Sunday, March 23, 2014

In Which I Talk About Surviving Bill Gothard's Cult

This is a hard post to write and have it make sense because of the broad yet specific nature of it. There is a point to it (a really good point!), but you have to first wade through a little of my personal background in order to understand the point. So although I've gone through four drafts of this, and it's a little clunky as I try to keep my thoughts in order, I hope you will read through to the end. And be nice, because this is a topic that I've never written about before on the blog: my experience in a cult.
If you are a Christian or a homeschooler, chances are that you've seen the articles circulating through FaceBook, World Magazine, The Washington Post, Christianity Today and in other places about the latest conservative Christian leader to fall: Bill Gothard.

If you haven't heard of Bill Gothard (lucky you!), he is the man behind the Institute of Basic Life Principles (IBLP) and the homeschool program that is part of it, the Advanced Training Institute (ATI). What started out as seminars on resolving basic youth conflicts morphed into a full-fledged homeschooling movement that came to characterize most of the pioneer homeschoolers of the 80's and 90's.

A strong patriarchal group with ties to the Quiverfull movement as well, there is no way to provide a quick overview of the group, but a few of the teachings are (randomly pulled from my memory in no particular order):
  • Women should wear skirts only
  • Married couples should have as many babies as possible (no birth control)
  • Dating means you've given away too much of your heart, and couples should instead go through the courting process if they are interested in each other
  • Homeschooling is the only correct way of educating
  • Men are always considered to be under their father's authority whether they are married or not. Likewise, women are under their father's authority until they marry, and then that transfers to their husbands. The ages of those involved never play into the authority structure. (In other words, it's quite possible to have a 45-year-old man still under the authority of his 70-year-old father.)
  • Women don't need college and should help around the house with their younger siblings until they get married
  • Women are responsible for tempting the male if they are raped
  • Men should be clean shaven
  • Rock music is of the devil
  • Cabbage Patch Dolls are possessed
  • Adopting children brings all of the kids' forefathers' sins into your home. Those sins are usually very severe.
I could go on and on, but that's just to give you an idea. On top of that, there is Scripture taken out of context, facts twisted to fit Gothard's personal preferences, rules on how to be intimate with your spouse, and specifics on how to raise your kids. Lots and lots of rules and methods for success. (Note: my parents did not subscribe to all of these rules in our home, but these are rules that I absorbed during my time living in one of their training centers. IBLP is VERY effective at indoctrinating their students.)

A few weeks ago, Gothard was forced to resign due to allegations that he sexually harassed at least 34 women he worked with, including minors. He has also been accused of groping and covering up child abuse among those in his ministry. The details and allegations are many, so if you'd like to read more of the specifics, the Recovering Grace website (written by students who have made it out of the program), is a great place to start.

So...this is the guy who has been making all of the rules for all of these families enrolled in his program. Oh, did I mention that he is 79 and has never been married or had kids? Yeah, figure that one out. (Side Note: The Duggars of 19 Kids and Counting are huge proponents of IBLP, close friends with Gothard, and speak at his conferences. Just be aware of that if you find yourself drooling over their perfect life.)

I think I've mentioned it in passing before that I was homeschooled, which I really loved for the most part! Our years in IBLP didn't come into the picture until I was in my teens. I even lived in one of their training centers while attending a "finishing school" for a couple of months when I was 16 years old. I was *so* excited to go to the EXCEL class, because I thought that it would be all about cake decorating and flower arranging (hey, it was in the brochure!), but instead, it ended up being two solid months of brainwashing. Oh, if only I was joking, but I'm dead serious about the brainwashing.

Over 10 years later, I can now see IBLP for what it is. It's a cult. In fact, some of us jokingly called the hardcore followers, "Gothardites." It was funny then, but terribly sad now.

It's taken me years to mentally and emotionally climb back out of the IBLP cult, and I'm currently in long overdue therapy to help me process through some of it. Thankfully, we were only enrolled for a couple of years before my parents pulled us out when I was 17. They started to realize that there was some wacky stuff being promoted, and thought it best to make an exit. I'm grateful that they pulled us when they did and always supported and encouraged me to pursue an education, but a lot of the damage had already been done. It's been over 10 years, but it's only been recently that I've started telling my parents about some of things that went on in the class that I attended. IBLP very effectively controlled all communication between parents and kids while the kids were enrolled in their programs, and the brainwashing ran deep. At 16 years old, you don't have much life experience to filter ideas through, and mental isolation makes it that much worse. Looking back, it is amazing to me how quickly and completely the group worked to manipulate and indoctrinate students and families. They had a system down, and it was extremely efficient and thorough.

