Tuesday, December 18, 2012

We Are Newtown

What happened at Newtown, CT on Friday rocked our nation to its very core.   

I can't imagine identifying my baby's body at the same school that I dropped them off at hours before.  I can't imagine my child, covered in the blood of other children, telling me that she played dead in order to stay alive.  I can't imagine being at a fire station, anxiously waiting for my babies to return, only to hear that there are no more survivors.

And yet I must imagine it.  Because this happened.  It really, really happened.  In a place where no one thought it could ever happen. 

We big people have to make sure that it never happens again.

Like most Americans, I've been glued to the news.  Probably because I live in a place a lot like Newtown.  A place where everyone knows my kids and where I know everyone - or at least their cousins.

Like a lot of other parents in America, I struggled with sending my children to school yesterday.

There's a doorbell on my son's junior high school - much like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary.  You ring the buzzer, and it unlocks the door.  A camera shoots an image to a fuzzy black and white screen, where a secretary not versed in law enforcement buzzes people in.   

There's an unarmed security guard at my son's high school, and someone at a guard shack who is supposed to ask me where I'm headed.  She usually just waves me on.  When I visit his school, I sign in, grab a badge, and go unescorted anywhere I want to go in the building. 

My mom has worked in an elementary school for 26 years.  She's the secretary at a large school in another town.   She also has the same security set up as the one at Sandy Hook.  She can see people coming in - but she can't see what they are carrying.  She is the first line of defense for her school.

We worry about her safety. 

A friend of mine is a teacher's aide.  She's been assigned to just one student.  He hits, claws, bites, and threatens to kill her.  Daily. 

She's afraid of him.  She continues in this position because she and her family need the income.

Right after watching the CNN coverage of the Interfaith Memorial Service in Newtown, the phone rang.  It was our superintendent with a recorded message about how we take security at our schools very seriously.

I love our school corporation, but the methods of security have not increased as dramatically as the needs of the population they are serving.

Recently, at a local Rotary Club meeting, I learned of the consequences of the severe lack of mental health services in our community. 

We had a young man in our town commit a murder - extremely rare in our neck of the woods.  He was suffering from untreated mental illness.  He was treatable.

Why?  He couldn't afford the treatment.

So now, this young man is in prison.  And the cost to society - a dead woman, children without a father, and the cost of prison upkeep - is far more than his medication and treatment would ever have been.

People around this county like to hunt, and I'm the rare person who doesn't own a gun.  But even my hunting friends scratch their heads and wonder why anyone would need to own an AR-15 for any purpose other than killing a person.  It is a semi-automatic version of the M-16.

And, hey boys?  Despite what this ad suggests?  A gun won't make you more of a man.

An AR-15 is a weapon of war that I can just go and purchase nearly anywhere.  And plenty of ammunition to go with it.  I don't have a criminal history, but what in the world do I need with an assault rifle if I'm not in Afghanistan? 

Can I use a different kind of rifle for hunting, or does my need to feel like a badass trump public safety?

As an aside, it's interesting how the NRA has been strangely silent throughout this tragedy.  Their Facebook page has disappeared, right after claiming 1.7 million subscribers.  Why not use this time to champion second amendment rights?  Where is the gun lobby now?

I keep hearing that it is time for meaningful dialogue.

I'm ready.

First, the lack of mental health care for people in this country is appalling.  I have a dear friend whose 18 year old granddaughter has started hearing voices.  The facilities can take her for three days at a time as an emergency, but that isn't long enough to get this young woman stabilized with any meaningful accuracy.

As this article suggests, the threat of someone with mental illness becoming violent - which is rare - diminishes considerably when that person can receive adequate treatment.

So, step one?  Get the APA and the AMA to give their recommendations for those facing a mental health crisis - and then put that at the top of the list for nationalized health care. 

And while we're at it, let's lose the stigma against mental illness and the need for therapy.  If we all had a good therapist and a Sunday afternoon nap, we'd probably have world peace. 

Second, create a buyback program where people can trade their guns for cash.

Third, create a license for firearms that feeds into a national database.  Make the license at least as difficult to obtain as a driver's license.  If we can require people to have automobile insurance, we can require them to have proof of a safe in which to store firearms.  Stop allowing unlicensed kids to do target practice at shooting ranges.  License the bearer as well as the firearm.

The final step is two-fold.  First, increase security at every school in America by placing a police officer at the front door or perimeter.  These can be recently discharged veterans who are trained to sniff out danger.  This need not seem like a prison guard - we need to teach children that police officers are their friends, and there's no reason why the presence of a cop - a helper - need be intimidating to children.  

Next, install an alarm system that a teacher or staff member can activate that would send teachers and children into lockdown mode, just as they would alert the school to fire or inclement weather.  No more principals throwing themselves at gunmen while yelling down hallways to alert teachers to danger.  No more students threatening teachers and staff without dire consequences and a strong action plan that secures the health and safety of all students at school.

Let's have a better way. 

How do we pay for this?  Tax ammunition.  That ought to generate some pretty good revenue.  Also, I wonder how much money we allocate for standardized testing, much of which is developmentally inappropriate anyway?  

In order to prevent another Newtown, we have to prevent criminals from ever becoming criminals.

How do we get Congress on board?  I know, these guys are willing to plunge us over a cliff rather than compromise.  

