Being More Inclusive of Former Fundies: On Families

Consider the fraught relationship that many apostates of more-involved religions have with our families of origin. If the relationship still exists, it often is predicated on mutually-agreed-upon deception.

Though it may be expressed as a personal opinion, it is possible for “the way I see it” to end up sounding prescriptive or superior. This is especially true when that opinion reflects a more mainstream understanding and/or experience than the alternative. Specifically, in this case, assertions about why hiding anything from one’s parents or other relatives is always wrong can come off as exclusionary for those of us for whom the situation is more complicated.

For many of us who have left more-involved religions and/or are from conservatives cultures, disownment (or at least threats of it) was part of the experience of leaving the faith. Those who have been wholly cut off from their families are free to live mostly as they please but often have to deal with the intense emotional pain that comes from having one’s family of origin condemn and exile them. For those of us whose disownments either never quite happened despite threats or didn’t last indefinitely, the existence of the relationship means that our lives are a bit more complicated.

We have a lot more secrets is what I’m saying, and, as a result, face more intra-community criticism.

There is nothing wrong with That Thing You Hide From Them.

The argument here is that if what you are doing is not legally, morally, and/or ethically wrong, then there is no reason to hide it from your family unless you have some sense of internalized guilt or shame. The claim rests on a false premise: That the only reason to not openly show something to your family is that it is either capital-w Wrong or you must secretly still feel bad or ashamed of it.

Neither is true for me. I think that I’m living ethically overall, but I don’t see the need to start a fight or terse conversation with family members over the things in my life that can be readily hidden. I’m out about a lot of things that upset and disturb my relatives, but not everything about my life is a hill I’m willing to die on.

You aren’t really hiding that well. I don’t see the point.

I can’t blame any of you who may be wondering how the heck any of the aforementioned sneakiness is relevant to me of all people. I am out and loud and proud about pretty much all of my life at this point. My Google search results have been called “unemployable” and I cannot honestly say that the assessment is much of a stretch.

There is a difference, however, between “I have a blog and other Internet presences where I say all the things about all of my life under my real name” and “I openly talk about all of these things around my family.” As annoying as it can be to self-censor, my more, ahem, heinous (at least to filial eyes) dealings are not something that that I openly discuss with relatives.

Religion and other big controversies aside, there is a great deal of precedent for mutually-agreed-upon deception in many first-generation American families on issues ranging from pre-marital dating to level of religiosity to amount of skin exposed. Within that setup, as long as something isn’t disclosed in an open way, it doesn’t have to be addressed. Most of the time, almost everyone knows nearly all of everyone else’s secrets, but the lack of discussion of them renders their existence much more palatable to the immigrant generation. It is a system I do not agree with and requires the kind of game that I am bad at playing, but I do my best to keep the peace.

You aren’t living an authentic life if you hide things.  Be proud.

Does “living authentically” and “being proud” mean I am obligated to leave the booze out when my parents come to visit instead of placing it in a more discreet location? Tell my aunt who asks about what I’m doing that night that I’m going to a kinky party on Saturday instead of just saying “a party”? Wear halter tops and mini-skirts to family gatherings instead of tunics and jeans?

Switch out “parents” and “family” with “employer” and most people get the picture. You’re no less of an authentic person with pride in who you are if you don’t act the same around coworkers as you would around friends. Most people do so. This isn’t very different.

They’re wrong for thinking that thing is wrong.

It’s also wrong that women get clothing-policed but that doesn’t mean that any woman who doesn’t go to work wearing what she would like to wear rather than what is acceptable at work is making the wrong choice. We all do what we have to and make compromises in order to live our lives as well as we can. Everyone draws the line somewhere.

Many people in my family lower their eye when they see a sexualized billboard, change the television channel when nudity and/or sexuality is depicted (even a kiss), and don’t go to beaches or pools when they are crowded with people in bathing suits. As for alcohol, they behave similarly, forgoing social situations that involve drinking and muting the ubiquitous beer ads during televised sports games. The list goes on. It may be silly to me and I may disagree, but their actions reflect a very dear and important belief. I’m willing to concede a little for their comfort as long as it doesn’t harm me, which it doesn’t.

Why do you care about their feelings?

I have been “disowned” a few times over the years myself but none of the “disownments” lasted longer than a week. Those brief periods were some of the most difficult of my life. The idea of not seeing my siblings until they were fully-grown adults and then only if they sought me out, as well as being cut off from my extended family network (my cousins’ kids, my aunts and uncles, my elderly grandmothers, etc.), filled me with a pain even my garrulous self could not articulate. I do not cry easily or frequently, but I sobbed myself to dehydration, exhaustion, and eventually severe physical illness during those periods of disownment.

Sure, I would have survived being disowned had it lasted. I’m fairly tough. However, it wouldn’t have been an ideal or happy situation for me. Disownment is no longer much of a threat for me, but when family members say things that cast me as a villain over petty things, the sting is there. I’m happy to, say, not order a pepperoni pizza and a beer when out for lunch with my family if it means avoiding tantrums over it. I can get pork products and booze during the 90% of the time I’m not around family. It’s no huge sacrifice.

Why do you need them, anyway? Why not have a chosen family instead?

