Saturday, April 6, 2019

Abnormal Normal: My Life in the Children of God — Excerpt 2

Through some combination of culture and biology, 
our minds are intuitively receptive to religion. 
Daniel Kahneman

Curiosity Piqued

I stepped into the auditorium for my first period study hall at the start of my junior year at Saint Agnes High School, a private Catholic college prep school in the Washington suburbs. Blair sat on one of the plush, maroon theater seats. A quiet, thoughtful girl, she was tall and slender, with beautiful blue-gray eyes, a winning smile, and perfect teeth. Her straight, auburn hair fell upon the papers and books on her lap. When she saw me, she flicked her hair up, lifted her chin in characteristic greeting, and motioned for me to sit with her. 

In her hands was a Bible. Taken aback by this unusual sight, I leaned toward her and whispered, “What are you reading that for?” 

She told me that while hitchhiking over the weekend, a man who had been of member of a Christian group called the Children of God had picked her up. Retaining his loyalty, Jethro expounded to her about the soon-coming end of the world and salvation through Jesus. He then took her hands and led her in prayer to receive Jesus as her savior. Now she was reading the pamphlets and Bible he had given her.

That was unexpected. Weird. Yet intriguing.

She handed me a pamphlet entitled “Faith,” which likened believing in Jesus to a baby nursing at its mother's breast. How strange! A baby nursing? God is the breast and we are the baby? Just reading it embarrassed me. 

Nevertheless, I quashed that discomfort and gave in to my curiosity, agreeing to go with Blair to meet her new friend after school.

The September air still held the warmth of summer. Blair and I were starting to sweat as we waited for Jethro in our woolen pleated uniform skirts, regulation white blouses, and knee-socks. 

In this year of 1973, the Watergate scandal was unravelling. The hippie movement was going strong, protest music filled the airwaves, soldiers fought in Vietnam, drug use and discontent proliferated, and drop-outs and communes abounded. The Godfather had won Best Picture, Neil Patrick Harris had just been born, and Blair and I were sixteen years old.

We sat on the soft grass of the rolling lawn that fronted our expansive school. Spread over several blocks in the verdant hills of northern Virginia, it boasted sports fields, a spacious gymnasium, a state-of-the-art auditorium for stage productions, a covered courtyard for smoking, and vast parking lots. 

Incongruous against this backdrop, entered Jethro. He drove an old, rattly, brown step-van that leaked exhaust fumes into the rear where passengers sat on the bare, brown-painted, corrugated metal floor. He wore two-tone bell-bottoms, one leg brown, one leg white, several inches too short on his long, lanky legs. No socks. Leather loafers. Wrinkled button-up shirt. Rumpled ill-cut hair and mustache. 

What was I getting myself into?

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Abnormal Normal: My Life in the Children of God — Excerpt 1

Katori, Japan

The ash continued to fall as I sat waiting at the traffic light. I opened the plastic clamshell of supermarket sushi, snapped apart the disposable chopsticks, and took a bite. Suddenly struck by the strangeness of it all, I wondered, How did this ever become my 'normal'? There I was, eating raw fish in my Honda while volcanic ash rained down around me. The car in front of me started to move, so down went the chopsticks and on went the wipers to brush away the black clumps of ash. As I drove, I pondered.

I felt like I had struggled out of a hole in the ground where I'd been living in an alternate reality for thirty-one years. Brushing off the dirt, the residue of that life, I was disoriented. Trying to get my bearings. Questioning all the things I had thought were normal.

I had lived in an insular society, where we were the enlightened ones, the chosen, the sole possessors of truth. Outsiders, “Systemites,” existed to “supply our needs.” God would bless them for giving to His children, we believed, oblivious to our own arrogance.

We possessed inside information, so we knew what was really going on. The Illuminati were working behind the scenes, pulling the strings. The antichrist was making his preparations for world domination, and we alone were privy to his secret machinations.

