Impressionable Youth

Content note: mention of child abuse

(An even more cheerful entry for Christmas. I’d apologize, but this blog is first and foremost a way for me to chronicle, process and cope with my life as it is and was.)

A discussion about sense of self and identity – first with M and then later with A and H – led down a rabbit hole and brought me down to the seeds and roots from which my choices as an adult grew. We were talking about the different ways people perceive their identity – from those that gain their identity from being part of a group, to those that select a trait or handful of traits – a physical feature, a personality quirk, a talent or accomplishment – that sets them apart as an individual within their group – to those of us that have an unshakable internalized sense of self that simply exists.

I’d commented that perhaps it was that unshakable sense of self that had gotten me labeled as selfish and self-centered as a child – because I could not be subsumed into the group’s identity and stood apart even then. I couldn’t remember exactly when or where but I had this impression that at some point either my parents or an older sibling had told me I was selfish and self-centered.

ATIA (now ATI). Wisdom Booklets.* Patch the Pirate. Kidnapped on I-land.

My brain threw a bunch of files at me that would seem incomprehensible and strange to anyone that did not share those experiences – that almost seemed incomprehensible and strange to me all these years later. Whenever the seed was planted in my psyche that I was selfish, it was prior to or somewhere between the ages of 4 and 6. It was then reinforced through the trauma of listening to Patch the Pirate’s audio book series entry Kidnapped on I-land.

I remembered identifying with the protagonist – the child Silas. I believed his flaw was my flaw. In the story he behaves selfishly, wanting to be put first, and that summons the king of I-land, who subsequently kidnaps Silas away from his parents and puts him in prison. The prison is only temporary, though – the intended fate for Silas is to be barbecued and eaten by the king. Being selfish, self-centered, putting yourself first – it was Sin of the most serious kind.

I couldn’t remember such specific detail on my own, I had to look up the audio book on youtube and listen to some of the clips. I just remembered being terrified, edge of my seat, heart in my throat terrified – in that way that is also somewhat exciting – when our family listened to this story when I was a child. I was horrified and fascinated.

Seeds were planted. Roots grew. I would become an adult convinced that I was selfish and self-centered, and I would believe that these were flaws I had to let God burn out of me, through suffering, through sacrifice – submitting to my fate. Obedient.

When I was somewhere between 4 and 4 1/2 I stood in our kitchen and watched as my mom and dad put my little sister R between them. She was somewhere between 12 and 18 months old. She had not been walking very long and her movements were still shaky and slow. My mom and dad would take turns calling to her, and if she did not respond and go to the parent that called her, she’d be spanked with the thin white piece of fishing rod, with tape wrapped around the end for an extra sting. That was our punishment for disobedience and misbehavior.

She had no idea what was going on and the image of her face and body language, heartbroken, confused, tears streaming down, is seared into my memory and to this day it brings tears into my own eyes.

We were being taught instant obedience. Fundamentalist evangelical Christians in my parents’ circle believed it was necessary to teach children instant obedience to their parents so that one day they would also be instantly obedient to God, thus saving their soul from the strife and punishments meted out for disobedience, perhaps saving their soul from Hell itself. This “discipline” was supposed to start when the child was very young – in our impressionable youth.

(If you have the stomach for it, you can google the books and teachings of Debbie and Michael Pearl for more information about this mindset. Be warned, that search may return articles about children that died of the abuse they received at the hands of people practicing these methods. My parents, thankfully, were not that extreme.)

There has been a lot of scientific interest in childhood – how children learn, the plasticity of the brain, the impact of environment, the impact of nurture, the effects of trauma.

Children are impressionable and pliant and the patterns of trauma set in their youth can impact not only their life and choices but the lives and choices of their descendants. The body remembers, as one writer titled their book on the subject of trauma.

To say that I was brainwashed is not, in my mind, overstatement. The fact that it was delivered at the hands of parents that loved me and wanted what was best for me does not change that fact. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and the good intentions of my parents paved a road to the hell of mental illness for decades to come.

My parents have since apologized for the methods of discipline they used. While I’m glad they see that it was wrong, that apology could not undo the trauma caused or the consequences of how we were programmed to behave and think and the choices we made as a result of that programming.

I’ve spent my life undoing the effects of that programming and attempting to reprogram my brain into healthier patterns of thought and behavior.

Being taught as a very young child that obedience, submission, selflessness and sacrifice were virtues of paramount importance led directly to my future as a woman that believed God had called me to be a wife and a mother, to submit to my husband and sacrifice my personal happiness so that God could eliminate the selfishness from my heart.

*ATIA/ATI is a Christian cult headed by a man named Bill Gothard. Thankfully I only had a year or two influenced by the teachings of that cult before my family left it behind. For stories of the children that spent far more time directly influenced by that cult, some of which grew to adulthood and experienced their ‘training centers’ look up the archived blog Homeschoolers Anonymous. There are PDFs and galleries available of the curriculum and devotional teachings ATI produced, called ‘wisdom booklets,’ which focused on teaching children ‘good character.’ Though ATI is a particularly rancid example, what it teaches is simply a concentrate version of what fundamentalist evangelical Christianity teaches.

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