ICSA Today, Vol. 6, No. 2, 2015, 22-25
Review by Lawrence A. Pile
Author Hilary McFarland exposes a fairly well-hidden subculture in North America that goes by several names: patriarchy, Christian patriarchy, neopatriarchy, the Quiverfull Movement, and the like. Both words patriarchy and quiverfull derive from the Bible. The first occurs twice in the New Testament book of Acts (2:29) in reference to King David, the second in the book of Hebrews (7:4), in reference to Abraham as the patriarch of the Jewish race. The second word, quiverfull, is not found as such in the Bible; but the concept is there, in Psalm 127:3–5, which reads as follows:
3 Lo, sons are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward.
4 Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the sons of one’s youth.
5 Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them! He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate. (Revised Standard Version [RSV], emphasis added)
The meaning is this: As arrows enable a man to affect events at a distance (the killing of a deer for supper, or an enemy for protection of his family), so children enable a man to affect events at a distance spatially (as children grow up and move to other places), chronologically (as they have families of their own and carry on family values in later generations), and right at home (as they are able to share family responsibilities). The meaning does not include the idea of children forfeiting all or part of their normal childhood for the sake of taking on the role of surrogate mother or father because the parent(s) is(are) too weighted down with responsibilities (or, perhaps, too irresponsible).
McFarland knows well whereof she writes, being the eldest of 11 children born to a couple who chose to live according to the principles and values of the neopatriarchal movement. Although movement families cannot be said to exhibit all the same characteristics in the same degree, neopatriarchal families do follow a similar pattern. The most notable trait is, as the term quiverfull indicates, large families. The author explains:
Quiverfull is a lifestyle in which parents keep an “open womb” and view children as a blessing, welcoming as many as God wants to send. Many consider this “letting God plan the family” or “giving God control of our fertility” instead of usurping His place through human intervention. This way of life is based on Psalm 127…2
In addition to having many children, most patriarchal families homeschool those children, believing the public school system to be full of bad influences, including the teaching of evolution and the ready availability of illegal drugs. (MacFarland makes it clear that not all homeschoolers are neopatriarchal. Many provide healthy environments in which to raise their children.) In fact, among patriarchal families, society in general is regarded as holding many dangers, particularly for the young and vulnerable. The more extreme families (although probably a minority) live “off the grid” entirely, as virtual survivalists. These families grow most of their own food and may even make some of their own clothing. Some raise livestock—maybe a cow or two, or four or five goats, for milk and cheese and so on. This scenario indicates that the first of Robert J. Lifton’s characteristics of thought reform1— milieu control—is much in evidence among neopatriarchal families.
McFarland’s book is well written. Some parts read like prose poetry, especially a section at the end of chapter 2. Here she graphically, and almost lyrically, describes woods and fields she and her sisters loved to walk and ride their bikes in—those rare times when they were free of responsibilities.
In spite of such evocative sections scattered throughout the book, on the whole the book is not an easy read—not because of the style, but because of the content. It was difficult especially for me as an evangelical Christian to read McFarland’s and others’ accounts of life as a “quivering daughter.” The author writes of growing up in an extreme, or neopatriarchal family, the seriously distorted concepts of what the Christian way of life should be, and the consequences in the minds, bodies, and spirits of the girls and women raised in such an environment. McFarland dwells on the adverse effects such large families (and often primitive living conditions) have on the older children in particular. With families of six, 10, 12 children, the older ones, especially daughters, frequently are called on to fill in for their harried mothers in taking care of younger siblings—so much so that many of those older children are deprived of a normal, healthy childhood. For instance, she writes,
Somehow I learned at an early age that love wouldn’t come easily. That love is a relationship reward, not a relationship default, and I had to earn it, to work hard for it. While Quiverfull teaching exalts children as supreme blessings, it doesn’t reveal its grim underside… I am only a blessing when I’m useful, helpful, obedient, cheerful, kind, unselfish, submissive, compliant, and responsible. And only these kinds of blessings deserve love...3
The book opens with a reprint of an article originally published in the Christian Research Journal, Vol. 26/No. 01–2003 under the title “Christian Families on the Edge: Authoritarianism and Isolationism Among Us.” In this book, the article bears the title “Christian Families on the Edge: Authoritarianism and Isolationism.” In an introductory paragraph, author Rachel D. Ramer writes,
In response to antifamily trends in recent decades, there has been a resurgence within Christianity to restore family integrity and values. … Some Christian groups, who see culture as adversarial to Christianity, believe the role of family is to protect its members from culture. Family certainly is to be a place of security; however, the principles of authority and isolation these groups often recommend are problematic… These groups often promote principles of parental authority based on shame. … Authoritarianism and isolationism provide a false sense of security from moral and spiritual evils, and merely result in a subculture that fails to interact with and transform culture in a redeeming way.4
McFarland puts to use her evocative writing skills to describe both pleasant times and those that are much less so. For example,
Our little farm house, propped on creaky and tired wooden beams, is unbelievably cold in winter. Sometimes my sisters and I can etch our names in ice inside our bedroom windows.
