For 16 years, Vyckie Garrison subscribed to the hardcore fundamentalist (and 19 Kids And Counting) ethos of "Quiverfull." It's based on an Old Testament passage; "As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth. Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them."
This translates, apparently, into having children until the Lord closes your womb.
As a conservative patriarchal movement, birth control is forbidden. Quiverfull also condones the "headship" of husbands, the submission of wives, homeschooling, and a belief in the Bible as the literal and inerrant Word of God. With no central charismatic leader, it isn't a cult per se, says Garrison, but rather a mindset, "in which each family becomes a cult unto itself with Daddy enshrined as the supreme Patriarch."
Garrison adhered strictly to the faith; homeschooling, kowtowing to her husband, dressing modestly, editing a pro-life newspaper, and procreating until her uterus basically shut down. Her family was even awarded Nebraska's Family of the Year in 2003.
Then, she took her seven children, and left.
VICE: Were you raised Quiverfull?
Vyckie Garrison: I was raised in this unstable situation. My mom had all these boyfriends in and out, and we moved around so much. She was spiritual but not religious—into a lot of new age stuff, witchcraft, Ouija. I got married at 16. I wanted to get away from my mom's house. I got saved at 17 listening to Christian radio. I had my first kid with [my first husband]. Then I made it to Iowa to get away from him. That's where I met my second husband, and had six kids with him. He was a Baptist. We met at a church picnic. He really loved Jesus and wanted to do whatever was right and biblical.
When did you first encounter this sect?
My daughter was really brilliant and because she was born late in the year it was too early to start kindergarten and she already knew how to read. I thought, What am I going to do to keep her challenged? I was convinced by our pastor's wife to homeschool. I came across the materials at a homeschool convention.
Was your second husband raised Quiverfull?
He had those tendencies anyway, but the patriarchal ideas found in Quiverfull give biblical weight to it. They can sound like this is like something God actually wants you to do. If you feel like one day you're going to stand before God and give an account—not just for your own life but for your wife and children—that makes you feel that you have this major responsibility. It really messed him up.
If I wouldn't have been a Christian and had that whole "God hates divorce" thing in my head, I probably would have realized early on that we were not compatible. But because I was stuck, then I started scrambling for how can we make this work: That's when I came across all the marriage and family materials. It's this headspace that you're in: where you believe that God has a perfect plan for families, and that plan is spelled out in the Bible. Once you get into that extreme fundamentalist mindset, that's what Quiverfull is. You know that you can't change your husband, so what can you do? If you can't change him, then if you can influence the God who CAN change him—then it's this kind of roundabout manipulation. It's very passive-aggressive.
What did your marriage look like before Quiverfull?
When I was in school I had a 4.0 average, I loved studying. When we first got married, he really liked the kids—taking them to the park, playing with them, so we were like, OK you do the kid thing and I'll get my degree and make the money. We started out complementing each other—I'd make up for his weaknesses and he'd make up for mine.
Then we got into the teaching that the husband is supposed to be the head, the leader. The wife is supposed to be at home with her children, managing her family and taking care of her husband. So then I had to quit school. With all the pregnancies, I couldn't keep up with it anyways. So when I had to stay home, I started a family newspaper—The Nebraska Family Times—and named him president, so even though I was working I could say I was a housewife, or whatever. He did sales and distribution and was pretty good at that. But it was my business. We had to find a way to support a growing family, with his disability (he's legally blind) and still have some income. I was also supporting the family, but couldn't actually say I am a "working woman."
When did you start to see red flags?
My health was going down the tubes. Having all the babies that I had, with surgical problems, it actually made it a life-threatening condition for me. After a while my body was just wearing down. Plus I've got this bone condition that three of my daughters inherited so they're having to have treatments—a nine-hour drive each way, several times a year. Physically, it was draining. Emotionally, my husband had become such a tyrant. At some point it crossed the line to abuse.
When did you start to get fed up?
You're knocking yourself out for an ideal and the kids just are not thriving. They weren't doing good educationally, socially, they were not happy. All of it. I thought, something isn't adding up here, because I'm doing everything here, literally, by the book.
What was your first step in walking away?
I met my uncle—who I had never known. Before we made that trip my dad warned me about my uncle, that he's not a Christian, he's going to try to confuse [me]. I was insulted—I was the most devoted Christian! There was no way I was going to have the slightest inkling of doubt.
When I met him, he was a nice guy—not like, trying to save me from delusion. I tried to explain to him why I'm doing what I'm doing and why we're living where we're living—without reference to the bible, because he didn't accept that as any kind of authority.
I didn't shut my brain off when I became a Christian, I confined it. Eventually I realized I didn't believe enough of the bible and Christianity to really call myself a Christian anymore. Which was kind of a scary position to be in because I had built every detail in my life around Jesus.
When did you start pulling away?
It was 2007-08. I was 42. My husband had become such a tyrant. I started standing up to him here and there. He flipped out. He decided to take the six kids (who were still at home) to his family so I could have a "little break." They all decided that the real problem was that I wasn't being submissive enough.
How did your kids react to your fall from grace?
