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Dear Mr. Gothard

heather

A few months ago, Heather shared this story with me. I sat motionless reading the words you’re about to read, my heart breaking at the horror of it all. My mind didn’t want to believe it, but I knew in my gut that it was true. I recognized the places she speaks of, the phrases she recounts, the life she describes. It’s a story that’s all too familiar by now. I’ve carried Heather’s story in my heart these few months, hearing it again and again whenever Bill Gothard and his teachings are mentioned. I invite you to carry her story in your heart too. 

Trigger warning: Descriptions of sexual, mental, and physical abuse.

________

The stories I enjoy most are the ones that start in the middle.  The ones that walk into a scene right in the heart of a plot, and from there, pull out the brushstrokes from past and to future.

Like a flower mid-bloom, there is a narrative to be told from seed to wither.

I think the best starting point in this story is not the day of my true start – the day I was born – but rather the day when my house of cards finally fell.

I want to introduce you to my 32-year-old self.

The year is 2008.  My husband of ten years has just left.  My house is being foreclosed.  My health is in total collapse.  And my mind is showing significant signs of slipping.

No one knows because I do not tell them.

I feel that it is my fault.

The desire for death is so great that the only thing keeping me hanging on is the awareness that I am the only hope of my four children.  If I die, they have no hope.  No chance in this whole world.

I decide it’s time to leave.  To move and start over.  Not because I want to spread my wings and fly, but rather, I need a cave to crawl into and hide from the storm.  You see, I have no umbrella.  I have no coat.  I have no protection.

This storm started a long time ago, but what was once a slow steady trickle, is now an all-out monsoon.  If I don’t find a place to hide my battered and bleeding self, I will die.

///

Dear Mr. Gothard,

I can’t really remember the day I first met you.  My sister had been asked to work for you and because we happened to live close, her involvement opened a door for the rest of us to be involved.

Naïve and wide eyed, being up close and personal with the man behind the Wisdom Booklets and the Red Notebooks was surreal.   You see, our whole world had been shaped by you.  My early memories were of being read stories from your books and being taught to think the way you thought Christians ought to think.   Oh, I’d been drinkin’ your Kool-Aid for quite some time.

Our first interactions were warm and friendly.  You surprised me with your compliments and immediate interest in me. I’d not experienced that before.  I’d never been someone’s favorite.  Never the best friend, never the favored son or daughter, never the favorite cousin or niece or granddaughter.

I was quite young.  Eleven or twelve if my memory is right.   Receiving your obvious favoritism was a breath of new air to me.  And I liked it.  I liked you.  I felt safe with you.  After all, you were the man who’d shaped my parents.  You taught them the things they’d taught to me.  And if I was good enough for you, then there was some worth in me.  Even if others hadn’t seen it.  It must be there if you saw it.

At first, our interactions were few.  You’d hold my hands right in front of my mom and smile deeply and warmly at me.  So much intensity was new to me, but how was I to know… maybe this is how it felt to be really loved by your daddy.  To be adored.  All I knew was that, compared to the world I lived in, this little slice of life was a welcome relief.

My family came to you with a deep cancer already metastasizing all through our body.  Lies and secrets and abuse.  Hurt and shame.  A mother who’d lost hers as a little girl and a father who had a sad story to tell from his own childhood.  These seeds grew up into a bumper crop of dysfunction.  It wasn’t until I was in the second half of my thirties that I was able to unravel my pain far enough to find theirs.  In hindsight, I wish you’d have looked for it too.  Instead, you just drew us in closer and closer.  You spun webs and you did tricks.  You preyed on our brokenness.  And we were never the wiser.  Charmed by your magic and seduced by your power and influence, we ate the worm; hook, line, and sinker.

I believe it takes a special kind of person to be introduced to a bona fide cult and somehow miss all the warning signs.  And that was the kind of people we were.

Hurting little sheep.
Scared since birth.
Desperately needing a shepherd.
Desperately needing a rescue.

///

When I was about 11, I found myself being taken advantage of by young boys who used my body to exploit their new sexual curiosity.  You knew me well enough to understand the complexities of this situation beyond the black and white facts.  You knew that I was not only totally uninformed about my own sexuality at that age, but you also knew that the abusive structure of my family life had already conditioned me to receiving any sort of “special attention” with little to no ability or training on how to say “no”.  You knew that I was about as naïve as an 11 year old could be.  You knew that I needed protection and guidance.

But rather than offering that protection, you exploited that situation.  You asked me to tell you how it felt.  To tell you if my body was aroused by their touches.  You wanted vivid details.  But you didn’t just want them once. For months, we had the same conversations. Repeatedly. Alone.  No parent sitting in.  No accountability for you.  No protection for me.

You violated me in your own way by repeatedly demanding me to talk about those graphic sexual acts with you.  You taught me that there are no “victims” in sexual abuse; only people who have un-confessed sin in their life and are now receiving their own.  You taught me to feel shame for my body’s sexual responses.  You held me responsible for what they’d done to me, telling me that if I did not comply with our “counseling sessions”, you would have no choice but to take my situation to the local authorities.  You coerced me.

Counseling Sexual Abuse[ image: Recovering Grace ]

Though I did not fight it, there was nothing consensual about our talks.  I did not want them.  You knew this.  And yet, time after time, you would put me through it once again.

And after each counseling session, you would have me kneel beside you next to the couch in your office.  I can still see the stripes in the fabric and feel the tiredness of my knees and feet as we stayed in that awkward position for inordinately long periods of time.  You told me to confess the sin of my body’s arousal to God and to rededicate my body to Him to use as a vessel of righteousness.

Our bodies would touch each other’s as we knelt there, so close that your legs pressed against mine.  My hands in yours.  Sometimes an arm around my waist or your ankle crossing over mine.

I wish I could say that these things registered correctly inside of me as inappropriateness, but they did not.  The generational river I was born into had already carried me down the wrong path and the red flags that should accompany that sort of misconduct simply were not in place.

You mingled just enough words of affirmation in your concoction of condemnation, guilt, and confusion to “hook” me.

I felt special.

I felt like the only one.  After all, you did tell me that I was your favorite.

