Interview With Cheryl Lindsey Seelhoff
Interview with Cheryl Lindsey Seelhoff
by Helen Hegener
Cheryl Lindsey Seelhoff and her husband Rick are the editors and publishers of Gentle Spirit, a magazine which explores a wide range of topics in each issue, including homesteading skills, food storage and cooking, gardening, growing herbs, homeschooling, parenting, relationships, and more.
Cheryl, please tell us a little about your children and grandchildren, and your husband, Rick.
Rick is from Minneapolis, Minnesota, where most of his family still resides. He has been a computer programmer for most of the last 20 years. We were married in 1995. Like me, Rick enjoys writing, homesteading, gardening, camping, hiking and all kinds of music. He is a craftsman and makes Native American drums and flutes. He has also worked extensively with ex-members of cultic religious organizations for the past 20 years and sits on the board of a national ex-members organization.
I am the natural mother of eleven children, ages 14 months to 27 years, six girls and five boys. Rick and I are the natural parents of Magdalene, 14 months, and Solomon, 4. I brought to our marriage Naomi, 8; Emily, 10; Hosanna, 12; Tiffany, 14; Jesse, 16; Claude, 21; Jenni, 23; John, 25; and Roland, 27. John and Roland are married to two sisters, Ami, 23, and Jocelyn, 26, respectively, and they each have two children. Roland and Jocelyn are the parents of Betsy, 5, and Victoria, 3. John and Ami are the parents of Meadow, 4, and Judah, 2.
I am also stepmom to Rick's children, Maria, Persilla, Reuben, and Leah. Rick has five grandchildren: Heather, 10; Amber, 8; Rebecca, 2; Antonio, 7; and Matteo, 2 months.
This makes for a grand total of 15 children for us and nine grandchildren!
Such a large family must really keep you busy! Tell us a little about how your days go. Do the children help produce Gentle Spirit magazine?
Busy barely begins to cover it! I once had the idea that it would all get easier when some of the kids were grown, and in some ways, I suppose it is, but I failed to take into consideration grandchildren and the comings and goings of grown children and especially, getting older and tireder! But I love having a big family.
Seven of my children, 1 through 16, are still at home all of the time, and all are unschooled. My 23-year-old daughter, Jenni, lives with John and Ami during the week and comes home on the weekends. Roland and John and their families live about 40 miles away, and they visit frequently, or the younger children go to their houses to stay with them for a few days. Claude, 21, lives about 10 minutes away, attends Pierce College in Tacoma, and works nearby.
Everybody works on the magazine in some capacity. The circulation office is at John and Ami's house, and Ami answers the telephone during our phone-answering hours. Jennifer and Ami take turns watching Meadow and Judah and answering phones, entering subscription and order information, and filling orders for back issues.
We pick up the mail at a nearby post office, and the younger children open, sort and prepare it for entry into the computer. Hosanna, 12, contributes original artwork and photographs, and Jenni, Tiffany, Roland, John, and Roland's wife, Jocelyn, have all written for the magazine. Rick and I write and edit the magazine, and together we do the desktop publishing. Rick is the Information Systems person and has designed a custom database. He also has designed and manages our websites, www.gentlespirit.com and http://members.aol.com/excognito, which is our personal site.
Tell us a bit about your homestead - do you raise a garden every year? Didn't I read somewhere that you grow and use lots of herbs?
We are unschoolers, and we live out in the country on 6.5 acres. Our days are full and never-a-dull-moment. We raise chickens, ducks, and sheep. Our 16 year old son breeds and raises Alaskan Malamutes. A stream runs through our property which has trout and Chinook salmon. There's a beaver dam and lots of other wildlife, along with every kind of wild herb, flower and berry: huckleberries, blackberries, currants, elderberries, salmonberries.
We've been busy recently building a chicken house, fencing, and finishing a loft in the barn. The house is close to self-sufficient with its own well, solar heating, and a massive stone fireplace built with rocks from the stream. We put in a garden every year, sometimes a big one, sometimes a smaller one, and we've grown herbs and fragrant perennials for years, medicinal and culinary herbs and flowers for homemade soap, herbal vinegars, candles, and potpourri. Some years we've had beehives. We have apple and cherry trees, and lots of big plans. We'd like to build a smokehouse, greenhouse, and root cellar.
