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  • Writer's pictureVirginia Knowles

This Is My Story #6: Midlife Reckoning

People admired me as the godly full quiver homeschool mother with boundless creativity. I reveled in that reputation, at least until my reveling turned to unraveling. Some would call it a Midlife Crisis. I call it a Midlife Reckoning. Or a Cataclysmic Chaos. Whatever. Everything changed.

First came the uncomfortable realization that my marriage had been in deep trouble for quite a while. By implication, so was my spiritual life, because if I wasn’t a good Christian wife and homemaker, then what even was I? I had been conditioned by the church we were attending then to see myself as the biggest sinner and blame myself for whatever I had done (or failed to do) to make us so miserable. We were urged to look deep inside ourselves to ferret out any speck of sin. I did everything I could think of to repair myself and my marriage. I dove into the Neo-Puritan doctrine taught by our ever-wise church leaders. We were the elite. We had all the answers, of course. Why didn’t I feel better about that? Red flags have such an annoying way of disrupting life. Wasn’t this just part of the dying to self that we always heard about?

Then came the shock of finding out, by a fluke web search, that this church’s denomination had a long and widespread pattern of authoritarian religious abuse, grievous mishandling of child molestation and domestic violence, and other assorted crimes and dysfunctions. This actually made sense. I had been noticing an atmosphere of darkness, dissonance, and dominance, but hadn’t been able to put my finger on it.

Now my eyes were wide open, and as more details came to light, I could see what was happening, some of it in my own congregation. The women and youth were most at risk. My own children were deeply affected. I quietly addressed the issues of spiritual abuse, legalism, and sexist misogyny as best as I could with our pastors. They listened politely, but I don’t think it did much good at the time. Women still generally had no voice there, unless they were pastors’ wives. Even then it seemed that the women mainly circled the wagons, only using their voices to quell any hint of feminism or dissent.

I shudder when I think of some of the ladies’ retreats now. I still have a notebook crammed with pages of seminar handouts on proper godly womanhood. I recently dared to open it. After skimming several pages, I shut it quickly. I think I would split into pieces if I read the whole thing. At these retreats, the inner circle of women would often choose several loyal ladies to recognize with special awards. One year, when the retreat leader announced the winners, she sternly admonished the rest of us to check our hearts for jealousy.

Later, a pastor’s wife whom I had long idolized as a godly role model sent all the pastors an email warning them to keep an eye on me because I had recommended a certain Christian book in my e-magazine. (There is more to this story, as you will read later in the recommended reading section for the Imagination chapter at the end of the book.) I never did figure out whether she actually meant to copy the email to me, but at least I knew I was on their radar and had better not rock the boat. But now, years later, I was the one keeping an eye on them. Now, with both eyes wide open, I would also open my mouth.

Finding my voice came with a cost. The only panic attack I’ve ever had came upon me quite suddenly when I hit the SEND button on an article that I knew this pastor’s wife definitely would not like. I could barely breathe for hours. My heart seemed like it was pounding right out of my chest. I knew exactly why it was happening. I decided right then not to give way to the intense fear that had gripped me. I would write what I needed to write. I would not only rock the boat, but I’d also step right out into the waves and hope against hope that I wouldn’t sink.

Though Licensed Mental Health therapy was strongly discouraged at our church, I started seeing a professional Christian counselor who had once been part of the full quiver homeschool movement. From his prior close association with abusive authoritarian faith-based organizations, he was fully aware of the dark side of rigid religion. With his wise, grace-filled encouragement, our family left that church in 2010.  I looked online and found a safe and solid place for us to land, a Presbyterian (PCA) congregation where I would flourish spiritually for many years.

A year later, when our old church denomination’s legal and moral issues hit the national news, I started blogging about my perspective on what had happened and how it affected me. I think one of my posts had 14,000 page views that summer. That’s a lot of new eyes on them! Insiders told me that top denominational leaders were reading it, and I was contacted by reporters from major newspapers around the country who were covering the stories of the lawsuits. I gave them information, but asked to keep my identity private. I didn’t want to be in the middle of the fray at that publicity level. Still, I was both stunned and pleased that people were actually listening to me about an issue that I held close to my heart.

I wanted even more people to find liberty and grace, so I continued to research and blog extensively about religious abuse in all its forms. I’m often surprised how many details I can remember about obscure Bible-based cults and sects. I call it my dark hobby but in reality, I found part of my calling within the ministry of writing. Maybe it’s a darkness-to-light hobby?

My marriage, unfortunately, continued to become more volatile. Through my research, I had become more aware of the dark dynamics of dysfunction, whether in a church or in a family – like my own family. Though I tried to set firm boundaries, nothing brought the needed change. My Christian counselor and close friends repeatedly urged me to separate. My Presbyterian pastors and elders fully supported that decision, often intervening on my behalf. By the end of 2011, I had no other viable option, so we separated for the first time. Though we attempted reconciliation twice, we finally divorced in 2018.

Fortunately, my former husband and I now have a mostly amicable relationship. Our whole clan, over 20 of us now with sons-in-law and grandchildren, still celebrates holidays and family birthdays together when we can. I pray abundant blessings for him. I wouldn’t trade our 10 wonderful children for anything. From those painful years, I have learned so much that I can share with others for their healing. I call it recycling.

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