The next day at lunch, after I finished eating, someone stopped me in the halls and said that BG wanted me to come to the head table immediately. When I arrived, he was eating, so I stood there and waited patiently until he was done. He called me over and began grilling me again. Then he asked me if I’d given my heart away to anyone. This was IBLP code for “do you like a boy?”. And that sort of thing was forbidden, so… ya know. It was like being caught with your hand in the cookie jar when you were asked this dreaded question and your eyes and expression betrayed you even if your mouth tried to absolve you.
I knew better than to lie about it. I knew he’d be able to see right through me.
“Well, ok. There is someone. But we just like each other. That is all. We’ve never been alone. We’ve never even touched each other. We just like each other. And we won’t do anything about that until we’re both gone.”
“Gone? Are you planning on leaving?”
“Well, I guess I was hoping that as soon as I was done with EQUIP you’d let me go home. I don’t want to be here. I’m lonely and homesick.”
“That depends on your behavior, young lady. You were giving your mom trouble at home.”
“No I wasn’t. My mom bounced a check in my own bank account, and I got mad. As punishment, she took my whole paycheck and my debit card. That’s why we were fighting.”
“So, you think she’s going to let you come back to her? I don’t think she will. And I know she won’t if I don’t let her. She lives in one of my houses, ya know. And I don’t think you want to go live with your dad. Sounds like your options are pretty limited.”
“Who is this boy?”
“His name is Brian.” I pointed across the room to where he was.
“Isn’t he an LIT? A Leader In Training? Isn’t he here because he is in trouble?”
“I’m here because I’m in trouble.”
“He isn’t who I want for you. I won’t allow that relationship or give my blessing to it.”
“Well, we haven’t done anything, so you don’t really need to worry.”
“I need to hear from your mouth that you are done with him.”
I was silent. For the first time, I couldn’t get myself to say it. The words he wanted to hear. I was so tired. Just so tired. Tired of appeasing. Tired of pleasing. Tired of having everything I loved taken away just so I could try harder and harder to not be in trouble all the flipping time.
I had already experienced the fun of the “prayer room” – a lovely little place where kids were locked by themselves overnight or for a day or two. We were sent there for doing particularly bad things. A big hitter was the offense of liking a boy or liking a girl. I mean, we all did it, but some of us were more on BG’s radar, so we got in more trouble for it.
The prayer room was an awful place. No people. No food. No comfy sleeping space. Just an empty hotel room. And unlike all the other rooms of this thirteen story hotel, the locks on this room were on the outside of the door rather than the inside making it a prison and not a safe bedroom. The camera in the hallway aimed right at the door made certain that no one would dare venture to our part of the hotel and try to talk to us through the door.
It was tough. Those were dark moments.
Being part of IBLP was such a strange mix of good and bad. I had been a victim of the most thorough form of brainwashing, so to me, other than IBLP, there really was nothing left in the world to be wanted. Not finding success there was not finding success at all. So, in a weird way, even though I was treated like garbage, I desperately wanted to be there. Even though I didn’t. If you can understand that.
It’s very much like battered wife’s syndrome. You desperately want help and freedom and rescue. But when it shows up at your door at midnight because someone heard the fiasco and called the cops, you just send them home and stay in your misery. Because familiarity is the only good thing an abused person understands. Freedom is actually far too terrifying. Rescue is actually unwelcome when it tries to show up.
All the years that preceded my final year in the cult were just as bad. How many times was I mistreated? Berated? Called names? Had food withheld? How many times was I “sent home” and then brought back when my attitude was finally beaten into submission? How many times was I disallowed to be a normal human being? It was bad enough that I wasn’t allowed something as normal as being attracted to the opposite sex, I wasn’t even really allowed to have close friends. Once a deep bond was formed, they were taken away. Every single time. Jackie. Peggy. Cara. Stephanie. Christi. And now Brian. I knew that I wouldn’t even be allowed to be seen near him now. And honestly, he was what was getting me through the days at this point.
We would write notes to each other and tape them to the bottom of our dinner plate. Then, when no one was looking and the throng of people were in line for lunch or dinner, we would, ever so carefully, trade plates. He would end up with my note, and I would end up with his.
This is how we got to know each other.
Sometimes they were poems. Sometimes sweet love notes. Sometimes sad confessions of deep, deep depression.
We were each other’s life rafts.
The thought of no longer being able to communicate with him or even see him was unbearable. It was so much worse than “first love” gone awry. It was like having my flotation device taken away and then being tossed into the ocean.