We were the truly free. We were so special, in fact, that God granted us greater freedom than that of any other Christians ever. To us, he entrusted his “Law of Love,” that stated that “all things are lawful for believers in Jesus who are motivated by love.” Emphasis on “all things.”

Let your imagination run with that one for a minute.

That stranger, that former me, knew only the limited narrative that I was fed. What I saw was all there was, and that narrow view reinforced and strengthened my beliefs. But after climbing out of that dark hole of ignorance and isolation, I started getting glimpses of entire worlds of knowledge—all those unknown unknowns to which I had been so blinded.

Along with my growing awareness came guilt. How could I have allowed myself to have been so ensnared? The lost opportunities. The friends I could have had. The experiences missed. The years I will never get back. But those thoughts immediately evaporated when the real horror took center stage in my mind: My children had been born into that bizarre, toxic environment. That was all they had known. The shame. The ever-present remorse. Would I ever break free?

Another stoplight. A pack of short-haired girls passed by in their navy-blue sailor uniforms. Then came the boys, hair buzz-cut, in their black gakuran jackets with Mandarin collars and gold buttons. Probably on a baseball team, I supposed. Their hair gave them away. The falling ash continued, disappearing into the black hair and dark clothes. They all wore surgical masks and carried a couple of regulation school bags each.

Several elderly women scuffled along dressed in full kimono regalia. They carried umbrellas to keep off the ash. White surgical face-masks. Wooden geta on their tabi-clad feet.

The car in front of me started up. The light had changed. I stepped on the accelerator, and my mind returned to my years in the cult.

I had felt lost many times. Each new move shook me, and I've long ago lost count of them. There was the time my one-year-old son and I were packed into a crowded bedroom with children on all sides, the double-bed of an amorous couple the veritable centerpiece. We lay in cringe-worthy awkwardness each afternoon during our enforced rest time, while they had unabashed and unbridled sex. I longed for escape.

But I stayed.

Like ghouls appearing from the darkness of my past, snippets of memories flooded my mind.

• A dark room in the basement of a mansion in Manila. A married couple on different futons on the floor, holding hands. The husband was on top of me, and a man diagonal to us was penetrating his wife. Soft strains of romantic music wafted from a portable cassette tape player in the corner. It was awkward.

• A hotel room in Hong Kong. My knees were beside my ears as the big Chinese man squashed up against me, grunting and panting. Working for an escort agency was unpleasant—even if it was “for Jesus.” I felt like a commodity. Never again.

• Into yet another commune, this time an apartment in Tokyo, with kids stacked in triple-bunks, two to a bunk. Husband, baby, and me squeezed onto a narrow single futon between bunk bed and wall. There was never enough money—was it because we lacked in “faith for God to supply,” as we so often heard? Or was it “a test” of our perseverance and faithfulness? There were a lot of those.

• Sent away from my nursing baby to get “retrained,” because I “wasn't doing good.”

• Sleeping in a hangar-like basement, room dividers made of plywood held in place by back to back old hotel chairs. Privacy was a luxury we “revolutionaries for Jesus” lived without.

Flipping up my turn signal, I glanced in my rearview mirror. Pulled out of my reverie by the awesome sight—the rugged green volcano, towering cumulus of black emerging from its peak, the top of the ash cloud spread wide across the sky, I reflected on how this current normal was perhaps not so strange after all.

Although ash, raw fish, and chopsticks were not the things I grew up with, I had been in this land so long they were second nature to me. The naive decisions of my youth had far-reaching effects. My youth. I guess that's where my nightmare had its benign beginning.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Returning to the Stanford Prison Experiment

Ben Blum, in his article The Lifespan of a Lie, sets out to put to rest the findings of the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE). He suggests that the reason we have collectively embraced the lesson of the SPE—that environments strongly affect people's moral decisions—is because it lets us off the hook for bad decisions. In other words, we cannot be held accountable for immoral behavior if it was our environment, not ourselves, that caused us to act as we did.