I went and picked up my kids and I hadn't seen them in about six weeks. During that time (before getting custody) these people were telling my kids that I'm going to hell, that I'm deceived by Satan, that I was being horrible to their dad. I picked them up and not only did they have all that attitude because their heads had been filled with all this crap—they also were so sick. Sicker than they had ever been. Every one of them had pneumonia, my one daughter had MRSA. They just did not take care of my kids. I was so run down in my own health of course I caught it right away. For about two weeks we were dragging, just surviving. There were little jabs here and there but we didn't have a lot of energy for conversation. My oldest one at the time, who was still home, said "Why do you have to be so mean to dad? That's just the way he is." But by the end of the two weeks, we all started to feel better. I didn't like talking a whole bunch about religion. They were super quick to drop it. A few of them were atheists right away.
Was it hard to eschew the Quiverfull mindset after being in it so long?
It turned out to be really easy to just change the way I thought. I didn't believe any more. I had mental freedom. I scrambled at first, thinking, you know, I've built my whole life on this. What can I salvage out of this? But once you get rid of the basic part, the rest is all bullshit.
What is your biggest regret?
I was willing to be a martyr to sacrifice my life for Jesus, because it was such a conviction for me—I was so wholeheartedly into it—I thought nothing of risking my life. But I didn't even think about my kids' feelings about it. I made martyrs of them too. It's one thing if I make that choice for me, but it was not right for me to make that choice for them. They lost that part of their life, and they can't get that back. I regret that, deeply.
How did you feel after your un-conversion?
I'd heard about atheists, how sad they were, how depressed they were because they didn't have a purpose in life. Jesus was my whole purpose for living but all of a sudden I didn't believe in him. I was waiting for the day where I would get so depressed. But my youngest was four at the time and they just expect mom to just get up and keep being mom, which I did. I started getting things back on track. I put my kids in school, started being just normal people. We did a Harry Potter marathon.
About six months later I was at the mall with my kids doing school shopping. We were having a great time, laughing, joking, very relaxed. It took me about 40 minutes before I realized; I know what that is—that's energy. It felt foreign to me. I was actually happy. I started being able to just live and enjoy myself. Make choices, let my kids make choices. I enjoy my kids much more now than I ever did when I had to control every little aspect and be concerned about eternal consequences of every little thing that they did. Now if they screw up, it's not life-altering or soul-crushing. Experiencing what I did—it makes me appreciate it that much more.
Why does this mindset appeal to people?
They don't know any better. They haven't encountered better ideas to counter it. I feel like Christianity is becoming polarized. The mainstream is so indefensible, so they either become liberal, and don't take everything chapter and verse, or they dig in and become extremists.
Why do women join this movement?
I tell people that Quiverfull is a women's movement. Which sounds really weird—you think that it would be men. But so many times, it's the woman who drags the husband into it. She's the one that goes to the homeschool convention, she's the one that encounters the materials. And most of the time, she's married to a loser, thinking, "I'm going to get him to buck up, and contribute, and help the family, be a decent father." I've never seen Quiverfull take off in a family where they already have a healthy relationship. If you have a good marriage and you present the couple with idea of Quiverfull, those men are going to be like, "I don't think so. I want a partner."
How does it benefit men?
All of a sudden they've got this "helpmeet" that's devoted to make their life perfect. But in other ways, it infantilizes. It enables all of their worst tendencies. It's like they never have to grow up, never have to take any responsibility. You can make this guy that could potentially be a functioning adult and turn them into this catered toddler. It becomes a major power imbalance. But also, it's very convoluted. There is a lot of power in a woman's submission.
How does it affect the kids?
All of a sudden they're locked into these very strict gender roles and expectations. The boys are going to be manly men, and the girls are going to be virtuous ladies. Every decision about their life is already spelled out. Educationally they suffer. Especially when you've got half a dozen kids, you're not going to be able to afford to send them all to college. Their world is so limited.
Do the women who leave struggle with shaking the mindset?
You would think with fundamentalists—because it's an all-consuming vision that affects every part of your thinking—you'd think that they would be the hardest ones to convince. It's not like we try to talk them out of it. But it's pretty similar with a lot of them. We do end up with a high percentage of people that just drop the whole thing. It's like a house of cards, you know? You get rid of that foundation—that the Bible is the inerrant, living word of God—and then what's left?
What's the most troubling aspect of the movement?
The thing that really disturbs me is the whole emphasis on the daddy-daughter thing. The purity pledges, father daughter banquets—your heart is supposed to be daddy's until he gives you away to your husband. A lot of times, especially with the older daughters, the moms are so busy having babies, and are so drug out trying to keep up with the homeschooling and the homesteading and everything else that they're doing—and the dads end up turning to the older daughters for that emotional connection and it's not healthy.I would say it borders on emotional incest.
What do you tell the women who feel stuck?
I say know the reason you're doing this—it's for your children. You want to give them the very best life—how is that working out? Look at your kids—are they happy? Are they thriving? What you're knocking yourself out for—is it worth it? The reason they got into it, is the reason that gets them out of it too. It is hard when you realize you're going to have to change everything. By that time, most of these women have very controlling abusive husband, half a dozen or more kids, they haven't worked in decades, they don't have any higher education. It is a challenge—to get your kids and escape from that kind of thing. You have to completely change your life around. It's extremely difficult to get out. But these women have been doing the impossible for decades. They are living a lifestyle that nobody would choose. It's almost like a release because you've already been doing something that can't really be done—creating perfection in your own home. These women are so strong, so courageous, they are resourceful. They will find a way, and they do.
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