I am honored to be interviewing Hallie Ray Ziebert on my blog today. Hallie is the eldest child of Dr. Brian D. Ray, a prominent figure and leader in the evangelical homeschooling movement. I have known Hallie since my late teens and I have so much admiration for her courage and strength in sharing what she shares here. ~R.L. Stollar
Content warning: this post contains detailed descriptions of child physical abuse via corporal punishment.
RLS: Hallie, first, thanks so much for being willing to talk to me and share your story in more detail. I know from personal experience this kind of stuff is difficult and so I really appreciate—and I know others will really appreciate—you speaking up about your life experiences as an abuse survivor and the child of one of the so-called “four pillars of homeschooling,” Dr. Brian D. Ray, the founder of the National Home Education Research Institute (NHERI).
There have been many profiles of many homeschool leaders, but your dad has kept a low profile. Like, I’ve googled it and there’s not much out there about what the Ray family is like. Which is curious, because your dad is the most well-known “researcher” on homeschooling outcomes. (I put researcher here in quotes because some would argue your dad is more of an activist than a neutral academic following the data.) Despite his ubiquitous presence in nearly all articles about homeschool data, and despite founding NHERI, not many know just how far down the rabbit hole of evangelical authoritarianism and extremism your father is. So let’s start with this: can you tell me a bit about what it was like to grow up as the oldest child in the Ray family?
HRZ: Thanks for the care and kindness you have shown me, Ryan! I am happy to be doing this interview with you!
I am not surprised you can’t find much about the Ray family online or on social media. My parents have never enjoyed modern technology much, and last I knew, neither of them have ever even had a cell phone!
I was born in 1980, and when I think back on my life as the oldest Ray kid, it is often helpful for me to split things into two time frames. From 1980-1990 is what I think of as our more basic evangelical Christian years. My family had exposure to the culture around us. We lived in neighborhoods where there were families of other faiths and lifestyles, other children to play with, and my dad was active at the university where he was getting his PhD (and later at the university where he went on to become a professor). At one point we lived on Queen Anne Hill in Seattle, which was a very exciting time in my life!
In 1990, we moved to a farm in a more rural part of Oregon. That is where the last 3 of my siblings were born. I was 18 when my youngest sister came into the world, so as you can imagine, her childhood was very different from mine! My parents are still living on that farm.
RLS: How did your parents first get interested in homeschooling? And what did homeschooling look like in your family?
HRZ: Both my parents were in school, following paths toward careers in education when they met. As the story goes, my mom was student-teaching while she was pregnant with me, and knew in her heart that was not the life she wanted for me. When I was preschool age, I think my mom ran a little playschool, kind of Montessori style, from our home. I remember that as being really fun and exciting.
When I was 7, my dad completed graduate school and took his first job at Seattle Pacific University. I don’t remember there ever being a conversation about anything other than me being homeschooled. It was just what our family did. Until 1990, we were heavily involved in extracurricular activities alongside our academics at home. My sisters and I participated in ballet, track and field, swimming, and a homeschool co-op. Down the street from our house was a Baptist Church that had an Awana program; I would walk there once a week. I made a friend there—who is still one of my dearest friends.
In 1990, when I was 10, my life changed a lot. We moved to the farm, and my dad began a job at Western Baptist College (now Corban University). We went from 5 to 6 kids in the family, and no longer participated in extracurricular activities. I deeply grieved the loss of ballet especially in my life, but we had a lot to do on our farm, and it was impossible to have that many kids in activities and keep a farm operating!
Some high spots for me, academically, were participating in debate and some political activities as a young teen. I also read a lot of good books. My mom was highly influenced by the classical education trend that was emerging, and had us reading a lot of important literature. My dad taught “summer science academy” camps to local homeschooled kids in the summers at the college, and those were a blast. We got to learn in college labs, and my dad was a really engaging science teacher.
