This paper examines my role as a woman in a destructive cult known as The Church of Bible Understanding (or COBU for short); in this self-analysis I also briefly discuss why the group appealed to me as a woman, and how after leaving I needed to separate the group’s indoctrination about women from my identity as a unique human being.
Introduction (again, written in lieu of a thesis statement):
When I first joined in 1975, COBU seemed like a superior spiritual community who had a special place for me as a woman. In reality, this so-called “ promise land” turned out to be a prison with most of the abuse I experienced being directly related to my inferior status as a woman in a group. However, ironically, COBU threw me and other women out on the streets because we asked to live better. Thus, in the end my gender also ultimately provided me with a way of escape from the group’s tight hold.
I came of age in the mid-1970’s in a society vastly different than that of my parents. Like others my age, between my parents and me stood the turbulent 1960’s. Those who could be my older brothers and sisters ushered in a whole new world. They broke standards that for centuries stood as the bulwark of the Western world. They fought in and against Vietnam. They burned their bras and changed the way sex would be viewed and experienced. They sat in at colleges, participated in demonstrations in which they were tear gassed and shot at, and some, like at Kent State, even died.
In the aftermath of the rapid societal changes of the 1960's, young women were generally insecure about their identities, and I was no exception. Like other young women, I longed for something more stable, more definitive. I wanted a place that I could place my feet and look at my femininity beyond just my “desirability” sexually, or how well I could make it in a still male-dominated society. During this time, two people in my family died within several months of each other. In addition to my search for my identity as a woman, I began searching for answers about spirituality, life, death, God and religion. I tried traditional churches; they had stability as well as definitive roles for women but they didn't reach out to those who were new among them. The women my age seemed more like proper cutout paper dolls than real people, and I simply could not relate to them. However, new religious groups that lived in communes appealed to many young women like me. We saw unambiguous roles for ourselves as women that also provided us with a sense of purpose and goals that tradition women's roles in society simply didn't offer. At the same time they addressed the spiritual hunger I, like so many other young people, had
It is against this backdrop that I joined COBU in 1975. I never planned to join a cult and had no idea of what would lie ahead for me. Even though I received warnings about the group from outsiders, their warnings seemed irrelevant. I had to learn for myself by spending 10, mostly painful, years in the group that they were right. At first I lived in a relatively unrestricted environment with minimal demands on my time and money, and I truly enjoyed living where and with the people I did. However, from my perspective, the group seemed to go through a sudden and rapid transformation when, within several months of my moving into the group, the leader decided that all members must turn in their paychecks. (Of course, in looking back, I now realize that the seeds of manipulation and control had been sown many years before.) Turning in my paycheck marked not only the end of my handling my own money, but at that point, my life stopped really being my own. According to the instructions we received, turning in our paychecks was only to be a temporary measure. However, that temporary situation continues to this day, almost 24 years later. After the leader gained control of our money, his manipulation and control spread like wildfire, and within less than a year the group no longer resembled what I had joined.
Abuse of power. Those in a position of power within COBU used their higher standing to abuse the rest of the members. Unlike rank and file members who would experience brief periods of power, the leader, Stewart Traill, held absolute power on an on-going basis. He seemed to get satisfaction in seeing us crumble under his strong hand and knew that he could do what he pleased without our interfering.
Authoritarian leadership. As the undisputed leader, Stewart Traill, set all standards in COBU. Members had little, if any, input into decisions that would have major effects on our lives. Whenever someone would try to assert themselves or challenge Stewart, he quickly belittled them so that they felt ashamed of themselves in front of the whole group. Thus, through various practices he put in place, he maintained his dominance unchecked.
Circles of control. Similar to the circles of control described by Chafe in Women and Equality, in COBU the circles of control included intimidation, control of economic status, limitation of aspirations to group roles. Additionally, COBU’s members internalized group standards to such a degree that I, and others, could keep ourselves in check. Like a tape loop we constantly reminded ourselves and others about our inferiority, unfaithfulness and even “self-punished” ourselves through confession, self-berating oneself, etc. if a transgression occurred.
Cognitive dissonance. When a person is simultaneously aware of two inconsistent beliefs, tension arises that needs to be resolved. For example, in COBU, because of group pressure I would act in conformity to group standards, but internally I did not believe what I was doing. This created unbearable tension and a need to resolve that tension. Thus my internal beliefs would shift in compliance to my outward actions.
