Ten Thousand Days in Hell
From my earliest years in school, I was labeled “teacher’s pet” by my siblings and friends – a label I never quite understood. When it was flung at me, I would smile and shrug my shoulder, as if to convey, “It’s nothing and it means nothing to me” because I knew it was meant to be more of an insult than a compliment. The truth was I liked school. Actually, I loved school – I liked the vast majority of my teachers, I enjoyed accomplishing academic tasks, I felt a satisfying sense of accomplishment at school, and I did not understand why the insinuation that my teachers liked me was a put-down. Looking back, I realize that teachers liked me because I was an exceptionally good kid. I was neither brilliant academically nor gifted musically nor exceptionally athletic; in fact, I was extremely ordinary – painfully average-to-low-average at literally everything – however, I was extremely compliant. I never caused any trouble, never stepped out of line (literally or figuratively!), never even considered doing anything I was not ‘supposed’ to do . . . or not doing anything I was ‘supposed’ to do! Add to all that the fact that I completed all my work on time and never questioned or challenged any concept or directive, and I was a teacher’s dream – the kind of student who never had to be called out, reprimanded, or reminded of expectations. I was the kind of kid whom teachers adored and showered with wonderful report-card comments (“Such a sweet girl” . . . “Such a delight” . . . “Such a joy to teach”) and always sat next to those who struggled academically or behaviorally, because I was a good “role model” – the perfect student – the student that teachers wished all others would emulate because if all students were like me, all teachers’ lives would be easy-breezy. Problem is, in thirteen years of school, not one teacher was astute enough to figure out the closely-guarded secret to my success: I was an exceptionally good kid because I was an exceptionally abused kid who was extremely fearful to be anything other than absolutely perfect.
My “goodness” did not extend solely to the classroom. I was a well-behaved, well-mannered, obedient daughter at home, too. I truly did strive to know what was expected of me and flawlessly meet all expectations. Trouble was, I was a kid and no matter how diligently I tried, I was always coming up short of perfection . . . and so I was always receiving beatings. By “always” I mean on a daily basis, usually more than once a day and by “beatings” I mean hundreds of smacks, slaps, spankings, thrashings, and whippings that usually started with a parent’s open hand and usually ended with a fist, a hairbrush, a wooden spoon, a fly swatter, a board, or any other object within immediate reach – most often, a thick leather belt. And by hundreds, I mean hundreds of lashes a day. My parents held their heads high and broadened their mouths into a huge smile when they bragged to their friends with a gleam in their eye about the rule in our house that most infractions were worth a hundred licks, and of course MAJOR infractions worth much more than that. And so I received my daily licks . . . when I was a toddler, I was spanked on a near-daily basis for not clearly pronouncing the letter ‘r’. In elementary school, my daily spankings were for such consistent infractions as leaving towel lint on the dishes as I dried them, missing a spot on the floor as I vacuumed, leaving a streak of cleaner on the bathroom mirror, and having messy handwriting – that darn ‘r’ again – I received endless spankings in third and fourth grade for not forming my cursive r’s correctly and for not slanting my cursive writing to the appropriate angle. Oh, and there was always the math. I was math-challenged. What made perfect sense to my thirty-something father made no sense to me no matter how hard I tried to understand it. Instant recall of multiplication facts was like a foreign language to me and long-division was equally challenging, and so I took thousands of licks during my elementary years over my “refusal” to complete my math homework correctly or to properly explain to my father why a problem was incorrect and what I should do to get it correct. In fourth grade, my teacher (whom I adored) had a Winnie-the-Pooh-themed party, complete with cake and punch and life-size Winnie-the-Pooh characters and Winnie-the-Pooh movies, for everyone in class who orally recited all their multiplication tables within a minute per family, I was the only fourth grader who did not attend the party. While the class enjoyed cake and animated movies, I sat in the hallway, tears streaming down my face, reciting my multiplication tables over and over again, increasingly panicked that I could not “beat the clock.” The well-meaning teacher thought I cried because I wanted to join the party; she never knew I cried because I was going to be mercilessly spanked when I arrived home and had to shamefully admit that I had not mastered my multiplication facts within the given time-frame.
