A Survivor’s Conversation with Christianity
[An earlier version of this article appeared on the website No Longer Quivering]
SIX years ago I sent a letter to the husband-and-wife authors of a well-known Christian parenting guide. Criticized for its emphasis on corporal punishment and for being circumstantially linked to at least two child-abuse deaths, their book has nevertheless attracted a faithful following. As a result of their book’s polarizing effect, the guide’s authors have for many years featured in public spanking debates.
When I wrote to these authors, I was newly reconverted to the faith of my childhood. It was to be my second go-around with Christianity. The first ended at the age of seven, when I realized that my prayers were doing nothing to keep my abuser from terrorizing my brother and me with the belt. As a second-grader, I struggled to understand how a living God could be so utterly disinterested. I resolved the dilemma by blaming myself. By puberty, I was privately thinking of myself as an atheist.
Still, when I contacted the married authors through a form on their ministry’s website, I was Christian. How that came to be was complicated. Fittingly enough, the story began with an act of God.
Hurricane Charley was supposed to dump lots of rain, but miss my part of Florida by hundreds of miles. Instead, the eye passed directly overhead. Due to the inaccurate forecasting, malls and schools were closed, while shelters never opened. My refuge was the thirty-year-old mobile home that I shared with two other guys. We joined our neighbors in covering windows. By afternoon, the TV was showing intense destruction farther south.
The eye was twelve miles away when our power failed. We waited in stifling heat and darkness. The wind rose to a roar. We heard sounds of flying branches and peeling siding. Our carport blew away, and debris punctured the outside walls. Finally, a gust of wind picked up the entire trailer. I felt a floating sensation as we were lifted into the air. Then pop, pop, pop, as the wind tugged against metal tie-down straps. The house settled and was snatched up again and again. A corner of our roof flapped then opened like a sardine can. Objects the size of tractor trailers could be heard blowing down the street.
We’re going to die.
I tried reasoning with myself, but my self insisted.
Storms kill people in trailers all the time.
Panic made me want to do something stupid, like run outside. At nearly the same instant, my friends, who had been barely speaking for the last week, faced each other and apologized.
After that, nobody talked.
I faced mortality from what I believed to be one minute away. With my toes dangling over eternity, I never prayed. Rather, the experience reminded me of a particularly fearsome whipping, back when I was no older than seven.
Afterward, I couldn’t shake the memories that the ordeal had triggered: the belt; tears on carpet; my voice begging. Over weeks, more recollections emerged: my older brother wetting the bed; the belt; humiliation; him pleading. I called my brother on the telephone; “Could these things have happened?” He laughed; “That’s the least of it.”
Memories haunted me, and at the center, there was our old church and my abuser’s worn-out Bible. I lost my job, all my friends then my mind. Therapy didn’t work. Medication didn’t work. Nothing worked.
I tried suicide.
An uncle fetched me from the hospital. I hadn’t seen him in twenty years. He’d become a jail chaplain, the kind who wore a braided beard and motorcycle club patches on a black leather vest. His advice: Forget everything you know about Christianity – start again.
I was exhausted. I wanted someone to take care of me. I turned to Jesus.
I joined a church, played guitar at the prison and taught Bible studies to inmates. Before long I was leading a men’s fellowship. There were benefits to keeping busy, but the nightmares and flashbacks never stopped.
My re-deconversion began at a Wednesday evening church service. Children were told to remain with their parents, rather than leaving for Sunday school. An associate pastor then used his Father’s Day speaking slot to explain the process of cutting and sanding your own wooden paddles. Parents didn’t have to worry, he explained, because the handles would break off if you hit your children too hard. Paddling could leave marks, but if you hugged your kid afterward, that was fine.
I sat in the pew, heart racing. It was the lesson that my childhood pastor had given, thirty years ago. It was why I’d thought being beaten into submission was normal. It was the reason I’d never complained to anyone.
My uncle had convinced me that our old church was strange. He’d insisted that in all his years, he’d never heard anything like it. But here were the same lessons, preached to a six-thousand-member congregation.
I was angry, then confused.
