"College was called 'Babylon'": A former "stay-at-home daughter" exposes Christian patriarchy

In her memoir "Rift," author Cait West describes Christian radicalism that is scarily powerful in the modern GOP

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published May 1, 2024 6:00AM (EDT)

Tired stressed new mother at home (Getty Images/kieferpix)
Tired stressed new mother at home (Getty Images/kieferpix)

Christian fundamentalism is a competitive sport, with adherents often trying to outdo each other by escalating their extremism. Author Cait West is a survivor of this toxic dynamic, having grown up in a church and family seemingly intent on generating ever more stringent rules governing people's sexuality, education, and life choices — especially those of girls and women. In her new book, "Rift: A Memoir of Breaking Away from Christian Patriarchy," West details a childhood under a father who spent years trying to tighten his grip on his family, denying his children ordinary life experiences like dating, education, or even the barest amount of autonomy. 

West spoke to Salon about her experiences as a "stay-at-home daughter," explained why fundamentalism lures so many people in, and what, exactly the Christian right finds so alluring about Jane Austen novels. 

This interview was edited for length and clarity

Many of our readers are quite familiar with the Christian right, their strict gender roles, and even their abstinence-only teachings. But what you describe in your book is next level. You even say that the book "I Kissed Dating Goodbye" was considered too liberal. What is being a "stay-at-home daughter?"

"My job was to learn homemaking skills and prepare to be a stay-at-home wife."

I grew up in the Christian patriarchy movement, which teaches that because God is masculine, he's the ultimate patriarch. That means that men are the best representation of God. Men are supposed to be leaders of the family, the church and the government. Women were created to submit, either to their fathers or their husbands. Growing up as a girl, I was told I would never leave the home until I got married. I wouldn't get a higher education. I wouldn't have dating relationships. I wouldn't have a career. My job was to learn homemaking skills and prepare to be a stay-at-home wife. And that's why they called girls like me "stay-at-home daughters," because we were living very differently from the outside world. We were proud of that fact.

Your educational limits struck me because it's more severe even than a lot the home-schooling Christian fundamentalism that we've heard about. What were your family's views on college? 

It was never an option. I could maybe take a class for fun, like an art class, but not anything that would lead to me having education for a job. I was told it would be a waste of time, and it wouldn't be safe for me to go to college. College was called "Babylon." I was taught that it was a scary place where women were sexually assaulted. That we'd be taught about evolution and other dangerous teachings. Even for boys, it was discouraged, unless they needed it for a specific profession.

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In your book, you really get into maddening and contradictory expectations around courtship. You were told that a young man was supposed to ask if he could court you and your father would say yes. It was supposed to go smoothly into marriage. But that was not your experience. What happened when you actually tried these courting relationships?

First off, I wasn't allowed to really be friends with boys. I was allowed to be friendly or polite, but not to have real friends who are boys. So I didn't know the men who were interested in me. In the specific case of my first courtship, he asked my father if we could have a courtship. My dad said yes. We had quite a long relationship, but because this man wasn't quite meeting my father's standards in terms of like income and job stability, he ended it. We followed a courtship guide called the "Pathway to Christian Marriage." It had all these questions that we would go through every week with my father. All of our time together was chaperoned. I never really got to know him very well, but I also thought I was going to get married to him and that we would eventually get to know each other after that. When my father ended the courtship, I felt heartbroken. I was really upset because I had no choice about it. I didn't even really get to say goodbye.

My father told me I was sinning by having these strong emotions. Not only was my relationship ended and I had no choice, but I was shamed for having emotions. That was one of the breaking moments for me, when I knew that something was off in my family and this wasn't going to work out.

I thought that was one of the most disturbing parts of the book: Your father's repeated insistence that having feelings about somebody was not only wrong but sinful. 

It's tied in with purity culture. The idea of purity culture is that you'd stay physically sexually pure until you get married. We just took it one step further to this idea of emotional purity. You shouldn't share your heart with anyone you weren't married to. That would be like cheating on your future spouse. So. that's why my father said it was sinful. He also framed it as, "This is for your protection." So you don't carry emotional baggage into your future marriage. It was framed as a positive thing. But my experience of it was very negative.

