Each of the three articles I've written for The Huffington Post has been about religious abuse: what it is, how pervasive it is and what the characteristics of abusers are. Each has been conceptual, perhaps even esoteric; but Amanda's story isn't. It's real and heartbreaking. When you read it, you'll know exactly what religious abuse is and why recovering from it is so important.
I've changed all the names and places to provide Amanda with anonymity, but her story is true -- written in her own words -- with minor edits for length and continuity.
Here it is:
I just wanted to say that I thoroughly enjoyed your recent article, "Self-Deprecating Narcissism among Christian Leaders." I've never seen it written quite as well as you did. I literally laughed out loud several times at your near-perfect descriptions.
I got saved when I was about 11, eventually staying in this particular church until I left at 22. I was the only one in my family who went there, which probably increased the control and manipulation that ensued during those years. I was also best friends with the pastor's daughter and spent a lot of time with their family. I looked to him as the father figure I never had, although in hindsight, he never seemed to have any real affection for anything aside from his own self-interest.
At the very least, he is a narcissist to the point where I've seriously questioned if he is actually a sociopath. I've never talked to anyone about what happened with this church, partly because most of the relationships I had were people that were once or still are associated with this church and partly because, well, I don't know that anyone would really care or understand about the abuse I have experienced.
The only qualifications I will give to the following are that I have certainly moved on -- even if I carry scars from the ordeal -- and that I chose to forgive, though I don't believe forgiveness equates to silence.
The list of downright despicable behavior I witnessed over the years is too long to mention here -- everything from financial impropriety to sexual indiscretions to cruelty-for-pleasure that I have never witnessed the likes of before or since. I found out years after I'd been there that church splits and sexual scandals followed this pastor everywhere he'd ever been. I just couldn't bring myself to believe it. Of course, he lied about everything negative anyone ever said about him, and I had no reason not to believe him, being insulated from anyone who might tell me otherwise.
He frequently and commonly "rewarded" the faithful with tokens of his appreciation -- paid for by tithers, of course, though he never divulged the blessing's origin -- buying them everything from cars to trips to clothes to houses. This served the dual purpose of securing loyalty to and secrecy about his "faults," as well as earning him a grand reputation for being an amazingly generous giver. What they couldn't see were the poisonous strings attached to anything he gave.
My father had been very abusive, so when this pastor came into my life at the tender age of 11, not only did I have no point of reference for what a godly man looked like, I also wanted fatherly affection so badly that my loyalty was bought very cheaply. The pastor needed only to use his affection as a carrot-and-stick reward system to keep me close to him.
What he couldn't hide as easily as his sexual indiscretions -- or explain away as he did his questionable use of church finances -- was his brutality in dealing with those close to him behind closed doors. This included his staff and anyone else that he had been grooming for undying loyalty.
After growing up "serving" in the youth and children's departments, I went on staff for several years after high school. I had been "adopted" by my older sister when I was in high school, but I wasn't able to live with her at the time, so I somewhat became a "ward of the church." Even with the horrific events of my childhood and being abandoned by both my parents, that time period -- being at the mercy of the leaders of the church -- rivals the worst years of my life.
I slept on the floor of different homes, keeping the children of whomever the pastor directed me to. I wasn't allowed to get a job, and I was passed among the staff as a "free nanny" at the pastor's discretion. In one house, I had to lock my few belongings in a suitcase and keep it under my bed. They had begun to steal the only thing that really mattered to me -- my books. At another home, there was another girl the same age as me. She had previously been my friend. Her mother (the Bible School Director of the church) told our friends when they came over that no one was allowed to speak to me because I was there to work. I cleaned her home from top to bottom every single day. She had a check list that included mopping, sweeping, dusting, vacuuming, washing clothes and cooking for her family. I was required to babysit her 8-year-old son without pay all night while she worked. I went through about five homes, including one where I was physically abused -- each one worse than the one before. I was lied about, humiliated and threatened.
I stayed because I thought these people were from God and that there must be something wrong with me -- that I deserved it. During this time, the pastor bought several of my friend's vehicles for graduation. I was finally "encouraged" by the pastor to go and stay with my father so that I could get a job and buy a car, which I did. I hadn't seen my dad since he almost beat my sister to death in front of me when I was 8. When I got back, I was immediately asked to come on staff -- go figure.
