Note: I worked on this essay during graduate school and was reminded that I’d done so as the news finally started breaking about Bill Gothard, a conservative Christian leader of sorts whose teachings had a profound effect (and not in a good way) on my development, though I was fortunate enough to sidestep the worst of it.
So even though I don’t think this is finished, I figured I’d post it here to provide some context from someone who was on the margins, but still very much involved with the Institute in the mid-90s. It’s more about me than it is about the Institute, but there’s a great deal of that in here.
I’ve changed names and details of the students who show up in the essay, and the conversation is a composite. I’m still friends with several of the people who were there. I haven’t changed anything about ATI itself, to my knowledge. And I should say that the first few drafts of this sounded very upset. It took a while and a lot of revision to get to this draft.
At sixteen, at a music camp run by a fundamentalist Christian homeschooling organization, I first began to encounter myself.
The camp lasted three weeks, and was held at the Indianapolis Training Center, a “ministry center” run by Bill Gothard’s Advanced Training Institute of America (ATI).
Over and over, I have attempted, and failed, to explain ATI to people who have never heard of it. Those who have not encountered ATI think I’m making it up; those who had brushes with it in their own youth usually have to make jokes in order to ignore their own memories.
A lot of ATI’s practices seems refreshingly old-fashioned and wholesome, especially to those who are more familiar with broken families, angry teenagers, and destructive lifestyles. For instance: Families enrolled in ATI gathered around their kitchen tables for “Wisdom Searches” in the morning (a type of exegetical study of the Proverbs) and learned songs about character qualities, complete with hand motions. They committed to not using birth control and filling their “quivers” with children.
They did not listen to “rock music” (any music with an emphasis on beats two and four, which ranges from country to jazz to CCM to actual rock ’n roll), drink alcohol, dance, or wear worldly clothing (especially blue jeans). They threw away their Cabbage Patch Dolls (which were reportedly at least possibly imbued with a Satanic spirit—why risk it?), eschewed youth groups, and committed to “courtship” (a parent-driven and orchestrated method for getting to the altar) instead of dating. They learned Biblical vocabulary words, like “diligence” and “courage,” and also “grace,” which was defined, perhaps tellingly, not in the traditional Protestant way (which often reiterated that grace was freely given and undeserved by the recipient) but as “the desire and the power to do God’s will.”
Once students were teenagers, they spent frequent stints at the Training Centers in Indianapolis and Houston and Flynt, Michigan, participating in “apprenticeship opportunities,” like working with inner city students, working in the kitchens, learning to cut hair, or participating in ALERT (sort of like a cross between the Boy Scouts and the military, but for Christian teenage guys) or EXCEL (a sort of old-fashioned finishing school where teenage girls learned proper grammar, singing and sewing techniques, methods for baking bread, and how to dress modestly and becomingly).
They were encouraged not to go to college, which would expose them to secular humanist and otherwise dicey professors (even Christian colleges were suspect) and ungodly lifestyles. Going to college would also allow them to be out from under their parents’ “umbrella of authority,” designed by God. The Training Centers, apparently, were an exception to this, ATI being merely an extension of parental authority.
ATI families dressed in navy and white, especially at official ATI activities. Girls wore long skirts and loose-fitting tops, or sometimes blouses and brocaded vests. They were encouraged to grow their hair long and style it with soft curls, if possible. Earrings might be allowed, but only small ones and only one per ear. A purity ring or a single locket containing pictures of family was okay. Boys wore white shirts and dress pants or khakis, and sometimes a tie or sport coat, and crewcuts straight out of the 1950s. Many families had a penchant for dressing everyone alike—which certainly meant the youngest in the family had a ready-made wardrobe of navy blue dresses or pants waiting as they were handed down from sibling to sibling.
Men in ATI were also not allowed to grow facial hair (it “obscured the countenance”), which was apparently the straw that broke the camel’s back for my bearded father. I’m not sure that was really the reason we didn’t join, but it’s the reason my parents gave when I begged them to pony up the membership costs and enroll us in the program.
