The Smoke and Ash of Melting Memories
What are your earliest memories like?
I remember some events as what seem like still photographs from when I was very young – like the yellow diaper service pail on the front porch with an embossed stork on it, though the pigment in the pattern had faded. I remember my mother sitting beside my white crib, reading different books to me. Though I could not have had a visit with him after I was three years old, I remember my orthopedist. He had jet black hair and wore a smock like doctors wore in black and white movies. I remember really liking him, but I don’t remember talking to him or why I saw him. I remember my grand geek fascination with the magiciadias when Brood X made their seventeen year appearance, just before my fourth birthday. They are pictures in the album of my mind, accompanied only by the sense of joy, excitement, or curiosity that I feel when they’re called back into my consciousness. I have to rely on the history that I learned from my family to put those pictures into perspective.
The Scandal of Undeserved Shame
I would love to say that my first continuous memory of a whole chain of events follows some moment of joy. Most of the elements of the scene move like clips in a movie without sound. I’ve written about it before as “the thought seeds of the heart’s scandal,” I was terrified when I posted it online, as it felt painfully revealing.
Suffice it to say that this continuous memory was a trauma that taught to me a host of horrible messages, basically that in addition to not being able to trust my own experience and memory, I was damned to punishment no matter what I did. A child stole pennies from me, and I was punished for carelessness with money, believing that I’d misplaced it. When the child’s mother called my mother when the money turned up, I was punished for somehow provoking the child to steal. When I learned later that the child had not returned all of the money, I was punished and shamed again. The sweeping, continuous events seem like movie clips, teaching me some rather sick ideas about about who I was, how I fit into the world, and what I should expect from others.
I can vividly remember only a few audible memories of those events. I would hear my mother echo many of the statements many times again throughout my childhood. I clearly remember the taunting voice and laughter of that other child in that characteristic “nah, nah, nah” cadence that can be heard on every school playground. Though I have desensitized to this memory of confusion and shame, the scar can still be weak and tender, if the conditions are right (or wrong, depending on your perspective). I’m very human, and my “early wiring” was far from ideal.
Life in the D-O-L-L-H-O-U-S-E
This weekend, I read a post that Cynthia Jeub wrote recently, and I am haunted by it. Cynthia’s family was once featured on The Learning Channel in a 2006 series called Kids by the Dozen. In 2008, the network launched the more commonly known 19 Kids and Counting series featuring the Duggar Family which follows a family of homeschoolers who are a part of the same basic religious belief system. The fun adventures of these large families portray the idealized life that seem like a Norman Rockwell originals, but they omit the experiences of the less fortunate families like those described in the book, Quivering Daughters.
It seems that Cynthia and her sister Lydia now find themselves among the ranks of the Second Generation Adults (SGA) of this relatively new, high demand religious movement. According to Libby Anne at her blog on Patheos, Cynthia and her sister Lydia have been shunned by their family for failing to follow their parents’ lifestyle. (SGAs are adults who grew up within a high demand religious system. Their needs and recovery issues often differ significantly from those of adults who enjoy a “good enough” childhood and make their own choice to join a religious sect. Those who are raised in sects have no choice and find themselves limited to far more bounded choices.)
Cynthia describes the crafted persona of her family which focuses heavily on image consciousness and perfection – a way of proving to the world (and themselves) that they are more special to God than other Christians. Borrowing lyrics from Melanie Martinez’s song Dollhouse, Cynthia describes the dissonance of living such a life. I marvel at her valor and the ability to express such painful events with melancholy beauty.
Though I always tremble at the seriousness with which I post my own personal details online to illustrate a truth or a principle, to my knowledge, my parents don’t read what I write. The healing process, done privately, takes tremendous courage. The children of shows like Kids by the Dozen break their silence about their hidden difficulties before a captive world of television without pity. They cannot hide. Their parents and all of their friends who are still within the religious movement will read and harshly judge their words, though survivors of the same experiences will find validation and encouragement. Such candor demonstrates remarkable bravery that I cannot fathom, for I did most of my recovery work in private.
Melting Masks in the Flame of the Gaslight
Cynthia’s Melting Memory Masks reminds me of the gaslighting that I endured as a child.
The term “gaslighting” derives from the British play and film that was remade in the US in 1944 staring Ingrid Bergman. The husband in Gaslight wants to convince his wealthy, already traumatized wife that she is insane, so he sets up situations to convince her that she’s lost touch with reality. The term came to represent the behavior wherein one person wrongfully challenges the perceptions and memory of another, though in dysfunctional families, it’s not as malicious or deliberate as portrayed in the old film. (Read more about gaslighting HERE. I’m amazed at how much I needed to reread today for my own benefit.)