The secrecy of our exclusive relationship masqueraded as safety and concern.  In a world that was abrasive and unsafe, you seemed to create a shelter for me.  You flattered me with compliments on my physical appearance.  You fed me just what I’d been starved of my whole life – being noticed and validated, being worthy of your time.  In hindsight, I see that you were fully aware of each action you made.  Like an epic game of chess, no move lacked calculation.

The inappropriate content of our conversations became more and more uncomfortable for me.   For a while, I became so uncomfortable that I even chose not to visit you anymore.  But as all abused children do, I was quick to return to your style of safety.

We never spoke of those boys again.  You never brought it up.  I was relieved.  I did not want to talk about it.  But your affection toward me increased.

You would see me across the room when we arrived on Saturday night for staff dinner.  You’d signal to me in a personal and private way that you wanted me to sit with you.  And you always positioned me just directly across from you.  You’d slide your feet out of your shoes and play footsies with me.  You would use your feet to feel my calves and knees and feet all the while, smiling warmly and winking at me in those fractions of a second when no one was watching.

As an adult now – and especially as a parent of daughters – I have gone through tremendous sadness for my young self that there simply was not within me the red lights that should have been flashing.  Something inside of me was not right and you were the one who impeded its growth even further.

On the one hand, you taught me to guard my heart and to not even think about boys, much less speak to them or look them in the eye. But then you would take special liberties with me that, should any boy have done that, he would been excommunicated immediately.

///

Days turned to weeks and then months and then years.  I wasn’t the pre-teen I was when we first met.   Soon I was old enough to go on daytrips with you or spend full days on the weekend in your office.  Your affection increased.  I sometimes felt “held” in your office as if I was not there for any other reason than your viewing and touching pleasure.  I learned to become accustomed to long awkward hours of you holding my hands or rubbing the tops of my thighs as you sat inappropriately close to me on your couch.

The older I got, the more you controlled me.  Starting with those talks in our earlier days, you had already set up private access to what was going on inside of me emotionally and psychologically, but now, you wanted to control my physical appearance.  You told me how to dress, how to fix my hair, how to smile, and how to fit the mold.  You noticed that I needed orthodontics.  You pointed out other staff girls who were prettier than I was and asked me to emulate their look.  Yet, you taught me at the same time that my beauty was a danger to me and that attraction toward and from the opposite sex was a great undesirable.  Looking back, I see lines that you drew for me that crossed over other lines that you drew for me.  If one line conflicted with another line you wanted to draw, you just overstepped it as if it didn’t matter in the first place.

I continued to grow older, but for me, with age did not come wisdom.  It was as though the deeper I was pulled into your game, the more oblivious I became.  My life’s aim was to please you and to one day be an important part of your ministry.  I made all the necessary changes.  I obeyed the rules.  I beat my heart into submission.  When something did not make sense, I followed anyway because everyone knew that if Bill Gothard said it was right, we followed whether or not it made sense.

The blow to my self-esteem from being held up to older, more attractive and more developed girls took its toll on me.  Never was I more vulnerable to such a poison.  Never was I more susceptible to a greater kick in the face then I was in those early days.  Those days when you wielded the most powerful influence in my life.  With direct words and intentions, you told me that I was not enough.

I have teenage daughters now, ya know.  And I know what sort of damage this sort of talk would have on them.  What sort of toll it would take.  I wish you would have told me that I should seek to be loved on the basis of nothing more than who I already am.  I wish you had told me that if any man wanted me to conform to what he thought was beautiful and acceptable and correct, that I should hit the deck running.  But instead, you planted the seeds, pushed them in deep, and watered them relentlessly.

By now, I was reaching the latter half of my teens.  My family situation had gone from bad to crisis.  You gave my mom and siblings permission to usurp my father’s “Umbrella of Authority” (a biblically unfounded idea in the first place, but you giving special permissions to avoid it brings, at best, skepticism).

umbrella

Our relationship was very close.  I still assumed I was the only one.  Other staff members had even seen it and commented, so I was lead to believe that our special little alliance was exclusive.

My mother and younger siblings needed a place to stay.  She came to you.  So you came to me.  The housing you offered them swung on my obedience to your desires for me.  I was caught in an emotional tug of war as I wrestled between feeling angry that I would need to be the determining factor for the rescue of my family who, mostly seemed to take me completely for granted, and the innate desire to protect them.  It was all too much for someone so young.

At seventeen, I was pulled from school and employed by you full time in order to support my family.  I never went back and graduated – a mistake I’ve regretted ever since.  The mind games were in full swing at this point.  With daily access to me, hardly a day passed without some sort of interaction with you.  Sometimes you would give me rides alone in your big blue car, holding my hands an caressing them as a lover would, not as a man in his 60’s should regard a seventeen year old girl.  Other times, I would accompany you on road trips.  During those trips, there was more physical affection.  When I did something wrong at home, I was made to come confess it to you.  And if that were not bad enough, you would often create scenarios of intense difficulty for me to face all in the name of “character development”. Twice, you had me fired.  And after you decided that the humiliation of the firing had done its work (aka, “helped me make my heart right with God”), you would bring me back.  I was forced to publicly apologize in front of hundreds of people for things I did not do.

When your mother was ill, you forced me to be her caretaker.   As a man whose days started in the dark and ended around midnight, being her caretaker meant mine did too.  Being in your house was uncomfortable for me.  I was hungry every day because no one had given thought to the fact that I would need food while I was there.  Once, I complained about the fatigue of it all, and you said that I clearly needed things to fill my time.  You had me launder your clothing.  You even showed me how to fold your underwear and what drawer it belonged in in your bedroom – as if I had any business in that room in the first place.  As proof of your improper display of affection for me, you showed me your bedroom music boxes and special trinkets from childhood.

You would often detain me for another hour upon your late home arrival just for “the pleasure of my company”.  It was at this point that my relationship with you began its first, small, imperceptible shift.  I was exhausted.  I was tired.  I did not want to care for your elderly mother.  I did not want to be left in a strange house in LaGrange for 12-15 hour days alone.  I did not want to be detained to give you my company when I was bone-tired.  But you always reminded me of your graciousness toward my family and how the reason you were doing that was because of what I was doing for you.