Because, yes, I begged: I wanted to be part of this community. I wanted to belong to something where the decisions were made for me already and where everyone seemed so happy about that fact. Many of my friends’ families were in ATI, and I loved being at their houses, which were joyful, loving homes filled with singing and warmth. And barring participation in ATI directly, I wanted to do everything I could to live the lifestyle, to pretend to be part of their world.
One Christmas—I was probably fourteen—I desperately wanted a calf-length corduroy navy blue jumper dress with a V-neck, and a white blouse with a Peter Pan collar, so that I could look like my friends in ATI. My parents bought it for me.
In ATI, each person knew exactly his or her role, based on age, gender, and marital status. So even though families were encouraged not to send their children to age-segregated Sunday School classes, when they went to the annual ATI conferences in Knoxville, everyone went to separate workshops where they learned how to live a proper Christian life for their particular age and gender category.
For children that mostly meant obeying parents, respecting older siblings, and helping keep an orderly home; for teenagers, it meant learning how to guard one’s heart, keep a spiritual journal, develop godly character qualities, and prepare for one’s future role as a spouse and parent. They’d join in the afternoons to practice for a choir that would sing on the final day of the conference. I’d seen the videos of fresh-faced, impeccably groomed young people in neat rows singing, “It will be worth it all when we see Jesus—life’s trials will seem so small, when we see Christ; one glimpse of his dear face all sorrow will erase, so bravely run the race till we see Christ.“
Music was extremely important in ATI, both as a symbol of evil and as a path toward godliness. Bill Gothard, the leader of ATI, taught that “rock” music was bad, and that you could discern if someone listened to rock music because their eyes would be “dark.” ATI had a promotional video which I think was called “The Brightness in Their Eyes,” which was about some ATI students who had been sent to post-USSR Moscow to work with children in an orphanage.
A group of leaders in Moscow were incredibly impressed with the young people who came—in their navy blue and white. They commented on the “brightness” in the young people’s eyes, which ATI attributed to Jesus in the students’ hearts and their commitment not to date or listen to anything except godly music, which usually meant hymns played on the harp, classical music by the more cheery composers like Bach and Haydn (Beethoven being a bit too stormy), and, somewhat inexplicably, John Philip Sousa marches.
It certainly did not mean Michael W. Smith or Amy Grant.
It was rare than an ATI student didn’t play at least two musical instruments—always piano, and usually something else, though never the drums—and sing, often in six-part harmony with siblings. (I wonder, in retrospect, what came of the poor tone-deaf ATI kids.) In addition, musical activities were the preferred extracurricular activity for ATI families, since sports required immodest dress and theatre and the other performing arts were highly suspect. So by the time they were teenagers, ATI students were often skilled performers.
One opportunity available to ATI students was a program called “Sound Foundations”—a three-week workshop at the Indianapolis Training Center, where students ages 14-22 could study hymnology, music theory, singing techniques, composing, and arranging. I desperately wanted to go. I read about it in some materials at a friend’s house and it sounded like heaven on earth. For three weeks, I could go soak in the company of other young people who followed Bill Gothard’s principles for Christian living. I knew the lingo of ATI from being around friends and reading their books; I had the navy and white; I knew the songs; I played three instruments and sang. I would fit in perfectly, and for three blissful weeks I could simply pretend I belonged with them, play music, and be happy.
Most spots in the program were reserved for ATI students, but the summer when I was sixteen, a friend’s mother told my mother that sometimes they’d give a place to a non-ATI student if he or she had a recommendation from an ATI family and filled out a special application.
That application included several short essays on a few topics important to life at the Training Center: “Explain your personal commitment to courtship, not dating. Explain your personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Explain your views on rock music.” I diligently filled it out, though I felt a twinge in answering the dating question—not because I would have dreamed of dating someone, but because sometimes I had crushes on boys and I knew that wasn’t allowed. Having a crush meant giving away part of your heart to the boy, and every time you gave away a piece of your heart, you had less to give to your future husband. But I completed the application and sent it in, and a month later we found out that I had been accepted to the program. I used up the last of my babysitting money to pay the tuition and buy my plane ticket, and I was ready for the July of a lifetime.