Once your brain is hardwired to believe a certain way, it doesn't rewire easily.

Maybe you are wondering why I feel the need to write a post going all the way back to my teen years. That's a fair question. The answer has a couple of parts, but I'm sticking with the main one for now:

Because there are women and girls still in this program and in other programs like it.

I care about the men and boys too, but it's the women and girls that make my heart break. Sweet Christian women who are told that submission to the point of bondage inside a marriage, no voice or opinion, and being blamed for any shortcomings of her husband is the best way to be a good wife. That she is only good for running a house and raising children. That if her husband strays, it's because she wasn't a good enough wife. It's filled with guilt, the need to "just try harder," and the thought that if anything goes wrong, all fingers will be pointed back to her. Because she is a woman and that's her role in life....oh, friends. It's a horrible, horrible existence, and they don't even realize it. They don't realize it, because they are conditioned to believe it, and their acceptance is rooted in their ability to perform to those standards.

It is a form of slavery even though they aren't physically locked away.

The recent developments with Gothard, and my current therapy sessions have brought a lot of emotions and memories back to the forefront of my mind, and I feel like I have to say something in defense of these trapped women.

Sadly, it's not just in IBLP that women are doormats. I've seen this happen in regular churches, and in non-homeschooling families. I so badly want to grab these ladies and show them what grace and freedom in Christ looks like. I certainly don't have it all figured out, but I've been on their side and know what they are missing.

Friends, it's so easy to get sucked in by the promises of men who have a 5-step-plan to overcoming everything. Everyone wants a guaranteed outcome in life, but when you buy into a mindset like that, then you end up following the man and not needing God. There is no formula to a successful Christian life, but there IS freedom and grace if you choose to follow the Ultimate Authority instead of what some guy comes up with on a yellow legal pad.

If you are trapped, thinking that you aren't worth anything, that your value is directly tied to your performance, or that you are at the mercy of the men around you, I want you to know that you've got it all wrong. Yay!

You are valuable, precious, and wanted by the God who created you. Please get help finding that freedom if you need to! It's a long, hard process. I'm not going to lie to you. Dissecting what you think is true to find what is really true is exhausting and frustrating. But it is so worth it in the end!

And if you aren't trapped in a situation and thought pattern like this, but know someone who is, please, please, PLEASE reach out to them. They will most likely have no idea that there is even anything wrong. But be that friend who sticks by them, and gently and patiently holds their hand. As a woman who has made it out and over to the other side, those friends are often the catalysts to starting the process of finding freedom.

***For further reading, please visit Recovering Grace.
***You may also enjoy reading my review of Jesus Feminist by Sarah Bessey. It's about taking a second look at the Biblical role of women...and it might not be what you think!

Special thanks to my amazing husband, Sean, for standing next to me over the past years as I've worked through my issues. He always encourages me to keep going until I find the truth, is willing to talk through my ideas with me, and pays for my therapy sessions every other week. :)


  1. Brave and good, Rebecca. Eshet chayil! Woman of valour! xo

  2. Thank you so much for sharing your experience! I grew up in a church that supported many of Bill Gothard's teachings and philosophies. There were rules for everything, and it completely warped my sense of who God is. Thankfully, I've had some incredible experiences since then. This is such an important topic, and I also hope that other women find freedom outside of this world of bondage!

  3. Thank you! Rebecca, I know this was a hard article for you to write. Thank you for being a voice as one coming out of a pit. My prayer is that you will only continue to grow in His grace. It was good to hear about what you (and so many others I know) went (or are going) through. Thank you! All my love, Kristin

  4. Do you read Elizabeth Esther? Her book Girl at the End of the World just released this week & it touches on many of the aspects you mentioned here. | Thank you for your bravery & honesty. You're a role model for all of us who struggle to make sense of our past so that we can live a healthier future!

  5. That second last picture you have in your article, who is the girl third from the right? I recognize her. I am pretty certain that she worked in Australia for a while, if I am remembering the right girl.

  6. Love you, Girl. First time I met you was right after you were at Excel and at the time I said "Something is off..." **HUG** So glad God rescued you and showed you grace and truth.

  7. Wow that's crazy! Just wondering, why did they believe Cabbage Patch Kids were possessed?

  8. Your bravery is inspiring! Thank you for sharing. It is so saddening to see God's love and word twisted into something that hurts the ones He loves.