One of my friends said this:  "It is mighty easy for a politician who sits in an Ivory Tower in Washington behind guards and scanners to decide not to do anything about the gun laws and gun violence. They and their staff members lead protected lives of privilege. If they refuse to make serious change, I propose elimination of all Capital Hill security at the same time. Turn about is fair play, right?"

If it's good enough for Congress, it's good enough for our kids.  And I think in the light of this tragedy, where all Americans can see the faces of their children when they see these precious angels at Sandy Hook?  I think they are willing to listen.

Since we have tolerated violence as inevitable, and since we have denied money for mental health awareness and treatment to the most vulnerable of our citizens, we must deal with the consequences so that no other parents deal with the devastation at Sandy Hook.

While all I can truly do for the families and first responders at Sandy Hook is pray and offer meager condolences, I can honor the memories of these tiny people and those that cared for them by combining my voice with others to help bring about real change.

So can you.  We are Newtown. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Victims Of Rape Potentially Guilty Of Federal Crimes?

When did sanity and common sense fall out of fashion?

Today, I learned that the Quiverfull superstars The Duggars of TLC's '19 and Counting' fame are actively campaigning for Todd Akin.  

And it hit me like a truck - of course!  It's because the Patriarchy movement has found its voice in the Tea Party.

To be clear, I do not like abortion.  I don't know anyone who truly does, be they pro-choice or pro-life.

But, regardless of how I feel, how can we as a freedom-loving culture possibly mandate a forced pregnancy for a woman after brutal rape or incest?

It's important to note that many Patriarchy proponents would not allow for an abortion to save the life of a woman in the event of an ectopic pregnancy or any other situation that would put her life in danger.

If these guys had their way nine years ago, you wouldn't be reading this post.

We had a pregnancy - a baby.  The position of that baby in my body threatened my life.  We were fortunate enough to have a physician who was compassionate and helped me make a choice because my life was indeed in grave danger.  I was bleeding internally.  Something drastic had to happen.

I grieve the loss of this child daily.

Daily, I am thankful that I get to be the mother of four amazing children.  Thankfully, I am not dead because of some stupid law thought up by heartless, controlling bureaucrats intent on foisting their religious convictions upon me.

I am grateful that I still have a choice in the matter of my own life or death.

These 15 (13 men, 2 women) are asking for laws for situations that the majority of them will never personally encounter.  They will not know what it means to sign the papers in the hospital to terminate a pregnancy.  Hopefully, they will never know rape, but if they do, they won't have to worry about a resulting pregnancy.  Save the two women.  I'd love to know what they are thinking.   

Bad things happen.  There are sociopathic rapists in our world.  There are pregnancies that end up hurting the women that carry them.  There are women who choose to keep their babies, regardless of how they were conceived.

And then there are women who could not fathom carrying a child conceived by a rapist for nine months who will then have parental rights and access to that child.  She'll never be rid of her perpetrator.  Never. 

But we're really thinking of making it a federal crime for these women to choose to abort a fetus conceived by no will of their own?  Really?  Criminals for taking a morning-after pill? 

Where is it going to stop?

These 15 politicians who want to take away this choice from victims of rape and incest?  They won't raise this kid or provide any stipend for help.  They won't authorize mental healthcare for the woman's healing, let alone healthcare to pay for her medical expenses, maternity leave, or prenatal visits. 

Don't believe that's going to happen?  "A bill in the Pennsylvania House proposing the reduction of welfare benefits for low-income women contains a provision requiring a woman who became pregnant from rape to prove that she reported her assault." (Huffington Post Politics, 10/25/12)

So now she has to prove that she was assaulted before she can receive benefits?  Hope she doesn't try to get a rape kit processed to prove assault - she'll have to wait in a line of 221,000. 

The Patriarchy Movement has its foot in the door.  And if we give them an inch, it is just a matter of time before they get their entire agenda codified into law. 

Victims of crime deserve better treatment than to be potentially locked up in federal prison.  Demand that those who represent your wishes in Congress (be they Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Green - whatever) keep abortion legal for rape and incest survivors.  Allow survivors to deal with impending pregnancies as they choose, not as the government chooses for them.

Maybe we could put our energies into locking up the 221,000 rapists who are out there on the loose instead of browbeating their victims and making demands on them.  Women - all women - deserve better.

If you or someone you love has been hurt sexually and need help, please contact the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline.  Click Here for the link.  You are not alone; they can help.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Billy, I Hardly Know Ye

I might have lost a hero yesterday afternoon.

The first time I heard this man speak,  I was six years old, visiting my great-grandparents home in Orlando.  The year was 1981.

It was after supper.  A "farm supper," Grandma had called it.  My baby brother and I were sitting on a latchhook rug playing with his squeaky Seven Dwarves that my great aunt had purchased for him.  Grandpa turned on the massive console television, and there was a man singing.  We stopped playing, and we watched the man sing. 

Grandpa noticed that we noticed.  He leaned forward in his recliner to explain what we were seeing.

"That's George Beverly Shea," he explained.  "He's singing about Jesus."

And then a lot of people in the stadium audience started clapping.  And then a man started talking.  I don't remember all that he said, but I remember feeling warm all over.  Then that George Beverly Shea started singing a song I had never heard before, called Just As I Am.

It reminded me of Mr. Rogers.  Mr. Rogers liked me just the way I was, and apparently, so did this Jesus character.

