The Holes Left Behind

I want to step away from the chronological story I’ve been writing in an on-again, off-again fashion for the last three years, and step into the present for a little bit.

I’ve been thinking about my family a lot this last week, specifically those left behind in “the group”. Missing them. Grieving them. I had a very vivid dream a few nights ago about my aunt and uncle and cousins. We were all together again in Joe LaQuiere’s house. It was oddly the same; the big leather couches, the pink carpet, the large leather recliner in the middle where Joe sat and taught us. Only the people were different. My aunt and uncle viewed me with suspicion, and an arms-length coldness. It hurt my heart.

See, I remember the happy days. My aunt with her beautiful Irish smile and thick hair she would ask me to play with and braid. My gentle uncle, with his kind eyes. My sweet little cousins, with their beautiful laughing faces! I miss them all. I know when they think of me today, they hate me. They think I’m an enemy, out to spread lies and hurt them. They think of me as a bitter young woman, tainted by sin, by a pregnancy begun before my marriage…blaming my mistakes on others and out to hurt anyone I think responsible. That’s what they see. They don’t know me at all.

I wish I could plead with them, plead my case and my heart, and pierce the shell that keeps them locked up tight, and me locked out. I used to be a favorite. ‘Sweet little Sarah’, ‘she’s always so obedient’. They looked at me and saw a trusting little face, an obedient little girl, so cheerful and sunny! They didn’t see the scared little girl that hid inside. They didn’t know about the nausea in the pit of my stomach, the ache of fear in my throat. I want so badly for them to realize that there was no way they could know, as grown adults, the fear of being a little child in Joe’s house. The inner turmoil of living in that world, of having to see the things I saw. They think it was safe. It wasn’t safe for me. I want to crack the facade of the 30-something poised young woman, and show them that terrified little girl underneath, and search their eyes for kindness, for any understanding.

They have no reason to hate me. I’m not their enemy. I never will be. I love them deeply. I miss them sorely. I am not bitter, or angry. I’m in pain. I’m hurting. I have wounds inside that have only begun to heal. And I don’t look at them and see people responsible for my pain. I just see more hurting people. My uncle is grayer. His eyes are more sad. My aunt’s smile doesn’t reach so deep. I want them to understand, and I want them to see my love. But more than that, I want to see them rescued. And I want to see them whole and healed. Because the truth is, we’re all sick. And we all need a Physician.

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Part 18, What’s So Amazing About Grace?

If I had to pick the one author who has changed my view of God more than any other, it would be Philip Yancey, by a landslide! The first book I read by him was called ‘What’s So Amazing About Grace?’ and it changed my world. ‘Grace’, in the LaQuiere-ite world, was a bad word. It meant ‘license to sin’. It was what all those despised mainstream church-goers gave as an excuse when they wanted to ignore God’s Law, and do whatever the heck they felt like. “We’re under grace, not the law!” they’d boast, and run around committing all sorts of felonious acts, from going to the movies, to wearing bikinis, to decorating their pagan christmas trees! That’s how I viewed grace. I didn’t even know what it was, just that I had been taught to sneer at it. My grandpa, my amazing, incredible, loving grandpa, tried to tell us about grace. It was his life’s theme: amazing grace, so sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me! I believed I was a wretch. I just thought I had to be saved by acting godly, not by “grace”, whatever that was. Joe LaQuiere had taught us to mock my grandpa and his faith. Just a silly old man, he said. I guess he never read the verse about how God has chosen the foolish things of this world to confound those who think they are wise!

I’ve always thought Philip Yancey’s title was perfect – it captured my thoughts exactly.  What WAS so amazing about grace? I’d sung those words a thousand times as a small child sitting in the pews of our fine old baptist church. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound!” I warbled, but grace was not a sweet sound to me. As a child, the words “grace will lead me home” were comforting, but as an adult, they meant nothing. Where was home? I hadn’t felt at home in a long time. I was still among the “dangers, toils and snares”, and I didn’t know grace. God was about to change all that.

