Be warned that today’s installment of Ex-Evangelical Conversations is a very disturbing read. Currently a senior at a Christian college, Elizabeth Hunter’s path has been a harrowing one of survival involving parental negligence, re-homing, sexual abuse, gaslighting, manipulation, humiliation, and starvation, mostly from the adults in her environment who were supposed to be nurturing and caring for her as she grew up. Her story, while extreme, is far from unique. And she wants to get her story out to the public in the hopes that exposing what goes on in fundamentalist Christian environments might help to prevent others from having to go through the same horrors.
Conservative evangelicalism exists on a continuum or spectrum of fundamentalism, here defined from an academic perspective rather than through self-definition. Predominantly white, conservative evangelicalism’s insistence on the supposed “inerrancy” of the Bible, its rejection of pluralism, and its construction of enclave communities in which members are isolated from frequent interaction with outsiders mark it as fundamentalist. Yet there are of course those evangelicals who, wishing to be seen as “respectable” (we should refuse to treat them as such), define themselves against what they term “fundamentalism,” and there are self-defined fundamentalists who consider self-defined evangelicals “too liberal.”
I grew up among the “respectable” evangelicals. Elizabeth grew up among the fundamentalists, and, after the first few years of her life, she and her two sisters were largely raised by a fundamentalist couple not related to them by birth, who never officially adopted them, and who “justified” extreme abuse through their understanding of Christianity. But here’s a key point that I want to make: the “respectable” evangelicals I grew up with provide an air of legitimacy to, and cover for, the extreme fundamentalism that Elizabeth grew up with. Indeed, by appearing respectable, the evangelicalism I grew up with has been highly effective at helping the US Right shift the Overton window ever more rightward. Trump is a symptom here of a much deeper problem.
I am also quite sure that horrors of the sort she describes were occurring in families that attended the same churches and Christian schools as my family. Evangelicalism is authoritarian, and therefore abusive. And like all authoritarians, evangelicals sweep abuse under the rug. In addition, in stories of extreme abuse like Elizabeth’s, a common theme is that the sick and twisted adults involved are skilled at crafting a public image of being good parents and having perfect, happy families.
Abuse like the type that Elizabeth survived is able to thrive in the United States not only because we have far too benign a view of evangelical Protestantism, although we do, and our major media outlets are largely to blame for enabling evangelicals to appear respectable, while failing to include the perspectives of critical researchers and exvangelicals who have been attempting to expose evangelical extremism and to warn the American public of the serious theocratic threat we face. The normalization of extremism in this manner is a serious problem for our civil society.
One other key reason America is such a perfect environment for horrific child abuse is that the pro-homeschooling lobby, largely consisting of evangelicals/fundamentalists, has pushed and pushed from the 1980s up to the present, leading to a situation in which most states leave homeschooling almost entirely unregulated. It is my hope that stories like Elizabeth’s will eventually help us to implement some sensible legal changes.
Read on to get the first part of Elizabeth’s story, which covers her childhood. We have agreed to publish another interview that will look at her present realities and future plans after she graduates from college. She is a remarkably resilient individual who is hoping to make a positive difference by going into journalism, and I wish her every success in that pursuit.
Chris Stroop: Thank you for agreeing to this interview, Elizabeth. You experienced a lot of abuse in your childhood. Would you mind telling us a little bit about what your situation was like in your early childhood in North Carolina and how you ended up living with a great aunt all the way across the country in Texas? How long did you live with that great aunt before being re-homed, and how did that re-homing come about?
Elizabeth Hunter: I lived with my biological parents until I was three. I like to describe them as neglectful, but not intentionally hurtful. I remember homes with gaping holes in the wall, empty cabinets, and having to walk everywhere in town. Two main things I recall – when I was three, they abandoned my younger sister and me in a parked car for three days. Weirdly, the police found us, but didn’t remove us from the home. Around the same time, my father was in court, and I remember sitting in the courtroom, listening to him tell the judge he couldn’t go to prison because he needed to be home to take care of his kids. I can recall this feeling of intense amusement, because whether the man was home or not, there was nothing to eat.
Both my middle sister and I suffered lead poisoning because we ate the paint off the wall. Child Protective Services finally intervened when I was 4 and my baby sister was 8 months. She weighed less than 10 pounds and couldn’t raise her head or roll over.
After that, I lived with my great-grandparents for a year. They were Jesus people. We went to a country Baptist church every Sunday. My great-grandfather had a stroke some time after my sixth birthday (in February), and my great-aunt decided we were killing her dad, because he was old, and we were a lot of work.
