Silent No Longer: Lani Harper’s Story
How to sum up the first twenty years of my life in a few paragraphs? The stories are too numerous and shocking for me to process, let alone speak of. The memories tumble over one another, leaving me gasping for air as I look with new eyes at my childhood. A childhood I thought was near-idyllic for many years. Even after I started to see my parents as too harsh on us as kids, it took nearly a decade and a half for me to put the label on it. The stories are many, but they all begin with a single point. I cannot tell the rest until I tell the beginning, the root from which all other things sprung. I am a 36 year old woman, a wife of more than ten years, mother to three, yet I still feel like a 6 year old girl being tersely instructed to not tell, or else.
They taunted me with mysterious unnamed events that they assured me I didn’t want but would befall me if I spoke, told me they were only able to spare me these horrible things if I kept the Code of Silence. They told us that this was how Christians disciplined their children. Other people outside of our faith wouldn’t understand why we did things this way. They were ignorant, through no fault of their own, and we had to spare them this particularly harsh reality of Christian families.
Logically, I know that he will not beat me or physically harm me now, but emotionally, psychologically, I still hold a terror that he will. Yet I am compelled to speak and encouraged by those who have gone before to tell their stories. Sad, that this is how we bond, that we have been reduced to clinging desperately to one another in our shared woundedness.
My name is Lani Harper, and I was abused.
I am the middle child of five, the third girl, and my father always introduced us like this: This is Number One Daughter (hand on Libbie’s head), Number Two Daughter (hand on Andie’s head), Number Three Daughter (I always tried to duck his hand; I hated the heaviness on my head), Number One Son (a pause while he puffed himself up with pride at introducing our brother Dale), and Number Five (hand on Evie’s head). Number One was better than Two, Two better than Three, but we all paled in comparison to Number One Son. He was never “Number Four”.
I grew up in a house where my father JD exercised complete and absolute authority over all. His word was, we joked then (but with an underlying seriousness) law. And he brooked no challenges, no contrariness, no insubordination. To do so was to incur the wrath, to bring down his heavy hand of judgment in the form of severe disciplines. I suppose he may have always had this sort of near-obsession with power and control, and joining the military because he was flunking out of college only reinforced these authoritarian tendencies and cemented them by practice, giving him tools and methods to use on us, his insubordinates. He often commented on how running a house was similar to running a ship. And, he would say, I want to run a tight ship. We were commanded to fall in line and to call him Sir.
Children in this culture are viewed as the property of the parents, and especially of the father. When termed that way, instead of viewing a child as a gift, a blessing, an individual entrusted to two people to nurture into an independent, educated, intelligent, functioning member of their community and citizen of their country, one begins to see how little children are valued.
Children are not people. They are not worthy. They are born sinners, with the innate and persistent duty to sin against their parents. It is an us-versus-them mentality: the children are against us, are going to undermine us, are going to undo us at an elemental level. Consequently, the parents’ focus becomes the need to stand firm against their children’s “wiles”, and to guard themselves against being drawn astray by their children. To be strong and stronger than their children. To resist their children anytime the parents feel pulled against their will, their desires, their instincts. And then to deny their children as they ask for things, in an attempt to show the children, as my father would say, who’s boss.
With this perspective, every small blunder became magnified under the perception that we were elementally sinful, deliberately devious, manipulative, intentionally-subversive. And it was punished as such. It was a society obsessed with control, evidenced by the behavior of the man’s children. We were brutally instructed on how to act, how to speak, how to comport ourselves in the home such that when outside the home, we would not embarrass them with our childishness. We were drilled a horrid play-acting at home with severe punishment even for transgressing in practice – until we relinquished our will and just did things the way he wanted them.
So we sought to learn the mercurial rules, learn to be good, learn to do anything and everything we could to not bring about the abuse.
We were happy because children are happy until given a reason to be otherwise. Happiness, I believe, persists as a desperate pursuit in order to feel normal, and to try to balance out or paint over some of the darkness in the home with something beautiful. It is a pursuit critical to their sanity, offering an escape from the horrors they have to face.
