blogathon: leaving a cult

canadian mental health association

this is an entry for my participation in the 2008 blogathon, a 24-hour marathon of blogging. please support the cause and donate – however much, however little – to the canadian mental health association (vancouver/burnaby branch). to donate, email me or use this URL: you should be able to get there by clicking the link; if not, just copy and paste the link into your browser. it will take you to the appropriate location at canada helps.

thank you for visiting, reading, commenting and, if you can, donating!

losing the the way – a memoir of spiritual longing, manipulation, abuse and escape is about kristen skedgell’s intense 15-year involvement in a christian cult. it shows how easily an idealistic young person can be swept away by a spiritual quest and manipulated through the quiet malevolence lurking beneath the religious exterior.

kristen is a fellow blogger. some months ago we had a few conversations and it ended in her sending me her book. since a friend of mine is touched by a similar situation, i was particularly interested in the book. i raced through it, am writing about it today, and will then pass it on to J, whose whole family has been taken away by an aggressive evangelical ministry in bellingham.

the following excerpts trace a bit of the story. a teenager, lost between an alcoholic father, an emotionally absent mother and a hostile brother, finds “the way”, an evangelical ministry. the head of “the way” is dr. victor paul wierwille, who is also called “the doctor”.

the doctor also likes folksy tales of homespun poems. he read one called “the touch of the master’s hand” at the meeting. “joyful noise”, the way band, played in the background and by the time he was finished half the room was in tears. the poem described an abandoned violin that was going to be “auctioned cheap to a thoughtless crowd” until the master musician came and played on it, making it sound beautiful and more valuable than anyone could afford. i thought of my brother’s violin and how wonderful he made the instrument sound. i thought of my life and how much of a failure it was. how someone needed to pick me up and play on me as the master had played on that violin. god was the master.

one of the things that can quickly make me angry is what we might call “sentimental manipulation”. hitting those easy-to-reach emotional trigger points with hot-and-heavy black and white emotions and twisting them for irresponsible purposes. it usually involves a crafty way of mixing “beautiful” and “pure” emotions with guilt, grief and shame. and it seemed to have work just peachy for the good doctor. or, as it were, the bad doctor.

when kristen, now already deeply involved in the ministry of “the way”, goes to a fancy high school and then college, she starts experiencing hard-to-understand moods and has no idea what to do about them. again, the doctor has an answer (that’s what these people do, they have answers; questions, on the other hand, are NOT allowed). the answer is: it’s the devil!

when it comes to my own healing, i’m not even sure what to ask for. i don’t yet know the word for these debilitating bouts of depression. i only know that suicide is caused by a devil spirit and i don’t want to be possessed. i limp through my classes and delegate ministry responsibilities as much as i can. i pray in tongues often, and i sit on the roof, waiting for help.

through all of this, however, kristen still has lingering doubts, caused by her intelligence (she’s studying political science, for goodness’ sake!) and her mental health difficulties, which, in the doctor’s mind, seem to be either unimportant or of the devil. she also wonders whether having sex with the doctor is the right thing to do. not surprisingly, this sort of sexual abuse is sold to her as a special secret between the doctor and herself, never to be disclosed. understandably, she dissociates. after another such encounter (as usual, boring, unloving and clinical)

suddenly, something shifts deep inside me. now i get it: all things are pure to the pure. my mind can do anything. a great door has opened and the doctor has ushered me into the deeper mysteries of the world, where grace resides supreme. i promise the doctor that i will keep his secret. i promise i will be here for him whenever he needs me. i have successfully squelched my feelings and my renewed mind is in control. i am finally committed to the word. in the bright light of the coachman’s suite, i am initiated.

“all things are pure to the pure” is taken (stolen?) from the bible and used as a perfect pretext to engage in whatever the doctor and his minions feel like. since he is so pure, there is no problem, right?

being “committed to the word” means a commitment to a literal interpretation of the bible. which turns out to be the doctor’s interpretation. no-one is allowed to interpret anything for themselves. the successful squelching of the feelings is accompanied by a successful squelching of critical thought – indeed, the two go hand in hand.