Dispensing of existence. First applied to techniques used by Communists in China in the 1950's, this means that a leader/group decides who has a right to exist and who doesn't. In China it meant actual deciding who had right to live; however, in COBU it meant the group could get rid of or keep a member at will. Because of asking to lived better, the group expelled me together with about 20 other women. Expulsions like this effectively controlled members by instilling fear that they could be next.
Doubling. The intense indoctrination within COBU resulted in suppression of our real selves. Each of us became “another person” very much resembling the other members. Whenever our real selves emerged, we would subvert that part of ourselves by using group clichés. For example, if someone thought something not related to the group, they would tell themselves that “they were making a life in this world..” Through this and other clichés they could return to the group mind set.
Male dominance. According to Stewart, males had the God-given right to dominate women because Eve had deceived Adam and as a result, God appointed man to rule over woman as a punishment to her.
Public confession. Public confession allowed the group to know members innermost thoughts and use those thoughts against them. Especially during meetings, intense pressure to confess one's sins and “beat” oneself up often resulted in making up “sins” just to relieve the pressure.
Thought reform (a.k.a. mind control). Consistent, heavy-handed pressure to conform to group norms, forced unquestioned obedience to the leader and the intensity of group life wore away at each of us relentlessly. At a certain point, the intensity caused almost everyone “to snap” resulting in a drastic change in behavior as well as beliefs. Thought reform involves four components: 1) control of behavior, 2) control of thoughts, 3)control of emotions and, 4) control of information.
Review of Literature and Overview of Interviews: (“List of Works Cited” contains publication information)
As the group grabbed control of almost all of me, the abuse I experienced because of being a woman also escalated. In order to be able to understand how women received worse treatment than men, I spoke to a number of female ex-members of COBU. I learned many things I didn't know before with the biggest revelation being that Stewart actually said that he purposely made things harder on women because he felt we needed that to learn how to trust God more.
To balance out what I learned from fellow female ex-COBU members, I also interviewed a woman, Linda Wolfsen, a therapist, who is doing her Doctoral thesis is on women in cults and interviewed four women who had be in other cults as well. Linda Wolfsen became interested in this subject when she saw parallels between the women who came to see her as a result of cult experiences, and women who came to her because they had been or still were being abused by their partners. She modified a questionnaire designed to define the factors of psychological abuse that are common in different abusive relationships to also suit women who had been in cults. Her data will be collected from survivors of both domestic violence and ex-cult members. She believes that the questionnaire will be an instrument whereby she will find common factors of abusive and controlling behavior in both among both populations. To date she has had over 40 responses to the questionnaire. Still conducting her research, Linda has not officially compiled any of her data. However from initial observations she found that in abusive groups women had a higher chance of having abusive husbands. This resonated with my experience, as I had a controlling and verbally abusive boyfriend in COBU. Through speaking with Linda I also realized my situation could be called domestic abuse as my experiences took place where I lived.
On November 19-20, 1999, I attended a small conference for ex-cult members. During this conference I spoke at length with four women who came from groups other than COBU. One of the women with whom I spoke, Nansook Hong, had been the wife of Sun Myung Moon’s oldest son. The Unification Church, or the Moonies, is one of the largest cults in the world. Her book, In the Shadow of the Moons (published in 1998) had a major effect on people still within a group and a sizable number left as a result. Nansook may have lived at the same luxurious compound as Rev. Moon, but she received constant abuse both from him and her husband. The concept of women being inferior to men is part of the group's theology, and she had been trained from childhood to be submissive. Rev. Moon actually held her responsible for her husband's unfaithfulness and numerous addictions even though these behaviors started years before she ever knew him. In our conversation, Nansook provided me with rare glimpses of a cult leader's behavior behind the scenes. For example, she told me that Rev. Moon speaks in private about how all American women are sluts, in public he will only say that America has strayed from traditional values, particularly women. In private he openly expresses his prejudice toward Americans, yet in public he sponsors forums at which ex-Presidents Bush and Ford have spoken. He openly supports the Republican party, and the younger Bush's bid for President, because he believes he can gain a greater foothold in the United States through the Republicans than he could through the Democrats. Nansook’s insight into the private life of Rev. Moon helped me to understand how cult leaders can seem so sincere to the outside world while holding degrading values in private.