We are a musical family and everybody sings or plays an instrument: piano, folk harp, guitar, drums, mandolin, cello. We love camping, hiking and backpacking, getting out into the woods, traveling to Minnesota to visit family and friends. Some of us are artists, some are writers, craftspersons, dancers. There are always too few hours in the day and too many things we want to do.
What made you decide to become a magazine editor and publisher? Did you have a background in writing or publishing?
I have always loved to write, since I was a little girl. I think I put together my first newsletter when I was 8 or 9 years old! But until I started writing about homeschooling, I had not had formal publishing experience of any kind.
I left a full-time career in 1983 to start homeschooling my older children. At the time, homeschooling was illegal in Washington, and homeschooling families were few and far between. There weren't many books or resources for homeschoolers, so I essentially had to make my own way. As time passed I realized many people were interested in what I had learned as a homeschooling mom of a large family. People would ask my advice, ask how I coped with various kinds of things, how we were able to make it on one income after having two incomes for so long. Around 1986 I wrote and self-published a huge book called Homeschooling: A Mother's Guide and Resource Book, and I advertised it in a small homeschooling trade magazine and began to develop a mailing list. In 1989, I was invited to submit proposals for workshops at the Washington Homeschool Organization's annual state convention. I presented two workshops that first year, one on Living Simply, another on Homeschooling Teenagers. In conjunction with the workshops, I typed up a few relevant chapters of my book in newsletter format and called this newsletter "Gentle Spirit." I made 30 or so copies available at the workshops, and they were all gone in an instant, so I knew the information I had to share was valuable to other homeschooling families.
I sent a copy of the tape of my "Living Simply" workshop to Focus on the Family, James Dobson's organization, and as a result, I was invited to participate as part of a panel of four stay-at-home moms in a Focus program titled "Career Homemaking." Dr. Dobson advertised my very humble, stapled-together newsletter on this national broadcast, and that is how I gained national exposure. I started with 23 subscribers in 1989 and by spring of 1994, I had 17,000 or so subscribers internationally. I never advertised the magazine, and it was never on the newsstands. Our circulation grew by word-of-mouth references and by making the magazine available at workshops and seminars.
As the magazine grew, we learned what we needed to learn. At first we did our own printing on an AB Dick printer in a friend's garage, and we did our own sorting and bagging of the monthly mailings. When we started to grow more rapidly, we began having the magazine professionally printed and mailed.
There has been a lot of talk recently about a lawsuit you were involved with. Can you explain what happened?
I filed suit in Federal Court for the Western District of Washington against several defendants: Calvary Chapel of Tacoma (Washington), Joe and Irene Williams, Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa (California), The Teaching Home magazine and Sue Welch, Gregg Harris of Christian Life Workshops, Christian Home Educators of Ohio (CHEO) and its then-chairperson Michael Boutot, and Bill and Mary Pride, publishers of Practical Homeschooling magazine, alleging a number of causes of action, among them defamation, outrage, interference with commerce, and violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act of the United States.
We settled our claims with Gregg Harris, Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa, CHEO, and the Prides before trial for amounts which we agreed to keep confidential. We did go to trial with Sue Welch, and after eight days of trial, a unanimous jury found that Sue Welch and the Williams had entered into an illegal conspiracy to restrain trade in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. The jury found that I had been damaged in the amount of $435,000. Because damages awards in antitrust actions are automatically trebled, I was entitled to receive in excess of 1.3 million dollars from Sue Welch, and I was entitled to recover my attorneys' fees and costs.
This is a pretty significant event for the homeschooling movement, so why haven't we heard more about this lawsuit until now?