I do not believe a day went by that I did not receive several spankings. At some point, my parents came to believe that all spankings should be administered by the father. This was a difficult dilemma, as my father did not stay at our house seven days a week. He frequently drove his work van to his construction job site on Sunday night after church and stayed there – in the van? in a motel? with another family? I never knew – until Friday night or Saturday morning. Though I enjoyed the respite from his wrath during the week, I knew there would be hell to pay on the weekend, for my mother solved her dilemma by purchasing three spiral notebooks – one each for me, my sister, and my brother, and recording our daily offenses in the notebook. On Saturday, my father would call us individually to his bedroom, shut the door, and go through the pages of the notebook line-by-line, dutifully administering an individual spanking for each individual item on the list. I do not recall how many grievances my mom recorded in the notebook; I do, however, recall sneaking into her bedroom, tearing out an entire page filled front and back with offenses from each of our notebooks, tearing them into small bits, flushing them down the toilet, and feeling a sense of relief and accomplishment that we would receive that many fewer spankings come Saturday. Those were the days that I began dreading any contact with my father and praying that he would get in a car accident and die on his way home . . . which, of course, meant carrying all the guilt associated with such thoughts and self-hatred that I wasn’t a better daughter.
As I progressed to upper elementary and middle school, the spankings were usually for such offenses as putting too much butter on the parents’ breakfast toast, or too little butter on the toast – or for putting too much milk in the parents’ breakfast cereal, or too little milk – or for putting too much mayonnaise on the parents’ bologna sandwich, or too little mayonnaise – or for making their hot cereal too hot, or not hot enough. I also received frequent spankings for taking too long to complete my chores, or for completing them so quickly that they couldn’t possibly be done correctly – or for taking too long to complete my school homework, or completing it so quickly that it couldn’t possibly be quality work – or for putting too little starch on my preacher-man-father’s collared white shirts so they didn’t hold a crisp shape after I ironed them, or so much starch that they were uncomfortable – or for putting too little powdered detergent in the laundry, or so much detergent that it left white streaks on the clothes – or . . . I could go on and on with the tedious list of mundane daily tasks that I was spanked for on a daily basis, as all infractions were considered a form of sabotaging my parents, or rebellion of some sort, but you get the idea. Oh, and there were the very frequent spankings for spending too much time in the bathroom; decades later, I was finally diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, contracted in no small part, I’m certain, because of the constant fear I harbored as a child and later as a teenager.
One summer day when I was five or six, I was treasure hunting with a friend. We were digging in the dirt behind a huge electrical box – perhaps it encased a generator or some such thing – it was large enough to hide us from the nearby sidewalk and adjoining parking lot to our apartment complex. We were convinced that we were going to find pirate treasure in the middle of land-locked Indiana. We were elated when our old, bent spoons clanked against something hard – we were sure it was a trunk filled with gold coins. We dug faster and faster, our hearts racing, until we unearthed a wooden box. Certain we had excavated some long-lost fortune, we held our breath as we pried the box open. Inside, wrapped in layers of linen, was an old glass canning jar. We gently lifted the jar out of its wrappings and took off the lid. Inside the jar, more linen. We slid out our newly discovered treasure and unrolled the linen very gently. Imagine our chagrin when a baby bird fell out of the linen. At that very moment, I was caught in the ear by my father’s steel-toed work boot and his bellowing and hollering, demanding to know what we were doing. I was saddened by the baby bird and so confused about why my father was suddenly home in the middle of a workday that I did not know how to respond. My silence was taken for defiance, and he kicked me several hundred feet to the apartment building entrance, up a flight of stairs, and to my bedroom, where I received my usual hundred lashes. After that, I was very afraid of playing outside and started staying inside more and more frequently, finding solace in books and playing school. At least if I was inside, the click of the door would warn me he was home and I wouldn’t be caught off guard again. Over the coming years, I frequently thought of that baby bird and envied the safety of its hiding place in a jar . . . in a box . . . in the quiet ground. I often hoped someone had been kind enough to rebury the bird. And I often longed to be buried in peace and quiet beside that baby bird.
