The first few years we were a part of the LaQuiere cult, it was fairly easy to meet expectations. Everyone viewed me as one of the “good” kids…I was a rule-follower by nature, and that made me a perfect fit for Joe LaQuiere’s legalism! I got in some small difficulties over the rule to “never argue”, because my dad had taught me from an early age the delights of debate. He gave me books on detecting logical fallacies, and my favorite game (though maybe not his) was to debate issues with him, and, if possible, win my point through rock-solid logic. If I could use logic to prove to my dad that I was right, then he would concede and I would get my small victory! I’m not sure Joe LaQuiere knew my dad allowed this…if he did, he would have been very disapproving (as he was already very disapproving of my dad for trying to debate with him). When I disagreed with my dad, it was called debating, and we both understood the rules, and appreciated the game. With my mom, it was called “arguing”, and she expected (understandably) not to have to logically defend every instruction she gave me! So I was often in trouble with my mom, but that was pretty much the only crack in my “goodness”.
My sister R, by contrast, had plenty of trouble until she was about twelve. She was very stubborn…she liked to contradict…and she did not like to follow rules! Joe LaQuiere believed she just needed strong enough motivation and she would “snap to”. He was right. Turns out, what she needed was a strong enough personality to win her allegiance, and Joe succeeded at this around the time she turned twelve. I’m not sure what he said or did that caused her to change, but she did an astonishing about-face, and from then on, Joe LaQuiere had her complete loyalty. She was now his biggest fan: she started scrupulously following rules, and was determined to live up to his expectations and please him. When we eventually left a few years later, she went to bat as Joe LaQuiere’s model pupil–she begged and pleaded and argued with my dad to no avail to convince him to let us stay in the group. Both she and my mom had extremely strong ties of loyalty to Joe, and it was very difficult for them to let go when we left.
Meanwhile, I didn’t have my sister’s advantage of a flattering conversion story to endear Joe LaQuiere to me, but he still seemed to approve of me for being the small rule-follower that I was, and I eagerly lapped up the crumbs of his approval like a starving puppy. As one of the younger children, I would vie for the coveted opportunity to sit on his lap while he taught – the ultimate place of privilege. It made me feel special and noticed. On one very special occasion, I was sitting at Joe LaQuiere’s feet while he was talking to the adults, just quietly listening to him, while Mrs. LaQuiere was getting ready for dinner, setting the table, and handing out related small chores. My sister R was enlisted to help from whatever she was doing, and after a minute, she or perhaps my mom tried to pull me away to come help too. Joe intervened, comparing me to Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus, and my sister to Martha. He said he wasn’t going to send me away. I had chosen “the better thing” by sitting at his feet listening to him, and that was where I could stay. I couldn’t believe it: it was one of the huge moments in my young life where I felt of value. I never forgot that moment. Occasionally Joe LaQuiere would also use me as an example of a “good child”, or say to someone, “S would never think to do that, would you? She’s a good girl.” And I would duck my head shyly, but inside I was beaming. It felt so incredibly good to earn his approval! I lived for those moments. Like my sister, I too had found in Joe LaQuiere someone to hero-worship: someone to fill the yawning hole left in my heart by my shamed failure to make my own father proud of me. Years later, when we left the cult, I joined with my sister and mom in trying to convince my dad to change his mind. I didn’t want to leave behind the only source of approval I had.
Even though I was a veteran rule-follower, it was still more difficult than you’d imagine to earn an “A” in Mr. LaQuiere’s class. He taught us that God had given all of us “everything we need for life and godliness” – which meant, everything we needed to be perfect. In fact, we were called to “be perfect” – it was right there in black-and-white in Mr. LaQuiere’s King James Bible: Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect. Joe reasoned that God would never call us to do something that we weren’t perfectly (ha, see what I did there?) capable of doing! Therefore, we could be perfect: we could live our lives and never sin, not even so much as one bad attitude or snarky look. It’s pretty clear that if you can be perfect, and yet, you’re not perfect, it’s because you are choosing not to be. Because of this, we were berated for any and every misstep, because our goal was to live perfect lives, and so win God’s pleasure and approval of us.
As a part of these impossibly-high standards, our parents used a system of public praise/shame to encourage all the children to work harder at correcting character flaws. Every week, all the parents in the group would announce what character fault each child needed to work on, and then the following week, our “scores” would be publicly announced. Those who did well…90%…93%…held their heads high! Those who squeaked by with something in the high 80s could at least heave a sigh of relief and jump off the figurative hot seat until next week. But those with bad scores had nothing but public shame to look forward to. They would be reminded that not only were they required to please their parents and God in everything in all their outward actions, but to be perfectly obedient inside as well, in their every attitude. Nothing less would satisfy a holy God.