I knew this pastor! He seemed decent. He knew how to juggle.
I approached him after service, and he agreed to a meeting in his office. I relayed a few details of the maltreatment I’d suffered and told him how the evening’s sermon had affected me. He attended, seeming as if he might cry. But when I asked him if he could see how his advice promoted physical abuse, he didn’t get it.
“I said discipline in love and never in anger! I said that you must make clear what was done wrong and hug the child afterward. In this way, the child’s dignity is increased.” The pastor smiled beatifically, as if that settled that.
My abuser loved me, and I always knew what I’d done wrong. His attitude was not anger but grim determination. He was taught that beatings would work – and that if they didn’t, his only choice was to beat harder or longer. He hugged me when I was done crying. That made me feel worse, not better.
The pastor showed me verses from the book of Proverbs; told me those verses were promises – and God couldn’t be a liar. I was willing to believe, but things had happened to me that his verses could not explain.
The pastor’s voice took on the tones of debate; but for me, there was nothing to argue. He’d chosen not to believe my explanation of events – but I couldn’t choose to have had a different childhood.
He suggested that we agree to disagree. From that, it was clear that he hadn’t grasped the stakes: on the question of whether or not to spank, and if so, when and how, it is possible to share a faith and yet differ. But his sermon had reopened the fundamental religious dilemma of my childhood. My faith was critically wounded, though it would take years for me to be able to explain why.
After that meeting, I pored over a century of Christian parenting counsel, including tomes by James Dobson, Richard Fugate, Larry Tomczak, Roy Lessin, and Michael and Debi Pearl. They presented similar views, with nearly identical scriptural underpinnings. Yet when I compared my memories of abuse to the authors’ instructions, there was nothing added or left out.
This matters, because abused children rifle through our books; they hear our sermons and eavesdrop on adult conversations. I know because that is what I did. From these and other inadvertent sources, I tried to discern whether my brother and I were in need of protection.
Here are the messages I gleaned from the church of my childhood: that beating children is acceptable – good for them, in fact; that bruises and welts are of little consequence; that fear is desirable, as is pained screaming and broken sobbing. I’d heard that kids were to be whipped for the least act of disobedience, with belts and sticks and plastic racecar tracks; on bare skin, and as often as an adult thought was necessary.
A child abuser, on the other hand, is someone who doesn’t love you. A parent who never gives hugs because he is angry all the time. A child abuser is a drinker, a druggie, or at best some kind of wild animal. An abuser has no reasons or explanations. He just burns kids with cigarettes and gives them broken arms.
My abuser loved me and hugged me and he overflowed with explanations. I once got an hour-long lesson on disobedience for leaving a crayon on the floor. While the belt clapped with the measured rhythms of chopping firewood, I struggled to commit verses to memory and to answer quizzes on the metaphysical meanings of the word honor in scripture. Afterward, I was too sore to sit or lie down.
The Bible says, “Don’t exasperate your children by how you treat them.” But I’d been told that it was an adult’s job to make me regret the bad things I did. So instead of feeling exasperated, I pitied my abuser. After all, I was forcing him to do something that he assured me he did not enjoy.
I tolerated being degraded because that was what I thought a Christian child was supposed to do. I believed that in time I would come to appreciate my abuser’s good intentions. Instead, what dawned during my twenties and early thirties was that I was emotionally ill from being traumatized.
Adults can debate whether my abuser was angry, in some calm, deliberate way; we can say that inflicting emotional injury is the opposite of administering loving discipline; we can draw fine lines between childishness and disobedience. However, such subtle thoughts are lost on a five- or nine-year-old.
The cautions that bracket pastors’ paddling advice are inadequate—not because a few wackos might take the wrong portions literally (though many have), but because abused children certainly will. The evangelical boilerplate protects churches from lawsuits, but it doesn’t tell the youngest Christians that they must protect their bodies and sanity by making an outcry when they are maltreated.
If God inspired my pastor’s sermons on child-whipping, why hadn’t he spared a word for that stoic kindergartner, shifting uncomfortably on his insulted bottom? Did God not realize that I would be grasping at every mention of physical punishment, because the dread of being whipped was a physical illness that followed me night and day?
