An Open Letter to Roy Lessin: Author of
“Spanking: Why, When, How”
S O U R C E
| Beth Fenimore’s father illustrated Roy Lessin’s 1979 book “Spanking: Why, When, How.” As a child, Beth’s family attended the church where Roy Lessin preached. Her parents and the Lessins socialized with each other and babysat each other’s children. Beth and her siblings grew up alongside the Lessin’s two children, Joey and Lydia. Beth’s parents used Roy Lessin’s “godly” methods of corporal punishment under his personal tutelage, and in at least one case, Beth was “spanked” with a switch by Roy Lessin’s wife, Charlene (“Char”) Lessin. In this stunning and courageous letter, Beth confronts the man who taught her parents how to use corporal punishment to extinguish all outward evidence of childish emotions displeasing to the parent, and how to instill instant, unthinking obedience based on fear. She vividly describes the dark cloud Char and Roy Lessin’s methods cast over her childhood, as well as the long lasting psychological, emotional and medical harm which resulted from Roy Lessin’s so-called “loving correction of the rod.”
September 7, 2005
Open Letter to Roy Lessin
Author of Spanking: Why, When, How
After 19 years I have found the courage to write you this letter declaring how your choice to teach and write about spanking has affected me. My purpose in writing you this open letter is to share with you and others that the spanking approach you recommend is harmful. My parents both know my view on this issue. I have talked to them, as well, about how their decision to implement your spanking recommendations affected me. I have a mission. My mission is to warn new parents who are innocently trying to raise happy, healthy children. Should just one parent spare their child the kind of pain that I endured at the hands of my parents implementing your spanking recommendations, my pain will have more meaning than it does now.
Should just one parent spare their child the kind of pain that I endured at the hands of my parents implementing your spanking recommendations, my pain will have more meaning than it does now.
I want to begin by talking about your spanking approach so that we’ll both be using the same language. In your book, you describe a process by which a parent performs a spanking on their child.
* The first step is to use the right instrument; if a parent uses their hand, the child might become fearful of the parent’s hand.
* The second step is to spank promptly.
* The third step is to find a private place in which the parent can conduct the spanking.
* The fourth step is for the parent to explain to the child why they are going to be spanked.
* The fifth step is to get the child into a good spanking position (when my parents and other adults–such as your wife, Char–spanked me, the ritual involved removing the child’s clothing); you recommend bending the child over a bed, or bending a smaller child over the parent’s lap.
* The sixth step is to hit the child on the buttocks with a stick or other spanking implement.
* The seventh step is to continue spanking until the child yields a broken cry, which indicates a broken will.
* The eighth step is reconciliation. You recommend that parents comfort the child until sufficient time has passed, and then ask the child to stop crying. You recommend that parents spank a child who displays a “wrong attitude” by continuing to cry too long after a spanking.
The language in your book is much more “sugary” than what I’ve just written. But my description does not come close to what it feels like to receive a Roy Lessin spanking. So I’ll describe what a Roy Lessin spanking is like.My first spanking was when I was six months old. My mother spanked me for crying after she put me to bed. She had to spank me repeatedly to teach me to not cry when she put me down. I know about this incident because my mother used to tell all new mothers about how young I was when she started spanking me. My last spanking occurred when I was thirteen years old. The Roy Lessin spankings that I remember most vividly took place between the ages of three and seven, because I hardly went a few days without a spanking at that time. I’d like to share with you, and others, what it was like receiving a Roy Lessin spanking.
