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.