In You Are Your Own author Jamie Lee Finch describes herself growing up as an anxious and serious young girl. That was me I thought as I listened to her voice reading her book. I was that serious child, fearing the world around me, believing I didn’t fit in, afraid for my hell-bound peers, the responsibility weighing heavily on me.
Could it be that I’m not this girl at all?
This was my story. I’m this serious girl who’s afraid of the devils out in the world. It wasn’t until I listened to Finch’s audio book that it struck me that I might be a product of the fundamentalist Evangelical movement’s ideas that were so popular in the eighties as she explains.
Could it be that I’m not this girl at all? Is it possible that the story I was convinced was mine isn’t really who I am at my core?
Finch speaks about the pressure and guilt she felt around converting people. I cringe with the memory of my telling the Jesus-died-for-you-on-the-cross story to one of my disabled friends in my bedroom after school, hoping and praying Jesus would take care of the rest.
A topic in the book is purity culture and how the implementation of this was a calculated response of Evangelical leaders to the sexual revolution in the sixties. I don’t remember the term “purity culture” being used in The Netherlands but I know the sexual education of the Evangelical and Orthodox Christian youth was that of abstinence before marriage. Finch writes about the guilt and shame when it comes to sexual desires and the devastating effects this had on her health and body image. She speaks of becoming disconnected from her feelings to the point of not knowing what she herself liked. This too rings true for me.
In an environment in which you were taught that your own thoughts and feelings could be inspired by the devil, how can you trust yourself? How do you learn to know what your intuition is? How do you know what you yourself like?
In an environment in which you were taught that your own thoughts and feelings could be inspired by the devil, how can you trust yourself?
People sometimes ask me what my sexuality is. Am I straight, gay, bisexual? I still haven’t given myself permission to know, really know and feel who I am and what I like. I know what love is. I don’t need to answer other people’s curiosities. I’ve come to believe that most people are fluid when you come right down to it. However, I know now that I missed an important part in my development: a healthy sexual image and development in which I could explore safely without shame and guilt. This has had damaging consequences for me personally that I struggle with to this day.
“Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you are bought at a price” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). No, You Are Your Own Jamie Lee aptly titles her book. She writes about religious trauma rooted in Evangelical Christianity using scholarly research. Since I’ve experienced both Evangelical and Orthodox Christian communities, I am confident this book will resonate with the latter group as well.
What is my story if I wasn’t that fearful serious young girl? I look at my daughter now, who is twenty-four years old. Even though I still held rigid black and white beliefs inside me, I knew I couldn’t impose them upon my children. I wanted them to move in the world freely and with confidence. And she does and she has.
It’s time for a new story.
Yes, I’m late in the game. I full well realize this. It was a conscious decision for me not to watch Hulu’s popular show The Handmaid’s Tale. The reason you see was that I am trying to avoid movies and TV-programs that might trigger me into panic attacks. Once my body is in panic mode it takes some time to process what took me there.
Why - you might ask - could the dystopian Handmaid’s Tale, based on Margaret Atwood’s novel, be a trigger for me? Well, I wasn’t sure myself – but in my Life After God community I had concluded that it potentially could be. The setting is a Christian fundamentalist community in which the value of women is reduced to property. The few fertile women left live a life in sexual servitude justified by texts from the Bible. Resisting people are beaten down harshly. I didn’t want to take my chances watching the series and be confronted with upsetting materials – especially with violence against women in an oppressing Christian setting.
We hear how rights that have been fought hard for may vanish from under our eyes.
One afternoon last week I was scrolling through my Facebook news feed and saw another reference to The Handmaid’s Tale. I say ‘another’ as it wasn’t the first one I had seen these last couple of weeks. As Trump is about to announce his pick for a judge for the Supreme Court we read stories about the possibility of Roe vs Wade being overturned. We hear how rights that have been fought hard for may vanish from under our eyes.
“I think I’m ready to see The Handmaid’s Tale now” I said to my girlfriend. That same evening we started the show and we’ve seen a couple of episodes since. One night, before I fell into a restless sleep, the image of a hanging woman kept haunting me. She had been condemned of having a same-sex relationship. I may not see the whole series. For now, the show seems oddly relevant, or in my girlfriend’s words “Trumpian.”
the image of a hanging woman kept haunting me
In a recent article in the Daily Mail it is mentioned that one of Trump’s potential picks for the Supreme Court vacancy is Amy Coney Barrett. Coincidentally, Amy Barret is a member of the Christian group People of Praise, which is a highly controversial group that served as an inspiration for Margaret Atwood’s book. Atwood waited three years before publishing The Handmaid’s tale as she thought her book was just too out there. But then she realized that certain things in her book were happening. In some religious communities the term ‘handmaids’ were used for women. Women were encouraged to be silent and to be submissive to their husbands.
