Daughter of the Patriarchy: Admissions

This was originally posted at No Longer Quivering, a website for people who have left the evangelical Christian Quiverfull movement. It describes itself as “a gathering place for women escaping and recovering from spiritual abuse.” This post was written by Sierra, a PhD student living in the Midwest. She was raised in a “Message of the Hour” congregation that followed the ministry of William Branham. She left the Message in 2006 and is the author of the blog The Unspoken Words: A Non-Prophet Message.

“When I was your age, my parents wouldn’t send me to college,” my mother was telling me. “I had to work my way through on my own. I don’t want you to have to stop. I will do everything I can to help you keep going to school. Your education is the most important thing to me.”

We stood in the kitchen, a printed letter lying on the counter between us. It was not good news.

I glanced up at my mother with a strained smile. I knew that if wishes could be cashed at the bank, I’d be writing my admissions essay to an ivy-coated castle. Instead, I was trying to find a way to pay the bill from my last semester of community college in time to register for fall classes. It was already August.

My work at Wal-Mart paid eight-fifty an hour: better than all the other work options for teenagers in the area. My schedule was already as close to full-time as it could be without requiring the company to offer me benefits. My hands were tied: I could take another part-time job, but when would I go to school? It was all I could do to keep our car paid for and insured while my mother handled the rent and utilities. College tuition had slipped between more pressing matters like food and transportation, and dragging it back to current status again would not be easy.

Still, I was grateful to have a mother who dared to disagree with the life track laid out before me. A Catholic turned evangelical, my mother was a radical believer in forging new paths. She had, after all, followed her heart out of her family’s religion when I was still a toddler. Going to college was my chance to discover what God had in store for me as an individual, she thought. I knew already that beliefs like these made my mother an outsider, a liberal and a radical in my church of stay-at-home daughters and unremitting parental supervision. What I did not yet know was how short and how tight the bonds were that held my friends.

“Why don’t you fill out your FAFSA?” my mother suggested. “Maybe you can get grants or student loans. They might offer you more if you apply to a four-year school. Let’s drive around and look for a college where you can transfer your credits.

I loved Rowling College on sight. The sprawling green lawn, ancient shady oaks and dark grey stone of its oldest building washed over me in a wave of color and charm. “It looks like a little Harvard,” I told my mother breathlessly. A more culturally adept young woman might have said it looked like Hogwarts.

The admissions counselor radiated warmth and hope. She beamed at my community college transcripts. No, it didn’t matter that I didn’t have SATs, she said. My grades proved that I could handle introductory classes. I felt a bubble of excitement rising in my throat, and firmly swallowed it. I would assume that this all was beyond my grasp, I decided. If it proved true, I would be pleasantly surprised. If it didn’t, I would not allow myself to feel the disappointment. I can go back to college later, I reasoned. There is a manager position opening at my store.

I was only half fooling myself. As I sipped the coffee and marveled at the expensive upholstery in the admissions office, I imagined myself striding up the long path to the college’s double doors, each step declaring, “I belong here.”

“What are your career goals?” the admissions counselor asked me.

“I want to go to graduate school and become a writer,” I said. Then, daringly, “I want to go to Harvard.” Saying it aloud sounded absurd, but there it was. The story of the homeless girl who had walked through its gates gave me not only the dream, but the audacity to name it.

The counselor smiled. “We’ll get you to Harvard.” Rowling had sent students there before. Other students had sat in this chair and then gone on to great things. Why indeed couldn’t I?

The next two weeks were spent working and trying not to think about whether or not my application would be approved. My retired friend Jim, the store greeter, welcomed my news and bolstered my hopes. “That’s good,” he told me. “You should go to college. You’re smart. Get the hell out of here while you’re young.” I grinned, and told him I intended to do so. I could still hear my community college teacher’s words in the back of my mind. You could be a writer. You could go to grad school. Graduate school seemed like the most glamorous place in the world.