These things became an incredible strain to me.   And because I was aware that I was doing them for my family against my will, I became angry with my family.  I would fight with my mom, and when that happened, she would drag me back to you for accountability.  Once, you “punished” me by taking me to the Northwoods for a whole month.  You said that I needed to learn humility and that janitorial work might be the best way to accomplish that.

northwoods[ Northwoods Conference Center. Image: Living the Journey ]

 I lived with hundreds of boys that I was not allowed to speak to or look at and a small clique of girls who never showed any warmth to me.  I had no phone access to call home.  My hours were long and tiring.  There was nothing to look forward to.  I felt like I was in prison.  Before that month at the Northwoods, I’d always felt like a little bird; able to fly around from here to there talking with people and smiling and laughing and feeling someone “normal” because of interacting with others who lived the same insane existence that I did.  But when you locked me up at the Northwoods, it felt like torture.  The depression was intense and relentless, but not a single person took notice of it or sought to give me aid.

To make matters worse, I was put through meetings with the wives of men in leadership.  I was asked to share my personal ambitions, but when I did, I was shot down and told that those were things that men should be interested in, not a godly woman, and that this time alone with myself was just what I needed.

Boys made accusations that I would smile at them, and I was called a “Proverbs 7 Woman”.   I spent time in a staff member’s house watching their many children and doing their household chores, and then I was called ungrateful and shamed when the boys under their care would notice me.  Even the girls I roomed with, all except one, refused to share any form of friendship with me as a refuge from my difficult situation.

I was made to put away the personal things like photos from home that I’d brought along because they were distracting me from what I was supposed to learn.  I was put on forced fasts sometimes for full days at a time.

Hungry, tired, depressed, and broken, eventually you let me go home.  The trip back was long.  I was the only female in the van.  I wasn’t allowed to speak to anyone and none of them acknowledged my presence there.  I ate my food at a table in Arby’s by myself in shame and loneliness as the boys and the male leadership sat feet away laughing and enjoying each other’s company.

I had long since learned how to suppress my feelings.  I had learned that if I wanted to stay out of trouble, the best way for me to do that was to manage my natural responses to pain.  Never was I more in charge than I was that day on that return trip.  My insides were exploding in agony.  The mental cruelty of that month had worn my soul down to the bone.  But I showed no register of pain for the outside world to see.  I recall very distinctly that my body involuntarily shook violently during the hours in the van on the trip home and was very grateful to be traveling in the dark when no one could take notice.

Only a week had passed upon my return when the tension at home returned.  Accused of rebellion and laziness — during a period of life when I supported my non-working parent — I was sent back to you for discipline.  You gave me two options: go to live with my father — the one you supported my mother to leave based on his years of abuse toward us  — or to go Indianapolis and join the EQUIP program.

indianapolis[ Indianapolis Training Center. Image: Recovering Grace ]

I went to Indianapolis kicking and screaming inwardly but without any outward show of pain whatsoever.  I arrived to have my things dug through as though I were a common criminal.  My clothing selections were deemed inappropriate and taken from me even though they were long skirts and modest blouses.   I was made to wear things chosen from the donations boxes that were ill-fitting and terribly outdated.

I was near a literal nervous breakdown but was not allowed even a moment alone during the day.  Even trips to use the restroom required accompaniment.  The only times I was allowed to be alone was in the shower.  And even though my showers were timed and kept to a limit so that I was not alone a moment longer than was necessary for personal hygiene, oh how I wept during those precious minutes alone.

You told me that these situations were intentionally designed to break me.  And break me they did.  I didn’t even know to cry out to God to rescue me from that awful place because I was utterly confused about who God really was and what His true heart was toward me.  Thanks to your teachings, grace was a distorted concept in my mind about something I initiated and responded to that lead me to righteousness, not something that was entirely God-initiated and had nothing at all to do with whether or not I was righteous in any way.

My time in Indianapolis lasted for nine months.  I was forced many times to miss meals, sometimes for days at a time, when my heart was “not right before God”.  I was locked into my room on more than one occasion and had all outside contact and food withheld from me until the leadership decided it was enough.  I was interrogated by leadership on a regular basis, often taken into back rooms with only one member of leadership  – usually of the opposite sex – and berated for hours.  I was not allowed to cry or disagree.  I was called a “whore”.  I was treated with utter cruelty.  I was isolated from the few friends I was able to gain.  I worked 10-12 hour days of hard manual labor with no pay on a renovating crew where I hung drywall or molding or helped lay carpet or paint and hang wallpaper.  I missed many meals because of my long work hours and was not allowed to find food when I was done working.  I lost several dress sizes within just a few months of arriving and no one noticed that or called my treatment into account for my obvious physical distress.

I was subjected to room searches on a regular basis where my drawers and mattresses and closets were rifled through and things taken if they were not deemed “approved”.  Everything of value had been confiscated from me.  Letters from friends, pictures from home, even toiletries that I had purchased.  My mail was routinely opened and read before being given to me – a federal offense.  My friends were often interrogated about me.  Some remained loyal to me while others gave in to the tremendous pressure from the leadership and gave false stories about me to gain their approval or to simply be removed from their interrogations.  The results of those betrayals often cost me our weekly outing to the store or being allowed to go to church – the only two times in a week that we left the compound.

When you came to town, I would tell you of this all.  And you refused to help.  You did not intercede in any way.  You reminded me of your help toward my family.   You wanted me to uphold my end.

I celebrated my twentieth birthday hidden in a room on the ninth floor, refusing to come out of hiding even to get meals because of the tremendous pressure and fear of interrogation from leadership.

///

When October came around, you were in town when my final week with your cult was upon me.  Depression was apparent in my face and mannerisms.  You saw me singing in choir and summoned me to your office.  You said that you could tell from my downcast countenance that I had given ground over to Satan. The light in my eyes was gone.  You blamed me and some supposed, hidden sin in my life rather than the blatant woeful treatment I’d been receiving.  Once again, you held me responsible for the abuses of others.

The next day, you called me to your table after lunch for another meeting.  You told me that the leadership had shed light on the situation.  They’d told you that I was attracted to a boy, but they could not figure out who it was.  You asked if that was true.  I did not attempt to withhold the truth from you.  I told you immediately that it was true and who it was.  I told you that we were obeying your rules of conduct and that our relationship had not gone past mere attraction and that it would not until we were older, had our parent’s blessing( as was standard IBLP law), and were no longer working at your facility.