Low spots for me was not having any kind of mathematic education or tutoring at all. Basically my parents just handed me some Saxon textbooks and said, “Good luck.” I still have no idea what I was supposed to do with those books! When I was high school-aged, I wanted to take SAT prep classes, and even attended some workshops about it at homeschool conventions where my parents were teaching. But my parents refused to get me the books or help me with that. They didn’t want me to go to college. I was a primary caregiver for my siblings when my mom had babies. I also worked for my dad’s non-profit at least 20 hours a week, beginning when I was about 14. The work to keep our family and farm going, as well as NHERI, always came before my academic needs. So there were long periods of time when I would be doing almost no academic work at all.
RLS: I’ve been to your childhood home. It’s not a typical home. Can you describe it?
HRZ: To my kids, it’s a whimsical and mysterious home! It is on 6 acres, a big, 6 bedroom house, with 2 ramshackle barns. In the early years, there was a peach orchard on the property, but now it is all fenced for a variety of livestock. When I was a kid, there was a huge garden plot.
Everything is pretty old, and in bad repair. There are lots of random vehicles and random equipment parked around the property. My parents invested more in patching things up around the house than fixing things that broke, so you run into some funny surprises when you’re poking around. A whole corner of the living room is dedicated to natural curiosities my parents have collected over the years: a shark jaw, bones, taxidermy, and so forth.
When I was a pre-teen, my parents put some extra bedrooms in the basement. For a number of years, we had different college students living in our basement.
RLS: Child “training” is a big industry in evangelicalism. There are so many “experts” (Michael and Debi Pearl, Reb Bradley, Voddie Baucham, Tedd Tripp, etc.) who claim their system or their method will guarantee some sort of positive outcome in their mind, usually submissive, quiet, and instantly obedient children. “Breaking wills” is probably the most common goal for these evangelical parenting advocates. I have written before about how your dad has promoted these advocates for years. How did your dad’s admiration for these men (because they are all men, except for Debi Pearl) play out in your home?
HRZ: This is hard to talk about. It is important, but still painful.
In the early years, James Dobson was the main influence on “discipline” in our home. My parents considered me a “strong willed child”—a term thrown around a lot by Dobson. Physical punishment was common in our home.
In 1995, the Pearls’ book, To Train Up a Child, started gaining popularity in our community. (J. Richard Fugate’s book What the Bible Says About… Child Training set the stage for the Pearls in our home.) At the time, I was working a few days a week for my dad doing administrative work at NHERI. We bought and sold that book by the caseload. I would work for my dad at homeschool conferences, and that book was right there on the table—next to all the research and other resources my dad sold. We sold more of the Pearl books than anything else, and I felt a massive responsibility to help provide for our family. In my journals from the time, I wrote about setting myself goals of how many Pearl books I was going to sell.
During that time, I also wrote about the physical punishment in my home quite a bit. I was upset because my siblings would have welts—and sometimes broken skin—on their buttocks. My parents finally stopped “spanking” me on my underwear-only bottom when I threatened to report them. They found other damaging ways to control me, but that physical aspect stopped for me at that time. I am still close friends with people from my childhood. They, as well as other family members, have shared memories of my siblings screaming in the bathroom—while my parents spanked them with electrical wire.
RLS: Your dad appeared and spoke at the 2009 Men’s Leadership Summit organized by Kevin Swanson that articulated “a Christian Education Manifesto” that included promoting male supremacy (often called “Christian Patriarchy”) and dismantling the child protective system (CPS). Other speakers included Chris Klicka, Doug Phillips, Voddie Baucham, and Swanson. Curiously, there are no records of what your dad said at the Summit. So can you tell me: (1) Was your dad into all that stuff, like headship and being Quiverfull? And (2) What were you taught about CPS growing up?
HRZ: Absolutely my dad is into all of that. By his own explanation, he is very careful about any type of documentation of his connections—because it could harm the facade of academic neutrality and reliability of his research.
We were blatantly taught male headship and authority in our home. My dad was our final authority and spoke for God in our lives. My journals as a young adult are full of the agony of wanting something different than what my parents told me to do, and me begging God to give me peace and help me submit to their will. It’s devastating, even now, as a 41 year old woman, to go back and be reminded of my broken heart. I see how much I wanted to please God by obeying my dad.