Meanwhile, my friends at a sister church were catching the education fever. I learned of their ambitions in a phone call with their ambassador: Jennifer. A tall, active, tomboyish young woman, Jennifer had gone out of her way to befriend me on the basis of our shared connection with my best friend Sven. Despite the fact that her church was in Connecticut and mine in Pennsylvania, she kept in touch via the internet and periodically came to visit. Demographically, our churches seemed destined to be a match: her youth group was comprised mainly of girls, whereas mine was overwhelmingly slanted toward the boys. That spring, I’d been invited to spend a week at Jennifer’s house, where I’d met her circle of friends and found myself in the strange position of what felt like the ambassador from Land of Raining Men. It appeared that my church had been sighted as a hunting ground for husbands. Knowing that we were expected not to be unequally yoked with unbelievers, I suppressed my disgust with the contrivance of it all and dutifully related the names and ages of the potential suitors that I knew, possessively avoiding Sven’s. A decade had taught me that he was safe: passive and uncontrolling. A girl who had no intentions of obedience had first to ensure that she’d never be ordered to do anything.

As I told Jennifer about my nascent college plans, she burst out in excitement: “We’re going too! A bunch of us are applying to Bob Jones University.”

Bob Jones? I’d heard that name before. Other homeschooling families in my church used Bob Jones textbooks. My mother had discarded them as dull and political, opting for the more flexible and artistic Sonlight curriculum instead. I had no idea that Bob Jones had founded a university, nor (as I was just realizing) did I have any idea who Bob Jones really was.

“I told my dad that it would be okay since we won’t be going alone,” Jennifer continued. “We’ll watch out for each other. It’s a Christian college. We won’t have to worry about drinking or partying or any of that. You should come with us!”

I froze. Rowling College’s wrought-iron lampposts and immaculate lawn flashed in front of my eyes. I want to go to a real school, came the unstoppable silent protest. I was immediately wracked with guilt. What do you have against Bob Jones? I asked myself furiously. How do you know it’s not a “real” school? But the steely voice in my head would not be silenced. I don’t care if this makes me a terrible, judgmental person. I want to go to a real school, and that does not include Bob Jones.

“Maybe,” I answered finally, failing to muster any enthusiasm. I told my mother nothing, fearful that she would think it was a good idea and my Rowling plans would evaporate before my eyes.

I slept fitfully that night. I pictured myself bursting through the chains that had held me in one place for too long, only to find myself swept away into a dreary black-and-white encampment. I saw the dull stone halls filled with good Christian husbands, all grey and lifeless. I saw the parade of unthreatening ideas, the inevitable fight against the Trinity but the ultimate surety of everything else. A silent scream welled up inside me. Away in the distance there stood the gates of Rowling, vibrant with promise, a dark channel separating me from them. I wanted to jump, to take the greatest risk, to grapple with the edges of the chasm and yank myself up. I feared the abyss not because I would be striking something unknown, but because I was afraid that I’d never know anything else. Bob Jones University, that good Christian college, in its very safety and certainty struck me with terror. I could not go where Jennifer went, even if it meant giving up everything.

Later that week, as I finished a shift at Wal-Mart and returned my tray to the manager, I heard my mother call my name. I turned to see her striding rapidly toward me, waving an envelope.

She couldn’t hold it in. “You were accepted!” she cried.

I scrambled for the letter and held it up before my eyes in shock. My frantic eyes struggled to focus. Rowling had taken me in. I was in! I was a real college student. With scholarships. The store spun and danced around me. I was dimly aware of my Wal-Mart managers grinning and patting me on the back. All I could see was the small black print: “Congratulations!”

As I studied my admissions package that night, I learned that I would be starting classes in a week. My first semester was paid for. I would only have to cover my books. I would even be moving onto campus! Since my room and board were covered under my scholarship package, it would cost more to commute. Apprehensively, I filled out my roommate survey. “Likes to read,” I wrote. “Very quiet. Early riser.” The excitement outweighed my nervousness. I would get to live on campus! I would get to eat in the cafeteria and study in the library. It was all so overwhelmingly new.

I was giddy as I called Jennifer to tell her the good news. When she answered, however, I knew that mine was a solitary joy. The tide had shifted. The sisterhood of Bob Jones would never be.

“What happened?” I asked.

