The Personalist Project

I don't recall how it is that I started reading Elizabeth Esther's blog, but I know it was in connection with the problem of spiritual abuse, which we could define as systematic violation of the central features of personhood, i.e. suppression of a person's freedom, autonomy, and conscience.

It's what happens in cults and cult-like groups and families. 

Elizabeth Esther grew up in one of those. Her grandfather founded a fundamentalist Christian cult, called the Assemby, in which her father and uncle were fulltime leaders. She left with her husband and small children when she was 25 and has been recovering in the ten or so years since. Blogging about her experience is part of her healing. Her tagline is "I use my words."

Last year, she wrote it all down in a book, Girl at the End of the World. I pre-ordered it months ago, got it Monday morning, and finished reading it within hours.

Her honest telling of her story throws a lot of light on my own experience in a dysfunctional family and at the covenant-community-saturated FUS of the mid-eighties.

I recommend it for everyone who was ever involved with those Covenant Communities, with the Legion of Christ, or with the kind of families in which parental authority is stressed to the neglect of freedom and individuality—families where even adult children are expected to defer to their parents' judgment, where criticism is treated as "dishonoring", and emotions as "irrational."

All of us who were in any part formed by a group or family like that have some unlearning to do (unless we conscientiously unlearn those bad dynamics, we're all-too-likely to pass them on). Reading the story of someone who's been through and found a way out is a good place to start. Deep study of Christian personalism is a great way to continue.

Comments (21)

Marie Meaney

#1, Mar 21, 2014 6:05am

Thanks for pointing out this interesting book and blog, Katie. Your characterization of dysfunctional families and cult-like groups as the “systematic violation of the central features of personhood, i.e. suppression of a person's freedom, autonomy, and conscience” is excellent This expresses itself in dismissing another’s emotions (calling them irrational or wrong, for example), stressing authority to the point that all questions or doubts are treated as disobedience, and demanding a kind of abject obedience which wants to control the other’s emotions and thoughts. This is what defines a cult, as Elizabeth Esther says (I got her book after reading your post), rather than its belief-system.

This got me thinking (and I’m somewhat thinking out aloud): I don’t want to blur the lines here, but isn’t there in all sin a kind of “taking” over of the other person? Isn’t there a wanting to control the other (be it for my pleasure, to cater to my needs and pride) which doesn’t allow him to be himself?

Marie Meaney

#2, Mar 21, 2014 6:06am

I’m trying to think of different kinds of vices: lust, anger, judging others, pride, envy (though with envy it seems like I want to be and have what the other is/has, I actually want to bring him down and not be this wonderful person which grates me) etc. We’re all dysfunctional (since we all have original sin); only love allows the other to fully be himself, accepting him also with his weaknesses (which doesn’t mean I should allow the other to abuse me). So I’m tempted to say that since we are all sinners, we are all to some extent from and in dysfunctional families; the holier the people, the less dysfunctional the family is. Lest I blur the lines though, I think the main difference lies, as you said, in the systematic violation of another. There’s a difference between sometimes losing one’s temper towards one’s children (which is still a kind of violence directed against the other, going beyond his/her misdeed, implying a refusal of who he or she is) and systematically not allowing one’s children to have feelings, opinions and weaknesses of their own.

Marie Meaney

#3, Mar 21, 2014 6:07am

The real flowering of the person can only happen through accepting her in her uniqueness. Through abusive parenting, a child is told that the person she is in her specific individuality, is despicable and needs to change. No wonder Esther exhibited some serious symptoms (sucking her thumb, hurting herself to deal with the inner pain she was experiencing); the sad thing is that they were not taken seriously and not seen as an alarm going off. The miracle is that she got out of this cult without turning against God, and became Catholic (I saw this on her blog; I haven’t yet finished her book).

Katie van Schaijik

#4, Mar 21, 2014 9:09am

Here's an analogy for the way I conceive of the difference between dyfunctional relationships and "normal relationships." None of us has a perfect body. I'm sure we can all list things we'd fix in our flesh if we could.  I've got flat feet, thin hair, and dry skin, for instance. But I'm basically healthy. I'm not ill.  