But it’s August now, and I stand at the stove alternately flipping tortillas and rolling them by hand. I long for coolness but it’s a luxury we can’t afford. My mud-streaked legs drip as farm-grime slides down my skin with sweat; heat affects me badly. But what did they do back in the prairie days? I’m just supposed to be thankful I don’t have to wear petticoats under layers of skirts.…
…Later, I try to get ready for a wedding. I love this dress. It touches the floor and is black and white and beautiful. Mom bought it for me from Sears with money Nana sent her for her birthday.
I’m starting to feel overwhelmed, as I stand at the mirror and brush my hair, because my legs keep sliding together—the sweat makes them slippery. My beautiful dress sticks to me as I raise my arms, comb in hand. It’s hard to move like this, and hard to breathe—I’m baking! The sweat is dripping! And there’s nothing I can do. No matter what, even when I try to look elegant for an evening wedding, I—now my face is getting red. I just want to cry. But even more I want to find something and stab, stab, stab my stupid fat legs and the sweat that makes them slide around. My hair is hot, and it frizzes, and I can’t do anything with it.
But I hear the reply: God calls us to live like this. We must bring conviction to people. To make people think. To be different—a peculiar people. To do without. I don’t need comfort. I need to learn sacrifice, to embrace the hard way because it separates us from the world. (italics in original)4
The last paragraph above illustrates Lifton’s second characteristic of thought reform, mystical manipulation. Among the neopatriarchal families, there is much evidence of this characteristic, especially in the form of misuse of Bible passages, and especially by taking them out of context to misapply them to the 20th and 21st centuries. Passages like this are scattered through the first half or so of the book, often as vignettes provided by other women who have grown up under similar conditions (the author uses pseudonyms to protect the privacy of these others).
As a case in point, McFarland uses that term peculiar people several times in the book. Clearly, neopatriarchists use the term to describe and even justify their lifestyle.6 It is as if in answer to those who would look at them quizzically or comment on their lifestyle, they would say, “Of course we’re ‘peculiar’ or ‘odd.’ But that’s what the Bible tells us to be.” However, the phrase peculiar people occurs in the KJV of the Bible four times: twice in the Old Testament and twice in the New. In the Old Testament, the word peculiar is the translation of the Hebrew word that could be transliterated as segullah, which means “special” or “treasured.” It most definitely does not mean “odd” or “strange.” The same is true of the two Greek words employed in the New Testament instances where the phrase occurs. The Greek words, although different, share the meaning of “special treasure” or “treasured possession.”
Other characteristics of thought reform are revealed as the author proceeds to relate her story. Demand for purity is prominent within patriarchal families, since the whole purpose and chief goal of the patriarchal lifestyle is to live according to the dictum of James 1:27—“Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world”—although one wonders just how much visiting of the fatherless and widows takes place.
Sacred science is present, specifically in the form of the patriarchal understanding of the Bible, from which no deviation is allowed. No questioning of this understanding is allowed, and resistance is punished, although often passively. McFarland writes poignantly of the day she moved out of her parents’ house to live on her own for the first time in her life. She had saved up enough money from tips she received at a café to buy an old used car, and as she loaded her few belongings into it the whole family stood around silently, except some of her younger sisters, sniffling because they couldn’t understand why she was leaving. For that matter, her parents couldn’t understand, either. Here McFarland describes having to endure the manifest sadness of her entire family because of her choice to leave home (and thus enter the evil world). And although she is moving only a few miles away, the whole family acts as if they are standing around her open grave and saying their final farewells!
A lot of the vocabulary employed within patriarchal families, I believe, qualifies as loaded language. AS McFarland writes,
Labeling is one common way the daughters of patriarchy are verbally manipulated. To hear things like, “You are rebellious,” or “foolish,” “defensive,” “not thinking,” “leading your brothers and sisters astray” works to coerce change while not encouraging life or growth. Who wants to be considered rebellious? Stupid? Evil? Yet just as effective, what is left unsaid also bears consequences of its own. “We heard a lot about what we should and shouldn’t do,” writes Catherine, “but never ‘good job,’ ‘I’m proud of you,’ or really even ‘I love you.’ Just what we could’ve done better, and what was wrong with us.”
…Emotionally abusive tactics can be subtle. … “If you were more obedient, respectful, serious, righteous, mature, godly, humble, patient, kind” or, “If you were less sensitive, emotional, imaginative, impulsive”…7
Although the words used in the examples I give are normal English words, their meaning has been expanded to hold specifically patriarchal connotations that only other patriarchals would understand. In addition, archaic and obsolete words found in the KJV (viz., peculiar, see above) that continue to be used by patriarchals also serve to load the language with terms understood mostly, if not wholly, by other patriarchals. Quirks of language of this sort are another means of isolating group or movement members from the worldly society beyond their front doors.