Opening this book, and seeing grace face-to-face for the first time was shocking. What was this thing? This unearned thing, this free gift, that felt so wrong, but so right at the same time? I read stories that filled a hungry ache I didn’t know I had: Babette, and her gloriously wasteful feast costing “10,000 franks”, spent on a sad bunch of puritans who did not even realize what they were eating, and were stubbornly determined not to enjoy a mouthful; the priest in Les Miserables, who invited the convict Jean Valjean into his home, and who, after the ungrateful Valjean stole his precious silver candlesticks, announced to the police that he had given them to the convict “as a gift”…what was all this? I didn’t understand it. These people, they didn’t deserve anything! They shouldn’t be given anything! They needed to earn what they got. That I understood…that I needed to work for the crumbs I got. I wasn’t deserving, I knew I wasn’t. But here were these other wretches…and why were they being showered with riches? It was wrong, it was WRONG! But…it was right. It was good. It was…beautiful. It touched deep frozen places in my soul, and melted them into tears. I wanted it. I wanted this free gift, this scandalously free gift! I knew I could never earn it, never deserve it. I knew more than anyone how unworthy I was…would He really give it to me, unearned, unasked, unpaid for? It was like light, glorious light, breaking into my darkness. This, this was God! The Giver, and the Gift! He was offering it…to ME! I had left tears behind in my childhood. I hated them, I thought they were weakness. But the dawning of grace in my life broke open the floodgates. And for the first time in a long time, I cried.

Part 17, A Different God

Though I had experienced my first real encounter with God, my life didn’t just suddenly get better. But it was the first step of a long journey back to God. I had to realize that a relationship with God was something that slowly grew, not something you could bring to instant fulfillment by following the “Rules to Godliness”. I had to get to know God as a person, not a formula to follow. But these are really my thoughts in hindsight. In the moment, all I knew was that I had been given enough gas in the tank to keep going a little longer.

The next step on my journey was my discovery of G. K. Chesterton.  I first read his Father Brown mysteries, and loved his funny little priest. Then I read some of his other fiction, and then…Orthodoxy. I was simultaneously attracted and perplexed by jolly Mr. Chesterton. Everything he said was simple and straightforward, and a genuine expression of his joy in his God. But how could he find such joy and beauty where I only felt dread? I decided he must know something I didn’t, and I delved into his books with the hunger of a starving man.

I found a different God there than the one I grew up with. This God was affectionate, happy, ridiculously pleased with the small antics of His earthly children. This God was a laughing God. Even in His solemnity, He still had a secret twinkle in His eye, like someone pretending to be stern but secretly holding a treat behind his back. I LIKED this God! I could conceive of not being afraid of Him. Chesterton taught about the Romance of Christendom, and I drank it in, because in his joyful God, I found just what I needed to combat the poison of my childhood. I found the same joy running through all of his books and his poems, which I fell in love in. This “joy without a cause”, as he once described it, fascinated and pulled me despite my misgivings. I desperately wanted to believe in this God who prompted such a joy.

In reading Chesterton, I found permission to start to enjoy the little things in life again. To experience the pleasure of a good book, a bowl of dessert, a solitary walk under the stars, without feeling God’s disapproval. Each moment of enjoyment was still couched in the context of my parents’ displeasure. But somehow, despite their rejection of everything I found joy in, despite their calling it  “foolishness” and labeling me “irresponsible and immature” for pursuing such things, I continued to allow myself small pleasures. And in a way, they gave me back both my hope, and God.

Outwardly, over the next year or so, there were also some changes. I was happier. I made a few friends, including a best friend whose friendship I enjoyed for the next 5 years or so. I started college at a state university. I probably argued and debated with my parents even more than before. I no longer accepted their worldview, and the inevitable clash was often intense. I would have 6-hour arguments with my dad till the small hours of the morning, only ending when we were both so tired that our sleep-addled brains could no longer form meaningful sentences.

Inwardly, I came to a new crossroads. I was forced to the conclusion that there was one major thing holding me back from a relationship with God: I didn’t trust Him. At some point I heard or read somewhere a simple explanation of what Trust was. It was compared to a chair. You can SAY you trust a chair to hold your weight…you can look at it, and make all sorts of calculations to decide its load-bearing capacity…but ultimately none of it counts until you sit down in that chair. If you trust the chair, you’ll sit down in it. If you don’t trust the chair, you’ll stay standing.

I was definitely standing. All of my combined life experiences fought with desperate strength against even the idea of sitting down.  I had more than enough proof that it wasn’t safe to trust anyone, especially not God. Not only had all the authority figures in my life either failed to protect me, or taken part in my abuse — but they told me they did so at the bidding of God. Even the thought of trusting God enough to let any control slip from my fingers was enough to produce gut-wrenching, nausea-inducing panic.