As a champion rule-follower, (with no small amount of pride in the fact, I may add!) nothing less than a perfect score satisfied me. But it was surprisingly difficult to achieve, even for someone like me. I did get a perfect 100% the first few weeks…but as Mr. LaQuiere would have said, pride goeth before a fall. The very next week I was supposed to work on “not arguing”…and on “doing everything I was asked without question, with a good attitude”. Not only did I scrupulously avoid arguing with my mom, giving ingratiating smiles and being sickeningly cheerful while I followed out every instruction she could think up, but I even swore off debating with my dad! Finally Wednesday night came around, and before we left for our weekly meeting at Joe’s house, my dad tallied up our scores and averaged out percentages. He told us what we had earned, and I waited eagerly to hear that coveted “100%”. I knew I hadn’t argued even once – I didn’t trip up a single time all week – I had been perfect! Then my dad gave me my score…99%. I gulped at the unfairness of it, and had to stop myself from arguing with him (talk about pouring salt in the wound!), which would have been punished by my dad lowering my score even more. I carefully asked him why I only got 99%, and what I had done wrong. He informed me, my mom nodding in agreement, that the 99% was because he wanted me to learn that I was not perfect, and that I could not be perfect, and that a 100% would be puffing me up with sinful pride. And that was that. I never got 100% again, even though plenty of other parents gave their children perfect grades. I gritted my teeth every time another child got what I was sure in my youthful arrogance was an undeserved perfect score, while my own dad refused to give me the scores I felt I earned. I’m not sure how I was supposed to reconcile Joe’s teaching that we could be and must be perfect to earn God’s approval with my dad’s insistence that I could never reach perfection. Of course, I now realize that my dad was closer to the mark than Joe was. We can never reach perfection on our own – but we don’t need to, because we have Jesus’ perfect score applied to us every day! I wish I had been taught that as a child, instead of being pushed further and further into harsh perfectionism that exhausted my soul and set me up for a life of spiritual defeat.
In my quest to reach perfection, and finally feel God was pleased with me, my failures loomed far larger than my small triumphs. There was the time that I said something wrong while working construction together with the rest of the families…I can’t even remember what it was I said. I have a feeling I gave an adult a sarcastic answer (my gift of sarcasm was definitely not appreciated!) and I remember my parents, Joe LaQuiere, and my Aunt C discussing my crime while I sat unnoticed or ignored beside them on the floor in Joe’s office (a place I hated because it was always associated with shame and punishment). I wasn’t spanked for being disrespectful, but Joe LaQuiere told me he was very disappointed in me, and that I had lost his respect, and my Aunt C said, not to me, but meant for me to overhear, “If I knew she was like that, I would rather have seen her dropped in the foundation we’ve been digging, and buried up to her neck.” I’ve never forgotten those words. I’m not entirely sure why she came up with that theoretical punishment, exactly…but she was quite fond of hyperbolic half-serious threats of things she’d “rather see” or “would do” if the occasion warranted. She once told my sister R that if she ever caught her painting her toe-nails like worldly girls (what shameless harlotry!), she would rip her nails out by the roots! And then she laughed, so we would know it was (at least partly) a joke.
My other failure that haunted me for a long time was of “carelessness”. My mom’s best friend, Mrs. W, had a proof-reading business where she would scan and then proof manuscripts or articles for spelling errors. She had the bright idea to include my sister R and me in her business. She would send us some of the work to proof, and would pay us a small amount per hour that we worked. It was exciting! I got to sit at a computer and read for hours – my ideal job! I was about 12 at the time, and R was 14. We finished our work, corrected all the spelling errors we found, and sent it back, delighted that we got to do real, grown-up work!
A few days later, Mrs. W called us in to talk to her in private. She was frowning, and I didn’t know why. She said she was seriously disappointed in us. We hadn’t done a good job – they had sent the work back with spelling errors that we had missed, and she had to redo it all herself. She told us she would pay us for what we had already done, but she was firing us for being careless. She thought she could trust us, but she couldn’t. She was sorry, but she no longer wanted our help. I walked around all that day in a haze of shame and humiliation. I felt that everyone’s eyes were on me, knowing what a disappointment and failure I was. When we got home that night, I found a private place to go, and cried there for a long time. These moments still loom large in my memory…I can still feel the crush of humiliation; the painful knowledge that despite my constant efforts, I was a failure. Each ugly incident seared itself into my little soul, pushing me deeper into the abyss of perfectionism, and reinforcing my deep inner conviction that, hard as I tried, God would not accept me.