When I first saw Alecia Pennington’s video about how she can’t prove her American citizenship, nothing about it took me by surprise.
I have friends who, like her, don’t exist according to the government. They have no birth certificates, no social security number, no passport. If their parents also distrusted modern medicine, like mine, there are no medical records.
When my dad started offering bribes to take down my blog posts about my parents’ abuse, my sister Lydia and I demanded our identification. On October 7th last year, my dad put up a podcast blaming my mental illness for the absurdity of my allegations (transcript here). He quickly took down that podcast, and that same evening, he emailed Lydia and me to offer bribes.
His email said, “What would you like from me? Seriously. Just name it. This is hurting the family, but I never asked what you actually want.”
I was a mess that day, so I let Lydia reply. She asked for our birth certificates and social security cards. In the rush to leave when our parents kicked us out, we brought our driver’s licenses, and I had my social security card, but our parents still had part of our crucial documentation. We’d also left a few boxes of what we didn’t have space to move that day – mostly trophies from piano, AWANA, and speech and debate competitions from elementary school through high school.
Thankfully, we had our social security cards and birth certificates in the first place. Mom would order three or four social security cards at once, because, she told me, it was too much hassle to do it right when the kids were born. She could wait and make a pattern for “every few kids.” Our various midwives handled the birth certificates (mom gave birth to 12 children at home), but both Lydia and I lost our original certificates in our family’s disorganized paperwork, and had to reapply for them before we could get our driver’s licenses.
In exchange for taking back what I said, dad offered us money, a chance to see the family, legal mediation, and a counselor of our choice. He never answered about getting our identification documents.
In late September, I went to the emergency room for a self-inflicted injury. My bills, along with a psychiatrist’s opinion that I was depressed, went to my parents’ house. I found out fourth-hand, three weeks later, that my parents knew about my condition and my financial need to pay hospital bills, and they’d made no attempts to contact me about it. The person who told me this said my dad was “concerned.”
I was more aggressive when I demanded our documentation again on October 21st:
It is illegal to open mail addressed to another person. It is also illegal to withhold the official identification documents of an adult. You will give Lydia and me our bills, any mail that you’ve opened, and our files and our social security cards and birth certificates, and copies of our medical records. We will also take what is ours of what’s in storage on your property. If you do not comply, we have the right to get the local police to escort us to your house to retrieve our things safely.
Dad replied quickly, saying he was willing to meet with me. I sent him a secure P.O. box address, so he wouldn’t know where I lived. Three days passed, and I hadn’t heard anything in response. I told my dad that our things had better arrive within ten days, or we’d arrive with police escorting us to retrieve our legal documents. He replied,
Cynthia, mailing isn’t an option for us. Sorry about that. I’d be glad to pass your goods onto you in one of the two ways:
1. You can come pick them up. Just call or txt the time.
2. I can drop them off at your work.
Let me know which is best. We love you and miss you. You are always welcome, just txt or call.
I asked why mailing wasn’t an option. I never got an answer to that question. Instead, that week my manager texted me to say some boxes with my name on them had been left on the front step of the office where I worked. I had to explain that I’d asked my dad not to bring my personal belongings to my workplace, and I apologized to my manager for the lack of professionalism.
The boxes didn’t contain all of our things – we still didn’t have our trophies, and the only hospital bill inside was unopened. There was a manila folder with our birth certificates inside, and my mom’s handwriting told us in big marker letters that they didn’t have our social security cards. My sister Lydia never got her social security card – she can only apply for jobs because she has her SSN memorized.
This is a mere hassle compared to what Alecia Pennington is going through. The people who compared her parents to mine, though, don’t know that story. The similarity lies in the public response.
Alecia’s mother, Lisa Pennington, posted a video in response to her daughter, and this video was taken down. Similarly, my dad posted a podcast response to me, and it, too, was quickly taken down. Soon afterward, Alecia’s father posted a more sanitized production, explaining that he was willing to help his daughter – all she has to do is contact him.
I can only speculate. My theories just come from being in a very similar situation. I wouldn’t be surprised if Alecia is afraid to contact her parents because then they can track her down. I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s tried to contact them before, and they took no interest in helping until they had the heat of public attention. I wouldn’t be surprised if they took down the first video because it was the woman speaking, and the patriarch should take initiative and show control. I wouldn’t be surprised if they uploaded a cool, calm, scripted video with the dad wearing a suit, because they want to look respectable.
I would be surprised if my mom hasn’t already contacted Lisa Pennington to express solidarity. She, too, had her third-eldest take to the Internet with “lies” about her parents.
When I saw Alecia’s story, though, I saw a bigger problem: every person in this country needs to be identified. You can’t drive, you can’t work, you can’t live as an adult, unless the government has your name in their files, cross-referenced from birth to international travel.
For Alecia Pennington, the outside world is hostile. Yes, the Internet community has raised awareness and we’ve gathered around to support her. I can almost guarantee that her parents, church leaders, and other authorities in her life warned her about the outside world, and told her she wouldn’t be able to make it out here. Better to stay with them, where it’s secure and she has a place to live and eat and survive. She’s out, but she can’t drive or work.
Conservative fundamentalists want this because it means the system is easy to exploit for abuse. Withholding documentation is an easy way to immobilize another person. You can’t make money, you can’t demand rights, you can’t move on.
It works on illegal immigrants. It works on the poor. It works on their kids. It’s about control.