My mind rebelled and fought against it on one side, and God gently pulled me from the other. It took me weeks of wrestling with myself. But I did it. I took a mental catalogue of my fears – of everything God might ask me to do, or take away from me, and I went down the list, fear after fear, and chose to accept the possibility of every one. That was really the scariest thing. Once I won the battle in my mind, the rest was just a formality. I sat down in that figurative chair. And for the first time in my life, I chose to trust God.

Part 16, Gray

I can look back at pictures of those years, and somehow, I look happy in some of them.  I know that somewhere in that time, I took a trip to Germany with my grandparents.  It was one of the few happy times I can remember.  In contrast, the rest of those two years, from 15 to 17, were very dark days for me.  Our homelife was not happy.  Besides my dad being depressed, which lasted at least a couple of years if not longer, the discipline that my brother B received continued, and in some respects, got worse.

Once Joe LaQuiere was not there to cow B into fearful submission, my dad had a tougher time getting him to toe the line.  A now-teenage B became disrespectful, angry, arguing and talking-back to my dad.  He cared less and less that he would be punished for it.  My dad gave up using a wooden paddle on my brother.  He moved on to more creative tools, searching for one that would put the fear of God into his wayward son.  Sometimes it was a belt.  Sometimes it was a thin rod like that used for caning.  Then, he found himself the winner.  I don’t know what it was made out of, but it was a length of doubled up flexible white line of some kind or other, about 1/8″ in diameter, and he used it like a whip, hitting indiscriminately whatever was in reach.  This whipping hurt far more than a wooden paddle ever could, and it left no permanent marks, which all the corporal-punishment manuals, like the Pearl’s book, To Train Up a Child, which was a staple in my parents’ bookshelf, all were quick to warn against.  If it doesn’t leave a permanent mark, the books said, it was fine.

I would be on constant alert and tense when my dad and B started getting into it – I knew with inevitable dread, that it would end in a whipping, and I swear I hated them nearly as much as B did.  My dad would hit his limit, grab B and push him to the basement stairs, and down they’d go.  The next thing I’d hear is my brother crying, then screaming for my dad to stop, while my dad chased him around the basement, whipping him as he went.  It seemed like it would go on forever.  In hindsight, it was probably only 10 or 15 minutes each time.  But it was enough.  It was too much.  With every beating I had to hear, my own heart was getting ripped to shreds, and my fear grew.  My mom would calmly go about her business, ignoring the cries and pleading from below.  More than ever, I tried to use my influence and experience to head off any altercation between my brother and my dad.  I played peacemaker as much as I could, and I begged the children not to do anything that would set my dad off.  We all knew how he got when things made him angry, but somehow I was the only one who tried to do anything about it.  I had always been the one to try to placate my dad and walk the fine line to avoid his wrath, but now it became a desperate need – I HAD to prevent him from getting angry, or my brother would pay the price.

Meanwhile, the whippings had the opposite effect to the one my father intended.  They made B even less tractable than before.  With each beating, he grew harder towards my parents.  He sneered more openly at them.  He grew more rebellious and more angry.  My dad continued these whippings until B was nearly 17.  Then, one day, B stopped taking it.  I remember it so clearly.  That day, when my dad tried to shove him up against the wall, B pushed back.  That was all.  That was enough.  He had grown bigger than my dad, and now, in that instant, he realized he was stronger.  It took my dad just a split second to realize what had happened.  He could no longer physically control his son by violence.  He took his hands off my brother, and said B was so far gone in his rebellion that normal discipline had no effect on him anymore…since physical buffeting was useless, he was spiritually turning B over “to be buffeted for the sake of his soul”, as it says somewhere in the bible.  I knew better, and so did B.  My dad was simply afraid of what would happen.  He never whipped my brother again.

It was some relief to know that I wouldn’t have to hear my brother’s screams from the basement anymore.  But it didn’t change anything else.  Life was something to be endured, long and weary, with no end in sight.  I became obsessed with the color gray.  I thought about it, wrote about it, all the time.  My life was gray.  Everything was gray; meaningless and gray.  I felt like I was slowly being smothered by a gray pall, and I no longer had the will to resist it.

