a New York Cult
Ex-followers tell why they quit
BY JOAN GALLER
(Special Correspondent of The News)
Third of a series
Betty Kirschbaum's kidnaping
from the Church of Bible Understanding Inc. in 1977 sent shock waves
through the tightly knit cult founded by former vacuum cleaner salesman
Stewart Traill and triggered "the beginning of a great search."
It also prompted Traill to Instruct his 2,000 youthful followers to sign -affidavits attesting to their sanity and their desire to stay within the cult should their families take similar steps to tear them from his bosom. But within a week, Betty was back in the fold. She had managed to escape from her captors - who reportedly kidnaped her at her parents' request - after convincing them that she was genuinely glad to be out of the cult.
Others Willing to Talk
Last summer, however, Betty voluntarily
returned home to Maryland. Betty who is in her 20s, said she was tired
of not being allowed to express her own opinions or to grow as an individual.
Now, she says only that she just "wants time to
think and read and maybe go back to school-" But scores of others have left COBU over the last 6 years and are eager to denounce Traill, his church and the impoverished lifestyle of its members every chance they get.
They accuse Traill of "exploiting and manipulating" them and of distorting the Bible to entrap naive
young people into working for his church and ultimately for his own purposes. COBU is an assertedly Christian cult with a
string of communal "fellowships" stretching from Montreal to Haiti. Its main source of revenue for the last two years has been its Christian Brothers Cleaning Service, Inc., a carpet-cleaning company with offices at 607 W. 51st St. which is staffed by an estimated 150 "professionals" and 2,000 young brothers and sisters who toil for long hours without pay in diverse business ventures.
Barbara Waldman, an articulate 26-year-old school teacher who quit last May after four years in the cult, frequently takes to the lectern and pulpit these days In Scranton, Pa., to detail what she describes as the psychological horrors of life in COBU, especially for women. "When I first left COBU, I thought I was unworthy, that I couldn't live up to Stewart's expectations of us," Barbara began. "But now that my head has started to clear, I can see I was brainwashed into submission and paralyzed by fear or damnation. "Traill depresses your spirit, creating a form of bondage," she continued. "You're not allowed to think for yourself."
Days In COBU's string of communal fellowships seemed pretty much the same, from New York to Montreal and Norfolk, Va. Each hour is jammed full of work or Bible studies or fellowship meetings, leaving the brothers and sisters little time to reflect on their lives, to enjoy music or art, to read books or even take a stroll. The cult's aims fluctuate from month to month, depending on Traill's personal whims or the need to meet certain monetary goals. But the duties and roles of the group's young men and women remain well defined and virtually inflexible , Barbara says. The males are exhorted, often berated publicly, to take the reins and lead, even when they're not emotionally equipped to do so. The young women-even the brightest-are read scriptures reminding that God has preordained that they remain meek and submissive to the men."It was the women who got the rug business going, by getting on the telephone and soliciting job orders or going out and finding prospective customers," Barbara said. "Then we trained the brothers, and as soon as enough of them got the knack of it, Stewart ordered that they should take over the business from us."
A "Guilt Trip"
Pride, even in its most positive manifestations of achievement and independence, is considered the most deadly sin within COBU. And it was this offense that dominated the daily ritualistic meetings in which the brothers and sisters were forced to discuss their personal weaknesses and inability to sublimate their own thoughts and needs to COBU. Those meetings
often ended in humiliating public confessions. The brothers met at 7:30 a.m., picked up their work assignments and then held their meeting, Barbara explained. The Sisters' repeated this scene at 9:30am. For both it was essentially the same trip "guilt
trip. "They would segregate us, the 'faithful' on one side of the room, those considered out of spiritual grace on the other, and we'd have to get up and talk about ourselves," Barbara said. "It was such a heavy guilt trip. Sex within COBU is taboo unless you're married, and many of the brothers and sisters, probed by their consciences, would get up and confess to things like masturbating. It was just awful" The guilt was perhaps hardest on the young women.
A Defector's Death
"Stewart told us we would become
whores like his ex-wife, Shirley, if we left his church because leaving
COBU as the same thing as leaving Jesus. All who do it are damned," Barbara
recalled. "He never said it but it was implied that Stewart
was Infallible in his teachings and interpretation of the Bible, and actually had a direct line to God."
Barbara's flight from COBU was
typical. She tried to run away four times in as many years
before summoning the courage. to leave for good. "Every time I left, I
would think about David Chestnut and how he was killed after he left,"
bara said. "Stewart told us that was his punishment for leaving" According to Barbara and other former cult mem-
bers, Chestnut, a teenager, was decapitated in a freak elevator accident shortly after he quit the cult about two years ago. Traill capitalized on the accident as a means of instilling still more fear in his Followers. "Now that I'm out," says Barbara," and I know Stewart was wrong, I am still one with Jesus." But for those who remain for whatever reason life is a never-ending battle of sublimating their natural desires and needs. Food quickly becomes their only physical -release and excess weight is a common problem. Barbara's first few months out of COBU were filled with frustration, confusion and occasional despair.