Seemingly at variance with his viewpoint, Mr. Blum goes on to write about an attempted replication of the SPE. Emphasis added by me:

"According to Alex Haslam and Stephen Reicher, psychologists who co-directed an attempted replication of the Stanford prison experiment in Great Britain in 2001, a critical factor in making people commit atrocities is a leader assuring them that they are acting in the service of a higher moral cause with which they identify — for instance, scientific progress or prison reform. We have been taught that guards abused prisoners in the Stanford prison experiment because of the power of their roles, but Haslam and Reicher argue that their behavior arose instead from their identification with the experimenters, which Jaffe and Zimbardo encouraged at every turn. Eshleman, who described himself on an intake questionnaire as a “scientist at heart,” may have identified more powerfully than anyone, but Jaffe himself put it well in his self-evaluation: “I am startled by the ease with which I could turn off my sensitivity and concern for others for ‘a good cause.’”"

An important lesson that we can draw from the Stanford Prison Study, Haslam and Reicher's replication, Solomon Asch's experiments on the bandwagon effect, and other studies on social norming, is that people generally conform to what they think they are expected to do, and much more so when that expectation comes from an authority figure. The COG employed the highest and most absolute authority of all, God. Following the words of our "prophet," David Berg, created an upside-down, morally abhorrent, alternative reality within COG Homes and was the root of abuse and exploitation within the cult.

See also, The Power of Ideology.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

The Past is for Education, not Self-Reproach

I think I am not alone in the undesirable mental habit of beating myself up for saying and doing stupid things. I woke in the night and as my mind slid into the familiar berating, I stepped aside and considered why.

My thoughts went back to my years in the Philippines. Each year on Good Friday, we see can a physical representation of this mental habit. Filipinos walk down main streets flagellating themself with whips until they collapse. Some go as far as to have themselves nailed to crosses for several hours. To my mind, this is absurd. What good can come of this?

Yet isn't that just the same thing I have been doing mentally? Self-flagellating as if it would do any good. Did it earn me merit? No.

The past is to be looked at for education, not as a breeding ground for self-reproach. Understanding, accepting, and honestly facing ourselves is vital to having compassion on others, not to mention essential for our own mental health.

To quote the Dalai Lama,

"When we treat ourselves with compassion, we accept that there are parts of our personality that we may not be satisfied with, but we do not berate ourselves as we try to address them. When we go through a difficult time we are caring and kind to ourselves, as we would be to a friend or relative. When we feel inadequate in some way, we remind ourselves that all people have these feelings or limitations. When things are hard, we recognize that all people go through similar challenges. And finally, when we are feeling down, we try to understand this feeling with curiosity and acceptance, rather than rejection or self-judgement."

See also: Guilt.

Thursday, November 15, 2018


Dear Children,

The subject of apologies is vast and overwhelming. It is probably easier to try to sift out the few things I did right from the haystack of wrongs. But that wouldn't be an apology. 

Although I have apologized privately to you and to other young people I have known over the years, I would like to make a public statement. For what it's worth, I am deeply sorry for the following:
  • raising you in a toxic cult with twisted sense of normalcy
  • subjecting you to reading—and memorizing—Mo Letters and the Bible in lieu of more useful books and information
  • not ensuring your safety from abusive treatment
  • failing to provide you with a carefree childhood
  • having you pass out tracts, sell posters and tapes, and other embarrassing "witnessing" ventures
  • leaving two of you as nursing babies to go away for "training," per leadership orders
  • striving to be a Bible woman and thus setting a terrible example as a mother
  • remaining with a man who was physically and emotionally abusive to my children, necessitating walking on eggshells to try to avoid his tirades over petty perceived offences, angry outbursts, and beatings
  • raising you in a dysfunctional stressful household
  • dodging confrontation instead of facing and working through the conflict
  • not allowing you older ones a normal opportunity for socialization
  • not ensuring you got the education you deserved
  • limiting your opportunities by raising you in a foreign, rural backwater
  • allowing one of you to go work for evil cult overlords who subjected you to unwanted sex, and for not insisting you come home immediately when you called me upset about being there
  • and to all the young people who grew up in TFI, I am sincerely sorry for closing my eyes in denial and remaining in a cult that advocated pedophilia, child abuse, and medical and educational neglect
There are probably more things the you deserve an apology for, but they escape me now. 

