While I was reading, “The Witness Wore Red,” I was surprised by how much I could relate to Rebecca’s life in the Fundamental LDS Church. I’ve never met anyone from the FLDS church. No one in my family would consider polygamy. I have never been sexually molested– if any man had tried, my father and grandfather would have threatened them with death. So why have I found so much in common with the daughter of an FLDS polygamist?
While I am very grateful to have been raised in a healthier environment than Rebecca, fundamentalism has a certain black and white mindset that seems to pervade all who embrace it. Narcissistic abuse and control seem to run hand in hand with fundamentalist thinking. My experience was on the milder side of the spectrum, but in many ways I can relate to some of the abuse Rebecca went through. For the sake of my readers who have been through such abuse, I feel it’s important to mention these tactics and discuss why they do not represent God.
Having to Hide
The first thing that really touched my heart as I read this book was the story of hiding in the basement while her father’s first family ate a nice dinner upstairs. This gave the writer an immediate connection with me. I know that feeling–the feeling of hiding my very existence and the false shame that comes with it.
I spent much of my childhood hiding. I was forced to hide for non-schooling because my parents might go to jail if they were caught with kids who were not in school. When I hid in a shed once, I stepped on a rake and was told, “If we were hiding from the Nazis, we would all be dead because of you.” At thirteen, this was a heavy and unnecessary cross to bear.
I also learned to hide behind curtains from bill collectors, to hide my real story from church members and to hide my own feelings eventually behind a wall of fat. I was taught to just shut up and stuff my feelings and eat.
When people ask us to hide–whether it’s our physical body in a shed, our emotions around certain people or expectations to keep quiet about our past–this is a denial of our very life and existence. It is a though we are being asked to be dead before our time.
Physical Abuse Through Beatings
Whether with a stick or belt or any object, beatings equal bullying behavior. Beatings strike fear into the heart of the child beaten. Once this process happens a few times the child will do whatever their parents and leaders say to avoid this in the future. This is a form of coercion that ultimately ends up being a form of mind control because the fear remains long after the bruises heal.
Others who have been beaten have agreed with me this feeling never goes away–not even in adulthood. Whenever our parents raise their voices, some of us still experience post-traumatic stress disorder as adults. Using physical force creates a foundation of fear instead of love. Fundamentalists like to use this verse–
Whoever spares the rod hates their children,
but the one who loves their children
is careful to discipline them.
What fundamentalists often overlook is context. A shepherd does not beat his lamb black and blue to get it to obey–as a matter of fact most shepherds will tell you that sheep follow, but they don’t respond well to beatings. So what is the rod to be used for? Guidance–and to lift the lamb from a cliff where it has fallen.
Beatings are not God’s way because God does not coerce us against our will. If He did, there would be much less suffering in this world, but God has granted everyone the freedom to choose. The object of true discipline is to teach, not beat.
Taught to Fear of the Government
When children are taught the government will eventually take them and possibly kill them, they feel the stress as if they are living in Nazi Germany. If kids believe the rest of society is against them, they will feel they can trust no one but their inner circle. This creates even more enmeshment with the dysfunctional family or cult.
The truth is all of the world’s governments have acted corruptly at some time–this is part of human nature. Jesus lived in a time when the government was very brutal. The Roman Empire was not known for being considerate of its subjects, but Jesus never spoke against the government, nor did He rise up against their abusive regime. Jesus says His government is not of this world, yet He still told us to pay our taxes.
I don’t live in fear of the government because Jesus is my King and He takes care of me. I don’t look to any earthly government to fix my problems, but I also don’t spend time focusing on conspiracy theories. I have no control over events and Jesus told us to not worry about tomorrow. I believe in putting faith over fear.
Fear of Time of Trouble or Desolation
A general focus and fear of the crisis before Jesus comes. The end of the world scenario was used to convince me that I did not need an education. And when events on the news seemed to be fulfilling Bible Prophecy church members and parents would tell me to get my heart ready. This didn’t encourage me to serve God out of love, but fear. I was terrified because I was told the requirement to be ready was to “Be perfect like your Father in heaven.” I knew I’d never be perfect so I was in a lose-lose situation. This fear controlled me and my life choices until 911, when after sorting out scripture and some counseling; I discovered I can be ready now by choosing love over fear through my relationship with Jesus today.
