Thanks to Netflix series Unorthodox, religious trauma is a topic that’s fresh on people’s minds, even if we haven't identified the show's takeaway message in that exact term. The drama details a young bride's life and subsequent escape from a deeply orthodox Hasidic community in Brooklyn.
The show became a hit in part for its main character’s gripping story arc — based on a true tale — and because of the profound interest in the curiously foreign ways of the Satmar community, which exists in stark contrast with the modern New York City where its members live.
The kind of trauma specific to religious indoctrination isn’t, for most people, a frequently occurring topic of discussion — except when a sect is discovered with sister wives or a former Scientologist goes rogue with a tell-all — but it's the subject of Kathryn Keller’s lifework.
The therapist has a chic turquoise-blue office in Dallas with her business partner Justine Kallaugher. Keller earned a doctorate in counseling psychology from Texas Woman’s University. Now she specializes in trauma and religious and spiritual abuse.
"It’s essentially when religion or spirituality is used to inflict harm on someone, whether intentionally or not," the therapist explains. "It involves an abuse of power and often results in shame. It could be perpetrated by an individual, family or religious group. It happens on a continuum ranging from mild manipulation or disempowering cultural norms to extreme coercion that robs the person of a true sense of self."
Keller's clients are primarily adults who have experienced trauma of any sort: "Childhood abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, emotional or psychological abuse," she says.
While working her first post-graduation job at the University of Arkansas, doing hourlong psychotherapy sessions with students, Keller began to see a recurring pattern and became interested in a particular type of abuse: the one instilled through religion.
“It’s the Bible Belt of Arkansas, like it is here, so I started hearing some of my clients talk about not just family complications or family issues — not just physical abuse — but I heard them talk about spiritual elements to that,” Keller remembers. “For example, they might be talking about a relationship that was abusive, maybe it was verbally abusive or physically abusive, and because of the religious environment that they were in, they didn’t feel like they could do anything about it. They were just supposed to pray about it.”
Keller says many of those students came from “kind of influenced culture of conservative Christianity, so they felt really stuck.”
Some of the specific religious trauma, Keller says, stands on its own.
“It’s not necessarily tagged to other kinds of abuse,” she says. “There’s religious trauma that intersects with sexual abuse, and then religious trauma can just happen on its own without necessarily being a part of physical abuse or sexual abuse or anything else."
When she was doing her undergraduate work at Baylor University, Keller had a roommate who was raised in a cult, which was another element that informed her specialty.
“We would just chat at night, and I just learned a lot about her upbringing and how devastating it was for her to process all of that in her recovery,” Keller remembers.
Keller ended up doing her dissertation on spiritual abuse and creating a clinical scale to measure spiritual trauma. It consists of a questionnaire with 17 questions about people’s experiences with religion. Some are broad, like “I felt like I could ask questions of my leader.” Keller explains that a scale like the one she created is an essential tool in any scientific study.
“You have to be able to measure something to study it, so that’s why I created the scale, because we don't know how prevalent religious abuse is — some people make estimates, but they’re kind of like wild guesses; until you really measure something, how can you really study it?”
The scale is unpublished but accessible, and Keller says that every so often a student will email her to request permission to use it for research study.
“I always say yes," she says.
For all the documentaries and interest in fundamentalist religions, Keller says there isn’t a ton of academic research on the subject. Instead, she says, victims of spiritual abuse attempt to heal each other by forming their own online communities.
“There are all these communities of people who are in recovery from high-control communities like ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses, former fundamentalists, ex-evangelicals and things like that, but the academic literature is pretty much behind the curve,” Keller says.
Once a month, Keller runs a spiritual abuse consultation group. Most of her clients are recovering from high-control or fundamentalist Christianity, where one particular issue comes up frequently.
“Many of them identify as LGBTQ and have been shamed a lot and basically told horrible things or that they’re going to hell,” Keller says of her clients.
John, who requested we change his name, and who isn't treated by Keller, grew up Southern Baptist and then got into “some pretty hard-core fundamentalist evangelicalism in college,” he says, adding that he had to “unlearn" what he'd been taught in the first half of his life.
“For me, the concept that I was experiencing religious trauma isn’t something that I understood or recognized in myself or around me until much later in my life," John says. "Looking with hindsight now I can see how the ways in which I was subtly indoctrinated to think about and see the world affected the ways in which I treated myself and treated others in pivotal moments of my life, in critical stages of development ... I am having to learn how to love myself where I’m at, and know that my worth and value is not determined upon saying the right sort of things or believing the right sort of things in the right way.”
Keller researches religions to better understand their rules and customs, and she has to make the distinction between what constitutes tradition and what is abuse, while the two concepts overlap. Keller comes from a Christian background and is still active in her church. She finds that her firsthand experience has been vital to understanding her clients' stories.
“Sometimes it’s very helpful to have been a part of that group before, because you kind of get some of that cultural nuance," she says. "Things that you and I might think are really extreme or inappropriate or even harmful, when you’re in a group like that, it’s totally normal to you.”
Even for an expert, the lines between religious and cultural tradition are so entwined that it would take a team of experts in different disciplines to make an accurate analysis. Most modern societies are set up in men’s favor, and religious groups reflect this. (The one depicted in Unorthodox has strict rules that require women to dress modestly, forbids their singing in public and demands they shave their heads after marriage so as not to “tempt” men with their hair.)
“Our culture is set up as patriarchal — men still get paid more, women are asked certain questions that men aren't. ... Nobody asked my husband if he was going to stay home with the baby. So, I think of that as an example of a cultural thing,” Keller says. “In certain high-control religions it is patriarchal, and it’s not subtle in the culture, it’s overt, even supported by their interpretations of certain Bible verses, like women should submit to their husbands, a woman is a 'helpmeet' — it’s an old word, like a helper to the husband.”
