‘She Doesn’t Smile Much’

“So tiny dancer, beware – we’re medicated and scared
This smile is so hard to wear
So turn away from the ones who hurt everyone
I can tell by your smile you’re coming undone
And you’re fading with every day…
There’s so much left in the air,
So much to tell from your stare.” -Seether

It was my golden birthday – when my age matched the day of the month, and I was seventeen years old. I usually liked to seek nature on the morning of my birthday, to greet the summer dew with my bare feet and watch the sun rise, returning to my bed for the traditional breakfast-and-gifts in bed. I couldn’t do that today, because at 7 a.m. I was hungry, the sun was up, and I could hear the reality TV producers and cameramen talking to my family upstairs.

I put on a blue dress that rather resembled a nightgown but would look good for the cameras. I put on makeup, though I never liked makeup. The sound guy knocked at my bedroom door and it took me a moment to find an answer, because I was so unfamiliar with answering a knock. My parents and siblings usually just walked in.

He smiled and apologetically asked for permission to wire me for sound. He left so I could hide the wire under my dress and clip the mic onto its collar. I made sure it was on, and hid the black control box under my sheets. Because I could be heard, I steadied my breathing and told myself not to absently talk to myself.

Something in me was sad and angry. I wanted to go to Disneyland with my brother because our golden birthdays were five days apart. We’d planned it out and tried to budget and save, but mom and dad said it was too grand a scheme – we wouldn’t be able to afford it; we didn’t have time. Then we planned another reality TV show. The birthday I’d looked forward to for years wasn’t going anything like I’d hoped.

It wasn’t that bad, I told myself while propping myself up on my pillows and carefully keeping the microphone hidden. I shouldn’t feel disappointment, I shouldn’t complain. Disneyland was such a common dream, anyway. I did what I always did: I smiled. Alone in my bedroom, I forced myself to grin, and let my mom’s phrase run through my head: “If you smile, it sends the message to your brain that you’re happy, and you’ll be happy.”

The frustration, the disappointment, the feeling that nothing was right about my lost opportunity at the birthday I wanted, and the fact that I had to look good for the cameras, melted away behind my smile.

I was “ready with a cheerful spirit” when my family opened my bedroom door and started singing the happy birthday song, carrying a now-cold breakfast, and followed by two cameramen and a guy with a boom pole.

—–

I get asked less often these days. “What is it like to be on TV?”

Usually I’d respond with a wry grin, trying to sort out the flood of memories. There was some good – I always thought the producers, cameramen, and other crewmembers were neat people. They were different from the people I knew. Some had tattoos or wore low-riding cargo pants. My parents often talked about how we should “witness” to these people, and tell them about Jesus. They celebrated when one assistant producer said that after filming at our house, he was thinking about having kids.

I gave my consent to be on TV – I don’t feel like I was coerced into it the first time. That’s why for the Kids by the Dozen show, I gave myself loads of screen time. To this day, I get messages from people saying that even at 14, I was witty and well spoken. The Secret Lives of Women, filmed a few years later…wasn’t something I wanted.

Other than disappointment about my birthday, I don’t really know why I didn’t want to be on the show. I liked the attention. I liked the publicity. I liked how great my family looked on screen. I just couldn’t find the motivation within myself to care. The walls weren’t breaking down yet – I was still wholeheartedly a member of the purity movement and the Rebelution – but it was difficult to perform. What I was feeling, I now realize, was the impact of suppressed emotions.

There’s one thing I also tell people when they ask what it’s like to be in the spotlight: the Internet is never the same.

Before 2007, if I Googled my own name, I’d generally find people with my rare last name, “Jeub,” and I could make a family tree. That was about it. After 2007, I could find what my dad called “hate mail.”

Dad and I could handle what Google produced – mostly forums and a few bloggers talking about us. Mom refused to read it, saying it was too painful.

I could laugh at some things, but most of it was bothersome.

