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By Ronna Russell ~

Preacher Dad was persona non grata at Jackson College of Ministries, so we up and moved all the way across the country to Conqueror’s Bible College in Portland, OR. The day we pulled into the parking lot, after a five day cross country road trip, my sister looked at the empty brick building that was to become our home and started to cry. We moved into the circular complex of offices, classrooms, dormitories and apartments, next to the Port of Portland, into a three bedroom apartment right off the main hallway. It was surreal and empty and silent. Preacher Dad went to work and I went 9th grade in an inner city high school in the middle of downtown Portland. Wee bit of culture shock. When I registered, they asked for my parent’s employer and I said Conquerors’ Bible College. They wrote down Conkers Bible College. I didn’t correct them. I could see how silly it was. I had no idea how to explain who I was, why I was there or even where I lived. You live by the dock where they unload the new Toyotas? I didn’t know there were any houses down there. There weren’t. Awkward.

And, oh boy, church was different; no trumpet sections, no thumping bass, no black gospel influence. It was church without the show; soft, mellow, snoozy church. When everyone around you appears to be swept away by a sappy kind of emotionalism, feeling something that you aren’t feeling, it’s a lot like being the only sober one in the room. Being forced to sing (or mouth the words-I never could carry a tune) sedating hymns with lyrics of false truths based on intangibles that utterly escaped me, rage began to grow. Rage at being forced to sit, forced to pretend, to never be heard, to never have a voice. The only acceptability was compliance, of going along, playing the part, only now it was boring. I hated it all, with the white-hot contempt of a teenager.

Roosevelt High School may as well have been Mars, it was so different from anything that I had ever experienced. I did meet a few nice girls there that somehow accepted me and were willing to be friends. It was amazing. I asked if I could go to school five minutes early in the morning so I could talk to them in the hall, and was told no. The request had to be submitted to Preacher Dad and the verdict handed down through Mom. No, they did not want me to hang out there, did not want me to associate with those people or to have those friends. I was forbidden from having friends. There was nowhere else to hang out, no one else to be friends with. It was odd. It was lonely. Surreal.

So I got a part time job at a nursing home around the corner, doing dishes. I was kind of happy there, comfortable, even though it was just mopping up after incontinent old people and cleaning up their tables. They were lovely. They loved me and I loved them in return. But it was just a job and I was desperate for connection anywhere. Then I met a boy from out of town. I was nuts for that guy. PD had an orange and green striped velour couch in his office (it was the seventies) and that is where I lost my virginity, in another bout of 15-year-old fuck you, actual this time. Someone I know recently heard this story for the first time and paled. Turns out they still have that very couch. I am uncertain of its current fate. Perhaps it has been burned.

I’ll ever forget the last time I had sex with that boyfriend. I had snuck into his dorm room in the circle building; heard the outer door slam, PD’s pissed off footsteps echoed down the hall; he was looking for me. His anger was palpable through the walls and my heart pounded against my chest. As soon as the next door slammed, I ran like hell back to the apartment, ripped off my clothes and jumped into bed beside my sister. Boyfriend’s visiting parents were sleeping in my room and thank goodness for that. PD, foiled and furious, came into the room and in his low hiss said, “If we didn’t have company I would drag you out of this bed and beat the hell out of you.” I had no doubt about that.

“If we didn’t have company I would drag you out of this bed and beat the hell out of you.” I had no doubt about that.Tensions grew. Things were going very badly for PD at that point. He arrived in a place he considered home, to be among lifelong friends, only to find himself in a religious/political fight for his career. He was alone and scared and hurt, I think. His desire to change things, to allow some free thought into this closed religious system whose basic tenant was to forbid free thought, was a big mistake; his efforts misguided. At the time, I didn’t know what was going on. No one talked to me about any of it or talked about it in front of me. Or maybe they did, it’s entirely possible I wasn’t listening. All I knew is that PD’s temper had a hair trigger now. Mom all but vanished and I withdrew. My only interest was my relationship, which I clung to with the love-struck insanity only a hormonal teenage girl can muster. The subsequent demise of that relationship left me near suicidal. That is not an unusual thing in an adolescent, however, coupled with the underlying belief that I was now damaged goods and going to hell, I sunk into a depression that went unrecognized. The problem was my attitude, of course. Considering PD’s situation and my attitude, I am pretty sure I was a liability.

We moved across the river to an actual house in Vancouver, WA, with the bible school housed in a strip mall and the church sublet from some other church. Things deteriorated from there until PD was forced out of the UPC, to my great relief, because I thought that would be the fast track to cutting my hair and wearing make-up, maybe even blue jeans. Maybe I could finally be normal! It didn’t work that way, of course. Normalcy was not in the cards. So I went to my second high school in another state, knowing no one, starting over again and withdrew further. Went to school, did my work, at least the parts that were easy, I snuck a book into the hard classes and tuned out. This would be why I still don’t know anything about physics. Living in silence, working at Baskin-Robbins for $3.35 an hour, getting fat.

One night a guy came in to Baskin-Robbins with his dick completely out and ordered a Rocky Road cone. I did not react at all, just handed him his cone and took his money. It strikes me as very odd now, that lack of reaction. My own daughters would ridicule him, kick his ass, berate him with a feminist rant and call the police. Probably in that order.

Right around about this time PD started stealing my money. I saved almost everything I made, always plotting an escape. His name was on my bank account and one day my money was just gone, almost a thousand dollars. I asked him about it and he said he needed it, but would pay me back. What did I want him to do, take a loan out from a bank and pay interest to some Catholic or some Jew? I didn’t say anything, just went to the bank and opened a new account, without his name on it. He figured it out the next time he tried to steal from me. He was super mad.

It was a confusing time. The college closed and the church soon after. PD took a position at a church in Sacramento and we moved again. Those three years are difficult to define and yet they set the stage for the next period of my life. I wanted nothing more than to be rescued from that place, but no one came. Eventually, I figured out that the only person who was going to rescue me was me.