Excuses Cult Leaders Use

Cult leaders, and manipulative pastors, have a way of making up excuses for their behavior. If Christians aren’t careful, they’ll find themselves (and we’ll find our friends) making up excuses for their behavior, too.

You’ve heard it before. Church members and Christians essentially start excusing abuse and torment that their pastor (or another “man of God”) has done to others by saying, “Well, they’re just God’s mouthpiece,” or “Whoever got offended just wasn’t devoted enough to God,” or even, “It was all part of God’s plan. They must not be close enough to God.”

Some I’ve heard about myself and my situation:

“Lisa was just overly sensitive.”

“Lisa was just an immature Christian.”

“No one else was hurt.”

“It must have just been your Master’s Commission. We didn’t go through that. We had a great Director.”

“God told me to do it. I was just following His orders.”

“We fired that person. They’re not here anymore. Things have changed.”

What they really mean is a) we don’t give a shit b) we’re going to try to intimidate everyone in our church to believe us and not you c) we’re doing everything in our power to discredit you so you shut up and go away.

They don’t give a damn.

Pastor Daniel’s son has told me this about his father time and time again. “He could care less about you. In fact, he looks down on people like you.”

The bottom line is, (most) everything you hear from a controlling pastor or a cult leader after someone leaves and decides to speak up is an excuse.

An excuse for their behavior–their abusive behavior.

I remember being in Master’s Commission, when a student’s parents would complain about something we did. Nathan  would shut them up and the other students by saying, “Things have changed. We don’t do that anymore.”

It was a lie. We never changed. We attempted to, but the truth is, Nathan ‘s ways were set in stone and wouldn’t budge. He taught all of us to disciple those under us with an iron fist, just as he did. Nothing was going to change. But, we had to live up to “expectations” and so we tried to tell people what they wanted to save our reputation.

Questions:

Have you ever heard any of these excuses? In what context?

Have you ever met a pastor who was humble enough to admit his wrongdoing? If so, how did he present it? Did he apologize to the person he wronged?

Rape Victim: Who Me?

I simply couldn’t believe the seven years of my life I’d devoted to God was actually devoted to a destructive group–a cult.

I sat on the couch across from my therapist during one session in 2005. She worked out of the California State University, Bakersfield campus Counseling Center and she was free, which was in my budget at the time.

I’d decided to see her after being referred to her by two professors: one professor witnessed me break down in front of a lecture class of over 100 students during my Freshman year when he asked me why I was attending college. He had no idea that for me, I was attending college fresh from a cult where I was brainwashed and taught that I was less of a human being because I was a woman. After my sob-fest in Freshman Shakespeare class, my professor kindly suggested I see a therapist. I took him up on his suggestion, and am happy I did.

I met with her once a week, on Thursdays. I went through about half her box of Kleenex and left with a runny nose and puffy, red eyes. One hour a week was enough to bring up enough pain to bring me into hysterical fits of crying. Sometimes I couldn’t even talk about my memories or pain.

Sitting across from her one day, she went to her desk and she pulled up the Counseling Center website. She gave me links to the resources to Cults that I have listed on this website. It was only the second time I’d ever heard anyone tell me that they thought my ministry experience sounded like a cult. I was shocked. I was horrified. I felt cheated. If this was true, then how could I have been so stupid? What about those people I loved? There was no way they’d run a cult!

I simply couldn’t believe the seven years of my life I’d devoted to God was actually devoted to a destructive group–a cult.

Years prior, a good friend of the family from our home church in Taft, CA had come to visit me on a motorcycle road trip through Texas. He stopped in our church in Austin and took me to lunch. He visited the offices of Master’s Commission there. When he went home, he told my parents, “I think the place Lisa is in is a cult.” This coming from a life-long church member and deacon shocked my parents and me.

The next thing my therapist told me was even more shocking, though. As if notifying me that she thought I’d been in a cult wasn’t shocking enough, she then told me, “I’ve counseled many, many rape victims and you sound exactly like a rape victim. You have many of the same symptoms. I don’t know if it’s possible to get spiritually or mentally raped, but that’s exactly what I think has happened.”

Suicidal Tendencies

It was the summer before my 24th birthday. The summer everything changed.

