- Religion and Philosophy
My Experience in a Cult
The word CULT conjures up images of college-aged kids leading isolated restricted lives under a harsh guru; newly independent they are easily hoodwinked. While true, it doesn't represent the entire picture.
I know: I've been there.
There are actually over 5000 cults in the US at any given moment, the vast majority of which never make news. People of all ages, races, and walks of life join cults. The one thing they all have in common is that they were recruited at a vulnerable time in their lives. Also, not all cults are isolated communes; they can be as innocuous as the church down the street, where members meet once a week. This is the type of cult I joined.
Because my story has numerous sensitive events, I have changed some names and locations. However, it is very much true. I am a Seventh Day Adventist; some people call the whole denomination a cult, but it has many positive aspects. It places great value on education, having the second largest parochial school system in the world (only the Catholics have a larger one). It also has a worldwide network of hospitals. We love nature and healthy wholesome adventures, and have a network of summer camps as well. Many of my happiest memories were made at SDA summer camps.
I will say this story takes place in Los Angeles County. I was shacking with my boyfriend, and struggling with my job situation. I was in my mid 30’s, and we were still climbing out of the recession in the early 1990s. I started attending a new church; because the pastor had a strong, intimidating presence, I felt he could help me with my situation. Pastor Walt said he could not accept my church membership, because I was “living in sin”, and I drank alcohol on an occasional basis. So I gave up drinking, and over my boyfriend’s tearful protests, moved into a room in a house owned by a couple named Martin and Eliza. Pastor Walt arranged for me to be re-baptized. He also appointed Tallony as my spiritual advisor. She was 16 years my senior, about 10 years sober, and divorced more than once; she too had “struggles with immorality”.
Why did I do this? Because I was at a vulnerable point in my life. I was 1)Struggling financially, 2) involved with a boyfriend I felt uncomfortable with, because he was into drugs and had a violent temper, and 3) felt strongly I was going nowhere fast in life, and couldn’t help but wonder if hell awaited me at the end. Pastor Walt was always available to talk to me, and he had a very reassuring quality about him. There are the makings of recruitment into a cult right there.
After the church service on that day, a group of us drove to Malibu, where Pastor Walt baptized me in the ocean. Tallony played the ukulele, and we sang a bunch of Christian songs.
That Thanksgiving, Pastor Walt’s wife invited me to their home for dinner. The meal consisted almost entirely of fake meats, and the guests sat around discussing their grandchildren. Being only 36 years old, without even children, let alone grandchildren, there was no way I could relate. Something was VERY wrong with this picture, but I ignored it.
When your intuition tells you something, LISTEN!
(Regarding the fake meats – Adventists are famous for being vegetarians. So where were the vegetables???)
Martin’s behavior became erratic, so I found another place to live and gave him notice. He was startled; apparently, he enjoyed keeping people nervous. As I was on the porch, moving the last of my things, Martin came out and physically attacked me. He threw a box of my tapes off the porch, then grabbed me by my t-shirt and started shaking me. I screamed as loud as I could, and knocked his glasses off to defend myself. He twisted a couple fingers of my left hand. At that time, Eliza came out to see what was going on, telling him to calm down. He ran back into the house, yelling he had no idea what was going on. Then he threatened to find a hose and beat me with it. I managed to rescue my tapes, and got out of there as fast as I could. He threatened to “press charges” if I called the police. I couldn’t see what he would press charges about. I had a cell phone in the car; I drove around the corner and called 911. The police came right out and told me to leave; they’d handle the situation. I drove to my new residence and spent a sleepless night there. The next day, I had a shift to work. I couldn’t find my toothbrush, so I chewed gum and drove to the person’s home. My car still had my things in there. Later, after I had unpacked my things, I called Pastor Walt and told him what had happened. He seemed sympathetic.
My chest and 3rd and 4th finger of my left hand felt sore, so I went to the doctor. He told me I had bruised joints, and to soak them in hot water. To this day, the top joints of those two fingers are still bent. I was told it would last a lifetime.
I also went to the police station to see what was being done about the case. They were indifferent, saying it was my word against Martin’s. I said others were renting rooms there, and they just said indifferently, “They’re adults”.
I tried calling my former roommates to warn them, but Martin answered the phone the first time; I hung up. Eliza answered the second time, and demanded to know where I was. I hung up on her too.
Two days later, I was taking part in the Christmas performance at church. I sang in the choir and played a flute solo. After the service, I went to put my flute in the car, and a police officer was standing next to it. He handed me a note; it was from Eliza. She accused me of vandalizing their property and stealing money and a gun! The police had me sign a restraining order Martin and Eliza were placing against me!
As I came back from the parking lot, Tallony approached me and told me to comfort someone. I told her I was too upset to do so, and showed her the note. She told me to show it to Pastor Walt, so I did. He told me he knew Martin, he had actually done work on the church building, and said Martin had called him and told him about “what I had done”. Then he yelled at me, “Let it drop! Let it drop! Let it DROP!!!”
The next day, I contacted my brother, who lives on the Big Island of Hawaii. He said I needed a lawyer. He also advised me to take out a restraining order against Martin. I went and did this. The people taking the order said they were going to send a SWAT team to his house.