  9. Wow, girl, that was amazing. Thank you for sharing that post with the world and I hope it touches someone in great need of it. I used to live in Utah and was very sad for the girls in the extreme LDS church, not part of the main church, who were married as 2nd and 3rd wives to much older men. Such a brave post. Thank you.

  10. What a brave post. I remember years ago with ATI was getting big there were a lot of people at church that became apart and enough more that were considering. A lot of people went to a teleconference at a local church. My mom went and only made it 30 minutes before she left shaking and upset at what she heard being taught. Thank you for sharing your story and reminding everyone that we are valued by God and precious to Him. I pray your story and strength help many women get the freedom they need and that I would be aware enough of those around me that I can be the friend I should be.

  11. I am just starting to open up more about me on my blog and I am incredibly inspired by your bravery in opening up about your past and taking such a strong stance! You are incredibly strong and powerful and I'm glad you got out.

  12. This was amazingly brave! I hope you find more healing in writing and sharing your experiences. It is something that has proven to help in my healing.

  13. I very much appreciate you opening up. I was not involved in the ATI program directly, but I did attend a few classes through IBLP. I found it to be very strict and legalistic. I didn't have any issues contacting my parents I could call them whenever I wanted, and in no way was I ever made to feel weird because I wasn't part of the group.

  14. Thank you so much for sharing that! My experience wasn't quite as intense as yours, but in high school my family and I got involved in a church that was basically a borderline cult. It was my dad who finally got us away, and I think just in time. Shortly after most of the members sold their houses, many of their belongings, and followed the "pastor" to live on a commune together. The whole thing broke up families. There were divorces because wives wouldn't go with their husbands, and children were disowned when they wouldn't go. Very sad. People who go through those types of things absolutely need others who are willing to tell their story and reach out.

  15. Very inspiring. Thank you for telling the truth and sharing your heart. Many people can get caught up in spiritual things that they do not understand or know how to get away from.

  16. Wow. Good for you for writing this. My mom & I attended a seminar together. Just reading this I can remember the "heavy" feeling I walked away with from the experience. Can't imagine growing up with it my whole entire life...

  17. Thank you for sharing your story.

  18. Thanks for writing this. His "ministry" is in our neck of the woods, and although I like some of the stuff that is printed, some of it is just wacked out. I feel so bad for those taken advantage of. I'm glad you are able to get counseling and help others see what is really happening.

  19. It took a lot of courage, I'm sure, for you to write this and hit that publish button. Being obedient to the Lord's leading isn't always easy. This message needs to be heard, though. My beautiful mother was involved in a cult-ish religion when my sister and I were children (I won't name names). Due to conflict with my Dad's Catholicism, and to save her marriage and her family, she left that church believing that she was eternally damned to Hell for that decision. Can you IMAGINE making that sacrifice? It's tears me up inside every time I think of her doing something of that magnitude just to keep us all together. Thankfully, by the Grace of our loving God, she learned better although it was many years later. She found the freedom that was given through grace by Jesus' sacrifice and lived her final years completely in Love with the Lord and knowing that Heaven awaited her in the end. Be blessed, sister. Keep on keeping on for the Lord.

  20. You are brave to share experiences that are so personal as these. Thank you for sharing. I'm sure your words will help others.
    Lee Ann

  21. May Jesus keep setting you free Courageous One. :)

  22. This is SO interesting to read and I thank you for sharing it! I had no idea the duggards were part of it but I always knew that their religion was a little fishy.

  23. thank you so much for bravely sharing of your experiences...and your heart. I feel incredibly fortunate to have had a positive spiritual training. That I can be who I am and learn about life and God through my successes ....and failures. That there is always a soft place to land.
    I'll keep these women in my prayers.

  24. I have recently discovered some of the emotional and spiritual abuse I endured throughout my lifetime was heavily influenced because of the Gothard madness cult. Our family was not involved in a direct sense, but we had lifelong family friends who were adherents of this false doctrine, and their strong influence upon my mother has, in turn, had a *profound* and negative impact upon us. Thank you, for sharing some of your experience and other information about IBLP. This has been very helpful and enlightening!

  25. Thank you for posting this! This was my life for 14 years! Clearly it backfired on them!! Lol

  26. Bill Cosby kept his crimes secret for 40 years. Even when his victims spoke up, he responded by accusing them of blackmailing him for gain. Bill Gothard had such a sterling reputation just exactly like Bill Cosby. But the Lord will not allow Gothard's secret sins to stay hidden in Jesus Name!
    Do the Lord's work and keep on "Shouting from the housetops" for the sake of those who are still trapped in the cults.


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