Skip to main content

Novel Puts Into Words My Break with Childhood Faith

By Sheldon Cooper ~

I recently finished 13:24, the powerful new spiritual thriller from author M. Dolon Hickmon. Although it is a work of fiction, this story about the impacts of religiously motivated child abuse hit close to home and spoke volumes to me.

In 13:24, murder and scandal erupt during a controversial rock band’s weekend visit to a small town. When police link the band’s lead singer, Josh, to a homicidal teenaged fan, the resulting drama causes Josh to have flashbacks of his own abusive childhood. In a series of potently emotional scenes, Josh relives his early years with his minister father, who has a lot in common with real life fundamentalists like James Dobson and Michael Pearl.

In places, it felt like Josh was explaining my childhood, with better words than I would have come up with. For instance, after a suicide attempt, Josh tells a friend who has come to visit him at the hospital: “I don't have a clue what I am passionate about, because my father stripped away every shred of independence. It was never enough to follow orders. He had to pry me open, to make sure I didn't have any feelings or motivations that he hadn't given me permission to have.”

Josh’s struggle for identity was especially affecting to me, because after years of physical, verbal, and emotional abuse, this past December I finally broke free from my family. 13:24 exposes much of what it means to grow up in an abusive fundamentalist cult: rather than developing self-worth and personal awareness, children are threatened, beaten, manipulated and coerced until they are afraid to think, feel, or express anything that does not reflect the beliefs of their parents. It’s a world of “thoughtcrime” and ferocious opposition to “ownlife”, to borrow a few phrases from George Orwell’s classic 1984. Using vivid dialog and original song lyrics, Josh expresses the anger, frustration, and longing that I have felt over reaching adulthood without knowing the simplest things about who I am.

In a discussion with a support group for survivors of religiously motivated abuse, the character Josh seemed to be speaking to my own circumstance: "I was raised to believe that there was a God, who loves and helps people. I believed  that, and I prayed, with the faith of a little child. God was supposed to listen; but year after year my father stood in his church, daring him to intervene. God never did a single thing. He never lifted one finger to help or comfort me.” Offended, a Christian woman asked Josh whether he thought his experience meant everyone should give up on Christianity. Josh’s reply lingered with me for days: “I'm not saying that. I'm saying that we don't always get to believe what we want. Somehow we have to reconcile our desire to believe with the reality we have seen."

I’d had a similar realization years before, but at the time I’d felt trapped: I was a financially dependent college freshman, and I had no doubt that my parents would punish me if I told them that I’d broken with their beliefs.  I became the "Undercover Agnostic," trapped in a world that was no longer mine. I worked and saved then bought my own house; but the nightmare didn’t end. My parents’ clawed for control of me, until I got law enforcement involved.  In our final meeting, my parents’ pastor questioned, doubted, and defended my parents. I resigned my church membership, telling him that I could never return.

I expected him to be professional. Instead, he hounded me, hoping to drag me back to his church and his fundamentalist beliefs.  I ignored him, until word reached me of rumors that only the pastor could have spilled.  In an e-mail, I confronted him; his answer was that he had broken my confidence out of "deep love and in obedience to God's Word". I’d had enough: I sent a certified letter, threatening criminal charges or a lawsuit if he bothered me again.

In retrospect, it seems obvious that it wasn’t a church that I had left, but instead a cult.

These days, I’m putting my life back together. I have found a Unitarian Universalist congregation that accepts me, even as an agnostic. I have been exploring the St. Louis area and figuring out how to express who I truly am. To formalize the break from my past, I went to court to legally change my name.

I understand why a person would want to believe in a loving, merciful god. I might even have shaken my discomfort at how a supposedly loving god could allow my abusive “mother” to exist. But I will never understand why He let her do such things in His name, or why He allows His supposed church to teach child abuse as a divine mandate. I have to wonder why, if God exists, he isn’t putting a stop to it once and all.

The conclusion of 13:24 leaves room for faith, but it calls on everyone, including the church, to look into the face of child abuse and hold their spiritual leaders accountable.

Sheldon is a former Christian fundamentalist and warehouse clerk from the St. Louis suburbs. He writes about faith, everyday life, and recovering from fundamentalism on his blog Ramblings of Sheldon.