Fast forward to yesterday afternoon, where I saw this headline:

"Billy Graham's Organization Removes Mormonism From Its List of Cults.":

Most people know that I have long been an advocate for cult and spiritual abuse survivors.  That I have studied cults in depth for over a decade.  That I wrote and produced an award-winning independent film about spiritual abuse. 

What they might not know is how I've invited Mormon missionaries into my home on many occasions for a meal and to listen to their recruitment speech.  Often they are teenage boys who are hungry.  So I feed them and listen.

And I ask questions.  So many in fact that the local bishop often sends different missionaries to meet with me the next week.

It is my strong conviction after speaking with a number of ex-Mormons and Mormon missionaries and after reading several perspectives (including Mormon ones) that the Mormon church is indeed a cult.

It used to be a conviction shared by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

Until a Mormon decided to run for President.  As a Republican.  The reference to Mormonism as a dangerous cult on their website is no more.

Yesterday, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association took out an ad that asks Americans to "cast our ballots for candidates who base their decisions on biblical principles..." 

I wonder if biblical principles include the following:
Secret underwear cliches and Big Love jokes aside, I know that I am running the risk of treating the faith of a potential President as non-eminent.  But in this day and age, this seems a normative practice.
Remember in 2000 how we constantly heard of the faith of George W. Bush, and how the President drew upon that faith to make tough decisions in the White House?

I also hearken back to the Jeremiah Wright scandal - the question then was 'how could Obama sit under a man like Jeremiah Wright and not be affected by his radical teachings?'  After all, Franklin Graham, Billy's son and the presumed heir-apparent of the $127 million dollar Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, has questioned whether President Obama, a man who claims Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior, is truly a Christian.

So it seems to beg the question: why isn't Franklin Graham up to the task of questioning the $4M that Mitt and Ann Romney gave to the Mormon Church.  Sounds like the Romneys are more than nominal Mormons; after all, in the last debate, Mitt Romney claimed to be a pastor in his church.  And four million seems to make him pretty vested in the LDS Church.  Does this not deserve scrutiny?

At the very least, Franklin or some other high ranking evangelical should ask Mitt publicly what his relationship with his precious children and grandchildren would be like should they choose to leave the Mormon church.   

Or will the Romneys get some sort of celebrity pass on the command of shunning in order to cement Mormonism as another harmless version of Evangelicalism?

But I suppose that if Romney is asked about anything, he can justifiably lie about it.  Misguide, redirect, offer a five point plan without really telling American voters what it is really all about. 

And even if he does tell us, will it be the truth?

But back to my hero. Billy Graham is 94 years old.  Hopefully, he is merely a figurehead of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.  The text of the Wall Street Journal ad just didn't ring true with me.  This is a man who historically has invited all candidates to the table and prayed for them.  He's never gotten involved in politics historically, except to provide spiritual counsel to sitting Presidents.

I'm going to retain my childhood memory of Billy Graham as the man that told me that Jesus loved me.  But the organization that bears his name ought to explain to their contributors that they are using their hard-earned contributions to gain political power and prowess through thinly-veiled political ads that look something like this: 

We question Obama's Christianity; we love Mitt's father, George and believe Mitt to be following in his footsteps.  It's too theologically damaging to talk about Mormonism as a destructive cult.  Now, vote for someone who will support Israel and protect the sanctity of marriage. 

Gee.  I wonder who the BGEA is endorsing for President.  

As a taxpayer, I don't wish to support a parachurch organization obeying the letter of the law by the skin of their teeth while endorsing a political candidate with millions of dollars of print advertisements that  seem as carefully crafted as a man washing clean pots in a soup kitchen with buttoned sleeves.

I would call upon the IRS to carefully examine and investigate whether the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association is violating the terms of their 501(c)3 agreement in purchasing these ads.  If they are found to be acting as a political action committee, they need to follow the rules accordingly.  

And if they are found in violation, they need to be taxed appropriately.

I love you, Billy Graham.  I wish you were doing what you do best: inviting people to allow Jesus Christ to come into their lives and change the landscape.  Reminding people of their brokenness.  Binding up wounds.  Inviting people to the Lord's table.  

And not giving cult groups a pass for the sake of political expediency.  

Monday, June 25, 2012


The spring before my junior year, I was invited to do something extraordinary.

A new residential magnet school for gifted and talented students was starting up in our state.  I had applied and was invited to become a part of this new venture.

In 1992, I graduated from that institution that I helped build with 141 of my classmates.

There are a few things that I've learned since that time about educating gifted children.  I've now parented four high-ability children for a number of years.  And mind you, these are strictly my observations of what I see as general trends.  Variances, of course, exist within individuals.  This is not scientific data.

Gifted children tend to be high-achieving procrastinators.

They are rebellious if rules seem arbitrary with unsatisfactory explanations.

They are compliant if they love the authority figure.

They don't make friends remarkably easily, as a general rule.  When friends are made, they are made for life.  Often friends outside their ability level are much older.

They read more than is probably healthy.

They do not wish to be rewarded for their giftedness with more tasks.

They sometimes have difficulty expressing their feelings but are also hypersensitive.

They 'think outside the box', preferring to believe that boxes are really just arbitrary constructs that may no longer be working models, if indeed they ever worked at all.  And yet a working model that they themselves generate will be cherished as a tradition for many years to come.

