse to obey and trickle down my cheek. I could not use my hands to wipe them away but made and unmade fists by my side, keeping the fist on the side away from my parents’ eyesight. And I had to work to hide my anger at being treated such, not let it show on my face: that was a surefire ticket to an attitude adjustment with the belt. I, more than my siblings, could not avoid the evidence of my emotions on my face, a fact that resulted in more than a few attitude adjustments.
The punishment continued after the meal with being made to clean up. At that age, I always had one of my older sisters “helping” me. Really, they were present to educate me, to instruct me in the proper way to clean up. Sometimes these were fun times, teasing and happily chatting. But after a meal that included shunning, the silence lay heavy in the air. I was still forbidden from talking to anyone, and to avoid having my mouth taped, I endeavored to show them by my voluntary silence that I understood what I was to do.
The sister, either Libbie or Andie, also had the duty of ensuring I did not sneak scraps off the plates, to appease my hunger. I was also forbidden from eating until the next meal which meant an interminable night of a rumbling stomach that would not let me sleep peacefully. Times like these we became adept at sneaking food from the pantry. Spaghetti noodles were my favorite, as they were small, could be eaten quickly, and couldn’t be counted. Marshmallows too, if I were brave to sneak something sweet. I loved sweets.
Andie was more compassionate; Libbie was, still is, very hard-hearted and tendered zero sympathy. She more than the rest of us completely swallowed the rhetoric shoved down our throats. She believed we deserved our punishment. And she could not be trusted to keep confidences but would betray us to Mag, silently and without our knowledge. We never guessed she was their mole; we simply thought Mag and JD really did have eyes everywhere. Libbie was their eyes.
This type of shunning continued for several years. In high school, they simply refused to let us sit at the table, remanded us to our room for the duration of everyone else’s joyful consuming of aromatic foods whose scents wafted up the stairs and under the door to taunt me. Always after a meal like this I had to clean up after everyone else, but by this time they expected I knew my duty to not eat. But I was very adept at sneaking small portions that would not be missed; because they checked the leftover containers to ensure the amounts matched what was left at the end of the meal.
Mag’s manipulation of us through battering us with emotional neglect continues to the present. It is so ingrained, so instinctual, so capricious I believe it is completely unconscious. Though I also believe she has no idea of the ramifications or tangent consequences to us or our psyches, I also do not excuse her any longer. In essence, she acts with social skills comparable to a spoiled three year old.
Not only does she herself shun, but she pulls everyone in the family into her shunning game. She uses her diabolical skills as emotional manipulator to convert my father and siblings into turning against me as well. Now, with this new definition of shunning on her actions, I look back at instances of her not-talking to me and see them for what they truly were. Not talking to me after disagreeing about baby-proofing (as in, I wanted to; she thought me to be spoiling my child) – shunning. Not talking to me after I joined a charismatic church – shunning. Her ire at me during her mother’s funeral – shunning. Not talking to me after Libbie’s wedding, as well as turning the entire family against me – shunning.
Libbie’s wedding exemplifies her tactics of persuading others to believe her and join with her in battle beautifully.
When my oldest sister got married, I like a dutiful sister traveled with my husband and babies to participate in supporting her. By this time my brother had also gotten engaged, and so I think I met his fiancé for the first time at Libbie’s wedding. By this point I had put myself on this path of questioning the way we were raised, questioning Mag and JD’s methods, questioning if they really did “the best they could have” under the circumstances. As a result, I’d experienced not a little bit of tension and animosity towards me and had begun distancing myself from my parents specifically, and also my siblings who Mag roped into agreeing with her.
My children were 22 months and 7 months, and I had persistently worked with Libbie for her to find me a babysitter so that I could enjoy the rehearsal and wedding without chasing after babies or worrying about their inevitable disruptions, and without needing to apologize for their babyness.
On Sunday the day after the wedding, they wanted to have a family breakfast at the hotel with everyone. I was exhausted from wedding activities and little sleep – my younger child was still waking up several times a night. Plus I knew the drive back to Raleigh from Virginia Beach would be taxing – my children hated being strapped in, unable to move for prolonged periods of time, so whoever was not driving was entertaining them so as to keep them content and quiet(er) than they would be. They had no coping skills for driving like this and were too young to understand. I’m sure they felt we were punishing them unnecessarily. Road trips were not fun, and so we avoided them as much as we could at that point in their lives.
I explained to everyone our need to leave first thing Sunday morning, that we would miss the family breakfast. At this point I still needed to be heard, to be understood, thought that if I just explained things correctly, used the right words, that my message would be heard and they would cease to antagonize and criminalize me for not complying with their wishes. Mostly “their wishes” applies to Mag, and JD by extension because he doesn’t disagree with her much, but Mag pushed her wishes on everyone else with her coercion and emotional manipulation.