Similarly, none of us is without sin. And all our relationships are menaced to a great or lesser degree by the master/slave dynamic of the fall. But some relationships are basically sound and healthy, others basically unsound and unhealthy. All human groups have "issues" and shortcomings. But some groups are sound in their structure and dynamics, while others are skewed to the point of being absive.

In some cases dysfunction creeps in; in others it's built in.

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#5, Mar 21, 2014 9:46am

"In some cases dysfunction creeps in; in others it's built in."

This is the argument against the "reform" of the Legion: that the very form and character of the order was deeply skewed by the founder's dysfunction, and that nothing built on such a foundation--built, in essence, as cover for a monster--can be "reformed." After all, what authentic or healthy form did it ever have, to be returned to? 

I find that I agree with Marie that there are matters of degree in these things. It is difficult sometimes to spot whether a family, for example, is a family with dysfunctional traits or a dysfunctional family. 

I've read Elizabeth Esther's blog from time to time for years, because I find it all so alien to me, and yet so relevant. Many people I care about have been deeply hurt or shaped by dynamics like those she describes, and my own upbringing was so different that I've struggled to really understand that experience and what it takes to overcome it. 


Katie van Schaijik

#6, Mar 21, 2014 11:25am

I also agree that it's partly a matter of degree, just as whether the body is characterized as sick or well is a matter of degree, sometimes.  Sometimes we're unambiguously healthy and sometimes we're unambiguously sick. Sometimes we're somewhere on the line between—partly healthy, partly sick.

Katie van Schaijik

#7, Mar 21, 2014 11:38am

Here's what I've run into more than once (including in online debates with Legion defenders, back when the truth about Maciel was still being denied and covered up). I make a concrete charge of abusive behavior, "To treat all critics as persecutors with 'personal issues', is not charitable, it's dysfunctional," and in reply I get, "All of us are dysfunctional in comparison with Christ." (This of course includes an implicit suggestion that to make such a charge is to claim perfection for yourself.)

When at FUS I charged that a particular Student Life leader or policy was unacceptably controlling or intrusive, the answer would come back, "Nobody's perfect."

I'll go so far as to say that that line of defense is characteristic of the kind of abusers and abusive relationships that EE is talking about.  

Katie van Schaijik

#8, Mar 21, 2014 11:44am

I was interested to learn from her book, that she has never seen her grandparents since the day she and her husband confronted them with the evidence of their wrong-doing. They refused all responsibility for their bad acts and omissions, and instead reprimanded EE and her husband for being out of line. "You have no authority over me; I have authority over you." 

Her parents, by contrast, did take responsibility—at least some.  They were able to repent to her for the wrong they had done her. As a result, she has a relationship with them, though it's a complicated and uneasy one.

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#9, Mar 21, 2014 12:17pm

Ah. I see where you're coming from.

If you think of it, "we are all dysfunctional in comparison to Christ" is a pretty poor response from any Christian, since we are charged with putting on Christ as our life's work. Yeesh. 

Marie Meaney

#10, Mar 21, 2014 2:25pm

I understand where you are coming from as well now, Katie. But I think there is a difference between using this as a lame excuse to cover up abuse and seeing that every sin is in some respect abusive. There is a strong difference between the systematic violation of another person’s boundaries, as I pointed out (and you too), and that where it just happens occasionally; I also take your point that the one is much more serious than the other. I guess I was intrigued by EE’s story because it rang true with my own experience. I wouldn’t consider myself as having been part of a dysfunctional family in your sense, Katie, or of a cult. Yet there is something which being sinned against does to one’s soul and psyche. I was struck that its message is “you may not be yourself, but should conform to my wishes” be it when one is the object of anger, lust, aesthetization, judgment etc. (I’m not sure this is the case with every sin, but my prima facie impression is that it is fairly general).

Marie Meaney

#11, Mar 21, 2014 2:26pm

So where I’m coming from here is not to blur the line between abusive behavior and simply wrong behavior, but to see the abusive nature of every sin when one is on the receiving end. I’m simply looking at the experience of being sinned against.  

Katie van Schaijik

#12, Mar 21, 2014 2:35pm

Agreed on all points, Marie.