Many people thought my dad seemed mean and narcissistic. A lot of people said it seemed hypocritical for mom and dad to kick Alicia out for getting pregnant out of wedlock, seeing as mom had had Alicia out of wedlock.

People asked, “Is Lydia Jeub gay?” because my straight and androgynous little sister, even though she had long hair at the time, was clearly athletic. They also asked if I was more controlled than my siblings because I wore dresses. I actually just liked wearing dresses, and I still like dresses.

It’s normal and common for people with a taste of fame to have mixed feelings about how the Internet treats them. In fact, my level of notoriety is just enough to be rather tame.

What made my experience with the Internet different was that it wasn’t really hate. These people weren’t trolling. They were giving their honest, compassionate responses to our family.

“It bothers me that the older kids raise the younger kids,” I read on various forums, and it made me get defensive. Sure, I helped out around the house, but it’s not like mom and dad were absent. They were around. My mom spent over an hour on the phone nearly every day, and went shopping every couple of weeks for six to eight hours at a time, but I was convinced: I wasn’t raising my siblings.

One line will always stick with me, from a forum about the 2009 Born to Breed show: “Cynthia Jeub made an interesting impression on me. The girl doesn’t smile much, does she. Maybe she’s just shy, but who knows.”

I am shy, but that comment made me think that maybe my performance on my birthday wasn’t as good as I’d hoped. If anyone asked me what was wrong, or said I looked sad, my response was to cheer up. I never stopped to ask if there was actually something wrong. I couldn’t. I was taught that if something is wrong, the appropriate thing is not to react. I was level-headed and did not get angry and I did not cry. Changing the situation was impossible, but I could change my attitude. Complaining was out of the question, especially when there was nothing to complain about, and clearly there wasn’t.

I wouldn’t trade the life experience I got from Reality TV, because it told me the one thing I needed to know in my teens: my life was strange, and people were curious about it. Most of all, it gave me the first hints that my lifestyle was not normal.

Born to Breed

CW: I describe unsanitary conditions for childbirth in this post…not sure if that’s a specific trigger for people, but thought it still deserved a warning.

“Pull back the curtains
Took a look into your eyes
My tongue has now become
A platform for your lies.” -Cage the Elephant

My dad was playing his guitar, and the rest of us were sitting around, following him for clues on what to sing next. He looked up at the new Bible selection, printed with a calligraphic font, framed and hanging above the piano.

He picked a chord, tried singing along with it: “Lo, children are a heritage…”

It didn’t fit. He adjusted his left hand to find another chord, and this sounded better. He tried singing a few notes, then broke into song, following the words:

“Lo, children are a heritage of the Lord,
And the fruit of the womb is his reward,
As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man,
So are the children of one’s youth.
Happy is the man that has his quiver full,
They shall not be ashamed (not ever)
For they will speak with the enemies in the gate
Psalm one-twenty-seven, yeah, psalm one-twenty seve-en.”

My dad always said he wanted a boy. He expected for me to be a boy, and he expected Lydia to be a boy. By the time Isaiah was born, there were four girls, and my parents were done.

Apparently that’s when God got involved, and convicted their hearts to keep having kids. Mom miscarried between Isaiah and Micah, and they were still just sixteen months apart. Then she was pregnant almost every year until there were sixteen kids.

We were quiverfull, and we were proud of it. In later years, my dad loved quoting the books “America Alone” and “The Empty Cradle,” and he often talked about how Christians weren’t having enough children. If we ever wanted to keep Muslims from taking over the earth, Christians needed to keep having loads of children. This was a competition, and the Quiverfull movement was fighting to win dominion over the planet.

That’s why it was a little weird to see my dad blogging recently that “patriarchy has got to go,” and that he’s ” becoming more and more repulsed at the use of the patriarchal idea of ‘dominion.’”