The moment I found out I was going to get a Roy Lessin spanking, I felt physically ill. Because the Roy Lessin spanking is a ritual, the ordeal could take a long time. (When I refer to a spanking ritual, I’m referring to the steps you outline in your book.) This was hard for me because I had a child’s sense of time. The dread bubbled up and consumed me, and stayed with me until the spanking ritual was over. My parents usually sent me to a private room, such as my own room, and there I would wait until one of my parents came. (My dad spanked me the most, so in my illustration let’s assume my father is conducting the Roy Lessin spanking.) My father would explain the reason for the spanking. This was an excruciating process because I had to listen while knowing what was coming. Since I might face back-to-back Roy Lessin spankings, I had to be careful not to be disrespectful in my listening to my father. I had already developed irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and would feel my guts cramp up with anxiety during his speech. Then he would ask me to take off my pants and underwear. I would feel deeply embarrassed because my father was not supposed to see me naked. (My family had a high standard for modesty.) My humiliation and fear would grow immeasurably as I leaned over the bed, my father’s knee, or whatever was around. My private parts were helplessly exposed as my dad laid his hand on my back. Trying to pull away and defend myself would only mean that the spanking would be longer, or I’d get a back-to-back spanking. The stick, paddle inscribed with scripture verses, or belt would swish violently through the air before slapping painfully on my buttocks or thighs. I would scream in pain and anguish. I cannot remember a moment of thinking of resisting, rebelling, or trying to “win” anything, as you recommend parents should watch for as they hit their children. I just tried to survive the best way I knew how. The screaming, the hitting, and the pain would continue for unknown amounts of time. When the gruesome pain ended, I would begin to battle with my emotions and my body. I knew that crying too much could mean that my father would start a Roy Lessin spanking ritual all over again to correct my “wrong attitude.”
My parents were never concerned about the marks they left on my body. We never talked about the painful marks on my body, or how clothing, baths, chairs, etc. hurt. The message was clear: there was no pain. Pulling up my pants was incredibly painful, and so was sitting on my father’s lap. Because “there was no pain,” I had to pretend my buttocks and thighs didn’t hurt even though they did, while my father would wrap his arms around me and “comfort” me. I was not like the idealized children you describe in your book, not knowing the difference between the spanking implement and the parent. My father caused me that pain–not a stick! My father’s arms scared me, and I feared my father like I’ve feared no other man. His touch repulsed me. I was the same with my mother. (To this day, I cannot physically tolerate either parent touching me. I feel physically ill at their touch.) My father would pray, and I could hardly go along but for fear of yet another Roy Lessin spanking. After we prayed, it was time for me to be happy. But my insides would be a mess. Tears would threaten to come back and cause me more pain and anguish. I had to pretend that I wasn’t sad, and that I wasn’t in pain. This would be my greatest lesson: to be happy no matter how I felt inside. It would take me a few back-to-back spankings, but I would learn. It would be a lesson I’d learn for life–being falsely happy regardless of how my body felt.
One aspect of receiving a Roy Lessin spanking is the sexual aspect. It’s taken me years to even begin to allow myself to speak of this aspect. You see, as a child I had no idea what sex was. I just had this funny sensation that came and went during the Roy Lessin spanking ritual. To my great dismay, I learned that sexual stimulation can be cross-wired with the painful ritual of spankings. This cross-wiring was a real problem for me. Because I couldn’t cope with the double message of love and pain, I avoided developing an intimate relationship with a man for a very long time. It took years for me to find a healthy sexuality outside the memories I have of the Roy Lessin spankings. I struggled with this double message as a child. I feel a deep sense of shame as I remember hitting and torturing my dolls and Barbies when no one was around. I needed some way to express the fear, pain, and sexual confusion I felt inside; yet my childish mind couldn’t comprehend the significance of what I was doing.
My parents were your “A” students. They followed your eight steps occasionally reducing the entire Roy Lessin spanking ritual to a few swats–not very often, though. My butt and thighs would sting for a long time after a Roy Lessin spanking ritual, so I’d go into the bathroom and use my mother’s mirror to look at my behind. I remember seeing red stripes crisscrossing my buttocks and my thighs. At times, I had old marks underneath the new marks. My parents conducted several Roy Lessin spanking rituals a day when I was a young child. I remember a teacher at school asking me one day why I didn’t just sit still. I couldn’t tell her that it was because the marks on my butt hurt so bad sitting in the little wooden chair.
Now that we’ve established what a Roy Lessin spanking is and what it felt like to receive one, let’s move on to wrong attitudes. I’d like to begin by telling you a story of what it was like having an adult, in this case your wife, address my “wrong attitude.”