It wouldn't be unusual not to hear about a lawsuit of this type while it was in progress. Attorneys typically tell their clients not to talk about it to people. But over the course of any lawsuit, the news does get out. Attorneys and investigators call as many of the witnesses which are listed in the court pleadings as they possibly can, and there were literally hundreds of witnesses listed by the parties to this suit. Various witnesses are deposed or are asked to sign sworn affidavits. It was surprising to me that over the course of the lawsuit, I received only a handful of inquiries relating to it, even though I knew by the time of trial that homeschoolers and homeschool leaders had to have known about it. NPR (National Public Radio) eventually covered the trial and reported its outcome. There was never any protective order on the public court documents; none were sealed, yet the silence on the part of homeschooling leaders was deafening.
The strangest phenomenon in my opinion is the silence that has followed the jury verdict and the final resolution of the case. In 1994, thousands of homeschooling families were made aware of the crisis in my private life within a few short weeks, yet the lawsuit which grew out of those events has remained, by and large, a secret. Discussion has been forbidden on all major homeschooling internet bulletin boards except two, yet even where the discussion has been allowed, participants have been roundly criticized for "gossip." The defendants have issued terse public statements or none at all. I have always found the silence around the lawsuit to be disconcerting and even eerie, especially in light of the very intense public exposes which took place five years ago.
Can you explain a little about the circumstances that led to your filing this suit?
In spring of 1994, after I had published Gentle Spirit for five years, I experienced serious difficulties in my marriage of 19 years. My ex-husband had left our home and moved to another state.
During this time I met Rick, whom I later married. This was a time of incredible upheaval and crisis for me. In late April of 1994, I went to the pastor of my church seeking counsel and for confession, and then I left the church and never returned to services or fellowship there. The pastor promised to keep my confession confidential.
In late May, my ex-husband returned to Washington and moved in with the pastor. He continued to attend church services. Although I could not avoid seeing the pastor and his wife on a few occasions because the children sometimes visited with their father at the pastor's house, in general, I avoided speaking with the pastor and his wife.
In the last week of June of 1994, the pastor began receiving calls from leaders in the Christian homeschooling community - Gregg Harris, Sue Welch, Michael Boutot, and others - seeking information about my marriage and my private life. The pastor provided this information, without my consent and in spite of having promised to keep confidence.
The pastor and some of these leaders together formulated a list of "proofs of repentance" which they said I should perform, or have my private struggles published nationally to members of the homeschooling community and to my advertisers, columnists, and subscribers. These "proofs of repentance" included reconciling with my ex-husband; severing my relationship with my now-husband, Rick; discontinuing the publication of Gentle Spirit Magazine; canceling my speaking engagements; turning over the contents of my bank accounts to others; dropping restraining orders; firing my attorney; agreeing to never defend myself or tell my side of the story; agreeing not to answer the phone; not to have a pager, a private post office box, or internet access; and not to go anywhere alone. I was also asked to substitute The Teaching Home Magazine for my own publication. If I would not agree to perform these proofs, then these leaders said they would circulate the contents of my confidential confession nationally and publicly.
A letter of discipline was prepared by the pastor and his wife and was read to some of these Christian leaders, then to the congregation at Calvary Chapel of Tacoma, a church of approximately 40-50 members. This is the church I had left in April of 1994.
The letter was then circulated by Sue Welch and others to the heads of 43 state homeschooling organizations as well as many homeschooling leaders nationally. My columnists and advertisers were contacted, told I was an unrepentant adulteress and that Gentle Spirit was out of business, and were presented with offers to advertise or write for homeschool publications which were competitors to Gentle Spirit. Five separate homeschooling publications published exposes, some in more than one issue of their publications, and special folders were set up on America Online, CompuServe, and Prodigy to discuss these exposes.
In the wake of these "exposures," my advertisers canceled their ads and asked for refunds, my columnists quit, and subscribers canceled their subscriptions. Gentle Spirit was all but destroyed. I published one issue of the magazine after these exposures, Volume 5, No. 11, in February of 1995, which drew forth yet another round of exposures and demands for refunds. Broke, weary, and physically, emotionally, and spiritually devastated, I was not able to publish again in print. My mobile home went into foreclosure, and my car burned to the ground in a mysterious fire. I was anonymously reported to Child Protective Services (dismissed as unfounded by the apologetic caseworker) and to the local school board for "not having my children in an educational program" (resolved by submitting a declaration of intent to homeschool). I could not seek work outside the home because running Gentle Spirit was far more than a full-time job, just responding to as much mail as I could and sending out back issues, but of course, I received no income from this job. I received no child support; instead I paid spousal maintenance to my ex-husband, who had taken an early retirement in 1990 and was not employed. I was suicidal from time to time. I was hospitalized with panic attacks. By the grace of a friend, I was able to get the help of a good therapist, and with the love and support of my husband and my children, I survived.
