The world was poised to paralyze me almost the very second I was born. It was the last year of the ‘80s on a night with -90 degree windchill. And then I appeared. Proof that the world can be chilled and aching to freeze my bones, but I’ll still be here.
I grew up in a family that consistently went to church. The first church I remember is at 4 years old, when we moved to Montana and began to attend a house church. The house church felt cult-ish. Many of the women wore handkerchiefs to cover their hair. I can’t point to anything distinct about their beliefs, but I remember the feeling of being condescended to.
My parents eventually left the house church and became involved in different charismatic churches, mixing this up with some Word of Faith beliefs. For those of you unfamiliar – charismatic churches are the ones where you raise your hands when you worship, and if things get a little crazy you might “fall down” under the spirit of God. Word of Faith is a set of people who preach that if you ask God for something and you believe to receive it, it’s yours.
There was a lot of fear and legalism. If you didn’t believe hard enough, you weren’t going to get it. And “spiritual authority” was a big deal. Men were the authority. Leaders were the authority. The line to God went “children-women-men-leaders-God”. You didn’t cross anyone above you, ever. And if you did, you would die. After all, the Bible said, “honor thy father and thy mother, that you may live long in the land the Lord thy God has given thee.”
It was around this time that my dad picked up the habit of reciting that verse to us when we disobeyed. He picked up the habit of yelling that he was the head of our house and deserved respect. He picked up the habit of using these phrases abusively to keep us in line with his delusion that God was going to magically grant us 1.7 billion dollars.
My family was so cowed by my dad that I remember all of us hushing when he walked into the room. He created this atmosphere in our house.
At church, it was reinforced that I needed to obey my dad, and God, or ELSE. I was afraid of my dad. I was afraid of God. If I didn’t do just what God wanted, I’d lose out. I’d die.
Then came my teen years, and a lovely thing that we now call purity culture. Even at the time, I remember being frustrated that people were talking about sex so much. Couldn’t we talk about something else? But hearing that over and over spread it through my bones like marrow, and it got stuck inside. It didn’t help that my family held a purity ring ceremony for me and my twin at age 13. I wore a ring from Tiffany, set with a blood red ruby. In part of the ring ceremony, there was the signing of a contract promising ourselves to our dad’s spiritual authority. If we stepped out from under his “covering,” it was disrespectful… and we would surely die. This was my subconscious belief.
My dad became a huge proponent of Joshua Harris and we all read I Kissed Dating Goodbye and Boy Meets Girl, the follow up. This further impressed in my mind that keeping my distance from men was much safer. My dad expressed the idea that we would all have courtships – me and my 3 sisters. The young man would come to him as the spiritual authority over us and ask my dad if he could possibly date one of us.
I didn’t realize what the insidious affect of this was until recently. This view made it clear that men were only interested in sex or subjugation. You had to be on your guard around them all the time. If you didn’t have a pure heart, even if you were just holding hands, it was suspect. Furthermore, if I crossed the line and didn’t guard my motives, I didn’t only disappoint God, I disappointed my dad. I’m not sure who was more terrifying.
Guard your heart was the moratorium. Search yourself for any wrong motive. And let me tell you, I was really great at following moratoriums. I was used to following rules out of fear by now. I was amazing at scrutinizing myself to keep myself safe. It was perfectionism run rampant. I think these beliefs, compounded by my dad’s behavior, came together to give me a huge fear of men. They were bigger and stronger and “authority.” If I crossed them, I would die.
Underneath this fear of men was a huge fear of myself. I had been told that men, and leaders, obviously were closer to God then I was. This means they obviously knew more than me. I learned early to keep my mouth shut and become extremely adept at following the rules.
To this day, I am looking over my shoulder ready to run when (not if) a man hurts me. I am hyper alert for betrayal. Hyper alert for men who only want sex. Quickly putting men in boxes so that I feel safe, instead of seeing them as people. Extraordinarily quick at just trying to follow the “rules” to good relationships. Objectifying physically AND emotionally, to maintain distance.
If I don’t, I will die. Nowadays, if it’s not God striking me down, it’s people I’ve highly respected, or people I put in parent positions. For that matter, it’s the culture that continues to insist that women are less capable than men of having a strong voice. Everything around me, everything, screams that I must follow the rules or I will die.
I am just now coming to the point where I am learning to follow my own internal voice, not the voices of others and especially not the voice of fear. A song I recently heard encapsulates this idea really well:
“I was born to love, I’m gonna learn to love without fear.” – Born, by Over the Rhine
I was born this way, but along the way I lost myself. I was caught in a tangled web of how things for women were supposed to be. I bought into the lie that others were smarter than me and the only way to stay alive was to follow the rules of the oppressive culture. But I’m waking up now. I refuse to allow oppression to silence me.
Perhaps the story of Esther, in the Bible, was always so appealing to me as a child because I realized that she did not let the rules keep her locked in silence. Though my view on spirituality has changed, she still represents to me what spirituality should be about – taking risks for the good of the community, and having a voice when others try to silence you.
And as she said, “If I perish, I perish.”
I will speak on.
Laurie Works writes over at her blog, Resilient Audacity. At 25 years old, she’s courageously forging a life lived by her own rules. She writes about growing up with a mentally ill father, witnessing her sisters’ deaths in a mass shooting, her marriage and divorce, and how she continues to thrive in spite of what she has experienced. She invites you to accompany her on her journey!