Why I Cannot Support Frontline Family Ministries’ Abuse Prevention Week: Part Two, Kalyn’s Secret
By R.L. Stollar, HA Community Coordinator
In this series: Part One, Introduction | Part Two, Kalyn’s Secret | Part Three, Kalyn’s Secret (Continued) | Part Four, Not Open | Part Five, Unmask the Predators | Part Six, Recommended Resources | Part Seven, Conclusion
Part Two, Kalyn’s Secret
I need to begin this with a warning: today’s analysis of Kalyn’s Secret is awfully long. I apologize for this, but understanding Kalyn’s Secret is foundational to understanding the rest of FFM’s materials. So the length is necessary. I will be splitting today’s analysis in two posts: this first post will explain the background, context, and positive elements of Kalyn’s Secret and the second post will examine the negative elements. (So if you’re just interested in my critiques, skip to the second half.)
I promise the rest of the week’s posts will be much less tedious. But for today, grab a cup of coffee or tea and let’s get started…
Written in 2009 by Lisa Cherry and her daughter Kalyn, Kalyn’s Secret tells the story of how then-14-year-old Kalyn was groomed for sexual abuse via phone and online interactions with a 46-year-old male parishioner from their church. The book alternates between Lisa and Kalyn’s voices (with a concluding chapter written by Lisa’s husband Doug), though the majority of the book is written by Lisa.
I want to be clear at the outset that my heart goes out to not only Kalyn for the abuse she experienced, but also to Lisa, Doug, and the entire Cherry family for the trauma that the abuse brought upon everyone. While I am going to be expressing intense disagreement with the theological, ideological, and strategic views contained in this book (and others), that in no way lessens my compassion and empathy for this family. What they — especially Kalyn — experienced was and is heartbreaking. I wish the family continued hope and healing in their personal lives and interpersonal relationships.
I also want to be clear about something else: while I was expecting to find some disagreements as I read Kalyn’s Secret (the first of the FFM books I read), I was not expecting to be fundamentally disturbed by the ideas contained within it. I was honestly hoping to be able to find much good within its pages.
Before analyzing the book, I should give some background on what happened to the Cherry family. Beginning when she was 14, Kalyn — a homeschooled and pastor’s kid — sought the friendship and approval of a family in their church. She had a crush on the family’s 21-year-old son. That son eventually moved away to college and his parents separated. The 46-year-old father of the family was “a well-regarded, seasoned employee of a local Christian organization” (36). After the father separated from his wife, he began to groom Kalyn for abuse: through compliments and flirting at first, and later, through sexually explicit phone and online conversations. Due to her upbringing and all the responsibility placed upon Kalyn since a young age, she felt she was “maturing rapidly in all areas of my life” (34), and became an easy target for the older man.
Kalyn’s parents discovered this abusive relationship when Kalyn’s conversations with the man racked up an $800 phone bill — which fortunately happened before he was able to abuse her in any physical way. The Cherry family eventually decided to file a police report and press charges against him. A jury found him “guilty of aggravated criminal sexual assault—specifically, indecent solicitation of a minor” (237)—though later the case was re-opened and the charges unfortunately dropped.
Again, my heart goes out to Kalyn and her family. This was a tragic situation and easy answers are difficult.
1. About the Cherry Family
The first step I want to take in analyzing Kalyn’s Secret is to distill who and what the Cherry family is. This means I will be throwing out labels and adjectives as descriptors. I want to clear up front about three things when I do this: (1) I am not using these descriptors to stereotype, insult, or attack the Cherry family. Rather, I just want to help you as readers to understand the worldview from which they are approaching these issues. (2) Some of these descriptors could be positive or negative depending on the context. And (3) even if I believed all these descriptors were negative, that would not mean I would necessarily condemn the abuse prevention week simply because of its messenger. So again, I provide these descriptors simply for context.
To that contextual end, the Cherry family is/are:
Lisa uses classic Quiverfull language to describe her and her husband’s procreative philosophy. She says that, “God began to talk to us about having another child. It really wasn’t a discussion with Him about that but about who would be Lord over all of our womb decisions” (59, emphasis added). Lisa and her husband have 10 children.
