This is a continuation of Becky’s story in her own words…
I’m not sure how to start this, so I’m going to just jump in and hope it comes together. It’s like being at an intersection with a million crossroads and trying to pick the best route.
After my first blog piece, I’ve had so many people ask “what’s next”, and “then what happened”, so I will try to answer some of them. It’s impossible to do fully since I can only pick one direction at a time, but eventually, I might travel all of them.
Since I (and many other fellow women) went public with our stories, I have been pleasantly surprised at the outpouring of support I’ve received. Cards, letters, facebook messages – from friends, fellow survivors, and complete strangers – telling me their own stories, offering support, or saying “thank you”. We were all warned by the newspaper staff to brace ourselves after releasing our stories for negative comments, as social media and whatnot can be vicious. I am happy to report that I did not receive one negative comment from the general public. Not surprising, the only negative and derogatory comments came from members of the church we were speaking about. Anyhow, a big thank you to all of you that showed your support and encouragement. I know many have expressed hesitancy at saying anything, as they don’t know whether we want to talk about it, but please know that it’s always ok.
Some have asked why the Capital Times article didn’t address certain topics, so I will try to clarify some. First, there is a limit on the word count. A story like this has many facets, and not all can be addressed in 5000 words. Second, we were tying our stories in with the current bill in discussion regarding clergy being mandated reporters, so our stories were focused mostly on that aspect. Yes, there are/were many other aspects we would have loved to add, but it would take a book to discuss it all.
Moving on to more of my personal story – first, I would like to discuss the fear that was taught/ingrained in us as children in UPC. From early ages on, we were taught that if we didn’t strictly follow UPC’s definitions of biblical “salvation”, we would be damned to hell. We would burn in a lake of fire forever. We were told that there was a worse place in hell for those who had “heard the truth and walked away”. So that obviously put us in the “worse place”. Not sure how eternal fire could be worse, but apparently UPC found it. These rules, and not remotely an extensive list here, were that women were to be unquestionably submissive to the men, women could only wear long skirts/dresses, no makeup, absolutely no cutting/trimming of their hair, no jewelry, no public swimming, no movies, tv in homes was also taboo, we had to pay a minimum of 10% of all our income to the church (with your name on the envelope so if you weren’t giving they would know), and attendance to 3 services a week plus prayer meetings, etc. Public education was frowned on, so most ended up in the church-based school. Alcohol was a complete sin, to the point that some members would no go to restaurants if they served alcohol, or use food extracts because of the alcohol content. One woman I knew wouldn’t use conditioner in her hair because it had a type of alcohol in it. So between no alcohol and the strict dress code, it made most sports off limits too. Here’s a dumb example – in the church school, if the girls wanted to go play outside in the winter, we had to put skirts on OVER our snow pants. Apparently snow pants could show our curves (my eyes have rolled back so far in my head they may never come back out).
Back to the hell part – we were told that if we missed the rapture because we had sinned, then IF we survived the next few years of the apocalypse, we still had a slight chance to make it to heaven if we became martyrs for christ and had our heads chopped off. I was 9 years old when they showed us a movie about people getting their heads chopped off, and all sorts of human torture while turning off the lights to scare us even more. Even as a child, I knew I would never be perfect enough to be “saved”, so I knew my head would have to be chopped off to avoid burning forever. I know now how terribly psychologically abusive that is, especially to young developing minds. I look back now and can identify many times that I was having panic attacks as a child. I lived in terror and fear. Not just of hell, but of getting in trouble with the adults around me for not living up to the church’s rules. I was “rebellious” once and wore clear nail polish – I was given detention at school and then pulled out and slapped for it – let me say that again – I wore CLEAR NAIL POLISH, was slapped and made to repent of my sin and my “jezebel spirit”. Between school, 3 services a week, prayer meetings and youth group, I literally spent most of my childhood in that building.
Here’s something I have rarely spoken of, because for some reason it is really tough for me – but as a child, I would envision the devil and demons flying around my bed at night, just waiting for me to sin. Everything in UPC is considered a “spiritual battle” and they feel the devil is always lurking to trip them up. I would hide under my blankets and beg god to forgive me for anything I could’ve possibly done wrong. I started some self-harm techniques, long before I knew that’s what it was, and long before I could identify that was what I was doing – I would scratch myself until I bled, or pull out all my eyelashes and eyebrows – in an attempt to ease the torment in my mind.