I flew to the BigIsland and spent Christmas with my brother. The next day, he had me talk with his secretary, who connected me with an attorney in the LA area. I contacted him, and he took my case, though he found it hard to believe. I had been ordered to talk with a private investigator, but my attorney talked with him, and had that case dismissed.
As you can see, I was dealing with a professional criminal. Let’s see just how much power the great and intimidating Pastor Walt has here.
The following Sabbath, I informed Pastor Walt and Tallony about what was happening. Pastor Walt said I should have dropped the case, like he said. He said I lacked faith in God, then went on praising my musical skills – as if that had anything to do with this situation! Tallony said I must have said something to make Martin mad, and she heard I’d slapped him. I was too stunned to respond.
I’ve been injected with mental poison.
The restraining order hearing was held on New Year’s Eve. My attorney went with me. My papers against Martin were served at the courthouse, instead of at his home. He argued with the judge, trying to set another date for the hearing, saying he had no time to prepare for my restraining order against him. The judge refused to reset the date. Martin acted up all through the hearing. He said I had given him a false name when I moved in, and showed him some mail with the name on it. My attorney said I had never gone by that name, and he recognized the mail as ordinary fliers. The judge asked to see my license, to verify this. Martin asked the judge for my social security number, and the judge refused to give it. Martin kept saying I needed anger management, until finally the judge snapped, “No!” Then the judge went on to OK both restraining orders, but Martin argued he lived in an isolated area, and couldn’t afford to give up his 5 guns, because what if I came after him with the “stolen” one? So the judge denied my restraining order. I said what if he stalked me? The judge said I could file another one. So much for justice! At least my attorney was able to put “without prejudice” on Martin’s restraining order, so it wouldn’t go on my record.
Again; a professional criminal at work. In spite of his poor behavior, he still won.
Martin stormed out of the courthouse. Apparently, he didn’t do nearly as much damage as he expected to be able to do. However, he was free to try that on someone else, and would be better equipped to do so next time.
On the Day of Epiphany (when the Magi visited Baby Jesus), I got a visit from Eliza. I was transporting a client to the hospital for an appointment. The garage elevator stopped at a floor and opened, to reveal the open elevator across the way, and who was standing there but Eliza. After leaving the patient with his doctor, I returned to my car, to find her standing there with a security guard. I jumped into my car and hurried to my attorney’s office, feeling extremely shaken. He filed a restraining order against both Eliza and Martin, but 3 weeks later, heard nothing. He wound up retracting the restraining order.
So I had a “Passion Week” over the Christmas holiday. Except unlike Christ, it lasted over 3 weeks, and served no purpose.
Why didn’t I leave the church and return to my boyfriend? Because I had been indoctrinated from birth that THE CHURCH IS ALWAYS RIGHT. At 36, I still had to learn this is not necessarily true. That kind of thinking is what leads people to join – and stay in – cults.
Six weeks later, I lost my job. This catapulted me into a nervous breakdown. I called Pastor Walt from the psych ward, telling him. Later, he informed me his wife had laughed so hard when he told her, she almost had to go to the hospital herself. (By the way, his wife is a nurse. She has an LPN degree. Pastor Walt loves to tell the story about how she was denied a promotion because it’s only a 2 year degree, then wound up being promoted over her own supervisor. “See what happens when you have faith in God?”)
Tallony called me while I was there, and repeated that I must have said something to make Martin mad. I got upset over the phone, slamming it down, and the assistants there came over and helped me calm down. The next day, Tallony visited me. At least she didn’t say anything bad during the visit.
Still, why was I letting her visit me?
After being discharged from the hospital, I was put on Prozac, so once again I quit drinking. I took a temporary job doing data entry, and moved in with a care home owner I had worked for before losing my job with the agency. I knew she was bad news; the agency had dropped her because she refused to pay her bills, and she wound up losing her state license for not operating the care home properly. But I felt I had no choice. It was either that, or move in with more strangers, and risk running into another Martin and Eliza.
Of course, I could have gone back to my boyfriend too. That’s what I should have done, but my mind was too fucked up to do so. Predictably enough, he sneered, “Boy, the Lord is sure being good to you, isn’t He?” I couldn’t answer that one. Tallony said that was a mean thing for him to say; that’s usually how church people respond to such a statement. But to this day, I feel like it was a major insult to trade him in for the monsters I was dealing with. Maybe being around him with his drug use would have led me to become an addict, and perhaps with his hair-trigger violent temper, he would have eventually hit me. But the bottom line is, he never did these things, and the mess I was going through could have led me to become an addict anyway. I still feel tremendous guilt over giving him up for this.
As it was, the Prozac, and the other psych meds I took over the next 4 years, made me pack on 50 pounds, and could have gotten me hooked worse than any alcohol or illegal drug addict. A good friend of mine suffered a seizure because of over use of psych meds. For the rest of her life, she will have to get Botox shots in her mouth, to make her speech understandable. She has suffered multiple nervous breakdowns; one year, she had 4, all related to psych meds. Personally, I think they’re worse than the illegal stuff. I have since quit them, and will never take them again.