Then, finally, came the day when I couldn’t bear it any longer.  I remember we were going somewhere in our big van, with the younger kids, and my mom driving.  I remember the seat I was sitting in.  It’s a crystal clear memory in my head.  I sat there, with daily life going on around me, while a storm of pain and desperation raged in my heart, and I knew I couldn’t take even one more second of living my hated life; and in my despair I cried out in my heart, “God, I don’t even know if You’re there anymore – I know You don’t love me, and never have – but I don’t have anything left to turn to anymore!  You’ve taken everything away, and I have nothing left – if You even can, just HELP me, please!  Do SOMEthing!”

And in that moment, for the first time in my entire 17 years of life, I felt God’s LOVE.  It was warm, and it engulfed me, wrapped me up in something indescribable.  In that blinding second, I KNEW, for the first time, that God loved me.  I FELT it.  I had never felt anything like it before, and I never have since.  It was an inescapable certainty.  I had cried to God, and He had answered me.

Part 15, Black Days Ahead

The next few months are kind of a blur.  They were awkward.  We still ran into our friends/acquaintances/ex-cultmates often.  I didn’t know how to think of them, or how to act when we saw them.  I’m sure it was equally awkward for them.  Within our family, not much changed.  We followed the same rules, lived the same lives as the people in the cult we had just left.  We just did it separately.

The main difference was, my dad sunk into a deep depression.  I couldn’t rely on his sense of humor and warmth to carry me through the dark and confusing time I was now in.  He was now convinced that he was a failure, and nothing could reach him in the dark place he had sunk into.  I wasn’t the little girl that idolized her daddy anymore, but I was a teenager whose life had just been torn apart, and my dad was the one constant I relied on.  No longer.  I really felt like my dependence on my dad was the last feeble crutch I had left to cling to, and Someone had just kicked it out from under me.  Now I was not only confused and scared, I was bitter.  Bitter at a God I didn’t know, who had taken away the last piece of my security.  I decided that God existed, but He didn’t love me, and He never would.

About a year into our exile, my parents started looking for a new church to go to – a mainstream church, no more home-church for us.  We visited church after church after church.  They felt cold and unfriendly.  Even if the people smiled at us, I knew they had no idea what kind of people we were, and where we came from.  We were in foreign territory, and no one spoke our language.  We would try one church for a couple weeks, then move on.  Occasionally we attended one for as long as a few months.  We weren’t allowed to do anything youth-related, so we just sat and listened to sermons with my parents.  I didn’t like it.  None of the teaching was challenging.  The preachers weren’t engaging, and no one cared about me, no matter where we went.  I didn’t like church.  I preferred the warm camaraderie of the cult family that we were now irrevocably cut off from.  Eventually, the church we were attending merged with another church, and we stopped going.  Then my parents found a new place – a Plymouth Brethren congregation called Lakeside Bible Chapel.  It was just a tiny bit more comfortable than the rest, because they celebrated the Lord’s Supper every week, like we used to do.  Most things were still unfamiliar and uncomfortable.  They had a worship band.  They had a youth group, and the youth group (that we weren’t allowed to go to for a long time) had an actual BAND with DRUMS.  Even when my parents decided to let us go to Sunday school and join in on some youth group activities, we weren’t allowed to attend the youth worship service.  We had to stay in the main auditorium until the worship part of the service was over, because my dad didn’t want us corrupted by the worldly music.  The people dressed in sleeveless shirts, or even t-shirts sometimes, and wore things to church that my parents would never allow even at home.  But, we stayed.  Eventually, it became our new church home.

If anything, having a church “home” just made things worse for me.  People were always smiling at me in the halls and saying “How are you this morning!” in the friendly, yet impersonal way that left no possibility of a real answer.  I would plaster an empty smile on my face, and nod in return, and they’d walk on.  I hated being there.  At home I didn’t have to pretend things were fine.  At  home, I started dressing like a boy.  I went for the baggy carpenter jeans, and masculine t-shirts.  I pushed my parents for permission to cut my nearly waist-length hair.  It got shorter each time.  By the time I was 17, it was short enough that I was mistaken for a boy more than once.  It was my silent protest against a world that had betrayed me in every way.

My mom took the change personally.  “You’re doing this because you don’t want to be like me,” she’d insist.  “You’re just trying to be the opposite of me, and that’s very hurtful.”  She was wrong.  I wasn’t changing because I didn’t want to be like her.  I was changing because I hated being me.  I hated the fake smiling mask I had to wear on the outside.  I hated the growing darkness within.  I was empty.  The confusion and despair I felt, the anger that I couldn’t express, all crystallized into an intense self-loathing that grew strong roots deep into the soil of my self-image, fertilized by the years of repressive and damaging training that had taught me that I was only worth something as long as I could measure up to perfection.  I hated to be around people, and I hated to be around myself.  I hated everyone and everything, and most of all, I hated myself.  I took a look into my own heart and saw all the ugliness crawling inside, and I finally understood, with the finality of despair, why God hated me.

