“I was constantly reminded that if I didn’t vouch for my family in the most favorable light, I could and probably would be separated from them. (I now recognize that to be another clear sign of abuse.) The fear of child protective services, and social workers in general (being agents who tore families apart), was both irrational yet deeply ingrained in me as a child.”
I’m a 33-year-old mother of three. I was educated by homeschooling from 1985 to 1990 in Illinois and 1991 to 1995 in Pennsylvania. From all outward appearances, my life is fabulous. I’m married, in a stable relationship, my husband and I own our own business, I have been educated to graduate level, I have healthy, vibrant, intelligent children. Yes, I have everything going for me. But lift away the layers and you’ll meet a deeply broken woman who struggles to meet life’s demands, its ebb and flow, with endurance, confidence, and the zest that is deeply a part of her core.
Growing up, I always knew something was wrong with my family. I felt like an outsider, I almost always felt afraid of my parents, and when I didn’t, the fear was replaced with an awkwardness I couldn’t quite pinpoint. Any attempt to establish my own identity was immediately slammed with extreme methods of dignity-robbing. Do I blame the abuse on homeschooling? No. I place the blame on my parents, adults who needed help they refused to recognize they needed. In my experience, homeschooling equaled intentional isolation. Isolation is very often the first sign of abuse.
Only in recent years (2009 to present), have I finally been able to name the abuse for what it was and, in part, understand my parents for who they were in my formative years: well-intentioned but entirely misguided. Through the extensive testimony of my experiences, my dad has been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, sex addiction, narcissism, and dissociative complex. My mother has been identified as having severe borderline personality disorder and narcissism. Any time in the past four years that a new diagnosis on the part of my parents has been revealed, I have gone through a period of severe anxiety, depression, and grief. Words on a screen don’t seem to relay the depth of my experience. I have often told my husband and close friends that my therapists’ shocked facial expressions have been the most validating therapy for me. Writing has helped. Various methods of trauma therapy have helped to an extent. But for me, what has been most healing has been human-to-human interaction and validation. And time. Lots and lots of time.
My parents decided to homeschool as a means of “protecting” my brother and I from the social and spiritual “ills” of secular society. But the vacuum created by the lack of healthy community, from my perspective defined as an integrated, wholesome, nurturing system of interaction, checks, and balances, was devastating. Sure, we socialized with people of the same religious persuasion as my parents. We even joined a few homeschooling groups for “extra” curricular activities and classes. However, and in retrospect, with my parents as sick as they were, my socialization was always carefully scrutinized and micromanaged. As an adult, I’ve learned that what I always suspected was quite accurate. It isn’t normal to have to repeat, word-for-word, conversations that occurred when parents aren’t around. It’s not normal to be given word-for-word conversations that are to take place with peers or on the phone when parents aren’t around to officiate.
I believed, being homeschooled through the elementary grades and some of middle school, that though my parents were “strict” I was basically fine. There were events I didn’t like but didn’t feel as traumatic until I hit puberty. My dad was hyper aware of his sexuality and went to great lengths to define the great difference between males and females. I was one of two children. I was the youngest and had a brother almost two years older than me. My dad involved me in his sex addiction by doing astoundingly inappropriate things.
Once I reached puberty, my parents explained what was happening to my body to MY BROTHER. It was at that point that he started molesting me. He always did it when my parents weren’t around, and he always threatened me with physical violence if I told. I lived in constant terror. I didn’t know what being raped meant, but I now know that was my constant terror. I learned to love solitude. I was only safe when I was alone. It was blessing that we lived in the country where I was allowed to be out in nature alone. I feel that nature nurtured me in that time and gave me some life back in return for the time I spent out in the sunshine and with the trees. I would have been much worse for me had I not been granted that “freedom.” When I was almost sixteen I finally told my parents about what my brother was doing. It wasn’t as often as earlier in puberty and I had gained a bit of “rebellious” confidence, so, since he continued, I told them. The reaction I received was complete betrayal. First, they denied that anything had been going on. Then, they talked to him and since he denied any of my allegations, they accused me of trying to break our family apart. I have yet to get over and heal from the sexual damage that was done by my dad and then my brother.