It took years after having kids of my own before I gathered courage to myself to describe to my husband how my parents spanked my siblings and me. After hesitantly giving the details, with a guarded watchfulness in my eye to see if he’d scoff or brush it off as inconsequential, he surprised me. That’s not a spanking, he said, that’s a beat-down.
I had to change my definition: I now refer to them as “beatings” and not “spankings”. Definitions make all the difference.
The beatings began, like for most children raised in this early pre-solidified fundamentalist culture, in infancy. The weapon of choice grew with us, beginning with a wooden spoon or ruler. Then it was a ping-pong paddle, then a yard stick, and finally JD’s very thick leather belt folded in half, and beatings were given for any number of perceived-failings large and small.
During dinner one night, I stood to reach into the center of the table to give myself a second helping. I remember being excited, though whether at serving myself or being granted a rare second helping, I am not sure. I was about eight and small in stature, and I had a half-full glass of milk. In my childish exuberance, I reached over my glass and knocked it over. And froze. Maybe it didn’t happen. Maybe they would let it go. The milk seeped into the crack between the leaf and the rest of the table, wetting the place mats and the table runner underneath the dishes.
Let’s go, JD said with a sigh of exasperation and thew his napkin on the table, looks like you need a lesson with the belt. And so, in the middle of the meal, I was escorted to The Bedroom. I knew what doom awaited me. All for spilling some milk. I knew that, if I were allowed to finish my meal, that I would be allowed no further drink because spilling my glass might have been purposeful.
He closed the door behind us, and told me to pull my pants down and bend over as he dramatically pulled his belt out of the belt loops of his pants. Disobedience was not an option and would most certainly grant me a far worse session with the belt, so I pulled my pants down. Sometimes my mother would let us leave our underwear on, but JD never did. Once I tried to wear double underwear, anything to help dull the blows a bit, but got found out and the reprisal was so severe that I never did it again. But for JD, all our beatings were naked from the waist down, and if we were wearing a dress, then we were totally naked.
I stood half bent over, holding the edge of the bed, while his mountainous bulk shadowed me from the ceiling light. And braced myself for what was to come. No amount of bracing kept me from stumbling to keep my stance, to keep from falling over. I was a small child and he used all his substantial force to emphasize every strike. Though my legs trembled violently and could barely hold me up, I knew that falling over meant starting over.
With each strike, I was to count out loud. I tried to order my wobbly tongue and quavering jaw to speak clearly enough that I wouldn’t have to begin again, but inevitably I cried and he could not understand me. This meant restarting multiple times, and his frustration when I lost track of where I was. The numbers I pictured in my mind wouldn’t stay still. In the middle somewhere, overcome with humiliation, anger, frustration and other emotions I could not name, I urinated. And prayed that my underwear and culottes tangled around my ankles would absorb the warm liquid, prayed that my socks would catch any straggling drips, prayed that it would not wet the carpet beneath my feet.
I gripped the end of their comforter so hard that I made fists in spite of the fabric in my palms. Gripped harder and harder so as to resist the powerful instinct to raise my hand to shield my bare behind. But I had done that before too, and not only did my arm get the brunt of a lash or two, but I had to begin all over again, ensuring the beating lasted longer.
Hot saltiness tumbled down my cheeks until I was almost gagging on my tears, combined with the warmth of urine down my leg, and the all-encompasingness of my humiliation threatened to drown me. Indeed, I prayed for death in those moments.
I seem to remember 18 being the magic number, though the number changed every time. This, I guess, so that we would always be wondering, and he would always be in control. I was never sure when exactly he would decide I’d had enough.
When he was finished, he made me recite a verse or two while pulling my clothes back on with trembling fingers. There was a lecture about how how this was his God-given duty to show love to me and help me become less sinful, that I deserved more, worse and should be thankful, that this was hard and he didn’t like it but it was necessary and in my best interests. Then he would duct tape my mouth shut, a concrete reminder that I was never to say anything to anyone. My mouth was now shut, and I knew I was to keep the tape on all night, during my sleep. Now go clean yourself up, hurled at me with disgust in his voice.