I used to lock the bathroom door, and look at the big bottles of pills in the medicine cabinet, and fantasize about swallowing handfuls of them.  Sometimes I’d pour them into my cupped hand and look at them for a while.  But I never took them.  My fear of standing in judgement before a God that despised me was too great.  I wasn’t ready to be sent on to more eternal torment.  So, I would put the pills back, and live through another black day.

When I was younger, I liked to draw.  I hoped to be as good as my uncle someday, who was an artist and drew amazing portraits of his children and wife, pictures that hung in the place of honor in my grandparents’ living room.  I hoped I could become good enough someday that my dad would be proud of me.  But those days were long gone.  Now I drew without creativity or inspiration, without purpose.  The last thing I drew was a bleeding heart that was ripped in two, sewn jaggedly back together with black, ugly stitches.  I finished this self-portrait, and then put away my pencils for a long time.

I’m not sure how the rest of my family was handling the move.  I feel that of all of us, my sister R was the least affected.  She started going to College and Career at our new church, and made some friends.  My brother B took some time, but eventually even he made a good friend at church; heart-breakingly, it was probably the first time since he was a little kid that he found someone who actually liked him instead of treating him with contempt and abuse.  This friend was his lifeline, and without him, I’m not sure what B would have become.

My parents made friends quickly, and they were well-liked and respected in their new church.  People admired how well-behaved and clean-cut we children were, and people would commend my parents for turning out such great children.  It was rather ironic.  My little siblings even started going to Sunday school, and to all appearances, we all settled into our new “normal” life.

I was the only one who couldn’t find a place to fit in.  I tried to sit in youth group and listen to yet another watered-down talk on bible passages I had heard a thousand times.  The shallow theology bothered me.  The lack of depth and interest in spiritual things bothered me.  The people…well, the youth leader overlooked me entirely.  It was a definite failure on his part not to recognize the quiet desperation that sat before him Sunday after Sunday…I’m not sure why he didn’t attempt to reach out to me, especially as he usually did with any other new teens that came along, but suffice it to say, he never did.  It was a familiar sensation.  I had always been the one that nobody noticed.  Unsurprisingly, the other teens in the youth group mostly ignored me.  A few were actually friendly, and I was very grateful, though I didn’t know how to respond or relate to them.  We were like two different species.  They talked about boyfriends, Superbowl Sunday parties, going to prom, and school cliques.  These were also the topics addressed by the youth group leaders.  These things were as foreign to me as they would have been to a pygmy.  No one had anything to say about what to do when your world’s been torn apart, or you hate yourself, or how to escape God’s wrath and disapproval.

I got no answers from church, and the friendliness of the other teens dissipated by the time we had been there 2 months.  I was left alone, and I didn’t even care.  I didn’t care about anything.

Part 14, Leaving the Fold

During the last couple years we were in Joe LaQuiere’s cult, doubts were slowly crystallizing in my dad’s mind, no doubt increased by Joe’s inability to accept any criticism or challenge to his opinions.  I remember my dad being one of the only people willing to disagree with Joe on anything.  The other person who had no problem voicing open doubt was my uncle H,  father of the S family.  In fact, a very heated argument between Joe and my Uncle H was the precursor to both their family and our family leaving for good.  I believe it was regarding his oldest son, my cousin J, who was around 16 at the time.

My Uncle H decided it would be a good experience for J to take a job with a landscaping company, mowing lawns.  Joe LaQuiere was vehemently against children being employed in the outside world, away from the direct supervision of their parents.  He was also very angry that my Uncle H would make this decision without consulting him first, and getting his permission.  My Uncle H got very upset in return, saying that it was HIS child, and he had the right to make what he considered the best decision for J, regardless of what anyone else thought.  This argument went on long into the night, and involved many raised voices, and the other families ranged themselves in support of Joe…I don’t remember if my dad even supported my Uncle H in this.  The end result was, the S family left the group.