We were both locked up immediately and left with no food or outside contact for days as you decided what to do with us.

I assume that you have never been held against your will in a locked room.  It is a form of torture, you know.  As is the withholding of food.  These games of mental cruelty wreaked far greater damage in me than a hungry belly and a night of dark tears.  They broke me.  They ruined me.  Nearly twenty years have come and gone since these days, but the bones you crushed, the heart you flogged, and the mind you broke back then still refuse to function correctly today.  No amount of intervention, therapy, and medication in the world seem enough to turn back the clock and reverse the damage.  I live with constant impairment.

What causes me the greatest grief as I look back now is that during that time, I knew so little of the God you supposedly taught me about that never once did it occur to me to turn to Him in my great agony.  You taught me that it was my fault.  That the things that were causing me distress were self-inflicted.  You taught me about a God of works.  Your words might have been different, but your doctrine and your treatment of me told me the real story.  And if I’d failed you so greatly that I found myself locked up and mentally beaten as punishment, how dare I even utter the name of a Holy God whose hot displeasure must be burning against me?

///

I don’t need to tell you the end of the story because you already know it.  You kicked me out.  You gave me three hours.  Three hours.  Three hours to leave the only world I’d ever known.

If the constant attention of an abusive relationship is bad, the only thing worse was to be cast aside and put away.  The rug I’d been standing on for so many years was precarious, shaky, and unreliable, but it was all that I’d known.  It was familiar.  Having that jerked out from under me when I was so frail and so shattered had the same effect on me as a sledgehammer on a delicate glass vase.  Pieces of me flew in all directions.  Pieces that no one helped me re-gather and no one helped me re-assemble.  Pieces that are still lost and broken.

But let me tell you what you do not know.  What you cannot know.  Let me tell you what it is like to be twenty years old and excommunicated from your entire existence.

At first, there is the depression.  The sleepless nights.  The inability to eat.  The continually greater realization of your broadening loneliness.  The confusion.  The panic.

Then comes the realization that you need to figure out how to live.  Who will help me shop for real clothes?  I don’t even know how to figure out what pant size I might be because I haven’t been allowed to wear pants since I was ten.

Within a month of my dismissal and excommunication, my family was forced to leave the home you’d provided for them during my years of submission to you.  I never asked them if they blamed me for it because the sharp screams of pain in my heart were simply too loud to care if others were angry with me.  But I bore the guilt and blame in my heart just the same.

For eighteen months, I moved constantly.

Depression was in full swing.

Her ugly fingers stretched themselves over me and inside of me like a dark blanket that suffocated me.

I felt like a person being roasted alive and the only thing that seemed to lessen the burn was constant movement.  South Dakota, Colorado, various locations in Illinois, and eventually Georgia.

All was black.
God was gone.

Everyone was gone.

I wanted so badly to have done the right thing, but even all the force I could muster would not allow me to return to you when you called for me just a few months after you sent me away.

Absolutely nothing about anything made sense.  The Bible was gobbledy-gook.

I could not pray, and I felt like death itself was swarming around me.

///

I carried on this way for a year and a half with no assistance.  With no intervention.  With no follow up.  I’d let you down and your punishment to me was full abandonment.  And I suppose that would not be so bad in ordinary circumstances, but my circumstances were not ordinary.  The concrete in my life was still wet when we met.  For nearly ten years, you molded that concrete to be so unstable that, without you directing me and telling me how to think, dress, and act, there was no firm footing to be found.  And then, once my concrete had hardened and could no longer be reshaped into a safe and solid surface, you threw me away.  You left me to spend the rest of my life walking along on a path of brokenness.  The scars of abuse do not fade with the years nor do their patterns and behaviors cease even with great amounts of intention.  They cripple and maim.  And they do not go away.

As time always does, her steady rhythm pounded on and took me from those places.  Slowly but surely, little rays of life and light began poking through my depression, but not until after eighteen months of tremendous darkness had done its work on me.  The loss had been staggering.  It was like being forced to begin life anew at 21 years old with absolutely no tools to help me cope and live.

God’s gentle whispers began breaking through.  The things He was telling me about Himself were so very different from what you’d told me about Him that I found it hard to even face or process.  For long periods, I found that I could not even read the Bible because it had been translated to me so incorrectly in my childhood and early adulthood that its words acted like triggers for my severe emotional trauma.

You see, Mr. Gothard, to you, I might have just been one little girl who passed through your program at one point.  I might have been just one set of feet to play footsies with and one set of legs to feel up or one set of hands to caress inappropriately or one little mind to mold incorrectly or play cruel games with.  I might have been just one more girl who passed through ATI who was a pretty, blonde with a perky heart, a nice smile, and an outgoing personality.  I might have just been one more to you.  I imagine that I came into and out of your life with little to no long-term affect on you.

But to God, the offenses from you toward me were very personal to Him.  To Him, I was unique.  I was the one He went after, leaving the 99 behind.  To Him, those nights behind locked doors and that hungry belly and broken mind was utterly personal.  And to me, the ripples that you started when you first began casting stones into my pond are still in motion.  They have left me stunted.  They have shaped me incorrectly.  I am left with a lifelong limp and all the “physical therapy” in the world won’t fix me.

The bad news ends there.

The good news also starts there.

///

What you never told me was that God is attracted to brokenness.

You never told me that grace is something He gives me – a furious love that I cannot deserve – even if my hair is wrong or my smile isn’t bright or my heart is dirty.  You never told me that who I am – a child of God and someone who Jesus died for love of – is where my value lies, not how I am.

You never told me to say “no” to inappropriate touch.  You never taught me to say “no” to abuse.  You never told me that God’s intentions for me were better than to be locked up and intentionally broken – in hotel a room in Indianapolis or in the torture of my own fractured mind.

You never told me those things.

You should have.

But you didn’t.

But God did.

Like the shepherd that left the rest behind to seek out that one little sheep that lost its way, God has relentlessly hunted me my whole life.  In the darkest moments, He was there, having pity on me and breathing His promises of redemption over me.  Not just redemption from my sin nature and its consequences, but the redemption that occurs when wrongs of this life are flipped on their heads and made right by being used for good.