In 2009, we filmed our second show, this one with CBS. This was for the WE-TV channel, exclusive to certain cable services (Or is it cable networks? Dish connections? I don’t know how to talk about television subscriptions – we only had TV for one month when I was a teenager; we got a free trial so we could watch ourselves on TLC and then cancelled the subscription). It was, we found out after the producers had already gotten their footage, a show called “The Secret Lives of Women.”

Our episode for season 4 of the show was titled “Born to Breed,” and it featured four women who talked about the Quiverfull lifestyle. The first was Vyckie Garrison, founder of the site “No Longer Qivering.” She’d removed the letter “u” for her slogan, “There is no ‘you’ in Quivering.” She talked about how she’d lived the Quiverfull lifestyle and escaped from it. Then there was my mom, Wendy Jeub – in 2009, she had fifteen kids and she’d recently lost her pregnancy weight, so she looked healthy and happy. Another Quiverfull mom, Rachel Scott, was filmed with her large family, but it wasn’t as big as ours. The fourth woman was Kathryn Joyce, who’d just published a book about the Quiverfull lifestyle.

At home, my dad had derogatory things to say about Vyckie and Kathryn. He never swore or called them names, he just told us negative things about them that were partially true. He said Kathryn, being a woman who’d never experienced the Quiverfull lifestyle for herself, was just a journalist who didn’t know what she was talking about. He said Vyckie’s kids were rebellious and misbehaved all the time, and they looked less happy than they had been in the Christian Quiverfull lifestyle.

I loved having a big family. I thought I’d save my virginity for marriage, and that I’d save my first kiss for my wedding day. I wanted to have a large number of children, too. When friends asked if I was scared of the pain of childbirth, I thought I could handle it. After all, I’d watched my mother give birth to nine kids, eight of them in the small Jacuzzi tub at home. She endured each labor patiently, never screaming, always breathing through each contraction.

The forest-green carpeting in my parents’ master bathroom had white mold collected in the corners, and the panels around the shower had black mold climbing up them. I don’t know if it was Black Mold because you need such things to get professionally checked, but the mold was black. Sometimes we couldn’t turn on the jets while bathing the children, so the water wouldn’t get filled with flakes of the stuff.

I’d seen my mother give birth several times before I learned that most women can’t stand the pain. It also didn’t occur to me until this summer that since the bathtub was covered in mold, it probably wasn’t an ideal place for giving birth. I watched childbirth nearly a decade before I learned what exactly sex was, but I wore a purity ring in my late teens anyway.

All this, and I still thought I’d choose the same lifestyle my parents had chosen. I thought I was born to breed, that I’d court and marry a man who had my parents’ approval.

I practiced contentment. After all, I told myself, if I couldn’t be happy with my life as an older sister in a large family, how would I ever be happy as a wife and mother of my own large number of children? I knew I wanted this, so on hard days, when I got frustrated and overwhelmed with housework, I thought about how I’d someday have a husband of my own. I refused to even let myself fantasize about intimate moments with a man – that was impure, and I couldn’t expect married life to be all about that. I knew most of the time after we were married, he’d leave me home to cook and clean and watch the children. I must accept this fact of life and learn to be happy with it.

That’s what my life was: making promises I didn’t understand, being totally committed to things for which I had no alternative, and wanting a future life that would be just as happy as the one I was living.

When a Child is Taught to Hate: My Version of the Alicia Story, Part 2

“That’s not despair you’re feeling, it’s the petulant reaction of a wounded child
And that’s not the door I’m looking at, it’s an escape hatch to the zeppelin we’re inside…
This ain’t an insult, it’s the clearest truth I’ve ever had the misery to speak
These aren’t words, these are the terms of my surrender and defeat
But I’m not sorry, beyond the sorry nature of existing with no plans
Please don’t touch me, just wave goodbye with that claw that’s not a hand.” –El-P

I didn’t see the woman who raised me for three years. “Alicia” became a word that could incapacitate me for want of an emotional outlet. I didn’t know what triggers were, but the mention of her name was a trigger, and is still something I have mixed feelings about.

