Vyckie Garrison was once a minor celebrity in the Quiverfull Movement, made famous by TV’s Duggar family. As a devout, Bible-believing Christian and the mother of seven homeschooled children, Garrison spent 16 years, with her husband, publishing a newspaper for families on a similar path. Today, via a website called No Longer Quivering, she publishes resources for women leaving the movement.
The following is adapted from a presentation which Garrison gave at the 2015 American Atheist National Convention where she was named “Atheist of the Year.”
If I ever wrote a book, I’d call it “Fertile Ground” and it would be my attempt to answer one of the most frequently asked questions at No Longer Quivering. The question comes in many forms, such as: Are you Catholic? Haven’t you figured out what causes that? Don’t you have any hobbies? Are you nuts?!! And basically what people want to know is: How in the world did you end up with so many kids?!!
I have a little confession to make: I never wanted any kids.
For as long as I can remember, I knew that parenting was not for me. When I was 12 years old, I came up with what seemed to me a foolproof plan to avoid pregnancy for my whole life:
I would devote myself to God, become a Catholic nun and live in a convent -- not because I was raised Christian or knew anything about the Catholic church, but I’d heard that nuns remain virgins, which sounded like a surefire way to never be a mother. Sign me up for that!
When asked how I could know for certain that I didn’t want any kids ever, I had an impressive list of very good reasons, including being an introvert, not wanting to be responsible for messing up the childhood of another human being … plus, I have a genetic bone condition that causes chronic pain and is debilitating. I didn’t know it back then, but complications from the bone condition make childbearing a literally life-threatening condition for me. What I did know is that Multiple Hereditary Exostoses is an autosomal dominant disease which meant if I ever did get pregnant, there would be a 50/50 chance that my children would inherit my bumpy bone problem.
I didn’t want any kids, but now I have seven children.
Obviously, the details of how that happened make for a very long story … but here I want to focus on how so-called “pro-life” rhetoric and “biblical family values” cultivate what I like to call “fertile ground” for the Quiverfull movement which derailed my otherwise-solid (kidding! I know it was lame) life plan to enjoy the bliss of childlessness.
But before I get started, I want to say that I have really awesome kids. They are terrific people, full of life and love, and each and every one of my children holds a huge chunk of my heart. They have enriched my life. I do not regret having seven children. I’ll have more to say about the “blessing” of children later on …
Let’s start with purity culture
Even though I was not raised in a Christian home, I still managed to pick up and internalize the message that my value as a girl was derived from my virginity. So when I had sex with my boyfriend at age 15, I knew that I was spoiled for all other guys.
I was basically a good kid: I got along well with friends and family, I worked responsibly at the local A&W Restaurant, I stayed out of trouble, my grades and test scores were so high that my guidance counselor advised me to apply for a full scholarship to the University of Nevada-Reno. But despite all the positives, I knew God was disappointed in me because I wasn’t a virgin. I had really blown it … no way I could become a nun now. So much for my carefully-considered life plan. Dang!
So two weeks after I turned 16, I married Bryan -- not because I loved him, but because I was afraid to tell him, “No” -- afraid that he would react violently, but more deeply afraid that any other guy would see me as “used goods.”
Within weeks, Bryan pressured me to drop out of high school. He had already dropped out, and he was so insecure and jealous and controlling that he could not stand for me to be out of his sight for 6 hours a day. He didn’t want me to quit my job because we needed the money, so during my shift, he sat out in the lobby and watched to be sure I wasn’t overly friendly with the male customers.
So “PURITY” is a lucrative niche in Christian product marketing; everything from books, to purity rings, True Love Waits merchandise. I’m calling purity culture the “soil” in the “fertile ground” of Quiverfull.
Who besides me cringes at the phrase “Proverbs 31 Woman”?
Fast-forward a few years and I’m sure no one will be surprised to learn that our marriage was not working out. We’d been through a lot together including juvenile detention, homelessness, petty theft, getting shot at by the guy who stole the stuff we’d stolen, Job Corps, numerous jobs, and several apartments.