• A pastor’s family
Lisa and her husband founded a church and became known as a stereotypical Quiverfull, homeschooling family: “The whole Cherry tribe was known around town as that pastor’s family in the white 15-passenger van with lots of kids” (27).
• “Holy Rollers”
“Holy Rollers” is traditionally considered a derogatory term used to refer to Christians who adhere to the Pentecostal and/or Holiness movements. These movements are marked by charismatic theology, perfectionism, word-of-faith teachings, and faith healings. Lisa self-describes her husband as a “Holy Roller” (57) and proudly explains how she became one, too.
I will discuss this at length later. But for the time being you should know that Lisa vehemently disagrees with any semblance of egalitarianism or feminism. She believes such ideas actively block God’s blessing in families’ lives. She advocates for traditional male headship and authority.
• Into spiritual warfare
This goes hand and hand with the fact that the Cherry family are self-described “Holy Rollers.” They believe demons are active everywhere and one must continually pray them out of house and heart. Evil spirits are responsible for everything from depression to sexual abuse.
I think this descriptor might be the most negative-sounding at face value. But obviously there are circumstances in life that necessitate paranoia. The question is under what circumstances it is healthy versus unhealthy. What I want to highlight here is that the spiritual warfare ideas of the Cherry family translate (in the book) into regular states of paranoia for Lisa. For example, when talking about Kalyn during her “rebellious” stages, Lisa says, “Every time the phone would ring for her, or I saw her talking to others, I would fight of panic that she would be sucked into a world of evil” (77). Lisa felt she had to be in a constant state of alertness and activation: “Inwardly my spiritual weapons were always in my hands, and my mind was always alert for trouble” (143). When some rebellious-looking teens pulled up into the Cherry family’s driveway one day, Lisa engaged in exorcism-sounding routines: “I commanded the forces of darkness off my property. I prayed for the protection of the blood of Jesus to descend upon my daughter and my home” (144).
As a large pastor family constantly engaged in ministry, Lisa and Doug’s children were constantly helping out and in the spotlight. Lisa states that, “Each of our children began to rise up at young ages and share in the work of the ministry,” and she admits that, “It was not an easy lifestyle” (61). At one point Lisa says Kalyn described the parents’ home as involving “oppressive parenting” (143), but Lisa states that this was Kalyn’s demonic rebellion speaking and not her true heart.
Throughout Kalyn’s Secret, Lisa describes numerous moments where she and her husband controlled Kalyn’s actions and behaviors. Some of these seem justified, others seem excessive. One particular moment stood out to me: Months after the abuse was discovered, Lisa started going to a fitness center. Kalyn wanted to join her mother — which should have been considered an amazing opportunity and development for Lisa and her family. However, Lisa only allows Kalyn to go under certain conditions such as, “You’ll have to drive” and “You’ll have to sit in complete silence” (190).
• Under pressure
Due to the Cherry family’s national ministry demands, the family was constantly under pressure to put on a good face and perform. This led to many situations where Lisa and her husband chose to not prioritize their daughter over their own careers. For example, mere days after the abuse was discovered, Lisa says “we were in Tulsa at the Leadership Conference trying to hold our family together in front of hundreds of observing eyes.” During the conference, Kalyn privately told her parents that they had “ruined her life by the way we had raised her,” that she was “never coming back,” and they were “destined to lose our other kids as well due to our parenting flaws” (104). Rather than cancel the conference and deal with the situation with their daughter, Lisa and her husband chose to double-down on their ministry commitments (105).