kristen gets married to an equally unhappy, abusive man. she gets pregnant, and then …

but here he was, this infant, as honest and real and fragile as life itself. it was impossible to dissemble in his presence. his very existence demanded that i be honest. i had to come clean, to face my life in all its complexity and be real for once. i was not the useless, angry, depressed failure i thought i had become. i was not a thing to be used. i was a giver of life. a mother. a woman. a human being. i had participated in the greatest mysteries and god had allowed it. surely, if this baby had the right to exist, so did i. i was not here for something bigger, bigger than the god i knew. it overcame all my doubts. it loved me in spite of myself. and that is the gift this baby brought me. love.

reading this again, tears come to my eyes. kristen is saved by the child. ironically, the doctor de-emphasizes jesus. we can take the image of jesus-as-the-child, the quintessential babe-in-arms, we, perhaps, see in our hearts that it was jesus who liberated this woman from the clutches of a devilish church.


  1. What a horrific story! A story like this is what gives Christianity a bad name and I hope people don’t judge the whole religion by this. Though I know that many Christians have forgotten what Jesus stood for and that is really sad. For that reason I often don’t call myself a Christian, preferring the phrase “follower of Christ.”

    marja’s last blog post..Such happiness!

  2. This is so sad and it probably does not blatantly like a cult to others. But, there are key elements her need for affirmation, inappropriate boundaried, secrets, focus on the person and not God, and all “bad” things come from the devil. It makes me angry, yet I know some very intelligent people and very strong Christians who due to their own hurts and subsequent needs have found themselves in cults and left. Unfortunately, some of the damage to the psyche still lingers some 30 years later. I often think that cult leaders definitely have a mental illness of some personality disorder and mood disorder.

  3. CC – interesting what you say about possible mental illness of cult leaders. that would be a topic to investigate …

    yes, our hurts and painfully unmet needs drive us to do things that are unthinkable.

    and let’s not forget – cults are not at all linked to religion. these christian cults are mirrored by the moons, by muslim suicide bombers, by survivalists; this is not tied to any single religion, it’s tied to human frailty.

  4. though i left a cult some 20 years ago, reading this post makes me realize how fresh the wounds still are. i have discovered that leaving physically is so much easier to do than to leave the mental and emotional chains behind. i have found that you can’t escape the years of brainwashing simply by dissassociating yourself , or in my case by putting thousands of miles of distance between myself and the “church” that for so many years of my life i gave body, soul and spirit to . it has been like a cancer to me, eating away at my ability to experience true joy and happiness. i fear i will never be able to trust religion again, or worst, never be able to trust myself to recognize what is true religion, and what is not.

  5. thank you, Isabella, for reading my book and for your sensitive handling of same. I never thought I’d be able to set foot in a church ever again, much less have a relationship with a “Higher Power” (e.g. God, Jesus, etc.). It has taken years of therapy and love from friends and family to help me get to the point of trust, but it has happened! I’m now thankful for the pain I went through in The Way because it has made me a more compassionate person and a more thankful one. One never can taste the heights of heaven without having known the depths of Hell. (who said that? Dante?) I truly believe that and so appreciate your support in my healing and the healing of others. take care always…..

  6. Thank you Isabella for directing me to this blog entry.

    I too was in The Way and in The Way Corps the same time as Kristen. I also recommend her book as an excellent source to observe how the power play of cultic relationships develop.

    I was in The Way for a long time, 28 years. I got involved in latter 1977 at 18 years old and left in latter 2005 at 46 years old. Some my wonder how a person stays so long with a totalistic system. The answers for that, of course, can vary with different people.

    You, or others, may be interested in the following link. It is a transcription of a journal from when I was in The Way Corps, the leadership training program of The Way. It was a good exercise (and not an easy one) to transcribe the journal. In transcribing, I saw the soul murder of a young woman whose heart’s desire was simply to love God and serve.

    (note: I was in The Way Corps twice. The transcribed journal is my second attempt at The Way Corps and is three years after Kristen’s final year of Way Corps training.)

    One result of suppressing my own emotions and thoughts was physical illness. Four years into The Way, I developed asthma. That was in 1981. It was in 2000 before I began to see that at least part of the cause (and I think a large part) of the illnesses was due to suppressed emotion. It took until the past few years to see how the indoctrination and internalization from Way beliefs was a (the?) major player in that suppression.

    Well, apologies for the long ramble. There’s a lot more I could say. But that’s one reason I blog. Ha! 😉

    To life and hope!
    ~carol welch

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