God’s omission seemed beyond reconciling.
But I hadn’t formed such a thought when I wrote to the authors of that controversial parenting book. At that time, I was still Christian. But I couldn’t ignore the feeling of outraged disgust that grew with each word of that parenting book that I read.
My soul said: This is wrong.
It said: With backward glances and furtive fingers, abused children will read this. They will hear these ideas bellowed from pulpits, now and for the rest of their lives. As children, they will blame themselves for being beaten, and as adults they will wonder how a decent God could let a defective and damaging message continue going out in His name.
It took years to distill my gut feelings into the words you have just read. The process involved spending hours per day studying and writing about every facet of spiritual and physical child abuse, PTSD, and corporal punishment. Halfway through, I realized that posing the right question would require an accurate depiction of abuse and survival.
The essay I’d been planning turned into a novel.
A grotesquely powerful tale that deserves to be read and spread like wildfire, as long as preachers still instruct god-fearing Americans on how to inflict pain on small children to the glory of God.
The story follows the son of an evangelical parenting “expert” as he progresses from a childhood in the Baptist church to a career as the singer of an iconoclastic heavy metal band. A murder investigation involving a fourteen-year-old fan leads to a final confrontation between the rock singer and the psychologically crippling truth of his past.
Though it reads like pop fiction, the book delves deeply into the political, cultural and scriptural rationalizations for religion-based child abuse. Honored with a coveted starred review in Publishers Weekly, the book became a genre bestseller on May 15, 2014, having broken into Amazon’s Top 100 paid e-book titles in the ‘Child Abuse’ category.
Below is the note I sent to the married Christian authors, formatted as a request for advice. The circumstances I described are representative, except that I am not the father in the story.
I am the little boy who could not stop screaming.
My son is six years old, and he cries excessively when I correct him with the Rod. I know the crying is unnecessary because he begins before I’ve even hit him. He falls on the floor and screams murder if I even look like I might be ready to spank him.
I’ve shown my wife how he freaks out when I have not even touched him, but she insists on interrupting every time I spank. She’s taught him that he can get out of being disciplined by making a lot of noise. I spank at least twice a week, more often if needed. I use my belt, which is how my dad disciplined me. As I’ve said, my son is very theatrical. I have told him that he can either stand up or lay on the bed for his spanking. He chooses to stand, then hops around as if I am killing him. I aim for his butt, but with him moving I am getting his back half the time. He also likes to fall down and cover his butt by kneeling or squatting. If he won’t get up, I give him a few strokes on the back to encourage him. Sometimes even this doesn’t work and I wind up chasing him around the bed.
My wife insists that I am spanking too often and too harshly. She gets upset if she sees a welt or a small bruise, especially above the waist. My son is quite the little actor. I’m glad we don’t have any neighbors nearby because by the sound of his screaming you would think a murder was going on! Aside from being plain annoying, his behavior is creating problems for me and my wife. She is so overprotective that my authority is undermined. The kids (I have an older son also) are carrying on like monkeys and she will not let me spank, or when I do, she will not let me do more than a couple of “love taps.”
I tried spanking them when she was out of the house, but of course my younger son reported me to his mother and we had a fight. That one ended with her packing her suitcase and going to her sister’s house.
I am at my wit’s end trying to figure out what to do about my wife’s meddling and my son’s screaming! Please help!!
The response, from the female half of the writing duo, was brief:
Your wife is at fault in coming to your son’s defense. Your son uses her. Either she stays out of the way, or you will have to stop being a real Dad.
Exactly what our pastor told my mother thirty years ago.
• Writer and activist M Dolon Hickmon examines the roots of religiously motivated child abuse in articles published all around the web. His novel “13:24: A Story of Faith and Obsession” is available at Amazon and through online booksellers worldwide.
Alice Miller, quoted in the graphic at the top of the page, was a Swiss psychologist of Polish-Jewish origin, noted for her books on parental child abuse. She died in 2010 aged 87.