In 1977, our family took a road trip from Hammond, Indiana to Indianapolis to visit my mother’s family. My siblings and I adored our aunts, uncles, and cousins, and cherished the few opportunities we had to visit them. When we arrived at my aunt and uncle’s house, I was so excited I jumped out of the car, ran up to their front door, and knocked. I did not realize they were not home, and instead of an aunt or uncle opening the front door with arms extended wide to hug me, I was greeted by their guard dog, half wolf – half German Shepard, tearing around the corner of the house with every intent of ripping me apart. My parents did not get out of the car or make any attempt to distract Wolf (as the guard dog was aptly named), although my father did save my life by rolling down his car window an inch or so and instructing me to shut myself between the front door and the screen door and hold the screen door as close to me as possible. As my parents had not told my aunt and uncle we were coming for a visit, I stayed shut between the two doors for what seemed like an eternity, waiting for them to arrive home and call off Wolf. Tears streamed down my nine-year-old cheeks as the dog repeatedly lunged at me, snarling and foaming at the mouth, trying to pull the screen door open far enough to tear into my flesh. I suppose it was pure adrenalin that gave me the strength to hold onto the screen door with all my might as I shrunk as far into the corner of the two doors as I could. I remember feeling so relieved when my aunt and uncle finally arrived home and called off the dog. I bolted across the yard to my parents, expecting hugs of reassurance; instead, my dad grabbed my wrist and threw me on top of the hood of his car, whipped off his belt, and lashed me for what seemed like an eternity, all the while screaming at me for being such a stupid, defiant, rebellious daughter. When I fell onto the ground, he yanked me back up and threw me either against the car or back onto the hood and continued unleashing his fury on my small body. I knew better than to do anything other than cry silently and whisper “I’m sorry” over and over again, hoping each lash would be the last. When the beating subsided, I was instructed to go to bed with no dinner and when I did not have the strength to walk into the house, my father’s steel-toed work boots found their way to my aching and bruised backside to help me. My aunt took me to her room and laid me on her bed, peeled off my bloody clothes, and applied salve to the many cuts, welts, and stripes covering my back and my arms and legs. She sneaked into the room a few more times that evening, applying ice and salve to my wounds and feeding me soup, as I could not sit up to eat. She warned me to lie to my father when he asked if anyone gave me any food. She also told me to pretend to be asleep when he checked on me. He did open the bedroom door every hour or so to be sure I was in bed and not playing or having fun with the cousins. I couldn’t have played if I wanted to – I could barely move. All I could do was lie on my stomach, cry silently, and fight the nausea from the pain. The next day was Sunday and my father was upset when he was told I could not go to church, as I was still in so much pain I could not stand, walk, or sit. My aunt stayed with me, again nursing my wounds and trying to get me to eat a few bites. We left after church and returned home. Shortly after that, we had a knock on our apartment door. It was the Hammond Welfare Department investigating reports of child abuse. (My parents were livid that my mother’s family had reported the incident.) My mother did not let the investigators in; instead, she called the church – First Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana – and asked for advice. She spoke to the pastor’s secretary, who told her the church would help protect my parents against all allegations. Within minutes, Pastor Jack Hyles called and instructed my mother not to open the door unless the investigators had a search warrant. He coached her on what to say and what not to say when she was questioned, and taught her how to coach me and my siblings to respond to any questions we received. Jack Hyles also instructed my mother to pack a bag for me and each of my siblings so the church could spirit us into hiding, if necessary, so that we would not be removed from the home. My mother told me if anyone asked me questions about the discipline in our home, I was to respond, “My parents discipline us according to the Bible” and was to emphatically deny any spankings. She explained that if I said I was spanked or if I said anything other than what I was told to say, the big bad State of Indiana would take away my newborn brother and it would be my fault. Now, I adored my baby brother and I did not want him to be ripped away from our family, so I was determined not to say anything other than what I was told to say. I also understood quite clearly