I’m putting it all together, one piece at a time. I’m rebuilding and rewiring. I’m Peeta Mellark asking over and over, “Real or not real?”
In my pursuit of the truth, I pondered the role that the church I grew up in must have played in shaping my childhood experiences. Until recently, I had not given much thought to the connection between the teachings of what I now realize to be a cult, and the damaging parenting practices that I grew up believing were appropriate and necessary. I naively assumed that being in a new family with a healthy religious environment somehow negated or cancelled out the destructive nature of the previous 16 years. After connecting online with someone else who was raised in the same church affiliation, I hesitantly put pen to paper. Or fingers to keys… For the first time, I attempted to objectively chronicle my upbringing as it relates to the religious beliefs of the people who brought me into this world.
I was born in 1985, the second of seven children. Until I was around 9 years old, my biological parents attended a gathering of Faith Assembly, under Dr. Hobart Freeman, in Endicott, NY. We drove about 2 hours each way to be there every other Saturday evening with very few exceptions. The teachings or messages were brought by James Mansfield. I believe we met in the basement of a school or community building of some kind. The meetings began on Saturday evening and went late into the night, sometimes early Sunday morning. A man named Lemuel Dees was the song/worship leader and Sean (bio father), among other people, filled in at times when Mr. Dees could not be there.
I have few specific memories of being there, but most of what I know of the group was from the teachings that were engrained in us at home. I feel our upbringing was the toxic result of the dangerously unbalanced teachings of Dr. Freeman and the deeply unstable emotional and mental state of both of our parents, but specifically Judy (bio mother). We would spend hours listening to cassette tapes of Dr. Freeman’s recorded teachings, as well as those by James Mansfield, and others whose names I can barely remember but would recognize if I read them.
Isolation from the world was heavily emphasized. We were homeschooled in an extremely sheltered fashion as to be cut off from even other homeschoolers. Aside from the occasional trip to the grocery store and the bi-weekly pilgrimage to the Endicott Assembly Meeting, we had very little contact with the outside world. For example, even though we lived in a duplex, we were discouraged from having much contact with the neighbors who lived on the other side of the wall. Family members on both Sean and Judy’s sides of the family were shunned and disparaged to such an extent that I grew up with very little knowledge of any of my extended family as they were not ‘walking in the light’. I remember a few loud verbal altercations in which my grandparents were told that their ungodly influences were not welcome in our life. Complete strangers were picked up and invited to stay in our home because they were missionaries spreading God’s Word.
We would often be without a vehicle for periods of time because Sean repaired them; we did not take them to be serviced when they broke down. I don’t know if this was because our family could not afford to have our vehicles repaired, because outside interaction was discouraged, or some cocktail of both. We grew up with very little. Sean refused to take a test that would have certified him as a land surveyor and ensured that we would have been better off financially. God would not have been pleased with our lust of the eyes and pride of life, however. As a result, we lived off very little and were fed accordingly. Clothing was worn at least a week before washing and baths were given weekly in as little water as possible to preserve the scant amount of cleaning products and personal hygiene products we could afford with coupons.
Any medical attention indicated both a lack of faith and outright defiance of God’s perfect will. We were never vaccinated or taken to a doctor for any reason. I recall being sick a lot. Stomach viruses were rampant, but as an adult, I recognize what was most likely frequent food poisoning from the expired food we ate. I remember once, in particular, as I was recovering from days of not being able to keep anything down, the dinner dish that was served contained sausage and I found it unappealing and I did not feel ready to eat it. The ‘demon of fear’ was cast out of me, apparently unsuccessfully, since after eating said sausage dish and returning to bed, I proceeded to be quite sick to my stomach. I remember my little brother often clutching at his ears, screaming in pain. I now realize he probably had horrible ear infections. I guess an upside of so much isolation is that we would have been much sicker had we interacted with any more people. We were often schooled on the dangers of just about everything and warned that if we were hurt we had better have enough faith to be well as we would not be administered medical attention. Once, when I was 11, I had an allergic reaction to something I ate. As my mouth and throat became itchy and swelled, the response I received was that Judy hoped I was “ready to meet my Maker.”
