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On Growing Up in Bill Gothard's Homeschool Cult

“Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater!” they say.

I hear it over and over again.

“Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. There was some good and some bad. Just take what good you can and leave the rest.”

I don’t know how.

This is what happens when your definitions of “good” and “bad” are based on lies.

This is what happens when you’re taught to believe that you have “a new approach to life.”

This is what happens when you’re raised in a cult.


You know it somewhere in your mind before your mouth will admit it.

We talked about how it was a cult, joking at first. Outsiders could point and accuse and question, but we knew that it wasn’t what it looked like.

Yes, we were often mistaken for Mormon missionaries. Yes, the red neckscarves were reminiscent of Nazi youth. Yes, we knew that sometimes we were simply trotted out as props for political stunts. We knew, and we joked about it. Don’t worry, it’s not what it looks like.

That's me in navy and white. (IBLP Headquarters. 2004. Photo: Jeanette Sung)

That’s me in the navy and white. IBLP Headquarters. 2004. Photo: Jeanette Sung

I remember saying, more seriously than joking, “If this is brainwashing, it feels good to be brain clean.”

But as I spiraled closer and closer to to the center, the realization began to sink in. The jokes became real.

“Cult-like”, sure. I’d call it that. Authoritarian, legalistic, overbearing. But not a real cult.

The worst thing about brainwashing is that you can’t see it for what it is. You never think you’re in a cult when you’re in a cult.

Until the day you can’t deny the reality of what you’ve seen, what you lived. Until the day you speak out loud what your mind has known for a while,

“I grew up in a cult.”

And now, perhaps, “I grew up in a cult run by a sexual predator.”


My brother and me teaching at an IBLP Children’s Institute. 2002.

There’s barely a memory from the first twenty years of my life that isn’t run through by the thread of the Cult.

We joined the Advanced Training Institute when I was in first grade. Bill Gothard’s materials were the foundation of my homeschooling curriculum for the next twelve years. The Institute’s books began to fill our shelves; their routine became part of our daily life.

As a child and then a teen, ATI/IBLP formed most of my peer group. In the summer we went to the camps and the conferences. I attended the seminars as a child, then as a teacher. After I graduated from high school, I spent the next two years living and volunteering at the one of the Training Centers.

In the years since then, I’ve found myself in the long, slow process of rooting out the remaining traces of the cult from my heart, reconstructing a faith brick by brick.

When I tell my story, people say “You should hate God by now. It’s a miracle you’re a Christian at all.

They’re right. It’s a miracle.

Me and Bill Gothard having a chat. 2004. Image: Jeanette Sung.

Me and Bill Gothard having a chat. 2004. Image: Jeanette Sung.


Today the cult leader’s face is showing up in the news: “Bill Gothard Placed On Administrative Leave Following Abuse Allegations”

Students who grew up in the navy-and-white prisons have spoken up with their stories; more than two dozen women have come forward with allegations of sexual harassment or abuse.

People ask me what I think about it. What can you say? I grew up in a cult led by an alleged sexual predator.

Do I believe the allegations? Absolutely.

During my two years working at the Cult center after highschool, I saw a system of absolute authoritarianism – designed to protect “leaders” and silence “rebellion”. I saw an organization built on the “special insights” and the idiosyncratic whims of an old man with way too much money and power.

They say that he groomed young women, selected the vulnerable and the hurting, told them it was God’s will for them to come work for him. They say that he made them feel special. That say he took advantage of their naivety – naivety instilled through the teachings and culture he created.

I believe these stories, because I saw the edges.

When we were at the Training Center, we joked about Gothard’s “harem”. We all knew there was a certain physical “type” of woman that he liked to be close to him, working for him.

I saw him pick out young women who were obviously vulnerable and hurting – but also very attractive. I heard him promise them they’d be right at the center of the next big thing he was planning. Those plans never came to pass, but I saw the girls come and go.

