Visit the site: Recovery from Religious Abuse
My first book, Recovery from Religious Abuse: 11 Steps to religious Freedom, is the key to an overall strategy to target a universe of at least 37 million hurting Christians—primarily disenfranchised evangelicals, but this group also includes lapsed Catholics. These people—the used, abused, and discarded—can benefit greatly fromRecovery from Religious Abuse, and they are the largest potential audience for it.
To reach these people, in the fall of 2010, I will develop an Internet marketing strategy, focusing on a customized website, specifically designed for those who need to recover from religious abuse. Building upon my Pushing Jesus blog and the current email addresses of 25,000 churches and 20,000 individuals, which are owned by Watts & Associates, I already have developed a substantial Internet presence to announce the launching of the book, which will be published by Howard Books, a label for Simon & Schuster.
Using email, I will define the problem, present how the book can help solve the problem, and either sell the book or point potential buyers to bookstores. When someone clicks onto the website, they will learn:
- What religious abuse is
- Whether or not they have been abused
- The extent of their abuse
- And how to recover from it.
To help them understand the value of recovery more thoroughly, I will include one inspirational from each of the first three steps. This is a long-term strategy, which will also be used when my other three books—Hi, My Name Is Jack, Pushing Jesus, and In Its Season—are published. When each is available, Recovery from Religious Abuse will be offered again. It’s the lynchpin to recovery from religious abuse, which makes it a product, which will never be out of date. It will be as important twenty years from now as it is today.
It’s also the natural “next step” for those who read any of the three memoirs I’ve written. Because this is the case, it’s important to publish each of the memoirs at strategic intervals to maximize the impact of Recovery from Religious Abuse and its follow-up book, 365: One Day at a Time, which is ongoing recovery material, specifically target for those recovering from religious abuse.
In this sense, each book complements the other, all pointing to Recovery from Religious Abuse, which is the seminal recovery book. No matter which book a reader chooses to read, all point to the need for recovery—the need for 91 Days. My purpose for each book is the same—my crusade to reach wounded believers. Because each of the memoirs has been written with authenticity and complete candor, those who have tasted recovery will be interested in reading other pertinent books. They will be hungry for additional material. With the publication of each memoir, wounded people by the thousands will seek the recovery, which can be realized by using Recovery from Religious Abuse.
This future website will have numerous components, including these:
- The 11 STEPS, along with supportive material showing wounded people the value of Recovery from Religious Abuse.
- Stories of abusiveness from victims—many of them.
- Stories of recovery—many of them, as well.
- A place for people to write their stories, using an avatar to insure anonymity. When a story is submitted, it will be edited and then posted for others to read. I’ll use the best ones to group together and develop a book or two, which will provide additional supportive material for people.
- “Questions & Answers” about religious abuse.
- A daily inspirational, which will be emailed to subscribers, based on 365: One Day at a Time, which will be completed by fall 2010.
- A chat room for those in recovery.
- A link to my other websites, Pushing Jesus, Hi, My Name Is Jack, and Pastorstudyresources.com. On these sites, Recovery from Religious Abuse will all be posted and used to help people identify whether or not they have been abused—whether or not they need Recovery from Religious Abuse and 365: One Day at a Time.
- An HTML email will be created that will be sent to all of Jack’s ministry associates over the years, asking them to forward the launch of Recovery from Religious Abuse to their address book. This is an extensive list, which may open many doors.
- For churches:
- 91Days will be sent to our e-newsletter, which reaches an audience of as many as 40m Southern Baptist Churches.
- A 3-sermon series to be used as an outreach for wounded people
- Supportive material for small group study for recovery from religious abuse.
Hi, My Name Is Jack is about my life-long friend, Jack Reagan, growing up in an Irish-Catholic family from Boston, coupled with all the dysfunction he experienced as an adult—as an alcoholic “from a long line of boozers.” It’s a captivating story about how he developed a strong relationship with God once he embraced a life of recovery. As such, his story points to the need for recovery—to the need for recovering people to work the 11 Steps.
In Its Season is the story of two of my other friends—both of whom have been involved in ministry for most of their lives. It’s an ALANON story and a tale that’s unforgettable. Each of these books reveal the world as it is—not as we wish it would be. Consequently, wounded, hurting people will readily identify with each of these stories.
Religious abuse is also part of Jack’s story and one of the many reason I know him so well. As part of Jack’s recovery from being abused, he worked the 11 Steps to Recovery from Religious Abuse, with me acting as his sponsor.
I have included a sample chapter from the following books—each written by Jack Watts:
- Hi, My Name Is Jack
- Recovering from Religious Abuse
- In Its Season.
Hi, My Name Is Jack
This book, which is authentic in every detail, is not for the faint-hearted, but it may be one of the best books you will ever read. You don’t take my word for it; Judge for yourself. It’s Jack Reagan’s story.
I’ve Only Had Three
“Jack, I don’t know how to say this gently; so here goes. If you want us to continue dating, you have to go to AA and stop drinking.”
This ultimatum was delivered to me in the late spring of 1994 at a quaint, little Italian restaurant on Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta, right above Underground Atlanta, by my long-standing girlfriend, Eleanor Babcock. I remember we had been talking about Bill Clinton who had just taken office a little over a year before.
There had been no segue. She just blurted it out. When she did, I wasn’t offended; I was surprised—really surprised. I wasn’t an alcoholic! “I’ve only had three beers,” I said much too quickly and way too defensively.
“Tonight you’ve only had three beers, but your drinking has gotten out of hand. I can’t go on like this. It has to stop, or we have to stop. The choice is yours. I’m serious about this,” and I could tell that she was.
Now she had my attention. For me, three beers was nothing. I used to think of three beers as priming the pump before I started on Jack Daniels. I would have anywhere from eight to ten of these and wind up the evening with one or two Grand Marnier. That was a normal evening routine for me when we went to some of the nicest restaurants in Atlanta and all over America.
We had been dating for three years—going on four, and Eleanor had been pressing me hard to marry her. Having been married twice, I was reluctant.