One day my parents were moving. I was four, and woke up to a house that I no longer recognized. I asked my mother what was happening. Whatever answer she gave, I didn’t understand. She sent my brothers and me to your house, where your wife Char was to baby-sit us. On the way out the door, I saw our small parakeet Chirpy sitting in his cage outside our house near some bushes. Now, Chirpy wasn’t supposed to be outside. A dark feeling of dread came over me. I was frightened as I walked to the car, looking at Chirpy frantically chirping in his cage next to a stack of boxes. At some point, at your house, Char put all of us down for a nap. The confusion and fear filled me, and I wondered if I’d ever see my home again. When the room was quiet, my emotions burst out of me. I cried. Char came in and told me to stop, and I couldn’t. So she performed one of your spanking rituals. I went back to my napping spot. I lay there for the remainder of my nap–unable to sleep, afraid to move, filled with emotions of dread and fear so large I thought I’d explode. But I had to make Char believe that I was cheerfully obeying her. I put on whatever face I could to convince her, and pretended to be asleep. I had to pretend I felt different than I did inside.
There are two points I’d like to make about bad attitudes. The first is that, as you can see above, adults do not have “powers” that allow them to read the minds of children. My parents made this mistake over and over again. They weren’t much better at reading my mind or how I felt than your wife was that day I stayed at your house. You see, parents make mistakes. There’s no getting around this. But when a parent uses a force as violent as a Roy Lessin spanking, mistakes are truly damaging, especially when the spanking ritual involves breaking the child’s will–or breaking any part of a child’s psyche!
The second point about “wrong attitudes” is that you tell parents that their children will be happy with your mode of discipline, or even prefer being spanked. I want to say that I didn’t experience that joy. I built myself a cheerful, obedient shell. I lived in that shell, only peeking my head out when I felt safe, for 30 years. It took me another seven years to actually try taking the cheerful, obedient shell off–only to run back into it when something felt like the “old fears of my childhood.” I have not been happy living in this shell, constantly pretending to be happy when I felt miserable inside. When I think of a happy child, I think of a child who feels free to express their ideas, thoughts, and emotions. I think that a parent’s job is to teach a child how to express their emotions, not hit them with a stick until the child displays the emotion of the parent’s choosing.
You write about parents disciplining children for disobedience. It seems pretty simple. The parents set up some rules and the children follow them. When disobedience is based on a child doing or behaving just as the parent asks, following those rules becomes much harder. As your teachings played out in my growing-up years, I found that I violated more rules than I could keep track of. Not only that, one of the rules was to follow through without my mom or dad asking a second time. So perfection became the rule, and perfection was something I failed at miserably. Even in the cheerful, obedient shell, I was not completely safe. The life lesson I took away was that there is no such thing as second chances. I took this lesson to school, and found that I was afraid to try. Not that my parents didn’t encourage me–it was just that if the encouragement didn’t work, which it often didn’t, they’d spank me for getting letters backwards, words wrong on spelling tests, and so forth. Basically, they spanked me for not trying hard enough. I haven’t even mentioned the hundreds of other issues they spanked me for. I learned how to live helplessly. Not only did I face my own internal disappointment at not getting something correct, I faced a Roy Lessin spanking at home when I wore out my encouragement. I grew up thinking that I was mentally handicapped. Later, as a grown adult, I found out that I’m dyslexic–something a Roy Lessin spanking would never cure.
For most of my life, I worried that I’d remembered all this wrong. About eleven years ago I called Char and asked her to listen to while I recalled a Roy Lessin spanking for her. I described to her in as much detail as I could remember the beatings I endured again and again. Char told me that my memories were exactly what you and she had taught my parents. I had not remembered wrong!
I read your book a few weeks ago. I was again surprised to realize I knew and remembered your teachings very well. After the years of growing up around your family and hearing you preach at Outreach, your book brought back your painful teachings and the painful memories I’ve been trying so hard to live with. I kept wanting to grab my cheerful, obedient shell because to this day I feel scared when I think of all the Roy Lessin spankings and teachings.
Both Char, during my call with her, and you, in your first book, talk about spankings having a higher purpose in saving the soul. You reference Proverbs 20:30: “Blows that wound cleanse away evil; strokes make clean the innermost parts.” Those “blows” left horrible marks on my body that made sitting difficult and bathing with soap sting horribly, and they terrified my spirit.