So, summer 2000, we were flown to San Antonio to live with my great-aunt, Mary. I’ve tried to look into court records from around this time, but I can’t find anything. I talked to the courthouse in North Carolina, and they expunged the records when I turned 18. The only legal paper I possess is a court document giving my great-aunt power of attorney. To this day, I don’t exactly know who my legal guardian was most of my childhood.
A bit about my great-aunt’s. They attended a charismatic megachurch and were super mainstream evangelical. I was forced to watch Left Behind and grew terrified of hell around age 7. Being an extrovert, I also witnessed to literally everyone at my elementary school. I also tried to speak in tongues and grew frustrated that it just didn’t work for me. I went forward every Sunday to ask Jesus to be my savior, but I actually thought “saving me” meant Jesus would rescue me from my aunt’s home.
My great-aunt was incredibly abusive. She verbally assaulted me all the time, and when her son sexually abused me, she excused his behavior. I was often told that I was a whore/Jezebel even though her son was nearly 17, and the abuse started when I was 7.
When I was 8, one of my cousins got married. Her new mother-in-law, Ms. Carolyn, met me and hated how my aunt treated me. My aunt told her she was trying to get CPS to take me, and Ms. Carolyn returned home from the wedding and told her next-door neighbor, Sharon, about me. Sharon and Roy had been wanting more children for years. They had a 21-year-old son but had never been able to have more kids. After looking into traditional adoption, they were disenfranchised by the cost.
Carolyn gave them my aunt’s phone number, so Sharon called up my aunt. They talked several times over about a year and met me for a weekend. I only knew my aunt was actually getting rid of me when I first met them.
Spring Break of ’03, my aunt drove me to Roy and Sharon’s house. They signed over power of attorney, and I moved in with Roy and Sharon. I think I started calling them Mom and Dad about 2 weeks later. Roy and Sharon never officially adopted me, because state laws differed regarding parental rights. I know they talked to lawyers, who all encouraged them to wait until I was old enough to testify in court.
When my sisters came, they stopped pursuing adoption altogether. Formal adoption required a CPS home visit, and both of my parents were nervous about having CPS in the home. I didn’t even know Roy and Sharon weren’t my legal guardians until I went to college and needed to submit a FAFSA. It was more difficult for my sister, because she tried to enroll in public high school and couldn’t, because you need a legal guardian’s permission. Since we didn’t know who exactly was the legal guardian, and our parents played dumb and were super unhelpful, she wasn’t able to enroll.
CS: When we spoke on the phone, you mentioned that the people you came to refer to as your parents followed the teachings of Bill Gothard and his Institute of Basic Life Principles (IBLP). You also noted that this home environment, while free of sexual abuse, was still spiritually and physically abusive. Could you share some details of that abuse and how it was connected to the teachings of Bill Gothard and/or any other Christian Right ideologues that your parents may have considered authorities?
EH: I don’t know how to explain my parents’ beliefs. It was a mix of Gothard, Vision Forum, Independent Baptist, and just them.
When I had been living with Roy and Sharon for about a year, I came down with a cold. Mom gave me cold medicine, and then said, “I want you to think about what you’ve done wrong. You’re sick because you must have disobeyed, and God removed you from the umbrella of your dad’s protection. It was a cold. And I spent the next several weeks soul searching about what deep rebellion I was hiding in my heart.
I was spanked for falling asleep in church. I was fed hot peppers when I lied. Mom gave an entire laundry load of my clothes to Goodwill because I left them in the dryer overnight. My dad also had weird beliefs about what God wanted. Even though my teeth are not in alignment, I wasn’t allowed to get braces. Because God made my teeth the way they are, and that’s God’s will.
There were weird things. And then there’s the more traumatic moments that exacerbated my diagnosed PTSD, reactive attachment disorder and split-personality disorder. I was diagnosed with all three disorders when I was 8, and my parents stopped taking me to Christian counseling when I was 13. Then the really messed up, abusive parenting kicked into full swing.
When I think of my childhood, I always think of cottage cheese. I would steal and hoard food constantly. My dad read this verse [Philippians 3:19 – C.S.] that says something about people have their belly as their god. He read that verse, looked at me, and said, “Food is your idol.” So I had to eat what I absolutely hated–cottage cheese. Only cottage cheese. For weeks. Of course, I was still desperately hungry, so I stole more food. And the restriction, punishment, whatever you call it, would be extended. Another week on cottage cheese.