They save things - scraps of paper, ideas, material culture, people.

They compare themselves to other high-ability people, and they tend to negate their self worth based upon their personal performance.  This can sometimes look as if they are looking down on others when, in actuality, the opposite is true.

They play games and see debate as a sport.

They shame themselves for not being stellar students in every discipline.

They tend to overlook problems in others, mainly because they themselves struggle with appropriate social skills.

They appear to disassociate when, in actuality, they are making a connection or solving a problem.

They work better alone than in a group, and they will take on monumental projects just for the challenge.  If they work in a group, it is truly better for each person to take on a task and see it through to completion.  Alone.

They use big words.

They hate not knowing what something means.  They feel they should know what everything means.

They see incredible value in things that seem statistically or socially arbitrary to popular culture.

So, imagine 142 gifted and talented teenagers with varying degrees of introversion, self-aggrandizement, self-depreciation, and socio-economic backgrounds all being thrown together in what amounted to a two year melting pot of a summer camp.

Yes, we fought.  Epic battles of will and anger that only teenagers can call forth.  Well, teenagers and third-world dictators.

Yes, we procrastinated for the adrenaline rush of waiting until the last minute (and sometimes beyond the last minute) to finish a task.

Yes, we took liberties.  When our professor told us we could bring in a 3x5 card with notes for an exam, we brought in a 3 foot by 5 foot card.  Because scale wasn't specified.

Yes, we bucked the system.  If we didn't respect you as a professor, i.e. if you made arbitrary rules that you could not explain to us, we chose not to perform for you.  And if you're reading this, we probably talked about you.  Mercilessly.  And we still probably do.

Yes, we worked hard.  If we did respect you as a professor, we would work round the clock for days, shunning food and sleep to exceed your expectations.  And if you're reading this, we probably talked about you.  Adoringly.  And we will never forget you.

Yes, we dated each other.  Generally, this ended badly.  If you are wondering why, see the aforementioned attributes of gifted teenagers.  But unlike other teenage dating experiences, we chose to maintain people as friends.  Perhaps there was a hiatus.  A cooling off period, if you will.  But gifted kids can't throw people away.  We worried about these people and could never seem to permanently write them off.  They are part of our collection, and we are hoarders.

Fortunately, we matured and learned boundaries.  But we still maintained an appreciation for one another, regardless of how big the drama truly got.

Like most teenagers, we wondered if we had what it took to make it in this world.  But by 'make it', we wondered if we had what was necessary to make a difference.  Shake up the status quo.  

Yes, we were needy.  Yes, we were horny.  Yes, we were jealous of each other.

And yes, we've grown up.

We reunited this weekend after twenty years of being separated.  It's tough to get 142 adults in the same room together.  A few couldn't come because of scheduling conflicts or abject circumstances.  One of us has gone to his reward.  We missed everyone who wasn't present.

Thankfully, we've matured.  Well, at least enough to recognize that as lone wolf individuals, we aren't really all that important.  And yet we are incredibly important as both individuals and a collective.  It's a strange paradox.  I am not sure that I have my head quite wrapped around it yet.

My family lovingly dubbed this reunion NerdCon2012.  But this shouldn't be seen as disparaging. My children have benefited tremendously from their relationship with my Academy friends.  They are helping my kids prepare for SATs and choose college majors.  They have given my kids advice about life.  They have taught my kids to play games and to relax, something that was damned near impossible for us at their age.  Well, I mean we played plenty of games, but that relaxation part was something else.

As a reuniting class, it doesn't matter how much money we make.  It doesn't matter how many degrees we hold.  It doesn't matter what we wear. What matters to us now is that we are together.  That we see each other as quirky, crazy people who have a place in this world even if that place is only within our group.  We shelter each other from storms.  We love ourselves in spite of ourselves.

We're married and partnered.  We're falling in love. We have offspring.  We've changed careers almost as many times as we've changed colleges.  We've had tough losses.  We've been hurt.  We have missions in life.  We fight good fights. We are creating and achieving, and we are relaxing and laughing more instead of less.  We are still anxious, but we're healing.  We still read entirely more than is healthy.  We inspire each other to try new things.  We will never be finished with our life's work.

And like no other people on this planet, we understand each other.

I think we're far more compassionate than we used to be.  We're older.  Hopefully wiser.  We're gentler with one another.  We know that our time on earth is limited.  We're hoping to make the most of it together.

I'm really glad that I accepted the invitation to become a part of the Indiana Academy.  I thought I was just going to a school.  I didn't realize that I was choosing new family members.

I love you guys.  Looking forward to our next 20 years.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

We Are Spiritual Abuse Survivors


Wrote this epic piece for our blog over on the Paradise Recovered website.

Thought you'd might like to come over and take a look.


Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Better To Marry Than To Burn?

Waking up this morning to something disturbing.  Yeesh.

Proud of the Facebook group Do Right BJU, as well as other IFB whistleblowers that I have networked with overtly and covertly for a number of years.

I am both frustrated by these stories of abuse and also encouraged by those who are standing up and speaking out.  The social and financial consequences for these dear people talking about egregious abuses have proved an incredible price to pay, but they are continuing to use their voices.  

And thank God they are.

To believe that child molesters are somehow okay to marry women with children or okay to be placed in positions of power over children because, well, they got 'saved'?  