She was a medical doctor, finishing her residency at Emory and about to make substantial money as an emergency room physician. Eleanor was in her early thirties, blond, and had brown, captivating eyes that were warm, alluring, and troubled. She was 5’ 3” and always seemed to wear too much makeup. She wasn’t beautiful—not in the traditional sense; but she was quite striking. She was also very exciting. There was never a dull moment with Eleanor.
At the time, I was doing quite well financially. The prospect of a jet-setting, affluent life with a cute, young doctor was very attractive; but our relationship had its share of problems—and then some. One time, I was taking one of my daughters, Jordan, to the movies; and Eleanor came along to shop while we did. She and Jordan were fooling around in the car, and Eleanor bit Jordan. That’s right. The doctor bit my daughter who was only eight years old at the time. Jordan screamed because it was a hard bite, which both startled and hurt her. It was all I could do to keep the car on the road as Jordan reached over to cling to her daddy. Eleanor apologized, but this was so bizarre that I was forced to re-think the possibility of a lifelong relationship with her.
This aberrant behavior was not an isolated incident. Another time, Eleanor and I planned to go to a bed and breakfast inn for a long weekend in Savannah. One of my older daughters, Brenn, who was twenty-two at the time, asked me if we could drive her there and back. Brenn planned to stay with a girlfriend of hers who just happened to be the hostess at the same B&B where Eleanor and I were registered. Naturally, I said yes. Frankly, I thought nothing of it and looked forward to the long drive down and back with Brenn along for the ride. She was a lot of fun. For this trip, we drove in Eleanor’s car instead of mine which was in the shop.
Although Eleanor readily agreed that it would be wonderful having Brenn, inwardly, she was seething. When we arrived at the B&B, Brenn’s friend, Francis, who was a very attractive young lady, gave me a hug, which was a little too close and a little too long for Eleanor’s comfort. Having known Francis since she was fourteen, I didn’t think a thing about it—nor would anybody else in their right mind. Yet Eleanor, who frequently acted as if she had a borderline personality disorder or worse, was not behaving like she was in her right mind—especially when her insecure, jealous nature was threatened. Although she didn’t say anything then and there, her discomfort and anger quickly turned to rage. When Brenn left to spend the weekend with Francis, Eleanor unleashed a tirade of obscenities that would have made a sailor blush. I was stunned and defended the innocence of “the hug” the best way I could, but there was no appeasing the doctor.
I retreated to the bathroom to take a shower and to avoid further battle. My greatest fear was that every other guest would overhear her shouting, making it impossible to look others in the face at breakfast the next morning. While I was in the shower, Eleanor hurriedly gathered her things, threw them in her car, and left.
I will never forget how I felt when I realized what had happened—like an absolute fool. There I was, a 49-year-old man with his 22-year-old daughter, stranded in Savannah—250 miles away from home. I not only felt like a fool; I looked like one for being in a significant relationship with someone who was that volatile and jealous—a fact that everybody I knew pointed out to me routinely from then on.
Within an hour, I rented a car for Brenn and me to drive back to Atlanta, cutting the trip short by two days. While on the road, I left a message for Eleanor, telling her it was over and I never wanted to see her again. That was the normal, healthy, appropriate thing to do.
But I wasn’t normal. Although I had not come to realize it at the time, I was an alcoholic. Therefore, I reconciled with her two weeks later when she came to see me—remorseful and in tears. That is what alcoholics do; it’s who we are. Even when there is no alcohol in our system, we still think like alcoholics, and it costs us. I was a rescuer, and my alcoholism clouded my judgment regularly and repeatedly.
It’s funny because Eleanor thought all of our “issues” were based upon my drinking and not hers, but that wasn’t true. You see, she had problems with alcohol too; and like nearly every problem drinker, she was in complete denial of it. During our last Thanksgiving together, my entire family came to eat at my house in Buckhead. Being the host for all four of my daughters and their families, I didn’t have anything to drink. I was much too busy. By the way, this is also one reason I denied having a drinking problem for so long. I didn’t have to drink on every social occasion. There were many times when I never touched it; but in truth, these times of abstinence were becoming less frequent.
Before the meal, everyone was talking and mixing very well when Eleanor, who was feeling no pain, spilled her red wine on my beautiful, new white Burberry rug in front of everybody. I said, “Eleanor, get a sponge and clean that up right away; or the stain will never come out.”
“Let the maid do it when she comes next week,” she said with a dismissive, haughty laugh.
Immediately, I got a sponge and started cleaning it myself. Victoria, my second daughter, who was twenty-four, marched up and said, “Dad, why are you cleaning that and not her!”
Eleanor heard this, and the battle was on. They went into another room and let it rip. It was awful, and it seemed like it went on for hours. Every once in a while, Eleanor would come out and refill her glass to keep her throat moist for the next round. By the time the doctor left to go on duty at the emergency room, there was nothing left to be thankful for. The holiday was ruined.
She called from the hospital in the early evening after everyone had left and said, “It wasn’t that bad.” She added, “The first two cases I saw today were Thanksgiving gunshot wounds.”
“So I should be grateful that we didn’t have gun play?” I said, still infuriated that the holiday had been destroyed.
There were dozens of other examples I could describe, but anybody can see this relationship was unhealthy—that is, anybody but me. I met Eleanor at a Bible study, and we were attracted to each other at first sight. She was a petite beauty and obviously quite intelligent. She hid her dysfunction masterfully, and I was deep into the relationship before any inappropriate behavior began. Inwardly, I kept hoping things would turn around. Since she had a way of blaming me for everything, I thought most of it was my fault anyway.
So, when she gave me the ultimatum to go to AA, I went. I found a noon meeting at the Triangle Club which was right behind a huge liquor store that I frequented often. When I went there for the first time, I was surprised to see so many sharp people and virtually no street people. At the end of the meeting, I went forward and picked up a white chip which signaled my acknowledgment of being an alcoholic and my willingness to surrender my problem with alcohol to God.
My relief was instantaneous. I felt a burden come off my back, and I was certain I was in the right place. By the time I was in high school, when I first started drinking excessively, I knew I was different. I didn’t fit in—not really. At AA, I was finally with people who were like me—people who thought like me. It’s definitely where I belonged.