I have a wonderful network of people I’ve chosen to have in my life and who choose me. They are the people I rely on for emotional support and advice and understanding. That doesn’t erase my family.

I honestly find it bizarre that I have to defend my love for my family and their emotional impact on me to people. As much as we disagree, I love them and they love me. I’m immensely gratified and touched by how much they’ve grown as people since I came out to them as an apostate back in 2006. I don’t feel like throwing all that progress on important issues away for the sake of what I consider to be less important matters.

Not all people are open about everything with their parents and families, and discretion may be the best choice for some situations. In order for the secular community to be more welcoming towards people who may have complicated relationship histories with their families, we need to be more understanding towards people whose family ties might not match what we expect based on a mainstream American understanding of family and filial love.

Being More Inclusive of Former Fundies: On Families

6 thoughts on “Being More Inclusive of Former Fundies: On Families

  1. 1

    I don’t see that making these sorts of decisions, to limit the conversation or to forgo certain things, is at all unusual. People who are under the same large religious umbrella may abstain from talking about religion around their families because of different specific beliefs. Baptists and Church of Christ members think they need to convert each other, so if they’re in the same family they simply “agree to disagree” and quit talking about it at some point. Politics is off-limits at many family gatherings, as well. It’s called putting aside the differences, and it’s done in order to be able to share important things, to be able to retain our relationships that are valuable to us.

    I love that you said your family have learned things, have grown as people. Absolutely! You can’t influence people if you alienate yourself from them. Ironically enough, a Bible verse came to mind: “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient.” No, it isn’t inspired by a god, but it makes sense.

  2. 2

    the intense emotional pain that comes from having oneā€™s biological relations condemn and exile them

    Small quibble. I’ve always hated the idea of bio fam as being automatically and specially important, which is expressed in many ways (this quote one of them). If an apostate has only known their adoptive family who is rejecting them, I’d think it no less painful. And in my case as someone whose parents failed to create a bond with, I don’t like being told I should care about them any more than the basic decency I accord to random peeps.

    Which I know you weren’t doing. It’s just one of those things that hits me sideways, and it’s always seemed to me that deconsecrating the concept of bio family would be very helpful to many apostates & queer folks & others. If they didn’t like you, it is totally legit to say fuck’em with every fiber and move on – without a special guilt from genetic proximity. I always feel the need to add this to these kind of discussions.

    Though I know many people can’t be quite as cold as I can on the issue & don’t think they should have to be, I think doing so should be held up as a positive option. It is not going to cause “intense emotional pain” for everyone, even some people who fear that might be the case for them. Again, not to cast aspersions on people for whom it does, just want to say it isn’t always so and doesn’t have to be.

    I honestly find it bizarre that I have to defend my love for my family and their emotional impact on me to people.

    So much unearned importance is heaped on bio family in our culture that I’m almost surprised you have been put in a position to defend that aspect of the status quo. Almost but not quite surprised, because there are communities where being a black sheep is the norm & anti-family sentiment would tend to prevail. I’m guessing you didn’t have those discussions with muslims or cis/het people.

    And you won’t have that discussion with me, because I’m not the kind of person to tell a person they’re wrong about their feelings and experiences. I just can’t let that opening statement slip by without making sure the alternatives to that status quo are known.

    I feel my communication skills have been utter garbage on this, so apologies for redundancy and clunkiness.

    1. 2.1

      Oops, I meant “biological” as opposed to “chosen”. I’ve changed that to “family of origin.” Let me know if you can think of a better term.

      And yes, the “fuck ’em!” option is certainly there. I think that option is a bit overrepresented in the communities I’m talking about (queer, LGBT, atheist, apostate, etc.) to the point where people can’t comprehend why anyone might compromise to maintain filial ties.

      1. Good substitution. šŸ™‚ I could guess that might be overrepresented in etc., but I wouldn’t know from experience. I hear that argument very rarely, but then I’m rarely in activist places and spaces. I do see a lot of “ally” media (books, TV movies, etc) is heavily slanted toward preserving biological families, especially parent feels. Blech.

  3. 3

    My experiences are significantly different but the outcomes seem to have enough similarities I think I understand your points fairly well. In short, I think there’s a big difference between the sort of passive shuffle you’re doing to keep relations with your family amenable and a much more active alteration that has you pretending to be something you’re not. And which of those two categories any given action falls into is different for everyone as well. For me, going to church would be a huge ordeal of actively pretending to be something I’m not. For another person it might just be hanging around in a building and playing along with the sitting, standing, chanting, etc.

    For what it’s worth my family is Catholic. I had one religious parent and one emotionally abusive parent. Both were pretty authoritarian so I was left to deal with the abusive one on my own. They acted like nothing was wrong so when I reacted to the problems after moving out by shying away from situations where I’d be stuck dealing with them directly, they reacted like I was some hurtful, ungrateful person who’d just run off for no reason. Their narrative was so pervasive it took me a long time to see the holes in it and I’m sure the rest of the family has not. So I don’t really have the option of keeping my larger family. I lost the aunts and uncles a long time ago to half truths and misplaced blame. My religious parent has passed away and the other one… I don’t really have an axe to grind but I’m not going to sacrifice anything to keep a relationship going either. On that score I feel all debts are paid and then some.

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