My aunt Becky visited my sister sometimes during those years, and she once showed me a picture of my baby nephew. I saw his picture, and felt no loss for myself in having never met a family member. My mother had already killed that idea: he was a symbol of my sister’s rebellion, proof that she was as “promiscuous” as mom said she was.

In 2006, we filmed for The Learning Channel and the film crew didn’t press the issue. My parents said my sister lived far away, and was, unfortunately, unavailable to participate in the show. Becky told me recently that when she met the on-site producer, he dropped this information offhand: “It’s too bad their oldest daughter couldn’t make it.”

“Alicia? But she lives twenty minutes away. I’m staying with her.”

“What? That’s not what I was told.”

That’s when they pressed the issue with my dad in an interview. This was the juicy story Reality TV was looking for, so they planned to film extra footage of a meet-up. My mom had met my nephew that summer, and the TV cameras filmed her getting a meal with Alicia and her son. Dad filmed his first meeting with his grandson, and the Learning Channel used his footage in the final show’s cut. I knew nothing of this at the time.

I saw my sister for the first time in three years the night before I’d be watching her on TV.

At the beginning of 2007, there was a short reunion. My dad called it the return of the prodigal, and we actually ate elk calf from a recent hunting trip. He said we’d “killed the fatted calf.” It looked great and we were all smiles, and it helped my parents sell a lot of books under the “Love in the House” brand. Seeing those pictures now makes me shudder. In the last two photos, I’m smiling unnaturally brightly, saying to my dad’s camera what I couldn’t say aloud – that I was desperate to let the world know how glad I was to have my sister back that night.

The next seven years were rocky. We tried to make it work, but mom and dad insisted on condescending to Alicia. They refused to treat her relationship as a marriage, saying she and her boyfriend, Josh, were “shacking up,” even though they were in a steady, stable relationship and we live in a common law state. They wanted to print in the Christmas Letter that she’d had another child out of wedlock, with no mention of her committed husband. Alicia gave my mom a family picture including Josh and their two sons, but my parents refused to use it. In turn, Alicia and Josh refused to let them put pictures of their kids in the Christmas Letter.

I believed my parents were right to treat my sister the way they did. After all, she wasn’t really married. She had done some pretty bad things by the standards with which I was raised. I fought with her and cut off communication because she wanted to keep talking to me, even though there was conflict with my parents.

I only started to doubt the way my parents had treated Alicia when my parents kicked Lydia and me out. This was all familiar, something I hadn’t heard in over a decade: “You can’t be here. Get out or do as I say.” It was what my dad had said to my older sister, Alicia, in their fights before she moved out.

When my dad used the same phrases on me, I doubted for the first time: maybe Alicia didn’t do anything wrong. I fought to keep my voice steady against his onslaught: “This sounds familiar, dad. Like what I heard you say to Alicia.”

Dad’s reply was, “Oh, so now it’s personal, huh?”

For some time, Lydia and I had been discussing dad’s lack of understanding for other people. He just wasn’t aware of others’ feelings or perspectives. Earlier that year, when I’d told him I couldn’t read through an entire book and copy-edit it on top of work and school, he’d gotten me up two hours before sunrise and forced me to edit it before I had to leave for class. That summer, when I’d spent a few days working on my own writing, he told me that I was letting my summer get away from me because I wasn’t working for him all the time.

When I interact with people, I recognize that they have a whole life, and we’re interacting briefly. Dad didn’t seem to have that kind of capacity. When I worked for him, his wishes came first, and I couldn’t ever say “no,” even if I was overwhelmed. If I wasn’t working for him, I wasn’t doing anything important.

My theory of dad’s inability to understand others flashed through me when I mentioned Alicia. I later learned the word I was looking for: empathy.

He didn’t see that I’d mentioned it because I was hurt. He thought I was attacking him. That’s how my interactions with my dad have always been if I try to stand up for myself.