In my family, people who did not “let God decide” the size of their family were mocked and dismissed. Many of our close family friends had vasectomy reversals because of my parents’ influence. I am still friends with people who endured cruel, verbal and spiritual abuse from my dad because they decided to limit the size of their family. After I had my 4th child, I made the choice to get an IUD because I didn’t want to have more children. I was so ashamed, I couldn’t even tell my mom about it—and I was used to telling her almost everything.
As for CPS, my parents called them evil—even baby stealers. At the time, we were influenced by horror stories of homeschooled kids being taken from their parents for no reason other than homeschooling. My dad would read stories from the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) to us—and we personally knew the founders of HSLDA as well as other early “fathers” of the homeschool movement. So I believed everything they said. We were taught to hide in our home if CPS came. We were taught to never, ever let them into our house, and we had little cards with the phone number for HSLDA that we carried with us when we got older. When I was a teen, my parents would travel for weeks at a time and leave me home with their kids. Even living on this rural farm, I was more scared of CPS showing up than I was of criminals bothering us or breaking in. This led to tremendous anxiety and fear that has contributed to my CPTSD diagnosis.
I do need to acknowledge, though, that I now understand there is a lot of complexity around the origin of CPS and their impact on BIPOC and minority groups. I understand that our family was at very little risk for injustice because we are Caucasian and my parents had higher education.
RLS: What was church like for you growing up? And what did spirituality look like in your family?
HRZ: From birth until about age 7, my family attended non-denominational or local evangelical churches. We began attending Baptist churches around the age of 7. We stayed in Baptist churches more or less until my dad was done teaching at a Baptist College in the early 90’s. Then there were a few years of grassroots-type, “home church” with all kinds of homeschooled, patriarchal oddballs.
In 1995, we began attending a local non-denominational church with roots in the Jesus movement of the 1970s. That was a really important place for me, as I grew in my faith and spirituality. It was the most “charismatic” church we had ever attended—and my parents really enjoyed the upbeat vibes. Even there, however, we were not allowed to go to Sunday School or be involved in youth group. It was terribly isolating to be a young person in a small congregation and not be allowed to participate in things the other young people were doing. My dad liked to say, “A companion of fools suffers harm,” and wax eloquent on how foolish young persons are.
I am still close with some of the people who were at that church and were watching me grow up. My pastor and his wife from that time provided a rental for me that I could afford as a single mom. Some of the “big brothers and sisters” who cared about me are still an important part of my life. I’m lucky that they saw me and stayed in contact over the years.
My dad was very consistent with reading the Bible to us every day. He usually started the mornings around the breakfast table with reading from the Proverbs of the day. Bible studies came and went, sometimes organized, sometimes a book our mom would have us do for school. As I got older, and left home to work in international ministry, my parents began to head down a path toward a much more stringent version of Reformed Calvinism. I think, sometime around 2007, when I was already a mom and headed to the mission field, my parents began driving with my siblings to Milwaukie where they attended Gregg Harris’s church plant, Household of Faith. But a lot has happened since then.
RLS: What books were on your family’s bookshelves while you were growing up?
HRZ: my mom is a self-professed bibliophile. Something I came to agree with my parents on is: if you know how to read and have a curious mind, you can do almost anything. We had hundreds and hundreds of books lining nearly every available wall in our home, including the basement. My mom had them more or less organized by subject. We had everything from out-of-print Gene Stratton Porter books, to entire college biology textbooks, to the Book of Mormon. I remember a stage I went through where I read every book about religion and cults that I could get my hands on. We were not given access to “fluff” books; the Christian romance novels that my friends read were totally off-limits. But at the same time, I had unfettered access to the complete works of Shakespeare, Greek myths, and the Chronicles of Narnia!
There were also a lot of harmful and cruel books, like Michael and Debi Pearl’s To Train Up a Child, right there alongside gems from the last century.
RLS: Your parents recently reached out to you after you accused them of abusing you as a child. They asked you to stop talking. You mentioned to me in a different conversation that this “galvanized” you. If you’re comfortable talking more about that, I’d be interested to hear what it’s been like to, well, finally have control over your own story such that they seem worried.
