When people ask why I kicked my narcissistic family out of my life, the easiest way to explain it is, “I was basically raised in a cult.” Everyone understands the word “cult”; almost no one really understands the word “narcissists.”

But then they ask, “Which cult?” expecting me to say Moonies or FLDS or some other widely recognized cult. But we weren’t. “The family dynamics were very cult-like,” I try to explain, simply and honestly, and that’s when the other person checks out of the conversation leaving me feeling foolish and invalidated. But you really can’t blame them.

I Fired God

That all changed last week when I read Jocelyn Zichterman’s 2013 book dramatically titled I Fired God. I was a little afraid hellfire-and-brimstone would rain down on me if I even cracked open such a heretically titled book! (It didn’t. LOL)

But something else happened. Names started jumping off the pages at me! Names I’d heard all my life. Bob Jones University. Pensacola Christian College. Northland Baptist Bible College. And, coming very close to home, the name of the seminary attached to my school. For a decade, I learned reading, writing and ‘ritchmetic just inches from that seminary’s classrooms. We kids rubbed shoulders with the seminary men. Sometimes we little girls would even find a seminary man in the Girl’s Bathroom, smiling and trying to make us talk to him as he mopped the floor.

But it wasn’t just the institutions named in I Fired God that tipped me off. It was also the children’s songs she mentioned. She wrote out the lyrics, but I already knew the melodies!

I will obey, the first time I’m told. I will obey right away. Never asking “why”. Never with a sigh! I will obey right away.

Wait. What Denomination Is It!?

But I still wasn’t convinced. So I posted a question in the “Survivors” Facebook group I maintain for my classmates/alumni. “Was our school IFB?” I asked. Independent Fundamental(ist) Baptist. The denomination Jocelyn Zichterman calls out as a cult.

The answer from my classmates shocked me. It was “yes.”

How could I not have known that!?! I never heard of IFB let alone realized my school was IFB. I always thought my school was common, ordinary, garden variety Baptist, unaffiliated or linked to any particular denomination. And that’s exactly the way they want it according to Jocelyn who says IFB churches and IFB leadership are keen to smokescreen and smudge their affiliations, denying the network exists, while shuttling pastors caught sexually abusing girls across state lines.

Like Saul on the road to Damascus, Jocelyn Zichterman has removed the scales from my eyes. She calls out IFB as a cult abusing its flock spiritually, emotionally, financially, physically, sexually. I can personally vouch for that. And her description of cult withdrawal was the best I’ve ever read!

Hypocrisy: Par-for-the-Course

Suddenly, my article Open Letter to a Christian HighSchool Principal ranting about the abusers “Pastor X” attracted to my school, the abuse he turned a blind eye to and the hypocrisy suddenly made sense. It’d been driving me crazy. I couldn’t wrap my head around how so-called men of God could preach to us that even saying “nuts” or “Jiminy Cricket” was evil…then go out and commit adultery, maybe even rape.

Thanks to I Fired God,Jocelyn helped me to see that what happened at my school was “normal” for a religion that attracts narcissists to the power, the misogyny, the I’m-above-the-rules elevated status of IFB pastor. She calls it a Good Ol’ Boys club where all the pastors have each other’s backs and, when necessary, have “something” on each other to keep everyone shackled to the denomination.

There’s a double-standard. The flock is never good enough. The pastor is never brought to justice.

Pastors who scream, sweat and pound from the pulpit on Sunday and scream, sweat and pound a terrified, submissive, modest, underage virgin on Monday. (Sorry. Like my mom, I get terribly crude when I’m mad.)

And they do it openly! In my school, everyone knew which ordained pastor was committing adultery with a teenager after years of grooming her under the nose of his wife. Everyone knew. Even me! And I was persona non grata not on the gossip grapevine because I only attended the dayschool, not the church. But even I knew who was doing whom. So did the Principal; so did the entire staff…and they did nothing. Nothing!

A Few Bad Apples

I believe many, Ihope most, IFB pastors are good men with their heart in the right place but I Fired God paints a pretty bleak picture. So why!?! Why does a denomination that knows its Bible that well and thumps it that hardseem to spawn so much abuse!?!