I’ve told this story to countless people, painting my sister as the villain in the situation. My parents first sent me to Christian counseling because I felt so betrayed by Alicia. Many people have heard a very different story.

For the sister I lost and regained after ten years, I need to tell my version of the story. This is how I see it now.

When A Child is Taught to Hate: My Version of the Alicia Story, Part 1

“I’ve been trying to justify you
In the end, I will just defy you.” –Dream Theater, ‘Honor Thy Father’

It started with fights, and I’d never heard my parents yelling. I would be in bed already. Alicia had missed her curfew again. Dad was yelling at her. I crawled out of bed and hid at the bottom of the stairs, listening.

“You’ve made your mom worry sick about you.”

“Dad, I just barely missed it.”

“Where were you? Out partying with your friends again?”

“My youth group friends, dad. They’re Christians…”

“Because our family church isn’t good enough for you, huh?”

Alicia was the person I loved most in the world. When I was a child, I hated getting my hair brushed. Mom would tug at the knots and snarls, and she could move my head by my hair, making me scream and cry. Later on, if my mother ever grabbed my hair, I’d freeze and obey her commands instinctively. Alicia brushed my hair gently, working up from the ends.

I also fondly remember helping with laundry, because she let me clean the lint filter in the dryer, which was fun. When we made Kraft macaroni and cheese, Alicia let me pour the cheese pouches. With these little acts of consideration, she won my affection.

When my family attended Kevin Swanson’s church and my friends there pressured me into wanting a simple life, Alicia fed my love for music. She took me to concerts, and helped me buy my first tall black boots and a jacket with red and black fabric. I wore cool clothes because of her. All of the kids who remember when Alicia still lived with us have sweet memories about why they loved her.

One day in 2003, when I was listening at the bottom of the stairs to my parents arguing with Alicia, I heard dad say, “Get out of my house. You own a car. You can sleep in that tonight.”

She yelled back, “Fine! I will!”

Horrified, I ran upstairs and hugged Alicia. I knew I couldn’t keep her here by wrapping my small, thin arms around her, but I clung like I could. I started crying and begged her not to leave.

I became the device for the argument. “This is why you can’t treat me this way!” Alicia said.

“No, this is why you need to stop being such a bad influence!” Dad said, pointing at me. “Look, they’re attached to you. They’ll do everything you do.”

I cried louder, drowning out their voices. Then I was scolded and punished, but at least I’d made a distraction from the unbearable fighting.

Through more spying and listening in on adult conversations, I learned more of what Alicia had done: at first, she just wanted friends who didn’t go to our parents’ church. My parents said her clothes were too immodest, and once she got in trouble for sitting on a boy’s lap for a picture. Alicia brought Christian guys home, to see if my dad approved of them as friends. My parents didn’t like the friends she chose, and dad didn’t like her first boyfriend.

“No matter what I did, I was rebellious and in trouble,” she told me recently. “So I gave up trying. I thought, ‘If I’m going to be accused of being a bad kid, might as well make the most of it.’”

That’s when she took a housesitting job when she was 18, and hosted parties there. She drank alcohol and she had sex. This was the worst thing she could possibly have done, according to the standards of the world I grew up in.

As the story was told on The Learning Channel, Alicia tried family counseling, and then chose to move away from the family.

What actually happened was that my dad gave her an ultimatum: live in Kevin Swanson’s basement until she’d repented of her ways and submitted to her father’s authority in every way, or she could never see her siblings again.

My parents both cried on my shoulders when I was eleven. They told me all about the pain and heartbreak they were feeling, and I comforted them as best I could. I’d lost my sister, but I told myself that my parents were in more pain than I was. Alissa moved out soon afterward (a different story altogether), and I became the oldest kid in the house, and I became responsible for far more chores than before.

Between the ages of 11 and 14, I learned that mom and dad could express their emotions, but I could not. That was puberty for me.

I was determined to never turn my back on faith and family, as Alicia had.

