Liz Heywood grew up in the Christian Science Church outside of Boston, the church’s headquarters. When she was a teenager, she developed a serious bone infection in her knee. Her family, members of the Christian Science Church, arranged for her to receive faith healing. No one took her to see a doctor, even as she suffered intense pain and was unable to walk. After being bedridden for a year, her leg was deformed and, eventually, had to be amputated above the knee. This article is the first of a series that features survivors of religious child maltreatment who have not only pursued their own psychological healing, but have also chosen to speak out to protect children who currently suffer abuse and neglect in the name of religion. Liz’s blog and website can be found here.
I imagine that when you were growing up in the Christian Science Church, everything seemed normal, including the faith healing rituals and the peculiar way the church perceives illness. That is, that illness is not real but, rather, an illusion of the mind. Did you believe its teachings as a child and perhaps worship Mary Baker Eddy?
I was very thoroughly indoctrinated as a kid. I was born at home and only had the minimum school vaccinations required under the religious exemption. My parents each had a sister who had a so-called “miraculous healing” in childhood after their mothers converted to Christian Science. We lived within twenty miles of the Christian Science “Mother Church” in Boston. In the 1970s, the church had lobbied to make it legal in Massachusetts and other states to pray for children rather than seek medical attention. This was all normal to me. I never considered it peculiar to view sickness or injury as a “mortal belief” as we did. I was terrified by the idea of having medical treatment, because that implied giving up on God and prayer, which meant choosing to suffer, choosing to be wrong, ignorant, and mortal. I never had the sense of worshipping Mary Baker Eddy, but we honored her far beyond what was reasonable. We swallowed all the contradictions of her teachings, including the idea that getting eyeglasses and dental work were acceptable, while being treated for other medical conditions was not.
What do you have to say to modern-day apologists of the Christian Science Church who say what you experienced forty years ago was extreme and alien to the real intent of the church?
It simply isn’t true. I was a faithful member until the early 1990s, when I was in my early thirties, and even then there was this undercurrent of very devout belief that insisted only this specific form of prayer could heal and only if there was “no mixing” with medicine. I never questioned this until I had a child of my own. I think I clung to the church the way a young, extremely idealistic soldier will refuse to speak out against a war, even after suffering a major injury. The emotional hurricane that results of asking questions is tough to get through. I couldn’t bear to ask the hard questions until my whole life began to fall apart.
When you were laid up and suffering with osteomyelitis at the age of 14, did you feel conflicted by the fact that you weren’t getting better, or did you rationalize it in some way, or both?
Definitely both. I honestly expected to be healed. Every other physical concern until then seemed to improve after we prayed. We usually hired a Christian Science practitioner to pray for us. The bone disease appeared very suddenly. My knee swelled up while I was watching TV one night. It grew more swollen, stiff, and painful for about six weeks. I assumed that it would get better. (My practitioner said he’d been healed instantaneously of an infection in his feet bad enough to potentially require amputation.) Only the infection didn’t get better, and I couldn’t understand why. Then pus began to drain out of my knee. It was horrible and painful. And still, I thought, “Well, it’s an infection, and now it’ll heal.” But it only got worse, as more places drained pus. I was bedridden for almost a year, yet I believed Christian Science could heal me, rationalizing that I must be the weak link in the chain. (As a young adult Christian Scientist, I had been told that I was old enough to be responsible for my healing along with my parents and the practitioner who prayed for me.
Finally, I wished I would die just to end my suffering. Finally, after a year, the infection ended and I was strong enough to get in a wheelchair. But that was not the end of my suffering. Over the next eighteen months, my knee became fused, and my leg was scarred to the bone and disfigured.
Even though you suffered greatly from osteomyelitis and were left permanently disabled by the disease, did Christian Scientists around you praise the faith for “miraculously” saving your life, while failing to acknowledge the harm?
After being bedridden for a year, showing up at church on my crutches was impressive, but my fellow churchgoers never called it a miracle, because Christian Scientists don’t believe in miracles. Still, we were all immersed in such heavy and consistent indoctrination that I think it would have been difficult for anyone to speak up and question why, after so much faith healing, my condition got as bad as it did. We were invested in this form of treatment. To doubt was to undermine the effect. Everyone was trying to be supportive. They encouraged me on my excellent progress and hard “work” (meaning spiritual work, prayer and studying Christian Science). Of course, no one mentioned the crutches I needed for more than a year, my auto-fused leg, or my limp. I think this particular mindset is powerful enough to affect what you truly believe you see, or it just doesn’t allow you to see what is true. It borders on psychotic. It’s as though the emperor has no clothes and not only do his people refuse to say so, they can’t see it in the first place.
Fifteen years ago, before my leg was amputated, I wore shorts to a family reunion. I had left Christian Science and done a lot of psychotherapeutic work and gotten comfortable with my scars. Some of my relatives were still serious Christian Scientists and had never seen my leg. Let me tell you, I stop traffic when I wore shorts, yet no one said a word all weekend.
Did you have any support system?
In high school, I had a Sunday school teacher who told me my eventual complete, perfect healing would cause me to become a practitioner. I think he really believed all of it. This was while I was depressed to the point of being suicidal, struggling with panic attacks and loathing my body. I’d missed two years of school and lost almost all my close friendships.
How did you cope with what the disease had done to your leg?
I still blamed myself and prayed desperately. But as bad as the physical disease and pain were, my emotional hell was far worse. The bone infection appeared literally overnight and instantly stopped my very active eighth-grade life including riding my horse, running, and biking. I spent almost all of the year I was fourteen bedridden. I had to rely on my mother to clean my leg, bring me clothes, food, a wash basin, and a toothbrush. She had to help me sit up, lie down, and use a bedpan.
