There had always been cracks. And cracks, of course, are how the light gets in.
My dad would never get fully on board with my mom’s desired level of control and isolation when it came to media. We had some freedoms that other homeschooling families did not. Dad was the God-ordained head of the household and if dad wanted to let us do something like watch Star Trek and Star Trek: the Next Generation with him, my mom had to let it happen. Dad loved reading fantasy and science-fiction and encouraged us to do the same. My mom tried to monitor the books we selected, so she could read them first and determine if they were a threat, but her first three children had become voracious readers and we got so many books from the library she had to give up reading them first.
Books presented us with many different perspectives and ideas, most of which were easy for us to dismiss as another part of the fiction if they went against what we’d been taught. My parents and what they told me were a more powerful influence than the fiction of strangers. Still, we learned and absorbed and were presented with ideas that sometimes modified our perception of our religious existence. For example, C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle was where I learned the concept that maybe people could be saved without having heard the Gospel. Good people that followed God’s commands without knowing about Jesus might still have a place in His kingdom. C.S. Lewis was a very respected Christian in conservative evangelical circles and that gave his opinion added weight.
Our education wasn’t very good or very thorough, but with the building block of reading and our rabid consumption of books we developed extremely high reading comprehension that largely made up for the areas where we were lacking. We did well on the SATs because we understood the questions and could often reason out the most likely answer even if we were unfamiliar with what was being asked. We weren’t taught much history – the Bible was the important history to know – and we weren’t taught much science, because science was rife with evolutionary theory. We picked up snippets of history and science from the books we read, though, because no book is written in a vacuum.
When I was 8 we moved from our isolated farmhouse in the Midwest to a major urban area in the South. My mother’s parents and her two sisters lived there, and they weren’t Christians. It was easy to tell because they watched secular TV and swore. I prayed earnestly for them to become Christians so their souls would be saved. My aunts were award winning artists and capable of all kinds of crafts, and the first year we moved there they made costumes for us so that we could go trick or treating. My mom hated Halloween, but she didn’t want to offend her sisters after they went to so much work, so that year, we got to celebrate Halloween.
When my parents split up, my mom loosened up. We got to cut our hair short and get multiple piercings in our ears and our mom started to let us watch secular TV and listen to secular music and at some point introduced me to the novels of Dean Koontz. These were only externals, of course. She still believed in the ideals of marriage and motherhood as a woman’s highest calling. Not that she was very attentive as a mother anymore, since she worked outside the home and was still heavily involved in church and Bible studies. By age 15 or 16 I was basically her live in nanny for my little sister and much younger little brother. We made most of our own meals, handled most household chores (badly and grudgingly), and looked after ourselves a lot of the time.
It didn’t feel like a terrible existence for me, though – at least not most of the time. Now that I had no one enforcing school work, I abandoned it. I read a novel or more a day and watched the Disney Afternoon, where my favorite show was Gargoyles, an amazing blend of urban fantasy and science-fiction with voice work provided by several actors I recognized from Star Trek: TNG. I watched X-Files, sneaking away with our tiny black and white TV because I thought that show would still be too much for my mom to accept.
My mom remarried – the ex-gay man that had counseled my dad after he’d been caught cheating on my mom with men. He made life a little easier, too, because he interceded on my behalf when my mom’s authoritarian impulses got the best of her. He was the reason I was allowed to hang out in chat rooms on the internet where I found my first community of role-players. He thought my mom needed to recognize that I was almost grown and deserved a little more freedom in my life. Whatever differences we’ve had since then, I’ve always appreciated that intercession.
When I was 17 I got in a screaming match with my mom. I don’t remember what we were fighting over, but she got mad and kicked me out. I went to live with my two older sisters and my next oldest sister and I ended up getting an apartment together. I had part time work by then, at the same place my mom and sisters worked. Living with my sister was a nice change of pace. We decorated our apartment with quirky thrift store finds and got ready for work while blasting ‘I’ll Make a Man Out of You’ from Mulan. (We’d always been allowed to watch Disney movies, another way in which our upbringing was more lenient than some other homeschooling families.)
My relationship with my mom improved again when we were no longer living together.
We had another reason to be grateful for our stepdad. He’s the one that encouraged our dream of traveling to Ireland together. ‘So just do it,’ he said one day, when we were pining over what we felt was an impossible dream. It was like a revelation to hear an adult say we could do the thing we wanted to do. We saved up money, researched, planned our trip and spent a month backpacking around Ireland, arriving two days before I turned 18. When we got back, I took my GED. Even though I’d never made it past pre-algebra and stopped any kind of school work by age 16, I aced the pretest and they let me go straight to taking the real thing, which I also passed with ease. Go go reading comprehension.
My sister and I got a new apartment together, and a new job together, one that was full time and paid pretty well compared to what I’d been making before. Life felt hopeful.