I recently had a series of long chat with a dear friend from my time at Prin. These are some of my thoughts from that. By sharing this, I hope to shed light on Principia the institution, which touts the low student-teacher and student-staff ratios as a reason for attending. Please do not shame the people I’ve talked about, we were struggling within a fundamentally broken system, although we may not have realized how much until later.
Christian Science at Principia is always a Thing, and there is some amount of Spiritual One-Upping:
Students pull out their Full Text Lessons from backpacks and read it on the Chapel Green (Spiritual Bonus Points if it has a Lesson Cozy! You can get them for $12 in the bookstore, and Extra Spiritual Bonus Points if you have margin notes &/or highlighted text/underlines).
Full confession: I never read the Lesson until I got to Prin, in our high school Sunday School group, at most we would each read a section and then pull our favorite passages to talk about them, but the whole lesson, every day? LOL NOPE. Even at Prin I didn’t bother*, unless I had a roommate that insisted we do it as a Bonding Activity during Quiet Time (when we should have been prayerfully supporting the campus).
*There were a few times I tried to read it every day to be a better Christian Scientist and to be Spiritually Inspired… sort of like the time I read Science & Health from cover to cover, because I could. It is still gobbledygook (though at the time I claimed it was quite inspired). There is a reason the Lesson is made entirely of pull-quotes.
You actually mark your books and read the lesson from there? You’re like a Magical Unicorn, almost no one marks their books (unless they’re the person nominated by their House to do so), but you explain you get so much more out of the lesson when you read it in the full context — spoiler alert: the lesson was not written with the full context in mind.
How many extra curricular CS activities can you squeeze in? There is the CS Org, Sunday night hymn sings, church, Tuesday morning testimony meetings, and various spiritual talks offered by professors and administration through out the year. Bonus points if you’re seen at them, extra bonus points if you can pretend to make sense of them.
There is the awkward bending of academics, your personal life, and Christian Science
For those who have not yet turned 20, you can pick your Favorite Sunday School Teacher and regularly attend Sunday School in the Dining Hall. This can also be awkward when they’re also your professor. “I didn’t see you in Sunday School this week!” If for some reason the person you pick doesn’t work out, theoretically “no hard feelings” but when they’re also in charge of the department you’re working for as part of your TRWP it can get awkward.
The Tuesday morning readings are very similar to the reading that was assigned for your Bible & Christian Ethics class. Or your New Testament class. You notice more of your classmates show up than usual. Coincidence?
You attend the now fabled testimony meeting where an older gentleman announces he’s “over come his desire for his wife.” His wife is not pleased. Rude jokes are made later.
My dad was concerned about peer pressure, yeah, peer pressure to go to church, do well in my classes, and wait for it, regularly attend Tuesday morning Testimony meetings. We’d have paper-editing parties, we were wild.
Then there is Moral Reasoning, avoid the appearance of evil, doing something that looks possibly evil even though it isn’t? Yeah don’t do that. Don’t the the only girl in a ride-share across the country with two guys you’re not related to. Actually, even if you are related to them (or even one of them), don’t do it.
IT MIGHT LOOK QUESTIONABLE! PEOPLE MIGHT TALK!
Oh yes people will talk. Hold hands with someone of the opposite sex while walking from the Library to the Dining Hall just before lunch and by the end of the meal the Prin Gossip mill will say you’re practically engaged. Then your RC will interrogate you about it. Is he really the type of guy you want to get involved with? Probably not, but it pisses her off, so absolutely!
You know several people have siblings on campus, some have opposite-sex siblings, they spend some time together. It comes as a surprise when you hear one is cheating on the other. He’s not cheating on her by dating someone else, that’s his sister. There are also some cousins of which this is true as well. There are actually quite a few siblings/cousins/distant relations on campus. Then there was the woman who married her best friend’s father, they were no longer best friends after she became the step-mother. I digress.
You want to say something but you don’t want to get your friend/roommate in trouble or have them to become gossip-mill fodder, and really, what help would your RC be anyway?
You have a friend who is in a clearly unhealthy relationship. They’ve been having sex during the breaks (it is a long distance thing) and she’s convinced they’re going to be together forever because they’ve had sex, but they’re always arguing and it is clearly not working out. You try to talk to her about it, but she insists everything is “fine.” Right.
You have a friend who broke up with “the love of her life” she spends hours on the phone with her CSP every day, sobbing. In retrospect she’s probably depressed, and CS platitudes only get her so far. She’s also incredibly jealous that your boyfriend (who is cheating on you but you don’t realize this until later) keeps sending you flowers. Long stem roses by the dozen. You’re fairly sure the co-dependency on the CSP is unhealthy, but who can you tell? She’s talking to a CSP which is what CS says you should be doing if you have a problem to work out.