HRZ: My parents put me out of the family in 2017 when I got a divorce. I had virtually no contact with them, by their choice, until last year, when I started going viral on TikTok with stories about my life. It had started as a therapeutic strategy, to see what it was like to tell my story. I had no idea how many people would understand, relate, and have their own stories of how my parents abused and harmed them and their families. From 2019 to 2021, we had 2 natural disasters affect our town, as well as the Covid pandemic beginning. Not once did my parents reach out to check on me. But once my content started getting attention, then they called me. And that call was to tell me I needed to stop talking about them “negatively.” I was past even being hurt. Knowing that after all that time of no contact, that was what made them call me? That made me realize that what I was saying actually mattered.
RLS: What was your “lightbulb” moment, that moment when you realized so much of your childhood was based on fear, control, and lies?
HRZ: There were many lightbulb moments. The first rumblings in my heart began when I started educating myself to prepare for the adoption of my son in 2012. I realized that so many of the things about parenting I had thought of as “science” and “fact” were neither science nor fact! My relationship with myself, my husband, and the world was making a shift.
The rumblings, if we are going to stick with a metaphor, reached an eruption point when I decided to end my marriage. I realized that I had been groomed my whole life to accept and submit to abuse from men. Literally my whole life, my parents had been preparing me to let a man do whatever he wanted to me, my body, my heart, my children. When I found my voice and courage to say, “No, thank you,” I was instantly removed from my family.
My most poignant lightbulb moment was on a day I was watching my almost-13 year old child try on an outfit at Target. I was marveling at how incredible they were, their muscles, their flexibility, their strength, and the fact that this person had come out of my body! A thought rushed into my brain: “What would it be like to hit that kid?” I was horrified. I couldn’t imagine inflicting violence or pain on that perfect body. My next thought was like an old fashioned slide clicking to the next frame—and a vivid memory of me, in our house’s basement, jeans around my ankles, being beaten with my dad’s electrical cord. My mom was there watching so she could testify that he hadn’t molested me if anyone reported us. I was 13.
I think that was the moment in my life where I was able to say out loud, “My. Parents. Abused. Me.”
RLS: Let’s talk about something actually positive now: change. Talk to me about what it’s been like to change, to break free, to speak up, to find your voice and share your truth. I am sure it’s been terrifying and wonderful and heartbreaking and liberating all at the same time.
HRZ: It has been the most horrible miracle of my life. My life is far from easy these days. There are many factors and many barriers that came with me from my old life. But here is what I can say with absolute certainty: I have no regrets.
I have a kid who was able to come out as queer, and find safety in our home life, because I left. I have children who have no memory of being “spanked,” who only know my hands as love and care. I discovered which of my friends were willing to actually go the mile with me. People from far, far in my past who came out of the woodwork to cheer me on and affirm my journey.
My grief can be profound sometimes—and I grieve losing the certainty of conformity. I grieve the loss of the things I always thought were certain: a God with a plan, parents who will always love you, siblings who have your back. But when I look in my own eyes and the eyes of my children, I know that what I am seeing is real—and worth all the loss.
RLS: You’ve become quite the viral sensation on TikTok. I love your videos because you really bring your full self into them—and people resonate strongly with your vulnerability, your courage, your rebellious, resilient spirit, and your ability to find humor in the pain. What’s it been like to connect with people through those videos and go viral?
HRZ: It can be pretty heavy sometimes. I love that you say “rebellious”: that was a word thrown at me in curses my whole life. I own it now. I am proud that I rebelled. I am aware of no injustices that have been made right without a rebellion!
I can hardly keep up with all the messages I get. I was surprised how many people found me through TikTok, who have had in-person experiences with me or my family of origin. I even connected with local people who had been harmed in various amalgamations of my dad’s “church.” I keep google docs with resources for people—and many of them have followed up with professional counseling and healing.
I am very resilient. I also don’t mind laughing at myself. Delving in, and unpacking the past, leads to a lot of embarrassing self-discovery as well. I think a lot of the followers and connections I have made appreciate that I am willing to own my mistakes and the ways I have participated in harm.