In spite of me and all my failures as a mother, you have all overcome your difficult childhoods, pulled out of dark places, and have grown into mature, good-natured, intelligent adults that I am deeply proud of. 



Tuesday, October 2, 2018

More on Anonymity

The anonymity in the group caused by the taking of new names upon joining, isolation from society at large, social norming, and the deindividualization of groupthink was a powerful force.

I wrote before that perhaps this name changing was akin to Plato’s “Ring of Gyges.” To put this in more contemporary and perhaps more relevant terms, think of Tolkien’s “The One Ring.” Both were stories of magic rings that granted invisibility to the wearer. In Plato's Republic, he uses the story of the ring to consider whether a person would be moral if he did not have to fear being caught. In Tolkien's story, the ring also brought with its invisibility the propensity towards evil. Did the anonymity of name changing in The Family affect people’s psyches and give them further license to engage in behavior contrary to conventional morality?

Aside from this more obvious psychological process of providing a cover for amoral activity, I wonder if anonymity was a basic factor in keeping the cult together. We had new personas in the cult. We could forget who we were before joining, forget our family and friends, and forget conventional mores.

Reflecting on my teen years as a Catacomb member of the COG while still living with my parents, I see how I had had two personas—the happy cult Hepsi and the past Mary with her biological family, her friends, and problems. When my best friend called me after having been away for months, I told her about my infatuation with the Children of God. She reacted as I probably would have, had our situations been reversed. She blurted with disdain, "What? You're a Jesus Freak?!" I felt so embarrassed. But not embarrassed enough to change my mind.

I had found succour in the cult. That loving, welcoming "Family" that gave purpose to my life. I had to separate my outside self, the one my friend had known, from my cult self. Then when that friend stopped by my house to visit, I was too ashamed to answer the door. Too bad I wasn't self-aware enough to realize how my behavior betrayed my real feelings toward the COG. Although that embarrassment continued lurking in the shadows of my subconscious all my years in the cult, I repressed those "sinful doubts" and gave my all to The Children of God. And that is the real shame.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Habits of Mind

One of the habits of mind that I developed in the cult was a feeling of helplessness, of being trapped and powerless. After leaving, indeed my options were limited by my circumstances: the lack of biological family to turn to, the sheer number of my dependents, my lack of education, and my neural atrophy. For years, I did feel trapped by my circumstances, and I had little energy or time to consider alternatives.

Amor Towles put these wise words into the mouth of his protagonist in his masterpiece, A Gentleman in Moscow, "If one does not master his circumstances, one is bound to be mastered by them."

I have a past I cannot change, mistakes that cannot be undone. But I will no longer allow those circumstances of my past to master me as I had in former times.

During my cult years, I stove to submit and struggled to be a good "Bible woman" with no will of my own. I was to be a "diamond of dust" and float effortlessly on God's air. The ideal was to be mastered by outside forces—God and my Shepherds. 

In real terms, this meant I was to remain a child with no self-will. And this I did. I remained in the cult. I remained in a dysfunctional relationship. I endured unpleasant circumstances, "enduring hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ." I deserved no better, or so I believed.

Through the years, this wrong thinking of helplessness had become a deeply entrenched habit of mind. More than a reflection of reality, this feeling of entrapment by circumstance was a mental habit. In order to pull out of it, first, I had to notice it. Then, I had to decide to be done with it. Finally came the day-to-day work of rewiring my brain and intuitions.

My life is mine now. Not some fairy-tale god's. Not the cult's. Not anyone else's. I am not a victim. If I feel trapped or unhappy with my situation, I need to make a plan to change it. I will earn no eternal merit through misguided martyrdom. There are no cosmic brownie points.

I choose to wake up each day with appreciation for life and freedom. With joy, not with dragging around the dregs of the past. Life is too short.