I desperately wanted our relationship to work, but Bryan was getting more and more angry and resentful. When he made me stand perfectly still while he practiced his moves with the nunchucks -- swinging the sticks as fast and hard as he could right alongside or barely over my head, holding on to one stick while snapping the other forcefully within an inch of my nose -- and if I blinked, that was proof that I didn’t trust him … well, that’s when I got really serious about finding Jesus and living for Him in the hopes that He would save me and my marriage.
I found a Word of Life Christian Fellowship which offered free rides to church. There I learned from the bible study ladies that if I wanted a solid, godly marriage, I had to learn to submit to my husband, anticipate and meet his every need, and never give him reason to complain. If I did all that, the Lord would work in Bryan’s heart and transform him into a mature, loving, Christian husband.
When I did what most would consider an admirable job of being a virtuous wife, rather than repenting of his sins and joining me in Christian devotion, Bryan found a girlfriend. I was devastated, and frankly really pissed off at God for not coming through for me despite my earnest passion and near-perfect faithfulness.
I’m going to say Christian teachings on the “Proverbs 31 Woman” “till the soil” to prepare evangelical women to be “fertile ground” for Christian fundamentalism. And BTW, “Biblical Womanhood” happens to also be a very lucrative department in resources for Christian living.
Now let’s talk about Crisis Pregnancy Centers
In my hurt and anger and confusion, I turned for comfort to a neighbor’s friend who showed an interest in me. Skip was a 37-year-old, unemployed veteran of the Vietnam War who suffered from PTSD and lived with his mother. He told me that he’d had a vasectomy so I wouldn’t make him use a condom.
I went to a Crisis Pregnancy Center for a free pregnancy test. While I waited for the results, the volunteers made me watch The Silent Scream. From that forty minutes inside the CPC, I learned that my baby was already fully formed with brain waves and a beating heart and God had a very special plan for my baby’s life and He had promised to take care of me and they would give me free diapers.
So despite severe depression which had led me to starve myself down to only 69 pounds, when the OB/GYN told me at my first prenatal appointment, “You should not be pregnant” … abortion was out of the question. As much as I did not want to be pregnant, did not want to be a mother, did not want any of this!, and had NO IDEA how I was going to take care of a child, … when the doctor stood perfectly quiet, providing an opportunity for me to consider my options … it was too late. They had already gotten inside my head. While thoughts of burning in hell for eternity silenced my brain and images of dismembered tiny babies constrained my fight-or-flight instincts … I “Chose Life.”
Let me say this again to be clear: I love my children and would not trade them for any other life. Though my oldest daughter resulted from an unplanned pregnancy, she has brought me so much joy. I am not complaining about the baby … what I’m critiquing here is a marketing scheme which makes a huge life-changing impact on desperate, vulnerable young women.
Since I was going to be a mom, I decided I’d better get my act together for my baby’s sake … so I went back to Bryan, whom I believed to be the father of my baby. I also went back to church and I determined to be the very best Christian wife possible.
On the night of our 5th wedding anniversary, Bryan took acid and kept me up all night with a loaded shotgun aimed at my head … he was SO pissed at me for ruining his life and he told me over and over that he wished he had the courage to pull the trigger. Just before sunrise, the exhaustion, confusion, desperation, and fear overcame me and I told my husband that I honestly wished that he had the courage too. “Just get it over with, please!”
I’d been silently praying the whole time, so I praised God when, instead of putting a bullet through my head like he wanted to, Bryan passed out and I made my escape to the Midwest for a fresh start on life for me and my year-old baby girl.
I was convinced that living wholeheartedly for Jesus was the key to providing a stable, happy home and a better life for my child, and I believed that I could discover God’s will for my life in the pages of the bible. I often listened to Christian radio “family” talk shows like Focus on the Family and American Family Radio, Gateway to Joy, Revive Our Hearts, and Family Life Today.
