IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Rachel Dolezal Scandal Exposes Fractured Family

The controversy swirling around Rachel Dolezal has made her the center of a raging racial debate, the butt of jokes on late-night talk shows, and an Internet meme — and it's also put her fractured family under scrutiny.

Sexual abuse allegations against her brother, an emancipation bid by a younger adopted brother, and her parents' fundamentalist religious beliefs and child-rearing practices have been thrust into the spotlight since the allegation that Dolezal is a white woman pretending to be black first surfaced.

The question of whether the 37-year-old civil rights activist is a pathological liar or the victim of an identity crisis has focused attention on a tangled personal history and led some to speculate that the answer lies in an austere, isolated childhood.

"To be indoctrinated and brainwashed at such a young age would be a difficult hardship for any child, and perhaps for Rachel Dolezal, it proved too much," blogger Michael Stone wrote on Patheos this week.

Dolezal's parents, Larry and Ruthanne, are followers of young earth creationism, a Christian sect that believes the world and all its species were created in six days just 6,000 years ago.

Related: Spokane Council Votes to Remove Rachel Dolezal

In a memoir published last year, Rachel Dolezal's biological older brother, Joshua, described how faith ruled the family's life in the mountains of Montana.

He wrote that his father spoke in tongues and that his mother nearly hemorrhaged to death without medical treatment after a miscarriage in the belief that "if it was God's will she should die, then so it must be."

He claimed he and Rachel were born in a teepee — although their parents dispute that. Jesus Christ was listed as the witness on Rachel's birth certificate, he said, although a copy of the document that has circulated does not show that.

They were homeschooled, forbidden to watch television, and made to listen to entire Bible chapters before meals, the memoir says.

In the early 1990s, Larry and Ruthanne Dolezal adopted four black children. The motivation, their eldest wrote in the book, was "to show their commitment to the pro-life cause."

"Work was our family pastime," he wrote, "and our only metaphor for love."

Image:  Rachel Dolezal's Parents
Rachel Dolezal's Parents react to interviews on June16.NBC News

Rachel Dolezal has claimed she was "physically abused" by her parents. In one interview with NBC News, she described bare-bottom spankings. In an earlier interview with a college newspaper, she claimed her parents used a "baboon whip" to beat her, then later retracted that.

Her parents have denied abusing their children in various interviews, in which they also accused Rachel of lying about her race. On Friday, they released a statement saying that they would not answer any more questions.

"Following the recent days of international media attention surrounding our daughter Rachel’s ethnicity, we hope and pray for a continuing global conversation on the issues of identity and integrity, which will resolve in the recognition that truth is a kindness and a first step toward freedom, justice and personal peace," they said.

Related: Rachel Dolezal's Mother Says Daughter Is Still Lying

Well before Rachel Dolezal came to the TODAY show studios and declared, "I identify as black," her family appeared to be at war.

Last year, Joshua Dolezal was charged with sex abuse after one of his adopted siblings told police in Colorado he had molested the child more than 20 times in 2001 or 2002 and had forced the child to perform oral sex twice.

The child claimed to have told their mother, who allegedly replied, "Stop telling lies," according to the arrest warrant affidavit. Her brother allegedly threatened her, "Don't tell anyone or I'll hurt you," the affidavit says.

The child, whose name was redacted from the court papers, also alleged that Joshua abused an older sister. Rachel Dolezal said that refers to her and that she told police Joshua Dolezal had also sexually attacked her once in 1991 when they were teenagers.

The arrest warrant affidavit says she told them her brother showed her a collection of photos of topless African women from National Geographic and confessed he used them for sexual gratification. She claimed he pinned her down, pulled down her shirt and sucked on her.

Joshua Dolezal has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial. He has not spoken publicly and he and his lawyer did not respond to a request for comment from NBC News.

His parents have claimed that Rachel orchestrated the sexual abuse accusations against her brother in a twisted attempt to wrest custody of her adopted brother, Izaiah, from them.

In 2010, Izaiah petitioned for emancipation from his parents, seeking permission to live with his sister and describing a draconian home life, court documents show.

"My adoptive parents use physical forms of punishment as well as sending children away to other states to group homes (where two of my siblings are) if we don't cooperate with their religion and rules," he wrote in the legal papers.

"They make us do manual labor and send us away."

The petition was eventually withdrawn, and Larry and Ruthanne Dolezal allowed Rachel to become Izaiah's guardian. He went to live with her in Spokane when he was 16, and she refers to him as her "son."

She has another son, Franklin, from a five-year marriage that ended in divorce a decade ago. In an interview with the student newspaper of Eastern Washington University — where she taught Africana Studies until the scandal broke — she was quoted as saying her ex, Kevin Moore, was physical with her and their child.

Moore could not be reached for comment, and Rachel told NBC News she would not discuss the marriage. But Rachel's estranged brother Joshua wrote in his memoir that he confronted Moore about domineering, isolating treatment of Rachel; he said she warned him that meddling only "makes everything worse."

"He hasn't hit me yet, but he's thrown me by my hair twice," he quoted her as saying.

"I'm scared. The other day I was walking out of the bathroom and he bumped me with his hip and I fell down. He said, `Look — I can knock you over with nothing but my skinny little ass.' And he wakes me at three in the morning by licking me. Sometimes he's on top of me before I'm even awake."

Her brother wrote when his sister at first refused to leave Moore, "I murdered him a hundred times in my sleep."

Related: Rachel Dolezal Breaks Her Silence

Rachel has claimed that her parents went public with the accusation that she is lying about her race because they want to discredit allegations of abuse. But the reporter who broke the story says he went to the parents, not the other way around.

Jeff Selle, who writes for the Coeur D'Alene Press in Idaho, said he became interested in Dolezal's background because she claimed to be the victim of a series of hate crimes between 2004 and 2010 that police investigated but could not substantiate.

When she made a similar claim in Spokane, where she was the president of the local chapter of the NAACP, he began digging. He saw a Facebook post in which Dolezal was pictured with a black man described as her father.

Selle said he recognized the man, Albert Wilkerson, and did not believe he had a daughter named Rachel. He then tracked down Ruthanne Dolezal, who was reluctant to talk but eventually agreed to go on the record.

He said that when he confronted the daughter about her parents' insistence that she is white, she "took umbrage" and reiterated that both she and her father are black.

And Dolezal is still holding that out as a possibility — even after all the photos showing her with blonde hair and light skin as a young woman, even after disclosures about a 2002 lawsuit in which she accused Howard University of denying her a teaching job because she was white.

"I haven't had a DNA test," she told NBC News when asked about her genetic makeup. "There's been no biological proof that Larry and Ruthanne are my biological parents."