The state thinks otherwise.  Science says otherwise.  Common sense says otherwise.  

I believe Jesus himself would have said otherwise.

A pastor counsels a woman to marry a sex offender because "it is better to marry than to burn?"  

Really?  REALLY?!?  Even if that means putting her children in jeopardy of being sexually tortured?  

How many more kids are going to have to suffer LIFETIMES of pain and sorrow because of a scriptural technicality whose interpretation is for people to get hitched regardless of their ability to be a good partner?

Something tells me that the Apostle Paul wasn't talking about a child molester marrying to satisfy passions in marriage instead of with children.  Besides, child molesters are perfectly capable of carrying on relationships with spouses while violating the most innocent among us.

And by burn, I think Paul means burn with passion, not burn in hell.  But that's another topic for another day.

In any event, it doesn't take a lot of searching the scriptures and years of pastoral training to figure this one out. 

Why would a pastor NOT ask simple questions like, "What is your attraction to this person?  Why do you feel that this person is safe to be around your children?  How can your relationship with this person possibly trump the one you have with your children?"

And then why would a pastor NOT say, "I have some reservations about performing this wedding," outline those reservations, and get that potential spouse some counseling for their own boundary issues?

And why doesn't the State insist upon psychological testing and counseling for registered sex offenders and their intended spouses prior to granting a marriage license?  I'm wondering if these women and men really do believe that a state of salvation makes their intended offender spouse immune from molesting children.

Because if a person decides that a sex offender needs access to their kids?  

I'm calling that failure to supervise.  I'm calling that neglect.  I'm calling that child endangerment.

And the State should as well.

I'd tell that woman or man wanting to marry a sex offender (if s/he really does and isn't being manipulated and coerced into doing so) that their picker is broken.  All busted up, in fact.  That they need to select a person to partner with that will benefit them and their children.  

That their children should come first.

And I would absolutely refuse to officiate the ceremony.

I really do hope that even the most depraved individual can make peace with God and make things as right as they can to the people they've hurt.  

But that doesn't mean that we take risks with children.  

It doesn't mean that we negate the consequences of society because s/he claims recovery.  

And it sure as hell doesn't mean that pastoral types should check their common sense at the door in order to create some supposed story of ultimate redemption.  

After all, a sex offender changing and becoming a family man would be a pretty great testimonial to share with other pastor friends.  

And if he slips up and molests kids?  Well, he's "backslidden," and the pastor, of course, bears no responsibility.  

Until now.

Because to teach people otherwise from some sort of self-proclaimed spiritual authority in order to validate the success of their ministry?  Criminal.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Be Right? Or Have A Relationship? Choose.

It's disturbing to me, regardless of political bent, how little respect exists in media. 

I'd never expect in a free society for people to agree on issues and how to solve problems lock-step, and I am thankful for healthy discussion. It makes me think and look at all facets of a problem.

Can discussion be unhealthy?  I think yes.

Discussion becomes dysfunctional when people are torn down for exercising freedoms. When their spouses and families become part of the fodder. The conversation becomes less about solving problems and more about winning personality contests with the public, and elections become the Super Bowl. 

The news becomes entertainment.  A spectator sport. 

Now I like satire as much as anyone else, and I do love a good parody. 

But character assassination and seeing ill motive lurking behind every corner isn't helpful to any sort of discussion about how to solve some pretty looming problems that our country and our world is facing.

What if the public was aware that these same personalities who skewer each other on television and AM radio have dinner together and enjoy one another's company in private?

Sadly, these folks have handed us an atmosphere of polarization (and dare I say 'paranoia') where healthy discussion is sometimes no longer possible. 

A fundamental lack of decorum then trickles down to social media where people think nothing of ruining other people. 

Because social media is fairly anonymous, and people become 'friends' without consequence.  

It's pretty easy to friend someone online who thinks exactly the way you do, and it's pretty easy to become whoever you wish to become online while alienating people who care about you and love you a great deal.

It's easy to go on the attack and have these strangers come to your aid and make you feel completely justified. 

This is something I personally wrestle with. Because even the Warren Jeffs and the Fred Phelps and the Herbert Armstrongs of the world -- while exposure of spiritual abuse is important -- they are human beings loved by God. They've lost their way, to be sure. They piss me off. I hate their aftermath and what they have done to destroy human souls. I expose their teachings wherever I can. 

And I take seriously the call to pray for my enemies, remembering that had different circumstances existed in my life? I could be just like them.

Humility is important. Or I'm part of the problem. And this is something I continually have to self-monitor and ask friends to help keep in check for me.

As an aside, I don't say anything online that I am not willing to say to someone's face. And I truly agonize over a lot of things that I write because I am concerned about how it might affect someone I care deeply about.

People of all political bents say some of the most hurtful things and seem to think nothing about the pain that they cause. The environment of distrust among people is lethal to real relationships - even those of many, many years - and sometimes, it just isn't possible to maintain a friendship, regardless of how desperately one might wish to do so.

Full disclosure? I'm a political moderate who leans way left on many domestic issues, especially those involving child welfare. My husband is more conservative, but some of his best friends are quite liberal. We talk about politics, and as we age, we're getting closer and closer to the middle.

We've probably never voted for the same president, but we wouldn't know because we've never shared who we voted for with one another.