You say that you never meant to hurt me or any of the other girls that you abused, harassed, and molested.  You say that you only meant to be fatherly.  And you know what, I have no idea if you intentionally did the things to me that you did.  I mean, how could I?  That mystery – your true intentions – remains between God’s heart and yours alone.  The intentions of a man’s heart are deep waters and only God can know them.   They cannot be known otherwise.  Only He can see and accurately judge the intentions of your heart.  But I can judge your actions and tell you that they have been found guilty.

I can tell you that the long-term damage you have caused myself and countless others is real and touchable and for some of us, permanent.  You gave me – us – a limp.  Something we can never fully recover from.  You gave us homework that has spanned decades.  You may not have meant to, or you may have.  We simply cannot know.  But the effects have been the same regardless.  And you should be held accountable.  Further, you should be disallowed in any way to ever have the opportunity to do it again.

The story of how grace – true grace, not your version of it – entered my life is the story of that limp you gave me.  That brokenness.  You see, you might have thrown me away, but the Lover of my Soul came and found me in that grave, laying there, broken and awaiting death.  He pulled me out, stood me up, and brushed the death off of me.  I stand now only because of a God whose truest heart is toward the little ones who are so broken that they have a hard time keeping their cheese from sliding off their crackers.

///

I still fall over often – as most broken people do – but more than any other thing, I am filled with the awareness of this: I am someone that is desperately loved by Jesus.  That is now my full identity.  I am no longer a person who was/is broken or the girl who can’t stand.  I might still experience those things, but who I am is a new story.

I am someone who is desperately loved by Jesus.

Your offenses toward me are as far away from me as the ends of the seas are from each other.   They are forgiven and your debt completely cancelled.

Not because you deserve it; because you don’t.

Not because you have repaired your ways; because you haven’t.

Not because you have done any acts of restitution; because you won’t.

You are forgiven for no other reason than that God has forgiven me much, therefore, I am compelled to forgive you.

Your hideous actions on my life have been used for the utmost of good even though they were evil.  I pray that God will reveal to your heart the things that only He can and that in so doing, you would experience true brokenness.

The sort of brokenness that comes from the tender hand of a loving Father.

The sort of brokenness that also brings about healing and true wholeness.

Your life shows a staggering lack of true relationship with God.  A deep and abiding lost-ness.

My heart’s truest desire toward you that you would be found and made truly free.

That you would recognize and acknowledge your desperate sin and the great damage you have caused.

That you would own your need.

Because, truly, we are all in need.

Of saving, of redemption, of forgiveness.

Most sincerely –
Heather E. Corcoran

heather3

Heather currently lives in Minnesota with her husband Bill and their six children.  She lives in constant awareness that the things in her life that were meant for evil can and have been used for good.  She and her husband have worked together relentlessly to heal her old wounds and move past the dysfunctions of her childhood.  She has a great desire to see to it that the ills of being raised in the cult of IBLP/ATI at the hands of Bill Gothard are brought to a complete and full end.  She is an avid health and fitness guru and loves to write.  She shares her stories of brokenness and redemption on her blog appropriately named: Indomitable.

further reading:

Gothard’s Process: Invite, Idealize, Isolate, Transgress, Rewrite

There is No Victim: A Survey of IBLP Materials on Sexual Assault and Abuse

The Gothard Files: A Case for Disqualification 

On Growing Up in Bill Gothard’s Homeschool Cult

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  • http://www.edcyzewski.com/ Ed_Cyzewski

    God bless you, Heather. I cannot imagine the hurt your sustained. I caught glimpses of Gothard’s teachings among some families at my church, but this is terrible. Thank you for sharing your story.

  • http://perfectlyflawed.net/ Bek Curtis

    Precious woman, I have read this with tears streaming down my cheeks.
    There are no words that can aptly articulate what I want to say. I am both horrified and inspired by your story.
    I quite literally gasped as I studies the diagram on ‘Counselling Sexual Abuse’. As someone who has been sexually abused, that diagram is not just offensive, but abusive in itself. I can’t even comprehend having to be ‘counselled’ repeatedly in this fashion.

    I admire the courage you have displayed in sharing your story, and genuinely pray that you will you be given a glimpse of the hope of redemption and collision with true grace, that others will grasp from this.
    Thank you.

    Micah, thank you for providing a space for this to be shared.

  • RyanR

    I was not a young, pretty, blonde girl with a perky personality (i.e., not Gothard’s type) but your story rings all so true . . . the mental games, the exhaustion, the self-blame, the warped concept of God . . . I too walk with a limp as a result of my years with IBLP but like you, have experienced the redemption that only can come when Jesus picks you up, dusts you off and calls you His own.

    Thanks for sharing your story, Heather. I am encouraged by what I read here. It WILL be worth it all (it HAS been worth it all) – but not for the reasons Gothard thinks.

  • Kathy

    I am so so sorry, Heather. Your story makes me weep.

  • Emily Ufkes

    Dear Heather, I just want to throw my arms around you. Thank you for sharing so vulnerably. Your faith is an inspiration to me. Words fail me, but I want to convey my sorrow, appreciation, and amazement at your ongoing healing and wholeness.

  • http://theartofsimple.net/ Tsh Oxenreider

    Heather, thank you for sharing your story. It will stay with me. May your words be a source of solace and solidarity to others walking a similar journey—for that, I’m proud of you. (And you too, Micah.)

  • Peggy Ritchey

    When I saw the way they treated the two of you at the conclusion of your time there, it flipped a switch in me. I saw that place for what it really was. I started reading the Bible for myself and God started mentoring me. I learned that we love and obey His word because He first loved us. His love doesn’t depend on our performance. I am sorry that I did not speak out against what was happening. I feel that just like we were publicly made to “confess” our “sin” , those who are and were in leadership positions, (although were in some ways victims themselves) should openly apologize for not speaking out and standing up for the weak and openly renounce their ties to that cult. I do care for those leaders and forgive them but it is hard to understand how they could let that type of abuse and misuse of authority continue. Thank you Heather for being willing to share your hearts hurts. I’m so sorry that you had to endure such a lack of love and compassion.