I’d never left the northeast before, so I found Indiana’s flatness startling and unnerving as we flew in and drove to the Training Center, where I met my “team” of ten girls from around the country. I had a bubbly roommate and a friendly, capable girl for our team leader. We all donned our best navy and white for the first day and talked about our siblings at dinner.
This is the funny thing about promotional literature: it mostly tells you what the program coordinators want you to think. I had pored over the material and nearly memorized the rules for behavior there (no boys in girls’ rooms and vice versa; no cross-gender socializing or even talking except for essential situations; when you leave your room, you must be fully clothed, in a skirt, with dry hair, even if the fire alarm has gone off; no food till dinner on Sunday). I understood that these rules were designed to put safeguards around our lives together, so that nothing wicked would happen while we were there. I was so up for it.
And for the first few days, it seemed everyone else was up for it, too. I sat on the lawn in the sun the second day during our free time—the lawn was a patch of grass next to the parking lot, where some of the young men, in their navy pants and white shirts, were playing basketball—and wrote in a letter to my parents, in which I remember saying, “I understand why people come to live and work here at the Training Center for a month or even a year. Everything is so godly, so peaceful.” I smiled and sealed it into an envelope and mailed it home.
One day, after morning hymnology class, two of the girls on my team, who were sitting behind me, tapped me on the back. “Hey,” the shorter one said (I’ll call her Ellen). “Meet us in our room at free time?”
“To go over our orchestration,” said the other one, who I’ll call Karen. I nodded.
When I got to their room, I realized that not everyone had been invited to the meeting. “Oh, hey,” I said. “I’m ready to work on this. I was thinking maybe Be Thou My Vision?” I held out the staff paper and the hymnal I’d brought along with me. “It could have some cool harp parts … “
“No sense in working on the orchestration yet,” the blonde said. “Have a seat.”
“Sit on Karen’s bed,” Ellen said from the bathroom. “Sorry, mine’s a wreck.” We were supposed to make our beds before leaving our rooms each morning, after being awakened by the John Philip Sousa marches that were piped into each room via intercom. Then, while we hurried around getting ready for breakfast, we’d hear a voice read the Proverb for the day, followed by another march, then a choral hymn. By the time it was all over, we should be ready to leave for the elevators down to the dining room.
Karen looked at me and grinned. “You’re cool if it’s just us, right?”
“Oh, sure,” I said, wondering why they had asked me here if we weren’t going to start working right away.
“Right,” Ellen said, coming from around the corner. She was wearing pants and a tank top and had her short hair in punky pigtails on top of her head. “So obviously we’re not supposed to do this but Karen and I figured you would be okay because you seem cool, and you’re from New York, right?”
“Ah, yeah,” I said. Upstate, not the city, I thought to myself, but I’d had that conversation so many times over the last few days that I wasn’t ready to correct them.
“Okay, cool,” Ellen said. “Toss me the pack.”
Karen reached under her mattress and pulled out a pack of—could it be? Yes, I was certain: a pack of cigarettes. She fished a lighter out of her makeup bag. Ellen sat in the window, pushed it open slightly, then expertly lit the cigarette and took a puff. She handed it to Karen, who leaned over her and puffed as well. She turned to me, cigarette still hanging out the window, and said, “You want one?”
“Oh, no, I’m … fine,” I said. I’d gone hot all over. This was definitely, definitely not right. And what if they got caught? I wondered how they got the cigarettes, then remembered that they were both two years older than me, and could at least buy them legally.
“Oh man,” Karen said. “I almost got caught doing this last year when I was here with a few cigs my brother gave me.”
“Oh my gosh, I heard about that,” said Ellen. “Girl, that would have been bad. They put people in solitary here for doing that.”
“Solitary?” I asked.
“Oh yeah,” said Karen. “It’s up higher somewhere in this building. You have to stay in the prayer room, for like, days, and they only bring your food in, and you stay there till you repent.”