After speaking with these women, I went through the vast amount of written material that I still have from COBU. This material proved to be my tie to the past, reminding me that I had written proof that Stewart treated women inferiorly and that we learned to echo his sentiments.
Sad to say, there is a paucity of literature written about women's treatment in cults. Several good books on cults that give some attention to the issues women have in these groups have been written but very little literature exists that exclusively explores these issues in depth. Both sources that I found came from the Cultic Studies Journal, the only scholarly journal that addresses cult issues. In 1997 the Cultic Studies Journal devoted an entire issue to exploring women's experiences in cults, and in 1986 the Cultic Studies Journal reprinted an article, “‘Mind Control’ and the Battering of Women” that had been previously published in Community Mental Health Journal.
Although not devoted exclusively to women who had been in cults, a chapter in Trauma and Recovery (written by Judith Herman), entitled “Captivity” includes religious cults among the various situations in which imprisonment can occur. Since Herman's main focus is on women I found this book to be extremely helpful. Another book, It's Not Okay Anymore (a guide for women who are victims of domestic abuse) by Greg Enus and Jan Black, gives a clear understanding of abuse and how to break away from it. I found many good books on domestic abuse, but It's Not Okay Anymore provided much of the framework I used in this paper to explain the abuse I experienced while in COBU.
Some women have written personal accounts of their time spent in cults and, fortunately, more books have been written from this angle than books that explore the unique issues that women in cults have. However, despite these personal accounts available, it seems that there should be many more. While these books did not provide research related data, like my conversations with other female ex-cult members, I saw echoes of my own experiences and thus felt more confident to write accordingly. As previously stated, Nansook Hong's book, In the Shadow of the Moons, was particularly helpful. Another book, Heaven's Harlots, written by an ex-member of the Children of God who spent most of her 15 years in the group prostituting as a way to draw in new male members, provided a different kind of insight. Like me she had been searching for how she could define herself as a woman while at the same time yearning to fill the spiritual longing she experienced. In many ways COBU was the evil twin of the Children of God with sex being exploited in both groups although in two completely opposite ways. I have met many female ex-members of this group and could tell that years of prostituting had taken its toll on them; conversely, in COBU because of the men having Stewart tantalize them with sex while not allowing it, men ex-members of COBU often have felt the toll that the group's practices enacted on them. However, the women in COBU were exploited sexually too. Because of how Stewart acted toward his wife in public (sometimes even fondling he), and how he repeatedly told us that as women we were innately evil, he seemed to give us the message that men could denigrate women. Yet women had to be silent and submit to this treatment.
The Discipling Dilemma (by Flavil Yeakley), includes a major study in which he administered the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) three separate times to approximately 900 members of the International Churches of Christ (not to be confused with the mainline Churches of Christ), considered to be the fastest growing cult in the world today, as well as to a smaller number of members from six other cults. For his control group he also administered this test on three separate occasions to members of the mainline Churches of Christ and to members of several other mainline churches. Each participant was to rate him/herself on the MBTI according to how they perceived themselves 5 years before, or prior to membership. He administered the test a second time asking the participants to answer according to how they viewed themselves at the present time; and the third time he asked them to answer according to how they thought they would be in the future.
The first test showed that all of the respondents
had a normal range of personality variations according to how they viewed
themselves in the past. However, on the second and third taking of
this test, those in cults dramatically shifted to the same personality
type whereas those in mainline churches continued to show normal variations.
In this paper I often speak of the pressure to conform to behavior deemed
appropriate by the group. For example, like the International Churches
of Christ, COBU placed a high value on extroversion. When members
of the International Churches of Christ took the MBTI a second time, 97%
of the members remained extroverts while 95% of the introverts “changed”
to extroverts in the second test. His study provided unique insights
into how people in cults usually seem like clones of each other.
Viewed as even more alike than the men, Stewart would often call women
“drops of water” with one drop being just like another; according to him,
what we needed was an appropriate container (a husband or through the fellowship
of the brothers) to contain us.
Susan Jean Palmer, author of Moon Sisters, Krishna Mothers, Rajneesh Lovers, wrote as an outsider examining how life was for women in “new religious movements.” While she either did not recognize, or refused to acknowledge, the widespread abuse of women in these groups, she did provide a clear picture about how, like me, women joined these groups thinking that they could finally have clear identities as women.