These examples do not encompass the totality of my experience. They offer just a sample of the depth of damage that can occur when unhealthy, controlling parents partner up and isolate their children by homeschooling with no checks and balances in effect. I truly believe that my parents thought they were doing what was right. But it didn’t make it right. My mom was involved in many subversive forms of abuse because of her issues, but she isn’t excluded from the sexual abuse. I could write for weeks on end (and have in therapy) about the incredibly weird, outrageous, and abusive events of my homeschooling years. I’d like to switch gears and touch on the academic end of the issue.
For my elementary and middle school education, homeschooling with the popular textbooks available at the time was adequate and even excelled that of local public schools. When we still lived in Illinois, a neighbor had called the school district and reported my family for truancy. The school district’s superintendent visited our home, reviewed our work, and congratulated my mom on providing an excellent education. In higher grades however, my parents did not provide access to continued excellence.
At 12 years of age, the summer before beginning 9th grade (I had been pushed ahead two grades in order to study the same subject matter as my brother), I asked my parents to send me to school. They met my request with an INTERVENTION of homeschooling moms who had either attended public school themselves or had children they had pulled out of the public school system. I didn’t listen to half they said, it all sounded so horrible. The main point I debated with my parents was that I wanted to go to college (I was 12 years old, mind you), and that I wanted ONE high school on my transcript. They assured me that a homeschooling transcript was highly sought after by many acclaimed colleges. Additionally, the state law of Pennsylvania developed some oversight of our education by requiring regular testing and yearly portfolios to be submitted to the local district.
Well, in 9th grade, we homeschooled. In 10th grade, after my brother expressed interest in joining the football team of our local high school, my mother decided it would be best to just enroll him in classes and I quickly jumped on that opportunity as well. Being two years younger than everyone in my classes, I made some friends but had a difficult time socially, so my parents transferred us to a local private school after football season was over. In 11th grade my mom said she would homeschool me and not my brother but apparently was pressured by my dad into homeschooling both of us anyway. And then in 12th grade we attended the “school” at the church we were currently attending. My brother and I made up both the graduating class that year, as well as the entire high school. All of this to say that it wasn’t surprising in my freshman year of college, that my academic advisor laughed at my transcript and chosen major (premed biology) because he said all my peers in the same classes would have had AP courses and I just did not have the science background to compete.
It wasn’t easy, in fact I had to retake a few core courses, but I made it. I’m a doctor today, and though not practicing, I’m proud of what I accomplished. For the time being I am taking the time I need to care for myself, and my healing, while doing my best to raise my own family with an entirely new set of values. I’m attempting to leave an inspiring legacy and one of acceptance and love.
On the topic of regulation or oversight, I don’t know that any system would be effective with homeschooling families of the type I grew up with. I was constantly reminded that if I didn’t vouch for my family in the most favorable light, I could and probably would be separated from them. (I now recognize that to be another clear sign of abuse.) The fear of child protective services, and social workers in general (being agents who tore families apart), was both irrational yet deeply ingrained in me as a child. I do wish that someone had had the ears to listen and hear what I was going through, but I’m not convinced I had vernacular to describe it as a child, adolescent, or even young adult. For years, I just described my parents as super strict and weird. I now know it was much worse than that. I talked to a pastor after high school and parents of friends in high school (those friendships were shortly cut off by my parents due to “bad influences”) and they listened but, again, I don’t think I had the ability to truly communicate the depth of what was happening because I was still living through it and it was still “normal” to me.
I do not wish my experience on anyone. Yet, as seasons shift in my life, I become increasingly aware that as I heal from my trauma, as the pain changes to anger and grief and acceptance, I am more who I am because of what I lived through. So while I wouldn’t, at any price, want to live through my experience of homeschooling again, I know I am stronger, deeper, and more real to the people close to me today because of it. In the words of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, “The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”
Megan P. was homeschooled in Illinois and Pennsylvania from 1985 to 1995. For additional thoughts and experiences from other homeschool alumni, see our Testimonials page.