“The elders of my church had a special meeting,” she sighed. “They decided that it wasn’t right for young women to go away together and live on their own. They said we would be too far away from our fathers’ headship.”

I hung up the phone with tears of rage stinging my eyes. Just like that, my friends’ futures had been sealed, their hopes crushed, their homes transformed into prisons. The doors of opportunity had slammed shut, and I stood alone on the outside. A cold fear settled on my shoulders, Frantically, I began packing my belongings, looking ahead to my move-in date with trepidation. If I could just move onto campus, I would be safe then. I would never come back, never be caught, never be caged. I thanked God for my faithless father, knowing now that only the “headless” state of my family permitted my escape. As I stuffed t-shirt after modest t-shirt into my luggage, I wept for my friends. There was nothing godly about this, nothing loving, nothing just. The girls had done everything right, but it was not enough. No amount of prayer or planning would be enough to let mere women follow their dreams, unsupervised.

If I make it to college, I promised God, I will work with all my might. I will take every opportunity in sight. I will not squander this gift.

For the next six days, I waited for the hammer to fall.

15 comments for “Daughter of the Patriarchy: Admissions

  1. January 3, 2012 at 5:00 pm

    This is a wonderful narrative.

    Biblicism, which is a term to describe the Evangelical Christianity you’ve described, is based on selective renderings of the Bible. For example, Paul claimed that women should stay silent in the church and should cover their heads. But he also said, in another letter, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

    Which is true? Could it be said that they were meant only for specific churches at specific times? The issue here is not the factual basis of any of this Scripture, but the people who interpret it. In this situation, people believe what they choose to believe based on rationalizations and sheer stubborn will. We are entitled to our own opinion, but not our own facts, as the saying goes. However, the distinction between the two is routinely ignored.

  2. Kristen J.
    January 3, 2012 at 5:25 pm

    I’m sitting here in my office crying because I remember that desperate feeling so well. The women in my family, even in my generation struggled to finish high school and people laughed when I said I was going to college (or reminded me that it would lead me into satan’s pit). Sitting here in an office *with a door* (a question my cousin asked me about during the holidays) its sometimes easy to forget the brainwashing, homelessness, crushing misogyny, and the complete absence of hope. I remember opening the letter from my alma mater…I saw…”full scholarship” and “stipend” and I could barely breathe. I was going. Nothing could stop me. But all summer I had nightmares about showing up at school and finding it was all a silly mistake.

  3. Barb
    January 3, 2012 at 6:08 pm

    Wow–well-written, engaging story. Look forward to seeing more on this.

  4. January 3, 2012 at 7:08 pm

    Heart-breaking. It’s my worst nightmare that my life and my future would be controlled in that way, and I’m grateful every day that I’m fortunate enough to have the privilege of choice. It shouldn’t have to be a privilege.

  5. Stubborn Kind of Fellow
    January 3, 2012 at 8:15 pm

    This was a surprisingly wonderful narrative (surprising because I’d never seen any of your writing before) and I’m genuinely looking forward to more. Regardless of whether they’re religious or secular, I guess the problem with beliefs is that other people often fail to live up to the ideals in which yours are based, but still, I’m glad you made it and I hope things are working out for you now.

  6. Miwome
    January 3, 2012 at 11:56 pm

    This was very affecting–in some ways, it reminded me of a Dear Sugar column (which I hope will be read in the positive way it was intended). I am so very lucky to have the family I have.

    The writer’s mother sounds like a wonderfully strong and caring woman, and the author herself the same.

  7. January 4, 2012 at 1:35 am

    The difference between counselling and conselling is U.

  8. Gunnar Tveiten
    January 4, 2012 at 1:52 am

    You wanted to become a writer.

    Judging by this piece, not only did you become a writer, you became an excellent one. This narrative is wonderful and powerful.

  9. Justamblingalong
    January 4, 2012 at 4:45 am

    For example, Paul claimed that women should stay silent in the church and should cover their heads.

    What gets missed, a lot, is that most of Paul takes the form of letters of advice, which he was writing to specific churches in specific times. He never writes “God told me women should cover their heads in church.” He writes things like “if you’re having trouble finding a space to meet, try to convert a local store owner.” And so it’s totally unsurprising that sexist tropes pop up all the time in his advice, and that he also describes a radically egalitarian Christianity.