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#13, Mar 21, 2014 2:55pm

In the course of my work, I was required to read excerpts from a rather obnoxious book intended for a vanity press. It was a divorced man's treatise on the "truth about women," intended "for men's eyes only" and it was about as horribly misogynistic as you can imagne. But what struck me most about it was the observation that you make, Marie--that sin against others is so often a case of "you must conform to my wishes." This man's constant refrain consisted of versions of "It's not that hard. Just do as you're told," and "If everyone just did what they are supposed to, we could all be happy." No acknowledgment at all of individual freedom or mutual respect.

On that same note, a friend once sent me an excerpt from the 12 step 'blue book' which basically said that the underlying characteristic of most addicts is the deep seated desire to play the 'director' of life's dramas...and continual angst and resentment that others won't learn their lines. 

Katie van Schaijik

#14, Mar 21, 2014 3:14pm

I've been noodling the idea of a personalist project reading circle on the master/slave hermenuetic in persons and personal relations for this fall. Both of your comments—I mean both Marie's and Kate's—are reinforcing my sense of the need.

"You must conform to my authority" is a species of domination. 

"Boxing" is another.

In my experience, too, addiction is part of this.  So is anorexia.


#15, Apr 22, 2014 5:18pm

I've read this and the comments- its given me real food for thought. I thank you! I find I'm still drawn to relationship with persons who tend to replay these dynamics for me. Its difficult to disentangle myself from the desire to be "managed." This in particular rings very true: "the underlying characteristic of most addicts is the deep seated desire to play the 'director' of life's dramas...and continual angst and resentment that others won't learn their lines." I'd add that both recipient and deliverer of this treatment play a role in sinning against the other.  I would love a specific reference. This post was written long ago, so maybe, not possible to provide. I shall have to do some research. Lots to read from here, and thanks.

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#16, Apr 22, 2014 5:44pm

M.C., the director's chair analogy was from Chapter 5 of the AA Big Book, which can be read online here. :-)


#17, Apr 22, 2014 10:39pm

Thank you very much! i appreciate that, Kate Whittaker

Katie van Schaijik

#18, Apr 23, 2014 2:05am

M.C., I've found the book Co-dependant No More very helpful and illuminating. There were "recovering alcoholics" in my life growing up, so I'd heard the term. But it it's only recently that I've begun to really look into what it is, and try to understand what it means for personal and interpersonal life. Now lights are going on.

Another great book on the same theme (which I read at Kate's recommendation) is Boundaries.

I know I'm going to spend years working out the relation between the nature of a person as a being "made for her own sake and called to make a sincere gift of herself in love" and the problem of dysfunctional relations, wherein the master/slave dynamic disguises itself as Christian community.

The "master" figure in that situation typically (and unwittingly) teaches those around him to regard their attempts to be a self as "selfish" and otherwise morally and religiously defective. He imagines that by imposing his will on others, he is being a leader and an example. The "slave" figure disguises to herself her lack of courage and strength as humility and service. She imagines that she is being loving and giving.

It's perverse.


#19, Apr 23, 2014 1:07pm

It's perverse- such a good word for it- and, is it what Christ was talking about when He warned us about the seriousness of putting stumbling blocks in front of people, or harming little ones? I find that because of being raised in the way you are descrcibing, my ability to trust in God has been permanently wounded. Its like shrapnel- it just won't come out, in fact it has to stay in for one's  own good! (But we have the hope of resurrection!) It would be psychologically easier to be an atheist, and I can't judge anyone who needs to take that root perhaps for their sanity- but hope they will come to know the truth about Him!

When a person is raised raised believing- no, feeling- that God is "the bad guy" (and as a child, anyone who makes you feel bad, yucky  inside is "the bad guy" ) and that somehow, that makes Him "the good guy" to your parents - there is something diabolical going on. Hm. It is hard to put into words. Thank you for the books Katie van Schaijik- I have read Boundaries, and now I shall have good reason to also read Codependent No More.

Katie van Schaijik

#20, Apr 23, 2014 1:13pm

And don't forget Girl at the End of the World!!


#21, Apr 23, 2014 1:23pm

:) I just ordered it!

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