A Story of Unlearning



People wanted to hear the story of a white, conservative, evangelical woman from the South publicly endorsing vaccines, especially in the wake of a global pandemic that could be put to rest if those millions of “crazy evangelicals” just got the vaccine. But this, I soon realize, is not the story that matters most — at least, not to Katherine.



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The names in this piece have been altered for anonymity.

On February 20, 2021, Katherine is on a grocery run. She sits in the passenger seat of her Nissan Altima watching the people, trees and shops of Forney, Texas, appear and disappear. Mark, her husband, is at the wheel. A beautiful and giggling three year-old, Alice, swings her legs in the backseat. It’s a Saturday afternoon, and Katherine is on the phone with me.

“Here you go, Alice.” Katherine hands her some snacks; it sounds like she’s holding her breath while talking.

Katherine, homeschooled and raised strictly evangelical, grew up getting all of her vaccines. When Katherine came out as “anti-vax” shortly after Alice was born in 2017, she was validated by other anti-vax Facebook moms in the Bible Belt. But then years went by and Katherine started researching, coming out as “pro-science” in 2019.

I ask Katherine why she thinks anti-vax dads aren’t as involved in the movement.

“I mean, it’s cultural. We’re known as a Christian country. Mom is in charge of the child and the father works,” she says. “But that’s not how our family is run. My husband is just as involved with my daughter as I am...” her voice trails off on the call.

“Sorry, my husband just ran into the grocery store.” She’s louder, clearer. “He was forcing me to say all of that stuff. This is what I really meant.”

I sit up in my chair and open my mouth to respond —

“It’s completely because of the Christian culture that women are having to do the children thing way more than men. I’m sorry, my husband gets annoyed when I talk about the patriarchy. He was motioning for me to stop talking. He doesn’t believe that the patriarchy exists.” Katherine laughs: “What a fun little dynamic in our eight years of marriage.”

The media caught on to Katherine’s vaccine storyline soon after she made her blog post on a prominent site for pro-vax parents. She received interview requests on podcasts, news segments, even CNN. People wanted to hear the story of a white, conservative, evangelical woman from the South publicly endorsing vaccines, especially in the wake of a global pandemic that could be put to rest if those millions of “crazy evangelicals” just got the vaccine.

But this, I soon realize, is not the story that matters most — at least, not to Katherine.

***

When Katherine met Mark, she was an actor and he was an extra on her film. On the West Texas set, he told her she was attractive, making her laugh and blush. Mark was charming, handsome, and financially stable. They began dating shortly after.

Yet there were warning signs.

“He told me, ‘If you don’t believe in speaking in tongues, we can’t get married.’ That shit is ridiculous. But I said sure, whatever. We believed enough of the same stuff,” she recalls. In fact, Katherine’s vaccine hesitancy also started as a shared belief, when she and Mark watched a documentary titled “Truth About Vaccines,” produced by an alternative medicine activist.

They married quickly and moved to Odessa, a small desolate oil town for Mark’s six-figure truck management job. Katherine quit film; there is no film in Odessa.

“I knew it wasn’t normal to cry every night,” Katherine says, her voice wavering.

I get a sense that Katherine looks at her life like one big tragic comedy, where she is sometimes the writer deciding the fate of the character and other times the actor who has surrendered control.

“Anyways,” she continues, “when we moved to Odessa, that’s what really started me on a dark path.”

The dark path continued when the couple was transitioning from Odessa back to Dallas and apartment hunting. They crashed at Katherine’s parents’ home for a few months. She was on the couch one evening, holding Alice, with Mark in the corner, playing Clash of Clans as he does for two hours every night. Alice gave a hungry whine. Katherine asked Mark to get Alice a cup. He reluctantly obliged. And after she snatched the cup from him, he smacked her across the head with his free hand.

That’s how he would have disciplined a 12-year old boy, Mark told Katherine later. “But… I’m not a 12-year-old boy, I’m your wife,” Katherine shot back.

The next morning, she sent Mark a text after he left for work: “You can never do that again or I’m gone.” It’s been over a year since, and he hasn’t. I ask Katherine if she lives in fear. “I walk on eggshells. There’s a piece of clothing out or a blanket and I’m like, oh no. He’s gonna kill me,” she laughs. “Not actually kill me. But, you know.”

***

Katherine was a good Christian girl. Growing up in Dallas, she went to church every Sunday

and memorized Bible verses. She was homeschooled and sheltered. Abortions are bad. The Republican party is the Christian party. It’s a sin to vote otherwise. But lately, Katherine hasn’t been a fan of church, especially after learning about how it mistreated women for centuries. “When did you become such a fucking feminist,” Mark said to her one day after she decided not to log onto a service on Zoom.

When things with Mark were bad, she confided in a woman at church. “God doesn’t have any will in our life except to please your husband,” she told Katherine. Then Katherine tried marriage counseling groups at the church, only to find they taught a book called “Love and Respect: The Love She Most Desires; The Respect He Desperately Needs.” “My Christian friends idolize their husbands,” she says. “You’re not supposed to make idols out of anyone if you’re a Christian. Oh, the irony.”