It was very sobering to all of us who were left, and Joe LaQuiere made it clear to his followers that the S’s desertion was their first step on the road to inevitable spiritual disaster.  He would tell us horror stories of other families who had been obstinate and left the group, spurning his advice and counsel.  All of them came to horrible ends.  He told us that these families self-destructed, ending with the older children rebelling against God and parents, reporting their parents to CPS for child abuse, who took the other children away and ripped the family apart.  This was what we had to look forward to if we left the fold.  His phrase for this was “crash and burn”.  That is what happened to everyone who left: they all “crashed and burned”, and he gave the most dire warnings to us so that we wouldn’t suffer the same fate.

Then, about 3 weeks after the S family left, my dad called a family meeting and informed us that we were not going back.  We were leaving.  This was met with tearful protests and disbelief by most of us.  I initially agreed with my dad on principle, because I idolized him and therefore took his side on everything, but eventually I caved, and wrote him a letter saying that I agreed with my mom and sister R, and wanted to stay.  The only person who was happy about leaving was my brother B.  He was so happy it was heart-breaking.  He told me later that he was afraid to believe it was true, and lived for weeks in constant fear that it would turn out to be a mistake, leaving him trapped again in his personal hell.

At first it was unclear to us as children whether this was permanent or temporary.  Joe LaQuiere came by that first week looking stern, and dropped off a yellow manila envelope at our front door.  He refused to come in.  He treated the visit rather like the proverbial “shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them”.  He apparently didn’t want to be be polluted by the act of crossing our threshold.  The manila envelope contained a letter that we were never allowed to read.  I caught a glimpse of it once, and sure enough, it contained the dreaded words “crash and burn”.  When my parents read it, my mom cried.  My dad looked very grim.  I was told later that the letter contained warnings and dark predictions for the spiritual future of our family.  Joe made it clear over and over again throughout the letter that my dad was a failure.  A failure as a spiritual leader, a failure as a father, a failure as a husband…a failure as a man.  In Joe’s mind, we had sealed our fate when we chose to leave.  We were on the path to destruction, and no one could help us.

This began one of the darkest periods of my entire life.  As difficult as it had often been to live as a part of “the group”, leaving felt a thousand times worse.

Part 13, The Squeaky Wheel and the Persistent Widow

There’s an old saying, “It’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease.”  It basically means that he who complains loudest gets attended to first.  Joe LaQuiere used to like this saying very much.  He used it, funnily enough, to instill competition for his attention among his followers.  If one family wanted help and asked him for it, that was fine.  But if another family asked him for help and was waiting on his doorstep early in the morning, well….they were placed first priority.  They received the coveted attention and the first family would just have to wait for another day.  Any time you could show your zeal and fierce determination to shove anything and anyone aside to get to Joe first, he would honor it by giving you first priority and kicking others further down the line who didn’t show your passion for his help.

Families that wanted his time and attention would show their determination to be close to him by tagging along with him all day while he ran errands.  Nothing was allowed to get in the way – not even meals.  I remember endless hours following Joe around Home Depot with my little brothers and sisters in tow, our legs tired from walking, stomachs empty and pinching, because we hadn’t been given anything to eat since breakfast and it was 4 in the afternoon.  In the adult-centric world in which Joe lived, children ate…or didn’t eat…according to his schedule, not theirs.  Only nursing babies were lucky enough to have meals provided during these outings.  Our parents quickly stamped out any complaining, making it clear that our empty stomachs were a small price to pay for the chance to be with Joe all day.

Today I look back on Joe’s behavior, and see him as a bit of an egomaniac.  The more your world revolved around him, the happier he was.  The more you idolized him and gave up things to prove your devotion to him, the better he was pleased.  He wanted a fan club, ready to fawn on his every word.  I’m sure he felt he deserved that, because he was doing everything right in his own estimation.  He got it right, God approved of him, and this was his reward: his own groupies who would push and jostle to be closest to him.

Some members used to make jokes about the story in Mark where two of the disciples tried to claim the places to the right and the left of Jesus, and would substitute Joe’s name for Jesus’s.  We weren’t concerned about getting to sit next to Jesus – we wanted to be next to Joe!  Joe LaQuiere encouraged this currying for his favor, even though it caused divisiveness in the ranks.  He would dismiss any hurt feelings by saying “The squeaky wheel gets the grease”, and then he’d shrug and walk away, and the triumphant family who had shouldered their way into first place would turn and follow him.

