The Planet Of The Armstrongites
When I was four years old, my oldest sister (then married and away from home) began listening to Herbert W. Armstrong's radio program and then subscribed to the PT. At first the rest of the family violently disagreed with her, but two years later my mother was baptized and then my other two older sisters shortly thereafter. My brother is apparently the only one of my siblings who had any sense as a young adult.
I don't remember much of my mother's indoctrination because I was banished from the room and sometimes even the house when the ministers came. I remember there were always two of them. After several months of counseling and some VERY long trips to the nearest church services, my mother was baptized by the minister in the cattle tank on our farm. I remember her telling my sister that it was the middle of winter and she had to put an electric tank heater into the water so as not to freeze to death. She was very proud of the fact that she had suffered for God.
The impact on me as a 6-year-old child was pretty intense. Suddenly there were no more birthday parties, no more Christmas presents, and after my kindergarten year in school, no more holiday activities of any kind. That was jolly, believe me, watching the other kids making valentines and decorations and exchanging gifts while I could have no part of it. Not to mention the other children's teasing and name-calling. They couldn't understand our having to be gone on the Jewish holy days or the whole gamut of weirdness. Days of Unleavened Bread was an especially rough time--I went to a one-room country school and there was no cafeteria. Everyone brought their lunch, and of course the others wanted to know why I had to have rye-krisp every day for a week.I believed everything my mother told me about "God's Way" and did my best to follow the church teachings, but it was pretty bleak growing up. Members could talk all they wanted about how wonderful and how refreshing it was to be "out of the world" and how nobody was as happy or as joyous as "God's chosen people", but to a child sitting through endless droning two-hour services on Saturdays and double services on "holidays" and being denied pretty much everything, it was not in the least joyous or refreshing.
One of the most painful childhood memories that I have is of something that happened when I was seven or eight years old. I contracted a painful bladder infection. Of course, instead of simply taking me to the doctor, my mom called the minister and asked for an anointed cloth. I believed without question that God would heal me just as she said he would, and when the cloth came in the mail I went up to my room and prayed as instructed, never doubting for a moment the truth of what my mother and the minister said.
And, of course, the miraculous cloth wasn't really miraculous and I got sicker and sicker and sicker. After missing a week or two of school, with the pain becoming unbearable and seeing blood in my urine, I finally asked to be taken to the doctor. I will never forget how I felt when my mother told me that if I wanted to go, she would take me to the clinic, but that she was deeply disappointed in my lack of faith and that it was my fault I wasn't healed because I didn't trust and believe God. The look on her face was like an arrow right through my heart. She couldn't have hurt me more deeply if she had punched me in the face. To make a long story short, we went to the doctor, who was very kind to me. He gave me a sulfa drug which made short work of my bladder infection. I didn't realize it at the time, but I think that's when I began to ask "What's wrong with this picture?"
My father had a lot of problems, but he never joined the church. I guess he just wasn't called. :) He did, however, have bouts of severe depression which made him rather difficult. This was in the sixties, before anyone had any idea that clinical depression was caused by something physical, and of course there were no medications like Prozac or Zoloft back then. I can actually remember my mother and sisters sitting around the kitchen table with their coffee and matter-of-factly discussing the fact that they believed my dad was demon possessed.
Demons, of course, were EVERYWHERE. And, of course, everything that I enjoyed in the way of entertainment from the Beatles to Star Trek to old Boris Karloff movies to Grimm's Fairy Tales was demon-influenced. In fact, years later I was denied baptism when I asked for it because I was still reading subversive literature like "The Hobbit" and the occasional Stephen King novel
The rest of my childhood was filled with pretty much the same sort of degradation that everyone who grew up in the wcg was subjected to. I received an allowance of 25 cents a week(this was in the sixties), and every two weeks I was expected to hand over a big nickel to my mom for a tithe. I've always wondered how much plane fuel that put into Herbie's private jet. At one point, I won the county spelling contest but was not allowed to go to the state finals because they were held on Saturday. Things like that cropped up from time to time.