that if any of us four children were removed from the home, we would be placed in the home of heathens “like the drunk downstairs who hates his kids and is sending them straight to hell by refusing to allow them to go to church” and we would be placed in a public school where we would go straight to the devil. Nothing struck fear in my heart like the thought of being forced to go to a public school – I had been well-indoctrinated to believe that church owned and operated schools were the only option for anyone who hoped to avoid going to hell. I knew I would say what I was told to say and I would not say what I was told not to say and I shivered in fear for weeks about the impending visit from state officials to question me and my siblings. The dreaded day arrived . . . representatives from the welfare department knocked on our door with all the documentation they needed to inspect the apartment and question the children. My mother fetched me and my sister from our outside play and reminded us in a harsh whisper exactly how we were supposed to answer the questions we were asked. My sister was summoned inside. I stood at the bottom of the apartment stairwell, shaking and crying as I awaited my turn, knowing I could not explain away the bruises and welts that still covered the entire backside of my body as a result of my encounter with Wolf, the guard dog, and trying to decide what to do if they asked me to remove all my clothes (which we had been warned may happen). As I stood there trembling and trying to remember all my instructions, the investigators left. They had questioned my sister, eighteen months my senior, found no bruises on her when they strip-searched her, and decided they did not need to talk to me. The church had already hired a lawyer for my parents (a deacon in the church) who went to court with them, coached them on how to answer all inquiries, and ultimately got them off the hook. The case was closed and everyone was relieved. Me, more than anyone, as I received frequent verbal reminders that if I had not been so willfully disobedient the day I ran up to my aunt and uncle’s front door my family would not have been in this mess in the first place. I internalized the guilt and shame heaped upon me and felt so remorseful that I was more determined than ever to be the obedient, submissive, compliant daughter my church and my parents expected.
Four years later, my parents had relocated to Hesperia, California, where we attended another Independent Fundamental Baptist Church and school. Now, I had been receiving spankings my entire twelve years of life for my speaking voice. My father deemed my voice too harsh, like a man’s, or too bossy. Every time I opened my mouth to speak, I knew it came with the risk of my father flying across the room to smack me, punch me in the mouth, or belt me because of how my voice sounded. He must have told me a hundred thousand times to speak softly and quietly, like a lady. As a result, I was literally afraid to speak, especially to adults, and avoided it at all costs. If I had to speak, I tried with all my might to speak softly and quietly like a lady. I was in seventh grade, and as always, attending a church school, when a new problem developed for me. One of the school teachers was elderly and hard of hearing. He started commenting to my parents that I spoke too softly and it was difficult to hear me, so I started getting whippings at home. I was extremely confused now about how to speak – quiet and soft like a lady, or loudly enough to be sure Mr. B could hear me. The result was I avoided conversations with adults at all costs. I shrunk into myself and tried to avoid being seen or called out for any reason, because I knew if I had to speak up, I was in big trouble at home one way or the other for how my voice sounded. One cursed day, I was nearly killed as a result.
The students in our small school were able to purchase ice cream bars at lunch time for a quarter. One afternoon, Mr. B sent me to the kitchen (which doubled as the kindergarten classroom) with the ice cream order. The procedure was to wait by the door for the kindergarten teacher, Mrs. L, to come and take the order slip, get the ice cream bars from Mrs. L, then take them to Mr. B to be handed out. I dutifully and silently waited by the kitchen/classroom door. Mrs. L told me twice she was having a difficult time with a disobedient child and it would be a few minutes before she could help me. I nodded and continued to wait silently outside the door as she took the unruly five-year-old into the storage closet and administered swats (a very common occurrence in all the Christian schools I attended). Being too afraid to speak to adults, it never occurred to me to ask Mrs. L if she wanted me to leave and return later; I waited silently at the door because I thought that was what I was supposed to do. Several minutes later, she came to the door, took the order slip, fetched the ice