I remember an elderly woman whose mother grew up on a sheep farm in Texas, unpopular in those days, because sheep grazed the grass so short there was nothing left for the cattle. One of my her favorite expressions was: “I could beat you within an inch of your life,” an expression that her son kept alive while he was raising his children. He became a preacher in the hard line Churches of Christ, and would insist from the pulpit that when a child enters the terrible twos temper tantrum stage the parent has the moral obligation to beat it out of the child, because the Bible says, “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child, and the rod will drive it far from it”. One of his favorite stories he would tell in his sermons was how one of his children at age two, after a spanking, flew at his father in a rage with both fists flying. So the father spanked the child again. The child flew at his father again, so the preacher spanked his child again. Over and over until the child gave up.
That child grew up, and is now loyal to his parents and the church. He won’t allow any of his siblings to rebel against, or level accusations at, his mother and father. He has questioned the basic CENI doctrine of the hard line Churches of Christ, in such a way that the whole raison d’être for their existence comes into question. Yet he attends a tiny hard line congregation, and rebukes anyone in the family who departs from the sect. His family complains that he is stingy with compliments, grumpy and sickly, the caricature of the older brother in the Prodigal Son story. One of my siblings maintains that every person in the hard line churches we grew up in had similar diagnosable personality disorders, caused by the trauma from their childhoods and from the churches they attended.
Trauma is essential to instill loyalty. Physical, verbal and emotional abuse helps to instill loyalty in any group: a school, a family, a military group, the police academy or a hard line church. The most loyal organizations: the mafia, the marines, a police force, urban street gangs, college fraternities, fundamentalist churches, all have initiation and hazing rituals that traumatize their participants. These organizations tend to attract people who find their hazing rituals normal. They find the hazing and initiation fascinating and exciting, with promises of belonging, intimacy and importance, never to be fulfilled. Not all traumatized or abused individuals will remain loyal, but all of the loyal have been traumatized.
The trauma does not have to be physical. It can be grabbing someone and shaking them, or screaming in their face. It can be a threat of emotional abandonment, even the threat of divorce in the family. One of the most powerful forms of abuse is rejecting a child’s offer of love. Any trauma will do, as long as the child’s foundation is shaken often enough.
The Moral Defense, according to Donald Fairbairn goes like this: “Whatever my parents did to me was good and right, because they are near perfect. Whatever beatings I received I deserved. Because I can only survive if the people I identify with are ideal.” In Stockholm syndrome trauma makes the person vulnerable, then the vulnerable person latches onto the strongest and most powerful relationship available: a relationship with the traumatizer. But they cannot question the traumatizer, because of fear of retribution, and more than that, because the traumatized person has idealized their caretaker/abuser into a near perfect image.
The trauma is often amusing to those in the group. Harsh spanking brings amused smiles to those who witness it, or reminisce about it. Recruits tell amusing stories about the abuse they suffered in boot camp. Fraternities and sororities laugh as they tell about the hazing rituals they endured and inflicted.
A young man told me that his father threw him across the room against a wall, because “I must have done something really bad to make him that angry.” When I told him about a four-year-old little girl in the news who had been thrown against a wall repeatedly by her parents, he said, “What did she do?” Then he stopped and realized what he was saying was ridiculous. Unless I have reached the age when I am ready to let go of my idealized parents or organization, if I blame the powerful parent (or powerful organization) for the abuse, then I can no longer idealize them. If I can no longer idealize them, then I am alone, bereft, adrift in a dark sea with no hope of salvation. So instead I blame myself. (The person who has successfully reached the teenage period of declaring independence is far less likely to succumb to the Moral Defense. A mature teen is more likely to blame the abuser.)
Trauma makes me feel deeply ashamed of myself: I deserved this trauma. But trauma also makes me feel important: someone powerful took the trouble to abuse me personally. If I walk away from the traumatizer I am nothing; there is nobody left, whom I have identified with, who thinks I am important.
It makes no sense until you experience it. Then it makes total sense. For instance, the stereotypical battered wife who repeatedly returns to her abuser. Why? She knows she is important to him. She hates the abuse, but is fascinated by someone who has intense interactions with her, like the bullied child who cuts him or herself, or contemplates suicide.
The religious sect is the same: intense interactions that fascinate the members; threats of hell, promises of heaven, threats of withdrawal; who can resist the wonderful intensity of this relationship? Is it any wonder that those who leave (or are kicked out of) the hard line sect wander from church to church looking for an intensity not offered by more moderate congregations?