When I was about ten, I started studying the church literature. I threw myself into it wholeheartedly, devouring every magazine and booklet in my mother's vast horde. Of course, no self-respecting wcg member ever threw away any back issues of the pt or good news. They would no more have done that than toss a bible in the fireplace. The effect of all this concentrated study was a dichotomous thing. On the one hand, I basked in the glory of my mother and sisters' approval for what seemed the first time in my life. On the other hand, the constant admonishment to DILIGENTLY seek for sin in yourself was having a serious effect on my self-esteem. Of course, now I realize that the church's rules were impossible for anyone alive to follow completely. However, at the time, I blamed myself completely for every deed of mine that was contradictory to doctrine. When I couldn't be meek and mild and obedient, when I couldn't force myself not to resent being treated like a weirdo by other kids, when I just simply could not keep from questioning the narrow and repressive ways of the wcg, it never occurred to me that my family and I were being emotionally blackmailed. I simply assumed that the problem was within me. I was selfish, rebellious, and wicked.
The winter after I turned twelve, my mother began to suffer from headaches so severe that she would literally scream in agony. Of course, she wouldn't see a doctor, determined that God was going to heal her. Finally one evening the pain was so terrible that she asked to be taken to the hospital. She died the next day in an ambulance on the way to a larger medical facility in Omaha. We found out after the autopsy that she had an inoperable brain tumor. No doctor could presumable have saved her life, but I can't help thinking that if it were not for the wcg's mistrust of doctors, she would at least have been spared such awful agony in her final days.
Her funeral was not as tawdry and depressing as some wcg funerals I have heard described, largely because I come from a huge family, most of whom were not members. The local wcg minister officiated, but he was very kind and gentle to us. Unfortunately he and his wife were killed in a car crash a few short months after my mother died and we received a new preacher who embodied the worst of wcg intolerance, but that's another story.
The service was held in the local mortuary, but it wasn't as if we felt like displaced persons. I come from a tiny Midwestern town, and the funeral director there was a highly respected member of the community and a family friend. The most troubling part of the whole thing for me came when I wanted to go in and view my mother's body just before the main service began. My sisters exerted quite a bit of pressure on me not to do so, since the church didn't approve of the viewing of the dead. I have always been glad that I defied them and did it anyway, even though I felt deep guilt. If I had not paid my last respects to my mother, some part of me would never have been able to accept her death. At the time, I despised myself for being so "weak" that I couldn't let her go without seeing her face one last time.Over the course of the next few years, I did the things that all teenaged girls in the church do--hid makeup, kept the "worldly" clothes in the back of the closet, had friends who weren't in the church, etc. But I never stopped believing that Herbie was God's prophet and I never stopped believing that my dissatisfaction and growing anger were my fault and not the church's.
When I graduated high school, I moved to the nearest town that had a local congregation. Living in close proximity to the minister and his family was an eye-opening experience. I had always been led to believe that the church was full of happy, well-adjusted families. Many times I had heard my mother and sisters comment that life would be so perfect if only their husbands were in the church. The reality, however, was not so pretty. Our local minister was a cold, unyielding man who shamed people and had not the slightest bit of empathy for those in pain. He terrorized and browbeat his elderly, infirm mother-in-law because she had the temerity to mention to a couple of people in the congregation that she had loaned him thousands of dollars and had never been paid back. His wife was a lazy, shrewish harridan who expected to sit on her duff all day and have the church ladies do her work for her.
Don't get me wrong, some of the people in that congregation were among the finest, most caring individuals it has ever been my honor to meet. Some of them still greet me kindly when we meet on the street. However, there were others who were downright creepy. One couple would invite people over or go to the homes of others to "help" or "fellowship" with them. They would listen carefully to every word and watch every move of the people around them and report to the minister later. They were literally like his secret police.
In spite of all this, I continued to believe that Herbert Armstrong was the most righteous man alive. When I did things like paying my rent instead of tithing first and losing my home, I would torture myself with feelings of guilt and inadequacy. I couldn't understand why I couldn't be like the others, unquestioningly obedient, a good little robot for God. I wanted to be--oh, how I wanted to be like them! My sister once told me I had a demon. I began to wonder if she wasn't right.
