In 2006 the evangelical magazine World featured 15-year-old Kierstyn King—then Kierstyn Paulino—in a piece about homeschooled kids who blog “to rebel against rebellion.” She was quoted describing her heroes: “‘First, Christ. After that: soldiers, my parents, and Ronald Reagan.’” On her blog, she wrote posts with titles like “The Case for Christians in Government,” arguing, “Our founding fathers built this land on Judeo-Christianity, and we have strayed too far from Christ.”
These days King, 22, has a hard time stepping into a church without having a panic attack. She escaped—her word—from her family in Georgia on her 18th birthday and lives in Maine with her husband, also a former homeschooler. Very little is left of the ideology her parents worked so furiously to instill in her. She’s ashamed of the work she did as a leader in various homeschooling youth organizations, which, she writes, “contributed to the amount of hurt I and many others who grew up in this radical/evangelical/conservative/christian subculture endured and continue to endure.”
She is, however, still blogging, both on her own and as part of Homeschoolers Anonymous, a new site that publishes children of Christian homeschooling families speaking out about upbringings that, they say, have left them traumatized and unprepared for adult life. “Our primary concern is for people to be exposed to our experiences growing up in the conservative Christian homeschooling world and to see how those ideologies can create abusive situations,” says Ryan Lee Stollar, one of the site’s founders.
The Christian homeschooling movement first took off in the early 1980s, in tandem with the broader rise of the religious right. The Home School Legal Defense Association was founded in 1983 to promote homeschooling and protect parents from state oversight. Its founder, Michael Farris, dreamed of creating a generation that could do battle with the corrupt secular world and reclaim the institutions of American life for Jesus. At the extreme edge of Christian homeschooling culture, the Quiverfull movement, which picked up steam in the late 1980s, preached the duty of women to submit, bear as many children as God would give them, and train them up as dedicated culture warriors, arrows in a divine quiver. Estimating the size of these movements is tricky, but official statistics give us some hints. According to the Department of Education, 1.5 million kids were being homeschooled as of 2007, up from 850,000 in 1999. Eighty-three percent of homeschooling parents said they did so to provide religious or moral instruction. Not all these parents are Christian fundamentalists, but Christian fundamentalists predominate.
Now the first wave of kids raised in these homes has reached adulthood. Many were trained to be activists, to argue, to question the verities of the dominant culture. Debating skill is hugely important in many homeschool circles, because it’s seen as a crucial tool of Christian apologetics. (Patrick Henry, the Virginia college for homeschoolers that Farris founded, has a moot-court team that has twice defeated Oxford’s Balliol College.) The movement’s leaders never intended, though, for students to turn their prowess against the culture they were raised in. “Michael Farris, his whole idea was creating this cultural army. The finishing point of everything was supposed to be debate,” says Stollar, 28. “That was the ultimate weapon for his soldiers in the culture war. Ironically, debate has given us the tools to think through all that indoctrination.” Of the 30 or so formerly homeschooled kids behind Homeshoolers Anonymous, Stollar says, all but two were debaters.
Stollar was very good at debate—so good that he spent years traveling the country training other homeschoolers in the art of argument. “I didn’t just grow up in the subculture,” he writes. “I was one of its most outspoken advocates and champions.” His trips exposed him to a broad swath of the movement, and though he didn’t say so at the time, some of what he saw shocked him. Though Stollar’s family was extremely conservative, they were liberal compared with many of those he encountered on the road. “Traveling exposed me to all the different craziness within homeschooling—Quiverfull, ATI,” he says, referring to Bill Gothard’s Advanced Training Institute, an influential homeschooling curriculum that emphasizes fathers’ absolute authority over their wives and children. (Gothard’s most famous followers are the Duggars, the reality-TV-show family with 19 children.) “It really took a toll on me,” says Stollar. “I have huge issues to this day with authority.”
For years Stollar struggled to suppress his doubts, but when he went away to graduate school in New Mexico, he realized he had no idea what he really believed. “Everything kind of washed out of me,” he says. But even as he left his youthful faith behind, he stayed in touch with people he’d met through debate and soon came to realize that many were suffering in similar ways. Like him, they’d experienced depression, anxiety attacks, and suicidal thoughts. “There’s a lot of depression and body-acceptance issues,” he says. “I’ve seen a lot of self-injury, even to this day. When I was 16, cutting was a huge thing, especially among female teenagers in our community. There’s also a lot of coming to terms with one’s own sexuality, being able to embrace it as OK.”
Independent-minded girls had an especially rough time, particularly those raised in Quiverfull families. As the eldest of eight, King was told that her divinely ordained role was to be a helpmeet to her mother until her own marriage, when her job would be to sexually satisfy her husband, bear as many children as God would give her, and homeschool them in turn. She dreamed of going to Patrick Henry College, but her parents saw no reason for women to pursue degrees. King never learned algebra; instead, she was taught “consumer math,” which was mainly about creating a family budget. She learned about fractions and multiplication by cooking, since she often had to double recipes.
Legally, parents have enormous discretion in raising their children: in some states, there’s no oversight at all over homeschooling curricula, meaning that it’s perfectly fine to educate daughters for a life of housewifery rather than for higher education. Some people involved in Homeschoolers Anonymous hope eventually to change that. Meanwhile, along with their own stories, they offer advice about survival. Twenty-nine-year-old Heather Doney endured a Quiverfull upbringing in which she was beaten for the slightest infraction and forced to spend her days caring for nine younger siblings rather than learning until, thanks to the intervention of her grandparents, she was allowed to enroll in high school; she went on to earn a master’s degree in public policy from Brandeis. She’s published a guide for those planning to flee bad homeschooling situations, as well as what she calls “A Quick and Dirty Sex Ed Guide for Quiverfull Daughters.” Someday she hopes to become an advocate for homeschooled children’s rights, but she writes, “all I’ve got right now is my blog.”