"I found it difficult to think clearly and concentrate on anything for even 30 minutes at a time," says Barbara, describing withdrawal symptoms shared by many who have left. But she managed to overcome this sense of worthlessness which sent many others running back to the safety of the cult within a few days. Barbara was lucky in other ways. She had help in readjusting from other ex-COBU members now living in the Scranton area, and from some of their parents who devote their free time to speaking out against cults and to deprogramming their victims.
Brothers Also Quit
Barbara was especially gratified when her brother Bob, who as COBU's Hoboken fellowship leader in 1974 induced her to "get saved" and join, also quit last summer, He is now living near Scranton with his wife and children, operating his own rug cleaning business with the skills acquired under Traill's tutelage. It was during one of Traill's "reigns of terror" against the brothers that George (Skip) O'Neill Jr, Traill's first lieutenant since 1971 and heir apparent, decided to quit after six years of being humiliated, manipulated and "crushed" by Traill's. rapier-like tongue. "One day, I just decided I'd had enough b," he said, "walked down to the Lincoln tunnel and hitchiked back to Allentown," where it all began for Traill and his followers in 1971. At the time, O'Neill was working for a rock music promoter. "I realized after six years of working 18 hours a day, seven days a week, for Stewart, that he had it all and I had nothing to show for my labors."
O'Neill candidly concedes he hates Traill most for forcing him into a loveless marriage with a COBU sister, just because they were sharing a bed in a crowded fellowship house. "It brought two children into the world who now have no 'fulltime father, now that my wife has left both the church and we've separated," he complained.
Men Not the Strong Type
O'Neill predicts the cult will
collapse eventually because of Traill's inability to attract and hold strong
young men capable of succeeding him. Stewart wanted us (males) to
be spiritual vikings when most of the young men who joined his ranks are
weak and can't measure up to his exacting standards," O'Neill says. "I
occasionally wanted the feminine side of my nature--kindness and self-expression-to
emerge, but he wouldn't allow it." Conversely, O'Neill says the young women
who gravitate to Traill are "beauties--strong. spiritual, intelligent creatures
who find the average male too weak and are attracted to Stewart's boldness."
For much of his six years in the cult, O'Neill says he was quite happy. He recalls that Traill 'offered us hope in a better life in heaven and we considered ourselves exiles in this world. He wanted us to go to war for Jesus and we fancied ourselves spiritual militant shock troops Pushing an original form of Christianity as we saw it, one that couldn't be found anywhere else."
A feeling of Cruelty
Ultimately, O'Neill says he was driven away by Traill's brusqueness,
which occasionally bordered on cruelty. with anyone who deviated from his
orthodox, literal interpretation of the Bible. "He'd really come down hard
on them and you felt so incredibly crushed, you couldn't function,' he
says. O'Neill characterizes Traill brilliant with a keen understanding
of human nature-motives, fears, desires-who taught him how to use that
knowledge to manipulate people into doing what he wanted them to do."I'm
going to use what he taught me for my own betterment, the way he does,"
says O'Neill- "Since I've left, I've met many wonderful people, and
I've seen how they can love one another and make their way through life
without Stewart. I don't believe in
hell and can't believe, as he teaches, that 99% of the world is going to hell just for 70 years of sin in this life. If that's the case then I want to go with them.'
Still another Perspective of life within COBU's ranks, and Traills personality is offered by Paula Tooman Hradkowsky, who quit COBU in 1977 after five years, the last two as its business manager.
Sees A Double Standard
Paula accuses Traill of "hypocritical" double standards about women, divorce and remarriage and what she describes as his use of church money to indulge his own whims and, needs. Married and divorced while in the cult Paula found Traill lecturing to her that she was "displeasing Jesus" when she announced her desire to remarry. "He said I couldn't, that the Bible forbids women to remarry, that it's adultery, yet he divorced his first wife and married a COBU sister," Paula said. She also claims that Traill drew $200 to $300 out of a petty cash fund every week, sometimes more frequently, for his own needs. Meanwhile she says, the church was paying for all his family's bills, including a $625-a-month rented house, $5,000 a year for tuition for his children at the private Hackensack Christian School, and his planes, cameras, electronic equipment, a $1,000 radio telephone that fits in his briefcase and flying lessons. "He makes a big thing out of being a man of simple needs and tastes, but I know better." she says. "His work clothes were the best quality and he insisted everything be dry cleaned.
Skipping the Bills
"Every month. Harry (Weinbaum, COBU's treasurer) and I would sit down, pay Stewart's bills. and with whatever was left, attempt to pay the rest." Paula says. "Why when I left, COBU owed $50,000 to $100.000, and didn't think twice about closing down centers and leaving rent, phone and utility bills unpaid. It was disgusting." But what irked her most was Traill's directive that his followers seek medical attention at New York City's free clinics. "We were told to say we work far a nonprofit
organization so we could qualify," she says, "but it was a lie. Even then, Christian Brothers (Cleaning Service, Inc.) was making money--a lot-it wasn't nonprofit. "When I think how I had to hassle those kids who came into the office, shabbily dressed, asking for money, to buy clothes or shoes, I get sick."