Another story Joe liked to use to demonstrate how we should be was the Parable of the Unjust Judge.  A poor widow goes before an unjust judge and pleads for him to hear her case, and give her “justice against her opponent”.  He refuses to listen to her and sends her away.  But she is persistent and stubborn, and keeps coming back day after day, after day, after day.  Finally the unjust judge, who doesn’t care about justice, gives in and settles her case, because he’s so sick and tired of seeing her in his courtroom.  Persistence wins the day!  These were our role models to follow: the squeaky wheel and the persistent widow.

In practice, it worked something like this: Let’s say my family wanted to go see Joe LaQuiere to get his help with some more child-training.  We would get up in the morning, get ready to go, and drive over there after breakfast, say 10 AM.  Ordinarily this would be enough to be first in line, and get Joe’s attention all day.  But let’s say another family heard us say the night before that we were going to come over at 10.  So they got up, rushed out the door, and got there at 9 AM.  Joe would let them in, and when our family arrived, we were sh*t outta luck.  He wouldn’t see us that day, or at the most, he’d say we could wait until the other family was finished, but he had no idea how long that would take.  He might or might not get around to seeing us.  So we’d either wait around half the day, or pack it back into our 8-passenger van and go home to try again another day.

It quickly became clear which families were willing to go the furthest to guarantee Joe’s time and attention.  One family was willing to go further than anyone else.  Not only did this family take every opportunity to arrive earlier and stay later, but they were willing to do whatever it took to beat out the competition and get one-on-one time with Joe.  Then they took it to the next level: they bought a house on his street.  Joe was tickled and flattered at this show of zeal for his time and attention: and he gave it to them, generously.  They became his new favorites.  It became very rare to find them at home – they were always at Joe’s house, every day, every weekend, day-in-and-day-out.  They started going there after breakfast and would stay all day.  Then they started coming before breakfast, and eating with the LaQuiere family.  It became next to impossible to talk to Joe without this family standing right there, “holding their place in line”.  The rest of us chafed a little at the special treatment they were getting.  It was nearly impossible to beat them for first place in line anymore.  They lived practically next door – I remember once or twice that we managed to get to Joe’s house early enough that they weren’t there yet, and boy, were we smug!  It was a pretty good feeling that this time we got to be around Joe all day, and they had to wait!  I can’t believe Joe actually encouraged this pettiness, but clearly he was more focused on getting his ego stroked than on preventing jealousy and petty competition between his followers.

One time my parents found a temporary solution to holding on to first place in line for a few days: we just got Joe’s permission to stay at his house.  It was like a sleepover that lasted for a week, except of course, it wasn’t about having fun, it was about being next to Joe all the time, to hear his life wisdom on each daily situation as it came up.  At the time, I thought it was just about the coolest thing ever!  We ate all our meals with the LaQuieres, we did chores with Mrs. LaQuiere, or got to tag along on errands with the older kids.  We slept on sofa beds or in sleeping bags every night.  Best of all, we knew we were finally the Number One family, at least temporarily.  We got Joe’s undivided attention for nearly an entire week. We felt like we were on the inside, and everyone else was stuck on the outside.  For that one week, we were special.

As you can imagine, this didn’t sit well with the family I mentioned earlier.  They were determined to regain their first place in line.  So the next thing we knew, they had moved into Joe’s house…for good.  It was the ultimate line-jump.  They now had access to him 24/7, and had permanently cemented their status as first-in-line-to-Joe.  Never again did any of the rest of us come close, not even when three of the families also bought houses on the same street, one of them actually directly across the street from Joe’s house!  It didn’t matter: he had accepted the first family as adopted family members, and Joe considered that they had earned their spot in the sun, no matter how much anyone complained.  From that day on, their family has lived in Joe’s house, a permanent part of his household.  They still live there today: I don’t think they’ll ever leave.  For legal purposes, they “live” in their house down the street.  That’s where their mail goes, because they aren’t legally allowed to reside in the same house as the LaQuiere family….zoning regulations or something, I don’t know.  But they do anyway.  Within five years of them moving in, the LaQuiere family built a huge addition on their house.  It was poorly designed, and an eyesore that the whole neighborhood winced at, but it made sure there was plenty of room for the LaQuieres and their new “adopted” family.

Even this wasn’t close enough of a connection for the mom of this family: she used to laughingly claim Joe’s youngest son as the future husband of her oldest daughter.  At the time, her daughter was 8, and his son was about 16.  True to her word, about 12 years later she witnessed her daughter marry this same son, making at least part of her family “real LaQuieres” at last.