Shiny Happy Childhood – Authority

Five children playing ring-around-the-rosie.
Me with my then four siblings in 1971. I was older than this when I first attended Bill Gothard’s seminars, but not a lot older.

When I watched the documentary series Shiny Happy People it struck way too close to home. So I decided to write a blog series to process my responses.

In the first post, I talked about my background – how I’m from a big family, like the Duggars, and attended Bill Gothard’s seminars in the 1970s, before they were as extreme as they seem to have become later.

In this second post, I’d like to talk about Authority.

Although from the documentary I learn that Bill Gothard’s teachings got much more extreme as time went on, even in the 1970s, he was already pushing Authoritarian teachings.

You’ve probably seen the diagram on Twitter, and I think it was in the documentary – the idea is the “Umbrella of Protection” – that the father/husband is under the umbrella of Christ protecting him from Satanic attack, and the wife is under the husband’s umbrella, and the children are under the wife.

Gothard preached that this is God’s design and if trouble ever comes your way, you’d better check if you stepped out from under the God-designed authority.

I don’t think Gothard was teaching then that girls shouldn’t go to college. He wasn’t pushing homeschooling then, either, and my parents didn’t homeschool until later.

When I talked about my background, I kept talking about what my Mom thought and what my Mom did. That’s because we heard the ideas from her. Dad worked full-time and wasn’t around all that much – more for fun things. Mom was the one running us kids’ lives. And if you think about it, that fits Gothard’s set-up. I do know that my mother believed in voting how my dad told her to vote, and wasn’t interested in politics or current events. She also didn’t think women should run for office, and you certainly shouldn’t vote for one. (Makes me wonder if we’ll ever get a woman President unless it’s a conservative – because that might be the only way people like my parents would vote for her.)

It’s just as well Gothard didn’t teach that women shouldn’t go to college. Because in my family, we kids did well in school, and Mom was proud of our grades. Besides, she’d gone to a Christian college just long enough to meet my dad and get married at 19. Then she got pregnant and dropped out. So when we went to a Christian school – and my older sister got married at 19 (but managed to finish her degree) – it’s not at all like Mom was ever tempted to stop us.

But Mom also thought it was a terrible thing when married women worked outside the home. And the truth was, I’d always wanted to end up a stay-at-home mom.

So when my firstborn came along a year and two months after I got married (right after grad school) and there was no way in the world we could afford to live in Los Angeles on one income – it was tough. Actually, I was teaching at Biola University, and we tried for a little while for me to work full-time and my husband at home. But he hadn’t grown up wanting to be a stay-at-home dad. It was rough. He started working part-time, and I adjusted my course load of teaching to teach three days a week. That didn’t work well, either.

So eventually, my husband joined the Air Force Band, and after that I taught night classes. I cheerfully went with him around the world, because for me, it was all about his career. My job was just a part-time one to help pay the bills. And we bent over backwards to not have to put our kid into day care.

And while I was doing that – teaching at Biola and feeling pretty overwhelmed with it all, I had a conversation with my Mom about Sesame Street. She said I wouldn’t like it now because they have things like women working. As if she was blissfully unaware how hard I was working.

Another time she told about a neighbor whose child had sadly gotten burned because their water temperature was up too high. And she said, “That’s what happens when women work.” Apparently, they had turned up the temperature to be able to get out the door in the morning more quickly. But I was flabbergasted by the comment.

And actually, looking back, I think my teaching worked out pretty well. It was nice that I had an outlet outside the home. (Albeit a bit frustrating at the time to always have papers to grade and class notes to prepare.) I didn’t feel like it was wrong for me to work outside the home – I just wished we could afford for me not to.

And I did get a year and a half as a stay-at-home mom when my husband got transferred to Germany. And I was very glad to quit teaching. But when an opening came up at the base library right when our car broke down, I realized that if we had to replace the used car, I would need to get a job — so why not apply for this one I would really like while it was available? I began working twenty hours a week at the base library. Little did I know that it would eventually lead to a wonderful career.

So I want to say this kind of thinking and teaching didn’t affect my life all that much. But — it also explains how incredibly hard it hit when my husband started talking about divorce.

It turned out he was having an affair, but when I found out he was spending time with the other woman behind my back, he told me it was not an affair, just a friendship. And I believed him. And I could have understood an exception for adultery, but if it was not adultery, then I believed divorce was WRONG. (And yes, all-caps is appropriate.)

And yes, when I heard Bill Gothard talk about divorce, I was just a kid. But I still remember that he said that God wouldn’t bless the marriage of the first person of the couple to remarry. But if your spouse divorces you and remarries someone else, then God can bless your marriage if you marry someone else. I believed that completely. I was a kid! And the ideas hung around until I was an adult.

In fact, those ideas made me ripe for a ministry I found that was all about reconciling with your “prodigal” spouse and “Standing for your marriage” and praying them back, whether they have a “non-covenant” marriage or not. It took years trying to pray my husband back before the Lord gently showed me that I was trying to tell God what to do – I wasn’t trusting God with the situation. I finally got to where I could pray that my husband would find his way back to God, but it didn’t have to be back to me. And eventually, I told my friends to be sure and stop me if I was ever tempted to take my ex-husband back.

And I’ve actually got a career now! And a job I love, that’s completely and perfectly suited to my skill set and special interests. (I’m not only a librarian, but I select all the children’s and teen books for a large public library system.)

So – this post hasn’t been so much about authority. But as a now-single woman, I do reject the idea that I need a man’s protection or that I need anyone coming between the Lord and me. The divorce process hit me much harder than if I hadn’t felt like I was disobeying God as well. But the Lord dealt with me tenderly and made me feel protected and close to God’s heart.

Oh, one last postscript – My parents both passed away at the end of 2019. So I think I can speak a little more freely about my childhood than I did when I wrote Project 52. They did their best, but I personally don’t feel like there’s a person alive who can adequately parent 13 children. Besides that, they sat under the teachings of Bill Gothard and brought us with them. And now I’m exploring how that affected my life, for good or ill.

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