Why? Because our relationship trumps ideology. And we'd like to continue living together and loving each other, and that requires an atmosphere of mutual respect.

In spite of our ideological differences, neither of us can stand what is happening in this culture. Recent online and telephone and face to face conversations with good friends help us see that we are not alone in despising how rhetoric is killing relationship.

What we say matters...whether it is online or in person. And relationships are indeed lost over what we say and how we treat one another in reality or virtually.

Facebook and Twitter aren't video games; they involve real flesh and blood people with feelings and baggage and pain and joy. Which means that care should be exercised when speaking, as in any relationship. 

Which is also why I try, albeit imperfectly, to exercise tolerance - first, because I am crazy imperfect (as I just said) and have a penchant for meanness myself, and second, because I do not wish to come off as condescending and placating.

I have strong opinions, sure. But even when sharing them, I am mindful of those who may not agree and remember (to paraphrase a line from a film I love called An Ordinary Family) that when all is stripped away, I would rather have a relationship than be right.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

I Was Born and Raised in a Doomsday Cult

I was born and raised in a doomsday cult.

I was also born and raised in a working class neighborhood.  Went to public school.  Played kickball and baseball and jumped rope with neighbor kids. 

Our neighbors knew that we didn’t do birthday parties and Christmas.  They also knew that we didn’t play outside on Friday night and that we went to church on Saturday instead of Sunday. 

Our neighbors accepted us as just having “a different religion.”

“But they’re good people,” they were quick to say.  “You might disagree with their beliefs, but you can’t ever say they’re bad folks.”

All kinds of people join doomsday cults.  Good people who have the intention of making a difference in what can be a dark and dismal world.

These folks want the pain to end.  They want suffering to end.  And the only way it can possibly happen is for a supernatural power to set things right.

While they might refer to themselves as ‘God’s one and only true church,’ or the ‘only church with the true message about Jesus Christ,’ they never think of themselves as being in a doomsday cult.

We were no exception.

My parents married right out of high school in 1970, a time of political and social upheaval.  Given the era and their ages, I suspect that these young people were looking for a rock-solid absolute around which they could order their lives. 

Enter The Plain Truth Magazine. 

One day, my father stumbled upon Herbert Armstrong’s teachings through a news magazine that depicted modern life as death, despair, and destruction.  Fortunately, all of the horror depicted in the magazine was part of God’s plan for mankind.

Kinda like Time or Newsweek, but with a heavy emphasis on the Apocalypse.

The Plain Truth magazine was replete with photos of atomic bombs and nuclear tests, crying people, starving people, people hurting – and then God’s answer: a wonderful World Tomorrow where God would defeat Satan, and war would end forever.

Anyone would be hard pressed not to at least be a little sympathetic to that message in the middle of the Cold War.

With a little help from some ministerial visits and correspondence courses, my parents grew to believe that they were specially called by God to help usher in this World Tomorrow through allegiance to God’s one and only true church, the Worldwide Church of God.   They were baptized. 

They stopped eating pork.  They stopped ‘keeping Christmas’.  They started worshipping God from sundown on Friday night until sundown on Saturday night.  They started tithing, and in some years, that meant 30% of their pre-tax income.

They started spending the majority of their time with fellow church members.

Their relationships with their family members and neighbors didn’t end completely, but folks found their new practices peculiar.

But this would make sense, counseled the ministers.  After all, we are a strange and peculiar people.  They aren’t being called by God at this time.  You are.  Of course they don’t understand.

A few years later, I was born.

One of my earliest memories is sitting on a blanket in a room filled with folding chairs, looking up at panty-hosed legs, playing with Fisher Price Little People, and listening to Herbert Armstrong’s voice. 

“And this gospel of the Kingdom SHALL BE PREACHED,” he’d scream while pounding a desk “in ALL the world for a witness unto ALL nations and then shall the end come.”

Now Herbert Armstrong wasn’t in the room.  But his Voice was.  He was on a cassette tape playing at the front of the assembly.  But there was a microphone.  A man would get up and talk, and then he would sit down.  And then the Voice.

I wasn’t aware of the cassette tape.  I believed that God was standing in front of that microphone.  Everyone was taking notes and staring straight ahead.  It had to be the Voice of God.

Unbeknownst to me and my family in this pre-Internet age, Herbert Armstrong was in quite a bit of trouble at his headquarters in Pasadena, California.  The state had placed God’s true church into receivership, and Herbert had left the state, and later?  The country. 

It turns out when you get a quarter of a million people to give you nearly 30% of their pre-tax income, you do pretty well financially, but it might be difficult to call yourself a non-profit corporation.

A lot of people close to the Headquarters of the Worldwide Church of God saw the corruption and gave up.

But we didn’t. 

We were told that we were being persecuted, that the government was taking away the separation between church and state, and that the End Times were coming to pass the way Herbert Armstrong said they would.

And we became more committed, if such a thing is possible.

I never heard the word ‘cult’ until the mid-nineties.  I was in my late teens.  My grandfather was in the hospital, and in the waiting room, I picked up a New Yorker magazine, thumbed through it, and learned of a place called Jonestown.

I’d never heard of Jim Jones.  How in the world could something of this magnitude happen and it not be covered in the Plain Truth magazine?

At the time, the most compelling part of the story for me wasn’t the mass suicide or the dead bodies.  