How else could I explain why I couldn't stop doubting and asking myself questions like why a woman who was better qualified for any position should be commanded to act stupid and make way for men who were not as qualified simply because they had penises and she had breasts. I was criticized unmercifully every time I gave a speech at spokesman's club for not being "feminine" enough. When I counseled for baptism the minister rejected me instantly. Of course, he was right to do so. He could see that I was too strong-willed to be easily dominated--definitely not good member material. When I saw people wearing and dressing their children in cast-offs from the salvation army and the church leaders living like pashas, I couldn't hide my anger. Naturally I believed this to be my fault, too. As anyone who has spent any amount of time in the wcg can tell you, Jewish mothers have nothing on these guys when it comes to dishing out the guilt.
The straw that broke the camel's back, for me, came shortly before Herbie's divorce when he issued the now-famous makeup edict. In the sermon telling us that the women could no longer wear makeup, he told us that someone else had added a paragraph to one of his co-worker letters giving the women permission to wear makeup. He had actually not sanctioned this; it was actually a forgery. There is only one problem with that--if this was true, why did he not say something at the time? Surely he noticed that suddenly on sabbath the women were all made up. After all, it's not something that is easily hidden. Our faces were right out there in the open for him to see. You would think that if he knew nothing about this makeup thing, he would have instantly started asking "What gives?" Instead, he would have us believe that he watched the women of the church wear makeup for several years and said nothing. Then, one fine day, he suddenly realized that someone had given a phony order in his name. Sorry, Herb, but that is just too much bs for even me to believe. For the first time in my short life, I had irrefutable proof from his own lips that Herbert W. Armstrong was a liar.
I went on attending services for some time after that, but that realization was, for me, the beginning of the end. At the age of 23, I finally made the big break. I called my boss and told her that she could start scheduling me to work Saturdays. The first one I worked was a strange mixture of fear and exhilaration. The church's brainwashing was so ingrained in me that I half-expected to be struck by lightning on the way home. Of course I wasn't, and I continued to grow in confidence with every church rule I folded, spindled, and mutilated.
Change did not occur overnight. I suffered through a disastrous marriage to a man who was cold, mean, and selfish. No matter how much I did for him it was never enough.(Gee, doesn't that sound familiar?) Eventually I became a pagan animist. I love Wicca--it gives me a strong sense of identity, as I am of Celtic ancestry, and Mother Earth never tells me I should abhor myself. Fortunately, my children were never exposed to this poisonous doctrine, and my husband is wonderfully supportive. I still experience a knee-jerk reaction when something goes wrong. I always react with feelings of guilt over any problem, even if I have nothing to do with it. Slowly but surely, I have learned to think for myself.
A couple of years ago I went to a psychiatrist and had my head officially examined. I have obsessive-compulsive disorder and medication has done wonders for me, but I wanted to hear from someone objective what progress I had made, if any. He told me after testing me that I was a basically well-adjusted and happy person. He praised my parenting skills and informed me that I was not messed up at all. Of course, he was a "worldly" doctor and God wouldn't agree with him according to my sisters, but I am strong enough now to say that I don't care.
There will always be scars, I suppose. Seeing the Painful Truth Website has brought me to tears more than once as long-dead memories have come to the fore, but I believe this is a good thing, a necessary catharsis. I have never had the chance to interact with a support network of people who have been where I once was, and it is a tremendous blessing to be able to do so.
The worst part of it still, for me, is the fact that my sisters and I will never have a normal family relationship. For a time, I tried to keep in contact, but I felt like an eager puppy begging for approval because I was always the one who had to go to them. My oldest sister keeps family photos of everyone in the immediate family except me on her walls. I am the youngest, so even the full family picture she has includes only the other siblings and our folks. She found one that was taken before I was born. My nieces have told me that she blames my "bad example" for whatever problems her own children have. My other wcg sister once told one of my nieces that she was afraid to come to my house because a demon might follow her home. The most deeply saddening part of my life is the admission that my sisters will never love and accept me the way normal, healthy siblings accept each other. There will always be an open wound in my psyche where they are concerned. There is no real anger toward them as there once was, only a deep compassion and a sad resignation. I don't see this ever changing--they are too deeply entrenched in the wcg's sick way of thinking.
I don't mean to sound as if I am some sad, suffering creature. I have a great husband and kids, and my aunts, uncles and cousins have been the light of my life. My life is very blessed and filled with humor and joy. Anyone who is reading this and has just gone over the wall or is still in bondage to some tin-plated would-be demigod, take heart! There is light at the end of the tunnel. I've come out on the other side 16 years later with my hope and humanity still intact, and you can too.
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