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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.