On the outside—the side I allowed people to see—I looked fine. In fact, I looked better than fine. I looked good. On the inside, however, I was a mess, and I knew it. In the second step of AA’s 12-Step program, it says that God can restore an alcoholic to sanity. At first, this seemed a little extreme, but I soon came to realize how crazy I really was. Take my anger, for example. I would sit in a meeting and, if a guy looked at me in a way I didn’t like, I would say to myself, I can take him. If he even looks at me again, I’ll beat the shit out of him.
I always thought like this and was surprised to find that most people don’t. Even people who have a problem with anger aren’t that angry. My anger seemed normal to me, which is a pretty good definition of insanity. By the way, if a girl looked at me, I thought, She wants me. Sadly, I still think that way, which is pretty typical for a guy—even an older one.
In those first few months, AA was my life. People seemed genuine and more willing to be transparent than I had ever seen before. At Triangle, there was a guy who led quite a few meetings. He was kind, accepting, insightful, and had an obvious desire to help others. He was humble—genuinely humble which came from deep within him. He was also gay and had AIDS. Despite this, it was clear to me that he had a better relationship with God than I had. Before I went to AA, I thought AIDS was God’s punishment for being a fag, but not after I saw God’s love come from this man—unconditional love. He spent his final days on earth in service to others—constantly giving and never bemoaning his fate.
He died soon thereafter. I can’t even remember his name, but I’ll never forget the character qualities he possessed—qualities I coveted. As a result of being in meetings he led, I started to realize God’s love was greater than the box to which I had tried to confine Him. I knew I didn’t love people the way the gay guy did—not even close. I needed help with more than my drinking. I needed my character transformed as well. I wanted this kind of love to come from me—not the anger.
I also started to realize just how destructive my life with Eleanor had become. When I became deeply involved with AA, Eleanor’s behavior became worse—much worse; but I also began to see I wasn’t responsible for fixing her. I had enough problems of my own. One evening, six weeks into the program—after an evening where she was particularly petulant and peevish, I had had enough. I broke up with her and never looked back. I was free and loved it. I had only been sober for a short time; but I knew I didn’t need to spend the rest of my life battling her vitriolic, jealous rages.
As part of my AA program, I began to take a complete—painstakingly honest—inventory of my life. In so doing, I asked myself exactly when I became an alcoholic. Surprisingly, I believe it was in 1933—eleven years before I was born.
11 Steps to Recovery from Religious Abuse
Four Examples of Religious Abuse
Religious abuse occurs frequently and can happen to anyone—regardless of gender, religious affiliation, or time of life. Most abuse is inadvertent—not intended to inflict permanent damage to a person. This is not the type of religious abuse we deal with in 11 Steps to Recovery from Religious Abuse. Throughout this book, our focus is squarely upon those who use their positions of authority to abuse others, which makes it particularly devastating to the recipient. These leaders believe they have the authority and the right to do so. They believe they are entitled to treat others the way they do.
The consequences of their abusiveness are frequently catastrophic—nearly as devastating as a parent telling a child he or she is unloved and unwanted. Sadly, even little children experience spiritual abuse at a time when they are the most vulnerable and impressionable—when they are the most susceptible. The negative imprint upon a child lasts a lifetime, diminishing the recipient’s self-worth. If unchecked, it can lessen a person’s life-long accomplishments.
Religious abuse is devastating because it nearly always brings the recipient’s relationship with God into question. Either directly or indirectly, the abuser states or implies that the person’s connection to God is flawed, making the abusee feel alienated—a person with diminished value, a person unworthy of God’s love and care. Being estranged from God is like being estranged from a parent; no good comes from it.
To give you a better understanding—a better “feel”—for what religious abuse really is, four examples will be given; one from a small boy, one from an alter boy, one from a young man just beginning to make his way in the world, and one from a man going through a proverbial “mid-life crisis.” Each is an example of a religious authority figure using his position of power to abuse someone in his charge.
The first two examples come from a Roman Catholic priests in the Boston area, although years apart; the third from a fundamentalist minister in Atlanta; and the final from “The Elders” in a Southern California cult. The experiences were as diverse as the geographical locations, but each illustrates an excellent example of religious abuse—an instance of misused authority. After reading these personal accounts, perhaps you’ll have a clearer picture of what religious abuse really is. Each situation will be described by the person who experienced it—in the person’s own words.
Boston: I grew up in the suburbs of Boston, the second of four children in an Irish-Catholic family. Being a good Catholic, I went to Mass every Sunday and each Holy Day of Obligation, which meant I was in church at least sixty times a year. Some of my earliest memories were while I was at church. Part of my education was in a Catholic school, which was challenging academically and good for me. Dealing with the nuns and priests, who were positioned as intermediaries between God and me, however, was difficult and not at all beneficial.
How they dealt with me has had an impact upon how I perceive God, which has influenced my entire life. I’m not alone; there are millions of Catholic kids like me who have their own stories to tell—many of which are much worse than mine.
One incident, in particular, had a profound impact on me. It was the day of my First Holy Communion when I was just seven years old. For months, all the girls and boys from my Communion class practiced going to the altar rail, kneeling down, holding our heads back, opening our mouths, and sticking out our tongues. When we did, the priest would put the Communion wafer on our tongues, say something—which I couldn’t understand, and move on to the next kid.
It sounds simple enough, but its execution on that fateful day was anything but simple. We were told—harshly, repeatedly, and in no uncertain terms—that we were to close our mouths immediately when the Host was placed on our tongues.
The priest said, “You don’t want to drop Jesus on the floor, do you?” He went on to tell us this was a sacrilege—a mortal sin, and it would send us to hell. This, of course, terrified me as a seven-year-old. I can still feel the cold chill of fear from his words more than half a century later. His harsh admonition wasn’t accurate Catholic teaching, but I didn’t know it at the time.