I did not get to finish my half-eaten meal, but was sent still-hungry to clean up the table and kitchen. I did not regret not being made to sit down, but moving was difficult. My sister Andie was to help me, both to ensure that the job was completed properly and also so that I didn’t sneak scraps off plates to try to ease my hunger. Anyway, the tape over my mouth prevented further eating. Her eyes burned compassion into me whenever I dared look at her.
My mother actually told me after one beating that I would not remember these episodes and that if I did, it meant I was bitter. I remember thinking that I was okay with that because I did not want to forget what she had done to me and how much I hated her in that moment. I always walked out of The Bedroom with newly-kindled anger and hatred at my parents.
The bruises stayed for weeks, but often there would be another beating before the bruises from the previous incident had completely healed such that my skin was a mottled mess of yellow and green old wounds mixed with the bright red-purple of the new welts. The frumpy, blousy style of the early 80s, combined with the mandated-loose clothing of the fundamental churches actually worked to my benefit: I could hide my wounds, though even the softest cloths chafed my swollen, cracked and oozing skin.
And always, on the way out, he would say, remember, what happens in The Bedroom stays in The Bedroom, and what happens in This House stays in This House. And he would send me away with the knowledge that he was watching and all-knowing, that he would know if I told even my siblings, which would result in another lesson. We were never allowed to comfort each other, though there were a few hasty, whispered words to the newly-beaten one in the dark of our room. We did not dare hug.
I cried myself to sleep, fiercely dashing the tears from my cheeks, attempting to wipe them away before they sogged the adhesive and loosened it from my skin. I had to be able to show him my still-taped mouth first thing in the morning. After a while, we stole tape so that we could remove the tape while we slept, then replace it in the morning.
The Pearls published their book about the time I graduated from high school, but my parents had been using their methods, espoused by Jack Hyles and Lester Roloff at the time, from our infancy in the late 1970s. Contrary to what the Pearls, Gary Ezzo, Jack Hyles and others who espouse this way of rearing children believe, this expectation of a surface appearance or semblance of obedience actually works against the parents who use it: in our family, it created bitter children adept at hiding their bitterness. It created strife and hardened our hearts (that they thought they were softening) against our parents: we hated them. It created a subversive culture of deeply angry children with secretive, ignored and repressed anger, who lashed out at each other because we could not lash out at our parents. It created a culture of blind obedience instead of teaching us how to make good and informed decisions. It ignored the fact that we would grow up and move out, and kept us in this perpetual childhood for longer than is natural. As a result, I spent much of my twenties figuring out things and growing personally in ways I should have been able to during my teen years. Finding independence and autonomy, discovering my authority and my rights that were denied me.
It wasn’t until I had children that I realized spanking isn’t hard, it is easy. It is easy to hit, and once you have begun a habit of hitting, the next hitting episode comes easier and easier until it’s rote, instinctual, without thought, automatic. Hitting is also a gateway to anger: the more I hit my kids, the angrier I became and the easier it was to become angry. I recognized this very early, while my kids were still very little, but though they were nothing as severe as my own beatings as a child (three swats with a spoon while clothed), I regret every episode of spanking them.
I do not remember my last beating, though they continued in much the same fashion until I was sixteen. I still remember the humiliation and ferocious anger at being violated on the outside by the beating and on the inside by the changes they sought to force into us, by the association to God and spirituality. It affects me decades later and has thus shaped my views on everything from parenting to God to spirituality, to self-worth and more.
I got out without really knowing what I was running from or why…and was shunned, but that’s a story for another time. Decompressing and deprogramming continue into the present, but I hope that telling my stories will begin to dispel the power my parents and their secrets still hold over me.
My name is Lani Harper, and I am a survivor.