Dress Strange to Prove We are not of this World
For a couple years my parents sent us to an unaccredited school where we did mostly child labor and very little learning. We girls had to wear dresses and we could never wear jeans. Jeans were considered men’s clothing because someone might mistake me for a man. This contributed to my scarecrow look as I worked in the school garden with pants under my dress. It was mortifying to me as a teenager.
I was told my sweet Bible reading Grandma was vain for wearing makeup and I was punished once for wearing tinted chapstick. My parents taught me women are to wear long hair because it was given to us for a covering, but I never had to follow that rule to the letter of the law like the FLDS do. We were allowed to cut our hair, but expected to keep it at least shoulder length. When I grew up, I discovered there is no morality in hair length.
Some Christians wear strange looking clothes as if they are a badge of righteousness. This mindset includes all variations of mean people who supposedly dressed and eat in what they believe is God’s way, while treating other people like dirt. External behavior does not equal spiritual behavior.
Not Allowed to Play Competitive Games
I have found this concept ironic since the fundamentalist people who usually insist on no games are often competitive about who looks like the best Christian. A little friendly competition can be healthy and teach us how to deal with competition real life as long we avoid the dangers of cutthroat competition.
Told the Rest of Church has Fallen into Apostasy
I grew up suspicious of everyone in the mainstream denomination because I was taught they were in apostasy. While I think there could be a place to discuss apostasy, most of the arguments I heard growing up were nit-picking about external behavior. I remember one website that listed apostasies around the world. They targeted one church in Australia that had rock music, a group in South America that allowed what they deemed scanty dresses and makeup and a church in the US with teenagers wearing mohawks. Seriously, is this apostasy? They’ve got to be kidding. But thousands follow these cues and go on witch hunts in their own local church criticizing anyone who falls into these categories.
I view apostasy as something so much deeper—like the way the majority of the Christian world has misunderstood God. I think the perfect example of true apostasy is the fallen church after Constantine corrupted it.
Focus on Repentance and Reformation
It’s good to have revival. It’s good to reform our habits, but who can change another and how? Only God can truly change our lives. While this idea sounds noble, revival and reformation have often been used throughout history to coerce people through the fear of being lost. I have sat through fear feeding sermons about God coming to kill because He finds us not up to His standards. This type of religious abuse has been used as a form of crowd control.
Such leaders often fail to show people how to prepare to meet God. Fear of not being ready mixed with hazy requirements only creates more fear. Such fear causes people to take insane actions without purpose and go through motions without thinking. True revival comes only from the Holy Spirit and no person can orchestrate it for a crowd.
Church Membership Equals Salvation
I was taught if someone who was in the church left said denomination, they were likely lost eternally and forever and it would be okay to distance yourself from them or possible even shun them to avoid contamination. This might sound sensible until we realize we are not talking about a nuclear reactor, but human beings. People grow at different rates and what acted as one person’s fertilizer might burn another. God reaches out to meet all people wherever they are regardless of church membership. Jesus tells the requirement for eternal life in His prayer to the Father in John 17–
Now this is eternal life:
that they know you,
the only true God,
and Jesus Christ,
whom you have sent.
Must be Ready for Final Crisis or Armageddon
All fundamentalists seem to love prepping. For me, preparing for the end physically is similar to trying to save ourselves spiritually. I grew up thinking salvation meant move to the country, can all your own food, sew all your own clothes, build an underground shelter, stock up on everything as if Y2K is still coming and be prepared at all costs to protect your life. My question to these people is when do you stop taking care of yourself and trust God?
I have come to understand the best preparation for the end is to trust Jesus who told us–
So do not worry, saying,
‘What shall we eat?’ or
‘What shall we drink?’
or ‘What shall we wear?’
For the pagans run after all these things,
and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.
But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness,
and all these things will be given to you as well.
Keep Sweet and Never Complain
My family never used the FLDS saying “keep sweet,” but I was lectured on how Jesus loves happy girls and told not to complain. This was often in reference to my non-schooling. I was told if I was unhappy, I might get cancer like my grandma. I was told to take more B vitamins. I was told, “God wants us to be positive and not negative.” Looking back, I realize this theme is still repeated in my family today. Now they say, “Stop living in the past,” and “If you haven’t forgotten, then you haven’t forgiven,” but no one ever addresses the issues or speaks honestly about what actually happened. I find comfort knowing God is the silent witness to all of our secrets and pain. I now know I can share all of my pain with Jesus.
