The extraordinary upbringing and daring escape of a victim of America's homeschooling fundamentalists
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from: Daily Mail
At 20, Jennyfer Deister was all set to be married off to a man twice her age.
Her family, she says, had taken $25,000 in installments from the prospective groom and in return they were to give him her hand.
It would have been more — probably $50,000 she estimates — except that she had been sexually abused as a young child in one of the four foster homes she passed through before she was finally adopted.
'I was like damaged goods,' she admitted in an exclusive interview with Daily Mail Online.
Jennyfer — her birth mother chose the unusual spelling — had no say in the marriage and says her husband-to-be was actually a decent man. In fact he could have been an ideal husband 'except he was 20 years too old'.
Jennyfer's story is not from some exotic cult or overseas religion. Instead she, like Alecia Pennington, 'the girl who doesn't exist,' considers herself a victim of a growing extreme fundamentalist Christian home-school movement that has blossomed here in the United States.
Alecia, 19, hit the headlines last week when she revealed in a stunning YouTube video that her parents had not registered her birth. As she has no papers establishing her identity, she cannot get a driver's license, vote, board a plane or even get a job.
Jennyfer — now Jennyfer Austin — says she doesn't personally know Alecia but they are both active on a Facebook page for home schooled children. She says much of her own life mirrored what Alecia has revealed about her own.
And she can give a fascinating inside view of the cult of home-schooling that many Americans take to be a harmless expression of educational freedom - and in the vast majority of cases is.
However, an informal survey taken by the group Homeschool Alumni Reaching Out in the wake of the Pennington case found an alarming 29 percent of respondents said they found they had no access their own birth certificate by the time they turned 18 and 25 percent said they could not get to their social security card.
Only 56 percent of 18 year-old homeschoolers had a driving license by their 18th birthday, compared with 85 percent for the country as a whole, the survey revealed - although its findings were of course limited by being self-selected and likely to be people who feel let down by their upbringing.
Unlike Alecia, Jennyfer knew she had papers that proved her existence. She had been sent to a Bible school in Quebec, Canada and on a church mission to the Philippines, so she knew she had a passport. At various times she had seen her birth certificate and even her social security card. The trouble was, even in her mid-20s, she had no idea where her mother kept them.
So when she finally decided she had had enough of life at home, she says she was forced to rifle through her mother's papers, but without luck.
'I realized I needed to find these papers before I left for good,' she said.
'My mother had a big oak desk and I went searching through all the files in all the drawers but I couldn't find anything.'
Eventually she realized the wood on one panel on the desk did not match the rest, something she had never noticed before. 'I got a pair of tweezers and pushed the panel up, and there they were in a secret compartment — my passport, state ID, social security card and birth certificate.'
Clutching the precious papers, Jennyfer fled, vowing she had spent the last night in her mother's house. It was Thursday, October 22, 2009. Jennyfer was just a little over a month shy of her 27th birthday.
Daily Mail Online attempted to contact Jennyfer's mother , Laura Deister, for comment by phone and email without success.
Jennyfer's story began in wealthy San Jose, California, thousands of miles from the cities where Americans believe arranged marriage is common.
'You think of this sort of thing happening "over there", not here in America,' she told Daily Mail Online in a calm, measured voice.
She was born to a woman who had drug and alcohol problems. 'Any one of several men could have been my father,' she says.
When she was 3½ she was placed in foster care. Some four years later, church leader's daughter Laura Deister adopted her.
Her new mother, who had never married, put her in private school in San Jose but by fifth grade felt the system was failing Jennyfer, who suffers from mild Asperger's Syndrome. 'My math was only at first grade level — but my reading was 11th grade.
'The private school simply did not have the resources to get my math abilities up to speed,' Jennyfer said. 'My mother began to look for other schools to take me but the only one she felt could help cost $25,000 a year, and she was only earning $38,000.
So, egged on by Jennyfer's grandfather, her mother decided to home-school her. 'Home-schooling was very much a case that she wanted to help me get over my hurdles and spend time with private tutors,' said Jennyfer, now 32.
But that is not how it worked out. Instead, as Jennyfer's adoptive mother got more involved in the home school movement, she also fell into what her daughter calls 'religious extremism.'
'My mother was always conservative, but not crazy conservative. The trouble is if you are not extreme enough, the other parents won't let your child play with their children.
'My education basically consisted of having books thrown on my lap and being told to get on with it. I had tutors once or twice a week, but my mother rarely checked my work or my grades.'