RLS: What about parenting today? You have children who are school-aged. How has your childhood influenced how you parent now? And what advice would you give parents who are only just now starting to wonder, “Is there a different, better way to parent than the way I was parented?”
HRZ: Parenting is something I now think of as fluid. If someone is wondering, “Is there a different way to do this?”, I almost always tell them to start with reading the book Protecting the Gift by Gavin DeBecker. I don’t know that it is even a “parenting” book, but it brings up so much about intuition and the light and knowing that is in each of us since birth. I think anyone can benefit from that.
It is exhausting to parent like I do, because I view each child as a whole, individual person. What works for one, does not work for another. This is the part that can be exhausting: just when I think I have found The Thing That Works, a different child, with an entirely different everything bursts into my line of sight and The Thing That Works for the other kid, is the Thing That Absolutely Does Not Work!
I have an adopted child with physical disabilities and different colored skin. I have a few different types of neurodivergence in my house as well! My oldest is 16 and queer and our relationship is trusting, loud, gentle, and we are growing together. It is my greatest pride and joy to know that each one of my 4 kids and I have the opportunity to grow and change together for the rest of our lives.
RLS: What does spirituality look like to you today?
HRZ: I am not a Christian anymore. I finally said that phrase last summer and it really scared me. But then I started laughing and crying! I have faith, and spiritual practices that are full of love, light, community, and hope. I have also finally learned that I don’t have to explain myself to anyone. I get to hold whatever parts of my heart that I want to, safe, close, sacred. That is a huge change from feeling like I had to be a professional apologist at all times!
RLS: I think the question everyone will want to know the answer to is, “What do you think about homeschooling now?” And by “now,” I mean both in light of your childhood and also the pandemic. Because I know the pandemic has forced many homeschool abuse survivors into homeschooling their own children. I am sure that could be either triggering as hell or strangely healing and liberating. The pandemic has complicated so many aspects of our lives. So considering what you’ve survived and this strange new reality we are in, where do you stand on homeschooling? And specifically, what do you think is the biggest difference between healthy homeschooling and unhealthy homeschooling, if you see a difference?
HRZ: This is such a good question. I was one of the people forced into “homeschooling” my children during the pandemic. It was, like you said, both healing and traumatizing! 3 of my kids did their work through distance learning with our local public school, and one did a from-scratch, type of year. For her, it was a restful, healing year that helped her recapture her love for learning, and we were so glad that was possible. Personally, I love homeschooling in theory, and know lots of people who have done it with intention, love, and an eye to the future. Huge parts of the things I like about myself are things that I got because I was homeschooled.
When I think about the difference between healthy and unhealthy homeschooling, two words come to mind: (1) accountability and (2) access. Regarding accountability: my parents could do anything they wanted with us, in all areas of our lives, and there was no one they had to answer to. There are no safety nets for isolated kids like we were. Regarding access: children deserve access to different ways of thinking, believing, and living. They need access to knowledge about their rights and how they can take care of themselves and advocate for themselves.
RLS: One final question. If you could give a “care package” to a recent escapee of evangelical homeschooling, a package that included one book, one song, one poem, and one piece of advice, what would be in your care package?
- Book: Protecting the Gift by DeBecker
- Song: “Fucking Perfect” by P!nk
- Poem: “The Swing” by Robert Louis Stevenson (this poem is an invitation to life)
- Advice: No one knows you, loves you, or will fight for you like you yourself will. So do it. Fight for you. Love you. Know yourself. It’s ok.
About Hallie Ray Ziebert: Homeschooled from kindergarten through 12th grade, Hallie has burned with a fire for truth and justice her whole life. After working for NHERI for many years as a research and sales assistant, that fire took her overseas as a Christian missionary for many years. Today she brings her strengths to her community in the Pacific Northwest, where she writes, advocates, works, and raises her 4 kids as a single mother. When all else fails, she dances it out to some P!nk. Hallie blogs at https://www.halliez.com/.