Feeling terrified isn’t the only outcome I live with. Ten years ago a gastroenterologist diagnosed me with IBS, a condition I’ve had since I was around three years old. Because of the fierce anxiety I felt because of the Roy Lessin spankings, I had terrible chronic stomachaches and diarrhea while I was growing up and as an adult. Five years ago my psychiatrist diagnosed me with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and I began to work through my deeply rooted fears of my parents and the Roy Lessin spankings. Later a physician associate (PA) diagnosed me with asthma and severe allergies from a poor immune system, a result of my chronic anxiety. The same PA told me that I’m at high risk for colon cancer because of the years of IBS as a result of my anxiety. Roy, these problems are all due to my parents implementing your teachings using Roy Lessin spankings to correct a multitude of childhood blunders and attitudes. I can’t imagine why a parent would want these outcomes for their child. I may have looked happy and acted lovingly towards my parents, but I was emotionally and physically sick inside! Your teachings gave me no option but to live a horrible lie of looking happy when I was miserable.
For almost every day of my life, I fear people. If people like my parents, and friends of my family such as you and Char, would hurt me this badly, what horrible things would others do to me? I was supposed to be safe with my family and friends growing up! I especially fear men in authority roles. I occasionally look even at people I know, and who I know to be safe, with terror just because they’ve spoken in a tone that reminds me of those early times. I fear making mistakes. I choose not to have children of my own because a child’s screams scramble my insides.
Remember all those sermons at Outreach that you, Don Leetch, Dean Kerns, and a few others delivered? I still hear children screaming as their parents spanked them outside the church sanctuary during Sunday morning service during those sermons. I remember the screams of my siblings. I remember on a Friday night, someone was preaching and a dad took a baby outside for a spanking, and a neighbor called the police. We stopped the church service, and you went out with your bible to explain to the officer why it was fine for the parent to spank their baby. All of us inside prayed that the officer would understand and not take the baby away.
As a grown woman I still fear Roy Lessin spankings. I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night begging my husband to “not let them get me.”
My father and I have talked several times about Roy Lessin spankings. He has asked for forgiveness, and is horrified by what he has done. These conversations have been incredibly painful for both of us, and I’m now 37 years old! I believe that he thought he was doing the right thing. You were a leader in the church he believed in, and you were his friend. Our families socialized together. This was not some teaching he picked up somewhere, and then went off to make the best of it.
I hope that by this point you begin to see how your simple, sweet words about raising children are actually harmful. Perhaps you’re wondering if I want to have a dialogue with you, and talk about what you really meant by your early book. Perhaps you’ve adopted a policy of grace, and now recommend that parents spank less and not on bare skin? The truth is, I don’t want to know. If I needed justification or reasoning for your teachings, I could use your book as a reference. What I’d like you to do is reconsider your position after carefully looking at how your teachings affected me. Would a loving parent really want to raise a child to fear people, to wear a cheerful and obedient shell, or to live with PTSD and other ailments? I hope the answer you come to is No. I hope that you realize that hitting a child for any reason is not loving. Then, I hope, you join the cause to end corporal punishment in the homes of children. I came into this world a happy, healthy baby. For no other reason than the Roy Lessin spankings, I now fight for my physical and mental health. Please help others and me so this doesn’t happen to any more children. Help end corporal punishment. Help end child abuse. If Jesus said, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea” (Mark 9:42), I can’t image that God would condone such behavior in people who claim to be loving parents.
Bethany A. Fenimore
Roy Lessin, author of “Spanking: Why, When, How” with Lydia, Joey and Char, circa 1978.
Beth Fenimore: “I remember knowing my mother was watching me and telling
me to smile for the photographer. I felt intimidated by my mother to smile.
No matter what facial expression I had, my eyes seemed to show my anxiety.
Looking at this photo now, I feel deeply sad.”
Beth Fenimore: “As a kid, I was on the watch for the moods and emotions of others.
I was usually distracted with anxiety wondering if I had done anything
wrong that would cause me to get a Roy Lessin spanking.”