In nearby Lafayette parish, a Catholic priest had just been accused of molesting a young alter boy. The country wide scandal took several months to reach the Deep South, as most progressive things took longer to reach here, and the day it hit the news the pastor of our church preached an angry sermon on Catholics and how they were doing wrong not letting their priests marry. Our Pastor thought his church was the only one who did anything right, because he thought he was the only doing right in “the eyes of God” and that our church were the only Christians going to heaven. I think he was just trying to get members in his church, as Catholics were the largest religious majority in Louisiana, but that was neither here nor there. Pastor Daniel had a God-complex and a hideous ego. Although it was true that Catholic priests had been molesting young boys, and it was a scandal, no one found out about our church and our scandal that Pastor Daniel was leading. There were no physical marks of rape, no DNA evidence to make a case on, but there was plenty of psychological damage among those of us who left the cult before “they” said we could. We’d been mentally raped, brainwashed, made to “drink the Kool-aid” so to speak, and yet we didn’t have any physical markers to take to the courts, and technically we’d come there to the cult of our own free will.

None of us knew it was a cult when we went there, and few of us struck up the courage to leave. Those who did leave were made outsiders, and cut off from all their friends and all acquaintances. We were the “spawn of Satan” or “rebellious” if we left…if we disagreed with the Authority of God, our Pastors.

On the night I contemplated leaving, I replayed my dad’s words to leave. He called me a month after his trip to Louisiana to meet my boss, Pastor Daniel. My dad didn’t like Pastor Daniel. “Lisa, I don’t like the way he spoke to me about you—as if he’d assumed the role of father in your life. That’s just not right,” my dad’s anger could be heard through the phone line, “I mean, what right does that arrogant man have to tell me that he’s going to pick out my own daughter’s husband? He doesn’t have faith that you can meet someone decent on your own? I know I’ve never told you what to do in your life, but Lisa—you need to get out of there. Come home.”

My dad was right. Pastor Daniel just wasn’t right. But my life had become wrapped around these people, and saying good-bye prematurely meant ripping away seven years of my life’s history away and becoming invisible, or worse yet, rebellious and unfit.

I sat in the driver’s seat of my car, parked on the dirt road that was flanked with sugar cane and fireflies on either side of me. Tears poured down my cheeks as the thoughts ran through my mind. I knew I couldn’t get out of here, without my life falling apart, and I was afraid of the only other option—but it seemed like the only way out.

The frog-filled swamp stretched out long and ominous before me: calling my name, and beckoning me to enter. Just gun the car and drive into the swamp, the water spoke to me like an old friend who had my best intentions in mind. I reached for another Kleenex from the passenger seat, as my whole body shook violently with sobs and my head pounded with pain. I tried to search for any other options, but there just seemed to be no other way to escape.

I looked around for anyone in sight. To the south of the road where my car sat were the dorms where all the students slept. I was supposed to be asleep, as well, making sure there was someone responsible watching over them. My fellow staff members were there, tucked into their single beds and surrounded by the students in their bunks, peacefully resting, unaware of my desire to escape, and the misery staying here was causing me. I was the only one awake that piercing dark black night. I was the only one deliberating how I could rid myself from their negativity. I was the only one trying to get the hell out of there. I was also the only one sitting alone by the dense fields of sugar cane, under the dimly lit star-filled night sky, thinking about killing myself.

The term killing myself sounded so harsh, but I guess in reality it would be a harsh thing to do to my family and my friends, those I had left that is.  My family, however, lived in California and I lived in the blasted mosquito infested hellhole of the U.S. Swamps and gators; frog legs and crawfish. Yes, the Deep South. Louisiana. The only good about Louisiana was Tim, and he wasn’t allowed to speak to me anymore because Pastor Daniel felt he was unfit for me to date, unfit to be a pastor and Pastor Daniel said God spoke to him that I should be a pastor’s wife.

My story obviously didn’t end here…but the concept of it was true. While I was in the cult, I did want to kill myself. I had reached the end of my rope and I’d asked the directors of my ministry group for vacation time to gather myself together after serving selflessly for about seven years with hardly a break. I was burnt out and breaking down. I’d never felt so low, so depressed, and never before that point felt suicidal.

When I finally made it out of the cult and home, I told my dad that story and he hugged me so tightly and said he was so sorry he didn’t get me out of that cult before, and that he’s sorry he let me stay there so long.

It wasn’t my parents fault. I’d become so tightly connected to the director of my ministry training group that I felt they were my family, my life, my friends.

I was wrong…when I needed them most, they let me down. More than that, their brainwashing, mind-control, yelling, belittling and abuse left me with PTSD and after effects that I’m still working on recovering from to this day.