Things continued to be difficult in the years that followed. Rick took responsibility for supporting me and nine children still at home, and I continued to do what I could to satisfy subscribers who had been left with their subscriptions unfulfilled. I sent refunds when I could and fulfilled many subscriptions with back issues of Gentle Spirit. My grown daughter left her own job and cared for the children so that I could work full-time in Seattle for a while; it was that or lose our home and declare bankruptcy. I sold everything I had of value. At one point, both Rick and I worked as farm day laborers in our rural community. For years, most of our food came by the grace of a gleaners group.
But we never gave up hopes of publishing again. At one point I attempted to publish online via an email loop. Later, I built a website, hoping to fulfill subscriptions in that way.
Every time I attempted to publish in any way, without fail, I was met with intense opposition and harassment. Subscribers were privately and publicly urged to report me to the Postmaster General or to state Attorney General offices for fraud, or to the Better Business Bureau. I was threatened with class action lawsuits. I received mail which was hateful and vitriolic. One memorable email read, "You are outrageous in your brazen apostasy. If this were a truly godly society, you wouldn't only be excommunicated, you would be executed."
I was repeatedly publicly denounced as a liar, a thief, and an unrepentant adulteress, despite my remarriage and my ongoing efforts to make good on subscriptions. Rumors abounded: that I had somehow "lost" my mailing list, that I did not have custody of my children, that I was no longer a Christian, that my children had turned against me and would not speak to me, and rumors worse than this, all of them false. All of us, especially the children, were needy and suffering in various ways.
Eventually Rick and I realized I would never be able to live a normal life, to associate freely with other homeschoolers, or to publish or write for publication again - something I loved to do and which had been my family's bread and butter for many years - short of taking some kind of legal action.
I am a lifelong nonresister and pacifist. I am also a former legal assistant, court reporter, and the daughter of an attorney. I knew only too well what it would mean to bring a lawsuit. I knew what it would cost me. Filing suit was a last resort, a very bad alternative among alternatives which were even worse. I saw no other way to bring an end to the harassment and to move forward with my life.
I filed suit in May of 1997. The harassment stopped immediately and has not resumed to this day.
Do you have any idea why this situation spiraled out of control as it did?
I believe that in many ways, I was a threat to mainline conservative Christian homeschooling leadership. I was different. My subscriber base came in large part out of my participation in a Focus on the Family radio program, not directly from the homeschooling community. I was a nonresister and apolitical. There were no patriotic articles in my magazine. I did not urge political activism or endorse any particular political party.
And I was interracially married. Long before the summer of 1994, I received a phone call from Sue Welch expressing her concern over my interracial marriage. She said she received a phone call from a conference organizer who was evidently "surprised" that I was interracially married and felt they should have been advised of that. Sue thought this was valid, that I should let people inviting me to speak know of my biracial marriage ahead of time, send them a photograph, and that to do otherwise might be construed as "deception" on my part. Michael Boutot of Christian Home Educators of Ohio testified that Sue Welch called him before the CHEO conference and asked him whether he was aware of my interracial marriage.
I vehemently disagreed with Sue Welch that I should somehow advise folks of the race of my family members, and I told her I had no intention of doing any such thing. I was flabbergasted at trial to hear Welch and Sharon Grimes testify that in their view, I was ashamed of my interracial marriage and had purposely kept this information from subscribers because I thought it would hurt my business! Race has always been a non-issue with me, as it is going to be with any racially intermarried person - we just see things differently - but it certainly did not seem to be a non-issue with some of the folks in those particular homeschooling circles.