Then they applied I Corinthians 5 [a passage often used to justify the practice of shunning – C.S.]. Still stealing food? Still lying about hiding food? Now, you can’t talk to anyone. You’re shunned until you repent. The definition of repentance was very vague. Sometimes, it was until I accomplished a biblical task. I memorized I Corinthians 13 one time. No one was allowed to talk to me, and I wasn’t allowed to talk to anyone, until I memorized the chapter. I finished the chapter memorizing in one day, tops. My mom said that was too easy, so “showing repentance” became harder and harder.
When shunning and cottage cheese didn’t change me, they talked about how “sin-blinded” my heart was. So mom took away my glasses. I am almost legally blind. I can’t even drive while wearing my glasses; I have to wear contacts today. My glasses have always been very thick. I would go days without my glasses. Head bent to a half inch over my homework, nose pressed to the Bible during family devotions. Barely able to see anything.
They took away my glasses one time in December, and at Christmas we drove to my granny’s house. Right before we arrived, mom handed them back to me. “Don’t tell granny. She’ll be mad at us.” I didn’t tell granny.
My parents were part of IBLP. You might have heard of the Duggars, a pretty big IBLP family. Mom read about the buddy system through the Duggars. Basically, pairing up siblings to take care of each other.
Mom paired me up with my middle sister, Joy, who is exactly 3 years younger than me. So stubborn. Joy and I both had problems. I had reactive attachment disorder and was as emotional as a brick wall. Joy was bipolar and pretty much hated me. I don’t know if she hated me because Mom buddied me up with her, or if she just didn’t like me.
I was in charge of Joy. If Joy didn’t do her chores, I was blamed. If Joy was spanked, I was spanked, too. If Joy was grounded, I was grounded. Eventually, joy wasn’t punished. Just me. I became super gifted at bribing and begging Joy into behaving, because I was terrified of being grounded. Joy didn’t like hanging around me. And I kept getting into trouble. I told Mom that Joy wouldn’t stay with me, so Mom tied us together. With a rope. Now, I was just yanked around. And Joy still didn’t pick up her clothes or get her homework done.
Chores were always a big deal. My parents were obsessed with presenting a perfect image, and a clean house was part of that image. At one point, I was in charge of the dishes. We had a dishwasher, but I still had to wash everything by hand, and I wasn’t perfect at it. Sometimes, I would wash something and miss a spot or fleck, or something. Mom kept complaining. She would stand behind me, watching me. The minute I overlooked something, she started yelling. I shut down when people yell at me. freeze up. I can’t function.
Mom eventually walks away; I keep washing dishes. But one day, Dad is home. And he cannot stand conflict. At all. So of course, he intervenes. While I was washing dishes, Dad stepped into the kitchen. If you make one more mistake, you’re going to pay. Mom argued, saying I should pay now, because I would still choose to make a mistake. By this point, I’m nearly in tears, desperately trying to wash these dishes.
Now, I don’t know. Maybe I wasn’t seeing things on those stupid IKEA plates. I do know that I rubbed them with a sponge. I had soapy water. I tried. And Mom still said they were dirty. One more mistake. Dad called me over and draped this sign around my neck, with a handwritten message: Unclean. I had to wear it everywhere. To the homeschool co-op days. To church. To the city Fourth of July party.
The most traumatic experience by far took place the summer I was 15. My parents decided that my sisters and I needed to “choose” our family. They sat us down, and my dad looked at me and said, “Do you choose us as your mom and dad?” I don’t remember my sisters’ responses, but I wanted to be their daughter. Despite the crazy, whacky punishments, the shaming and hurt, they were my parents. I said yes.
Dad seemed relieved. He reminded me that I had chosen them, so that meant I needed to uphold my end of our family covenant. I had a vague idea what he meant, but it was very murky. Mainly, follow the rules, and tell them if my sisters did something terrible.
Two days later, my mom found this bag of stuff my sisters packed. They were planning on running away, and they had a bag stuffed full of medical supplies and their favorite clothes. They were in trouble, but I was in the worst trouble. I knew they had packed that bag, and I hadn’t told Mom or Dad. I figured my sisters really weren’t going to run away, and I did not want to deal with the mess of “reporting” on my sisters.
Dad handed me a paper and dictated a letter. It was addressed to my biological grandfather, telling him I had rejected Roy and Sharon, and asking him to let me move back to North Carolina with him. I was horrified. I felt completely, absolutely trashed.