Writing this paper has made realize that I was a victim of domestic abuse. The books and articles I used as secondary sources had strikingly similar lists of what happens to an abused woman, regardless if that abuse occurs in the context of a relationship or a cult. In fact, the battering wife syndrome is often called the cult of the home. In trying to sort through what happened to me, I used three different sources to compile my own list. Thus, in this paper I organize my experiences according to this list.
Early verbal and/or physical dominance that escalates into full-blown abuse. Even before COBU imploded into an extremely hermetically structured society, women experienced degrading treatment. While Stewart, the leader of the group, would berate the men; according to him, he did so because they failed to live up to their God-given calling as men. On the other hand, women were berated because, according to Stewart, there was something innately evil about us. Passed down from Eve herself, the evil had to be constantly watched lest the “wrong” or “Jezebel” spirit would take over the group through the women. In a meeting from the early years of the group (circa 1973) Stewart told the members that
“There aren't many scriptures for women so she should trust her husband's direction. Adam allowed Eve to lead him around; that's still a problem today when the male doesn't stand up to the female…The husband will rule over the wife, and she won't like it, but she will still want it. This was done for punishment as Genesis 3:16 proves “He shall rule over you, nevertheless your desire shall be for him.“
Consistent to his early teachings, at a women's meeting in August, 1980,
Stewart told us that, “As a whole you are a rather unattractive bunch of
young women…there’s no way you're going to be attractive if you're guilty
and dark. Read the scripture which says your shame and your
nakedness [will be exposed]…your hair is stripped off and you sit in the
dust and you will be brought down in appearance. “
For this list I used material from Cultic Studies Journal: Special Issue on Women Under the Influence (vol. 14, 1997); It's Not Okay Anymore; and “’Mind Control’ and the Battering of Women” from The Cultic Studies Journal (vol. 1, 1986).
For me, by having a relationship within the group, this view of women escalated from general harassment at a meeting into full-blown abuse directly at me personally.
As a result of doing research for this paper, I also
realized that some of the group's treatment could be called physical abuse.
In reading the section “Examples of Physical Abuse,” in It's Not Okay
Anymore a guide for women who are in abusive relationships, I found,
much to my surprise, that some of the points applied to me. For example:
Destroying your belongings. It wasn't unusual to have items missing or destroyed through carelessness on the part of the borrower (or taker). To complain about this meant that the owner was “coveting” and “treasuring a life in this world.”
Depriving you of food, shelter, money or clothing: Often there was either not enough food or because of a sizable population of mice and rats, I felt like I couldn't eat. While men lived in these places too, many of them had access to money so they could eat out more often. For most of my time in the group I lived in poverty conditions. At one point I even lived in a 2,500 square foot loft with 170 other members and literally had a 6’ x 3’ space to myself with limited access to bathroom and shower facilities. At a women's meeting in October, 1976, Stewart suggested that beds be gotten for the women who lived there. I became so used to the horrible conditions that he actually sounded like a hero. (We never did get beds until later on.)
In exchange for giving my entire paycheck, I received $20/week allowance that had to cover anything extra (such as buying lunch, one's own shampoo, etc.), and I frequently had to beg for money for work clothes. The amounts I received allowed me to only get decent clothes at the Salvation Army. I felt humiliated that, despite having a well-paying job, I could only have new clothes if I found a group-sanctioned way to earn extra money.
Denying you medical treatment: While officially allowed to go to see a doctor, women, especially, would feel guilty about spending the money to do so. One woman died of cancer of the cervix—a cancer that could have easily been picked up if she had a Pap smear each year. Because of our ages at the time (under 30), most of us stayed healthy. However, from what I understand, the attitude within COBU toward doctors has not changed. They have no medical insurance which will likely be a big problem as the group members age.
Sleep deprivation . After working a full day, going out
on the streets proselytizing, we often sat in meetings until the early
hours of the morning. If anyone fell asleep they would be woken up
and reprimanded. The women had typical 9 to 5 jobs which made
lack of sleep a constant problem, whereas many of the men worked independently
and could set their own hours and thus sleep longer. I did not realize
until interviewing women ex-members of COBU for this paper that Stewart
actually said that he purposely made it harder on women so that we would
more learn how to trust in God.