As a 17 year old girl who was a high school honor student, 10th in her graduating class, active in her church youth group, never smoked, drank, done drugs with a real future in front of her to a nearly thirty year old woman who has to see a therapist who specializes in cults for the anxiety, depression, and fear that rules her life due to the abuse done from the directors who mentored her for years…it was not the transition I thought would happen when I first left home to join the ministry.

 

 

My New eBook – Spiritual Abuse: A Victim’s Guide to Recovery

Written exclusively for my blog readers, Spiritual Abuse: A Victim’s Guide to Recovery is now available for your Kindle.

About the eBook:

Spiritual abuse is happening in increasing numbers around the world. As Christian fundamentalism grows, so do the numbers of psychological and “spiritual” abuse victims. Spiritual abuse is becoming a common term for those harmed in churches and cults. Lisa Kerr is an ex-cult member and former reverend with the Assemblies of God who worked with a group called Master’s Commission for nearly a decade. Today, she advocates for ex-cult members and those who’ve experienced spiritual and psychological abuse in the hands of clergy.

If you enjoy the book, please consider leaving a review on Amazon or visit my author page for upcoming events.

The Truth about ‘Reality’ TV (Lessons for Bloggers & Creatives)

Many people think reality TV pays well and you’ll be an overnight celebrity. That’s not entirely true, although some people have made money from it or from the public exposure to their brands. Take a look at Bethany Frankel, who has published books and developed a booze line or Lauren Conrad, also an author with a net worth of $12 million.

Last year, I worked with DiGa Vision, a production company started by two former MTV creatives, on a reality TV show about cults that never made it on the air. I learned a lot in those few months and I had to learn quickly. Since reality TV is all the craze lately, I feel like it’s important to talk about my experience so people can learn from my mistakes. I made plenty and you will make them, too, if you aren’t careful.

Here are some tips for bloggers:

Protect your ideas and story

The minute a producer comes knocking at your door (or email), you need to be very careful what ideas you share and how much of your story you share. Your own story may seem very insignificant and unimportant to you. I know I underestimated the power of my own story for years.

You should never share your ideas with producers, but you need to know that if they don’t offer you a contract or money for consulting, then you might be feeding their creative process but will never end up getting paid. Don’t offer or accept interviews ever until something is in writing.

Don’t be deceived: Producers won’t pay you for your original ideas

The development of a reality TV show has already occurred or been discussed heavily with various creative staff at the production company, DESPITE what the recruiter/casting people tell you. They are looking for a few gullible people to tell them all their original ideas or life stories, though, to enhance the shitty ideas they have. What else could possibly make a reality TV show more authentic, than plucking ideas from genuinely unassuming people.

Like me.

I asked for compensation for my ideas and/or consulting credit on the show to no avail. I still shared my ideas, assuming they would do the right thing in the end. Of course they didn’t. If I could tell you one thing–don’t follow my lead. Learn from my mistakes.

Get a SIGNED contract before you film or record a thing

The one thing you need to know is that if they are interested in working with you at all, they will give you a contract to secure you as talent.

The casting director spent months over the phone with me (of course…there’s no paper trail via phone) getting my life story and a long list of the cults I investigate. Then, when he got a good idea of what kind of investigative journalism I did, he sent a video crew to my house to film me. I had no contract, and the film crew was going to leave without even telling me about the video release form I was supposed to sign.

When I called the VP of casting to ask her where the video release form was, she presented me with a 16 page contract granting me no compensation, but securing me for a pilot and various other filming and appearances. Wait? A TV pilot without getting paid? Are you fucking out of your mind?

I should have ran when I saw that contract, but they already had my footage. I knew they were presenting it to the CW. What I didn’t know is that it would all end, leaving me with questions about whether my footage was shared with other people in the same network. It was all too coincidental.

Do not go on camera for them without a contract in writing, reviewed by your lawyer. Of course they’ll need a video interview and they will need to do screen tests, but there should be contracts in place to secure you as talent before this happens. Once you go on film, they can and will use that footage without paying you, crediting you or even hiring you as talent.

Production companies who won’t listen to your requests and won’t give you a contract are not interested in putting you on TV despite what they say. They are interested in screwing you over, though.