Although I was little, I remember trying to look at the wafer as the priest held it up. I wanted to see Jesus’ face in it, but I never could. It didn’t look like Him, and it didn’t look like any part of a human being I had ever seen before either. Nevertheless, it was His body; and I was scared to death of dropping Jesus on the floor.
When the eventful day arrived, each girl was dressed in white and all the boys, including me, wore white suits, white clip-on ties, and white gloves. Everything we wore that day was white, signifying purity—girls and boys. There were at least one hundreds kids taking their First Holy Communion that day, which seemed to excite the parents much more than any of us.
We sat up front away from our families—the boys on the right side of the aisle, the girls on the left. Sitting beside me was Jerry Callahan, who was a little goofy on his best day and slightly retarded on his worst. Because he was on my right, sitting right next to me, he was in line to receive Communion immediately before me.
On schedule, we were ushered to the rail by a nun. Each of us knelt precisely as we were instructed. When the priest came to Jerry, he didn’t open his mouth as wide as he was supposed to. This irritated the priest, who spoke very sternly to him. Scared, Jerry started to whimper. Exasperated, the priest put the Host on Jerry’s partially protruding tongue, hoping all would go well.
Then the unthinkable happened; Jerry let the wafer drop from his mouth. Jesus landed on the floor right before my eyes. Aghast, the priest hurriedly grabbed the wafer, scraped up all the crumbs beside it, and put it in his own mouth, which really surprised me. After that, he rose quickly, gave Jerry a look of pure hate, and slapped him right across the face. It was a hard slap, and Jerry screamed from shock and pain.
As this drama was unfolding, Jerry’s mother rushed forward to retrieve her child, who was now hysterical—screaming at the top of his lungs. As she arrived, she looked up at the priest and said, “I’m so sorry, Father.” With that, she clutched her son, put a protective shoulder around him, and led him out of the church. I can still remember his receding sobs—as every adult looked at Jerry with contemptuous smirks.
The priest then turned his focus on me with defiant eyes, daring me to make a mistake. I was close to wetting my pants with fear, but I didn’t. I did exactly as I was supposed to do. Because I was so afraid, however, my mouth was bone dry, and Jesus stuck to the roof of my mouth and wouldn’t dissolve. It might as well have been peanut butter. Kids weren’t allowed to talk with Jesus in their mouths, and we couldn’t chew Him either. It was a sin. It took at least thirty minutes for Jesus to dissolve, and the Mass was long over before I could open my mouth and say a word.
The next year, Jerry died of a brain aneurysm. Because he was so traumatized by the priest’s actions that day, he never was allowed to make his First Holy Communion. This meant he couldn’t go to Heaven, which saddened me. It’s also why I have such a vivid memory of the incident so long after it occurred.
This episode solidified my fear of God or, more accurately, my terror of Him. I saw God as cold, hateful, impersonal, petty, and mean-spirited. He was punitive—just like the priest who gave me communion that day. This twisted my perspective about God for years, but the abusive part was the corporal punishment inflicted on Jerry by the priest.
Everybody believed the priest had a right to do this, and nobody protested—not even Jerry’s mother. Catholics were terrified of their priests—men who wielded unquestioned authority over the people in their parish.
This incident was not isolated. It was routine in Roman Catholicism before Vatican II. If you think I’m wrong, just ask any Catholic who was raised during this era. Nearly every one of us has a story to tell about an abusive priest or nun. There are millions of stories to tell.
As I grew older and saw the world through adult eyes, I left the Church and my memories of it are not pleasant. The mindset of the Catholic clergy—at least the ones I knew—was that it was their right to slap kids around, and they did it routinely. Their power over the people was so strong and unassailable that moms and dads never protested how their children were being treated. This resulted in abuse that affected millions of kids like me—abuse that still impacts our lives. Just writing about it still angers me. I wonder if I’ll ever get over it.
Malden, MA: I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t expected to be an alter boy. My older brother—ten years my senior—had been one, and my mother talked about the day I would become one for as long as I can remember. It was expected of me, and my parents thought it was as important as getting good grades in school. I remember how badly I wanted to please my parents, and my only apprehension was whether or not I could learn the Latin responses well enough to “make the team.”
When I was ten, I started learning the Mass, which was unintelligible and never made sense to me. I did everything I was expected to do, progressing satisfactorily. By the time I was eleven, I had become a first-rate alter boy and served with the parish priests every Sunday and each Holy Day of Obligation, which were quite a few.
In spring—just before my twelfth birthday, a new priest came to our parish, and he was much more friendly than the others, especially to me. I was his favorite alter boy, by far. I liked him a lot, even though he was heavy and always smelled like a chimney because of all the cigarettes he smoked. He always took time to talk to me, and when I was serving with him, I really liked being an alter boy—his alter boy.
After the last Mass one day, however, after Father had been there about six months, he asked me to stay behind for a while because he wanted to talk to me. Naturally, I did as he asked. We were in the back room, which was reserved for the priests and alter boys to prepare for Mass. While I was standing at the window looking out, Father came up behind me, reached around me with his right hand, holding me tight—but not hurting me; then he reached into my pants with his left hand and touched me. I was really surprised. I never dreamed he would do something like that. When he did, I froze. I didn’t know what to do, and I was scared to death. Because he was a priest, I didn’t challenge him, which I suppose I should have done, but I had just turned twelve. A kid like me could never challenge a priest. When I went home, I didn’t say a word to my mother, either. I just couldn’t. I was too embarrassed.
When I went back to serve the next week, he asked for me to stay after Mass again, which I obediently did. Once again, he touched me, which I knew he would. This time, however, he did more than that—much more than that. This little scenario went on for quite a while, but I never said a word. When we were alone after Mass and I knew it was time, I would just walk over toward the window, with my back turned, and wait for him to come to me, which he always did.
OK, this is the part I hate to admit. After a while, I didn’t mind it any more. I liked it, and he knew I did, which meant our secret would always be safe. This went on for more than a year. Then, one day, he stopped. I never served Mass with him again, and I was never alone with him again, either. This really confused me, and I was ashamed of myself for missing “our time together” so much. Another boy from my neighborhood, who was a couple of years younger than me took my place.