    • gimpi1

      I imagine it’s a “life in the bubble” sort of thing, Peggy. When you’re inside, what’s inside seems normal. It’s only when something breaks the bubble, some shock, some surprise, that you can see outside. Then you can see how warped things had become

  • http://www.susanirenefox.com/ Susan Irene Fox

    Heather, you are a brave and light-filled woman of grace. Bless you for your willingness to share your story with honesty and humility. Bless you for your desire to lift up others who are not yet able to share their own.

  • Taylor

    Where was/ and is Gothard’s family and top leadership during this? This was happening right in front of them. For years. Not one person had any idea what was going on?? Many of these people still work for the Institute. I’d be very interested in hearing how they missed all this.

    • http://www.redemptionpictures.com/ Micah J. Murray

      As far back as the 80’s, there were people who tried to bring accountability and light to Gothard’s actions. However, he worked tirelessly to silence and discredit them, through both his twisted teachings and his behind-the-scenes manipulations. Other members of his own family were also involved in all sorts of sexual misconduct during that time, which he worked to cover up.

      You can read more about that over at Recovering Grace. Start here, and then explore the “Silencing the Lambs” articles under the “Gothard Files” tab.

      http://www.recoveringgrace.org/2014/02/the-gothard-files-sleeping-giant/

    • Shade Ardent

      these days, i think they knew and did not care. i have no other way to view this.

      • MomJan

        Our family was on staff at the ITC for several years, and believe it or not, we missed it. We totally missed it. We really cared about the young people there and tried to point them to the Lord when things got difficult. But I’m afraid we were deceived as many others were. It’s hard to look back and realize that we were caught up in the system and used by the system to deepen many of the hurts that we never saw. I pray that in some way our presence there gave hope to some.

        • Maeva

          I doubt you gave them any hope, since you shut your eyes and mimed company lines to them. You and your family are to blame as well; no amount of praying can rewrite the history you helped wrought.

  • Cassy

    Wow. Groan. Sigh. Ugh. These are words that come to mind when I read your story. I know your story is true; I so wish I could be the “grown-up” that I am now and be back in that environment and stand up for what I now know to be lies, and march along side the ones who were the victims in this enviroment and make a change. Thanks you for sharing and being so vulnerable.

  • Dan Moody

    I grew up in ATI as well. I worked for several years (late ’90s, early ’00s) at the Indianapolis South Campus facility, and visited the ITC on a fairly regular basis as part of my duties. This story is sadly just one of many that I have been made aware of in recent days.

    It grieves me deeply to know that such abuse and pain was going on probably literally right under my nose, but I did not see it, and if I had seen it, I would have likely ignored it just like the “fellows” from the Northwoods did in this story. I had been taught Gothard’s lies from a young age and would have believed that any torment like this was for the “good of the student.”

    The big question that is increasingly surfacing in my mind as I read these stories is: what can I do now to help those who have been hurt like this or who are currently being hurt?

  • Shade Ardent

    reading, i fell back in. the words are familiar. my contact with him was brief and still soul-shattering.

    i was 12 too. he leaves so many scars.

  • http://adelasteria.blogspot.com/ K. Elizabeth Danahy

    Heather you are wonderful and very, very brave. Thank you for sharing your story.

  • Abi Bechtel

    Woman. Of. Valor.

    • Shannon

      Yes!! Thanks for sharing your story Heather. So thankful you have found the true love and freeome of our good God <3 <3 <3

  • K

    This is one of the most powerful things I’ve ever read. Thank you.

  • Nicole Wimmer

    Thank you, Heather. Your words were profound, chilling. They made my blood run cold. Thank you for about evil — for not shying away from it, for not flinching — and thank you for giving glory to God for healing what seemed irrevocably taken from you.

  • Lynne Everest

    Oh my Lord, Heather! You precious sweet sister and woman of God! I don’t think I have ever stayed with a story and read one to the end that was as long as yours is above. But your story is so gripping, tragic, unbelievable. I could not stop reading, or crying for that matter. And yet, in the end, so much Godly wisdom, healing power and love! Oh my dear Jesus. There really are simply no words to put here as a response to your story other than I’m so very glad you survived and are able to articulate this abuse for all those who suffered in silence along with you at the hands of this demented man.

    Who is this man?! I have never heard of him until this year, as his disgrace is being made public in the news. And I don’t even know what all those initials stand for in the organization you refer to as his cult. And this was also your experience Micah, this cult? Oh my Lord, I praise God for your precious, gentle souls.

    I wish my father were alive today; I would kiss the ground he walks on to thank him again and again for the wonderful, love-filled, happy childhood he provided me with!

    You go girl! And keep on going! Can’t wait to meet you – this side or the other!

    • http://www.redemptionpictures.com/ Micah J. Murray

      Yes, I was in the same cult – a number of years after Heather, I believe. But I lived in the same tall brick hotel that she did when I was 18-20 (the one in the picture up there). This is my story: http://redemptionpictures.com/2014/02/28/bill-gothard-homeschool-cult/

      • Lynne Everest

        Micah, I am just halfway through your story, dear man, but I had to jump back here to share a thought. I was raised in Northern Ohio in the 50’s and 60’s. We had never heard of home-schooling and I doubt it was even a ‘thing’ back then.

        But reading your story, it is dawning on me how and why this is so pervasive. Its because of the home-schooling aspect, right?

        Oh, my, that is why it is so widespread – it was probably one of the most popular Christian-based programs for its time. And, instead of being centralized in some small acreage in Kansas as some cults of the 70’s were, it could reach all over the country – more in the south I imagine (?)

        • Cardale

          Homeschooling no more is “the reason”, any more than being mainstream and in public school is “the prevention” for abuse. I’m sure homeschooling contributed to the “perfect storm” of factors that have allowed Mr. Gothard to pervert reality for so many, to his sick benefit, but homeschooling, in and of itself, is not the “why” in this equation.

  • Lily

    I cried the whole way through! I understand exactly. God loves us for being little and lost.

  • Gretchen “Charlotte” Wilkinson

    Heather,
    Thank you so much for coming forward. You are a awesome, wonderful woman.
    Hugs & blessings.
    Gretchen “Charlotte” Swearingen Wilkinson.

