Do you consider yourself a good person?
Have you ever told a lie?
Have you ever stolen anything?
Have you ever used God’s name in vain?
Have you ever coveted anything?
You need to answer ‘yes’ to all of the above to hear 13-year-old Deborah Drapper say, in all seriousness,”So you’re a lying, thieving, blasphemous, coveting person. Do you still think you’re a good person?”
BBC documentary, Deborah 13: Servant of God, which aired on Tuesday 11 March 2009, was a programme that changed the way I think. Previously, I had maintained that ‘brainwashing’ was a term that should be reserved for what cults do to the young adults they ensnare. Here is a post I wrote about a year ago on an internet forum in a discussion comparing cults with mainstream religions.
I think there are many similarities but actually I think the use of brainwashing is one of the differences. As I understand it, cults do employ brainwashing in the strictest sense of the word: sleep and food deprivation, ‘love bombing’, inducing time disorientation etc.
Raising a child to have specific beliefs, disallowing contact with other ideas and discouraging – even punishing – questioning or dissent may be the antithesis of humanism and freethought but they’re not the same as brainwashing. Outside of theocracies and countries with very repressive religious cultures, children will hear of other ideas – especially in the age of the internet – and will be able to investigate them and adopt them as their own if they are so disposed. And inside theocracies and repressive cultures, people can still have thoughts even if expressing them would mean risking their lives. The point about brainwashing techniques is that they wash the ability to think independently right out of the brain. (Emphasis added)
What I realised when watching Deborah in action is that she will probably never be ‘disposed’ to seriously investigate ideas other than the ones that have been drummed into her head (and the heads of her ten siblings) since birth by her fundamentalist Christian parents. The children, who live in a farmhouse in rural Dorset, are home-schooled. They are taught that the Bible is literally true and not to be questioned. At the tender age of 13, it appears that any capacity for independent, critical thought has already been washed right out of her brain.
In Deborah’s eyes, anyone who can believe a theory as daft as the Big Bang, “needs help”. Someone who’s told a little white lie is as much a sinner as a murderer and every single one of us — including her — is “wretched and deserves to go to hell”. Her party trick of establishing whether someone has ever lied, stolen, blasphemed or coveted in order to demonstrate that they aren’t a good person after all, wasn’t examined too closely on the programme — a shame, I think. Does worshiping her god really mean judging others so harshly?
In 1961, I stole a half-finished pack of toffees from the desk of one of my classmates who at the time, like everyone else in the class except me, had her eyes closed for the end-of-day class prayer. I was aware I was doing wrong — committing a ‘sin’ — but the thought that all that delicious chewy sweetness could be mine made the temptation impossible to resist. I enjoyed the stolen sweets as I walked home alone, even though I had set myself the task of reciting the Lord’s Prayer as I chewed in order to cancel out the sin. With hindsight, I am quite impressed at the 5-year-old’s reasoning ability that had lead to this deal I’d ‘negotiated’ with the god of my imagination, who was obviously a more humane and reasonable god than Deborah’s. By Deborah’s reasoning, this act of theft committed nearly half a century ago would presumably be sufficient to warrant the charge that I’m a ‘thieving person’ and so deserve to burn in Hell for eternity.
One of Deborah’s targets — a young woman at her brother’s university — gently and politely raised the question of how a white lie such as reassuring someone their bum doesn’t look big could be the same as murder. The answer to this and every other question, according to Deborah, lies in the Bible and that’s all there is to it. But I would dearly like to have gone a bit deeper. Deborah suggests that coveting something makes you a bad person. How does it? What is Deborah’s understanding of the word ‘bad’? If her father — who openly admits he is ‘training his children for Eternity’ — has trained her well, he will have trained her in the art of quote-mining from the Bible in order to justify condemning as evil what most of us would see as normal human feelings.
And he probably has, for every day of Deborah’s life starts with Bible study before the children are schooled in English, arithmetic and basic science. We learn that Deborah’s older brother Matthew, who is 20 and as camp as a row of pink tents, “won his place at university, despite never attending a traditional school” (or any other kind of school, actually). At the University of Derby you can train to be a chef, apparently. Unsurprisingly, the two-year course in ‘Professional Culinary Arts’ has no academic entrance requirements whatsoever. (Click here for the course webpage, which contains a video featuring Matthew sweetly explaining how he fell in love with the kitchens.)
This brings me to my main objection to Deborah’s family. Matthew is interested in food and, fortunately, found a course he could get onto without formal schooling. It’s a good job he didn’t really want to study languages or law or physics. “You don’t need A-levels and certificates and things to get where you want to go,” the mother assures us, evidently confident that her children won’t want to go anywhere far. Her eldest daughter got married at 19 and is now a mother herself. Apart from Matthew, the rest are still in their parents’ crowded farmhouse. By denying them the social and educational opportunities offered by a school-based education, the Drappers are narrowing their children’s horizons and closing their minds. (This isn’t to say that home-schooling is always a bad thing. In certain circumstances it can be a good thing but these circumstances do not apply here.)
Deborah rarely leaves the farm she lives on. On the social occasions contrived especially for the programme, she seemed unable to socialise naturally with other youngsters. Every choice of her own is explained with reference to the Bible. “I’m only 13 so legally I’m not allowed to drink and the bible says do not look upon the wine when it becomes fermented,” she explains to her bemused companions. Every social occasion is an opportunity to witness and save souls. “I don’t mind offending if it means they are saved for Eternity,” she says flatly. “I don’t try to make people upset but it’s good to scare them about Hell.”
Much of the time she comes across as sanctimonious and defensive. “My friends are my family…I don’t see that there’s anything special about anyone my age that I should like to spend time with just people my age.” Her isolation from her peers is apparent when she’s revealed to be clueless about who Victoria Beckham and Britney Spears are and what reality TV entails.
But the worst thing, the absolute pits, is her preoccupation with Hell and her conviction that everyone is going there unless they are saved for Jesus. The Hell of Deborah’s imagination is, like her God, not very nice.
I think people can have their opinion but it’s not true. I think that when you die you go to Judgement and if God says you’re a liar and because of that you’re going to Hell, that’s a horrifying thought. It’s not nice. I mean, you don’t like to think about it because you don’t want to go to Hell do you? With fire and weeping and gnashing of teeth. It’s not a nice place to be. It’s a place where God isn’t.
The last shot in the programme is Deborah yet again proclaiming that “we are wretched, horrible people,” and that “I, Deborah Drapper, am a wicked person,” then breaking down in tears as she recounts that Jesus had died for her. Her palpable distress at the scenario she’s been indoctrinated to accept: that God sent his only son (who was really himself) to die an agonising death because we turned out to be no better than he made us and we are all going to Hell unless we ask for forgiveness, made me want to phone for a social worker and report her parents. Yet in the days after the programme was aired, some Christians rejoiced that it was shown on the BBC. The sight of a child breaking down in distress at the thought of Hell was ‘wonderful’ and ‘awesome’, apparently.
Shame on them.