All that happened decades ago, but it still bothers me. It didn’t make me homosexual. It did just the opposite. It made me hate them, and it also made me hate God for allowing a pedophile priest to molest me. I know God’s real, but I haven’t been to Mass for years. That experience, which remained bottled up inside me for years, has caused me problems my whole life—just ask me two ex-wives or my three sons, none of which I ever allowed to be an alter boy. No way!
Atlanta: I was really wild in college. While at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia, I drank a lot, always had girls hanging around, and gambled routinely at my fraternity. For a while, it was fun but it also made me feel like I was wasting my life. Because of this, I went to a Campus Crusade for Christ meeting, received Christ as my Savior, and began to change my life for the better. I abandoned my wild side, which made me feel much better about myself.
After moving to Atlanta, I spent a great deal of time at church—more than I had ever spent in my entire life. I went to a very conservative church where they made me a Sunday school teacher for the ninth grade. The kids loved me. I was young, handsome, energetic, interesting, and fun—exactly what these kids wanted to be like when they went to college.
One day during class, a girl asked me, “Should I square dance as a part of the school curriculum or make a stand for Christ because dancing is sinful?”
Totally surprised by the question, I replied, “Why would you want to look ridiculous in front of everybody in school over square dancing? If I were you, I would just go ahead and do it. If you’re going to make a stand, make it about something important—not something trivial.”
Satisfied with my answer, I went on with the lesson. That night I received a call from the church pastor. He said, “I want to ask you some questions about your position on some critical issues for teens.” Sensing the underlying malice in his silky tone, I listened intently as he asked me my position on movies, dancing, cards, and numerous other things. Finally, he said, “What’s your position on mixed bathing?”
Without hesitation, I responded, “I’m against it. I think it’s OK for boys and girls to swim together, but I’m dead set against them taking a bath together!” Complete silence ensued. My attempt to interject a little humor into a tense situation actually made things worse.
“I think we need to have lunch tomorrow,” he said. “Can you meet me at 12:30?” It wasn’t a request.
At 12:30 p.m., I met the pastor, a man in his mid-thirties with jet-black hair, pale white skin, and penetrating black eyes. As we sat down, I was very nervous and started to light a Marlboro. In his most ingratiating voice, the pastor said, “It’s alright if you smoke. I’ll love you just as much if you light that cigarette as I will if you don’t.” When he finished saying this, he smiled in a genuine and disarming way.
“I know. Thanks,” I said and lit the cigarette. Enraged, he seethed with anger as I sat there speechless. He lit into me for smoking in the first place and went on with a tirade that would draw approbation from any prosecutor in the land. I sensed pure hate in this man towards me as he verbally undressed me from head to toe. He said no one who was genuinely a Christian smoked, which meant I wasn’t really a Christian in the first place. This really surprised me. Because he knew the Bible much better than me, I assumed he was correct. When he was finished, I was devastated. I held my ground outwardly, but inwardly I wanted to cringe—liked a whipped dog.
Incredulously, I asked, “Then why did you say it was alright to smoke?”
His reply was a contemptuous smirk—nothing more.
In truth, he couldn’t answer. It would have been too revealing. At the end of the meal, he prayed and left with the self-satisfied confidence he had set another sinner straight.
After he left, I was shaken to the core. I had been a born-again Christian for less than six months; but I knew I never wanted to be like this self-righteous, mean-spirited pastor. It bothered me so much that since then I have never been able to tolerate such misanthropy—especially by those who parade their Christianity as their prime asset. I went to that church less frequently and finally stopped going altogether. I became cautious and guarded around church people rather than open and transparent. I remember thinking that Christians shouldn’t talk about loving people if they don’t practice what they preach.
When I went to his church, I was young and impressionable. I eventually stopped smoking, but the effects of my confrontation have been far more detrimental than anything the cigarettes could have caused. As the pastor, he had every right to question what I taught the kids but he had no right to crush my spirit. My enthusiasm for Christianity waned, and I have remained guarded and cautious ever since. Stung by his verbal abuse, I have never trusted a pastor again—not completely. I’m sure he intended to help, but he didn’t. Instead he used his authority to assault my self-worth—a strategy that worked to my detriment for years.
Santa Barbara: Life in my church was like a soap opera—with all the excitement and intrigue you would expect from any daytime TV show. Some of my friends and I actually joked about it, saying, “This is just another day in As the Stomach Turns.”
The reason there was so much drama is simple: The church had turned into a cult by replacing several core elements of Christianity with authoritarian rule by a group of “self-appointed” elders. The man who started the church insisted upon this change; and most of the people submitted to it, including me. It was more like a “Cult of Personality” than a church because the leaders, who were called “The Elders,” took on the founder’s personality traits—especially the angry, confrontational, and profane ones.
Our church didn’t start out like this, but it changed when the founder changed—when his personality changed. He was no longer the energetic, friendly, charismatic man I had met years earlier. In a short period of time, he transformed into a petty, vindictive, cruel tyrant. His tongue was acerbic and extremely critical. He took particular delight in criticizing women, particularly his wife, who became a shell of what she had once been. As the mother of his many children, she would never divorce him. Instead she left him mentally and emotionally, retreating into a world of trivial dithering. It was her only escape. The confident, capable woman I once knew no longer existed.
The founder’s unkindness also extended to me, hurting me very deeply. In the beginning, I was highly valued but that changed practically overnight. I never understood what caused this change in him—still don’t, but the change was real and I felt it acutely.
Instead of the love and joy, which typified us for years, our church became characterized by fear, anger, intimidation, condemnation, and verbal abuse. To counteract any criticism, The Elders “dealt with the sin in the camp.” They did this by paying a visit, usually without warning, to an unsuspecting person who needed straightening out. They would sit the person down and shout at him or her, demanding change and compliance. They would start the meeting by saying something like this: “You know what you are? You’re a worthless piece of s—; that’s what you are. I wonder why the f— we even bother with you.” From there, it would only get worse. By the time they left, the person was an emotional cripple—ready to do whatever he or she was told.
