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.
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.
Adolescence isn't easy for anyone. But what that means looks different, depending on who you are. For a lot of teenage girls, the all-consuming and contradictory desire is to be noticed while also fitting into a group—to attract interest, without being weird. In her new novel The Girls, Emma Cline captures the contradiction well, as her narrator looks back at her teenage years, spent following formulas in women's magazines: “I waited to be told what was good about me . . . All that time I had spent readying myself, the articles that taught me life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you—the boys had spent that time becoming themselves.” That same struggle is captured in stories from Carrie to The Crucible to Celine Sciamma's 2015 film Girlhood to Mean Girls.
According to Holmer, the idea for The Fits came to her when she read about mass hysterias in the medieval world, then researched them and discovered that not only are they common throughout history, but they especially affect adolescent girls in groups “where there was a clearly defined social hierarchy.” Which is the case in The Fits. Adults are noticeably absent from Toni's high school. The teenagers order themselves, and everyone implicitly understands the hierarchy, and how the girls dancing in the gym interact with the boys boxing in a room nearby.
I showed up to the music camp as an adolescent girl—sixteen, both too old and far too young for my years—and desperate to fit in. Like Cline's narrator, I had a set of rules and formulas; hers were in magazines, and mine were in Gothard's seminar binders. There were adults around, but we teenagers were expected to conduct ourselves like adults. We wore skirts, blouses, and suits to class; we refrained from unnecessary contact with members of the opposite gender; we rose early and read from the book of Proverbs. I knew I was on the outside (that my family never joined ATIA was a matter of private shame I didn't confess till halfway through the three-week camp), but I wore the right things and copied the rituals and language, desperate to fit in.
If the other girls had started having fits, I probably would have, too.
In The Fits, girls compare notes after their “episodes”—”What was yours like? Mine was like this,” they say. Their surrender is a matter of pride, of coolness, of acceptance. They become mini-celebrities. Similarly, in the midst of a setup that seemed crazy in the face of lawsuits years later, we compared notes: which of us had confessed the biggest sin after an Advanced Seminar? Who played the highest number of instruments? Who had memorized the longest passage from Romans? Whose family was the biggest? The subtext: who was holiest? Our “fits,” which appear silly to us now, pursued the sublime, just as much as theirs.
How could we have not seen what was happening? For lots of reasons. Authoritarian teaching and celebrity worship was certainly at fault. But mostly, we were teenagers.
And we were all after the same thing. We all wanted to transcend ourselves for a moment. We wanted to experience something sublime.
I've found its almost impossible to write about this without sounding as if I'm trying to make fun of it. But I'm not. It was deadly serious to us then, the way others might have memorized lyrics to songs from the radio or, I don't know, swapped magazines or lipsticks. We invested ours with spiritual significance it probably didn’t have, and the trappings of it led to irreversible damage for some (and difficult days for even those of us who escaped abuse). But it's a sort of mass hysteria; it's just that ours sounds strange to those who grew up in a more mainstream version of being an American teenager.
But that's what makes The Fits a work of genius: it captures—without judgement or condescension—the strangeness of being part of a microcosm where your place in the pecking order is determined by something nonsensical and mystical, something adults don't understand and other teenagers outside your group view disdainfully. In The Crucible, mass hysteria may be possession or manipulation, depending on how you read it. But in The Fits, it's both dangerous and innocent, something that could hurt you but is worth pursuing anyhow. The Fits takes teenage girls seriously, and suggests our youthful foolishness certainly was foolish, but has its own logic.
While I'm listening to stories and trying to tell them about the time that my friends and I spent trying to fit into the world Gothard created, Holmer's film casts them in a fresh light. It seems nuts, for sure. But at the time, it was the only way we knew to be in the world.
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's critic at large and an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College. She is co-author, with Robert Joustra, of How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World. She tweets @alissamarie.