Reality TV isn’t about ethics

I often get contacted by journalists who want to know more about cults or who are interested in doing a story on survivors. I generally grant them interviews after reviewing their credentials and portfolio, and refer survivors to them for their story because journalists are in an entirely different business than reality TV producers. In fact, one journalist I’d spoke with last year ended up winning a prestigious award from USC for her stories on groups I work with. Journalists are in the business of uncovering new and fresh stories for the public to digest. They often make the world a better place by exposing corruption of groups like mine, and on a personal note, some of the journalists I’ve met are damn good people.

I made the mistake of speaking to a producer just a few weeks ago without a contract. My new policy is: No interviews with TV producers without a written deal and signed contract. Oh and that line they’ll give you, “Well what do you want? How much do you want to get paid? Tell me and we’ll see if we can work it out.” Um, no. You’re not in the industry, they are. Tell them to fuck off and come back with a proposal in writing with numbers or you’re not interested.

If you don’t get a contract in writing, do not interview with a producer, especially if you have a very compelling and marketable life story. If they’re looking for a sucker, they’ll find one. Don’t let it be you.

Pay an attorney to review contracts and emails

Attorneys will require a retainer fee up front and if you’re approached randomly, like I was, you may not have the money to pay a lawyer. Do not negotiate the contract yourself. Find the money and pay a lawyer to negotiate and communicate to the producers for you. It will save you a lot of stress and frustrations, and it will help you get a better overall deal.

Lawyers are trained to read these twelve to eighteen page contracts that are geared to screw you over. Let them do their job. If the deal falls through, yes, you’ve lost a few thousand dollars on attorney fees. But you didn’t lose rights to your life story, ideas and talent. The thousands of dollars in legal fees are well worth it because one day, your story might be worth a hell of a lot of money and your lawyer will have helped you keep all the rights to it.

Production companies don’t pay well

The job of a reality TV show or documentary production company is to produce a video presentation to pitch to a network with a very small working budget. Some production companies certainly have more money than others, but not all. If you are offered monetary compensation, it may be very little up front.

There seems to be some evidence that reality TV stars have negotiated for more money after their first or second season, but often at the risk of jeopardizing their place on the show.

I was never compensated for my work and when I was offered the first contract, my compensation was ZERO. Yes, $0. DiGa wanted to pay me nothing to be on call to film for three months. Then they bumped it up to $1500 per episode, which I wouldn’t receive until after the show aired and only if it aired. I had a well paying job, so while it was tempting to be on TV, it wasn’t tempting enough. These numbers were a total joke compared to what I was making at my office job.

Their offer was an insult.

Even after weeks of negotiations, I wasn’t happy with the compensation they were offering.
image002 not performance
(Figure 1, page 3 of the contract presented to me stating my work on the TV show was not a performance and is not employment and does not entitle me to wages, etc.)

The truth about reality TV

You WILL be a slave to the network starting from the day you film. See Figure 2 below.
Diga Vision Contract (Figure 2, Screen shot of page 1 of the contract I received for a six-year commitment to film)

Notice the last line in paragraph 1 that states “The rights granted herein shall also include the right to edit, delete, dub and fictionalize the Footage and Materials, the Program, and the Advertisements as Producer sees fit in Producer’s sole discretion.”

You or someone else will be the villain

And as a reality TV actor, you agree to this. You agree to be defamed, embarrassed, and you agree to the terms below, allowing the producer to release personal, private and surprising information about you.

Diga Vision Contract defamation

(Figure 3, taken from the pages of my contract)

If you watch reality TV, like me, you see villains like Teresa Guidice and begin to hate her. It starts feeling very Big Brother-like—peering into someone’s life at every waking moment and despising them based on what’s depicted to you under the guise that it’s real.

Reality TV is NOT real.

Take this Jezebel article that talks about the producers setting Teresa Guidice up to get framed for calling Melissa, her sister-in-law, a stripper:

Real Housewives New Jersey

(Real Housewives of NJ Producer Reveals Just How Far Reality TV Will Go to Manufacture Drama, Jezebel)

Why doesn’t anyone point their fingers at the show’s producers? Because those producers can be (and often are) unethical assholes. They lock up the potential stars in low-paying, highly restrictive contracts that ensure the stars will be the producer’s puppets for the entire life of the show.

Recently, I was watching the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and noticed a very odd moment where something Brandi Glanville said was muted. I had never heard anything muted on that show or others like it before, so I was surprised. Come to find out, Brandi’s muted statement was that fellow cast member Adrienne Maloof used a surrogate to have her children. Later, I read that Adrienne’s lawyers made Bravo mute the statement Brandi made. Clearly, having money pays when dealing with a TV network. Otherwise, you’re screwed.

