At 10 P.M.on a Sunday night in May, Lauren and John,* a young couple in the Washington, D.C., area, started an emergency 14-hour drive to the state where Lauren grew up in a strict fundamentalist household. Earlier that day, Lauren’s younger sister, Jennifer, who had recently graduated from homeschooling high school, had called her in tears: “I need you to get me out of this place.” The day, Jennifer said, had started with another fight with her parents, after she declined to sing hymns in church. Her slight speech impediment made her self-conscious about singing in public, but to her parents, her refusal to sing or recite scripture was more evidence that she wasn’t saved. It didn’t help that she was a vegan animal-rights enthusiast.
After the family returned home from church, Jennifer’s parents discovered that she had recently been posting about animal rights on Facebook, which they had forbidden. They took away Jennifer’s graduation presents and computer, she told Lauren. More disturbing, they said that if she didn’t eat meat for dinner she’d wake up to find one of the pets she babied gone.
To most people, it would have sounded like overreaction to innocuous forms of teenage rebellion. But Lauren, who’d cut ties with her family the previous year, knew it was more. The sisters grew up, with two brothers, in a family that was almost completely isolated, they say, held captive by their mother’s extreme anxiety and explosive anger. “I was basically raised by someone with a mental disorder and told you have to obey her or God’s going to send you to hell,” Lauren says. “Her anxiety disorder meant that she had to control every little thing, and homeschooling and her religious beliefs gave her the justification for it.”
It hadn’t started that way. Her parents began homeschooling Lauren when she struggled to learn to read in the first grade. They were Christians, but not devout. Soon, though, the choice to homeschool morphed into rigid fundamentalism. The sisters were forbidden to wear clothes that might “shame” their father or brothers. Disobedience wasn’t just bad behavior but a sin against God. Both parents spanked the children with a belt. Her mother, Jennifer says, hit her for small things, like dawdling while trying on clothes.
The family’s isolation made it worse. The children couldn’t date—that was a given—but they also weren’t allowed to develop friendships. Between ages 10 and 12, Lauren says she only got to see friends once a week at Sunday school, increasing to twice a week in her teens when her parents let her participate in mock trial, a popular activity for Christian homeschoolers. Their parents wanted them naïve and sheltered, Lauren says: “18 going on 12.”
Mixed with the control was a lack of academic supervision. Lauren says she didn’t have a teacher after she was 11; her parents handed her textbooks at the start of a semester and checked her work a few months later. She graded herself, she says, and rarely wrote papers. Nevertheless, Lauren was offered a full-ride scholarship to Patrick Henry College in Virginia, which was founded in 2000 as a destination for fundamentalist homeschoolers. At first her parents refused to let her matriculate, insisting that she spend another year with the family. During that year, Lauren got her first job, but her parents limited the number of hours she could work.
Even conservative Patrick Henry felt like a bright new reality. While much about the college confirmed the worldview Lauren grew up in, small freedoms like going out for an unplanned coffee came as a revelation. She describes it as “a sudden sense of being able to say yes to things, when your entire life is no.”
Family ties began to fray after she met John, a fellow student who’d had a more positive homeschooling experience growing up; he took her swing dancing and taught her how to order at Starbucks, and they fell in love. Her parents tried to break the couple up—at one point even asking the college to expel Lauren or take away her scholarship for disobeying them. Their efforts backfired; soon after her graduation, Lauren married John and entered law school.
For Jennifer, matters grew worse in the six years after Lauren left home. She rarely went out on her own except to walk the dog or attend a co-op class taught by other homeschooling parents. When she would ask to go to a friend’s house, she says, her mother would begin to cry; after a while, Jennifer stopped asking. She never had a key to the house. Tensions escalated after she went vegan. Animal-rights activists were communists and terrorists, her parents told her, and the Bible said she should eat meat.
By the time Jennifer made her call in May, Lauren and John had discussed that she might eventually have to come live with them. Jennifer wasn’t often able to phone her older sister, because their parents closely monitored cell use. But Jennifer kept a secret e-mail account, which she used to write to Lauren. After the fight that Sunday, she hid her phone as her parents were confiscating her computer, then sneaked an SOS call. Lauren phoned around their hometown, trying to find family friends to take in Jennifer and her pets. She asked the family pastor to check on her sister. But the friends seemed scared to intervene, and the pastor refused, saying he didn’t believe Lauren because she was estranged from her parents. So the couple started driving, switching off through the night, to meet Jennifer after her co-op class the next day. “I wasn’t even sure she still had the resolve to go through with it,” Lauren says, “but we thought, even if she doesn’t want to leave, she still needs to know that her big sister is going to drive 14 hours for her if it gets to that point.”