How Lisa and Doug responded to Kalyn
All of the above labels and adjectives are important for contextualizing the process by which Lisa and her husband Doug responded when they discovered Kalyn’s abuse. Namely, they responded horribly. (And I should note in advance that Lisa herself admits she later realized they did respond horribly, which I commend her for recognizing and being honest about.) They first responded (according to Unmask the Predators) with blaming Kalyn for ruining their family’s reputation. They then thought the the root of the problem was rebellion and not abuse: “We had became so distracted and consumed by the tyranny of her urgent problems of rebellion and depression that we were being distracted from understanding her root causes—the abuse” (198). They also expressed their love in triggering ways: “[Doug] would reach out and hug her defiantly stiff body. He wouldn’t let her go” (209).
It wasn’t until months after the discovery of the abuse that Lisa realized how horribly they were responding: “I was jolted to realize I had begun to view my precious, bleeding daughter like I might a common juvenile delinquent as I had been filled with disgust, scorn, disapproval, and anger towards her” (200). Lisa then realized that Kalyn had felt unloved by her: “She [Kalyn] had a weak immune system. Her love tank is low from Mom and Dad. She feels a root of rejection from Mom” (203).
This unfortunately did not translate over into the best responses. The Cherry family “made visits to three different professional counselors” “before the Lord led us to be Kalyn’s counselors” (214). (Neither Lisa nor her husband are professional counselors.) Prior to committing to this, they called Focus on the Family’s counseling services (205). The Focus on the Family counselor asked Lisa, “Have you considered that perhaps, for right now, you and your husband could be her best counselors?” (206). This greatly encouraged Lisa, because she was not wanting Kalyn to go to outside counseling. Kalyn, however, was upset by this: “When we told Kalyn about our decision, she responded by getting angry and running away.” (206). Lisa, however, was undeterred: “We…had to reject the pieces offered that were not a part of our solution” (215).
Kalyn’s mental health
These labels and adjectives are also important to contextualize how Kalyn reacted to her parent’s response to the abuse. Kalyn reacted intensely. She lashed out, had major mood swings, experienced depression, and found solace in rebellious and/or sexualized behaviors as well as eating disorders and self-injury. Some of these reactions reached alarming levels. Her self-injury, for example, was significant: “I got mad, threw a golf ball through my window, and used the glass to cut my arms and legs.” Kalyn says this is but one of several ““erratic, bizarre behaviors” (231). She fantasized about suicide, even creating a notebook titled “When Kalyn Dies” (215).
At the end of her recovery process, this is where Kalyn ended up: “God showed me that I was the rebel the Scripture talks about, and I was the harlot the Scripture warns about” (233). As I said before, my heart goes out to Kalyn due to the trauma she experienced. But that she would feel that she was either a rebel or a harlot for experiencing perfectly legitimate emotions, pain, and struggle in response to that trauma (and then an unsupportive home environment) breaks my heart in two.
2. The Good
When I coached high school speech and debate, I always instructed my students to first say what they liked about a fellow student’s performance before they gave suggestions for improvement. So I would be a hypocrite if I did not follow my own advice. So before I offer critiques of Kalyn’s Secret, I’d like to first point out the parts of the book that I believe are helpful. I will cover the positives below, and then will I cover the negatives in a separate post.
a. Some of the “Tools” sections (Tool 2, 3, 4, 6, 7)
At the end of the book, after the Conclusion, Epilogue, and Postscript, there is a series of sections called “Tools.” The Tools sections are outside source materials selected by Lisa that address specific issues: sexual abuse, adolescent depression, suicide, teenage rebellion, eating disorders, drug abuse, online safety, and cutting. In general (though not always), the information in these sections is grounded in accurate understandings of psychology and science as well as guided by the experience of professional counselors and practitioners.