***

Today my lawyer brought to my attention the lawsuit between David Hester and A&E, the network that produces the show “Storage Wars”. Hester’s lawsuit claims the show has been staged and valuable items have been placed in lockers to dramatize the show. He’s made a lot of heavy claims against the network including accusing the network of committing fraud on the public.

hester lawsuit

(Lawsuit claims A&E’s ‘Storage Wars’ show is rigged, SF Gate)

Considering that Hester’s lawsuit claims the network is violating a federal law, this could be a potentially game-changing legal battle for reality TV show actors.

After all, reality TV isn’t really real. Like Hester says, it’s fake.

 

Here are the links to two of the initial contracts presented to me for the work I was to do:

Contract 1 (Pay special attention to page 7, paragraph 8 (f) in Contract 1 where they specifically do not care if I died. True story. Had I signed this agreement, I would be signing away the right to hold the producers or network responsible for my own death. Seriously, guys?)

Contract 2

 

What makes a religious group a cult?

Waco Tribune-Herald/May 6, 2007
By Cindy V. Culp

When it comes to cults, there’s an old joke among religious scholars: A cult is a cult is a cult — unless it’s my religious group.

That jest highlights the tendency many people have to treat the identification of cults almost like the pinpointing of pornography. They don’t have a good definition of what makes a cult, but they’re sure they’ll know one when they see it.

Experts’ approach to the subject is far more complex, whether discussing the Amish, the Branch Davidians, the Mormons or Homestead Heritage. Only a few scholars use the word “cult.” Most say it has become too loaded of a word and prefer terms such as “new religious group” or “alternative religious movement.”

Experts also have differing opinions about what puts a group into the question mark category. A few give the label to any religious group that doesn’t hold a specific set of doctrinal beliefs. Others say the only reliable dividing line is whether a group obeys the law. A lot linger somewhere in the middle.

Rick Ross, who heads up a religious research institute in New Jersey, is one expert who sees no problem in using the word cult. To him, there’s no reason not to use the term except for political correctness.

“Whether they call them cults, new religious movements or whatever, you see the same structure in behavior, the same structure in dynamics,” Ross said. “Groups that fit this pattern are very often unstable.”

Ross differs from some cult-watching organizations in that he doesn’t label a group a cult simply because of its theological beliefs. Rather, groups should be judged by their behavior, he said.

One classic sign of a cult is that it is personality-driven, Ross said. That means it has a charismatic leader or group of leaders who hold a tremendous amount of sway over members.

Another common characteristic is isolation, Ross said. Sometimes that isolation is physical, with members’ comings and goings being restricted.

But most often, isolation takes the form of members becoming completely absorbed in the group and its activities, Ross said. If members work, go to school and socialize only with each other, isolation is a real possibility. An especially troubling sign, he said, is when members are asked to cut off contact with family members.

“I call it discordant noise,” he said. “Anyone or anything that would raise troubling questions about the group is marginalized to the extreme, cut off.”

Also common is a persecution complex, he said. Members often have an “us- versus-them” attitude, perceiving simple disagreements as attacks.

“They say criticizing them is to go against God,” Ross said.

Another giveaway, he said, is when groups teach that anyone who leaves is flawed. Healthy groups generally believe people can have good reasons for leaving. Not so with cults, he said.

On the opposite side of the spectrum is Tim Miller, a professor of religious studies at the University of Kansas. Not only does he not use the word “cult,” but he takes issue with the characteristics that have been attached to the word.

The problem with them, Miller said, is that they don’t distinguish between good and bad expressions of those characteristics. For example, some of the most successful mainstream religious organizations have charismatic leaders.

The anti-cult movement often acts as if there are easy answers to the question of whether a group is dangerous, Miller said. But things are rarely black and white. Most involve judgment calls and points of view. What may seem sinister to one person may be perfectly normal to another, he said.

“I don’t know where you draw the line, frankly, except at the law,” Miller said.

William Dinges, a professor of religious studies at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., said one question he asks when evaluating religious groups is what kind of fruit they produce. That’s helpful because while the customs of some groups could be called cultic under the criteria of anti-cult organizations, they don’t truly fit that mold. The Amish are one example, he said.

One term that can be used to describe such groups are “radicalized expressions of religious commitment,” Dinges said. Characteristics include having a distinct boundary between it and others; being demanding of members; being galvanized around a charismatic personality; and having an intensified sense of mission.