“But why can’t women speak in church?” I asked the question for the ‘-th’ time. My mother responds with the verse in which apostle Paul writes to the early Christians in Corinth. It tells how women need to remain silent, be in submission as the law requires. It is there, black on white, in the Bible – the word of God. I can, and will, ask again. I may get a verse from Timothy or Peter, but it will boil down to the same answer. There may be a picture even; Jesus above man, man above woman. There may be some explanation of how women testify through their obedience and how they watch over the children.
In The TV-series there are several moments when the question is presented “how did we let this happen?” The answer seems to be that there was a takeover that happened in stages; The House, The Senate, The Supreme Court.
Their ideal world is a nightmare for others.
Yes, The Handmaid’s Tale is fiction. But with fiction come insights. The Christian right have gone to great lengths to justify immoral behaviors to vote in a candidate that would back up their agenda. They continue this trend and tell themselves that their God is in control. This to me already sounds like a dystopian story. Their ideal world is a nightmare for others.
Therefore, I started watching The Handmaid’s Tale, a potentially triggering show. I want to learn and not be complacent. We can’t afford it.
Zondags gaan we tweemaal naar de kerk – het is eigenlijk geen kerk, we noemen het de Vergadering, als in Vergadering der Gelovigen. De Vergadering probeert zo dicht mogelijk volgens de apostel Paulus’ beschrijving van de eerste gemeenten te komen, zonder dominee of een leidinggevende organisatie. Daarvoor rijden we naar de stad en daarom wordt er wat over ons gefluisterd in het dorp – er zijn immers al twee kerken ter plekke, de Hervormde en Gereformeerde kerk?
Mijn moeder blijft meestal thuis want zij voelt zich ‘er niet bij horen’. Dus dat betekent dat ik als enig meisje in het mannen gedeelte zit bij mijn vader en broers. Ik voel me tussen het gebrom van de mannen tijdens het zingen niet erg op mijn gemakt en steel zo nu en dan een blik naar het vrouwen gedeelte waar dochters samen met hun moeders gekleed in passende rokken zitten en melodieus meezingen. Mijn oma zit er ook, haar armen over elkaar hoog op haar ronde buik. Ze draagt rechte bloemetjes jurken en dure hoeden met veren. Althans, mijn moeder zegt dat de oma er een kapitaal voor uitgeeft en dat het toch om eenvoudigheid moet gaan. Een doekje op de kop moet goed genoeg voor De Heere zijn, hoewel de vrouwen die dat dan weer doen er toch wel wat armoe-zalig bijlopen. Er is ook een jonge vrouw met breed gerande hoeden die korte rokjes en hoge hakken draagt. Dat lijkt ook nergens op, volgens mijn moeder, maakt de mannen alleen maar gek, en haar man preekt bovendien zondags ook nog. De meisjes hoeven hun hoofden nog niet te bedekken – dat kan later, als ze er zelf voor hebben gekozen. Sommige meisjes beginnen ermee zodra ze besluiten zich te laten dopen en anderen wachten ermee totdat ze het Avondmaal gaan aanvragen.
Heel soms kondigt Mem aan dat ze toch maar even meegaat op een middagje, en dan zit ik vol trots naast haar. Ze kauwt tijdens de hele dienst op fruitmentos en blijft zitten onder het zingen en de gebeden. Ik stel me voor dat ik net als de andere meisjes ben. Heit glundert onze richting op – maar zodra we thuis zijn zegt Mem dat die-en-die helemaal geen dag heeft gezegd, en dat ze er toch maar moeite mee heeft als de oudsten vroom aan het preken zijn terwijl er nooit geen belangstelling voor ons wordt getoond. Mijn vaders blik verandert dan en hij is weer de in zichzelf gekeerde man die wij kennen. Dan weet ik dat het weer een tijdje zal duren voordat ze meekomt.
