9/04/2010 | Share this article: View CommentsBy rural_atheist ~
I stitched together this narrative, a kind of reverse testimonial, in my personal attempt to understand the warped mindset of my fundamentalist father-in-law. I used accounts from my husband, mother-in-law, and grandparents-in-law. I have changed some names to protect the victims’ privacy.
Steve wasn’t always a fundamentalist. He faithfully drove the church bus on Wednesdays and Sundays, but he wasn’t a fundie; he’d let the kids listen to pop, rap, rock - even contemporary gospel. He didn’t care what translation people used.
He even drank whiskey now and then – after all, his own father had served time for moon-shining – but sometimes, feeling guilty after partaking this a forbidden fruit, Steve would force his gagging 8-year-old son to consume large amounts of alcohol, in order to teach him a lesson about its evils.
A lot of the time, he felt bad after hitting his wife, Laura. After all, Paul admonished him to love her as he loved himself – except, he didn’t love himself all that much. He had nagging insecurities – a fear, ever since they’d began dating as juniors in high school, that Laura planned to leave him. His violent outbursts, coupled with a refusal to learn the material, had forced Steve to leave school; once, he destroyed a metal locker after a teacher refused his request to leave class and monitor Laura’s lunch period.
Laura’s parents say they missed the warning signs. “We should’ve done more,” they whisper. “We should’ve fought for Todd, at least. But when your child is on the phone, begging you not to say anything or you’ll never see her again – because he will kill her – what do you do?”
Once, to Steve’s disapproval, they’d swept Laura to the beach for the express purpose of putting some healthy space between the two; that night, they saw his truck in the parking lot. He’d just happened to show up. A few days before their wedding – with Laura freshly eighteen and just two weeks from graduating (Steve insisted they marry immediately) – they’d gotten into an argument; Laura tried to diffuse the situation by leaving, but Steve grabbed and twisted her arm. Laura wore a long-sleeved wedding dress.
Just like Laura told her son one day, “Daddy has a disease.”
Hopeful, Todd responded, “Really? Will he die?”
“Not that kind of disease. A disease of the heart: he used to watch Grandpa beat Grandma. So when Daddy hits you, I need you to be strong.”
Still, after an unusually rough night, Steve would return from work the next morning and shower her with gifts, tokens of his sorrow. With each gift came the implicit warning, “Look how well I treat you. Never leave me – or else.”
As for Todd, though, Steve just couldn’t work up the remorse; he held the firm belief – as he still makes a point to tell any young males in his presence – that “all boys should be beaten at least once a month, even if they haven’t done anything wrong.”
After all, Proverbs warned Steve of those disrespectful unruly children, their backs free of rod marks, rising against their fathers; the same book warned Todd that should he curse his father – no exceptions – he would die. Rolling Todd’s neck up in the car window, Steve disciplined Todd, and Todd silently cursed his father. (Guess who was sinning?)
One day, Laura picked Todd up from school and they fled to a shelter house; nobody knows why she chose that particular day – she won’t speak of it. After their welcome at the underfunded shelter ran out, she took refuge at her parents’ place. Relatives near and far reported seeing a truck, similar in appearance to Todd’s, patrolling their neighborhoods.
At his grandparents’, Todd got off the school bus to find their preacher – a confidante of Steve’s – sitting on the couch, talking with his mother. Immediately suspicious of the preacher’s motives and protective of his new-found freedom, Todd threw his backpack at the reverend’s face.
“Do you know what Steve did to us?” Laura cried, revealing faded marks on her arms.
“No,” Matthew admitted. “But a sin is a sin is a sin to God – and divorce is a sin. Don’t tear your family apart. If you trust in God, he’ll change Steve.”
“Why won’t you forgive your father?” Laura’s mantra would later become. “Can’t you see that he’s changed?”
Just as nobody knows why Laura left, nobody can figure out why she went back. Perhaps she didn’t like the disapproving whispers that followed her in public. Perhaps, as a deeply religious Christian woman, her beliefs finally got the best of her: she had to trust God. Perhaps, accustomed to the large income from Steve’s business, she got scared in a time when no-fault divorce didn’t really exist because separation was always the woman’s fault.
“I never understood this,” remembers Todd, “During the divorce proceedings — obviously they fell through in the end – my mom stood in the middle of a courtroom and testified about the abuse, showed doctor’s photographs of our injuries. Why didn’t social services investigate?”
