Book and Movie Reviews / The 'I FIRED GOD' discussions

I Fired God by Jocelyn Zichterman

If Jocelyn Zichterman didn’t exist, we’d have to create her. I Fired God is a memoir about growing up as an independent fundamental Baptist (IFB).  She is abused and molested by father and brothers, gets married without love because it’s ‘God’s will’ and, after leaving the church, continues to suffer the effects that fundamental abuse can still have on adults: coming to terms with a marriage that was not the product of love, having eight kids, homeschooling, and still accepting patriarchy rule in the home.

Zichterman’s parents were actually nominal Catholics.  They got hooked on the IFB movement in the late 70s/early 80s, and pretty much submerged themselves into every fad that hit the IFB.  One of the many things I found interesting was seeing how 70s era fundy fads like Bill Gothard seminars, Tim LaHaye’s The Act of Marriage, the KJV controversy and the Tough Love movement morphed into established dogma during the 80s.

I stopped attending fundamentalist churches in 1983.  Jocelyn was born in 1975, so from her point of view (being 10-ish around 1985), Bill Gothard is not just a fad. His seminars are a way of life embraced by Bob Jones University.  Gothard does not believe in birth control. Gothard also teaches that a father needs to approve his daughter’s fiance before they marry.

The Purity movement, where daughters pledge to remain pure for daddy, who then gives his daughter a ‘promise ring’ had not yet evolved into the weird piece of Americana it has become today. Jocelyn is sure her father would have dragged her to one of those things if they had been around.

Spanking the children in a methodical manner, pioneered by Lester Roloff but never codified until Michael Pearl’s To Train Up A Child, has become almost ritualistic.  At one point, Jocelyn is forced by her father into a mock spanking session so he can show the men of the church how to discipline their daughters. Michael Pearl, by this time, has now become the IFB Dr. Spock. The evil Mister Rogers.  Parents across America, not content with simply spanking, will now make their child strip to his/her underwear, stretch out on the floor, and strike at least 40 times on the legs with a rod, spoon, or glow stick.

Lester Roloff once bragged his punishments left no lasting marks.  Spanking gurus of the 21st Century now tell parents not to worry about leaving bruises or marks.

Bart Janz (father) obviously subscribes to the latter.  He brutalizes Jocelyn and her brothers and sisters.  If the punishment left marks, a fundamentalist doctor, who could be trusted not to call the police, would be on hand to treat the wounds.  Jocelyn and her siblings are made to ‘role play’, with their mom posing as an investigator from social services, so the kids won’t talk about their abuse. On some nights, Bart sneaks into Jocelyn’s room and gropes her.  Molests her. And does practically everything except taking away her ‘virginity’, which is the measure of her worth.  After her first sexual experience with someone her own age, Bart flies into a rage and tries to get Jocelyn to say it was rape.

Jocelyn is forced to apologize in church.  Her father writes her apology and demands to read the letter in front of the congregation.  In a subtle show of rebellion, Jocelyn removes her hand from his, grabs the letter, takes it to the pulpit, and reads the apology herself.

She meets Joseph, her future husband, at The Wilds of the Rockies (affiliated with Bob Jones University) and they marry. Not out of love but because it’s ‘God’s will’! Well, who can blame her for wanting to leave her father? According the Bill Gothard teachings, the father has the right to spank her until the day she becomes another man’s responsibility.

act of marriageThe Act of Marriage by Tim Lahaye (the Christian response to The Joy of Sex) practically became a second scripture for married couples! Her honeymoon is spent as Joseph looks to Tim Lahaye for pointers on his wedding night.  When that fails, he goes to the Song of Solomon! It is also during her early days of marriage when she begins having recurring nightmares about her abuse.  You can move out of the house, but the ghosts still come with you.

How she dealt with those ghosts is an intense story of fear, stress and shock.  All the males are in the ministry and use their influence to keep their authority over Jocelyn.  When Joseph starts to see things her way, he is chided for being weak and letting a woman take control of the home.  They have a brief ‘time out’ in Hawaii where, surrounded by paradise, she learns some of her children were molested by Bart.

Justice will be denied her, but you can read about that.  She takes to the internet, joins a Facebook group and learns of girl in New Hampshire who, like her, was made to apologize for her victimization. Tina Anderson, according to Jocelyn, contacts her (not the other way around as I previously understood it). Jocelyn advocates for Tina.  Tina Anderson testifies against her rapist who is ultimately found guilty and sentenced to prison.

The book is notable not only for its subject matter, but also for what it doesn’t talk about.  Jocelyn talks about Neva Anasovich, who started a Facebook group called Independent Fundamental Baptist Survivors.  Neva wants to stay out of the center of things and so she gives the page to Jocelyn.  Jocelyn puts the word ‘cult’ into the title of the group. She also decides, for reasons she doesn’t elaborate on, to whittle the group down from eighty survivors to thirty five.  Those who complained, she says, were fundamentalists upset at the word ‘cult’ and that’s why they had to go.

Those of us who were around at the time know that was not the case.  Advocate politics are at work.