cream bars from the freezer, and handed them to me with the warning, “You’re in big trouble, young lady.” I was confused – I did not know what I had done wrong, I did not know what kind of trouble was coming my way, and I did not know when to expect that trouble. I just knew she was angry because I had in some way slighted her and I knew I better be very afraid of my unnamed consequence. All day and all evening, I tried to squelch my growing fears while going through the motions of school and home chores. My father arrived home late that night, stormed into my bedroom, grabbed my forearm, dragged me into his bedroom, and ordered me to strip from the waist down as he ripped off his thick leather belt. (My sister and I were always ordered to strip from the waist down for our spankings, even into our late teenage years – a humiliation I always dreaded worse than the actual whipping itself.) I don’t know what Mrs. L told him, but I knew he was angrier than I had ever seen him before and I was scared for my very life. He threw me face-down on his bed and started swinging the belt as hard as he could. (There were certainly hundreds of times my parents flew off the handle and started swinging at us with an open hand, a clenched fist, or whatever implement was within easy reach, but the vast majority of our spankings were received while lying face-down on a bed. I frequently heard my father say when parents “spanked” their child, the child should incur the greatest amount of pain possible, as the pain was supposed to deter the child from committing the given offensive again. With the child laying face-down on the bed, the parent could swing their arm out and up enough to put their full force behind each lash with a doubled-over, leather belt.) My father gave me one hundred . . . two hundred . . . three hundred lashes with his belt. I stopped counting at three hundred. The force behind his lashes was so powerful, it pushed me across the bed and I kept falling on the floor. Every time I would fall on the floor, my father screamed at me to get back up and on the bed. My body was so broken from so many lashes and lacerations that I had a difficult time pushing myself up. I would cower on the floor, begging him to stop. Each time, he just started whipping me with his belt in the face, until I finally got myself back up on the bed. I was in a lose-lose situation – circumstances I had faced thousands of times in my twelve years – my mother would report a given offense to my father, exaggerating the details to enflame his rage, then me or my sister or my brother would receive the usual hundred lashes for whatever crime she had reported. After the first spanking, he would repeat what she had told him, and ask, “Is this true?” If we answered yes, we received another round of a hundred lashes for willfully choosing to commit said offense. If we said no, we received an even worse consequence for “calling my mother a liar.” I learned early on always to say yes, whatever she said I had done was true, as the punishment was less severe. I was in that situation now – he kept screaming at me to tell him whether or not I had done what Mrs. L said I had done. I did not have any idea what she had reported to him, but I knew taking the blame for it was better than implying she was a liar, so I kept saying, “Yes, yes, it’s true” and every admission of guilt resulted in another round of lashes. My parents philosophy always was, “Spank them ’til they start crying, then spank them ’til they stop crying” . . . the problem on that day was I could not stop crying and every time I tried to stop crying, I started hyperventilating, which my father somehow perceived as continued willful defiance. They also believed parents were to spank their children “until their will was broken.” I would have said or done anything that day to prove to my father that my will was broken – in fact, my very spirit was broken – but he was in such a rage that nothing on that particular day was stopping him. The beating went on for what seemed to me like hours. Finally – finally – my mother did something she had never done before or since . . . she came into the bedroom and begged him to stop before he killed me. She literally grabbed his arms and hung onto them with all her might to keep him from continuing to lash me. I know he raised his hand to her when she first attempted to stop him. I do not remember if he hit her, but I do know, despite the fact that she usually tried to incite his rage against me and my siblings, and despite the fact that I prayed for a merciful death that day, it was the day my mother literally saved my life. My head-to-toe bruises, welts, and lacerations were so bad that I missed nearly a week of school, as I literally could not sit and could barely walk or stand. I spent a week in bed, recovering, and my fear of both my parents increased tenfold, as I realized that day they could literally take my life if they so chose.