The youth pastor of this church -- the man who led me in the sinner's prayer when I was 11 -- was a good man. He was the first man I ever felt love from or felt safe around. He was very kind to me, and he and his wife spent much time with me.
The pastor also hired an assistant youth pastor and his wife. They were both recently released from an inpatient, psychiatric hospital for severe mental disorders -- though that didn't stop him from sticking them unchecked to oversee youth and children. (I'm sure it had nothing to do with the fact that they were both extremely wealthy through their inheritances and they remodeled the pastor's kitchen shortly after joining the church). The new pastor soon targeted me, whispering strange and cruel things in my ear when no one was around. He stated that he was "insanely jealous" over the affection the youth pastor had for me. The new pastor worked with calculating contempt -- as if I'd deserved it, at 13 -- until he'd turned everybody else against me.
Though I'm certainly not perfect, I was a very sweet, loving and guileless youth. I was submissive, non-confrontational and passive at best. I was well into adulthood before I found my voice.
My friends were told not to mix with me because I had bad character. They even implied that I had a "crush" on the youth pastor, which make me want to vomit even to this day. At one point, the youth pastor actually sat me down and told me that after talking at length to the pastor, his advice for me was what "Paul said -- to put people like you out of the church." To this day I have no idea what that meant, where that is found in scripture and what that implied. Again, I was 13. I quietly contemplated suicide for a year over the event.
[Jack,] I'm sure you understand my reasons for staying (MUCH of what I've read in your bio/book excerpts hits it on the head). For you to appreciate the disposition with which I accepted my "station," I have to explain my thinking. The question I asked myself is how could it be that having the great misfortune of being abandoned and unloved by both parents, I would then be delivered by a God -- I know to be gracious -- into the hands of such heinous beings? I could not deny the seemingly obvious answer: the common denominator was me. My proclivity to believe such a lie had been nurtured within me since birth.
In the end, it was the pastor's treatment of others that made me leave. While he owned up to six vehicles at a time -- the church paying most of his and his kid's insurance, cell phones and vacations -- his staff was required to file income tax as "self-employed" on minimum wage salaries, while his son and daughter made just a fraction less than he paid himself. He lived in a luxury home with a guesthouse, constantly remodeling and adding on, while his personal secretary of seven years was on HUD (welfare) housing.
He controls everything and everyone around him, and his contempt for others is only checked when it's necessary to maintain his "kingdom." He categorizes everyone he comes into contact with according to his perception of their power. Some of his final words to me before I left for college were that I'd never paid a sufficient price to be close to his family, that I would never be anything more important than a secretary, that because of my weight (which I've always struggled with) "no one of any importance would ever acknowledge, respect or speak to me." I would be "completely ignored by anyone of significance," and the only reason anything good was happening to me was because I used to rub his feet for him when I was younger.
I recently took an older man's advice and sat down, trying to think of something good, something altruistic ... any good act or small kindness ... I sat and sat some more ... and I honestly couldn't think of one thing he'd done that wasn't to further his own dynasty. After years of working through tough emotions and memories, I have come to a place of real healing about it all. I realize several things:
• First, this man is not nearly as important as he believes he is. While his influence is greater and more far reaching than it ever had any right to be, there will be a day when he answers for his actions -- period.
• Second, though it wasn't always so, I am thankful for a God that is patient and slow to anger.
• Third, though I can't say I'm thankful about the pastor, I am thankful for the experience. I believe I will avoid pitfalls I wouldn't have known existed because of him, and I will be able to live a better life for it. He is everything I never want to be.
Thank you for your wonderful writings. Again, I've never heard my own thoughts on the subject articulated so well. I appreciate your writing and look forward to reading more.
After reading Amanda's story, can you see why I have written "Recovering from Religious Abuse: 11 Steps to Spiritual Freedom"? Do you understand how Amanda and people like her need help to recover? Amanda's story is heart wrenching, but it's just one of many -- perhaps millions -- each of which needs to be brought to the light.
Men loved the darkness rather than the light for their deeds were evil (John 3:19b).