2While not listed in It's Not Okay Anymore, sleep deprivation was a part of our everyday reality.
Isolation/Imprisonment; promotion of powerlessness and helplessness
In Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman
devotes an entire chapter to captivity. As opposed to a single traumatic
event that can happen at random, prolonged repeated trauma can only
occur when the victim is under the control of the perpetrator and unable
to leave. She gives seven examples of captivity with religious cults
being one of them.
Captivity brings the victim into prolonged contact with the perpetrator and creates a special type of relationship, one of coercive control. This is true whether the victim is taken captive entirely by force or by a combination of force, intimidation and enticement as in the case of religious cult members, battered women and abused children. The perpetrator becomes the most powerful person in the life of the victim, and the psychology of the victim is shaped by the actions and beliefs of the perpetrator. The perpetrator’s first goal appears to be enslavement of his victim, and he accomplishes this goal by exercising despotic control over every aspect of the victim's life. But simple compliance rarely satisfies him; he appears to have a psychological need to justify his crimes, and for this he needs the victim's affirmation. His ultimate goal appears to be the creation of a willing victim. (Herman, 74-75)
In Trauma and Recovery, Herman also
cites Orwell’s character in 1984 as an example of one who has been brought
under total control and was grateful to the one who broke his will.
We do not destroy the heretic because he resists us; so long as he resists we never destroy him. We convert him, we capture his inner mind, we reshape him. We burn all evil and illusion out of him; we bring him over to our side, not in appearance, but genuinely, heart and soul. (Herman 76)
The breaking down that I and others experienced as a result of group norms was no accident. The leader did not want any of us to think clearly as we would have recognized the abuse and left. One of our “routines” would be to sit in silence for 8 or more hours with no one getting up to even use the bathroom—all because we were too unfaithful to speak. At these meetings women internalized the leader's words about our being “Eves “who had to be watched and treated each other accordingly (men also internalized what they heard, but in a different way). In fact, even to work in COBU’s office or at the leader's house, women had to sign a contract, probably made up by the leader (men never had to sign such a contract). Some excerpts follow.
…I also have certain specific problems that, left unchecked will lead to….my own destruction…As a woman being special to a man matters, sometimes so much, that it looks better to try to steal special attention rather than living honestly. Pulling the plug [ruining a project] would be an excellent way to get wrong attention…this contract is designed to not allow that sort of behavior. In was not uncommon for us brutalize each other over this contract with each minor infraction being treated as a major transgression.
In most of the places I lived within the group, women were not allowed to go anywhere alone, but had to have a male escort. Men could at least go out by themselves and perhaps catch a few minutes of peace on a park bench. Men could more easily just ask for money for clothes, haircuts, etc. On the other hand, women had to hand in “special requests” for clothing. A committee would then decide what she could or couldn't have and the amount. For small items, a woman had to ask the money handler (as the name implies, the person who dispensed the money that the members used). One ex-member told me how humiliated she felt in asking a male money handler for money to buy some underwear.
While men were threatened with horror stories about
what would happen if they left, women had the added fear that if we left,
we would likely become prostitutes or end up in a marriage where the “Eve
spirit” would ruin the man leaving us with a “puppet” and miserable. Escorted
everywhere by the men, having a limited amount of money, living in close
quarters all added to the women's sense of imprisonment. Our lives
were like psychedelic paintings with no time to think and reflect.
We couldn't even go home to find respite, because we were home.
The group effectively weakened members’ ties with their families and pre-group friends, so that each one of us would be more dependent on the group. Living in dangerous neighborhoods also made us afraid to mingle with our neighbors, causing us to cling even more to each other. Men could leave the group somewhat easier, although they also would suffer under a heavy load of guilty. In contrast we [the women] had some genuine bonds between us, thus leaving for us meant severing the only connections that existed in our lives.
While we valued our connections, living crammed into what had been a small apartment in a building owned by the group, with a lack of privacy to take a bath or even dress and undress made us feel very worn down. I'm sure that this was hard on the men too, but the women would get more visibly stressed out by living that way.