Jocelyn Zichterman traces it right back to the granddaddy pulling the strings of this invisible denomination, Bob Jones University. Yes, the BJU that was hauled into the Supreme Court and yet maintained their racist policies until 2000. That BJU. She refers to the “Preacher Boys” coming out of BJU and noted how the strict policies forbidding any expression of sexuality at BJU was confined to the students, never the staff, who indulged in plenty of risqu humor and whatnot. That’s the second time I’ve heard about the BJU double-standard.

If she’s right, then an IFB pulpit is tailor-made to attract narcissists. Jocelyn tells how the Good Ol’ Boys Club confers unaccredited degrees and doctorates on each other. Degrees that, in the real world, don’t hold water so to make a meager living, these men are bound to IFB institutions for a lifetime.

Men who will always vouch for each other if an abuse case actually makes it to court. That explains why, as ABC exposed on 20/20, IFB men who rape teenagers can get away Scot-free by transferring either the victim, like Tina Anderson, or her rapist, Ernie Willis, across state lines to a different IFB church. And yet, because they claimed to be “Independent” they get away with it, while looking disdainfully down their unapologetic Protestant noses at the Catholic church which has apologized repeatedly for doing exactly the same thing. Where is the IFB apology? Where is their humility? When will they grovel?

The Women

Show me a cult and I will show you 1) women abused beyond endurance and 2) men getting a lot of sex. Well, apart from Heaven’s Gate cult. Several of the corpses were discovered to be castrated. But I digress.

The former Dean of Women at Northland Baptist Bible College “estimated that seven out of ten female students came to Northland already having been sexually abused.” (p. 193)

These girls weren’t out in the world. They went to three places: IFB church, IFB school, IFB home. It wasn’t those “dangerous, wicked, worldly” men sexually abusing them. It was men in the IFB, I’m sorry to say but there it is. Many of my classmates experienced it too.

Just like most cults, the perpetrator is never blamed. The victim is always blamed. Jocelyn herself was marched out in front of her congregation to be slut shamed, even though penetration never occurred. Meanwhile, the boy who seduced her and her own family members who had sexually abused her for decades…got away Scot-free. No public apology in front of the church. No court case. No imprisonment. To add insult to injury, years after they abused her, they were ordained.

Which brings me to a subject women in every cult are admonished about frequently: modesty in dress. Modesty is supposed to protect the women by visually preventing the men from being able to see anything sexually stimulating. It’s ostensibly meant to protect poor, innocent Adam from being seduced by Eve. No make-up. Unattractive hair. High necklines. Low hemlines. Loose, baggy dresses to disguise those evil curves. Think Duggar.

And yet, these modest girls swathed from neck to knees are still being sexually molested in the IFB. The same is true of the FLDS. The same is true of Bill Gothard’s Quiverful movement. Prairie dresses and denim jumpers couture seem to backfire! It’s almost formulaic. The amount of sexual abuse is directly proportionate to the emphasis on chastity, virginity and modesty. Waz up with that!?!

I’ve come to conclude that modesty et al is a wickedly clever facet of grooming girls in cults positioning them to be an easy, self-blaming victim for sexual abuse. When your teaching about modesty comes from a man in authority, a logical girl naturally assumes he is “safe.” That he cares about her virtue and wouldn’t do anything to violate her. When she becomes his victim, despite being swathed neck-to-knees, it’s crazy-making. She has no defense and can’t find the logic…except to blame herself and her clothing, which he has already groomed her to do.

I know firsthand the shock of finding out that the safe man you trusted implicitly is the one who sexually abused you the most.

Toxic Headship

In Ted Turner’s Gettysburg movie, Colonel Chamberlain says, “There’s nothing quite so much like God on earth as a general on a battlefield.” But he was wrong. I Fired God describes a type of Husbandly Headship that is so omnipotent and so toxic that no wife or daughter could ever submit enough, giving a man whowants to be an abuser unlimited power and endless excuses to abuse. What abusive man wouldn’t want to be IFB!?! It’s tailor made.

