Bill Gothard, 'The Fits,' and Me
Image: Oscilloscope
'The Fits'

This week, Bryan Smith wrote in Chicago magazine about the scandals surrounding Bill Gothard and his Institute in Basic Life Principles. (We have covered these same scandals, as have other outlets, including The Washington Post.) Gothard grounded his popular ministry in a stripe of fundamentalist Christianity and on a set of “principles for successful living” he said he'd drawn from the Bible, ranging from how to relate to your family to what to wear, eat, and listen to. It was all particularly attractive to families in the 1960s and 70s looking for a faith-filled, foolproof way to shield their children from the hippie counterculture—and from there into the nihilistic, hedonistic 1980s and 90s.

Gothard's ministry grew into an enormously successful organization that included a homeschool program called the Advanced Training Institute of America (ATIA). It counts among its allies the now scandal-ridden Duggars, Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, and others. But the ministry has shrunk over the past decade, and the legal action brought against Gothard allege emotional and sexual abuse of underage women.

To most young people familiar with Gothard's orbit, the allegations were a bit shocking but not really surprising. Some of the shock came from discovering what you'd half-suspected all along was actually true. The worshipful attitude encouraged toward Gothard, coupled with the ministry's teaching about unquestioning submission to authority figures (not to mention the open secret of Gothard's preference for hiring pretty young women onto his staff), now seems to obviously spell trouble. From time's distance, it sounds a lot like a cult.

But in the moment, there was something incredibly alluring about that world. And so for some, the shock also stems from the shame of having been a willing part of it.

The author at age 15

The author at age 15

Many loving families—including their teenagers and, in some cases, their adult children—bought in wholeheartedly with the very best of intentions, immersing themselves in the subculture and shaping their educations, lives, and futures around its precepts. We wore navy and white and listened to harp music. My own family never actually joined ATIA, but we, like many people we knew, went to Gothard's Basic and Advanced Seminars, taking notes in the binders provided and learning Biblical principles to lead godly, peaceful, wholesome lives.

When I was sixteen and a serious musician in training, I attended a music camp called Sound Foundations run by Gothard's organization at their “training center,” an old hotel surrounded by blacktop in downtown Indianapolis. I wrote about the experience years later:

This is the funny thing about promotional literature: it mostly tells you what the program coordinators want you to think. I had pored over the material and nearly memorized the rules for behavior there (no boys in girls’ rooms and vice versa; no cross-gender socializing or even talking except for essential situations; when you leave your room, you must be fully clothed, in a skirt, with dry hair, even if the fire alarm has gone off; no food till dinner on Sunday). I understood that these rules were designed to put safeguards around our lives together, so that nothing wicked would happen while we were there. I was so up for it.

I found myself thinking about my time in Indianapolis while watching The Fits, Anna Rose Holmer's debut film, which has been getting rave reviews from critics since it premiered at Sundance earlier this year (and expands much wider this weekend). At the film's center is Toni (Royalty Hightower), a young black girl who quits boxing after school with her brother Jermaine (Da'Sean Minor) to join the school's dance team, dominated and led by its oldest members. But this isn't Bring It On. The team isn't that great, and Toni is still struggling to learn the intricate routines when members of the team—all adolescent girls—suddenly start succumbing to mysterious “fits,” seemingly epileptic but coming out of nowhere.

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Bill Gothard, 'The Fits,' and Me