The XX Factor

Rachel Dolezal Was Raised by Christian Fundamentalists. No Wonder She Wanted a New Identity.

Rachel Dolezal on the Today show on June 16, 2015.

Screenshot via NBC

The bizarre story of Rachel Dolezal, the white NAACP official who has been passing herself off as black for years, has been the flashpoint for tons of heated debate and think pieces as well as the inspiration behind some interesting history lessons. But so far there’s been relatively little information that could help answer one central question: Why?

Dolezal herself is clearly an erratic and dishonest person, so she’s not the most reliable source. But you can find some fascinating background at Homeschoolers Anonymous, a blog primarily focused on people who escaped “the conservative, Christian homeschooling subculture” that is all too often “used to create or hide abuse, isolation, and neglect.”

Apparently these escapees from radical fundamentalism spotted Dolezal as one of their own and got to digging. R.L. Stoller, the community coordinator at Homeschoolers Anonymous, claims to have sources who knew the Dolezal family. These sources paint a picture of the Dolezals as adherents to a fundamentalist theory of child-rearing that puts an emphasis on adoption—the Dolezals adopted four children—and basically advises beating children into submission, following the rules established by the infamous Christian child-rearing manual To Train Up a Child. (Kathryn Joyce explored this subculture of Christianity for Slate in 2013.)

This aligns with some of what we already know about Dolezal’s family: Her adopted brother, Izaiah Dolezal, sued for emancipation at age 16; he claimed that “my adoptive parents use physical forms of punishment as well as sending children away to other states to group homes (where two of my siblings are) if we don’t cooperate with their religion and rules, they make us do manual labor and send us away.” Instead of granting his request for emancipation, the court settled on transferring his guardianship to his now infamous older sister, Rachel. 

The real meat of Homeschoolers Anonymous’ findings are in excerpts from a memoir written by Dolezal’s older biological brother, Joshua, titled Down From the Mountaintop: From Belief to Belonging(He is currently facing charges of sexual abuse against a child.) The memoir paints a picture of religious fanaticism, including passages that describe speaking in tongues; his family’s beliefs evoke a Pentecostal strain of the Christian patriarchy–style views of the Duggar clan from TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting. (Both the Duggars and the Dolezals apparently endorsed the child-abuse-as-discipline technique known as “blanket training.”) Joshua Dolezal describes his father’s rages and his mother nearly bleeding to death after a miscarriage, relying on faith-healing instead of modern medicine. He claims he and his sister were born at home without the assistance of a physician or midwife, and listed “Jesus Christ” as the witness on their birth certificates. (Rachel Dolezal said on Tuesday that she was born “in the woods.”

If Rachel Dolezal did indeed grow up in an abusive, extremist family, it’s of course no excuse for lying about her identity. But the cult-like fundamentalism that festers in so many pockets of our country does real damage to the psyches of people who might grow up to rebel against their upbringing—and even reject their core identity—in the strangest of ways.