Maria, the care home owner, decided to move to Seattle, where the laws regarding care homes were allegedly more lax. Tallony was also planning to move to the Pacific Northwest, to be with her sons in Roseburg, Oregon. She invited me to move with her, but I declined. I said it was because she was moving to a small town, and I preferred to be in a big city. While that was true, the other reason is I didn’t trust her because of her victim – blaming qualities. She said since my data entry job had lasted 4 months, I should get back to that, since I was clearly destined to do it. She continued to hound me this way, even though I pointed out it takes more than 4 months of data entry work to support oneself for a lifetime.
At least I had sense enough not to move over 1000 miles away with someone who blames the victim!
Maria hoodwinked a 95 year old woman into going to Seattle with her, promising to charge her only $500 a month for her care. She also “borrowed” the cost for the move from me. I sensed I would never see it again, but I was so desperate to get out of LA, I didn’t give it much thought.
I loved Seattle from the start. I began attending an Adventist church there, and it was wonderful. Pastor Mayor was even a lot like a camp counselor I had a huge crush on at summer camp. This proved to be very important, because less than 2 months later, Maria showed her true colors. She jacked the elderly woman’s cost of care to $1500 a month, and when she couldn’t pay it, she threatened to dump her on welfare. She even put an ad in the paper, advertising for another client. Then she became abusive towards me, even getting physically violent once. I sensed I was heading for another situation like the one with Martin and Eliza. I contacted Pastor Mayor, and he told me to meet him at the church. There, he called a bunch of people, finally finding someone who was willing to take me in sight unseen. Then he made a few more calls, finding someone with a van, and I was moved out of Maria’s place that night. The next day, I filed a report with APS, and they rescued the elderly woman, putting her in another care home in the area.
Most Adventist churches are like that. You look in the yellow pages, attend the nearest one, and they’re instant family. Few of them are abusive cults; that’s why it was so easy to overlook what was going on at Pastor Walt’s church.
Long story short: I eventually had to leave Seattle under grievous circumstances I won’t get into here. Wonderful as Pastor Mayor’s church was, it could not save me. My brother rescued me, and brought me to live with him on the Big Island of Hawaii. To add insult to injury, shortly after I arrived, Tallony sent me a cheerful email rubbing in my face all the fun she was having and I was missing in the Pacific Northwest, and saying I should return to my job destiny as a data entry clerk and attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings (I quit drinking for nearly 2½ years on my own, choosing to go back to it when I realized past a certain point you can’t bargain with God). I fired back that if God had truly made me a new creature, it shouldn’t matter which job field I went into. Then I dumped her for good.
Wait – there’s more. Cults aren’t so easily escaped. After all, what if it’s true that hell awaits those who question and don’t blindly accept?
After moving in with my brother, I tried to attend the local Adventist church there, but picked up the same weird vibe I’d had at Pastor Walt’s. However, I kept going, because my brother’s 16 year old daughter developed a crush on the assistant pastor, who was 21.
I felt pleased; how can a girl go wrong, developing a crush on an assistant pastor?
This is how; he led her to drop out of high school and give up a plum job working the front desk of a dental office to work for free in a cult he had formed. He was having 8 college-aged kids sleeping in a room in the church building, and going around selling Bible-based literature.
My brother tried to make her go back to school, but at 16, she was free to make her own decision regarding that. I recognized the organization as a cult (though it would take awhile before I realized I’d been in one myself) and tried warning her about it, but it was like speaking in a foreign language; she had no concept of what a cult is. Incidentally, the assistant pastor had no interest in her; he just used her crush to manipulate her.
That’s what it took to finally get the message through to me.
What is the final outcome? Even though this happened nearly 20 years ago, I still suffer from PTSD – not only because of the attack, but because Pastor Walt and Tallony turned their backs on me when I was in danger. I feel like a total idiot for giving up my boyfriend for this. We all need community and guidance, but I have a hard time trusting any church. Christian music, which I’ve always loved, now irritates me.
As for my niece, because she never got her high school diploma, she could not enter a public university or qualify for a scholarship. She found a private university willing to take her, and attended there for 5 years on student loans. Because she didn’t graduate from high school, she didn’t know how to study, so she took an easy major. Today, she owes six figures to the government, and has a college degree she can’t use. She survives by breaking a Biblical rule; she’s shacking with her boyfriend. He has an excellent job, and takes good care of her – something no cult can or will do.
The help I really needed was to become the new creature that the Bible promised Christ would make me, but that didn’t happen. This may sound blasphemous, but it leads me to think the real fault lies not in individual churches and denominations, but in Christianity itself. So why did I name my HubPage “Say Yes To Life” and promote Christianity on it? Like Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, I’ve come to the conclusion that while religion should not be blindly trusted, it has much to offer and its ideas are worth listening to. I still consider myself a Christian – even a Seventh Day Adventist – but never again will I go against my better judgment in blind obedience. My motto is:
Find a church
Make no demands;
Take what they offer,
Give what you can.
And leave it at that! Come to think of it, with the exception of those who have had near death experiences, no one really knows what lies beyond this life.
© 2013 Yoleen Lucas