During my teen years, my fears multiplied a hundredfold . . . not only was it more difficult to hide my ankle-to-shoulder blade bruises and welts when changing for sports with a team of girls from my small school, but the physical abuse expanded to include sexual abuse from my father and a blind eye and deaf ear from my mother. The sexual abuse started when I was twelve. Our entire lives, my sister and I were required to kiss both parents goodnight – a mandated nightly ritual I dreaded for hours before the witching hour when we had to tread into the living room in our pajamas, kiss both parents on the cheek, say, “Good night. I love you” and then endure my dad’s tickling until he tired of it or my mom tired of it and made him stop. The “tickling” was, as close as I can guess, the one ritual he held to that made it appear he was bonding with his daughters. Unfortunately for me, I truly was (am) ticklish, so every night truly did start out with me laughing even as I pushed and pulled away from him to the greatest extent possible because I knew his hands were going to quickly travel beyond my ribs to grope my most private areas – over and over again, for what seemed like an eternity. And as I tried to twist away from his groping fingers, he would grasp my wrist or my arm ever tighter with his “free” hand, until this ritual, too, left bruises and welts up and down my arms. If I put up too much of a struggle, it would result in a slap across the face or an ever-dreaded spanking. Night after night, year after year, I tried to force my sobs to sound like laughter as I fought confusion and fear. I was not only confused by his actions by also by my mother who sat by and watched, turning the TV up louder and louder until she finally – finally! – would put a stop to it with “That’s enough –
let her go to bed,” and I could finally run out of the room and seek solace in my bedroom. Solace that I knew would be short-lived, for night after night, year after year, he would creep into my bedroom, wake me up (if I had been fortunate enough to fall asleep at all) and make me join him in the living room, where he always slept separately from my mother. He would say he had stomach pains and I needed to push on his stomach to force the pains away, but every night he pushed my hand farther and farther down and forced me to grope him. This started when I was twelve and continued until I was nineteen – every single night of the year that he was home (some nights mercifully found him away from home for his job) – and it would continue for hours each night. I frequently tried to pull my hand away and he would slap my hand, then slap me, then belt me, then hold my wrist or arm so tightly that I did not have the physical strength to pull away while he quoted Bible verses such as “Children, obey your parents,” or “Whoever curses his father shall be put to death.” And so I sat there, on the living room floor, night after night, year after year, shamed and praying for deliverance in any form – my father’s death, my own death – and believing the nightly ritual never ended as God’s punishment upon me for silently cursing my father.
A number of times – meaning (over the course of eight years) dozens to perhaps hundreds of times, my mother would get up during the night to go to the bathroom, or to walk through the living room to the kitchen for a drink or a snack. She would look directly at us – make eye contact with my pleading eyes and see the tears streaming down my cheeks – ignore us and silently go back to bed. As a teenager, I came to understand that my mother purposefully directed my father’s wrath and rage toward me, my sister, and my brother – even lying to him on many occasions about offenses she contrived so that we would get beat – as a means of getting his angry attention off her. I understood that was how she coped with an unhappy, verbally abusive marriage. But I never understood her stony silence when I was being sexually abused by my father. And I never dared tell anyone about the abuse – I knew full well that my father was capable of murdering me and believed if I breathed a word to anyone about the abuse taking place in our home, I would surely suffer death as a result. Trust me, death would have been merciful – I just feared a slow and painful death at my father’s hands.
I started working when I was fourteen. By fifteen, I worked three jobs. I attended the school-owned and operated church for an hour or two of academic work, then went to the kindergarten and taught the five-year-olds how to read. (Trust me, I know how ridiculous that sounds, but it is God’s honest truth. I was paid a hundred dollars a week for working in the kindergarten class.) At noon, my mother drove me to a jewelry store/gift shop, owned by a family in the church. I opened the store, then cleaned and waited on customers ’til five o’clock, when my mother picked me up and drove me home to change clothes, then took me to Golden Corral, where I waitressed from six ’til midnight. My parents took every penny I earned and the punishment was harsh if I wasn’t earning enough in tips. They knew I should earn forty to sixty dollars in tips on weeknights and well over a hundred twenty on weekends. If I had any less, I was in big trouble, and I made sure I never had any less. When I was nineteen, my sister got engaged. I had been at college two or three months when my mom called and said, “Your sister is engaged. We need you to come home and work to pay for the wedding.” (Years later, I learned that my sister and her husband had paid for their own wedding. I was summoned to support the family financially as they were losing my sister’s income.) I received a plane ticket the next day, went home, and had two jobs within twenty-four hours. I never minded working a hundred or more hours a week – it got me out of the house. I “stole” enough of my own tip money to buy a latch-and-hook lock for my bedroom door so my father would quit pulling me out of bed at night. It worked, although not without consequences of its own. He would stand at my bedroom door every night and knock, calling out, “Sherri. Sherri, I need you. Sherri, open the door. Sherri, come into the living room. Sherri, obey me at once.” He rattled the door, knocked, sometimes pounded, and called for hours – literally three to four hours a night every night. I lay as still as possible, praying that he would think I was asleep and that he would not bust the door down and beat me lifeless for ignoring his calls. We lived in a very small house – my mother’s bedroom door was literally four to six inches beside my door, and my brothers’ bedroom door was just three or four feet across the hallway. I’m certain everyone heard him knocking, rattling, and calling. I got very little sleep and what sleep I did get was plagued by nightmares. Although to this day I still suffer from a sleep disorder and from nightmares about my father, he never again pulled me into the living room in the middle of the night, and I never again had to touch him or be touched by him.