  • http://recoverdidentity.com/ Brenners (Brenda)

    Love you, girl. I love what God has done in your life the last 5 years. I know the road has been hard, but you still inspire me every.single.day.

  • scott avedisian

    Heather you are a great woman. I am so sorry for the abuse you suffered. This man preys on people. For several years my family and my wife’s family was involved with ATI. I got out as soon as possible. My wife deals with similar feelings… Bill should be locked up for the rest of his lifeet or better yet shot. I went through ALERT as well and was shocked when I worked on his staff. This man has ruined so many families

  • http://canigetanotherbottleofwhine.com/ Kate Hall

    Horrifying. Absolutely horrifying what that man did to you and to so many others.
    What you said about not wanting to read the Bible for a long time because the bad translations triggered trauma hit home to me because I’ve been struggling with this for some time now. I get angry just opening it up. So much shame beaten into me from the past.

    • FG

      Katie… it’s God’s word that brings healing… please start with Psalms and Proverbs…

      • Flanders’ Porn Stache

        You might also want to skip Leviticus and Deuteronomy entirely. Not much healing there.

      • gimpi1

        Kate needs to find her own healing. It may be where you suggest, it may not be. If it helps her heal, it’s valid. If it doesn’t, it’s not. For her, for her struggle, for her life.

        Sometimes something can become too associated with suffering and shame to be useful any more. If you’ve never experienced that, you’re fortunate.

  • Gillian

    Thank you for sharing your story, Heather. I’m horrified by what was done to you. I’m so glad you have been able to find your full identity as someone desperately loved by Jesus. Thank you also for reminding us of the incredible love and grace of God for the broken and hurting – love that brings hope and light into darkness.

  • Rachel

    I am so sorry this happened to you. I had no idea how bad things were for so many people. I’m so sorry.

  • Deb

    Heather and Micah, thank you for shedding light on the ATI/IBLP nightmare we all shared. It is hopeful that there is God’s Grace to repair the brokenness. Tears today but joy comes in the morning.

  • Sandra Pallas Widdis

    We were those parents who trusted the teaching in ATI, attended Basic two times, Advanced once and only attended Knoxville one time. It wasn’t because of wisdom, it was because our finances were so small that we could not afford the ‘program!’ I praise the Lord that we were so financially broke! Now, even though our family wrestles with the things we were taught, after 20 years we still will catch ourselves believing or saying some ‘Gothardite’ comment, and we’ll have to ask, ‘Does the Bible support this?’ So, we look, and study and get mad that we were duped. So much coming at us, in so little time, no time to be Bereans.. so, we follow like dumb sheep. Thank you for being brave, strong, broken but eloquent. Your words break my heart. A big hug, from this mama!

  • http://untoldstoriesabout.us/ Untold Stories About Us

    OH how this makes my heart ache. How did so many of us not see? I am so so sorry Heather for what you endured. Thank you for being so brave to share your story with the world.

  • Mark_2674

    When I was fifteen years old one summer I was sent to the Navigator’s Trail Camp, a “Christian” youth camp in Colorado. To my surprise, on only the second day I was there, me and the other guys were subjected to a grueling tortuous physical regimen. We had to climb up and down steep hillsides carrying bags of rocks and perform other arduous activities. The counselors said it was for our own good, to condition us for extended mountain hikes and rock climbing over the next few weeks. But it was obvious they took sadistic pleasure in the torture they were inflicting on us, laughing and joking around, while we were suffering. “How could a good God allow this to happen?” I would tell myself on my bunk at night, and in the morning I would be so sore I could hardly get out of bed, my stomach gnawing in extreme hunger. I was always hungry during those days. It is only gradually through the years have I been able to look back and realize that this was a dangerous cult, that the true God would never subject me to any sort of discomfort whatsoever.

    • Mark_2674

      C’mon, isn’t someone gonna tell me how brave I am.

      • Jerrod Forrest

        Well done, Mark, and good on you for realizing that God’s love for us extends far beyond the selfisly-motivated “rewards” that the mind of man has devised. No doubt you’ll be able to help others in similar circumstances in the future, based on what you’ve learned.

    • guycooksey

      Mark: I was involved with the Navs in college 35 years go and YES, they are a cult with all of the cult-like tendencies. They get you so dependent on them that it is really hard to disobey or leave. They nearly ruined my life. Fortunately, I went back to my good church and detoxed in their truth, grace and love. The Gothard ministry is very similar to the Navs.

  • Mark_2674

    To Heather: The level of melodrama in this tale in staggering. Its like a 19th century Romantic novel, (makes me think it likely you’ve actually read “Jane Eyre”). Your whole story is conveyed through a dense filter of your adolescent feelings of the time, which its clear you have not outgrown. But when one strips away your feelings from the narrative and just looks at the objective actions of Bill Gothard and others at the time (leaving aside the supposed inappropriate touching which I won’t deign to comment on at the moment) their culpability is not really clear.

    Take for example him sending you to the Northwoods for a month because of continuing friction between you and your mom and family. A lot of people in your position might see it as a vacation, a welcome break from family turmoil, a chance to get away and breathe, and reflect, and just be by yourself, and in a picturesque setting at a forest retreat no less, where even the IBLP big wigs had their own personal cabin retreats. And furthermore it seems likely that Bill Gothard had to see this “punishment” in similar pragmatic terms, i.e. “she’s having conflicts with her family, get her away from her family for a while”.

    And yet you paint this interlude in the starkest, Dickensian fashion — as if you were sentenced to the workhouse along with Oliver Twist. You complain over and over again about always being alone there, about not being able to call home, etc. I don’t know why you were so traumatized about not being able to contact your Mom since you were always fighting with her. I don’t know, if it were me, as I went about my duties up there, I would stop occasionally, look up, listen to the wind blowing softly through the trees, look around at nature, think about my life and where I was going, etc.

    And then the ironic thing is though you complain about being alone at Northwoods, you complain about the exact opposite at the EQUIP program, about NOT being alone! (And if I read you correctly, you were sent there a week after getting back from Northwoods because you had immediately started fighting with your family again.