Family Members Who Lie
I mentioned one of my favorite parts of the book is where Rebecca stands up to her father for his lies and abuse. I’m not sure we can ever get over our own parents lying about us. It’s not pleasant to realize the people we once trusted with our lives are really about protecting their own image. Even our siblings who were once abused often continue the cover up because mind control dictates they never question or complain or they too will be considered as betraying the family.
I have crossed this line as an adult and found that I have very few friends in my own family, but I also decided I want honest friends who can talk about real issues without name calling and slandering someone who tells the truth. My hope is in Jesus who not only calls Himself the Truth, but He endorses all truth and says that anyone who lies is from their father the devil who has been a liar from the beginning.
Lack of Assertive Theory
At the end of her book, Rebecca Musser declares there are two extremes that facilitated such abuse–Aggression which allowed bullying and passivity which stood by and did nothing, but what was needed was assertion. In assertion everyone’s rights are examined. I agree with her one hundred percent. This is the problem at the heart of most cults and dysfunctional families.
When I was a young college student, I took a class in assertive theory. I was thrilled to discover everyone can have a voice and I eagerly tried to share this with my family. I was met with disgust and told this class has ruined me. I am sure it did from the point of view of someone who wanted to control me.
Teaching Rhythmic Music is from Satan
Warren Jeffs probably said this to prevent the people from finding joy outside of his control. While it was not a large part of Rebecca’s story, my own memories of being beaten for listening to rock music are strong. I can’t forget the pain of paving the way as the oldest child in a family where innocuous Christmas music had to be turned off because one of our parents was in a bad mood.
I still go into a deep depression whenever I hear Bing Crosby and Perry Como who are considered by most to be wonderful singers. Because I lived in fear of being punished for listening to them depending on the mood of my parent, I have to fight depression every time I hear such music. For me to enjoy Christmas, I have to choose songs that have no childhood memories.
I have survived having an Amy Grant tape thrown out the car window and a belting for listening to John Denver when I was twelve. I have been told I have the devil in me for listening to Don Williams.
Even though I no longer allow anyone else to make my choices for me, my choice to listen to what I choose has created a drift between me and some who belief syncopation is evil. I obviously do not.
I believe God is the creator of rhythm. Consider all the rhythmic sounds in nature including some birds that sound like drummers. We have been given choices and many chords and harmonies to put in our music
Choosing a Loving God
As I read Rebecca Musser’s story, I felt that familiar feeling of nostalgia as I remembered how I was controlled. Not all of those memories were good. There was a pain in the reading, but I also felt a sense of healing. I felt God saying, the fundamentalists have been confused, they have abused in My name and despite their black and white thinking they have made salvation too complicated.
It really is simple–there are only two ways to do life in this world–whether you grew up in a dysfunctional family or a cult. All people operate either from a selfish, survival-of-the fittest mentality or other-centered love. They use power over or power under. They exhibit control or offer freedom. God’s government and the way He treats people is always based on freedom.
Toward the end of her book, Musser finally states–
“Along the way,
I discovered I could choose the loving God
who honors choices
and free agency in our humanity.”
When freedom has been taken from us, when we have been manipulated by fear and coercion, if we have been threatened with eternal death for not obeying obey orders, we will eventually learn to block out all the noise–either by leaving God altogether, or we will search until we discover what God is actually like. Then, once finding a God of freedom and love, we throw off all human pressure that does not measure up.
We are the grownups now; we get to decide for ourselves. No one will ever do our thinking for us again. We cannot allow fear messages to manipulate us into following God. I choose to follow Jesus out of a reflection of His love for me.
On that note and in a Spirit of rebuking the abuse in this world, I have been enjoying this song all week. For me, it’s a reflection of being set free from a narcissistic, controlling environment to discover a world of freedom and love.
Wish that you could,
but you ain’t gonna own me
do anything you can to control me
There’s a place that I go
That nobody knows
Where the rivers flow
And I call it home
And there’s no more lies
And the darkness is light
And nobody cries
there’s only butterflies