CN: sexual assault, rape abuse
One of the hardest experiences in my life has been enduring and getting out of an eight year long, emotionally abusive relationship. It’s an all too common narrative: I was naïve and vulnerable, finishing up high school; he was older and manipulative. He swept me off my feet at first. I felt rescued. My mom loved him. Through the years, I defended him to the few people who saw through him. “When it’s good, it’s really good!” “Our problems are my fault, not his.” “He only does that because he loves me so much.” “I deserve much worse.” I joke now that we were in a relationship for eight years and I was trying to leave him for seven of them. It’s not that funny of a joke; I guess this kind of thing messes with one’s sense of humor. Anyway, I’m not here to talk about him. I’m here to talk about my first abusive relationship. The one before the guy I call my Evil Ex because I don’t like saying his name. The one that taught me how to be a good victim for an abuser. The one that wasn’t with a person, but a school system.
Nazarene Christian School, where I attended from age 14 to 18, was a K-12 private school that used a curriculum called Accelerated Christian Education (ACE). It was like homeschooling, in that you worked solely out of workbooks, which meant that you could complete your schoolwork at your own pace. This resulted in most students, including me, graduating alone. In fact, the majority of the ACE experience is spent alone. Each student is assigned a cubicle to do their schoolwork in, so you cannot see or interact with the other students. If you were caught turning around in your desk, you would get in trouble. Interacting with another student during “class time” would result in even worse trouble. During recess and assemblies there was a strict “6-inch rule” in effect. No touching other students. No even being close to touching other students. As you might imagine, this affects a developing human’s interpersonal skills. And what’s the first thing an abuser needs in a victim? They need to be isolated. If they feel like an outsider, even better. This school produced nothing but outsiders.
When I transferred to the ACE school, I’d wanted my best friend Micaela to come with me. I’d known her since I was 7, and she was so cool. At my request, our parents arranged for her to visit the school for a day. Micaela promptly decided she was not interested, and she encouraged me to leave the school. She’s always been a smart cookie. When we were 15, I saved a conversation we had over instant messenger. In it, we talked about how I had developed an overactive imagination from lack of social interaction at school. I confessed that without my daydreams, I couldn’t handle being there. She suggested I talk to my parents and a counselor and try to leave the school. I was convinced that I would do worse at public school. ACE had already made me feel othered, like that school was the only place I could be, even though I hated it.
Once a victim is isolated and feels like an outsider, the abuser can then dictate whom the victim can be friends with, to ensure the abuser’s power over the victim remains undiluted. For ACE students, the only ones they should be friends with are people exactly like themselves. The ACE curriculum, as it is based in Christian fundamentalism, is chock full of advice against spending time with “ungodly” people. Even though it was not said outright, ACE also gave me the impression that you shouldn’t even be friends with people of other races, because yes, the curriculum is incredibly racist. It implies that differences are dangerous, and that there is only one way to be good. I was already failing. Along with racism, the school taught homophobia, and I’ve known from a very early age that I am not heterosexual. Anything about myself that ACE wouldn’t approve of, I had to try to change or hide. An abuser only treats you well when you do exactly what they want you to. Of course, sometimes, not even then.
As in many abusive relationships, punishments at my ACE school were erratic; you never knew how much trouble you would get in for each transgression. There were varying degrees of punishment. A demerit was a figurative slap on the wrist. A detention usually meant spending one hour after school either doing extra schoolwork or cleaning the facilities. A suspension meant you couldn’t come back to school until you had shown reform, and an expulsion meant you were gone for good. Aside from these standard punishments, ACE also uses less conventional practices, such as corporal punishment. To go to an ACE school, the student had to sign a waiver agreeing to receive spankings on the buttocks with a paddle, when the faculty saw fit. This did two things to prepare me for abuse: first, it taught me to fear physical violence because it was always a possibility; secondly, it taught me that there are times when physical violence is an accepted and deserved consequence of my actions.
The paddle at my school belonged to our principal, Mr. Russell. It was a large wooden paddle with holes drilled in it and the words “Russell Rump Roaster” engraved on it. If you ponder that just a bit, it shows a sick joy taken in the physical abuse of children. It hung on the wall in his office, a constant reminder to us all. He would joke about it in assemblies; supervisors would joke about it when they spoke to us; we would joke about it amongst ourselves. However, we had all signed that waiver. We all knew that the jokes were to distract from the fear. I myself was never spanked at school; as I said, punishments were erratic.
I was suspended once for not memorizing Bible verses on time, unable to return to school until I could recite them. I kicked a boy in the face once for being incredibly obnoxious. I thought surely that would merit one of the harsher punishments—but the principal decided that the altercation had created a special bond between me and the boy, and he confided in me that he didn’t think the boy was really a Christian, so my “punishment” was being put in a room with him and trying to convert him. Then there was the time I took alcohol to school—again, I was fearing the paddle, expulsion, or legal action when I got caught—but what I got was a grueling interrogation, making me a sobbing, drooling, snot-covered mess as administrators tried to force me to confess to other transgressions that I had not committed. They then made me confess and apologize to the entire school. It was so humiliating that I have blocked it out of my memory, but I have been assured by several different sources that it happened.
One of my friends was expelled because an older boy passed her a love note. The same boy kicked me in the stomach once and received no punishment. Another girl at the school once accused the principal of sexual assault—which prompted the principal to give a very suspicious speech to the school about how his reputation was in danger. Nobody I know can remember what happened to her. It’s like she just stopped existing.
Like other abusers, ACE did not want you to think for yourself. Using your own logic and reason was seen as an urge you should stamp out, and obedience is the trait valued above all else. This, of course, makes it much easier for abusers to implement their favorite tool: gaslighting. This is a tactic abusers use to undermine their victims’ perceptions.
