Following is an excerpt from an upcoming book. This segment of my speech focuses on the night of my 18th birthday when I finally left my father’s home, church, control and violence:
The November night is chilly, winter is nearly here. I draw deeply on my cigarette, and then blow it out, not sure which part is smoke, and which part is my breath. I’m alert as I near our house. At this late hour no one should be awake. Flipping the cigarette over the fence, I slip quietly through the back door. I steal down the porch steps and into the back room. I pause here, slow my breathing, and listen.
I’m fearful, but also tremendously excited. I have no thoughts for what tomorrow will bring, only the sense that a freedom I’d never expected to attain is just over the horizon. I am not yet aware of the numerous issues that I am carrying with me, of the emotional baggage that my father has equipped me with. There is, in the back of my mind, a visceral fear that my decision condemns me to join the ranks of the unsaved, and that both my physical and spiritual self will suffer for my decision.
I’ve known for the last few years that I was going to leave. I also know the price that I will pay for this decision. But I honestly do not perceive a choice. When my older brother Mark left my father moved heaven and earth to try to force him back into his orbit of influence. I recall the day that a group of us from the church hand-delivered the ex-communication letter to Mark. I remember the sense of self-righteousness that I felt at that time. The letter detailed, in my father’s most officious and procedural tone, the “sins” of my brother. “Forsaking the assembly…enjoying the pleasures of sin for a season.” “He went out from us, because he was not of us.” He quoted Bible passages that detailed the extent and the ramifications of my brother’s rebellion.
Finally, drawing on the full power and authority of his position as the Fist of God, he announced that Mark had been “delivered unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the lord.”
But Mark did, ultimately, succeed in escaping; and his escape became the subject of many sermons over the following years. He used Mark as an example of the price we children would pay if we abandoned The Place.
So I know what this decision means…or at least, I think I do. Who can really understand the emotional and psychological impact of being entirely cut off from their family? At this point, with only a few minutes to go, these nebulous issues of family rejection are far in the future, while my freedom from my father’s tyranny is immediate, and within my grasp.
In these final minutes I’m struck by the apparent absurdity of the circumstances I find myself in. Who “runs away” from home? What assumptions must exist for a grown child to even use that kind of language? Well, there’s the assumption that any level of violence is acceptable if it is done in God’s name. The assumption that a child is not allowed to leave their parent’s home until they marry. The assumption that another human has absolute control over your thoughts and decisions. And finally, The assumption that my decision to leave is representative more of a spiritual rejection of god, than of a physical desire for survival and freedom.
Since these assumptions exist in my world, I am running away.
My 18th birthday is very important, even central to my planning. My brother left after he was 18, and he was successful. My oldest sister Kathy, on the other hand, tried to leave before she was 18. My father tracked her down, and I watched as he physically forced her to return home. The physical and emotional damage that he inflicted on her in those last few months took a terrible toll on her. She was never the same, her spirit was broken.
It’s 11: 55.
I enter my bedroom and pace nervously across the small floor space. Counting has long been a refuge for me, a way to keep the terror at bay. Counting my father’s blows, to isolate my mind from the pain, and to remind myself that it was getting closer to the end, Counting my strides as I ran, taking my mind off the exhaustion. Now I’m counting the minutes until I’m 18. I slip through the next bedroom, and into the dining room. Peering around the stairs that break up the room, I glance at the old red clock on the wall above the three refrigerators.
It’s 11:58 P.M.
My heart is racing and my chest is tight with nervous anxiety. One hundred and twenty seconds left. Adrenaline surges through my body.
Now it’s 11:59.
It is strange. Each second passes so slowly…yet the time rushes past in an instant. I scan the room one last time. This old wooden dining table…how many times did I back around it in retreat trying to escape my father’s furious blows? Over there in the corner…my mother crouched quivering on the floor, her wails reduced to whimpers before my father’s rage? These stairs, marked invisibly but permanently by her blood as he taught her proper submission to his will.
I glance behind me, into the large family room, where several of my sisters are asleep, and recall when it was added on a few years before…I say a silent, sad farewell to them.
To the right, beyond the stairs, the door to the sanctuary stands open. I can see the pulpit my father stood behind these many years, meticulously and exhaustively defining the system of faith that justifies his abuse. Expounding upon the verses that “prove” his enemies are the enemies of God. Drilling into us the passages that have taught us to despise and distrust all those beyond our walls. It is an incubator of hate.
Only a few seconds left…the seconds hand seems to stutter and pause, unwilling to give me my final permission to go. Then, suddenly…midnight!
Excitement, fear, joy, anxiety, relief…a furious mixture of feelings floods my system. My fist pumps in the air, gesturing in defiance at the top of the stairs. A primal yell escapes, unbidden, instinctive. Then suddenly, fear dominates me again. I turn, and run…through the bedrooms, up the stairs, and out the door to freedom. A thrill of terror passes through me as I imagine my father’s hand clamping down on my neck, pulling me back . My pace quickens.
I race towards the old, green Rambler Classic, that I bought secretly for $300 several months ago. I’ve had to move it around, parking it in different places, to avoid detection from my family. The rusty door squeaks in metallic protest as I jump in. I fumble with the keys, put them in the ignition…and with a quick twist, the engine rumbles into life. I’m on my way.