The Education of Laurie Hall

Feb 16, 2000 |Simon J. Dahlman

Ever think porn is just an innocent little pastime? Read Hall's story; you may think again.

The message begins with a barrage of statistics and academic findings: the economic impact of pornography, the physiological effect on men, the number of professing Christian men who say they regularly use it (about half, more or less). The words start to drone into clinical fog. The speaker, a woman with strawberry-blonde hair and ray-gun eyes, has issues with pornography. That’s fine; move on. But then she switches to story-telling mode, and it becomes painfully obvious that she’s entitled to her issues. The fog starts to lift and some of her listeners start to believe that they, too, should have issues.

Laurie Hall, who’s pushing 50, has been haunted by pornography for half her life, although most of the time she didn’t know it. Now she’s on a one-woman crusade to warn anyone who will listen, especially college students, about the dangers of porn and what it does to elationships. Pornography does more than make little boys blush and grown men smirk. As her story proves, it’s been known to ruin lives and rip apart families.

***

Laurie and her husband, Jack, have been married for 28 years, but she almost walked out after only 12. One night in 1984, after Jack had come home late again, she packed her bags and headed for the door.

Before she opened it, however, she paused, looked around, and saw a Bible lying on a table in the living room, out of place. A committed Christian, she didn’t want her marriage to end — not for herself, not for her husband, Jack, and certainly not for their two children. The sight of the Bible made her hesitate.

"I realized I didn’t even know why I was leaving," she remembers. "I only knew that something was wrong and I couldn’t live the way I was any longer."

She went to the table and picked up the Bible, saying out loud, "God, do you have anything to say about this?"

The Bible fell open to 1 Peter chapter 1. Verse 3 caught Laurie’s eye: "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead."

She knew that any hope she had was not living. She did not expect things to get better.

And then, Laurie says, God told her, "You didn’t just make those marriage vows to your husband. You made them to me. And I will show you how to keep them."

It took eight more years, but Laurie finally discovered the problem: Her husband was addicted to pornography. What began with an almost accidental exposure to soft-core magazines in the Army evolved into a secretive obsession that eventually he acted out with prostitutes. By the time his habit was discovered, it had cost thousands of dollars, hundreds of hours of counseling, his relationship with his children, the threat of AIDS and almost his marriage.

***

Laurie documented the story a few years ago in a book titled An Affair of the Mind (Focus on the Family, 1996). Part memoir, part exposé, the book draws a bleak picture of the annual $13 billion dollar pornography industry, frankly describing the effects on individuals and their families. Now Laurie spends almost half her time away from her Vermont home, speaking at conferences, conventions, churches — and campuses. Her themes are the same wherever she goes: Relationships are real. Porn is false, and it will damage real relationships. Choices and actions have consequences. And we all have choices. We don’t have to be slaves to our desires.

"Students are really open," she says, because she’s "safe — here today and gone tomorrow." She travels to both Christian and secular campuses, but the only real difference she sees, where sexual activity is concerned, is that when Christians have sex outside of marriage, they feel ashamed.

Laurie doesn’t talk fast, but she talks urgently and bluntly, always trying to convince her listeners. When she lectures, Laurie scans the audience, one face at a time, trying to make sure she’s convincing anyone who’s the least bit attentive. When she connects with someone, Laurie returns to that person again and again, almost pleading with her eyes: "Stay with me. Don’t give up on what I’m saying. This is important."

For all her honesty and forthright talk, Laurie and Jack Hall live with an irony: Those aren’t their real names. The book was written with pseudonyms, at the request of their extended families. Then when Laurie hit the speaking circuit, so much confusion arose from using her actual name that they decided to legally change their names to match the names in the book. Fame — or notoriety — has its price.

***

Laurie met Jack on a blind date when she was a student at a women’s college in Fredericksburg, Va., and he was in the Army, serving in a security detail at the White House. Jack’s reputation was squeaky clean. (Those were the days, Laurie notes, when "you couldn’t have a parking ticket and work security in the White House.") He was known to be a Christian; he was the son of missionaries.

His parents had brought him to the United States from Africa when he was 18. When their yearlong furlough was over, they returned to the field, leaving him behind to attend college. He worked a construction job during the intervening summer and some of his co-workers had soft-core porn magazines. It was his first exposure. Later, after he’d been drafted, he saw photos of naked women every time he went to the barber, once every three days. He developed a secret habit, doing everything he could to hide his pornography. He didn’t want to seem like a bad Christian.