It was that those people were in Guyana in the first place.

One of Herbert Armstrong’s favorite topics was the Great Tribulation.  “No flesh,” he would declare,” will be spared that great and terrible day of the Lord.”  And then the production team would cue the atomic bombs and the explosions, just in case we might wonder exactly what the great and terrible day of the Lord might be like.

Fortunately, we were the elect.  And as such, we were going to a Place of Safety to be shielded from such atrocities.  That is, if we were faithful to the end.

We would have sold everything and followed Herbert Armstrong to meet Jesus Christ in a cave dwelling in Petra, Jordan, which is where Herbert Armstrong believed this Place of Safety to be. 

We would have gone to Guyana. 

Although Herbert Armstrong died in 1986, we in the church continued to follow his teachings well into the 90’s.

Through a series of events that take a lot of energy to recount, I left God’s one and only true church with the emotional support of some dear friends.

As you might imagine, I floundered for a bit.

I moved to a new city to start over.  I was pretty happy, and I pushed everything about the Worldwide Church of God and Herbert Armstrong and Sabbath-keeping and Holy Days and all of it completely aside. 
Well, almost completely.  I started having anxiety attacks and incredibly scary dreams.

The answer had to be spiritual, of course.  It always had been before.

I started going to a completely different kind of church, and I liked it.  I liked the people there.  They were nice.  I said little to them about my experience.

One guy stood out in particular.  We started dating…and then exclusively…and then we got married.

And for a while, it was really great.

And then after a while, he started wondering if he had made a huge mistake.

I became convinced that to be a good wife, I needed to be everything that Herbert Armstrong had said good wives should be.  I started reading some of my old literature from Worldwide.  I considered going back to Sabbath-keeping and ditching my birthday and Christmas.

In the Worldwide Church of God, women were trained to be Stepford Wives.  

And I was no exception.

Slowly, the old programming took hold, and I became convinced that by leaving God’s one and only true church and marrying my husband?  I chose Satan.

If you ever meet my husband, I really doubt that the first thing that will come to mind is ‘Satan.’  Or ‘demon’ or ‘false prophet.’  (He did get a D+ in conduct in the fourth grade, but that’s not exactly Prince of Darkness material. )

It became harder and harder to keep our life together. 

One day, when I was looking for a Sabbath-keeping church in my area, I came across a website called The Painful Truth

Ex-Worldwide members had written their stories, and none of them were edited for content.

My husband came home from work to find me sobbing in a fetal position.

He read the site with me.  He was dumbfounded.  “I had no idea,” he kept saying over and over.  “I had no idea.”

For three days, I did nothing but read.  I didn’t eat.  I didn’t sleep.  I read.

And I cried.

This was April 1999.

My husband learned of a special retreat for people who had been through something called ‘spiritual abuse.’  It was called Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center, and it was in Albany, Ohio.  It was a place where I could get some perspective on what had happened to me.

I spoke with Dr. Paul Martin on the phone at length.  He assured me that they knew all about the Worldwide Church of God at Wellspring.  He told me that what I was experiencing was quite common.

Most importantly, he believed that he could help us.

Now in the Worldwide Church of God, psychologists and psychiatrists were always viewed as avenues for demons to enter into your mind.  So it might make sense that I was a little concerned about having my head filled with…well, demons.

“I’ll take you there,” said my husband.  “If you ever want to leave, you are free to go.”

The fact that I even went is a testament to how much I love and trust this man.

Ron Burks, my counselor, and I talked a lot about PTSD.  I learned that the condition was due to trauma, and that sustained trauma over many years can cause symptoms like anxiety attacks and nightmares.

I learned these things weren’t my fault.

After a week of treatment, my husband flew in for the weekend.   We left campus and went to Marietta, Ohio to celebrate his birthday.  When we got back to the Lodge, the staff had a cake for him and some flowers for me.

I was really touched.

One day, Ron and I had a session about the nature of narcissistic personality disorder that left me in shock.  Herbert Armstrong used people, and my family and I were some of those people. 

While that might have been self-evident to everyone around, it was news to me.

I was in shock.   God’s one and only true apostle was an absolute fraud.  He had kept our family from having relationships with each other and with their extended families and neighbors.  He had nearly destroyed my marriage.  

He had practically destroyed me. 

After this session, one of the Wellspring RAs, Jay, asked me if I would like some lunch.

“Sure,” I said absently, and I got up to make it myself.

“No, no,” he protested, “sit down.  Let me.  Would you like a ham and cheese sandwich?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Would you like it toasted?”

Asking me if I wanted my sandwich toasted may have seemed inconsequential, but it stood in stark contrast to how I had tamped down my wants in order to serve Herbert Armstrong’s wants. 

What I wanted was important.  What I want is important.  And it is good to want things.

I learned that my existence and worth as a human being was not predicated on following Herbert’s rules. 

And then there was the Bible.  I didn’t want to be afraid of that book any longer.

Bible study was never a part of Wellspring’s curriculum, but I deduced that Larry Pile, the main workshop leader, was a Christian.  One afternoon, I asked him if there was a book in the bible that dealt with spiritual abuse.

“There is!” he exclaimed.  “The entire letter to the Galatians is about false teaching.”

