At 27, Elizabeth Bowerman walked away from her family and a religion that taught absolute, unquestioning allegiance to authority figures. Her parents may shun her now, but at least she’s no longer captive, she says.
For Christians, Elizabeth’s story could be disturbing.
“I came from a religiously abusive home,” the now-married hairdresser says, reflecting on her life before fleeing five years ago. “My whole world was this tiny bubble of elitist religiosity. If you kept your head down and did everything the hierarchy said, you were good.”
Elizabeth told her story for the first time at a Christian women’s conference in Knoxville, Tennessee, several months ago. I could barely believe my ears. Her emotional abuse had come at the hands of people professing a belief in Jesus Christ.
“Spiritual, emotional abuse is real,” she says. “Church should be the safe place.”
Life with the Family
Elizabeth, the third of her father’s eight children, grew up in Milwaukee. At first glance, hers was a privileged existence. Piano lessons. Braces. Private school. Vacations in the mountains. A stay-at-home mother.
Her firefighter father provided for his family, raising his children according to the tenets of a fundamentalist, cult-like Christian sect that teaches complete submission to church leaders and heads of households. Association with nonbelievers and even Christians of different denominations was forbidden.
When her father and stepmother, whom he married after her mother’s death, decided to homeschool their children, the walls closed in further.
“My life in this bubble of church and family worked well because I knew nothing different,” she says. “Being the oldest girl in a family of eight kids made me a sister-mom early on. I lost myself doing everything for everyone else. My whole worth was wrapped up in contributing to whatever made this family succeed.”
After the tragic death of one of her two older brothers, Elizabeth’s father pulled stakes and moved the family to Tennessee where they knew no one. Elizabeth was 21 at the time, still living her life according to her parents’ dictates and their interpretations of God’s will for her life.
Her oldest brother, meanwhile, decided to abandon the religion, giving Elizabeth and her siblings a glimpse into what happened when a family member strayed from the flock. He became a non-person. No one spoke to him.No one spoke of him. But at least he was free.
Barred from talking with her brother, life soon became unbearable for Elizabeth. Depressed, anxious, and guilt-ridden, she started cutting herself. It felt good.
“I had no voice. No identity of my own. I had no freedoms or privacy. I did not know how to make decisions because I was always told what to do,” she says. She even quit a job at a Christian school because her parents disapproved. Nothing she did satisfied them. She was captive.
A New Reality
In retrospect, she believes God threw a lifeline when she started a new job and began meeting people—including the man she would eventually marry—outside the sect.
During those nights out, Elizabeth and her new acquaintances talked about religion, faith. She began to understand just how peculiar her life had been—a point driven home one night when she failed to answer her father’s repeated phone calls and texts: “Where are you? You better pick up!”
It wasn’t even midnight.
The curses, name-calling and threats began as soon as she got home.
A Home of Her Own
At 27, when most young people have started careers, families, their lives, Elizabeth mutinied. She found a rental home and started moving her belongings … secretly, still too afraid to defy her father. One night the courage came.
Her father, already angry about her choice in friends, became enraged, all because she wanted a life different from the one her parents lived. That’s when the guilt, fear, and emptiness washed over her. She felt unmoored, panicked by her decision to move out.
“I had nothing but a rental house and a blow-up mattress,” she says, remembering those first days living alone. “Yesterday, I was a second mom. Today, I was a rebel, a hypocrite. I abandoned my siblings, and I was a disgrace to my father’s name. I went from having everything if I was compliant to having nothing.”
God, she says, never left her side.
She sought counseling and bought books to educate herself on family dynamics and personality disorders. She wanted to know why she was wrong, desiring a life beyond her parents’ expectations. And still she wasn’t quite ready to permanently cut the ties.
Final Confrontation: No Longer Captive
One night after receiving an accusatory text message from her father, Elizabeth decided to “show them once again, that no matter what they said, love would win. I would always show up, even if I didn’t please them.”
She doesn’t recall the argument’s specifics, only her reaction. Shaking and crying, she ran to her car and started backing down the driveway at a high speed. She aimed for a large tree. “I knew he would be the one to witness the inferno, and this time, he would not be able to stop it.”
She’d never been suicidal until that moment.
She couldn’t go through with it. Her little sister’s face popped into her mind. She slammed on the brakes. And at that moment, everything changed. “I knew I couldn’t leave this world and do this to them (her siblings). I stopped trying to solve what couldn’t be solved alone, and started my journey to healing and finding peace.”
Two years ago, Elizabeth eloped with her husband. She’s committed herself to doing God’s will. “There’s no perfect. There is only growth, progress. Let God use you. Share your stories. Be the change in the next generation. Have grace, compassion, Christ-like love always.”
Her life will not be wasted. God has a plan for her life.
Elizabeth is no longer captive.
Are you? What keeps you bound to unhealthy relationships?