    I could go on and on, your whole narrative is like this, e.g. you were directed to do Bill’s laundry, and you turn it into some sexual thing about having to touch his underwear. Sheesh.

    • Cardale

      What in the world is up with you? 2 days ago, you give testimony to your own “abuse”, complete with “dramatic” assumptions (“It was obvious they took sadistic pleasure”….), then turn around and mock what this woman has been through? let me guess; Oppositional Defiant Disorder? You get some kick out of going against others merely for the satisfaction of it, -a form of compulsion, if you will. Dude, get real.

  • guycooksey

    This is like reading an account from a Communist “Re-education Camp.” I have no doubt it is true. The evidence against this man just continues to pile up. Two nights ago our family watched the documentary on Bill Graham (the other and better BG). Wow, what a contrast. Here was a man who was accountable, who was NEVER alone with another woman, who had strict accountability of finances, and whose messages were so simple, Biblical, and Gospel–freeing. Why didn’t Bill Gothard have the same high ideals as Billy Graham? Yes, his abuses and mind control are totally cult-like, and he will have to be held to account for his years of false teaching and abuse. Heather, please make sure that the IBLP Board gets a copy of this truly compelling story. Right now they are in “cover-up mode” and will not interview any of the many woman (and men) who were so abused. They won’t even assign an independent agent to review the dozens of abuse cases. What a tragedy that men cannot handle power unless they are held to strict account (like Billy Graham). My heart and prayers go out to you and from one family of 10 to another large family thank you for sharing your heart-wrenching story.

    • Maeva

      “NEVER alone with another woman”? Funny, I am often alone with men, some quite older than me, but I have never been abused. It has to do with the MAN, not the circumstances.

  • Hattie

    This story brought a few tears. I love the ending, though.

    See that family photo, you guys? That’s what triumph looks like.

    Bravo. (More tears.)

  • AskTodd

    That this woman would stay in the cult of Christianity after what she had been through is mind boggling. You would think she could clearly see the cult trappings of the religion/relationship called Christianity and want to escape. Instead people now call her a woman of God and say look at what people meant for evil God meant for good. Why don’t people get it, if God is all the things the Bible says he is, he is responsible for all things including Sin, Satan, Demons and all the evil that this fantasy world created by this book has created. This is a powerful delusion of faith.

  • http://www.aradicalforjesus.com Joel Horst

    I think this story hit home harder to me than most of the stories. The pain, the abuse, by a man I thought was so Godly. Lest I needed another confirmation that Bill Gothard is a minister of Satan, here it is.

    I thought Bill messed up my life. It was nothing in comparison to what he did to Heather.

  • Barb Coleman

    Wow – so very sorry that you went through all this, Heather, but I’m glad you shared it. Thank you for your transparency!

  • Chagrined

    I have nothing but contempt for Gothard. He is (in the words of the late Chrisropher Hitchens) “a wicked and delusional idiot”. No amount of grovelling and religio-repentance speak will undue the emotional and other damages that his dysfunctional fear-based rhetorical nonsense has visited on already broken lives.

  • Michael McLennan

    Heather amazing story, I cried and tore at me. The “biblical” authority thing took me close to 14 years to deal with psychologically in my system, and tore at me, as if God’s system is a military organisation “ours is not to question why” – HEATHER, It takes a lot of guts to put name, face, here’s my family photo and where I live, etc, That’s why I love it it is dealt with, your done with it it is now clean, how good is that, like for me which is so 100% minor by comparison but it is dealt with I no longer live under that burden, I am free. You have done a wonderful service to just tell your story. The day I first read this website, suddenly it was like a veiled was lifted and I questioned everything else I had been taught, I had thought it was just the authority and the music and three or four other teachings that were screwed up biblically, now I question everything full stop, simply from the discredit of a man’s pedestal integrity. I know for me simply because of the self elevated moral purity that was publicly presented when this was going on it is lied to everyone who he taught material to.
    So while Bill was teaching all this,
    and he was hiding it,
    Reality though the rest of the world is wondering what the fuss from an old guy who played footsies with young girls, held hands, hands on the legs and once further and nothing was said externally. It is a joke that the organisation rather than come to the christian reality of the situation or even the moral principle of the principles taught, seems to let things cover itself up where it suits them. BECAUSE THE SYSTEM PERPETUATES THIS, that is the problem.

    Confess it say it Change it.

    The issue to us on the inside who received the teaching is the hypocrisy to the rules and standards that were preached but not practiced.

    We are all guilty and have fallen short…. how hard it is for a young man to make his way straight,,,, oh I know that one….but he was old, so much less excuse!
    I am convicted of a song that is written that comes back to those awkward words,
    God Knows.
    God knew.
    You knew, I hope that through your testimony Heather so many people will receive healing and a complete Berean understanding of Scripture,,, not only our just from this but from so many of the Cults and the wayward teaching that is so readily accepted in the church today.

  • jochanaan

    Lady Heather, honor and praise to you for your story–not only the pain, but the healing of that pain; not only for the brokenness, but for being made whole again. You have grown beyond the anger and need for revenge and, although I hope Mr. Gothard will at last be held to account, I honor your refusal to hang on to past hurts. May the LORD rebuke him. And may our Savior, Jesus the Anointed Prince, continue to bind up your wounds and help you to begin the binding in many others.

  • Matt the Lessor

    It finally dawned on me. We’ve been calling him Bill Gothard all this time….when we should have been calling him Bill Got Hard! In public, we saw him whipping out his Bible as a man of the Word, but it turns out he was whipping out something else in private with these vulnerable young ladies. Seeing the way he took advantage of women like Heather is truly a disgrace. Glad many of them have been able to recover as a result of God’s grace.

  • raquel g.macfarlane

    iam not convinced of all the stories from both girls/boys.
    mr. gothard is merely a human being always wanting to follow the Lord.
    it is not an occult.
    this is a very very serious statement to make regardless of the stories.
    iam in prayer (real intercession) for this whole ordeal.
    i am fully confident in HIS MIGHTY judgement in everyone’s experiences including mr.gothard.
    HIS,mrs.mac

  • Amelia Scheibner

    Wow, that was so heartbreaking and beautiful. You are so strong, thank you for sharing your story.