You have a friend who gets stuck in a cycle of praying about being busy. You point out if she spent even 1/3 of the time she spent praying doing other stuff — like the homework she’s praying about — she’d have plenty of time. This advice is ignored, and she insists on setting her alarm to 6 am (she sleeps through it so you get to wake up) to read the Lesson, instead of reading it during Quiet Time (which she spends diligently praying for the campus) and then she stays up late stressed over the homework she could have been doing instead of praying. This is clearly an issue and it is stressing her out, but she’s using Christian Science so it isn’t a “problem.”
You know a woman, who, a few weeks before graduation, is informed she will not be graduating with her double major. She completed all the course work, put in all the hours, did the off-campus internship, crossed all the Ts and dotted all the Is. No explanation is provided. There is no action she can take. The decision is final.
You’re in an emotionally abusive relationship that has drifted into the grey zone of what is permissible under Prin’s draconian morality codes. You need to talk to someone, but you’re ashamed, and confused, and he says he loves you and you care deeply about him. You haven’t broken the morality codes — you’ve been super careful about that, but you’re also not feeling great about what you’ve done. You don’t feel you can talk to anyone about it, they’ve never done anything like that, they’re good Christian Scientists.
You know a woman who does not do her laundry, all quarter long. For 10 weeks she fishes dirty laundry out of a heap, fabreezes it as she deems necessary, and continues on with her day. It is winter, it starts to fester. You offer to give her some of your laundry detergent, but she has some. Other women on your hall notice the smell. They tell the RC. The woman insists everything is fine. The RC says there is nothing she can do. Apparently you can’t compel someone do do their laundry.
People have no concept of privacy, boundaries, or personal property
While the doors that lead to outside the dorm are locked at night (at least on the women’s dorms) the doors inside to the individual rooms do not. There are ways to get around this — you can wedge a knife or loose change in the side with the hinges (the doors open inside), you can get a door wedge, or you can block the door with your dresser. None of these are ideal, but if you want some privacy they are temporary means.
Most people knock, some people even wait for you to reply before you come in, and some don’t bother at all. It was not uncommon for friends of a roommate to stop by, see the roommate was not there, and then proceed to go through the absent roommate’s things to “borrow” something. Often the things “borrowed” never made it back.
One evening I ran into one of my friends in the hall wearing one of my shirts. It had been raining, she’d gotten soaked walking over to see another friend in my dorm, and she knew we were about the same size, so she’d gone and “borrowed” one of mine. She didn’t think I’d mind. To her credit, she returned it, washed and neatly folded, but still.
People borrowed laundry detergent, shampoo, toothpaste, sanitary products, DVDs, books, clothes, cash, meal cards, food, and just about anything they could get their hands on. “I’m sure they won’t mind.”
Some houses countered the problem by buying communal laundry detergent, everyone would pay for it, but most of my friends in that house didn’t use it unless they’d unexpectedly run out. They both resented paying for it, and were glad it was there for emergencies. One house wanted to have a communal supply of organic tampons. This suggestion was shut down, and it was pointed out that they could get the bookstore to stock them instead, and not everyone wanted to use tampons, organic or otherwise.
At least one guy took the seat off his bicycle to help prevent people from “borrowing” it. To ride it, he’d stand up to peddle. It was rarely borrowed after that. Other friends would have theirs taken, and would report it to the campus security, and nothing would happen. Nothing is lost on God’s Kingdom. Eventually the bike might turn up, way across campus, often worse for the wear.
More than once I would come back from taking a shower to find a roommate’s boyfriend (or wannabe boyfriend) in our room talking to my still mostly asleep roommate. Today I would probably throw him out: Dude, she’s still in bed, under layers of blankets, the roommate in the bunk below is snoring softly, I’m in a towel, please get out. Back then, I got dressed in the closet. He wasn’t in violation of “House Hours” and he was a “nice guy” and I didn’t feel like pushing the issue. Spoiler: he’s not a nice guy, it has been over a decade and he’s still on the hunt for a young “good CS girl” (ideally blond and fit) — he may have paid lip service to wanting a strong independent woman, but he really wanted a 1950s housewife.
There was the quarter I lived in a quad with three other women. One of the women would regularly make out with her boyfriend on my pillow that she would move to our roommate’s bed. Why? It was more comfortable, and making out on her top bunk was too difficult. We pointed out this was upsetting, the roommate apologized, and went back to doing it a few days later.
The boundaries thing applies to parents too. Many students have parents who work at or for the College in some capacity. One woman had no problem popping in to our dorm room to check in and see how her daughter was doing (her daughter was off campus with her boyfriend, I told her I didn’t know where she’d gone, she transferred out after freshman year). Another friend got a phone call from her parents because a family acquaintance had called them because she hadn’t been seen attending church on a regular basis. Checking in with your child occasionally is one thing, grilling them on church attendance is quite another.