Unable to get them to stop nit-picking at me, finding fault with my plans as my choices did not accede to what they wanted of me, I threw my hands in the air and went about our business preparing to leave, ensuring we did not leave anything behind, had fresh diapers on the kids, gas in the tank, and so forth.
Not sufficient to lambast me in person, Mag and my sisters continued to harass me via email for the next few weeks. At that point, Andie and I were still adversaries, clashing and believing what Mag said about the other person, and she took part in the email bashing. Her husband even took part, and between the two of them, they told me that I was hurting everyone on purpose, that I was self-centered, and tearing the family apart. Among other things, which she has since profusely apologized for. I do not fault her any longer for saying and doing these things then; I merely use it to exemplify what the family was like then and the hold Mag retains over anyone who lets her. Andie, Evie and I do not any longer let her control how we perceive each other, and we decline to take part in her schemes against anyone else.
At this point though, she turned everyone against me. I’m sure she griped about me at the family breakfast – it is her manner. Sadly, she has done it enough that I know her tendencies.
I responded authoritatively to each and every email, discarding my pleas for empathy and understanding, as my explanations only served to continue the harassment. The more I responded to their allegations and accusations, the more they accused me. The more I attempted to explain my point of view, my situation, the more I was labeled self-absorbed and egocentric. The more I asked for consideration of my circumstances, the more they said I was manipulative and trying to force everyone to bend around me as the center of the world. I should add that at this point, I was the only one who had children so no one understood the demands of having two babies; after many years, after everyone else had children, they would use that to appeal to my compassion: please, Lani, you should understand.
And so after a few bouts with several family members, including my brother-in-law, and conferencing with my husband as to the best way to handle the situation, I took a different tack: I responded with confidence, authority and a strength I did not yet own. And I cried after each email was sent. They had no business informing me that I was “tearing the family apart”, especially my brother-in-law, who had never met my daughter or come to my home or made any attempt to get to know me. That accusing me of “hurting everyone on purpose” was untrue and they did not have permission to say that, or anything like it, to me again. And many other things that I do not recall, as it has been nearly a decade since this all took place.
As a result of standing up for myself to my family, no one talked to me for months. No phone calls, no emails, no visits or invitations to visit.
Now, though, Evie, Andie and I see this sort of situation – which was and is far from exceptional in our family – as exemplifying how our parents turned us against each other. Used anyone who dared step out to stand on her own feet, in opposition – however courteous and respectfully – of their will and their way as an opportunity to influence the others, indoctrinate the siblings to their way of thinking and doing things. This created strife and massive rifts in relationship that the three of us are endeavoring to now mend, but these rifts and strife instilled between and among us run deep and are exceedingly difficult to change. We are trying.
But how stressful never knowing if your mother is angry at you! And wracking your brain, trying to determine which incident set her off this time. Examining over and over your actions, your words, wondering how she could have misinterpreted meaning or intent. Always viewing her and her words with skepticism, trying to figure out her underlying meaning, what the double-speak might reference. But never being able to define it or her actions for what they are, else ensure a barrage of venomous anger. As always, standing up to her means inciting her to wrath and guaranteeing that if she hadn’t been angry and shunning before, she surely would after.
Still, to this day, though I have left this life far behind, I struggle with letting people in. With the instinctive labeling of people relative to the circle in which I should place them. It is a constant and conscious and deliberate pursuit, to reject the isolation that I internalized due to the doctrines of the IFB and the practices of my family. To pause when I hear the words in my head, to form the thoughts into words and then reject those thoughts that tell me I should keep myself apart, separate.
It takes work to emerge from this sort of isolationist mentality, but it can be done. It takes effort, but it also takes desire. Without wanting to change, I would not seek change. Without defining from where I have come, I cannot define where to go. I still have a practiced mentality that completely dismisses next door neighbors. Living in the South has helped, though it has taken nearly two decades of deprogramming in this setting. Of not being irritated at what I defined as intrusiveness, of not reacting viscerally at what felt inappropriately intimate. Of not labeling people as dangerous, out to unravel my carefully-constructed life.
Now, though, I am much more gentle on myself, realizing my instincts of self-preservation, of preventing people close to me from damaging the most inward and delicate parts of my heart, reflect the severity of my upbringing. When I can put words to it, when I can make connections between why I do or feel something and what my parents did or taught me, I build a new step. A step that takes me further from them.
It is a long road, and a slowly-built one. And a never-ending road. But worth the effort.