Here's a compelling—and depressing—longread for your Saturday morning: young homeschooled adults are fleeing their fundamentalist and, all too often, abusive families. They're also confronting "Christian" activists and legal organizations whose efforts have made it easier for homeschooling parents to isolate, terrorize, miseducate, and abuse their children.
Jennifer’s rescue coincided with the emergence of a coalition of young former fundamentalists who are coming out publicly, telling their stories, and challenging the Christian homeschooling movement. The website that linked to Jennifer’s story was Homeschoolers Anonymous, launched in March by two homeschool graduates, Ryan Stollar and Nicholas Ducote. Their goal was to show what goes on behind closed doors in some Christian homeschooling families—to share, as one blogger puts it, “the stories we were never allowed to talk about as children.”
As of October, Homeschoolers Anonymous had published nearly 200 personal accounts and attracted more than 600,000 page views. For those outside the homeschooling movement, and for many inside it, the stories are revelatory and often shocking. The milder ones detail the haphazard education received from parents who, with little state oversight, prioritize obedience and religious training over learning. Some focus on women living under strict patriarchal regimes. Others chronicle appalling abuse that lasted for years.
Growing up in California and Oregon, Stollar wasn’t abused, but he met many other homeschoolers who were. His parents led state homeschooling associations and started a debate club in San Jose. The emphasis on debate in fundamentalist homeschooling was the brainchild of Michael Farris, the founder of Patrick Henry College, and his daughter Christy Shipe. Farris believed debate competitions would create a new generation of culture warriors with the skills to “engage the culture for Christ.” “You teach the kids what to think, you keep them isolated from everyone else, you give them the right answers, and you keep them pure,” Stollar explains. “And now you train them how to argue and speak publicly, so they can go out to do what they’re supposed to do”—spread the faith and promote God’s patriarchy.
As a teenager, Stollar toured the national homeschool debate circuit with a group called Communicators for Christ, sharpening his rhetorical skills and giving speech tutorials. Along the way, he found himself increasingly disturbed by what he saw. He met families that follow the concept of “Quiverfull,” wherein women are submissive to men and forgo contraception to have as many children as God gives them. He encountered entire communities where women wore only denim jumpers for modesty’s sake, where parents burned their daughters’ birth certificates to keep them at home, where teenagers practiced “betrothal,” a kind of arranged marriage. He met homeschooling kids who dealt with the stress by cutting themselves, drinking, or developing eating disorders—the very terrors their parents had fled the public schools to avoid. “Even as a conservative Christian homeschooler,” Stollar says, “I was constantly experiencing culture shock.”
A decade later, Stollar, who lives in Los Angeles, was still hearing the stories from his peers. The ex-debaters and homeschoolers were now grappling with the fallout from their childhoods: depression, mental illness, substance abuse. “I was starting to see these patterns emerging,” he says, “and we all felt that they came from the same places.”