I had no one to reassure me, to calm me, or to tell me it was going to be ok. Every person I knew was UPC, and every adult around me was UPC, and those adults enforced every rule.
Oddly, sexuality was a huge focus in UPC. Women were subservient but had to be excessively cautious about not being attractive, lest they cause the men around them to lust and sin. It was always the fault of the woman – they showed too much leg, too much arm, etc. If you were lucky enough to be naturally attractive, you were criticized and told you had the “spirit of sexuality”. Hence all the dress codes were on the women. But in their teachings, and the constant focus, they were doing much the opposite – they were keeping sexuality at the forefront of their religion. I sat through a youth class where the minister told us where men like to be touched, and what turns them on so that we wouldn’t do it. Talk about backward. Of course, it was abstinence-only. But in the background, where everyone knew but wouldn’t talk about, was a massive problem. I think because sex was such a forefront issue, and because you were only allowed to marry other UPC-ers, couples were often getting married extremely young and the only compatibility goal was your mate be UPC too. So little to no thought was placed on if you were a good match, or of life goals, personalities, etc, just be another UPC-er and god will take care of the rest. So affairs, sexual crimes, porn addictions, and unprotected sex was rampant. It was as if most everyone knew – I mean come on, I was a child and could see it, there’s no excuse for the adults not seeing it too – but no one talked about it or addressed it. No one would open that can of worms. Just as I sit typing this I can think of 7 examples of older men dating underage girls, just from my age group and circle of friends. I’m sure if I actually sat and counted, that number would be much higher. And by younger girls, I’m referring to girls in middle and high school. This was no secret, and so common in that community that no one even thought it weird. Those that did had enough sense to leave UPC, so the adults that were left were the ones too ingrained in the religion to think for themselves. I have often explained it as adults, parents would join UPC, and completely turn their children over to the church. They assumed the church was a good place, a safe place, and so they went against every parental instinct and just allowed whatever or whomever to now be in control of their children. Consequently, this mentality created a spectacular place for every predator imaginable. They could join this subset of society, do anything they wanted as long as they obeyed the outward rules of UPC, participate in services enough to be considered “godly” or ‘ministers’, and do anything they wanted and get away with it. No one would ever tell on them, because they already knew their religious group wasn’t looked on favorably by “normal” society, so they dealt with everything internally in order to avoid the public eye.
Not only was I preyed on by my perpetrator, who I previously referred to as “Ben”, but inappropriate behavior was common. On my wedding day, I was carried out by one of “Ben’s” friends, while they did the kidnap-the-bride thing, and his friend stuck his hand up my wedding dress and held onto my lady bits (sorry, oddly enough I feel weird saying “genitals”). I squirmed and tried to move, and asked him to stop, but he just kept it up and laughed at me. I couldn’t get away from him as he was carrying me, and he thought it was funny. It wasn’t until all this came up that I have even told that story. I realize now that this guy was so bold that he sexually assaulted his buddy’s wife on their wedding day. But even then I knew no one would believe me or care if I did tell. I have since learned that this same man had previously assaulted two other women, and he was actually made to apologize to the congregation for one assault, but he was still allowed to be a minister there.
What strikes me is how I had been taught and treated to think I had no boundaries, or no voice, in that arena – how UPC had sucked the very life out of me. I didn’t choose to grow up UPC – I was a child, and at the mercy of the adults around me – my parents, my teachers, my friends – were all UPC. The psychological and emotional abuse had irrevocably altered my development. I grew up in fear and suppression, completely vulnerable and completely hopeless, in an environment that preyed on the weak.
I need to wrap this up. I have a soft spot in my heart for children now. I wish every child could feel love, acceptance, and support, and to feel free and uninhibited to follow their dreams and be the person they want to be. I wish for every child to have a good meal in their belly and be in a safe place.
If anything ever comes of this, I will know that I fought for the child I was once was. I have grown up now, and have promised myself to never be that willingly vulnerable again. I can see myself as that young child, and I will be what she once needed, and somehow, hopefully someday, bring her some justice and healing.