The data on the number of women who experience emotional abuse in Evangelical relationships is sparse. The stories rely heavily on women’s first-person accounts or Christian counseling blogs. Perhaps it’s because the dimensions of emotional abuse are ambiguous; for Katherine, this was precisely the origin of her years of psychological harm. Digs at her cooking, snide comments about her hair, and claims that the house was never clean accumulated. Katherine hesitated to call the teasing a sign of abuse. And the Evangelical church neither validated nor helped. It was a closed loop.

“They all think they’re the only ones,” says Natalie Hoffman. “That’s what happens when you’re in a bubble.” Hoffman is a domestic abuse survivor herself. She is also a Christian life coach, and the founder of the Flying Free program — an infrastructure that helps women of faith in emotionally destructive relationships gain control, power, and liberation. During the interview, there’s a painting of a young girl floating into the sky behind her.

Hoffman says the Christian faith is like a software program. Many of her clients are raised to believe their own feelings, pain, and heart matter very little. They’re taught self-love is selfish, which may lead them to tolerate abuse from their husbands. What these women need, Hoffman says, is something to interrupt the loop. Something to de-program. Something to make them realize life does not have to be this way.

One afternoon after searching on Amazon for “books on emotional abuse in marriages,” Katherine placed an order for Hoffman’s book, “Is It Me? Making Sense of Your Confusing Marriage: A Christian Woman’s Guide to Hidden Emotional and Spiritual Abuse.”

“Is it Me?” arrived on Katherine’s doorstep days later, and over the next few weeks, its pages became dog-eared and paragraphs underlined. The book became her new Bible, her new place of worship in bed or at the kitchen table. Katherine underwent a quiet revolution, one that took place between these weathered pages that seemed to have been written just for her. The book, Katherine says, gave her the confidence to know she’s not crazy.

“I felt like a fake. Have I been faking it this whole time?” Katherine says. “No, I haven’t. This is just what happens when somebody’s life changes.”

Katherine wanted so desperately to have the space to think for herself in her marriage, to unlearn the perceptions of wifehood, motherhood, and womanhood that she grew up believing. But she couldn’t. The marriage, the church, her family, and her upbringing stifled her. There is no room for change or personal inquiry for a woman in an emotionally abusive marriage, she later learned.

The anti-vaccination narrative is heavily focused on figuring out why so many people choose not to vaccinate. Women in particular are maligned for being insensitive mothers, for risking their family’s health. But maybe there are more Katherines: women who were raised to believe one thing and denied the opportunity to explore beyond. If domestic abuse is missing from the anti-vax narrative, our answers as to why some women still reject vaccines will be incomplete. We need to go deeper. How are women’s minds limited? How is their individuality diluted?

“Is It Me?” was liberating and revolutionary for Katherine, and it helped unlock her new intellectual world. It verbalized everything she already knew but wasn’t given the grace to realize, mobilizing her to formulate beliefs, unfettered.

“People don’t want to unlearn,” she says. “But you have to.”

Katherine came out as pro-vax in January 2021, shortly after reading “Is It Me?” Since then, she’s been featured on podcasts, asked to speak at events sponsored by researchers and doctors, and vaccinated herself and Alice. It was almost an afterthought, the product of questioning her relationship and her place within it, a mere result of seeking to change herself from the inside out. Becoming pro-vax was only the manifestation of a deep, internal change that was a very long time coming.

***

“Mommy, we’re gonna be on TV!” Alice says as she zooms around the wood floors in her socks munching on a Luna Bar.

It’s March 2021, and a CNN camera crew is setting up in Katherine’s backyard. They contacted Katherine through Facebook about doing a segment on her anti-vax to pro-vax transition. The vaccination debate has resurfaced in the wake of the FDA approving Covid-19 vaccinations from Pfizer, BioTech, and now Johnson & Johnson in the last few months, and thousands are booking appointments, anxious to get their fair share of the dose. People — the media, that is — are fascinated with stories like Katherine’s.

After almost 10 years, Katherine is back in front of a camera. The solo shots feel good, but then, the producer wants to interview the couple together. Katherine tells the producer about Mark’s history of abuse. There are some uncomfortable pauses and calling of managers, but they proceed.

Katherine and Mark sit apart in their backyard. Mark is tall and pale with a frizzy brown beard; his eyes are cold. They don’t look like a couple, but rather two acquaintances who have no desire to become anything more than that.

“Do you believe in vaccines?” The producer turns to Mark.

“I don’t believe all vaccines are necessary, like tetanus for example. The likelihood of someone getting that is really low.” Katherine contorts her face, laughs, and looks directly at the camera. “Because everyone is vaccinated,” Katherine insists, exasperated.

There is an awkward silence, but it feels more awkward for Mark and the producer. As the interview continues, Katherine stays calm when the producers ask her if she feels guilty for being responsible for the loss of lives when she was an anti-vax proponent, if she thinks she is a bad mom for not focusing more energy on raising Alice. She defends her choices and does not waver.

“What I say is gonna piss people off. You own everything that happens to you,” she recalls to me later.

After the main interview, the camera crew got shots of Katherine reading and playing outside with Alice and the family hanging out — “making our life look beautiful,” Katherine laughs. Then they left and the first thing Katherine did was take off her bra, hop in the car, and drive to Starbucks for an extra-hot soy chai latte. Her eyes look straight ahead as she heads for the open road.