    Incidentally, I’m an atheist. But if people are going to be Christians, I’d rather they understand their own source material, because in my experience the ones who do are much nicer people to be around.

  10. amandaw
    January 4, 2012 at 7:41 am

    Thanks for an emotional piece. One of the things I have mourned most as I transitioned from ultra-conservative (not in the US political sense) evangelical Christianity to my current liberal, universalist-leaning “agnostic Christianity” was the loss of connection with my very best friends from high school, who welcomed me into their church and their very families, who helped lift me out of the mire that threatened to keep me chained down in my family. They are amazing women, but this is the world they know, and no other, and I know what they – we – are supposed to do when encountering friends and family who are, well, what I am now. It’s saddening and maddening all at once.

    Please continue to forge your own path. Your relationship with g/God, if you have one, is yours alone. You are the only one who knows your life, your inner being, and what you believe exists outside of it. You are the only one who can negotiate your path in life, representing yourself honestly, without having to limit yourself to satisfy others’ requirements.

  11. Steve LaBonne
    January 4, 2012 at 9:04 am

    As the father of a wonderful, very bright and independent young woman who is studying to be an engineer (and will make me very proud when she is a very successful one, as she will be), it breaks my heart that the ABSENCE of this woman’s “father” (that word deserves to be in scare quotes in this case) was the only reason she could escape and realize her potential.

  12. j.
    January 4, 2012 at 8:58 pm

    It’s so beautiful how, no matter how fucked up xtianity is shown to be on this blog, Comrade Kevin is always there, ready with an apologetic. *sniff* Almost as lovely as you blathering about FERRGIBNISS in the Schwyzer threads.

    Nice Scotsman there too, Justamblingalong.

  13. Bitter Scribe
    January 4, 2012 at 10:38 pm

    Waitaminute…

    These guys considered Bob freakin’ Jones “University” too dangerous a place for young women?

    Wow. There’s controlling, and then there’s crazy.

  14. Matt
    January 5, 2012 at 12:37 am

    12
    j. 1.4.2012 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

    It’s so beautiful how, no matter how fucked up xtianity is shown to be on this blog, Comrade Kevin is always there, ready with an apologetic. *sniff* Almost as lovely as you blathering about FERRGIBNISS in the Schwyzer threads.

    Nice Scotsman there too, Justamblingalong.

    Given how liberal christians are basically claiming that the first couple thousand years of Christianity were wrongly interpreting the bible, one wonders how they don’t see the pattern of their religion slowly johnny come lately style changing to follow the progressive trends as soon as the bossmen learn that they can’t afford to keep their old system. They provide no evidence that their version of the bible is any more obvious or correct an interpretation than the ancients or the contemporary fundies.
    Why do they cling so hard to idea that their religion is real and has just been misinterpreted both by the original and every succeeding head of any denomination of the church in the entirety of history?
    One could make a parallel to Schwizzy or any sort of individual or institutional abuser of human rights that it is in their interests to provide some sort of public goods to their believers in order to white wash their crimes.
    Then we get the exact same thing where defenders of the religion, and generally the classes most benefited by the religion, come forward and say, but look at all the good we did! We do all this charity work! And of course the fact that the church used charity from missionaries to effectively coerce non believers into becoming members and the fact that that is the origin of their charity never comes up.
    Christian apologists and white washers condemned Schwizzy for his crimes while just brushing away any objection to The Jesus. How many liberal christians on this very blog engage in that behavior many times a year?
    We just had a huge blow up about how atheists don’t root out misogyny amongst their ranks. And you know what, we need to work on that and we are. But comrade kevin and others here don’t commonly get this argument thrown at them by the majority of the commentariat.
    Just another example of privilege on this blog that very few are ever called on.
    Thank you j. for adding your voice about this.

  15. PrettyAmiable
    January 5, 2012 at 12:43 am

    Quick note to say I really enjoyed this piece. I’ll be following up with your blog – thanks for sharing this here and exposing us to your writing!

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