The fall after my sister was married, I returned to college. Hyles-Anderson College in Crown Point, Indiana, owned and operated by First Baptist Church in Hammond, Indiana – the only option for me, as my father had attended there, I and my siblings were expected to attend there, and it had never occurred to me to do anything other than exactly what was expected of me. In many ways, college was a refuge and a haven for me, although not without its own challenges, as it was an Independent Fundamental Baptist college where complete submission and compliance was expected and no one was allowed to question or criticize anyone in authority. But that was not foreign to me – I knew that game and could play it very well. I made friends and I worked and I worked and I worked. During my teen years, when my parents sent me to work and I supported the family (oftimes I was the sole supporter financially) my parents had promised they would repay me by paying my college tuition. As it turned out, they never gave me a penny for tuition, room, board, books, or even toothpaste. I averaged 100 hours of work per week during college – working for the college – to pay my way through, but I never minded the work. College life lent itself to a whole other litany of stories, but I would rather have been there – I would rather have been anywhere – but home.
After graduating from Hyles-Anderson College in 1992, I was employed by an Independent Fundamental Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, for two years. I taught in the church-owned and operated elementary school. In 1993, an assistant Pastor at the church was accused of repeatedly sexually molesting a “bus girl” – a student in my sixth grade class. The church rallied behind him and supported him until about ten police cars showed up on the church property one day and escorted him off the property in handcuffs. He pled guilty, was convicted, and went to prison. The Sunday after his arrest, his sixth-grade victim was in church. She was distraught because “no one believed her” and she was being bullied for telling her story. She asked to talk to me (I was her school teacher, after all). As she sobbed, I listened to her story and started to assure her that people believed her and would support her. Our conversation was interrupted by the pastor’s wife, who escorted the girl away. I was called to a meeting with the pastor’s wife after the Sunday morning service. She told me in no uncertain terms that I was not to talk to the girl again. She said, “You don’t have any experience dealing with this sort of thing. You let the adults handle it.” The pastor reiterated that in a meeting the next day and again told me I was not to talk to the girl or her family again. How did the “adults” handle it? The girl was immediately expelled from the Christian school, as was her younger sister, and was never allowed to attend the church again. Her mother was interviewed by the local news and she said she did not understand why the church banned her family from any and all contact with the church and school families and staff. She was very angry about not receiving any support from the church staff. I’ve often wondered how that little girl fared. I hope she was able to find some validation and healing in her life.
The next school year it was widely believed that another assistant pastor was sexually involved with a fifteen-year-old girl in the church/Christian school. As it became seemingly more evident and people (me included) started voicing concerns, the pastor quickly squelched it. He met with the thirty-something-year-old man and gave him an ultimatum: Leave now and I’ll give you a good recommendation. Stay and I’ll have to tell the girl’s father. Now, nobody wanted to tell the girl’s father – he was a prominent member of the church as well as a very successful businessman who had just donated millions to the church to raze their auditorium and build a new auditorium. The assistant pastor and his wife and three daughters left – literally spirited away overnight. He went to West Virginia where he was a youth pastor for a while. He now pastors a non-denominational church in Maine.
My twenty-four-year-old roommate, also a teacher in the church-owned and operated Christian school, had an ongoing sexual relationship with a high-school boy . . . a “bus kid” who was fifteen/sixteen during their relationship. The relationship ended when Evangelist Joe Boyd came to the church for a week-long revival and my roommate had a week-long sexual liaison with one of the “preacher boys” traveling with Boyd.