Jennifer was ready, though. The plan was to gather her things while their mother was out shopping and their father was at work. Instead, their mother pulled into the driveway while the sisters were loading Jennifer’s dog into the car. As their mother lunged for Jennifer, Lauren says she tried to stop her by grabbing her in a bear hug. Her mother wrestled free, slapped Lauren hard in the face, screaming that she was trying to kidnap Jennifer and destroy the family. She pulled the dog away from the girls so hard that Jennifer feared he would choke. Lauren called the police, and her mother summoned her father home.
“I was so scared I had a hard time breathing,” Jennifer says. Her father told police that John had brainwashed Lauren and that Jennifer had “the mind of a 12-year-old” and was too immature to be trusted. Because she was an adult, however, the police allowed her to leave—but only with some clothes and toiletries, which she piled into trash bags as her father trailed her through the house, yelling. The rest of Jennifer’s stuff-—her computer and her pets—had to be left behind, since she had no proof of ownership to show the officers.
On the long ride back, Lauren and Jennifer were stunned by what they’d done. They tried to think about pragmatics: What now? How would they handle college applications without parental involvement or get Jennifer insured or find her a job? Lauren called extended family members, trying to stay ahead of the story their parents would tell. She and Jennifer didn’t want to lose everybody. “I was on the phone for hours,” she says, trying to explain to relatives who hadn’t witnessed the family’s abusive dynamics and had a hard time believing her—especially after years of hearing how Lauren had been corrupted by her husband and turned her back on her family.
“Children in these situations are taught that if you talk badly about your parents, that’s a sin, and you’re going to hell,” Lauren says. “So when they finally get the courage and determination to say something, no one believes them, because they didn’t say anything all those years. You end up having to find an entirely new support network of people who actually believe you.”
In Washington, that new support network immediately kicked in. Through an informal group of young women who broke away from fundamentalist families, Lauren had become friends with Hännah Ettinger, who writes “Wine & Marble,” a blog about transitioning out of fundamentalist culture. When Lauren told her the story of Jennifer’s rescue, Ettinger posted a brief account. She asked readers to chip in to defray Jennifer’s costs of starting over: buying a computer, acquiring normal clothes, applying for community college. Within the first day, the blog’s readers donated almost $500. Then a new website, run by another former homeschooler, linked to Ettinger’s appeal, and within a few days, close to $11,000 had been donated.
It was a surprise, but it was hardly a fluke. Jennifer’s rescue coincided with the emergence of a coalition of young former fundamentalists who are coming out publicly, telling their stories, and challenging the Christian homeschooling movement. The website that linked to Jennifer’s story wasHomeschoolers Anonymous, launched in March by two homeschool graduates, Ryan Stollar and Nicholas Ducote. Their goal was to show what goes on behind closed doors in some Christian homeschooling families—to share, as one blogger puts it, “the stories we were never allowed to talk about as children.”
As of October, Homeschoolers Anonymous had published nearly 200 personal accounts and attracted more than 600,000 page views. For those outside the homeschooling movement, and for many inside it, the stories are revelatory and often shocking. The milder ones detail the haphazard education received from parents who, with little state oversight, prioritize obedience and religious training over learning. Some focus on women living under strict patriarchal regimes. Others chronicle appalling abuse that lasted for years.
They want to show what goes on behind closed doors in some Christian homeschooling families, to share “the stories we were never allowed to talk about as children.”
Growing up in California and Oregon, Stollar wasn’t abused, but he met many other homeschoolers who were. His parents led state homeschooling associations and started a debate club in San Jose. The emphasis on debate in fundamentalist homeschooling was the brainchild of Michael Farris, the founder of Patrick Henry College, and his daughter Christy Shipe. Farris believed debate competitions would create a new generation of culture warriors with the skills to “engage the culture for Christ.” “You teach the kids what to think, you keep them isolated from everyone else, you give them the right answers, and you keep them pure,” Stollar explains. “And now you train them how to argue and speak publicly, so they can go out to do what they’re supposed to do”—spread the faith and promote God’s patriarchy.
The timing was propitious. For several years, mothers and daughters who had escaped from Quiverfull families had blogged about their experiences and organized to help others get out on sites like No Longer Quivering. “Survivor” blogs written by former fundamentalists were also proliferating online. The bloggers doubtless inspired one another, but an additional factor was at work: Children from the first great wave of Christian homeschooling, in the 1980s and 1990s, were coming of age, and many were questioning the way they were raised.