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One thing lacking in the book is any discussion of Lester Roloff or the fundamentalist group home experience (beyond a casual use of the phrase ‘group home’).  Jocelyn solicited stories from group home survivors claiming she would get them to the appropriate reporters. This never happened. At the time, I was involved with the Survivors of Institutional Abuse and trying to get publicity for the group’s upcoming convention.  Jocelyn never engaged me in any substantial conversation. After I learned Susan James Donaldson was her contact at ABC, I contacted Donaldson and was surprised to learn she had not received any testimony regarding group homes from Jocelyn.  Realizing Jocelyn was blocking stories, I got the word out on Facebook.  Survivors were now able to personally contact Donaldson without any ‘middle man’.  The result was this article: Biblical Reform School Discipline: Tough Love or Abuse?

Jocelyn went nuts insinuating that I was giving Donaldson the runaround and not answering her phone calls. Donaldson sent me a private email acknowledging that I did nothing of the kind.  It was obvious Jocelyn played loose with the facts to make me appear like a fundamental mole.  Why Donaldson continued to use her as a reliable source is a mystery to me.

Zichterman portrays the proliferation of the anti-IFB Facebook groups as a natural response of her story being broadcasted.  Not necessarily true, but why she doesn’t talk about her role in the starting of myriad Facebook groups is a mystery.

One of her best accomplishments during that era was getting fundamentalist survivors to start different Facebook groups. A complaint removed her Facebook page, so when she got it back up she encouraged survivors to start their own anti-IFB groups.  The premise being, ‘they might shut one down, but they can’t shut us all down!’.  I have shared this bit of advice with survivors from Pastor G’s The Roc.  I’ve since seen two Roc Facebook groups, but starting more anti-Roc groups is actually a good tactical move.

I Fired God is factually correct.  Those intimately involved with Facebook advocacy will recognize quite a few factual omissions.  No mention of the Do Right groups.  It centers on Bob Jones University, but no mention of Christopher Peterman, BJUnity, the GRACE investigation or the other people who have been making headlines. That doesn’t mean the facts contained in the book aren’t accurate. It’s just told from her point of view.  Her spin on the facts makes the book read like a defense attorney carefully choosing her words while arguing a case in front of a jury.

If you are doing a report on the history of fundamentalism, and using this book as a source, you’d probably skate by with a B-.  Although Jack Hyles and Jack Schaap are mentioned, she portrays Bob Jones University like the Vatican of fundamentalism.  No mention is made of the Sword of the Lord, John R. Rice, J. Frank Norris and, as previously mentioned, not even Lester Roloff!  How can you adequately address fundamental crimes and not mention Roloff?

Why then would I recommend this book?  If you read it as an oral history written by someone who experienced a traumatic event and is coming out of it, the book is a masterpiece.  It has everything someone raised as an IFB would experience: highly sexual double entendres in a culture where women can’t wear pants, a pick and choose morality where material wealth is equated with spiritual purity, violence against children and animals being glorified, the mission field (or teaching in a Christian school) being the only acceptable line of work for a woman who is single, getting married to get out of an abusive home, and the residual effects of fundamentalism that can still linger and keep a victim from becoming a survivor.

This is also the first IFB memoir that has broken the ranks with a major publisher.  Previously, all works have been print on demand.  Her editor obviously toned down her style.  Jocelyn talks about a mentor who advised her to talk in capitol letters.  Fortunately, her book is selective about capital letters unlike her Facebook posts which seemed, well, kinda crazy. Editors are good!

I Fired God is currently the only book about the IFB experience that you might actually see at Target or a Barnes and Noble! If you are a victim of fundamentalist abuse and want to convey to someone what that experience was like, this book is an excellent tool.  It is true Jocelyn created disunity amongst survivors and some will refuse to buy this book.  The fact is also true that after Jocelyn vacated the virtual premises that survivors themselves continued to shatter their own alliances.  We didn’t need Jocelyn’s help to do that! In short, all of us have been Jocelyn Zichterman at one time or another.

Survivors don’t have the same unity we had two years ago. While we have been fighting amongst ourselves, Jocelyn was putting her package together and has now reached the mainstream.  Other survivors are still fighting in our private ghettos and wondering why people aren’t listening to us. The IFB is not responsible for that and neither is Jocelyn.  It’s not that we all have to agree, but we’re still suffering the effects of a fundamental upbringing.  We just don’t know, and steadfastly refuse to learn, how to handle those with different opinions.

I Fired God deserves to be put on the same shelf as Julia Scheere’s Jesus Land, Barbara Harrison’s Visions of Glory, and even former Bob Jones Academy student Rich Merrit’s Secrets of a Gay Marine Porn Star. If it upsets survivors that I am giving this book a glowing review, keep in mind that Jocelyn might not too happy with my own opinions.  I was also kicked out of Jocelyn’s group. She would not be the last FB advocate who unfriended me. Getting kicked out of Facebook groups for having a slightly different opinion is becoming a badge of honor.

Jocelyn may, or may not be pleased, that I plan on dwelling on her book for a few more weeks.  I will be doing my own commentary based on various topics inspired by I Fired God. Jocelyn might agree with me on some parts or she might not! Pandora has opened her box and all the fundamental ‘demons’ have been released. I want to make sure those ‘demons’ get to their proper destination and that neither Jocelyn, nor anyone related to the IFB, tries to put them back in the box.

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