Like Miller, Dinges says determining whether such groups are dangerous is subjective. Among the factors to weigh is whether they make it emotionally impossible to leave, whether they maintain members’ dignity, the amount of freedom they give members and whether there is a structure for airing and addressing conflict.

People also must consider how accepted certain behaviors are within that particular religious tradition, Dinges said. For example, becoming a monk may seem strange to many people, but it’s a very accepted part of the Catholic tradition.

Such factors also must be weighed in evaluating the stories of people who have come out of a group, Dinges said. In some cases, people’s horror stories stem from truly bad things that happened to them, he said,

In other instances, though, stories are tainted by a change in ex-members’ viewpoints, Dinges said. People can have mistaken or highly romanticized notions about what life in a particular group will be like, then become bitter when reality doesn’t match expectations.

Sometimes that happens because a group engages in false recruitment activities, he said. Other times it’s because people jump into situations without thoroughly understanding them.

“You have to educate yourself and, in a sense, know yourself. Trust your intuition.”

Ron Enroth, a professor of sociology at Westmont College in California, says all the spiritually abusive groups he has studied share common characteristics. They’re so similar that when he talks to ex-members and starts hearing details of their stories, “I almost feel like saying, ‘Stop, let me tell you the rest of the story.’ ”

One feature of such groups, Enroth said, is control-oriented leadership. Communication with outsiders is limited and questioning isn’t allowed inside the group.

Sometimes the control extends into intimate areas of followers’ lives, he said. In such cases, members are expected to ask permission to take vacations or switch jobs. Lifestyle rigidity is also common, with some groups having an almost unfathomable list of rules. One he studied outlawed striped running shoes because they supposedly were connected to homosexuality, he said. Another forbid members to use the word “pregnant.” Instead they were commanded to say a woman was “with child.”

Such groups are also spiritual elitists, Enroth said. They use arrogant or high-minded terms to describe themselves and often have disparaging descriptions for other churches, he said.

“They present themselves as the model Christian church or the model Christian organization…and say they provide unparalleled fellowship and superior spirituality,” Enroth said.

In addition, such groups are usually paranoid and perceive any criticism as persecution, Enroth said. They paint people who leave as defectors and say attacks against them are ultimately the work of Satan.

“By describing criticism as slander, they can almost be shielded from criticism,” Enroth said.

Enroth believes the number of spiritually abusive groups is growing due to a spike in the number of independent churches in evangelical and fundamentalist circles. People like them because they are less formal and less hierarchical than traditional churches, he said.

But with that independence also comes the potential for trouble, he said.

“They are, in a sense, spiritual Lone Rangers,” Enroth said. “That’s where the potential for sliding off the cliff comes into play.”

The Kind Ones

I think the greatest misconception about those of us who speak OUT against cults and abusive leaders is that we are not kind. People suggest we are full of hatred and bitterness.

It’s not so.

I know fewer people who are kinder than those of us who silently give our time and energy fighting causes like this. Yes, we may have a rough exterior but that’s because we get bullied constantly. Underneath that tough facade, there’s a kindhearted person who’s committed to making changes in the world and committed to making the world GOOD.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my life it’s this: Sometimes those who APPEAR good (ahem, preachers) are all bad. Judge everyone, and doubt everything but consider the voices who speak up against injustice. We might just be the kind ones.

Do You Think It’s Easy?

To do what I’ve done?

To come against former friends, pastors, and people who I considered family and call them cult leaders and cult members is not easy. In fact, I questioned myself. I’ve had people call me crazy. I’ve had people unfriend me on facebook and in real life. I’ve been cussed out, harrassed, and belittled.

It’s EMBARRASSING for me to put all my personal business on the Internet. I’d much rather forget this ever happened and move on. Trust me.

The worst part about it, is I’ve felt alienated by literally everyone except my family and my best friend over the years. No one stood by my side and said, “Hey Lisa, we’ll give statements with you,” or “We agree with you.”

No.

In fact, when I’ve asked people their stories or to stand with me, they’ve doubted me, called me crazy, or told me I was wrong. They’ve questioned my motives, told me I was acting out of line, or just made me feel really stupid. And I am really stupid–the bottom line is, I can’t change any one and I certainly can’t change an entire ideology (cult or not). I can’t change a person who leads thousands of people and indoctrinates them week after week.

But, in the back of my mind, I see my high school teacher, John Kopp’s poster on the wall: “Stand up for what is right, even if you’re standing alone.”