You can’t get sick.
Being sick is seen as an excuse not to show up to class. If you are sick you’re supposed to sequester yourself and work with the books, because when you’re sick nothing is more helpful than reading MBE’s works that blame you for being sick. If you do happen to end up in Cox Cottage, at best they offer a clean room and milkshakes — running a dangerously high fever and your face is swollen half its size? Have a milkshake. You can’t get practical modern medical interventions. They don’t do that at Cox Cottage. Something to help the fever? Abate the hallucinations? Stop the swelling? Nope. Nope. Nope.
You show up to class with an obvious limp after slipping on black ice and sliding down the hill. You can’t sit comfortably for weeks because of the bruising. What is there to do about it? You’ve had your MBE-Moment, but you have classes to go to, so you can’t lay in bed for weeks and start your own religion.
If you are sick, you had better demonstrate Christian Science and then give a testimony about it. The number of women who didn’t feel well for a two or three days and then suddenly felt better and gave monthly testimonies was impressive. Similarly the natural progression of the 5-7 day common cold was a popular healing. No one ever came out and said what was wrong, that would give it power. Instead there was the vague “I had a challenge” that was “addressed through prayer” and “overcome” and then everyone was appreciative of the readings from the desk.
If your friend is sick, you should both visit and not visit them while they’re sequestered away in Cox Cottage. Schrödinger’s visit. Visiting them will lift their spirits, but it will also distract them from their prayerful work and delay their healing. I suspect the Sunday School teacher who admonished us for visiting our friend was bitter no one had visited her while she had been in Cox after a nasty, relief-free run-in with poison ivy.
The RC’s are not prepared to Deal with Big Life Issues
Not only are RC’s unsure of how to handle the roommate who won’t do her laundry, they’re pretty bad at handling Big Life Issues as well.
There is a time you do reach out to them freshman year because you have a friend who lays on your floor an talks about wanting to kill himself. You and a concerned friend reach out to the RC who calls your friend into his office for a chat, your friend denies everything, and is upset you ratted them out. There isn’t really any point in talking to the RC much after that.
There is a time when you feel suicidal, and spend what feels like hours walking around the Chapel Green in a snow storm. You walk several loops contemplating how easy it would be to disappear over the edge. No one would notice you were gone until well into the next day — you had a roommate who spent the night in one of the buildings after being locked out, you certainly didn’t notice until well into the following day when she showed up exhausted, she kept odd hours anyway. So you keep walking, one loop after the next. Your hands get cold in your gloves, your nose is numb, your feet get cold, colder, finally you can’t feel your toes. This is just from walking around the Chapel Green, what if you don’t die immediately and end up freezing to death? You walk another round or two, and then finally shuffle back to your dorm. No one seems to have noticed you were gone, but you’ve regained feeling in your extremities. The overwhelming depression doesn’t lift, but it is mitigated by a hot shower. You don’t tell anyone about this your entire time at Prin, not even in your exit interview.
They mean well, they really do, but when they find out third hand that your dad has been having health issues, they’re not really sure what to say. God is testing your faith is really the best they can come up with. Later, when you get a phone call your close friend has passed you don’t mention it to them. This is mentioned in passing in your exit interview, the RC is shocked you never came to them. Why would you?
You get a phone call one Sunday morning. Your best friend (and Sunday School buddy for years) back home has passed suddenly and unexpectedly. You are understandably gutted. You tell a few close friends, and then stuff your feelings because Christian Science. The next day, Monday, you go to class as if nothing had happened and turn in the two major projects that were due. Your friends say you should ask for an extension, but why would you? The projects were 95% finished already. You later learn a mutual never-CS friend spent nearly a week in bed mourning. You’re a little jealous, but you also judge her for wasting all that time doing nothing. Death isn’t real, the person has just continued on a different plane of existence. Acknowledging death gives it power. Or something. Metaphysical mumbo-jumbo.
You’re back from a rough time at home and a brutal brake up with the emotionally manipulative boyfriend. You’re walking past your RC’s quarters and she stops you to say hi, and make small talk. She asks about the boyfriend, you explain you broke up. She presses you for details. You tell her it wasn’t a good relationship for you to be in any more. She presses for more details, you don’t offer any. Later she stops by your dorm room and says she wishes she’d been as aware of unhealthy relationships. I don’t tell her it lasted about a year longer than it should have. I don’t tell her how we sat solidly in the Morality Code’s grey zone. Healthy boundaries are not a thing that Prin talks about, neither is consent. You feel deeply ashamed, and you’re also Not Going to Talk About It.
A young woman’s mother dies from cancer, she’s known it was going to happen for a while, it was a matter of when. She’s bitter that her mother chose to pray about it instead of seeking conventional treatment. The RC tries to counsel her within the bounds of CS, the girl simply wants to be angry and bitter for a while. The number of people whose mothers (it is always mothers) died is staggering.