There’s a catch, though: most of these “Tools” were apparently copied and pasted by Lisa from publicly accessible websites. So you don’t need to buy the book to get them. Here are the source links:
- Source of Tool 2, “Understanding Sexual Abuse: Grooming Behaviors”
- Source of Tool 3, “Recognizing Adolescent Depression”
- Source of Tool 4, “Suicide Alertness”
- Source of Tool 6, “Warning Signs and Symptoms of Eating Disorders”
- Source of Tool 7, “Warning Signs of Teenage Drug Abuse”
b. Calling Christian communities to help those in crisis
One of the action steps in Lisa’s “Victory Battle Plan” is to “Get Proper Support.” This step is important and something all communities — Christian, homeschool, and otherwise — should do when it comes to issues like abuse and mental health. Communities should create support systems to help individuals and families dealing with these issues in the same way that they would help individuals and families dealing with any other traumatic situation (take cancer, for example). “In the body of Christ,” Lisa urges, “we are to bear one another’s burdens as an expression of our love.” Lisa points out practical ways her church helped her family: “Some of our closest family and friends offered practical help—casseroles, babysitting, notes of encouragement. Others offered spiritual help by praying for us and offering us words of insight and counsel” (213). This is something we can learn from.
c. Understanding abusers are usually people you trust, p. 173-4
In Chapter 11, “An Ounce of Prevention…”, Lisa points out the difficulty of teaching children to come forward about abuse experiences when children are groomed by “a trusted friend or relative.” She highlights the fact that, “Over 95 percent of child molesters are not strangers. They are trusted adults with insider status in the child’s or teen’s world” (174). This is absolutely crucial to recognize, because the “stranger danger” myth can lead us to misdirect our attention away from those who pose the greatest threats to children.
Now, I wouldn’t normally commend anyone for acknowledging basic facts about child abuse. But the homeschool narrative about child abuse has been shaped for decades by books like Mary Pride’s The Child Abuse Industry, featuring such horrific lines as, “The major problem is that the public has been convinced that child abuse is a major problem” and “Isn’t it possible to organize a bridge party without staring at an abused woman across the table?”
So Lisa Cherry’s book — by simply being a book written by a homeschool leader who acknowledges basic child abuse facts — is a huge step in the right direction.
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When I heard the podcast on That Mom’s website, I did not know the context of Lisa talking about Kalyn’s “rebellion.” This write up gives me a lot more context now.
Even though Lisa acknowledged that she did not know how to help Kalyn at first, I would have hoped that she would come to see that Kalyn was not in “rebellion” but that she needed help, especially as she has learned more about sexual abuse. As of the current podcast, Lisa mentions that they had to deal with their daughter’s rebellion.
Also, I find it a bit scary to think that Focus on the Family, and perhaps Lisa Cherry, are suggesting that parents are their kid’s best counselors. Any professional counselor would tell you that they could not provide counseling services to members of their own family. Talk about an unhealthy dynamic – especially if a parent is not a trained mental health professional.
Yes, I found that particularly troubling.
I have to be honest–this is the most disgusting example of emotional and spiritual abuse I’ve read on this site.
My jaw fell to the floor when Kalyn’s conclusion was: “God showed me that I was the rebel the Scripture talks about, and I was the harlot the Scripture warns about.”
It’s like the twist at the end of a horror movie.
Well said, Timber St. James. Made me sad and mad to read this entire post.
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It is easy to sit back and judge another parent when you haven’t been in their shoes. Nobody knows how they will act/react in a situation until they are actually confronted with it. Were mistakes made?? Yes..they admit that in hopes that it will help other parents If you disagree with the religious beliefs of this family your most likely NOT going to like this book…or any other book they write no matter what the subject is. I’m not sure if the author of this article is a christian or not but it is very obvious that she does NOT share the same beliefs as this family so I’m not surprised that she doesn’t support this book. That’s OK..there are thousands of families who have found tremendous help from this story and this family. Certainly professional help can be good; though I would be extremely particular in choosing a trusted christian counselor who shares my biblical beliefs…however, our society is increasingly telling parents that without a PhD behind your name you are incapable of helping your child navigate difficulties. While this article goes to great lengths to dissect all the “mistakes” she feels this family made…(some I agree with…many I don’t) it is obvious that with God’s help they must have done something right…because this story could have had a very tragic ending…but it doesn’t!!!! Today, Kayln is married to a wonderful godly man and they have 2 gorgeous children and a precious baby in heaven. Her life has been completely changed and she is emotionally, physically and spiritually healthy today. Which just proves that God can do amazing things even through imperfect people.