There have been no marriages blessed by this group since 1977. Although officially “allowed” to get married, no one had been faithful enough to do so. Standards of sexual purity were strictly upheld and in my 10 years there I only knew of one couple who violated the rules by having sex. Since no one could meet the standards for marrying rightly, dating, which was meant to lead to marriage, was taboo. In 1981 a male in the group, Jerry, announced his intentions (to marry me) in private and then announced his intentions to the whole group. Within less than a week I found myself in a whole new role within the group and didn't even have time to think about my feelings about Jerry. Around that time the leader refused to meet with the “older ones” (24 and over) on a regular basis because of our faithlessness. My peers decided that relationships in the group had brought a “bad” spirit among us. If they could rectify the situation by breaking us up, they could get rid of the wrong spirit and the leader would again meet with us.
Jerry moved out during a brief period of time when it was easier for the guys to do so. (There was never an easy time for the women to move out.) Women in relationships were targeted more frequently than men anyway because of the belief that the maneuvering Eve spirit that “ran” us overcame the weak, faithless male. The relentless of the abuse caused me to always be on edge. I would often pray that I could get from the front door of the building I lived to the steps leading to the living quarters without anyone seeing me. Perhaps 15 or so married couples (who either married before 1977 or left, got married, and returned) and about 12 relationships existed out of the 400 or so “older” members (24 and over). Generally frustrated at not being able to get “rightly” married, and needing somewhere to vent their anger, those who had relationships, particularly the women, became acceptable punching bags for the other members to release their pent up emotions.
The group's view on marriage and strict rules for sexual purity were particularly hard on men, and in this area they received more overt abuse than the woman. At the cost of his own wife's sense of self and modesty, Stewart made her wear tight-fitting Danskin dresses to meetings and he would then proceed to taunt the men by saying “look what you could have if you were faithful.” Twenty years his junior and actually his second wife (he had divorced his first wife on the grounds of adultery, although no Mr. Adulterer was ever sound), Stewart married her when she was just 20 years old. In a sense his exploitation of his wife set an unspoken standard for all of the women. It seemed acceptable for a man to exploit a woman's sexuality. I saw repercussions of that attitude within the relationship I had. Jerry had moved to America from Italy at the age of 8. True to Italian tradition, his family followed the patriarchal pattern. He already came to the group with ideas of the subservient role of women; the group only helped him to feel even more justified to dominate me. Whatever few areas the group didn't control, he controlled. For example I could work overtime for extra money, but he forbid it. He was trying to get me to leave the group, but as he increasingly became involved in drugs and alcohol, I simply did not want to go with him. Although it was with much difficulty, we did adhere to the strict no sex before marriage rules for the three years of our relationship. However, several times Jerry, probably out of his own sexual frustration and sense of his being the dominant male, would push my boundaries in this area. Of course I couldn't go back to the group and tell anyone because I would only be blamed for the relationship anyway. Thus, the group's treatment of me helped me to stay in the relationship with Jerry, and his treatment of me helped me to stay in the group.
Fear arousal and maintenance; enforced loyalty to the aggressor
Sleep deprivation, inadequate diet, deficient living conditions, vigorous schedules and debilitating meetings all kept us in a constant state of hyper-arousal. The leader pitted us against each other through messages he called in during our meetings without him. His messages caused so much frustration that our meetings more resembled the movie Lord of the Flies than a gathering of cordial, rational religious people. We would have sessions in which we would vote on each other according to various categories. No matter what I would think about myself internally, the group's vote on me became the absolute truth. I would experience crises in which my internal world, which was how I thought about myself, did not match my external world which was my acquiescing to the group's vote. Psychologists call this cognitive dissonance, and the way it is usually resolved is by believing one's behavior over one's inner world. Thus, I experienced a sense of doubling in which the personality induced in me by the cult became more dominant than the “real” me. As I outlined in my “Overview of Literature,” Flavil Yeakley demonstrated through the administration of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator that cult members increasingly mold to one personality type. In COBU not being our real selves came at a heavy price. Not only did we feel empty, unhappy and unsure of ourselves, but members often experienced psychosomatic symptoms that would go away after they left the group.