You might question, Why would anybody in their right mind put up with this? There were two reasons. First, we lived in a bizarre situation. As a “house church” in a hippie community during the Viet Nam War, things didn’t seem as weird or as abusive as they actually were. Second, if you didn’t submit to The Elders, your entire family was excommunicated—shunned and treated with contempt and humiliation. This meant, for example, that your kids couldn’t play with their friends from the church anymore and many other similar, petty acts of social cruelty. Most people complied. The social ostracizing of the others was truly painful to watch.
The founder and another man started calling themselves Apostles and said that church tradition, particularly from Orthodox Churches, was as authoritative as Scripture. I couldn’t understand this; it seemed like such a radical departure from our past. Most of the leadership had been from Baptist or charismatic churches, and now they wanted to wear collars like priests. What was being taught was the polar opposite to what had been taught a decade earlier.
I was badly confused and didn’t know what to do or how to handle what was happening. While in this confused state of mental turmoil, I flew back East for my sister’s wedding, leaving my wife and children in Santa Barbara. To save money, I stayed at my brother’s house.
My sister-in-law’s younger sister, who I’ll call Melissa, took care of my brother’s young sons so that we could have a pleasant evening and stay at the reception longer. It was nice to be with my family and lifelong friends. Because it was an escape from all the stress at home, I let my guard down and became extremely intoxicated. My judgment also was impaired.
For years, Melissa had had a crush on me. After my brother and his wife went to bed, Melissa made her move. Well, you can guess what happened. We had an encounter—at the end of which I freaked out. I dressed, left the house, and walked for hours. My life was in shambles, and I knew it. I called my wife and told her exactly what had happened—all of it. I was desperate for help. Her response, which I expected, was to call The Elders.
When I returned to Santa Barbara the following day, The Elders were waiting for me—all of them. I wasn’t allowed to go home until they “dealt with me.” When I arrived, I had never felt so heartsick and remorseful in my life. I was willing to do anything to get back on track. The Elders could see this, but it didn’t matter. They only had one method for handling every situation—abusive verbal intimidation. After two hours of enduring their malicious assault, I started having suicidal ideations for the first time in my life. Shattered and intimidated, I became very compliant.
Their verbal abuse was difficult to handle. Far worse, however, was their chiding and contemptuous ridicule which never ended. By contrast, Confession in Roman Catholicism is sacred, and nothing said is ever repeated. At our church, the exact opposite was true. Confession to The Elders was fuel for gossip, providing another level of disgrace and humiliation. They also kicked me off the softball team—to give me more time “to think about” what I had done.
The Elders for our family were, by far, the most brutal at the church. One was an auto mechanic, and the other was a pressman for a local printer. Both had graduated high school but had no further education. I was expected to “submit” every important personal and family decision to them to see if it was God’s will or not. To this day, I can still see them wagging a finger at me—with grease under their fingernails—to tell me angrily, without question, what God’s will was for my life.
For example, when I decided to get an M.A and a Ph.D., they were my authority concerning educational matters. The pressman could barely read, but he was God’s authority in my life about higher education. Nearly everybody accepted this nonsense. If you questioned it, your loyalty and submissiveness quickly became the issue and you were “dealt with accordingly.” In other words, they would scream at you, routinely using profanity to do so—while at the same time calling it God’s will.
They actually practiced a de facto infallibility because they never would admit to being wrong about how they handled a situation. They would always say they made a lot of mistakes, but no mistake was ever specific. This is how a cult works and how it exercises power over the young, the naive, and the unstable, which was nearly everybody in our church.
Over time and slowly, The Elders became the head of the household in each family, usurping authority which rightfully belonged to the husband. It’s how they maintained an iron fist of control. They were like the pigs in Animal Farm who ended up dressing like men, calling themselves more equal than the other animals. I knew it was wrong and clearly undermined the sanctity of each family, but nearly all of my friends accepted it as gospel. I couldn’t. To me, it was aberrant, and I found myself at the University of California—Santa Barbara library every day reading about cults and brainwashing.
I began writing about what life was really like in our church and submitted it to the leaders as a critique for much needed reform. It took me a year to complete; I’m not sure the founder even read it. Presenting it to him and the others, however, was very important for me because I wasn’t going to be bullied by their cultic practices any longer nor would I let them verbally abuse me ever again.
I finally broke free from the cult, but the years of abusiveness took a heavy toll on my wife and me. She drank heavily, stopped taking care of our children, and had numerous affairs. She never recovered from our experience in the cult—neither did our marriage.
I became an alcoholic and had a string of relationships. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, I became the person The Elders said I would be. I stopped believing God loved me, and I was very angry with Him for many years. My self-worth was in the toilet, and it took a decade for me to figure out what happened. When I did, I did the work necessary to finally get back on track—to reestablish my relationship with God. To this day, however, it’s hard to be a member of a church. I can’t let my guard down completely—I just can’t. The damage is too deep.
· · ·
In each of these cases, religious abuse occurred. Obviously, the priest had no right to slap a seven-year-old child. In the second case, the minister used his position of authority to assault the young man’s character instead of dealing with the issue, which in that case was the church’s belief that square dancing was sinful. In this instance, the abuse was probably unintentional. The abuse in the final case, however, was much more serious. In fact, it was life altering and very destructive. Not many suffer abuse at this level, but those who do have significant scarring to their souls.
Tragically, religious abuse occurs every day; and millions have a story bottled up inside them. Perhaps you have one as well? Even if you consider your abuse to be minor, it is an issue which needs to be addressed. This is specifically what 91 Days to Recovery from Religious Abuse will help you accomplish.
In Its Season
A Lifestyle of Intense Drama
The year following Marilyn’s divorce was difficult by any standard. It is for everybody. Even a bad marriage is hard to leave. For those going through it, there is such a sense of finality—such a sense of failure and defeat. In some ways, it seems surreal, especially for women like Marilyn—for those who have been married just once and for a substantial period. As the divorce process invariably takes its emotional toll upon everybody involved, husbands and wives are constantly busy, bickering back and forth about everything under the sun, regardless of whether it’s significance or not. It produces a lifestyle of intense drama. The process is destructive for everyone other than the lawyers. They seem to thrive on the bloodletting, as they leech their clients into poverty, smiling throughout the process, charging exorbitant tolls as the gatekeepers, guiding their clients to freedom.