“It’s pretty serious,” Ellen said. She took another puff. “Man, I was so glad to see we were up so high”—our rooms were on the tenth floor—“because I knew nobody could see us from the ground.” She laughed. “I mean, I could get thrown in just for wearing pants.”
“Definitely for wearing them in the window,” Karen said, and they both laughed. “Wouldn’t want those ALERT guys to stumble.”
“Ohh, I think a few of them have taken a stumble or two in the past. You see the hot one?”
“Yeah, I know who you’re talking about.”
“Holy smokes, huh?”
Karen took a puff. “You know. His reputation precedes him.”
“Yeah? Like what?”
“Oh, you know. Typical. Kind of a bad boy but keeps it buttoned up and on the straight and narrow when the high ups are watching.”
“Bad boy, or ATI bad?”
“Totally ATI bad. Talks to girls. Goes to movies, that sort of thing.”
Panic was setting in. I didn’t know what to do. Should I leave? Should I take a stand, like Daniel in the Bible—purpose in my heart to not even go near sin? I was flummoxed and frightened, but I knew I couldn’t leave; I had to spend three weeks with these girls. Then Ellen turned to me. “Hey, okay, we should get to work,” she said. She cupped the mostly-smoked cigarette in her hand, carried it to the bathroom, and ran it under water to put it out completely, then carefully placed it in the toilet and flushed it twice.
Karen pulled her hymnal out of her bedside table and came and sat down next to me. “I love this hymn,” she said. “This orchestration is going to be awesome.”
“You play a whole bunch of instruments, right?” Ellen said. I nodded. “Okay, cool, because I couldn’t quite figure out how to do the theory to write the viola parts. They’re like a fourth down from normal tuning?” She chattered on and we started prepping orchestra sheets, and it occurred to me that this was it; we weren’t sinning, we were just … doing homework. Making small talk. Is this what people normally did?
Throughout the rest of the first week, the pattern was the same. I never took a puff on the cigarette, but I popped by and listened to the girls’ chatter before we began. The first week, then the second went by. The cognitive dissonance grew louder in my brain. What I’d expected from the others—a sort of placid navy-hued glow of godliness—was pulled out mostly to placate the leaders at the Training Center. Otherwise, in private, they were just themselves, and they assumed I was the same. Some snuck calls to boys at home. Others hotly debated college plans.
One night I revealed nervously that my family wasn’t actually enrolled in ATI. They all laughed. “You’re probably better for it,” someone said. Indeed, it seemed that most of the people I was meeting were just enduring ATI until they could graduate from high school and join the real world.
Years later, I’d find out it was more complicated than that. Years later, I’d stumble back into contact with many of them via the Internet and find out just how much psychological and spiritual damage years of legalistic teaching had done to many. I’d discover the challenges of having to go back to college as an adult with children in order to be able to get a job, or navigating messy divorces after a short, “godly” courtship. Even though I’d been damaged by some of the teaching I’d internalized, I’d feel glad that my parents kept us out of the fray. And when allegations of sexual misconduct among ATI leadership broke—especially toward vulnerable teenage girls—I, and hundreds of others, would uncomfortably feel it was all too familiar, too possible, for those things to go unmentioned for decades in such a cramped authoritarian world.
But at least for that time, ATI seemed to be an issue only when we were talking to the leadership. Instead of sitting around in the afternoons discussing character qualities, which I had vaguely expected, we sat on the grass in the afternoon and discussed our favorite books; they asked me to sit with them at dinner. Another girl who played in the orchestra told me all about her plans to travel after she graduated from high school the following year. An impossibly cool cello player asked me to teach her to knit.
One rainy day three days before our graduation, I took my journal with me downstairs, settled into a big easy chair in the lobby, and started scribbling. It’s a weird experience, going where nobody knows you or expects anything from you, I wrote. Sort of like, being able to find out who you are. I bit the end of my pencil and stared at a painting of a babbling brook across the room. I think I like studying and talking about books, I wrote. And I don’t think I want to do music in college.
I paused and frowned, and flipped over my pencil. Then I erased the last sentence, and pencilled in, I think I’d like to go to college.