From these programs I learned that “traditional families” are best, and fathers are extremely important. It wasn’t long before I met and married a good Christian man who was as serious about living biblically as I was. He was great with kids and had a good heart … and he may have had some not-so-great tendencies toward obsession and controlling, but when I prayed and asked the Lord for guidance, Jesus gave me peace in my heart, so I trusted that God knew best and He would work all things together for good.
And yes, I did buy a lot of books!
Okay, there are a couple of elements in contemporary Christianity which are key to the cultivation of “fertile ground” for fundamentalist extremism which really do need to be mentioned, but I don’t have time to go in depth to explain how these ideals played out in my own life … but, real quick:
Christian Martyrdom and “dying to self”
In my 25 years as a Born Again Christian, I certainly didn’t miss the fact that the central message of Christianity is Martyrdom. God sacrifices His only Son, Jesus willingly submits to torture and death, and Believers are admonished to follow His example. “Crucify the flesh,” “take up your cross and follow me,” “whoever loses his life for my sake will save it,” “I am not my own, I have been bought with a price.” So this idea of “dying to the self” is so prevalent, it infects the minds of Christians and eventually they develop a huge Martyr Complex!
And just because I’m rushing through this section, please do not go away with the impression that the emphasis on crucifixion and death only plays a minor role in cultivating Christian fundamentalism. Christians are fixated on martyrdom and they so strongly identify with Jesus’ crucifixion, which leads to another complex … persecution complex. Martyrdom and persecution are two big bogeymen which cause Christians to shed great buckets of tears to water the seeds in the fertile ground of fundamentalism.
Predictions of doomsday End Time Apocalyptic paranoia are like the heat of the sun in my little “fertile ground” theme. This is serious business (emphasis on “business”) which truly terrifies bible believers. So scary in fact, that when we learned that Bill Clinton (who was most likely the Anti-Christ) had won the presidency, fear for our children’s future compelled us to take the final step which landed us in full-fledged fundamental-Christian-extremist-ville ….
Purity culture, crisis pregnancy centers, “pro-life” rhetoric, biblical family values, martyrdom, persecution, and bible prophecy all help cultivate the fundamentalism which is Quiverfull, but let me tell you where patriarchy and prolific motherhood really flourishes:
Of course, not every family that homeschools is religiously motivated. (#NotAllHomeschoolers) But within the Christian Homeschool community, “Biblical Family Values” is being aggressively marketed as an investment to safeguard our loved ones from becoming collateral damage in today’s “War Against the Family.”
Here’s a picture from a Christian homeschooling convention and curriculum fair in Texas which I found on the website of a Quiverfull family that sells creation-science materials for Christian homeschoolers. The caption beneath the sign of the vendor hall read:
Needless to say, we spent a good amount of money at that hall. But this is the price of tuition for a homeschool family. It is an investment in our sons’ education and character.
There’s big money to be had in selling family stability and security to desperate moms and dads who’ve come to Christianity as refugees from dysfunctional homes; parents who are confused and scared for the future and they’re looking for answers as they scramble to raise their children in a healthier environment than that which they had experienced as kids.
When you visit a Christian Homeschool conference, you will find curriculum companies selling math books, Creation Science materials, revisionist history, … you can pick up spelling and penmanship workbooks, etc. But the booths where the majority of conference attendees gather, and where they are taking out their checkbooks and spending their money, are the vendors who are selling a lifestyle.
They’re peddling a “vision” of a big, happy, godly family.
Also at these Christian homeschool conventions, there will be workshops about how to teach advanced math to your teenager, or other academic-focused topics, and there will be a few parents attending those sessions, but the workshops which are crowded, where parents are paying attention and taking notes - the most popular speakers are talking about family life - and not just “Making Brothers and Sisters Best Friends,” but topics like: courtship vs betrothal, the value of motherhood, and …. these are actual titles: How a Wife can use Reverence to Build or Save her Marriage, Why Satan Wants Your Firstborn, How to Lengthen Your Life by Honoring and Obeying Your Parents.
It wasn’t until we began homeschooling that I encountered full-blown Quiverfull through books such as Mary Pride’s “The Way Home: Beyond Feminism and Back to Reality” and Nancy Campbell’s “God’s Vision for Families.”