I saw the double standards. We weren’t allowed to go out with other staff in mixed-company groups. We weren’t allowed to have a conversation in the lobby with female staff members. And yet he – a single old man – had long “counseling sessions” with the same young women we were forbidden from meeting. At the time, we shrugged it off. He was the leader, he was allowed to make the rules.

I saw the materials he published too, about “counseling sexual abuse”. Blaming victims, downplaying the damage of sexual abuse. The very sort of thing you’d expect, in retrospect, from an alleged sexual predator.

I don’t know what’s more horrifying: that this is the sort of “training” we received in “counseling seminars”, or that we were so brainwashed we saw nothing wrong with it at the time.

It’s also horrifying to realize that the scenic retreat center where we enjoyed father/son camps and staff retreats was the site of a massive sex scandal that was covered up for decades by the Gothard family.


Spiritual refreshment. Family fun. Sexual perversion.


What happened? How did Bill Gothard fool an entire generation of homeschooling parents, of earnest young people?

I don’t know.

For a long time, I’ve heard it downplayed, excused:

“His teachings weren’t that bad, it was just that some people took them to an unhealthy extreme.” 

“The problem wasn’t with the man, but with the fact that people insisted on putting him on a pedestal.”

“He started out with good intentions, but got prideful and out-of-touch because of his success.”

But when there is documentation stretching all the way back to the 1970’s of sexual misconduct, questionable finances, and strategic cover-ups, I can’t believe that narrative anymore.

How did we wind up here, the tens of thousands who were fooled, deceived, led astray? The thousands that still are? 

I can tell you how I did: I was raised in it. It was the only world I ever knew. It was my normal.

And it was a “normal” that was protected with principles that taught us not to question authority. They taught us that being different from everybody else meant we were morally superior, that we were “special”. They taught us that if the system didn’t work for us, it was because we weren’t trying hard enough.

10,000 identically-dressed homsechoolers. That's normal. (I'm the one in the navy and white). 2002. Image:

Normal. 2002. Image:

What about the parents, the leaders?

I don’t blame them. I think they were as much a victim of Bill Gothard’s deceptions as anyone. He was a master manipulator.

The alleged predatory harassment of young women was part of an entire system built on insulating, elevating, and protecting himself. He preyed on fear and insecurity. He preyed on the desire to please God. He preyed on naivety. He preyed on hope.

This is what brainwashing looks like. Indianapolis Training Center. 2005.

This is what brainwashing looks like. Indianapolis Training Center. 2006.

He painted a world that was out to destroy families, and then humbly volunteered to show us the way to safety.

I wish I could say that he’s the only religious leader who did that, but he’s not. It’s an epidemic. It’s in our pulpits today, and wildly popular. Preachers teaching that they’re leading a special chosen group. Preachers insulating themselves from criticism by claiming that they have a special vision from God. Preachers using fear to control their people – fear of hell, fear of the liberals, fear of the world. When you see that, run far away.

Your heart will know that you’re in a cult, long before your lips are brave enough to speak the words.


Pray for us. 

Pray for the women who trusted when they were most vulnerable, only to be betrayed.

Pray for the ones who are still trapped. Brainwashing is a real thing. Brainwashing is what makes you say “I’m free” when you know somewhere in your heart that you’re not. Brainwashing is what makes you silence that voice gasping for air, and listen instead to the ones that say “Do more, be more, try harder.”

Pray for those who gave their whole lives to a ministry built on sand. You can’t walk away from that unharmed.

Pray for the ones who have decades of truth and lies mixed together to sort through. There’s no easy way to do that. Even the Bible doesn’t help when you’ve been conditioned to read the Bible twisted, when you know all the right answers and they’re all wrong.

Pray, if you can, for Bill Gothard. He’s carved out a heavy millstone for his own neck. He needs the sort of grace and redemption that could never be found in all his books and conferences and seminars.


“Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater”, they say. 

I’m not sure anymore if there ever was a “baby” or “bathwater”. Just a sea of lies, luring vulnerable children into its depths and slowly drowning them.

Here’s to the ones finally finding solid ground.

published February 28, 2014

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