When the divorce decree is signed and the process is finalized, however, it’s a different story. As the frenzied state of activity comes to a screeching halt, the estranged combatants begin to feel a keen sense of loss. No longer man and wife, with nothing left to resolve, each party is left to nurse their heartache alone. For some, the solitude is maddening. The future looks scary, as each stares into the abyss of the future, experiencing a keen sense of isolation and abandonment. It’s no wonder so many make such poor choices to fill the void, as they add an additional layer of destruction to their once stable lives.
This is what divorce is like that for everybody, especially at the beginning. Along with the decree, which terminates the union, comes a sense of shame, emptiness, and worthlessness. It’s inevitable. No measure of denial, heartfelt prayer, or quality of positive thinking can make life feel better—not for a long time, anyway.
It’s like a death, only worse because death is a natural part of marriage. Death is always sad, but it’s the normal end of a commitment, which has been fulfilled. With death, the person you loved has departed, but their love for you still remains. It’s not like that after a divorce. The love is gone, replaced by feelings of low self-esteem from having failed, which are as inevitable as the lawyer’s bill. These feelings come from a sense of having botched the most important relationship in life. It’s always part of the equation, and it certainly was part of Doug’s experience—Marilyn’s, too.
Without Marilyn hovering over him, constantly trying to monitor his philandering and consumption of alcohol, Doug was free to drink and carouse as much as he pleased, whenever he pleased. Using alcohol to numb his pain, Doug drank more than ever, suffering the consequences which alcoholism inevitably produces. Several years after the divorce became final—after his tryst with the Muslim woman, Doug was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver, cutting his years in half and making those that remained a nightmare of pain and diminished physical capacity. Always tall, strong, and handsome, Doug had become a shadow of his former self, as he paid the full price for the penalty of his years of error.
The pain of the divorce affected Marilyn as much as it did Doug, but she chose a different path—one, which led to emotional health, fruitfulness, and fulfillment. Although her life had a hefty dose of post-marital dysfunction, she chose to face her problems rather than medicate her acute pain.
Because alcoholism is a family disease, which affects everybody—young and old, Marilyn and her children were all required to pay a heavy price. Like Murphy’s Law, there was no way to avoid it. As tough as the divorce was, it was just one of several difficult situations. Each had negative repercussions, which seem to follow divorce as surely as night follows day.
Having been an active member of her church for nearly forty years, Marilyn was always comforted by knowing she could count on the unwavering support of her church. Throughout her adult life, they always had her back. As soon as she became “one of them,” however, a divorcee, her church cast her aside as if she was a leper, choosing instead to support her abusive, alcoholic ex-husband. This rejection, which she never thought would happen, came as a surprise and caused her to feel a deep sense of betrayal. In some ways, it was harder to accept than the divorce itself. She felt used, abused, maligned, mistreated, and discarded.
During this same period, Marilyn’s mother Lucille died, which was another crushing blow, adding to her sense of loneliness. Having lived on the same farm—but in different houses—for so long, Marilyn had come to depend on her mother for many things over the years, including emotional support and friendship. She had become Marilyn’s best friend—a friend she needed badly, especially during this dark period. But now, that had also been taken away from her as well. Marilyn felt the loss acutely. Due to the Alzheimers Disease, Marilyn knew Lucille’s time was short but, when she was gone, a part of Marilyn seemed to die as well.
Additionally, Bobby was back at it, wreaking havoc with Marilyn’s life routinely. He never quit. Determined to gain control of the family fortune by hook or by crook, Bobby’s harassment was constant—a relentless evil, which was not only infuriating but exasperating, too. Marilyn stopped replacing the floodlights around her home because Bobby routinely used them for target practice, and Marilyn was afraid that a ricocheted bullet might strike one of her children.
Bobby never let up—never. No matter what the situation was, he allowed Marilyn no peace. Harassing her provided him with enjoyment. It was entertainment he came to relish—excitement that provided twisted delight to his devious existence. If he had been as committed to work as he was to obtaining his family fortune fraudulently, Bobby probably would have been a successful businessman, but that wasn’t his way. Conning people and being a bully was much more his style, and he was good at it. For Marilyn, it was another issue, which she had to deal with constantly and repeatedly.
Her children also started giving her trouble. Throughout their adolescence, Marilyn’s kids had always been exemplary, excelling socially, academically, and athletically. They were great kids and had never given either of their parents any trouble. Predictably, that also changed after the divorce. Each, in his or her own way, began acting out as a result of the pain and confusion they were experiencing from the divorce. They were angry with both of their parents, but they expressed their anger toward their mother much more than toward their dad. For whatever reason, kids always seem to blame the stronger adult, while extending mercy and compassion to the weaker one. This was definitely the case with Marilyn’s daughter and son. Because she was the sober one, they held her accountable for everything, while routinely giving Doug a pass—even for his alcoholism.
Although Annalisa routinely said she was glad for the divorce and thrilled to be free from all of the familial strife, there was a part of her that was crushed her family had been torn apart. Cute, witty, and vivacious, Annalisa was President of her class in school and definitely accepted the Christian values of her parents. After the divorce, however, that all changed. In her anger and resentment, she became very rebellious, acting out in defiance of everything she once believed.
She was intimate with a young man and became pregnant. Like so many decisions in life, her choice—made in a moment of passion—had lifetime consequences. When she began to suspect that she was pregnant, Annalisa’s world came crashing down upon her, and each day was filled with pathos and drama, adding to the distress within the family. To her credit, once she pulled it all together, she accepted the responsibility of motherhood, had her child out of wedlock, and became a wonderful mother to a beautiful, healthy little girl. As was to be expected, however, this episode, when added to everything else, complicated life and enervated the healing process for everybody.
Like his sister, Robbie also got into trouble for the first time. An excellent student, he had been involved in the student leadership at his church and his school for years, never giving anybody a moment of trouble. He was smart, personable, articulate, and friendly to everyone. Once again, that all changed shortly after the divorce.