Jennyfer continued to struggle at math but admits her unorthodox education gave her the chance to excel in the fine arts, especially music, with opportunities she might not have received in a more formal classroom.
'I could play the piano, but I could only listen to classical music and hymns. I had no knowledge of any other type of music.'
When Jennyfer was 13 a relative moved to San Jose. 'She was extremely conservative and very forceful. She was angry and bitter about men and she dragged my family to the extremes. She was pushing her views down our throats.'
Jennyfer said she had friends, nearly all of whom were also home-schooled. Occasionally in church they would discuss such rebellious teenage ideas as dating or wearing clothes that showed just the tiniest piece of skin.
The family belonged to a church that is part of the mutual edification movement, which does not believe in having paid pastors. Instead every male member of the church is given the chance to lead the services.
'Dating was a complete no-no. I might be able to have a parent-approved courtship and go places in public, but I couldn't possibly do something like hold hands with a boy.'
She was forced to wear long skirts and blouses with high necklines and long sleeves. If she chose a skirt which went to mid-calf, she would have to put on knee-length boots so no leg was shown.
'Even my swimsuit went down to my knees and had sleeves,' she recalled. 'I wasn't allowed to shave. My grandfather felt that any part such as my legs that needed to be shaved should not be shown off in public.'
Her husband-to-be decided he wanted Jennyfer to go for one semester to a Christian university so she would never resent missing out on college life, she said. She was packed off to Harding University, a Christian school in Searcy, Arkansas, some 50 miles north of the state capital, Little Rock.
But that is where her family's plans fell apart. Within a week Jennyfer met fellow student Tom Austin. Three weeks later he got down on one knee at a bench on campus and proposed.
'I didn't know at the time that I was arranged to be married,' said Jennyfer. 'But Tom had to go back home to Massachusetts when he found he had lupus,' she said.
When Jennyfer returned to her family in California with the good news that she had met someone special, she was in for a shock. 'I was told I could not marry him because I was already betrothed. I wasn't aware of this!'
The man she was supposed to marry admitted he had never told her and he broke off their relationship. 'Of course he wanted his $25,000. My mother told me I owed her it.'
Still, the course of true love did not run smoothly. Jennyfer and Tom both say her family did all it could to keep them apart, even when he moved to San Jose and lived with her grandfather on the other side of town.
'He was a one-hour bus ride away. They thought they could control him if he lived with the family, but they did everything in their power to keep me and Tom apart.
'They would send me to small Bible schools to try to reform my ways and they only allowed me 10 minutes of phone time a week with him, but we managed to stay in touch even though they kept giving me less and less time hoping it would fade away.'
But on October 21, 2009, Jennyfer and Tom made their break. They had nowhere to go and ended up at her grandfather's Church of Christ on 7th Street in San Jose, hoping to find a member of the congregation who would take them in.
Instead Jennyfer's mother found them and she went back home. (Daily Mail Online contacted Jennyfer's mother but she did not comment.)
It was probably all for the good, because it wasn't till the next day that it dawned on her that she needed to find her papers if she was to forge her own life. During her rummaging she also found a few hundred dollars that she had earned dog-sitting, but which, she says, her mother had kept from her. She took that too.
Within two weeks, Tom and Jennyfer married at City Hall. 'I wore a T-shirt and jeans,' she recalled. They had to scrape together $150 for the marriage license and a further $100 to pay for a witness. 'We knew no-one who would do it for us,' she said. 'So we had to pay someone.'
But Jennyfer's upbringing had not prepared her for life on the outside. She had only ever had one short-lived job — after being sent to live with an aunt in Wisconsin, she landed a position as a clerk at Walgreens.
'When you go for an interview, it is very hard to explain how you got your only job when you were 25,' she said. 'I have no references, the only people I knew were people who thought women shouldn't work anyway.
'I had always been prevented from learning to drive because my family thought it wasn't necessary. They thought that was would be the key to my independence — they were probably right.'
Now, a few months after their fifth wedding anniversary, Tom and Jennyfer live just a stone's throw from Harding, the school where they met. They returned to Searcy as it is a place they know, and with little money, the low cost of living is a boon. But without a car and with no public transportation in town, their horizons are limited.
Tom is hoping to get a fantasy novel he is close to finishing published. Jennyfer makes jewelry which she sells via a Facebook page. 'We would love to move,' said Jennyfer, saying Pueblo, Colorado, would be their dream place to start a new life.
They have already decided they do not want children of their own.
As far as beliefs are concerned, Jennyfer admits she is unsure. 'The one thing I know is I am not a Christian.'