Roy and Sharon kept saying this was my fault, I had broken our family covenant. If I had known this is what they meant, I would never, ever have said yes. Never. I didn’t argue with them. I didn’t cry. I poured myself into that dictated letter, using my best penmanship. If I moved back in with my grandfather, I planned on at least going to high school (I was schooling myself by this point and was desperate for an actual teacher). I also thought I would join the Democratic Party and go to Harvard and prove I could do anything and everything without Roy and Sharon. Since they were Republicans, I would be the exact opposite.
I might have moved back to North Carolina, except I told a friend at church, and she told her parents. They were horrified, and told our church elders, who were also really upset. The elders called a meeting and scolded my parents for even thinking about this. Dad came home and told me the letter that we had already mailed was no longer an option. God wanted me as part of this family, and he and mom had messed up. But I didn’t call Roy “Dad” for the entire summer.
It’s weird that this is the single most emotionally hard moment of the entire 10 plus years I spent with them. One other time that goes hand-in-hand with this, because it was the same summer, I was being punished with doing wall sits. I was barefoot, sweating, and blindfolded (sometimes removing glasses meant they would blindfold me too). Since my feet were sweaty, I kept slipping, so I had them pushed against a rug. I’d been doing this wall sit for a while, trying not to cry, when Dad came and snatched the rug away. Of course I fell hard and burst into tears.
Mom yelled at Dad, and Dad was so angry he was shaking. Mom grabbed me, still fussing at Dad. And I remember Dad explaining, “She made me do it. She wouldn’t cry after all she put us through.” When I was 20, Dad apologized for doing harmful things. He said that he and Mom went crazy because it was just so hard, and they didn’t know what they were doing. I am still incredibly frustrated with the vagueness of his apology. I waver between loving him so, so much, and this intense anger at having the rug pulled out from under me, in a less literal sense, again and again.
On another note, calling them out on it is hard, because of the entire evangelical system of forgive and forget. And love and respect/honor your parents. Christian friends might shake their heads and sympathize with me, but I’m often told, just love your parents. God gave them to you.
Another note: I had a “salvation” experience when I was 16, when I went away to a Gothard program for 2 months. Most of what I described above happened before I was 16, and after I came back, I was obsessed with being a perfect daughter for about 3 years. I literally wanted to be a Clinton Democrat, but they sent me away to this program, and I converted to being a Christian mouthpiece before starting to deconvert when I was able to think through this stuff in college.
CS: Let’s talk a little bit about what kind of education you got through all of this, and the relationship between that and politics as a focus of your upbringing? Did Roy and Sharon encourage you to be politically mobilized?
EH: My mom was super active in my education throughout my primary and middle school years. Around 8th grade, I started schooling myself. I borrowed these old textbooks from homeschooling families and read voraciously. We were involved in a local homeschool co-op, and I ended up teaching the American history class, because I had read more than the mom leading it. Due to the adoption year and missing out on school, I was a year behind. I officially graduated when I was 19.
During my junior year in high school, I went to a Patriot Academy program and become head-over-heels involved in David Barton’s history programs. I was crazy about politics and wanted to move to Austin and work during the legislative session. I was trying to remember what happened that caused me not to do that, and then I remember what I did do instead–homeschool my sisters!
When I realized my mom wasn’t teaching my sisters, I decided someone needed to do it. I talked to my mom, and for my senior year, I taught my sisters. They were 15 and 16, but academically they were at a 5th or 6th grade level. I went through all the curricula my mom had ever bought and chose my favorite books to teach. We did a lot of history and reading. It was fun, and I learned a ton of science and math that I had just skipped in the younger grades.
My family volunteered for a ton of political events. When I was 10, I told everyone I was running for president. When life was really bad, I dreamed about becoming Hillary Clinton. I wanted to be independent and powerful. And Christians hated Clinton, they treated me like crap, so, payback time. I would be everything my great aunt and my adoptive parents hated.
Then I had the religious experience described above and decided I would be a Christian, and therefore Republican, president. People told me God gave me a passion for politics for a good reason, and random pastor guys would say things like, Elizabeth, please don’t join the dark side. Because Darth Vader is obviously a Democrat.
I argued with people all the time that it was biblically ok to have a female president, because I wouldn’t be pastoring anyone. One time I reminded my dad that I was “called to run,” not actually to be, president. The semantics of running for office versus actually winning the election meant a lot. If God had called me to run, I should run, but He probably wasn’t going to let me win the race, anyway. (My parents idolized Ron Paul, so in hindsight this actually makes a ton of sense, since they believed he was called by God despite him being unelectable.)
After I went to Patriot Academy, I interned with my state representative and volunteered for several statewide races. I really, really wanted to attend Patrick Henry College and intern in DC, but I didn’t have the money because PHC doesn’t accept federal grants.