The day after the meeting at the head table was bad. I knew something was stirring. My friends all knew it too. They looked at me across the dining hall, not daring to come close. Whispers in the elevator on the way back to our rooms at curfew.
“Do they know?”
“Oh Heather. What is going to happen to you guys? What are they going to do to you?”
“I don’t know. I’m just scared, and I’m so tired. I can’t keep living this way.”
The next morning, I found out that Brian was put into a prayer room, and that he was going to stay there until they decided what to do with us. I was supposed to keep working. My EQUIP program was over now, and I worked on the remodeling crew. The hard manual labor was nice as it kept me distracted, but it was not nice because it made me so hungry. And because I was so terrified of being under the harsh and watchful eye of the leadership, I was regularly skipping meals in order to avoid it.
My friend Stephanie brought me a whole wheat roll that evening. I was hiding on the 9th floor “working overtime”. She hugged me and kissed my cheek before disappearing. We all knew what happened to the people who tried to help those who were in trouble. Aiding and abetting. As bad as it was to be the person in trouble, sometimes things were even worse for the people who tried to help us.
Two days passed like this. On the evening of the second day, there was a knock at my bedroom door. It was a few of the ladies who were on staff. They went through my things and took a lot of it. They took any food I had in my room. I knew they were looking for evidence of a relationship with Brian, but they didn’t find anything because I had put the letters in my bed sheets, and I was sitting on them.
When she was done, she told me that I was to stay in my room until I was called. It might be a few days. If I would just stay put, they wouldn’t put me in a prayer room. But if I was caught out of my room or being visited, they’d put me in a prayer room with 24/7 surveillance.
I stayed in my room.
No actual lock imprisoning me this time except my own fear. My own dread.
Christi snuck a slice of leftover cheesecake to me that evening when the halls were full because everyone was coming to bed by curfew. She was crying. She squeezed my hand. She handed me the plate and scurried away.
The next morning, I was summoned to BG’s office. Numb by now, I walked like a robot off the elevator and to his office. I saw Brian leaving his office at just that moment. He was crying.
“Oh no. What’s going to happen? What’s going to happen?” I wondered to myself as my heart beat fast and hard.
He asked for a confession. He asked me to repent in front of the staff of 300+ people. He wanted me to tell Brian to his face that we were done.
For once, I was frozen. My insides were too bruised to do it one more time. I just couldn’t. I couldn’t pacify. I couldn’t let myself be bullied into not loving the one person I truly loved. I couldn’t find the gumption to suck it up and do it again.
“What happens if I don’t?”
“Then you’re done here. You will leave immediately.”
“To go home?”
“Your mom won’t allow that.”
“Then where will I go? I have nowhere else to go.”
“That’s not my problem.”
“What did I do wrong? What did I do that I would deserve to be excommunicated from the only life I’ve known since I was like ten or eleven years old? I’m twenty years old, and I don’t know how to live anywhere but here. Anywhere away from here. I don’t even know how to dress away from here.”
“What is your choice? Are you going to make a confession to the staff at dinner, or are you leaving.”
“First, tell me. Tell me what I did wrong.”
“You gave your heart away without permission. Without my permission.”
It’s been twenty-two years since he said those words, and I still feel the sting of them as I write. I still feel the finality. The death. The inescapable trouble.
There was no way out.
I was simply unable to find it in me to do it one more time. To do whatever he told me to do. And I honestly had nowhere in the world to go.
A decade of isolation left me ripe for needing desperate measures if desperate times showed up. And this was a desperate time.
I walked out of his office and directly to the phone bank in the hallway. I dialed my brother collect.
“Mike, it’s Heather. Remember when you told me that if I needed you, all I needed to do was to call? I’m calling. I need you. Come now. Come as fast as you can get here.”
He assured me he was on his way immediately.
I hung up the phone and knew that I would have to survive whatever the leadership had for me for the three hours it was going to take for him to get from home to Indianapolis.
I went to the elevator. It opened.
There stood Brian.
No one in the lobby to notice.
I cautiously got on the elevator with him. I figured there wasn’t much they could do to me now. After all, I was being excommunicated. What else was worse? If they yelled at me now, at least my relief was on its way. At least the longest they could go at it was three hours.
For the first time ever, we hugged. We both cried. I told him that I was being excommunicated. He cried more.
“How will I find you? I don’t even know your parent’s names. I don’t know where you live. How will I find you?”
“My parents are Ron and Theresa. I live in Marietta, Georgia. And I will find you. Even if it takes me years, I will find you.”
