In the 1970s Johnsons Baby Powder ran a television ad with a lady standing in front of her bathroom mirror saying, “Who am I? What am I? Why’d I cut my hair, I look like a squirrel.” It was a humorous way of telling the potential consumers who were viewing the ad how to stay cool and collected with their product while in stressful situations like having a hair style that conforms to societal expectations. “Who am I,” our self identity, is often confused or mixed up with my conformance to certain group expectations. I have had to think about this a lot over the years as I have counseled with people leaving cults and false religious groups. In leaving they have walked away from a certain set of beliefs which comprise and inform their worldview and in many cases they have left family and friends who remain in the group. How do they recover and where do they begin rebuilding their lives? This is a question some who have started a new Facebook page, ATI Survivors and subsequently a website, Recovering Grace have asked me.
For those who are unaware, ATI stands for Advanced Training Institute of America and is the homeschooling arm of Bill Gothard’s ministry, the Institute in Basic Life Principles. Our book, A Matter of Basic Principles: Bill and the Christian Life was originally written in an attempt to publically call Bill Gothard to repentance from his false teachings (after several years of attempts to address this privately), as well as to warn the Body of Christ of the dangers in his teachings.
Answering the question of where to begin recovery is a difficult one in some ways. Sure there are some basic things to address but at its most basic level it probably starts with “who are you?” (self-identity) and then “what do you believe?” (your worldview). In some ways it is easier guiding someone who joined a false religious group in their teen years or later than someone who grew up on the group. In general I am not a fan of psychology but these issues are pretty basic and I would suggest that In these situations you can help the individual access what author of Combatting Cult Mind Control and exit counselor, Steven Hassan, refers to in some of his talks and materials as “the pre-cult self.” That is the person or identity you were prior to joining the group. Who you are as a person doesn’t really change much over the course of your life. If you are assertive or timid by nature, strong willed or compliant, prone to be artistic or mechanical, love math or poetry, you will probably not fundamentally change your identity. Whether you can be you or act on these things will be determined by your worldview which informs your beliefs and behaviors, and your group associations, which will have a corporate worldview which aligns with the one you have embraced. Groups may enhance or limit your ability to express your self- identity. There are some who like to think of themselves as non-conformists but that is really a myth. They align with other “non-conformists” and then conform to the worldview and behavior of the “non-conformists,” and thus are simply conforming non-conformists.
How does your self identity work itself out in various settings? If you are assertive by nature and join Scientology, you will probably be able to express your assertiveness in often time’s abrasive ways and be rewarded as a result. If, on the other hand, you are more shy or compliant you will have to work hard at being assertive in order to conform. Your attempt at self preservation will cause to work hard at hiding your natural bent and adopt a new way of expression in order to survive.
If you join a group like IBLP/ATI and are a male, husband and especially a father and are assertive, you won’t have to make much of a change for you are the patriarch, the boss of the family. If you are of a more reticent nature, you will have to change your behavior to be more authoritarian. If you are female and are compliant by nature, there isn’t much change required. If you are female and an independent thinker, you will do all you can to hide your identity for self preservation. In either of these groups, if you leave and can reach back to your past before you joined, you can distinguish between who you are and what you believed more easily. Your self-identity surfaces and you can examine your beliefs and practices, throw out what is bad and retain what is true and right. But what happens if you grow up in false teaching?
This becomes much more difficult. Who you are was squelched or rewarded by the group nearly from the moment you were born. This is true in ATI and for ATI kids. Recovering Grace is geared to the first generation of ATI students who are now adults. According to their An Open Letter from Bill Gothard’s First Generation to Basic Seminar Attendees:
The latest statistics provided by an anonymous IBLP staff member indicates that less than 1% of children raised in the Advanced Training Institute use the program with their own children. In addition to this staggering fact, many children raised within the program have fallen away from the Christian faith entirely. There have even been at least three murders committed by students raised in faithful ATI families. How can this be happening?
I have no way of confirming these statistics but wouldn’t really be surprised. I have had the sad duty of helping many a family who, in an effort to protect their children from a scary world, signed up on the Gothard protection plan only to watch their children leave Gothardism and God. Helping them understand that even though God and Gothard both begin with “GO” and end in “D,” that is where the similarity ends. If they are able to look at the Scriptures without going into what we might call “Gothard shock,” we look at the personalities of the individuals God used throughout Scripture. By the way, “Gothard shock” is what happens to someone who have the voice of Bill Gothard overlaying the Scriptures and separating the two is a very difficult task. But we can achieve the same thing by simply talking about the biblical characters. We can see who they are (their self identity) is separate from what they believed (their worldview) and God did not change that but used them, sometimes in spite of who they are, and sometimes because of it, often at the same time. For example, the Apostle Peter was impetuous. About the only time he opened his mouth was to change feet. He didn’t fundamentally change from who he was before following Christ to who he was after he began following Christ. Whatever was on his mind just fell out of his mouth when he opened it. Peter is the one who proclaimed he would follow Christ to His death (Matthew 26:35) and then denied Him (Matthew 26:69). He is also the one who delivered the great salvation message in Acts 2 which resulted in the salvation of over 3,000 and stood toe to toe with the religious leaders who told him to stop preaching about Jesus and his response was that they needed to figure out whether it was right to follow God or man and in the meantime he was going to continue what he was doing (Acts 4:18-21).
The apostle John was very different. Shy, fearful, emotional connections were important. He is the one who refers to himself as “the disciple who Jesus loved.” He reclined on the breast of Jesus and rarely said a contrary word. The contrast between these two men is most clearly seen as they raced to the tomb. The younger one, John, arrived first and stopped to peer inside. Impetuous Peter ran full throttle into the tomb with nary a thought as far as we can tell.
The Apostle Paul was cerebral and logical before his Damascus road experience and his basic identity remained unchanged after he came to the Messiah. His writings are clear, logical articulations of doctrine, corrections of false teachings and at times philosophy with “if, then” statements. God used all of them, just as they were, to accomplish His purposes. The same can be said for the rest of the New Testament and all of the Old Testament characters.
Jacob was competitive. He was someone always looking for an edge. He never gave up. It was not in his nature. His mother used this in order to advance him in life by persuading him to deceive his father into thinking he was Esau. Isaac asked him, “Who are you?” Something equivalent to “What is your name?” His personality provided him with the ability to live under difficult conditions with his father-in-law, Laban, and prosper. Who he was brought him prosperity and grief over his life, but God used all of that to shape him into a great man of God. This surfaces later, when wrestling with God in Genesis 32:27. God asks the same sort of question Jacob’s father had asked all of those years ago and he lied. This time though, without hesitation his response was, “Jacob.” The very next passage demonstrates what I mean when God stated:
“Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.”
Sometimes, who they were, played itself out in their social setting in unusual ways. Lydia was a business woman in a world of business men, who supported the ministry of Paul and provided a place for the church to meet (Acts 16). The Proverbs 31 woman could not have existed without the Proverbs 31 man. She was a business woman, worked outside the home, made financial decisions without consulting her husband as far as we can tell, bought and sold property and did so with the praise of her husband. He was not only not threatened by her business ventures but bragged on her. We don’t even know if he had a job!!!!!
Knowing who you are in Christ is a priority. Understanding grace is freeing. But knowing who you are is essential to how all of this fits together.