The day Laura unexpectedly returned to her husband’s house, her parents sped into the driveway, tossing her and Todd’s things into the yard. Todd begged to go with them, but Laura gently chided him: “Don’t break up the family.”
As for Steve, Laura’s short-lived departure had confirmed his deepest fears: she wanted to leave him.
Steve couldn’t use his fists to keep her in line anymore, though; people would notice that now.
If he called Laura and she didn’t answer, he canvas the relatives’ phones. If she went downstairs without notifying him, he'd into hysteria. Sometimes, Laura would get up at night to use the bathroom – and he'd blow up, accusing her of trying to sneak away. He constantly guilt-tripped her about not really loving him.
The emotional manipulation wasn't enough, though. Instead, he subconsciously turned toward the next-best thing, fundamentalist Christianity: finding its precepts particularly suited to his needs to control his wife, he would use Laura’s own religion against her.
Nobody in their county would dare argue against biblical-based arguments. The Bible calls itself infallible; a True Christian believes it. A known wife-beater says - while holding out his church's offering plate - that he stopped abusing his family; a True Christian believes it. For arguing against an influential preacher’s interpretation of the Bible, Steve had seen destroyed reputations, failed businesses. Incorporating his violent past into his testimony, Steve became a noted preacher in the town.
After describing the graphic abuse he’d perpetrated, he'd yell from the pulpits, “I spent those six on my knees!” Laura and Todd would hide their faces – embarrassed at the public display of dirty laundry.
Instead of repulsing his congregation, though, Steve’s story cemented their beliefs in the life-changing power of Christ – so nobody thought to ask Steve to get off his knees and walk on over to a therapist’s office. To this day, Steve has never attended any kind of therapy program. Touting himself as a changed man, he scoffs at therapy as questionable at best, heretic at worst, and feminine in any case. “We’re too blessed to be depressed. God is enough,” he recites.
As expected, Laura fell for Steve’s sudden devotion, happily and dutifully taking on the role of preacher’s wife -– quiet, modest, fawning, submissive. At Steve’s ordination, the leading reverends explained to her the behavior expected of a good woman. “As the preacher’s wife, the women will always watch you,” they said. “They will talk about what you wear and what you say. For this reason, you must set a good example. Always support your husband and accept his will and guidance in everything.”
“I’d prefer you didn’t talk to your parents so much,” Steve told Laura. “Why not call my mom sometime instead?”
Laura’s mouth began to open in protest. Steve calmly quoted something from his favorite biblical author, Paul. Not wanting to risk arguing against husband (read: God) – like only a Jezebel would – Laura nodded.
“I accept your judgment.”
“I’d prefer you didn’t talk to your friend Missy – why not talk to Suzie from church instead? You told Leo that he could go to a concern with his friends – he can’t, it’s satanic.”
Laura nodded and nodded. “I accept your judgment.”
One day, Steve caught Laura taking prescription pain killers - "a way to numb the memories" – and in a frightened high panic, she took her car and ran away. To this day, Laura warmly recalls of how God, working through Steve, rescued her. The once-timid woman stands up in the congregation and energetically praises God for instantaneously wiping away an addiction of seven years.
Oddly enough, Laura doesn’t remember how Todd convinced her to come home, drove her to the doctor’s office. She doesn’t remember that Steve wouldn’t let her attend rehab: “You might leave me for somebody there. Let God heal your addiction.”
Slowly, Steve moved Laura’s dependency from pills – to him.
Still in tears, Laura’s parents admit that they haven’t seen or heard from their daughter – or Katie, their twelve-year-old granddaughter – in months. Even on the rare occasion that they host a meal or holiday event, Steve always gets sick after eating so he, Laura, and Katie have to rush home.
“I suppose my cooking could be that bad,” Shelley says, truly considering the idea, “but nobody else gets sick. Katie just loves my green beans.”
Robert recalls one of the last times they communicated. “About twenty years ago we gave them the land that they built their first house. Well, recently, they asked for more land, so they could build a storage shed for their work trucks. Of course, I signed over the extra acres. The next month they moved and sold all that land – my grandfather’s land. Thing is, they knew they were going to move all along. They just wanted the land to get a higher selling for their house.”
“I try to be a good Christian and forgive him, but it’s hard.”
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