See, in the words of one of my good friends, whom I’ll call “E”, no one was our advocate when we were there. No one told us that it was a cult. No one helped us see that it was wrong, or find a way out. No one spoke up for us. No one knew. It’s our responsibility to speak up now that we know what went on there–the amount of abuse and hurt we went through–so that young people after us and staff after us don’t have to suffer the mental and spiritual abuse we did. We need to give the silent a voice. They don’t know they need it yet, but one day they might.

I feel like I’m doing the right thing. You might not agree, but I ask that if you do, you please email me your personal statement at mycultlife@gmail.com.

The power of persuasion: 900 deaths left an unforgettable legacy

JONESTOWN: 20 years after mass suicide, new religions inspire hope, caution, fear for followers

Ventura County Star/November 18, 1998
By Tom Kisken

Dead bloated bodies were everywhere. They looked like insects to CBS newsman David Dick in an aircraft 300 feet above Jonestown, Guyana.

“People had died like moths who had fallen to the ground after a light had been turned off,” he said, reading from his on-the-scene notes. “The bodies were almost all face down. It was staggering. Sickening. Yet they looked as if they had merely fallen asleep.”

Twenty years ago today, a religious movement ruled by a drug-addled, delusional Jim Jones turned on itself in a bloody massacre that will forever stain the public view of cults. In a mass suicide that had been rehearsed numerous times, more than 900 people drank cyanide-laced Kool Aid.

Those who resisted were murdered.

Today, cult watchers not only worry about sequels but have proof of the likelihood — in the 39 members of Heaven’s Gate who linked their fate to the Hale-Bopp comet, covered their bodies with purple shrouds and suffocated themselves in March 1997.

They say similar groups, led by megalomaniacs who believe they alone have the ear of God, likely exist but closet themselves so well they will be detected only when exploding in tragedy.

Much more visible are high-pressure ministries that recruit people at college campuses and earlier this month attracted some 15,000 people to the Rose Bowl. With names such as the International Churches of Christ, the groups have no interest in suicide. But they raise concerns about the financial contributions members make and the tendency to pull people away from family and friends.

Dick argues the dividing line that turned Jonestown from a well-meaning commune into a jungle of body bags was the mix of a hugely charismatic but delusional monarch who was known to followers as Father and a quest for absolute truth.

Throw in Jones’ drug addiction and the forced, perverse sexual activities at the commune and you toss a blowtorch into an ocean of gas.

Dick talks so persistently of the dangers of Jonestown he worries about wearing his listeners out.

“It doesn’t take 910 for it to be a tragedy,” he said. “It can be one and be a tragedy.”

Dick is an emeritus professor at the University of Kentucky and runs a small publishing house. He was a lead reporter with CBS for 19 years and was in Caracas, Venezuela, as Latin America bureau chief on Nov. 18, 1978. A telex came telling him to fly to Guyana and report on the death of U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan from California’s San Mateo County.

Ryan had heard rumors of thought-control, beatings, gun-running and imprisonment in the People’s Temple. He led a team of reporters and family members to investigate.

They were greeted with beaming reports from commune leaders. But several members asked Ryan for refuge. As the congressman led his delegation away, they were ambushed at an airstrip and gunned down.

The Kool Aid suicides followed.

Dick and other journalists were guided into Jonestown by Guyana government employees. The CBS crew found Jones’ cabin, still soaked with the stench of death though the bodies were removed. The bed was upside down, the furniture strewn everywhere.

Outside, Dick found a box of letters — notes of support that Jones demanded his followers write him. Each was addressed “Dear Dad.”

Later when he was flying over Jonestown for one last view, Dick remembers writing down an urgent message to himself: “Don’t throw up. You’re the only one seeing this.”

Dick doesn’t present himself as a cult expert, just a reporter who witnessed something he’ll never shake. His only advice is to people who find themselves trapped following someone who tries to control their lives.

“I would run,” he said. “I would try to get away.”

Questions unanswered

Jonestown remains a mystery, at least in the eyes of J. Gordon Melton, who has been studying new religions since the early 1960s and is director of The Institute for the Study of American Religions in Santa Barbara.

Who gave the order to kill Rep. Ryan? How many people killed themselves and how many were murdered? Was the State Department warned of the dangers facing Ryan?

“We have a feeling the government knew a lot more about what was going on there than they let on,” said Melton, part of a scholarly delegation that will meet in Washington, D.C., today and demand the government release classified papers on Jonestown.