Homeschooling leaders had dubbed them the “Joshua Generation.” Just as Joshua completed Moses’s mission by slaughtering the inhabitants of the Promised Land, “GenJ” would carry the fundamentalist banner forward and redeem America as a Christian nation. But now, instead, the children were revolting.
Homeschooling didn’t begin as a fundamentalist movement. In the 1960s, liberal author and educator John Holt advocated a child-directed form of learning that became “unschooling”—homeschooling without a fixed curriculum. The concept was picked up in the 1970s by education researcher Raymond Moore, a Seventh-Day Adventist, who argued that schooling children too early—before fourth grade—was developmentally harmful. Moore’s message came at a time when many conservative Christians were looking for alternatives to public schools.
Moore’s work reached a massive audience when Focus on the Family founder and Christian parenting icon James Dobson invited him onto his radio show for the first time in 1982. Dobson would become the most persuasive champion of homeschooling, encouraging followers to withdraw their children from public schools to escape a “godless and immoral curriculum.” For conservative Christian parents, endorsements didn’t come any stronger than that.
Over the next two decades, homeschooling boomed. Today, perhaps as many as two million children are homeschooled. (An accurate count is difficult to conduct, because many homeschoolers are not required to register with their states.) Homeschooling families come from varied backgrounds—there are secular liberals as well as Christians, along with an increasing number of Muslims and African Americans—but researchers estimate that between two-thirds and three-fourths are fundamentalists.
Among Moore and Dobson’s listeners during that landmark broadcast was a pair of young lawyers, Michael Farris and Michael Smith, who the following year would found the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA). With Moore’s imprimatur and Dobson’s backing, Farris and Smith started out defending homeschooling families at a time when the practice was effectively illegal in 30 states. As Christians withdrew their children from public school, often without requesting permission, truancy charges resulted. The HSLDA used them as test cases, challenging school districts and state laws in court while lobbying state legislators to establish a legal right to homeschool. By 1993, just ten years after the association’s founding, homeschooling was legal in all 50 states.
What many lawmakers and parents failed to recognize were the extremist roots of fundamentalist homeschooling. The movement’s other patriarch was R.J. Rushdoony, founder of the radical theology of Christian Reconstructionism, which aims to turn the United States into an Old Testament theocracy, complete with stonings for children who strike their parents. Rushdoony, who argued that democracy was “heresy” and Southern slavery was “benevolent,” was too extreme for most conservative Christians, but he inspired a generation of religious-right leaders including Dobson, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson. He also provided expert testimony in early cases brought by the HSLDA. Rushdoony saw homeschooling as not just providing the biblical model for education but also a way to bleed the secular state dry.
With support from national leaders, Christian homeschoolers established state-level groups across the country and took over the infrastructure of the movement. Today, when parents indicate an interest in homeschooling, they find themselves on the mailing lists of fundamentalist catalogs. When they go to state homeschooling conventions to browse curriculum options, they hear keynote speeches about biblical gender roles and creationism and find that textbooks are sold alongside ideological manifestos on modest dressing, proper Christian “courtship,” and the concept of “stay-at-home daughters” who forsake college to remain with their families until marriage.
HSLDA is now one of the most powerful Christian-right groups in the country, with nearly 85,000 dues-paying members who send annual checks of $120. The group publicizes a steady stream of stories about persecuted homeschoolers and distributes tip sheets about what to do if social workers come knocking. Thanks to the group’s lawsuits and lobbying, though, that doesn’t happen often. Homeschooling now exists in a virtual legal void; parents have near-total authority over what their children learn and how they are disciplined. Not only are parents in 26 states not required to have their children tested but in 11 states, they don’t have to inform local schools when they’re withdrawing them. The states that require testing and registration often offer religious exemptions.
The emphasis on discipline has given rise to a cottage industry promoting harsh parenting techniques as godly. Books like To Train Up a Child by Michael and Debi Pearl promise that parents can snuff out rebellious behavior with a spanking regimen that starts when infants are a few months old. The Pearls claim to have sold nearly 700,000 copies of their book, most through bulk orders from church and homeschooling groups. The combination of those disciplinary techniques with unregulated homeschooling has spawned a growing number of horror stories now being circulated by the ex-homeschoolers—including that of Calista Springer, a 16-year-old in Michigan who died in a house fire while tied to her bed after her parents removed her from public school, or Hana Williams, an Ethiopian adoptee whose Washington state parents were convicted in September of killing her with starvation and abuse in a Pearl-style system. Materials from HSLDA were found in the home of Williams’s parents.