His skill at hiding it served him well after he and Laurie got serious and then married in 1972. They moved to Texas so he could attend college. Children, a boy and a girl, soon came along.

It turned out to be a "painful marriage," Laurie says. Jack "lived with no sense of responsibility." He was gone constantly, leaving Laurie alone to raise their two young children, often referring to vague "emergencies" at work that demanded his attention. Even when he was home physically, he was emotionally and mentally absent.

Laurie sensed trouble. At one point, she asked Jack point-blank if he was having an affair. No, he said, he’d never do that to her.

"Looking back, I should have asked more questions," Laurie says now. "I was very naïve, and I wasn’t skilled in relationships."

The tension built until that night when she almost left. After reading from First Peter and sensing that God wanted her to stay, she decided to tough it out.

She began to nurture her faith through strict discipline, rising every morning at 4:30 a.m. to spend one or two hours in prayer and Bible study. (She took comfort in realizing, she says, that the Bible is "full of stories about people who screwed up with God.") Soon, she began fasting regularly too.

The pattern continued for eight years: Laurie trying to learn from God, and Jack still living at an emotional distance. She suspected him of lying to her about several things, but she never found evidence — until 1992.

One night in her twentieth year of marriage, Laurie had a powerful dream where she heard God tell her that "something sexual" was going on with her husband. A few days later she answered a phone call at home from a credit card company: Jack had a bill running into the thousands of dollars. Laurie didn’t know he even had the account, much less the enormous debt. This, she says, was "the smoking gun."

Laurie phoned Jack at work and told him she knew about the credit card. "I’m going to call your father," she said, "because he married us." She said her father-in-law would help hold Jack accountable. By the time Laurie got off the phone with her father-in-law, Jack had come home.

"I don’t have a problem with money," he told Laurie. "I have a problem with lust." He explained how he used the credit card for pornography and hid his payments by using business-expense reimbursements to pay the minimum balance on the card.

They began visiting a counselor, individually. But Jack wasn’t ready to change. He lied to the counselor and made excuses, so much so that the counselor criticized Laurie for not being more understanding of his needs.

After two years of this, Jack and Laurie separated. She never intended to divorce, but she wanted to let him know she was serious. After nine months, he returned home — but that was too soon.

"He went through the motions," she says. "He didn’t love his children enough to straighten his life out. We weren’t separated long enough."

After he returned home, Jack turned emotionally abusive, and even tried to physically hurt Laurie. She compared him to a junkie who was off his habit. Their children, now in their late teens, left home. Their son joined the Air Force, and their daughter got married. Laurie and Jack were on their own.

They searched for other counselors, but Laurie recalls they couldn’t find any Christian ones competent to deal with sexual addiction and its impact on the family. "I even had [counselors] hand me sex videos, like it was my fault," she says. Jack exhibited all the signs of disassociative disorder. "It’s a psychological thing," she explains, "when a person is able to separate himself from what he did. The man was a shell. ... The average Christian counselor can’t touch that."

Eventually, they found counselors, including one only last fall, who were able to help Jack. His new counselor "told him what abuse was, helped him understand. Jack didn’t even recognize it. He understands that you can’t view pornography and not be affected."

***

Her message is a tough sell on campus. College, after all, is the time and place for exploration and cool detachment, and her message is peppered with what seem to be wild assertions: Pornography decreases sexual satisfaction. It encourages abuse. It is literally addictive, since viewing porn is proven to release hormones in the brain.

Ironically, Laurie’s main target isn’t porn. To her, addiction to pornography — or any sexual addiction — is the symptom of deeper problems. "We focus on the behavior [of viewing porn]," she says, "but the real issues are rooted deeper: abuse, abandonment, unmet needs."

Jack, she claims, is a prime example. Feeling abandoned and alone after his parents left him in the United States, he felt something like love or wholeness when he looked at pictures of naked body parts. So he kept looking at the pornography. That was before he went seeking it, before he started going into debt to obtain it, before he alienated his wife and children because of it, before he used prostitutes to enact it.

Jack was like a target waiting for someone to pull the trigger — with one major difference. Targets don’t have choices.

Copyright 2000 Simon J. Dahlman. All rights reserved.

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