Quiverfull leaders are masters at SPIN. Playing on a woman’s sincere desire to serve the Lord wholeheartedly … they use the scriptures to convince a woman that she WANTS nothing more than to stay home, have lots of babies and serve her husband – even if these choices might cost her everything. By this point, she’s internalized the ideas of sacrifice and martyrdom so completely that she is determined to die to herself, her dreams, her interests, even her own sanity … in order to fulfill the role for which she believes God created her: to be a helpmeet to her husband - a fruitful vine birthing many Arrows for God’s holy war.
While the Quiverfull woman will insist that this lifestyle is her choice, in truth, she has no choice. When I was fully enthrall to the Quiverfull head trip – there was no choice at all. Of course, I would welcome all the babies the Lord placed in my womb. Of course, I would risk my life. No way would I refuse the will of God for my life. Why would I choose barrenness – the curse of God? Why would I deny LIFE itself to another person – merely because of the “inconvenience” to me? How could I consider my own health – when we’re talking about a BABY – a tiny human with potential for eternal life in Heaven?
A woman’s “choice” was anathema to me because I believed that I was not my own; I had been bought with a price (the blood of Christ).
In the same way that the fundamentalist Christian God allows people to exercise their free will by “choosing” between worshipping and serving Him or else burning in Hell forever – the Quiverfull woman must make the decision to trust God and perhaps die physically, or trust in the Pill and her own common sense – and die spiritually for all eternity. That’s not a choice – it’s an ultimatum.
The “pro-life” faithful will hear my story and say that God has provided … that He used my children to make me a better person. That was my personal narrative for over half of my life, but now I say, bull-fricken-shit. I refuse to give glory and all the credit to the Big Guy for my semi-success as a mega-mom with seven kids who are mostly happy, healthy, well-adjusted, and only occasionally feel like disowning me. I credit my children; their strength, intelligence, and resilience have enabled them to flourish despite my shortcomings. I credit myself for being resourceful and determined to make the best of a life that I never wanted.
But no thanks to Jesus because now I realize “HE” is the one who created the potentially-disastrous situation which I so desperately needed Him to save me from. And let me be clear: I no longer believe in Jesus or any other personal deity. When I say “HE,” I mean the believers and purveyors of Christian “pro-life” culture which influenced me to “choose” exactly the opposite of what I instinctively knew was not in my own best interest.
You see, the Christian Right doesn’t even need to pass their contraception-denying and/or abortion restricting legislation in order to limit women’s reproductive choices. The twisted, patriarchal ideals which underlie such legislation have permeated our society to such an extent that it’s not actually necessary to outlaw birth control and abortion in order to convince women that they don’t dare to aspire to any life other than submissive baby-makers.
“Quiverfull” is standard Pro-Life rhetoric full-grown. As much as the families involved convince themselves that Quiverfull is a personal conviction which the Lord has personally revealed to them through diligent bible study and prayer, the truth is, “biblical family values” is a niche market and its profitability ensures that more and more evangelical Christian families will be scammed by opportunistic peddlers of the “culture wars.”
I spent over a quarter century fighting with all my might in this war that was mostly all in my head… but, NO MORE. And here’s the part that’s so annoying: “The Enemy” – the “World,” which for so many years I had feared and shunned, has turned out to be a paper tiger – and in most cases, not just harmless, but even benevolent and beneficial – same thing goes for just about everything which my fundamentalist/Quiverfull beliefs led me to guard my family against: television (Spongebob!), secular music, public school, peer pressure, boy/girl dating relationships, fashionable clothing, feminist values, convenience foods, teen rebellion, social workers and professional counselors, youth groups … and even the really big spooks: homosexuals and atheists.
A friend recently put it this way: It’s like buying insurance to protect you from the boogeyman under the bed.…it’s childish, unnecessary, a waste of time and money.
You can read our stories at No Longer Quivering. If you like Twitter drama, you can also follow me @NoQuivering.