IFB, and my parents, believe that the will of the child must be broken while somehow, mystically, keeping the child’s spirit intact…a phrase that my therapist says is nonsense. As a “sinful toddler”, I’m told I was sometimes spanked daily either with a wooden spoon or with a plastic spatula. The spatula had a nice “whip” to it, Dad would gloat.

Even while Ms. Zichterman was pregnant with Baby #8 while caring for seven children, two of whom were seriously ill, homeschooling, working at the church, publishing a magazine, teetering on bankruptcy and battling her own brain tumor, she wasn’t “submitting” enough. She didn’t have a “spirit of brokenness.” She was a “drama queen.”

Wash, Rinse, Repeat

I wasn’t that bright. I left an IFB school only to join an IFB church five years later. Navet thou art my name. In my new church, I was baptized by a pastor who gave me the creeps. I’d told him I wasn’t sure of my salvation, but he baptized me anyways. Heeding his advice to stop worrying about my eternal security, I flung myself into his IFB church: volunteering, singing in choir, giving monetarily.

It was fine, for awhile. As long as I was giving to them, it was all warm smiles and hugs. Then I was blind-sided by my Dad’s cancer diagnosis. Terrified, confused and beside myself with worry and shock, I reached out to my church for comfort. Those same IFB members looked at me with cold fish eyes, not a glimmer of love or warmth or empathy, and said noncommittally “We’ll pray.”

Wow! That love-bombing sure stopped on a dime!

As I wrote in my Facebook review of that church, “I would never darken their door again.” Interestingly, one of the pastors responded, asking how they could “bless me.” Humph. You’ve blessed me quite enough, thank you, and I’m still recovering from it!

That Poor, Poor Flock

My heart bleeds for IFB flocks. Good people with their heart in the right place, by and large. People living a life of torture because theycannot be humanandbe a good IFB person at the same time. When your humanity and your faith cannot co-exist, ding, ding, ding. Think cult!

The IFB flock lives in daily terror and agony about Hell. The women follow the FLDS mantra to “keep sweet” because no negative emotions or anger are allowed. “I will obey…never asking why, never with a sigh.” But the men can be as rageful as they like.

IFB is one of the most dangerous cults because it’s one of the subtlest cults. Nothing extreme to tip you off. No polygamy. No uniforms. You’re free, more or less, to live wherever you want. It has no obvious cultish trappings. And all their teaching is solidly “grounded in Scripture.” The verses are there! You can’t deny it.

But they’re still preaching a false doctrine by blowing the verses all out of proportion, putting them under a microscopic and blowing ’em up to 1,000x magnification working into them their own agendas, their own dysfunction, their own egos, narcissism and toxicity.

They do this to the verses about husbandly headship, wifely submission, spanking children, modest dressing, etc. I particularly notice that the most abusive doctrines come from the Old Testament so favored by abusers.

Here Endeth the Sermon

There’s one key to escaping a cult. Any cult. It sounds terrible, but it’s true. You have to be willing to go to Hell. You have to be willing to risk it and leave the church that tells you, “You’re going to Hell if you leave us.”

That’s what I and Jocelyn Zichterman and Rachel Jeffs and everyone who’s ever left a cult has been willing to risk: Hell. Just give up.

But we each discovered that, in our cult, we were already in Hell. Outside of it, was Heaven and the real God of Heaven. I want to know the God so many of my fellow IFB alumni have found. The loving, warm God who welcomes you at His knee and protects you under His wings. The God whose yoke is easy and whose burthen is light.You won’t find Him in the IFB; I never did…and I was really listening.

I’ll leave you with this brilliant piece of wisdom.

IFB teaches, “If you doubt, don’t.” Then they brainwash your conscience to feel guilty 40/7. (Yes, forty hours a day! That’s how it feels. Heck, I feel guilty in my dreams!) That’s how they control you.

To recover from IFB, you have to do the opposite. If you feel guilty, do it anyways! (Within reason. Obviously!) I’ve been doing that since 2013 and, y’know, it really helps.

Photo by @wewon31