The elevator dinged. We dropped our hug. The doors opened. I walked out and turned around for one last look. It was eighteen months before I looked into the cool blue of his eyes again. Eighteen months till I heard his voice again.
“I love you,” he mouthed.
“I love you too,” I mouthed back.
The doors slid shut and a part of me died instantly.
My brother came. He put my things in boxes and used as many swear words as he could think of when the leadership ladies came to try to stop him. My friends, suddenly emboldened by the realization that I was being excommunicated and that they would probably never see me again, came for their good byes.
It was a thing most of us had experienced at least once before. Watching someone get excommunicated.
But it’s always different when it’s you.
We cried till we shook. We hugged till we hurt. We held hands and gently sang “Friends are Friends Forever”, the sad ritual carried out when these forced separations happened.
Mike practically carried me to his car.
I laid down in the back seat to keep from fainting. To keep from vomiting.
Why is it so hard to leave abuse? I really don’t know. Even to this day I don’t know. But it is. And to anyone who has been forced to leave it, you can know how terrified I was that day. Driving away from everything I knew. Everyone I knew. Utterly unready for life. Utterly unable to do anything. I didn’t know how to buy pants or get a job. I didn’t even really know how to speak in the real world away from the pseudo safety of the cult.
I sat up as we drove away. I looked one last time. He was standing in his bedroom window on the 6th floor. Both hands pressed against the glass.
Then the car turned.
That was the last glimpse for so long.
The car drove and carried me home. I stayed with my dad just a few days until I left to go be with my cousins in South Dakota. But then the depression caught up to me there, and I needed to move again just to keep my pain from overtaking me. I moved to Colorado to be with my friend from the cult. But then she was in a terrible accident, so I could not stay. I came back home but in between accusations of apostacy because I was now wearing jeans and heathenism because I had cut my long flowing curls off in favor of a short blond bob, I needed to leave again.
As many times as I have replayed the events of my excommunication in the twenty two years since it took place, I have still never been able to answer some questions.
Why so harsh? All I did was like a boy?
Why no help? No follow up? No one called to be sure I didn’t hang myself in the bathroom that night. No one checked in on me in the weeks that followed to be sure that I didn’t swallow everything in the medicine cabinet just to make the loud screams of pain in my heart a little quieter.
Why, why, why?
So many why’s and no answers.
And the answers that did come only came after more years of pain.
The biggest answer came to me in 2005 when I was 29 years old and in another hard spot. The God I had known since age nine was suddenly losing his false identity. All the errors of the cult that were cast over Him were now being made known. All these many years later, He was coming for me. God. My Heavenly Father. He was coming to finally tell me who he was. Who He is.
And when the mystery of grace finally crashed onto me as I poured over the pages of The Ragamuffin Gospel, when ten million stored up tears finally made their way out when I first heard the words of His ferocious love for me, suddenly I knew. I knew that all the sadness of those last days, all the loss and all the depression and all the agony was for the purpose of setting me free. Getting me out.
I’d seen so many people come and then go. Most of them had a wonderful time. They considered their time “at headquarters” to be some of the best days of their life. But when they left, they never had to ask the hard questions. They never had to poke all the holes and shake the teachings out of their brain. They never had to sift and sift and sift.
And so, they have carried on, completely unaware that so much of what they believe is lies. So much of their foundation is faulty. So much of their doctrine is “off”.
Year after year, one by one by one, I’ve watched so many fall away. I’ve watched them reach points of such utter disillusionment that they were no longer able to stand. I’ve watched them be pulled under.
In their mind, they were pulled up out of the water. Rescued, in fact. Enlightened.
They threw the Most Important Baby Ever straight out with that filthy bathwater.
They lost their way because the way that they were told was the wrong way. It was a lie. All of it.
But for some reason, He had pity on me. Maybe it was the times I cried in the shower. Maybe it was the times in the prayer room when my belly twisted in pain from hunger. Maybe it was all the prayerful words trapped inside of me that I simply did not know how to release. Maybe he saw those words and knew them even before I did. And maybe that was what caused such deep pity for me.
Maybe that was why He let them crucify me. So I could get out. So I could dust the dirty doctrine off. And stand up. And live.
I was one of the lucky ones. It took so many years to see it that way. To recognize that he dragged me from that burning hotel to save me.
The ones left behind were the ones less fortunate. The myriad who went down with that ship were the ones less favored.
A thousand children lost for every one who survived.
A thousand souls left in permanent trauma for every one that found their way out.
And a thousand millstones prepared for the neck of a lonely man named Bill Gothard who ekes out his existence in LaGrange, Illinois.
Heaven help you for what you did to us.