As we reflect, we see another characteristic of totalist organizations that Lifton describes; namely, doctrine over person. The personal experiences of the group members are subordinated to the “truth” held by the group—apparently contrary experiences must be denied or reinterpreted to fit the doctrine of the group. The doctrine is always more important than the individual. Thus, as much as MacFarland, as the oldest daughter, was required to tend to her chores, no matter how hard, or hot, or uncomfortable, or beyond her ability to perform well, she had to keep telling herself that this was what God required her to do. It said so in the Bible, didn’t it? It was there somewhere, right? …Until one day she realized that it wasn’t.
In her separation from her family, and from neopatriarchalism in general, the author seems to have succeeded in not rejecting her family or others who practice neopatriarchalism and thus snub those “on the outside.” From the account she gives of leaving home, it is apparent that her family, while not snubbing her, still believed she was leaving the “best” and only “godly” way of life and accepting the “world’s” way. And they wept for her. This, I believe, illustrates what Lifton calls dispensing of existence. This means that those outside the group are to be considered unspiritual, worldly, satanic, unconscious, or whatever, and that they must be converted to the ideas of the group or they will be lost. So when MacFarland left home, although no one said so, she was on her way to being lost.
McFarland does get around to describing her process of healing. As with the healing of cult victims everywhere, and the victims of similar dynamics in relationships, the author’s healing took time—lots of it. But she also had help along the way, especially from others who had traveled the same road before her. Her husband was also a major help to her as he came, by degrees, to understand just what and how much she had suffered. First, however, she offers a helpful history of the Christian neopatriarchy movement in chapter 6. She cites many sources, both proponents and opponents of neopatriarchy, enabling the reader to understand the rationale for neopatriarchy and the differences between it and other Christian parenting models.
McFarland gives a helpful table in chapter 7 that shows in side-by-side columns key differences between “authoritative parents/parenting” and “authoritarian parents/parenting.”8 It is important to understand the difference between authoritative and authoritarian. McFarland defines authoritative parenting as parental authority “derive[d] …from [the parent’s] Heavenly Parent.”9 I would assert that there are likely a vast number of irreligious parents whose parenting could be described as authoritative rather than authoritarian, so I prefer to define authoritative less absolutely. In the case of parents who model authoritative parenting, the author’s definition may be appropriate, whether or not those parents acknowledge a “Heavenly Parent.”
In chapter 10, the author offers a helpful table that describes aspects of shame on the one hand and guilt on the other. Survivors of cults, toxic faith, and (apparently) neopatriarchy suffer from both of these, and understanding the difference between them is crucial. McFarland defines guilt as “the result of a sinful choice or action, an externalized feeling of regret over a committed wrong.”10 (She might have included “the violation of a generally accepted social norm.”) But not all guilt is valid. One additional thing I wish she had discussed is false guilt, which I suggest as the feeling we have when we have violated an invalid rule or standard of behavior. This invalid rule or behavior standard may be one that another person has imposed or is seeking to impose upon us, or it may be one that we have imposed upon ourselves. In any case, this rule or standard of behavior in reality has no authority over us other than that which we give it; and so violating it can produce only false guilt in us. However, false guilt feels just the same as true guilt.
McFarland shows her familiarity with books and online sources with which most of those who read this publication are also familiar. For example, on page 60 she refers to Steve Hassan’s BITE Model, and on page 183 Judith L. Herman’s book Trauma and Recovery. She draws from these sources and others in explaining her recovery. Several of the blogs she found are managed and monitored by Christian women who have had experiences similar to the author’s, and their help was invaluable. One thing I found rather remarkable is the fact that McFarland did not turn her back on God, as many survivors do, but instead sought to know the real meaning of the Scriptures that had been used to control and even torment her, however much that effect was unintended.
The author deals with her recovery in the last chapter (13) of the book, and in the Epilogue. Here she cites several passages from the biblical books of Isaiah and Hosea, and also from the New Testament. It is unclear whether or not she knows the actual meaning of the Isaiah and Hosea passages—that is, their application to the actual nation of Israel during the time these books were composed.
My slight criticisms aside, this book is well worth reading and recommending, especially to those one may suspect are living the neopatriarch lifestyle or may be moving in that direction.
 Robert Jay Lifton. Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism (University of North Carolina Press, 1989). Lifton’s work was originally about the thought-reform techniques of the North Koreans and Communist Chinese employed on United Nations soldiers taken as prisoners of war during the Korean War of the 1950s, and on Western civilians sent to “Reeducation” camps in China during the same period. This work has since become a standard reference for the study of cults and cult-like relationships.
Larry Pile has been a staff member and Director of Cult Education and Research for Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center of Albany, Ohio from May 1988 to the present. He is currently semiretired and conducts workshops (on a volunteer basis) on a wide variety of spiritual and practical issues and topics designed to help people who have suffered abuse as members of high-control, destructive organizations and relationships. In the past, Larry also has been responsible for maintaining communication with the organization’s constituents in the general public and the church at large. These responsibilities have necessitated conducting extensive research on a vast number of organizations labeled by some as cults. He has written an online book about the Great Commission Association of Churches (Marching to Zion, accessible through www.gcmwarning.com) and has completed work on a commentary on the biblical book of Galatians, geared toward survivors of abusive churches and other totalistic organizations and relationships.