The following is a true story. The writer has requested anonymity. Stories like these demonstrate how the teachings of Bill Gothard, Michael Pearl, James Dobson and Richard Fugate spiritualized the abusive belief that God wanted parents to “break their child’s will.” Trigger warning: abuse. EE.
I was twenty-two years old.
I was sitting in my therapist’s office, telling him the stories I’m about to tell you. He called them “abuse”. I didn’t believe him. Abuse is something that happened to other people. In other families. Not in ours.
Sure, maybe my parents got a little angry sometimes when they were spanking us, but didn’t everybody’s parents? Sure, sometimes the spankings left bruises and welts, but didn’t we deserve it?
Wasn’t it for our own good? Wasn’t this all out of love?
My brothers and I had been fighting again. We were supposed to be cleaning the basement, but instead we were bickering and fighting, as young boys tend to do. When my dad came downstairs, he was angry. We knew right away that we were in trouble. We sat there on the stairs in terrified anticipation. He walked over to a corner of the basement and found an old broom, with a wooden handle. While we watched, he unscrewed the head of the broom. With a carpenter’s handsaw, he cut the broom handle in half.
A decade later, I still remember the feeling of dread that settled over us as we watched him slowly, methodically cut though that broom handle. Our excuses, our arguments, our apologies were no good at that point. We knew what was coming.
The sawed-off broom handle was a favorite of both parents. Three feet long and an inch around, it was more effective than a wooden spoon. More resilient than a wooden yard stick.
We got used to it, too. A “spanking” consisted of five swings of the broom handle. We’d judge the first one when it landed; if it was too low we’d try to get a bit higher, if it was too high we’d raise on tiptoes. The trick was to get it right in the squishy part of the butt. Too high hurt more, but too low, under the buttcheeks, the bruises lasted longer.
Our sisters said us boys had it easier, because jeans provided better protection than cotton dresses.
We had other tricks, too. We knew that an angry parent meant a more severe spanking, so we’d try to find ways to delay it, to give them time to cool off. They rarely forgot, but it’d be calmer, softer then. Sometimes, when we knew the spankings were coming, we’d hastily apologize and ask forgiveness. That never worked; my dad always said that he could forgive, but there were still consequences.
Some days Mom didn’t want to spank us, so she’d just have dad do it when he got home from work. The dread would hang over us all day, knowing that no matter how well we behaved the rest of the day, we were still going to get spanked when he got home. He worked late hours. Sometimes we’d already be asleep, and he’d wake us up to spank us.
One day, he got home so late that he waited till the next day to spank me. He woke me up early, before anybody else was up, so he could spank me before he went to work.
I took my spanking without arguing, because I knew I deserved it.
He wasn’t angry, or abusive that time. He gave me the spanking I had earned, and then went to work. I remember that I had a really good day that day; I didn’t get in trouble at all. I remember telling my mom that it had been a good day because I’d gotten my “attitude adjustment” at the very beginning of it. That was what they called the spankings – “attitude adjustments”.
We were supposed to bend over and hold onto the bench in the laundry room, hold onto it tight while the broom handle landed hard on the back pockets of our jeans. If we squirmed too much, or yelled too loud, it didn’t count. They’d start over.
Sometimes, instead of the bench in the laundry room, we had to lay face-down on the bed. That way, we couldn’t squirm as much. It felt more helpless that way, but at least were were able to stifle our sobs in the bedspread.
Afterwards we were supposed to hug our parents and pray with them, but we rarely wanted to.
We learned not to cry. There was dignity in that, especially when the spanking felt undeserved. I could withstand a five-round spanking with no problem. But the compound spankings, the when multiple offenses stacked up, were harder get through.
I was the good kid, so I didn’t have many of those. My brother wasn’t. He liked to piss of Mom and Dad. It wasn’t uncommon for his him to get hit forty, fifty, sixty, a hundred times in a row. He had earned it.
We’d listen when the other kids got their spankings, Mom screaming the whole time, the sawed-off broom handle crashing against the doorframe or the washing machine on the backswing. We’d try to disappear, or bury ourselves in chores and schoolwork, so that we wouldn’t be next.
We couldn’t get away from the round-robin interrogation spankings. When one of us kids had told a lie, or stole something, and refused to confess. We’d all be lined up, and spanked one at a time, over and over again. Before each spanking we were given the opportunity to confess. The spankings would continue until somebody did.
Waiting our turn for the next spanking, we’d negotiate with each other, try to coax the offender into confessing. With the twisted glee of a younger brother, he kept taking his spankings so that he could watch his older siblings get spanked too. We tried not to give him the satisfaction of hearing us cry.
One night, after a few hours of this, my dad got tired of spanking us. He lined us up on the couch where he read Proverbs to us for a while, all these Bible verses about how lying was wrong.
These spankings were just a part of life, really. We knew the rules, and when we broke them we got what we deserved. It wasn’t the stinging bite of the broomstick against buttcheeks that was the worst, or even the next day when it hurt to sit down. It was the fear before the spanking. The knowing that the spanking had been earned. The desperate negotiating and explaining that failed every time. The wondering how harsh it would be.
But spanking was good, right? If it wasn’t good, then why did the church have a spanking room in the basement, for parents to take their kids who misbehaved during the service? Why was there a wooden paddle hanging on the wall there in the church, with holes drilled in it for aerodynamics? Why did the pastor preach a sermon called “The Holy Art of Spanking our Children”? [ there's a link online. i don't have the courage to listen to it ]
We never knew. “Chaos” is the word the counsellor used. It was an unstable, dangerous place to live. Because it wasn’t always enraged, bruising spankings. It wasn’t always anger and screaming. But we never knew, from one day to the next, which it would be. Kindness and love, or anger and beatings.
Sometimes, when I was on good behavior, I could make it all the way through a day without a spanking. Those were good days.
Sitting there in the counsellor’s office, I still had a hard time believing it was “abuse”.
Abuse is what angry, alcoholic parents did. Our parents were Christians. They loved us. They wanted the best for us. That’s why they homeschooled us. That’s why they spanked us.
We were like horses, it was their job to break our wills.
To this day, I don’t know if our experience was unique in that church. Sadly, I’m afraid it was not. We were in an ultra-conservative pseudo-Mennonite cult for many of those years, the church with with the spanking room in the basement.
Copies of “To Train Up a Child” were passed around the church; I remember listening to my mom discuss it with the other homeschooling moms. I remember picking it up one day, flipping through its pages. It didn’t strike me as abnormal. It was pretty consistent with the abusive discipline culture of that cult-church. It was also apparently compatible with Bill Gothard and his homeschooling cult, an organization we were part of from the time I was in first grade.
I don’t think my parents were monsters. In a way, that made it worse. Because if they were monsters, I could write them off, curse their memory and block them out of my mind and life forever.
But I have all these memories, of screaming parents and sawed-off broomsticks, all mixed together with memories of happy conversations, and all the time and love they invested in us, and generosity and encouragement and kindness.
In a way, I don’t know which version of my parents is real. I like to think think that they were were terribly brainwashed – by the cult-church, by “To Train Up a Child”, by Bill Gothard and his perverted homeschool cult and all his empty promises.
Believing that makes it a little easier to pretend like everything is ok when I see them now.