One weekend, he and two of his friends found a way to buy some beer. Not having any experience with alcohol, they drank far too much, significantly impairing their judgment. Inebriated and frisky, they decided to go down to their school, which was part of a large church complex, and have a little fun. At the time, it seemed to them like a good idea to paint something on the tall church steeple, which was adjacent to the school. Although the alcohol affected their thinking, it didn’t affect their ability to climb a ladder and paint a giant penis on the steeple of the church. One of the kids had some artistic talent, so there could be no mistake about what greeted the Sunday morning worshipers the following morning. The congregants were aghast and furious, but the pastor’s bitter reaction superceded even the most sanctimonious parishioner. He felt nothing but hatred in his heart for the scoundrels who defaced his beautiful church.
When Robbie sobered up the following day, he was mortified by what he had done. Genuinely remorseful, his conscience gave him no rest. Accepting the responsibility for his actions like a man, he went to the police station, confessed his involvement, refusing to defend his actions in any way. How could he? There was no defense.
The police took his statement and then arrested him. His mug shot was taken, and he was fingerprinted. After that, they put him behind bars—just like any other criminal, adding to his sense of humiliation and despair. The entire experience was mortifying, but he didn’t name his two friends as accomplices. He took the brunt of the punishment on himself. The other two kids laid low and never came forward, as they should have.
A few days later, still feeling remorseful about what he had done, Robbie wrote a humble, contrite letter of apology to the church, addressing it to the pastor. When he was finished, Marilyn hand-carried the letter to the church and personally gave it to the pastor for her son, apologizing for his actions as she handed the man Robbie’s letter, which contained an offer to paint the steeple as an act of amends.
The pastor took the letter from Marilyn, turned, and walked off without responding in any way. It was an excellent opportunity for him and the rest of the church to reach out to a penitent young man, but that’s not what happened. The pastor dismissed the apology—never even acknowledging that it was given. Embracing sanctimony over reconciliation, he self-righteously looked down his nose at Robbie from then on, never forgiving him—never freeing him from the contemptuous disdain of his pastor. Crushed, just like his sister, Robbie retreated from Christianity and has had trouble connecting ever since. Sadly, throughout the entire incident, the pastor acted precisely like the image the boys painted on the steeple. The only difference was that the boys painted a smile on the penis, which had no likeness to the pastor’s sour countenance.
∑ ∑ ∑
Drama, drama, and more drama—this is what Marilyn’s life was like during the year after her divorce. Whatever could go wrong went wrong, one thing after the other—an avalanche of problems. In addition to the difficult situations, she experienced debilitating emotional pain after the divorce, which was coupled with a sense of relief that it was finally over. Sadly, however, she even felt guilty for feeling relieved. Everything seemed to keep her down. In her pain and despair, she cried out to God—just like she always did. Beseeching Him, she said, “Remember me, Lord, forgive me for all of my waywardness, and show me your tender mercies. Please show me what to do. Show me what You want from me, and give me the power to carry out Your will.”
It was at this point that Marilyn began her long journey back to wholeness—back to the person she had been created to be. Marilyn, now unwelcome at the church she had been a member of for nearly four decades, decided to go to a small church in Nashville. She needed a safe place to heal—a place where she could be herself. The church she chose was filled with warm, loving people—people who were neither judgmental nor condemning. There was more freedom at this small church than at any place she had ever attended, which was precisely what she wanted and needed to heal. As the music soothed her soul, she was free to mend the emotional damage that had plagued her since childhood.
Having spent years in ALANON, Marilyn knew that her recovery from being married to an alcoholic would be an arduous process, but she was determined to be everything God ever intended for her to be. She knew it would be difficult to regain her footing, but by being painstaking about the process, it would be possible. She went to a conference where she learned to write about her situation every day. This was important but daily journaling was just the first part of the process. When she finished her daily narrative, she wrote about how she felt about each event—what was bothering her about it. Then, she wrote about what she was feeling. From each feeling, she tried to determine what was the stronghold that was holding her back. What was keeping her trapped in a life of emotional bondage? Her goal was to determine what was keeping her from becoming what God intended her to be.
At first, it was a very painful process, but she stuck to it, knowing that perseverance was necessary for fulfillment to be achieved. Some people couldn’t do it, but Marilyn, whose tenacity had always been one of her strengths, embraced it as a way of life—doggedly doing the work one day at a time. Over time, it helped her achieve the wholeness she desired. The entire process required a year of soul-searching that brought her all the way back to her childhood hurts. As each stronghold became clear, she would ask God to forgive her for harboring resentment. Forgiving all who had wounded her, she asked God to clean her heart and provide her with a renewed mind. It was a prayer God answered.
She went through this process nearly every day for a year, healing each day as she did. At the end of the year, she was ready for a new beginning—for a new adventure. She wasn’t sure where it would lead, but she knew she was ready. The church was so satisfied by her progress and by her missionary experience that they commissioned her to lobby for all the missionary needs of the Kurds in Nashville.
Thrilled by her new ministry, Marilyn met with Congressmen and business leaders and proved to be a worthy voice for the disposed Kurds. Traveling to the nation’s capitol routinely, Marilyn felt a sense of purpose that she had not experienced in years. Now substantially healed, she thought she had found her life’s work and forgot about the idea of ever marrying again. At last, she was happy and felt a sense of fulfillment daily.
* * *
One weekend, at the end of her yearlong recovery process, she went to the wedding of one of her close friends. It was a small, intimate affair, with just a few people in attendance, including ten-to-twelve single people. At the dinner following the ceremony, the groom stood and said, “I’m sure what I’m about to say is true.”
As soon as he said this, everyone became instantly silent.
Continuing, he added, “In the next year, several of you are going to get married. It’s going to happen. I know it.”
When he said this, Marilyn wasn’t thrilled at the prospect; she was furious. After spending so much time recovering from her divorce, the last thing she wanted was another husband. As she drove home, his words kept ringing in her ears, and each time, she became more furious about it.