To survive in high demand situations, people must bury who they are and their experiences to survive and avoid the punishment created by their non-compliance. This process (of which gaslighting is often a part) creates cognitive dissonance – the very stressful psychological state when elements of a situation become confusing and inconsistent. Speech or emotions fail to match the context of behavior or information, causing individuals to feel out of balance. They become more easily manipulated as a consequence. Though adults are very vulnerable to these same influences when the conditions are right, children have little or no power to resist the process because of their dependency on adults. High demand religious groups as well as parents also exploit a child’s innate vulnerabilities to exact control.
Because of the demands of the roles of the “family script” and the gaslighting, siblings who remain behind within the high demand group will often do and say whatever they need to do to survive their own discomfort. We human beings tend to believe what we want to believe and that which gives us the most comfort. Sometimes called “wishful thinking,” this human trait of confirmation bias makes us unwilling to consider unpleasant information. To protect their family and the continuity of their own life, siblings often challenge dissidents as they struggle against the unpleasant testimonies of their family when they speak openly about the problems that they suffered within the group. They are dependent upon their family, and they often have no other choice because of their lack of resources. High demand groups require the same type of loyalty of their members. When individuals, particularly children, become isolated from their own sense of personal worth and acceptance from good experiences outside of a closed world, within high demand homeschooling, gaslighting becomes even more effective.
Smoke and Ashes
I am amazed when I look back on how much I’ve grown since I left a group that followed the same religious system embraced by the Jeubs and the Duggars. I indeed experienced gaslighting when in that system, sometimes through “mystical manipulation” and sometimes just through their unwritten social code of conduct. I soon realized, however, that when I recognized the unhealthy dynamics within religion, I could no longer tolerate the same kinds of behavior when I encountered them in other relationships – most notably with my family.
I felt as though this message from Cynthia’s father described well my own parents’ sentiment about our estrangement which began about a decade ago. I, too, am “welcome” at my parents’ table – if I give up on having a perspective that differs in any way from theirs – even about things that seem completely insignificant. A decade ago, I deliberately set out to learn how to manage my responses so that I could tolerate their gaslighting and pretense. Along the way, I figured out that I was chasing a fantasy, and the solution to the dilemma didn’t involve learning new skills. The solution involved walking away and abandoning the fantasy of finding some place of grace with them, free from coercion and shame. Portia Nelson’s poem describes the situation well for me.
Ultimately, the gaslighting situation boils down to a relationship of cooperation between two parties. The person who gaslights consolidates power by using others to bolster up their ego by always being right. The person who allows the gaslighter to redefine their own perspective seeks to gain their gaslighter’s approval or whatever their approval can provide.
If the gaslighter doesn’t realize that this is what they’re doing, the “gaslightee” may be able to negotiate with them to stop. If the behavior is intentional, then the manipulator doesn’t have much incentive to change. If the gaslightee wishes it to stop, they must be the one to initiate the change. They have to shift the balance of power in the relationship so that they are no longer ruled by the gaslighter. In my relationship with my parents and despite forty years of trying, they would only accept being “right,” thus assigning me with the role of “100% wrong.” I worked at coming to an agreement with them – a plan of what we might do when they gaslighted me because my reactions to it were powerful and too painful for me to manage. After years of trying, I finally realized that if I hadn’t gained their favor by playing along for most of my life, it likely wouldn’t happen in the future. I changed the gaslighting dynamic by withdrawing from the relationship which was really just one of fantasy that I wished could be true.
They really don’t have anything that I want anymore, now that I’ve abandoned that fantasy.
I hope that Cynthia and Lydia Jeub will learn this wisdom far more quickly than I did. I’m glad that they both have a whole community of surviving and thriving SGAs for support and validation. And I’m grateful to Cynthia for her post which helped me remember where I’ve come from and how far I’ve traveled. She reminded me that though my own deep wounds have largely healed, I still need to honor my scars – and I need to listen to them. Though I wish that it all was far behind me, I still find myself cleaning up the soot left by the remnants of those ashen memories. And that’s okay.
Proverbs says that truth comes at a price. Those who were gaslighted as young children must pay a high price in adulthood to claim their own perspective — a rite that most people take for granted. It’s been my experience that the truth and the price one pays to speak it doesn’t come cheap. May they be wealthy!
About the Author
Cynthia Mullen Kunsman is a nurse (BSN), naturopath (ND) and seminary graduate (MMin) with a wide variety of training and over 20 years of clinical experience. She has used her training in Complementary and Alternative Medicine as a lecturer and liaison to professional scientific and medical groups, in both academic and traditional clinical healthcare settings. She also completed additional studies in the field of thought reform, hypnotherapy for pain management, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that is often associated with cultic group involvement. Her nursing experience ranges from intensive care, the training of critical care nurses, hospice care, case management and quality management, though she currently limits her practice to forensic medical record review and evaluation. Most of her current professional efforts concern the study of manipulative and coercive evangelical Christian groups and the recovery process from both thought reform and PTSD.