Within COBU non-crimes such as falling asleep at work because of sleep deprivation would be brought before the group as if they were major sins. Thus, within the realm of Bible standards of right and wrong, another set of boundaries that further delineated right from wrong were drawn. The smallest action such as looking at the leader while he spoke (he called it ghouling) would easily become a matter of grave consequence and cause one to be voted into the “trip,” “black,” or “rejecting God” categories. Women, always viewed with suspicion because of being evil by nature, would be humiliated, sometimes hours at a time to deal with the evil For example, the second in command under the leader could claim, without evidence, that a woman was “maneuvering for attention” (trying to get recognition through deceitful and cunning means). Inevitably she would confess, even if she had no idea what she had done. This leader would use her confession to further humiliate her in front of the whole group with others jumping on the bandwagon. There would be no restraint in the cruelty of the words used, and even when she would beg for forgiveness, she was told that she was not showing sincere repentance. Of course under such circumstances she would come off as strange somehow because she could not do the impossible.
Loyalty to the leader did not seem difficult to me. Since he met with us infrequently and we became like caged animals towards each other at our meetings, he actually seemed kind in comparison. Often the ones (usually men) who verbally assaulted me about maneuvering in my relationship with Jerry, would be the very ones targeted by Stewart. Probably Stewart viewed them as a threat to his all-encompassing power. However, I lived for the few meetings we would have with Stewart so that I could have some respite from the brutal treatment inflicted on me and feel some sense of vindication when the leader “brought them low.”
Because of our isolation and dependence on the group for our self views, we lived in a state of constant hyper-arousal, and it didn't take much to make us feel guilty. This guilt was so powerful that strange behavior, such as the inability to hold a normal conversation, would result. Since women were already “guilty” by mere association with Eve, the men constantly received warnings to keep up their guard lest they be “overcome.” In fact, for a period of a couple of years, if a woman wanted any kind of attention from a man, she had to ask for it by saying “I would like some attention.” The man would ask her if she wanted “Christian, person or woman” attention. From there the man would interrogate her about her motives by saying such things as, “Do you want right attention or wrong attention.” Of course if a woman said she wanted wrong attention, the man had to get as far away from her as quickly as he could. Thus, asking for attention from a man involved taking a risk. If a man deemed a woman's intentions to be wrong, she might be brought up at the next meeting and ostracized for a while by the rest of the group as punishment. Reinstatement could only take place when she could recruit witnesses who would stand up with her at a meeting and say that they believed she had changed. However, if the group did not believe the witnesses, together with the woman in question, they would be publicly shamed and humiliated. Having to ask for attention in this manner and then be drilled so vigorously stirred up strong feelings of guilt and unworthiness among the women.
Contingent expressions of “love” and hope instilling behaviors
All of us would live for the times that the leader was kind to us. Perhaps we met a certain goal that week or he would just be nicer to us. At those times it would seem that our situation would change for the better, that we would finally be considered faithful and be able to live better. Stewart lived in Princeton in an expensive house while I lived in Hell's Kitchen in a run down tenement. But, if as a woman I “behaved” myself, I sometimes would be given the opportunity to go to Stewart’s house –not to rest but to work there. Even the chance to scrub his toilets would be considered an honor. During meetings with the women he would continually say that all of the women were into him. In that we sat in silence for many hours at a time, his words had a powerful effect because of our mental state. Stewart gave so little attention to us that we would try to catch every drop and hang onto his words. Some women would literally throw themselves on the floor in front of him acting like star-glazed groupies who had encountered their favorite rock star. Even though the leader reprimanded these women for their behavior, he certainly seemed to like the adoration. They got what the group would call “wrong attention,” but given how desperate Stewart made us feel about getting his attention, in a way their behavior was understandable.
Within COBU everyone, men and women alike experienced abuse. While men had certain advantages that women didn't, they certainly had hard lives as well, particularly when it came to their sexuality. Undoubtedly whatever comfort might come from realizing that they had certain advantages that women didn't would be overshadowed by the memories of their own abuse. However, due to various circumstances during my time there, I experienced the full force of the group's beliefs toward “ostracized” women. If men experienced the same sort of extreme treatment on a daily basis, I simply never witnessed it.. Even most of the other women in the group did not experience the extremes of the group's doctrine about women like I did; although through me, they knew what could happen to them. Thus, in secret, some would come to comfort me, and they would feel that with me they were safe to speak about the anguish they, too, experienced.