Melton contends the documents may show government negligence but will likely lay to rest the conspiracy theories fueled by lack of information.

Ron Enroth, a sociologist on religion at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, has studied cults and other new religions nearly as long as Melton. He’s been called anti-God by leaders of the Unification Church and was swamped with 130 interview requests the first day after the Heaven’s Gate suicides.

He heard of the People’s Temple before Nov. 18, 1978, but never had a reason to link the group with potential mass suicide. Same with Heaven’s Gate. He wrote two paragraphs on the movement in ’76, then lost all contact.

That’s the nature of the most dangerous cults.

“They’re not mainstream enough to even have a name,” said F. LaGard Smith, a Pepperdine University law professor who also studies new religions. “They’re so small you don’t notice them until they erupt like a cancer.”

The groups exist, Enroth said. He won’t give out names out of a fear emanating from a death threat already received. But he spoke of four groups from around the country, with memberships ranging from 50 to 200, that have the potential of becoming national tragedies.

They are led by instable, power-wielding authoritarians who believe they alone know the true answers and can change the fate of the world. If those leaders follow Jones’ path and step into emotional abyss, “certainly the potential for suicidal behavior is there,” he said.

In the years following Jonestown, family members would pull loved ones out of groups they considered cults and brainwash them back into the mainstream. Called deprogramming, it is a thing of the past, largely because of a $5 million lawsuit successfully filed against deprogrammers who held a member of the United Pentecostal Church International for five days.

Now, family members are left with the power of persuasion.

When Melton‘s daughter considered joining the Church of Scientology, he tried reasoning with her, explaining the group would try to run her life.

He also told her he would support any decision she made.

“It’s her life,” he said. She joined the group, then left after a few weeks.

Worries on campus

Scholars who study new religions avoid using the word cult, partly because it’s linked so closely to Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate. It seems a broad sword that may unfairly cut groups such as the fast-growing International Churches of Christ. [But are these scholars actually “cult apologists“?]

Still, the ICC and similarly aggressive groups cause their own concerns.

Spun off from the mainline Church of Christ in the early 1970s by Kip McKean, the ICC is a Christian group known for its aggressive recruiting on college campuses. Critics said members are convinced to disavow their old support systems and are pressured to empty their pockets into church coffers.

The church also asks new members to immediately start recruiting more members, said the Rev. Mark Knutson, campus pastor at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks. He leads a yearly session with dorm advisers on dealing with high-pressure religious groups.

“A group that does not allow people to question their tenets, I would say, is a group to be aware of,” he said.

ICC recruiting has also caused concerns at Pepperdine in Malibu and at USC.

The International Churches of Christ‘s goal is to have a church in every city with more than 100,000 people by the new millennium. A week ago, the group held a celebration in Pasadena, bringing more than 15,000 people to the Rose Bowl.

Spokesman Al Baird, of the Los Angeles branch of the church, scoffs at the harshest criticism — the church doesn’t allow interfaith relationships and marriage, and asks for unrealistic donations. They get 10 percent of a person’s income, as do many other mainline churches.

People call it a cult, Baird said, because they don’t understand.

Call the Church of Scientology in Santa Barbara, which also raises eyebrows with demands for financial contributions that range from $35 to more than 100 times that, and the answer is nearly the same.

It’s not a cult, it’s an answer.

“What’s generally not understood is what you’re getting,” said the Rev. Lee Holzinger, of the Church of Scientology in Santa Barbara. “If you donate $5,000 for counseling that you get that completely changes your life and it really does work, someone is going to say, ‘Hey, I’m never going to miss that $5,000’. ”

But Enroth, the new religion scholar, talks about the phone calls — hundreds of them — with a husband whose spouse threatened divorce unless he joined her religious group, and with parents who tell him of children who renounce their former religions and their loved ones.

“They’re incredibly sad stories,” he said. “They say, ‘Dr. Enroth, it’s like talking to a wall’.”

Warning signs

Concerned that some high-pressure religions pull students at UC Santa Barbara away from studies, family and friends, an interdenominational group called the University Religious Conference outlined the following warning signs:

  • The group claims to have all the answers.
  • New members are asked almost immediately to recruit new members.
  • The group encourages people to put their meetings ahead of all other commitments.
  • Past religious and social affiliations are criticized.
  • Recruits are told their parents and friends don’t have any answers.
  • Doubts and questions are seen as signs of weak faith.
  • Recruits are invited on retreats but are given only a vague idea of the agenda.