Once I got better and started walking, I didn’t recognize my body. I got my first period in bed, just before I was well enough to get into a wheelchair. I had gained weight. I couldn’t walk, let alone run, I’d missed school and all the social development that goes along with it. I was self-conscious about my limp, let alone my terrible scars, which I hid. I didn’t know my knee was fused, so I walked around compulsively to try force my knee to bend. I fasted and binged for a year to try to force my body to look the way I remembered. My mood swings were hair-trigger. Just the wrong word could send me spiraling into near-suicidal depression. I was positive I’d failed to demonstrate a reliable religious system, one I’d been raised to regard as infallible. I felt completely inadequate, incompetent and undeserving of good. Even after I started riding horses again and discovered I could be very active, I saw myself as a failure. My limp was the first thing anyone ever noticed about me, and to me, it represented all my inadequacies.
How did you manage as you got older? Did having been forced to suffer this disease cause you problems later in life?
Yes. I quit high school. I married too young and into another very controlling family. Since then, I’ve been divorced twice. I’ve never been able to hold a steady job, although I always did best working outdoors. By the time I was in my mid-twenties, I was convinced that I was crazy and began seeing a therapist, who diagnosed me as suffering with severe post-traumatic stress disorder. With therapy and meds, I’ve learned to manage it, but I still have bad days. Trauma can change brain chemistry to the point where the damage shows up on scans, and like any other injured body part, the brain’s function changes too. But most of the time, I feel much better than ever before. I’ve fought hard to get to this place in my head. But at the same time, after what I went through, I now have a scary level of tolerance for pain. It made me tough and hard, and I worry that I’m not as sympathetic and empathetic towards my kids as I should be.
How would you explain what a child goes through who is suffering from religious medical neglect?
I think the biggest danger is the day to day emotional damage of being told you have the ability to pray your pain away. Then you pray, and your headache doesn’t end. The implication is that you haven’t done your part correctly, because, obviously, God isn’t at fault. I don’t think it matters what church you follow or if the illness or injury is minor. Pain is pain. Suffering is suffering, and enduring it only teaches dissociation. You zone out and stop feeling. I’ve seen a lot of this behavior in Christian Scientists. It’s not only physically dangerous—especially when they deny their own kids’ suffering—it also rips apart families. In my family, the Christian Science standard of perfection compounded the pressure to present only a happy appearance. Both my grandmothers were single parents who attributed their successes to God and prayer. Most of my relatives were church members. My father’s sister was a practitioner and “treated” me for several months. She became our family matriarch and religious standard bearer, and though she seemed like the kindest person possible, several family members, including her own son, disappeared and cut almost all contact with her. I think family dynamics are hard enough when you’re allowed to be human, but they don’t stand a chance when everyone is expected to be perfect.
What has it been like for you to recently become an advocate for religiously abused and neglected children? What made you decide to go public with your story?
I never, ever thought I could bring myself to write and speak about what happened. I’ve always written but I only started writing about my life growing up in the Christian Science Church about eight years ago. Later, I contacted Rita Swan of Children’s Healthcare Is A Legal Duty, which fights legislation that harms children through religious and cultural practices. She’s a hero of mine, as well as a powerful, wonderful writer. She put me in touch with Sean Faircloth when he was Executive Director for the Secular Coalition of America. As a result of that connection, my statement was read at the White House at the SCA’s meeting with Obama aides in 2010. A year ago, Sean interviewed me in a video for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. Sean is another terrific advocate for religiously neglected kids. He zeroed right in on the fact that repeatedly telling a child her pain will stop if the right concept is understood and repeated amounts to torture.
I’m glad to have become an advocate, but it took a long time for me to feel ready. You’re looking at sixteen years of intense psychotherapy here! My indoctrination made it almost impossible for me to know that what I’d gone through was wrong, at least until I was well into my thirties. And when I left that mindset, I went through hell trying to learn to think and function as a human, a woman, and amother. Now that I speak freely about the abuse, it’s still difficult to understand how others see it. Most people focus on my leg and amputation when the emotional trauma is so much worse. And it affects so many kids and adults who don’t have shocking physical scars. I’m grateful to be able to join this cause. I’ll do whatever I can to make it difficult for parents to subject a child to even a fraction of what I experienced.
I don’t claim to know what the norm is for children growing up in Christian Science households these days, but I believe that there has been a widespread growing awareness among the members that dead kids aren’t good for the movement. It actually takes a lot to bring such self-awareness to hardcore believers. More tolerant members choose medical care for their kids. Hopefully the hard-core devotees will die out. That’s been the case in my family, and I’m glad about that.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about the Christian Science Church or religious medical neglect?
Christian Science has been allowed to cultivate an image of sobriety, intelligence, and viability. The Monitor newspaper and radio network helped foster that image, as well as the church’s intense lobbying of states to pass pro-faith healing exemptions. Now members try to persuade the public that they are some New Age-y system and that it’s okay if members go to doctors. But the church is an anachronistic cult based on the ravings of an unstable woman a hundred and fifty years ago. So-called “evidence” of healing is anecdotal, and members continue to deny that pain is real. It may take a perfect storm for a case like mine to surface. But it could potentially happen to any child in that church whose parents take the fundamental ideas seriously. We have to remember that this church claims that mortal bodies, pain, or life on this earth are not real. They put the laws in place to “shield” their fanatical beliefs from outside scrutiny—laws that have allowed other faith-healing religions to ride on Christian Science’s coattails. So now we see kids in other churches dying because of the lobbying efforts of the Christian Science Church. We’ve got to hold this topic in public view as long as it takes, until zealous faith healing becomes as socially unacceptable and outdated as leeches or blood-letting.