Click here to go to part 2

The Love Label

Don’t give me love, don’t give me faith
Wisdom nor pride, give innocence instead
Don’t give me love, I’ve had my share
Beauty nor rest, give me truth instead.” -Nightwish

Imagine growing up in a house where the salt was labeled “sugar,” and the sugar was labeled “salt.”

Then you make friends, and they talk about how they like making cookies with sugar, and they love sprinkling salt on their dinner plates.

You try their suggestions, but the cookies are tangy and hard, and the potatoes taste sweet. You don’t know any better.

For me, it wasn’t salt and sugar that had their labels mixed up. It was love, and everything my parents called “love.”

I don’t often get frustrated. If a situation bothers me, I conceal it well in the moment, and write it down in precise terms later. When I was fourteen, my mom started doing something that could frustrate me.

“Cynthia!” She’d call me from the other room, and I obeyed instantly, leaving whatever had preoccupied me. “I love you.”

“Why do you keep saying that?” I asked.

“I just want you to know it.” mom replied.

We’d just filmed our first TV show with The Learning Channel, and the eleven kids living at home were all recovering from whooping cough. It was the beginning of 2007, and my mom wanted me to be sure I knew I was loved.

It wasn’t completely unfamiliar to me. My parents said “I love you” to each other when they were about to end a phone call, and I hear it when I received kisses before bed as a child. This was different because it was relentless. She’d slip the phrase “I love you” into every conversation we had.

“Mom, I can’t find my book. Do you know where it is?”

“I love you.”

“Thanks, I love you too. Do you know where my book is?”

“I love you.”

“I know, mom. Why won’t you answer me?”

More than once, I lost my patience and begged her to stop, to just talk to me normally.

It’s like I was raised in a house where the salt was always labeled as sugar, and the sugar was always labeled as salt. My mother would place a label on something, and it tasted wrong, everything about it felt wrong, but she insisted that the label belonged. I tried questioning her, but she wouldn’t answer. It was what she said it was.

That year, my parents coauthored a book called “Love in the House.” They retold the story about how they’d kicked my older sister out, making her sound like the culprit in the situation. They talked about how being on TV changed their whole outlook on how to do family. Our family was all about love now, and it was true at home: my siblings and I were told all the time that we were loved, and we believed it. We couldn’t do otherwise. It was a label for which we had nothing else.

The following year, I coauthored a cookbook with my mom called “Love in the Kitchen.” I enjoyed writing about something I was good at doing, sharing my tips on pastries and large-batch meals. My dad was designing the cover of the cookbook when he called me into his office and said, “Either I’ll pay you royalties based on the sales of this book, or I’ll put your name on the cover.”

I was fifteen. The ultimatum didn’t seem unfair to me at all. I thought that, based on my business studies, publicity had more long-term value than money. I chose to get my name on the cover of the book, and I got to show it to all my friends.

When I got older, and saw how bad my parents were for me, I still wanted love. My labels were mixed up, though. I got into relationships that felt like a step forward: they switched the labels back.

This still hurt, it still frustrated me, it still robbed me of the affection I’d never known, but it felt better because it was honest. I’m starting to understand, at least in part, why people sometimes move from unhealthy relationships to even less healthy relationships.

If you switch the labels back, you might still head for the same stuff you’ve always known. For me, I didn’t like the false label. So I sought out relationships that looked like what I’d had with my parents. These relationships included my friends, significant others, and role models. The label read “salt” now. I knew what it was, but I was still trying to make cookies with the wrong ingredients.

So my philosophical thought, with a practical application, is this: don’t just seek out truthful labels. There’s more to the process than that.

I’m holding a label that says “love” on it, and I’m looking for another place to put it. Heh – that was a metaphor we learned in the purity movement: “If you have too many relationships, you’ll be like a piece of tape that can’t stick anymore.”

No, my love label won’t get ruined by a bunch of relationships. My love label would be ruined if it was still stuck to the wrong thing.