People just disappear and no one knows why.
No, you’re not in Stalin’s Russia or Mussilini’s Italy, you’re at Principia College in the early 2000s and your professor asks you where the girl from your dorm is. You haven’t seen her for days, and have no clue what happened to her either. No one seems to know what has happened, and no one will talk about it. It is like she never existed, and yet…
There is a girl who regularly curls up in oversized sweats and a blanket in the House computer lab in the evenings. You’re not friends, but you make polite conversation when you’re passing through. On nicer days she runs around campus in a sports bra and micro shorts, she’s really thin, but you don’t give it much thought, after all, a sophomore used a pillowcase as a micro-dress at the House’s Halloween Party. One day she’s gone from her preferred corner of the computer lab, she’s simply gone — not just from the computer lab, her room is empty too.
While the disappearances during the academic term are jarring, the ones that happen between breaks are more subtle. Some people just don’t come back after Spring Break, are they on an Abroad, were they asked to leave, is it Academic Probation, did they run out of funds, did they transfer out, is it some combination of all of these?
It is easier to disappear someone during a break. Most of the dorm rooms must be emptied and everything put into storage anyway, ostensibly for “break housing” or “renovations.” You change rooms — and roommates — every quarter/semester anyway, so everything must be packed away.
I had a good friend who didn’t come back after Spring Break one year. I got message from her on AIM letting me know she would not be back in the Spring, and may not be back at all, would I please go into the storage room and divide up her stuff — mostly toiletries, laundry detergent, pads, storage boxes, etc. I dutifully put the laundry detergent in the communal laundry room, and the toiletries in one of the bathrooms. The rest went into the Share Box, where cast off items end up for others to take as needed. The friend eventually returned to Prin, but the unplanned time off was difficult.
Everyone Else is a Better Christian Scientist Than You Are and Demonstrating Better
Yep, I said it. Everyone else is going to church, is reading their Lesson daily (even if it is only from the Full Text), everyone else is going to the talks, the testimony meetings. No one else is skating in the grey zone with their boyfriends. No one else has ever imbibed alcohol (you got totally wasted once, on a break, accidentally, the shame). No one else has ever even considered medical care for anything — other than dentist and optometrists, those are OK, but really, you should be wearing contacts because glasses are a huge reminder that you haven’t overcome your sight issues.
Everyone else is in a great relationship (or content being single). Everyone else has demonstrated financial supply. Everyone else is in perfect health. Everyone else is demonstrating good grades.
Then you hear things, a young women admits to masturbating during house meetings, “they’re boring, just wear baggy sweat pants, no one will notice.” (Another young woman is so sheltered the RC has to explain what masturbating is.) There are some people who regularly get drunk during brakes. A roommate spends the weekends with her off-campus boyfriend (she eventually moves in with him and transfers out of Prin) — her mother works for the College and checks in with you about her daughter’s whereabouts.
Maybe not everyone is a “better” Christian Scientist than you are, but they’re outliers, and, lets be honest, they’ll probably disappear or transfer out. They’re not real Christian Scientists anyway.
One day you can’t hold it in anymore and you confess everything.
To your best friend, late at night, walking around the track. You don’t know why you do this, but you feel so alone, like you’re the only one stuffing these feelings, the only one that isn’t making “it” work. “It” being Christian Science, but you’re not ready to say that yet.
You talk about the abusive boyfriend you dumped, the sexual assault and emotional abuse, the questionable behavior you’ve engaged in (off campus and during break of course). The struggles you’re having – physically, emotionally, financially. The more you walk the more you both talk and you both end up sobbing and hugging each.
People assume you’re lesbians, but they must not be acting on those suspicions because you’re never disappeared in the night.
Then one day you graduate.
A few years pass, you leave Christian Science. Your friends have left Christian Science too. None of you want to admit it to anyone else — they’re still Good CS, they’d never leave! and then one day you can’t hold it in anymore and you have some of the most cathartic talks (and years worth of blog posts about it). Suddenly people, smart people, who you always thought were good Christian Scientists, start reaching out and you realize you’re not as alone as you thought you were. It wasn’t you failing at Christian Science. You’re not a failure and you’re not alone.
I’m told things have changed since my time at Principia College. For the sake of the students, faculty and staff, I hope so. I am not going to support them, I have paid off my loans from them in a prompt and timely manner and have no intention of donating any further. If you have been at Prin more recently than I have (in the last decade). I’d love to hear about your experiences.
If you’ve left CS and feel alone, please reach out. You are not the only one who has left. There is a growing ExCS Facebook community (you can reach them through their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/the.ex.christian.scientist). If your path away from CS has taken a Christian turn, the Fellowship of Former CS offers great resources:http://ffcsministry.org/