So I did not seek the endorsement of visible homeschooling leaders, including the defendants. I knew I was different, and I was wary of associations which might eventually become problematic to me. While a number of these leaders eventually sought me out themselves, asked me to speak at their events, asked to republish my work, and I agreed to this, I never sought it and never depended on it. I worked hard to maintain my independence. I think this might have been troublesome to some of these leaders.
Sometimes, too, when there is tension and conflict within a movement, as there was with Christian homeschooling at the time, people and groups are scapegoated. One ancient way to achieve unity in a group is to organize or mobilize group members around a common enemy. It deflects the attentions of members of the group away from ongoing conflicts and allows them to concentrate on some person or group that is perceived to be a real threat or a problem. I believe in this instance I was scapegoated, and I also believe there have been other scapegoats. Based on some things I have read, I am concerned that the next scapegoat might be unschoolers.
How do you think news of this will be portrayed by the mainstream media?
I think sensitive, intelligent reporting of this situation is crucial, for the sake of everybody concerned. It is a very complicated story, and the players are not widely known to those outside of homeschooling circles.
Homeschoolers are not immune from the tragedies and difficulties of life. The good news is that despite these trials and difficulties, homeschooling still works. It is still an astonishingly wonderful option. It is, I'm convinced, the greatest lifestyle imaginable. And this is so whether we are talking about two-parent, smiling, healthy, church-going families, or single parent families, or alternative families of various kinds.
Homeschooling doesn't work because homeschoolers are picture perfect, brilliant, righteous, or tidy; it works because we love and are committed to our children. Why should we hide the fact that our community has its share of the problems common to all human beings, especially when, despite our problems, our children have done and are doing quite well?
Our grown children are the greatest evidence and proof we have of the success of homeschooling. I have four astonishingly intelligent, educated, successful, adult children who have fared very well despite some formidable personal hardships and tragedies, and there are many, many pioneering homeschooling parents like me with great grown kids.
Homeschoolers do suffer from some public relations difficulties for a number of reasons, some deserved, some undeserved, but as far as I'm concerned, homeschooling has come of age. We don't have to prove ourselves, not anymore.
Homeschoolers are just good and decent human beings who love our kids and who have the same struggles all people have. If we can present this story in this light, then I think we only stand to gain credibility, affirmation, and support.
So you're back in the publishing business again! How has Gentle Spirit changed, and how is it the same?
Gentle Spirit has undeniably changed, because I have changed. It has always been, in part, meant to be a sharing of my life as I was living it, a way for me to connect with other homeschooling women living lives like mine, with their children near them all the time.
Although I am not in the same place spiritually speaking, precisely, that I was five years ago, Rick and I and the children continue to be church-going Christians and that is reflected in our writings.
The new logo for our publication is, "All Things Home, All Things Natural, All Things Neighborly." This was Rick's brainchild, and I really like it; it is classically Gentle Spirit-y. I'm continuing to write about all of the things I wrote about before. I am the mother of 11 children, stepmother to four, grandmother to nine, altogether, and I have lots to say about mothering, grandmothering, homeschooling, and parenting.
I continue to write about home birth, breastfeeding, herbs, gardening, cooking, organizing a homeschooling household, crafts, small farming, homesteading, home business. We are unschoolers and we're hoping to include regular articles written by unschoolers about unschooling. I continue to write my popular "This Month at Home" column which is my monthly chat with my readers, my way of connecting with them.
Gentle Spirit continues to be a down home, earthy, real-folks publication meant to encourage and build people up, to help them to find resources and practical help for all the things they do at home.
I think there's a real need in the homeschooling community for a bridge kind of publication, a publication that brings all kinds of different people together around our shared interests as homeschoolers.
We hope Gentle Spirit will be inclusive, affirming, a publication to which our readers will turn again and again for comfort, practical help, and support, regardless of their faith, their marital status, number of children, or where they live.
Rick and I are both approaching 50, and looking back over our lives, we see that the best times of our lives, the happiest times, were the times we found ourselves connecting with good, dear, intelligent, and trusted people who loved us and whom we loved. We would like to make this kind of connection with folks in the pages of our magazine as we approach the second (and best!) half of our lives.
Special Report: Seelhoff vs. Welch