Just two months after finally breaking up with Jerry, the group threw me and about 20 other women out on the streets. After three years I could not longer take the pressure of feeling torn between Jerry and the group. Jerry developed a drinking problem and perhaps even did drugs, thus breaking up with him seemed to be the only thing I could do. It was utterly devastating to have to face homelessness on top of that. The trouble started when women begged to have better living conditions which, given our impoverished circumstances, certainly was not unreasonable. The all-male board, with the leader's approval, then sold the building from under us. The second in command under Stewart, Jimmy, told us to come up with plans and present them to the group. However, the group labeled what ever we tried to do as maneuvering and withheld approval for any alternate living arrangements. Jimmy would taunt us be saying that if we ended up on the streets we only had ourselves to blame. He seemed to derive pleasure from openly mocking us about how we would find ourselves in front of the building, next to the fire hydrant, with our bags.
I never believed that the group would go so far as throw me out. I always had thought that the rest of my life would be spent with them. Thus being thrown out by them felt like being discarded from the hand of God. That night while we stood on the sidewalk, bewildered by our homelessness, the men stood by and called us harlots, telling us we deserved what happened. Their treatment of us in such dire circumstances has always been one of my most painful memories. They had a place to sleep that night (the men in the building were simply allowed to quietly move to other places), but we didn't. One of the women thrown out with me was blind; how the group could leave her that way was even harder to grapple with than my own situation. Fortunately women who were close to the blind woman looked after her, and somehow, despite some close calls, all of us made it through that and subsequent nights without sleeping on the streets.
While I have needed much help in order to heal from what I experienced in the group, today I am grateful that they threw me out. I now look at what happened to me with irony. The group meant to punish me for being a “rebellious” woman who dared to want to live better; yet it was my gender that ultimately provided a way out for me and set me free. However because of not recognizing much of what happened to me, I became part of two other controlling churches that also viewed women as inferior to men. Gradually I finally understood that conforming to these standards in defining myself only robbed me from discovering myself. My journey of self discovery during the past 6 ½ years has been often painful but nevertheless, always rewarding. I deeply appreciate simple things in life that most people would never notice, and I am still filled with awe at being free. I am learning to renounce what had been forced on me by the group, embrace my womanhood, and celebrate who I am as a person.
I spent 10 years of my life in a cult; another 7 ½ were on hold as I attended churches on the fringe of being cultic. In each situation women were viewed as inferior to men. The past 6 ½ years have been a wonderful journey of self-discovery and of understanding my experiences. For the past four years I have become involved in helping other ex-cult members, loved ones of current and former members as well as educating the general public about cults. To this end, I have appeared on various TV shows, have been interviewed on radio as well as for newspapers and for magazines. On a number of occasions I have also spoken to various types of audiences both to educate and to give hope. As part of a four member team that built a national cult education organization from the ground up, I feel a deep satisfaction in finding constructive ways to deal with the cult issue. For over three years I have hosted a chat/support group through America Online. It has been gratifying to see so much change in the people who attend. Yet, in order to help people in deeper ways I recognized my need to become further educated. Thus, hosting this chat group encouraged me to return to college, and my aim is to become a counselor of some sort. This paper has opened a whole new dimension for me and will likely lead to my further researching and speaking on the issues of women in cults. In fact, when the President of AFF, one of the largest and respected cult education organizations in the world, heard about my doing this paper he told me that he has spoken to women's organizations interested in the treatment of women in cults, particularly because not much research exists. Thus, it may also be possible that I will obtain a grant at some future time in order to further explore this very important issue.
List of Works Cited:
Boulette TR and Andersen SM. “‘Mind Control’ and the Battering of Women,” Cultic Studies Journal, 3(1):25-33, 1986.
Enns E and Black J. It's Not Okay Anymore. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, 1997.
Herman JL. Trauma and Recovery. New York, NY: Basic Books/Harper Collins Publishers, Inc., 1992.
Hong N. In the Shadow of the Moons. New York, NY: Little Brown and Company, 1998.
Cultic Studies Journal. Special Issue: Women under the influence: a study of women's lives in totalist groups. Lalich J., Ed., Vol. 14, 1997.
Palmer SJ. Moon Sisters, Krishna Mothers, Rajneesh Lovers: Women's roles in new religions. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1994.
Williams M. Heaven's Harlots: My Fifteen Years as a Sacred Prostitute in the Children of God. New York, NY: Eagle Brook/William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1998.
Yeakley FR. The Discipling Dilemma. Nashville, TN:
The Gospel Advocate Company, 1988.