Keller says that while in certain religions women are seen as lesser than men, it’s the same across most cultures.
“I think of abuse as on a huge continuum — patriarchy and other cultural pieces that are just part of the norm, part of the culture, that might not necessarily be abusive," she says. "But when you add on certain interpretations of sacred scriptures and whatnot, that can start to become abusive.”
Keller treats patients whose religions often place a higher value in an undissolved marriage over human rights. She points out the cases of women who are stuck in domestic violence situations or are victims of spousal rape, who are coerced to stay married for fear of being shunned by their communities.
Some of the clients she sees have been denied medical care because "it goes against God’s will.”
Before Unorthodox, there were other widespread cautionary tales of threatened women’s rights in extreme patriarchal communities, particularly in The Handmaid’s Tale. Between the feminist protests of the Trump administration and the anti-vaxxer movement, Keller has seen how unchecked trauma can change the course of entire nations.
“I feel like I’m coming alongside of this movement, the women’s movement, the feminist movement, the MeToo movement, all these movements that have gained traction over the years, and so I have a little tiny piece of it with the spiritual and religious abuse ... with all these big movements and all the media attention and current administration, there’s so much attention to abuse now it’s not a hard sell,” she says of her field of study.
“I think a few years ago, even when I was doing my dissertation back in 2015 or so, they would ask what I was studying and I would say 'spiritual abuse' and they would say, 'What is that?' But now it feels a little more natural in terms of people who say 'I know about abuse, I hear about it in the media all the time.' Spiritual abuse is just another way in which people are abused and oppressed and disempowered, so I think people get it now more than they used to.”
While Keller is certainly a pioneer in a new branch of therapy, she didn’t invent the concept. Psychologist Marlene Winell first coined the term "religious trauma syndrome," but it's still a fairly new field.
“That’s not necessarily in our diagnostic manual,” Keller says of the specific type of PTSD traced to oppressive religious practices.
“There’s a decent amount of research specifically on cults. There’s a cultic studies association,” she says. Keller, on the other hand, is also interested in the shaming that occurs in more casual environments, like mega churches, whose messages can be devastating to those struggling with their gender identity or sexuality.
“We do a lot of work kind of recovering from that evangelical fundamentalism,” she says, pointing to practices like conversion therapy.
Another common form of religious abuse, Keller says, revolves around “purity culture,” where clients have been subjected to years of “inappropriate shaming messages about sex and our bodies and sexuality.”
Last year, Keller held an open event, a three-hour training session for rape crisis center The Turning Point, where she trained the staff to use the scale and how to identify spiritual abuse in victims of sexual assault. She also does conferences and training on abuse for other psychological associations.
There are marked distinctions, Keller says, between those considered “second-generation adults,” who are born into an extreme group, and those who go into religious groups later in life.
“That's a very different clinical presentation than someone else who — I do see this — was born into an extreme cult, commune situation, where they're completely isolated from the rest of society, because there’s extreme, chronic trauma,” she says.
Keller explains that while most people who suffer trauma present symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder like anxiety, feelings of being easily overwhelmed and nightmares, those who are raised in isolation with extreme groups more likely exhibit “complex PTSD.”
That's the result of a chronic, ongoing trauma, such as being raised in a cult, being chronically sexually or physically abused as a child, or being held captive for years. Some cults, she says, separate children from their parents and raise them in a separate kids’ dorm.
Religious abuse can happen anywhere. Elizabeth Smart, who was kidnapped as a child in 2002 and repeatedly sexually assaulted by a couple for nine months, has spoken about having to sit through a lecture on abstinence, where teachers passed around a piece of chewed up gum making the “lesson” the fact that no one in the class would want something used.
“I do think it is all intertwined,” Keller says of the things "marketed to us" by pop culture and religion.
“We already have messages around sexuality and what’s OK and what’s expected in terms of gender roles,” she says.
These are enforced by events like purity balls, dances organized around the celebration of abstinence and young girls pledging their “purity” until marriage — making this oath to their fathers no less, like in the famously cringe-y case of singer Jessica Simpson and her (former) pastor father Joe. These messages, over time, cement themselves as the norm.
“It’s damaging,” Keller says of the religious expectations that seep into the mainstream. “I’ll have people in my office that tell me, ‘I’m afraid I’m going to hell because I had sex with my boyfriend. I’m afraid God’s gonna punish me because I smoked marijuana.'”
Parents can find ways to instill a sense of religion in children without causing them trauma through its teachings, Keller says.
"It’s always healthy to expose kids to various cultures and belief systems," she says. "My hope with my own kiddo is that if I’m honest about my values and beliefs and let him know that many people have different beliefs about things, he’ll have the opportunity to explore his own meaning in the world.
"Another thing I would say about kids is to be careful of the line between guidance and coercion. ... Be a safe and nonjudgmental place for them to bring questions to you, knowing that you won’t judge or reject them even if you land in a different space religiously or non-religiously."
Keller says that without therapy, victims' guilt sometimes manifests in self-destructive behaviors, which she compares to the arcade game Whack-a-Mole: “It pops up and you hit it and it pops up somewhere else. When people are just suppressing behaviors, often they will manifest in another way. Like eating disorders, anxiety or drinking."
On the bright side, Keller she sees firsthand how people can work to be free of their trauma.
“It takes a lot of healing and processing. But the good news is that it’s possible,” she says. “That’s why I feel hopeful. I do see these people who come with these heartbreaking stories of abuse, and I get to see them heal."
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