I asked if we could read together, and he agreed to explain his thinking on the matter.  He also reminded me that these were his thoughts, and that I was free to look at the material  anyway I wanted.  We read two chapters together before I had to stop.  I was just weary.

I came home from Wellspring and slept for almost a week.

I kept reading the Bible, but with different eyes and with a different voice in my head. 

I started really liking the stories that Jesus told.  We didn’t spend so much time on these in the Worldwide Church of God.  When I read them, Jesus emerged for me as a character with a quick wit, who was cunning but not deceitful, and who was overwhelmingly compassionate.

In short, I found him miles more compelling that Herbert Armstrong.

A few years later, when our children were small, I went back to Wellspring for a week.  For a refresher course.  Just to remind myself to relax and enjoy the little things in life.  

But on this visit to Wellspring, it became overwhelmingly apparent to me that there were thousands of groups of varying sizes just like the Worldwide Church of God all over this country.

My counselor, Donna, and I talked more about what I wanted.

“I think I want to write,” I said.

“So write,” she said.

I told her about some story ideas I had. 

“I don’t think people really understand spiritual abuse,” I said to her.

“I don’t think they do either,” she said.

“There needs to be a story…or a movie…”

She smiled.  “It would have to be made by someone who thinks outside the box.”

“What’s a box?”

That summer, I started writing my novel, and I reassembled some of those dear friends who provided emotional support for me when I was leaving the Worldwide Church of God.  We went camping together like we had many years prior. 

One of my friends was now a filmmaker in Los Angeles.  “What are you working on?  You’re always working on something?” he asked me.

“A novel,” I said.

“Pitch it to me.”

So I did.

“That isn’t a novel,” he said, “that’s a movie.”

I told him that I didn’t know how to write a screenplay.

“Well, I do,” he said.

I crammed my novel  into a screenplay.  The first draft was 189 pages.  I was thrilled to be done, and presented it to my filmmaker friend.

“Oh, you’re not done,” he said.  “You don’t know this yet, but a page equals a minute of film, give or take.  We’ve got to cut some stuff out of there.  This isn’t The Godfather.”

And he gave me notes on the script.  I revised.  And he gave me more notes.  And I made more revisions.

Twenty-two revisions later, I reconnected with an old friend, Storme Wood, who had been doing film and video production for a number of years and was itching to direct his first narrative feature.  We met for breakfast, which turned into lunch.

“I didn’t know you wrote screenplays,” he said, cautiously, when I told him of Paradise Recovered.

“Well, I do now,” I said, and I handed him the script.

After reading it, Storme came to visit, and I took him to meet with friends of mine, also spiritual abuse survivors.

As an aside, spiritual abuse survivors are everywhere.  If we assume that the 3,000 distinctive cult groups in America have an average of 200 members, and if each of those members has twenty people in their immediate circle who has been hurt and abused, we’re talking about twelve million people who have been hurt by spiritually abusive leaders either directly or indirectly. 

And those estimates are incredibly conservative.

I had become acquainted with a group who called themselves Apostolics Anonymous.  They met together on Wednesday nights in a local tavern.  Despite the fact that I was never in the United Pentecostal Church, I found that we had a great deal in common.

To his credit, Storme spent a great deal of time gently listening to their stories.

When we got in the car to leave, he had tears in his eyes.

“I don’t care if I sit in the back of this production and pay bills and crunch numbers,” he said “we have to make this movie.  For them.  For all of them.  For you.”

My husband and I scraped up a little over $100,000.  With that tiny bit of money by Hollywood studio standards, plus a lot of sweat and sacrifice, Storme and I made that movie together with a team of people who also sacrificed to tell this story.  Many of them were survivors or friends of survivors themselves.

Paradise Recovered isn’t my story, but it is about me.  But it isn’t just about me.  In our test audiences, we heard women and men wonder aloud if we had been documenting their lives with a camera when they were growing up.

After experiencing our fictitious aberrant group,’ Prophetic Watchman Ministries, International,’ spiritual abuse survivors (regardless of affiliation) told us that we ‘got it right.’

When we were handed the Grand Jury Prize for Narrative Feature at Oklahoma City’s deadCENTER Film Festival, the festival director hugged me and said, “Thank you for sharing this film with us.  It was time somebody said it.”

We had the pleasure of being  part of seventeen film festivals around the country.  We won a number of awards.  Many film festival directors called us and told us how much our film meant to them personally.

And when we watched the film with a handful of cult survivors in my living room, their tears of joy and promises to pray for us meant more than any accolade or award.

Wellspring gave me my life back and gave me the courage to be who I want to be.  It was there that I learned that I have a great deal to give the world.  I still falter.  I still have an anxiety attack from time to time.  I am still experimenting with faith.  But I have a voice.  And I use my words.

And I write every day.

In addition to sharing profits with all of the filmmakers who helped in this effort, my new production company, By The Glass Productions, has designated at least 10% of the producer’s profits to Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center for a Victim Assistance Fund. 

Healing is possible.  As Greg Sammons, the current director at Wellspring, told me recently, we are always in recovery.  But it gets easier.  It gets better. 

And life is very rich and very, very good.

Paradise Recovered is distributed by Monarch Home Entertainment and will release on April 24, 2012.    You can pre-order Paradise Recovered on Amazon.com or put it in your Netflix DVD queue.

Your support of this film will help survivors like me find the healing they richly deserve.  Thank you.