Saturday, March 14, 2009

There's A Cult In The Quiver

Whew. This is gonna be a long one, folks.

Over at Salon I just read about Vyckie Garrison Bennett, a former member of the Quiverfull movement.

Surely by now everyone has heard of Quiverfull, but if not, here’s some background from the Salon piece:
In 1985, homeschooling leader Mary Pride wrote a foundational text for Quiverfull, "The Way Home: Beyond Feminism, Back to Reality." The book argued that family planning is a slippery slope, creating a “contraceptive mentality” that leads to abortion, and that feminism is incompatible with Christianity. As an antidote, Pride told Christians to reject women's liberation in exchange for the principles of submissive wifehood and prolific stay-at-home motherhood. The core ideology was a direct contradiction of Roe v. Wade: Women's bodies and lives did not belong to them, but to God and his plans for Christian revival.

For those women who have left the movement--and some still in it--the Quiverfull lifestyle is grueling,

one of unceasing labor and exhaustion -- a near-constant cycle of pregnancy, childbirth and the care of small children -- for the women at its center.

I never thought God meant us to have families of eight or 10 or 12, otherwise we’d have litters, like Newscoma’s puppies. God wouldn’t have intelligently designed the human female body to do things like suppress ovulation while breastfeeding. And the notion that Christians can “out-breed” the enemy just doesn’t make any sense; if God gave everyone free will, then square parents are just as likely to have round children as square ones. You just can’t assume your kids are going to grow up to be Fundie true believers.

But that’s just me.

Garrison’s story is compelling because she was one of the leading voices in Quiverfull; under her married name Bennett she wrote articles in movement publications (you can read some here at the Nebraska Family Times). Her family was even named the Nebraska Family Council’s “Family of the Year” in 2003. But behind the facade, the “Godly family” and perfect “Proverbs 31 wife” was crumbling.

Garrison finally left the movement (and her husband) when her eldest daughter attempted suicide. As she observed acidly on her blog:

“I could have kids in the psych ward for a lot less effort.”


Equally tragic is the story of Garrison’s fellow Quiverfull apostate, Laura, who blogged her story of being the daughter of a lesbian-feminist couple turned “Proverbs 31 wife." This strong-willed and independent-minded woman found her way into the movement through a boyfriend who eventually became her husband. Because her parents were lebsians, Laura was instructed to shun them, to “protect her children from them” -- their own grandparents.

These stories are not just tragic, they are huge red flags to me. Removing individuals from their support structure -- family and friends -- and replacing that support with a new one; separating the world into those who have privileged access to an exclusive truth and those who do not; placing a group’s doctrine over and above an individual’s experience; use of overly-simplified, cliche-ridden language and slogans; use of “sacred science” -- the idea that if something works for so many in the group it has the authority of “science”; and a cult of confession where one’s testimony is told so often it becomes a well-rehearsed script outlining how lost and sinful the individual was before finding salvation in the group: these are all classic hallmarks of a cult. For those interested, noted researcher Robert J. Lifton warned of this way back in 1981.

I was raised in Los Angeles in the ‘70s and well remember the stories of abusive cults and equally abusive cult “deprogrammers.” When I was a kid you couldn’t walk through Westwood Village (our version of the shopping mall back then) without being accosted by Moonies, Jews for Jesus, Hare Krishnas (we called them “hairless Krishnas” because of their shaved heads), Synanon and est adherents, you name it.

I well remember front-page stories about Scientologists infiltrating the FBI and members of Synanon placing a rattlesnake in the mailbox of an attorney representing an ex-member of the group.

Since then we’ve stopped talking about cults and thought-control techniques in this country. It’s almost become a quaint vestige of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, as if the cult movement is something we don’t need to worry about anymore. And cults thrive under this kind of ignorance.

Cults are everywhere around us, disguised as religions, self-help groups, economic groups and even political groups. Anyone is susceptible to the lure of a cult--anyone. You don't have to be from a "certain kind of family" or a typical "lost soul" to be susceptible. You don't have to live on a compound in the countryside to be in a cult. Any group that demands the subjection of individual will and personal identity to group will and group identity is a cult. Any group that does not allow followers to question the group's belief system should be approached with caution.

Let's quit pretending that cults are something from our past. Our country is going through hard times, people are searching for answers to questions which may have none. Absolutism and certainty are seductive, but most of the time they are false concepts. It goes against human nature to be comfortable with the gray, to be content with flux and instability, and this is why cults thrive. But cults destroy families; left to their own devices, they can give rise to massive totalitarian movements. History proves this.

It's time we got comfortable with the words "cult" and "thought control" again. We live in a mass-media age, and the tools of exploitation have expanded beyond anyone's wildest dreams.

I'm not meaning to knock religion here, and not all religions are cults. Stories like Vyckie Garrison's are warnings of a larger problem at play. As the country splinters ever further into ideological sub-groups, isolated and insulated through technology, we put ourselves at risk.

Make of that what you will.