My affiliation with the church in Louisville was the beginning of the end of my affiliation with Independent Fundamental Baptist (IFB) churches. I left the church after my second year there, as I didn’t believe three sex abuse scandals in two years was a fluke. They offered me a five-year contract to stay, but I knew I couldn’t. Although it took two more years to leave IFB altogether, the seed had been sown. You see, I had been immersed in IFB churches and schools twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, for the first twenty-seven years of my life. I was literally in the church buildings seven days a week and attended an average of twelve preaching services a week, in addition to an hour or two of Bible classes Monday through Friday. The indoctrination was complete and all-consuming. The church controlled literally every aspect of my life for nearly three decades. And although I was surrounded by thousands of other church members, I lived a life of isolation. Literally. My father did not allow me and my siblings to talk to one another unless we were in the living room where he and my mother could hear every word we said. Once I entered seventh grade, I was not allowed to talk to other students in the school. My sister and I spent our time before and after school cleaning the church buildings, as socializing with classmates would only lead to talk of evil and wicked topics, according to my father. Nothing seemed abnormal to me, as this was the life I was born into and the only way of life I knew. However, once I became a church employee and started teaching in a church-owned and operated school, I started realizing that severe abuse was not just my personal experience, but an endemic problem within the IFB denomination, and I knew I could not stay and turn a blind eye and a deaf ear as so many tens of thousands before me had done.
I believe the saddest part of my story is the fact that my family was immersed in church seven days a week for decades and no one – not one person – attempted to stop the abuse. My parents were almost always on staff, either as volunteers, or as paid workers. My father pastored two churches – one when I was an infant and another when I was a teenager. When he was not pastoring his own church, he was frequently a paid staff member in other churches . . . my mother was always a Sunday School teacher, a nursery worker, and frequently a school teacher. My father was pastor, assistant pastor, Sunday School teacher, youth pastor, Christian school teacher, Christian school principal, etc. My parents counseled hundreds of others on how to have a happy marriage and raise obedient children. And all the while – ALL those decades – our home life was hell and not one person from the church ever attempted to protect me or my siblings. Not one person asked me if my home was safe. And I know there were obvious signs of abuse – not just the bruises and welts that always marked my body, but I flinched and cowered every time an adult raised his or her hand: I burst into tears if I imagined I had displeased an adult in some way: I was too fearful to speak the majority of the time and froze if adults talked to me: I barely ate, I barely slept – surely, surely, someone, somewhere suspected. Through four IFB churches and three IFB schools, every adult in my life chose to cover up the abuse, to protect the abusers, and to allow the violence to continue unchecked for decades. In that way, the church not only perpetuated the abuse, but covered it up and protected the abusers. I knew I could not be part of that system. I knew I had to leave, though it meant being shunned by most of the people I held dear in my life.
I stopped attending church two months shy of my twenty-eighth birthday. With trepidation, I started claiming my own life. I committed one of the worst sins an IFB woman could commit – I started wearing pants. One autumn afternoon, my doorbell rang. I answered the door to find the pastor’s wife of an IFB church in Colorado Springs, Colorado standing on my front doorstep. She had been contacted by my mother and was at my home to encourage me to give up my backslidden ways and get back in church. I stood there in my jeans and sweatshirt and told her I was not interested in attending her church because I knew I was not truly welcomed in her church unless I gave up my own personal freedom and adopted all their beliefs and practices. She explained that the church had an outreach ministry that visited the local homeless shelter every weekend and bussed the shelter residents to church on Sunday morning, including a man who was a cross-dresser. Her words are seared into my memory. “Honey, if we go to that shelter every week and bus that cross-dressing man to every Sunday morning service, we would welcome you as a cross-dresser, too. Now it’s true that you could not be involved in our ministries until you stop cross-dressing and get right with God, but even cross-dressers are welcome on Sunday mornings. I really wish you would come. I’ll even sit beside you.” I laughed aloud as I responded, “The fact that you have no idea how offensive it is to stand on my doorstep and call me a cross-dresser for wearing jeans, while expecting me to attend church with you tomorrow, is only one of hundreds of reasons why I will never attend your church.” After nearly ten-thousand days spent in hell, I closed the door and took my first step into freedom.