Your family didn't start in this almost cultish religion. Your parents dated before they got married.


Your dad pushed your family further and further down this path of escalating fundamentalism. What was it about this increasingly rigid fundamentalism that was so appealing to him? 

I can only speculate, but my father has a tendency towards authoritarianism. I see this progression into more extreme beliefs and lifestyle as him finding validation in controlling his family. These teachings told him it was godly to control us this way. Having this validation was very appealing to him, but he's not the only type of person who gets wrapped up in this movement. People often get in because they're afraid of things they don't understand. Economic insecurity, social issues, or just being afraid of gender roles changing. They're fed these messages of fear from patriarchal pastors. They're promised, if you follow all these rules in your family, then, you're going to have a blessed house and you're gonna have many children and grandchildren and God will bless you. There is this fear and then this promise.

I was struck by how the arguments for courtship and not leaving the house and controlling children were framed as a kind of loss aversion. There's this promise that there's a recipe to avoid feeling sad.

It's in the courtship model itself. We're told dating would be practice for divorce. But if you go through courtship and you follow all the rules, your heart will be intact when you get married, and you won't experience that ever. We were told not to get too attached to the world, and don't fall in love with worldly things, because they don't last forever. I was constantly being told that emotions were unreliable. If you conform to the rules and you don't have strong feelings, then everything goes smoother. But, yeah, I think people want to protect themselves and their children from pain. That's a very human desire. But we take it too far. 

It seems very ironic to me. People raise children in these rigid fundamentalist spaces because they're afraid to lose them. And then what they do is they end up driving them away. Have you ever talked to your father about that?

Well, the last time I talked to my dad was like five years ago. But when I left I tried to explain to him how I was feeling and my belief that my emotions weren't sinful. That I thought he was emotionally abusing me. That didn't go very well. He rejected that and he was very hurt that I would even say that. He's never taken accountability for anything that I talk about in the book. He thinks that he was following God the whole time. We don't have contact anymore.

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What are the things you hope to get by sharing your story? 

For people who have experienced abuse or who want to leave fundamentalism, I hope they feel seen and validated. Their experience is real and they deserve to be happy. They don't deserve to be hurt this way. When we tell our stories, that kind of magic can happen. We feel like we're not alone.

I hope that people don't disregard my story, because there are extreme aspects. I hope people see the similarities between my story and their stories, or how religion has impacted American politics. I was taught that my generation would grow up and make our government Christian. When we see things like Roe v. Wade being overturned. The speaker of the House is, in my opinion, a patriarchal Christian. It's very real and very relevant to all of our lives now. Even though it's difficult to understand the extremes, I feel like it's becoming more mainstream in many ways. So I hope it brings awareness to that.

I do want to end on a slightly lighter note. You're in the publishing industry, as well as being an author yourself. So can you help me understand something that puzzles me? Why are so many fundamentalists obsessed with Jane Austen? Her books are all over far-right Christian media. I don't get it. There's nothing like about her writing that seems fundamentalist to me. Please enlighten me!


For girls like me, we didn't find contemporary literature very relatable. But I could read a Jane Austen book and relate to what these characters were feeling and experiencing because they were living in a society where women needed to get married to have any kind of status or choice. That's what my life was like.

Also, fundamentalists aren't very nuanced in their reading of literature and texts. We see how they read the Bible. People like my parents would have seen Jane Austen as validating their belief in this old-fashioned gender hierarchy. They're not seeing the subversive aspects of what Jane Austen was saying. It's very black-and-white thinking. Austen's nuance just flew right over their heads.

Thanks for helping me because I just did not see how they could not see that Jane Austen is making fun of a lot of this patriarchal nonsense. 

I don't want to say fundamental fundamentalists are uneducated. They just don't value critical theory or higher literacy in the same way. What they value is their beliefs.

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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