“De Vergadering is een goed plekje, maar is een heel moeilijk plekje”, dat zegt Mem veel, dat heeft ze weer van haar moeder gehoord. Ondanks dat Mem niet gedoopt is en ook niet aan het Avondmaal gaat, dat elke zondagochtend wordt ‘gevierd’, heeft ze wel de meeste historische verhalen over de Vergadering. Ze verteld over de ooms en bekende broeders die grote evangelische tentdiensten hielden en Johannes de Heer liederen zongen rond het traporgel waar Beppe op speelde vroeger thuis op de boerderij. Zij was verliefd op een wereldse jongen in het dorp, die Elvis Presley liederen zong met zijn gitaar – Love Me Tender. “Maar daar kwam Heit op zijn brommertje aan”, vertelt Mem, en Beppe vond Heit toch wel een hele goede en vertrouwelijke jongen.
’s Ochtends snijd ik de korsten van mijn boterham en doe er niks op. Ik speel Avondmaal, en breek een stukje van het brood af en stop het in mijn mond waarna ik het bordje doorgeef aan een denkbeeldig iemand, wij knikken eerbiedig naar elkaar en sluiten onze ogen om de diepe betekenis van dit brood te overdenken terwijl we aan het kauwen zijn. Voor jaren, eet ik mijn brood zo – telkens het bordje doorgevend aan de persoon naast mij.
My mom called them jokingly ‘little goats’, as they walked single file, from tall to small, into the Brethren meeting hall. Admittedly, the girls did resemble the goats from my illustrated fairy tale book; pointy faces with handkerchiefs as head coverings and long checkered skirts. I loved looking at the youngest girl who had dimples in her cheeks and smiled with her head cocked to one side. The mother patiently adjusted the handkerchief over her daughter’s white pigtails as the girl repeatedly tore it off while looking over shoulder at us, the teenagers in the back making faces at her.
The family was a bit odd, even to Northern Dutch Brethren standards. For one, they seemed more conservative – already the young girls were wearing head coverings, which usually started for adult or adolescent women once they officially partook in the weekly ritual of communion. The husband, brother W. was German and came from a closed Brethren branch known to be more restrictive. The wife opened up at times and revealed that she was not allowed many freedoms such as wearing jeans or cutting her already thinning hair. Secondly, the family would disappear from the church for months, then reappear and ask for help, as in financial assistance. This would be a conundrum for the church. They were required to help those in need but questioned whether they were enabling a man who was using the church as a social security policy.
Such long uncut hair, such pale serious faces. “Such well-behaved kids,” my grandma would nod.
As long as brother W. said the right words he was a true church member. Brother W. suggested songs to sing, spoke prayers and participated in the communion. The one son they finally had, after all daughters, got to wear a little suit to the services and one could not help but smile. I remember studying the girls and feeling sorry for them. I wondered if they were being teased at school – such long uncut hair, such pale serious faces. “Such well-behaved kids,” my grandma would nod in approval.
Once my dad came home after visiting the family. “It is weird,” he said, “the kids all had to bow to me in greeting.” My dad was trying to tell brother W. that this wasn’t necessary, but W. didn’t want to hear any of it and made every kid bow for my dad, hands clasped together, which made my dad feel uncomfortable.
Was the church a safe haven for men like brother W.?
This week the news came out regarding the Turpin family in California. “How is it possible nobody has reported anything?” This was a common sentiment upon hearing the news. The religious Turpin family home schooled their children and lived in a neighborhood where houses are close in. When the 17-year old daughter managed to call 911 the police found the rest of the children malnourished, shackled and locked into the home. It turns out neighbors did notice odd things; the children hardly ever being out or being out at late hours and not responding to conversations. One comment made me think about the family in my church so many years ago “When kids are being that obedient, it is a clue something is wrong.”
Brother W. was tried and sentenced a couple of years ago. There had been sexual misconduct in the family, to what degree I’m not sure. Was the church, the church I grew up in, The Brethren, a safe haven for men like brother W.? Protected by a community, the Bible, brothers and elders as long as the right words were being spoken and heard? Did the church not look at the signs – the extreme requirement for obedience and submission that point to abuse? Did they refuse to see the signs? Was my church culpable to abuse?
We need to look a child in the eye and ensure they are okay.
I know that in today’s world there is more awareness around abuse and signs around it than 30 years ago. However, families such as the Turpins still live among us. There is no excuse to provide them a safe haven or turn away from signs when we see them – we need to take a risk and report them. We need to look a child in the eye and ensure they are okay.
Last I heard Brother W. is participating in communion again. “God forgives everything,” The Brethren teach. “Not that” I say. We need to protect the children.
Pietje - say Peach-a!