When we weren’t listening to recorded sermons, the radio was often playing; mostly the news about the Middle East. “See, the end is coming. The rapture is just upon us and you have been very disobedient children.” I lived in constant fear of being left behind. I was certain I would have to face the Great Tribulation on my own. I had nightmares and sleep-walked even into adulthood. I grew to hate the sound of BBC News and anything related to Palestinian peace talks. I felt cold all over my body from the fear.
We were beaten often, sometimes every day for days. We were forced to ‘confess’ sins and admit to things our parents had suspected we had done, whether or not they had in fact happened. It took me a long time to realize that it wasn’t simply a ‘spanking’ or ‘good parenting’. We were truly beaten. Sometimes it was with belts and sometimes Sean would take a piece of wood down to his basement workshop and sand it down and carve out a handle for better spanking leverage. We would sit in our rooms for hours sometimes anxiously awaiting the discipline that would make our souls right again in case of the rapture. We were told over and over that this was God’s will for us and would make us holy. My oldest brother’s desire to be a dairy farmer someday was squashed as a ‘selfish ambition’ that God wanted to cleanse him of. Once I remember being locked in a room for most of a day and being intermittently beaten throughout the day. To this day I have limited mobility in my right shoulder where the arm was yanked out of the socket to save my soul from hell.
As children, we were discouraged from thinking for ourselves. God had given us parents who were ‘enlightened’ and we were to trust and obey without question. We were often beaten for ‘back talking’ or saying things that were perceived as disrespect. Gender roles were clearly laid out. A woman’s place was to be a wife and mother only in the home and anything else was out of God’s perfect will and therefore sinful. Women must wear dresses, especially dresses that disguise the figure and are, for the most part, plain and unadorned. We were not to shave or pluck any body hair and were expressly forbidden to pierce any body part or apply makeup. Perfume was also sinful as it attracts men. I recall being told one day that my desire to drive a pickup truck was outside of God’s will. Only men drive trucks.
We were taught that men and women touching each other in any way was wrong. If our parents felt we were even being too affectionate or playing too roughly with one another, a no touching rule was enacted and would last for several days. We were assured that the night before we were to be married, we would be taken out for coffee by the parent of the same gender and explained how babies come into the world. No further education on human anatomy or sexuality was necessary or acceptable.
Judy became very ill when I was 9 years old. She had a severe case of gallstones which eventually caused a life threatening abdominal infection when a gall stone caused a bile leak internally. After being violently ill for quite some time, several people convinced her to see a doctor. I believe it was around this time that we were no longer meeting with the Faith Assembly in Endicott, NY. We were told that the group disbanded. From this point on, our family continued on much the same as we had been all those years with the exception that we went from church to church searching for others who ‘had the light’ in the same way we did.
Eventually, between the neglect, abuse, and mental instability, all 7 children were placed in 4 different homes around the time I was 15. None of us have contact with either Sean or Judy any longer and, in some degree or another, all 7 of us struggle with depression, anxiety, or other conditions. When questioned a few years back by one of my sisters, Sean informed her that, as children, we had rebelled against God. We had destroyed the family and were given over to our own desires and were not right with God. They desire no contact or relationship with any of us until we are repentant and ask for forgiveness in a way that shows we have turned from our sinful ways and have adequately made amends.
Putting words to the memories was difficult but cathartic. I feel in a strange way that I may even help me to forgive. Ackowledging the abuse and giving my childhood self a voice is freeing. There will be days ahead when I must look back and remind myself that I know I’m ok. There will be bright days that the past can barely touch with its tenacious darkness. I hope that bringing it into the light will lessen the power it has over me, help me to see goodness where it really is, and may guide some other beaten soul towards the path of healing that I am slowly finding for myself.
For now, I need a nap.
That trip down Memory Lane was exhausting.