The ACE the curriculum did not encourage critical thinking. It consisted of rote memorization. When you don’t know how to question what you’re told, how are you supposed to spot the lies? And ACE lied a lot. I’m still finding out things I should have learned in school. It wasn’t until a couple years after I graduated, when I saw someone wearing a jacket with the logo of the company Arcteryx, that I learned that fossils from the “in between” stages in evolution had indeed been found. Every time I learn the truth that opposes a lie ACE taught me, I am filled with the same jubilant validation as when I find that I was right about something my Evil Ex insisted I was wrong about. Knowledge is power.
Another common tactic of abusers is making sure the victims feel that they are worth less than their abusers—which, by the way, makes them accept punishments more willingly. In my case, as a cisgender woman, the sexist teachings of ACE did a great job. Pop culture had already infused in me the idea that I needed a male romantic partner to be happy and whole, but what ACE added to that already problematic idea was the concept of women needing to be submissive to be good. I must obey God and I must obey my elders, I’d been taught. Then men were added to the mix of people I must respect more than myself if I wanted to be truly happy. There was also the recurrent theme that women were the root of sin and it was the responsibility of women and girls to not tempt men to sin any further.
ACE had turned me into a socially awkward, lonely, fearful, gullible, self- hating man-pleaser. It’s no wonder I latched onto the first boy who gave me attention. He went to my school. Before he showed a romantic interest in me, I saw him for the jerk he was. After he showed interest in me and we started dating, I was happy to let him make a shirt with my picture on it and the words “all mine.” Neither of us questioned that I was his property and my job was to make him happy. After he dumped me, saying that he was getting rid of the unimportant things in his life, I met another boy, an atheist who did not attend ACE. He was kind to me. The only time I got mad at him was when he questioned my faith. My belief in and devotion to the Christian God was the only thing about myself I’d been taught to value. I felt attacked. Eventually, I began to reject these ideas, although I couldn’t show that at school for fear of punishment. And though I didn’t consider myself a Christian anymore, I still had the fundamentalist indoctrination lodged firmly in my behavior. Lost in my inner turmoil, I ended the relationship with the nice atheist boy.
Shortly after that, I turned 17. A man I barely knew had said he wanted to be my friend. Following my ACE training, I was kind and courteous and generous and obedient—after all, the happiness of a man was at stake. We met for lunch, but never made it to lunch. Instead, he drove me to the outskirts of the city and raped me in the backseat of his car. He treated it like a date and drove me home, reminding me not to tell my parents. I showered thoroughly as soon as I got home, but soap doesn’t remove the feeling of violation and shame. At school, one of the students could tell something was wrong with me. Finally he got me to tell him what had happened, and he reacted with support and was very kind. That night he told his parents, who told the principal. The next morning I was brought into the secretary’s office (she was the wife of the principal). She told me bluntly that what had happened was something I shouldn’t talk about and certainly shouldn’t burden other students with—that it was unfair of me to share my sin with them.
Having support for those few moments had felt so good, though, that I decided to seek comfort elsewhere. The natural choice was with my first boyfriend. He loved me once; surely he at least still cared about me. And since we had been intimate to some extent, I felt more comfortable telling him about the shameful extent this man had forced me to. I went to my ex’s house and I told him what happened, hoping he would give me that same support that our schoolmate had. However, hearing about the rape—the details of it, and the fact that I was still sore— turned him on and he decided to recreate it. This time I didn’t resist. I felt like that was the missing piece of the puzzle. I suddenly felt like I understood adult life: women existed to please men, and if I didn’t willingly give them what they wanted, they would just take it anyway. I thought that love was a coping mechanism—a game people played to hide this ugly truth. By then I was used to pretending I loved ACE and pretending I loved God so I could fly under the radar and not be punished; I figured I just had to do the same with people. The thought of doing that for the rest of my life was daunting, but like my miserable existence within ACE, I believed I just had to accept it. When my Evil Ex came along, I was perfectly primed for him.
I became an expert at feigning love in exchange for my safety. It became second nature. With affection in my eyes, I mentally pleaded, I love you, please don’t hurt me. With soft caresses, I prayed, I love you, please don’t suspect that I’m unhappy. With random gestures of appreciation, I hoped, Please spare me the punishment I deserve. Years later, after I finally escaped him, I was unstoppable. Even though I was no longer in abusive relationships, I treated my partners like abusers. I believed that was how to survive. It became my habit to shower my lovers in affection. I had a personal renaissance, discovering and reclaiming my self, my body, and my heart. I could act head over heels in love with someone—even someone I had just met—and they would usually soak it up and return the affection, which would be my nonverbal assurance that they wouldn’t hurt me. Occasionally it would catch someone off guard, if they were wanting sex with no strings attached, but how do you tell someone, “Don’t worry, I don’t love you; I just don’t want you to hurt me,” without offending them? Sometimes I wished people would feign love for me, but eventually I learned to appreciate being used. At least using each other was honest.
I continue to struggle against the indoctrination I received through ACE. These days, after emotional healing, trial and error, and re-education, I can spot the red flags of abusers. I’ve had healthy relationships and friendships with men. I still catch myself falling into the learned behavior ACE instilled in me, but I have had a glorious rebellion. I do worry about the kids who are currently in those same kinds of schools, learning how to be victims of abuse. I can’t make my Evil Ex, my jerk of a first boyfriend, or the man who raped me face consequences, but I refuse to turn a blind eye while my first abuser, Accelerated Christian Education, continues to harm the vulnerable youth of the world.
Martha Kay Wiebenson is a proud weirdo, currently living in Denmark. She spends her time working as a massage therapist, dancing, engaging in random creative projects, petting every cat she can find, and fiercely promoting/defending the causes she cares about.