Thought Reform?

Thought reform or mind control seems like something that only happens in a movie or a novel, but it is prevalent in our society today. One only has to look as far as the Catholic Church to find victims of spiritual abuse. While the stories of altar boys molested by priests have made headlines, countless victims are still suffering in silence. Whenever there is a power imbalance in a relationship, there is a danger that the person who holds more authority will abuse his or her power. It can occur on a large scale as with the Unification Church (the Moonies) or in smaller groups such as Heaven's Gate (39 members) or even in one-on-one relationships such as a priest and parishioner or a professor and a student. Victims of mind control are not crazy cult followers. They are people like me and you who have fallen into a trap set by a predatory leader. In my experience, the trap was built with trust and words and compassion which lured me into thinking that I was safe until it snapped down on me. Victims of mind control are robbed of time. Sometimes years or decades are lost while in the group or relationship. Victims of mind control lose family and friends. Most are told to end contact with outsiders. Many who are able to return to their families find the relationships fractured. Victims of mind control lose their identities. It's difficult to know who you are after being told by someone else how to feel, how to dress, how to act. It's one of the darkest and most frightening feelings in the world. There are very few facilities that treat these victims or therapists who are equipped to handle these cases. It makes for a long, lonely journey for these victims. Compassionate understanding and education by society is lacking. This novel is dedicated to raising awareness and giving a face to victims of mind control.

1. Every person should have the right to his or her own thoughts, ideology, and identity.

2. Thought reform does not simply exist in cults that are on the news. It can occur in one-on-one relationships and in small groups in your neighborhood

3. In any situation where there is an imbalance of power (priest/parishioner, therapist/client), there is potential for abuse.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Chapter 1 in its entirety

Strange attraction spreads its wings.”—R. Smith

Chapter 1


he was God.
he was my Savior.
he was the Guardian of my life.
In his presence I felt elated-- almost as if there was a bright shining light emanating from my soul.  I was sure others could see it.  They could see the purity and innocence within and somehow sense that I was on a divine mission with my Lord.  They could see that I was chosen to serve the Chosen One.  How special I was to be plucked from all of mankind! 
In his arms I felt a safety that I had never experienced.  It was warm and soft, and I imagined myself to be a small rabbit snuggled in the deepest chocolate velvet cloak, heavy enough to protect me from the world but light enough so that I could almost breathe.  I still smell his Herrera cologne-- earthy, rich and sexy at the same time.  Hours later it would remain on my body lulling me to sleep, angels whispering in my ear that I had done well that day.  I was in accordance with God’s plan.
What believing person wouldn’t want an intimate relationship with God?  Don’t we all want to feel that among billions of earth’s people that we are special, that He does indeed care enough about us to take a personal interest in our lives?  Who doesn’t want to bask in the glow and warmth that is the love of God?  I certainly did.
But my god was manifest in flesh—the flesh of a common man, a professor, a priest, a sociopath.  Yes, I realize it is a Commandment to have no other gods except for God so, if you are offended, stop reading now. 
But, I hope you won’t because I have a lot to tell you.  If you are old or young or in the middle of life, if you are smart or average, if you are sick or healthy or rich or poor, and especially if you believe you could never be persuaded to deny your God to follow another, then listen to me.  Listen to how my god destroyed my soul irreparably.

I met him in February of 2001 in a small Texas town outside the sprawling metropolis of Houston.  Immediately I was enthralled by his charisma, intelligence, and charm.  There was an air about him that seemed superior, almost holy.  Of course, it helped that I met him in church where he was a priest.  It wasn’t a far out religion or even a liberal one.  Just a normal church that I had visited as a child for Christmas services and funerals.  St. John’s Episcopal Church was over one hundred years old though the building itself was slightly younger—the original church having been damaged in a storm.   Still there were elements of the old church that had been rescued and incorporated into the new building such as a Bible and the bell that summoned parishioners to worship.  The stained glass windows and the woodwork breathed history and tradition.  The history of the church was not without problems.  Father Will had been brought to the parish from a parish near Dallas where he served as a supply priest filling in for those churches who had priests on vacations or were otherwise absent.  He had made an impression on the hiring committee and why wouldn’t he?  He was charming and intelligent and knew the right words to say and the right way to say them to almost anyone.  My daughter and I were greeted warmly and took a seat in the very last pew.  We knelt, prayed, sang, stood, and knelt some more.  After the dismissal Father Will made a beeline for me.  I had caught his eye, and he was further interested when I revealed that I was a graduate student at the University of Houston.  He taught at the downtown campus.  In that brief encounter, there was something that passed between us.  An indescribable sort of something…but a bond though loose and weak.  I remember his eyes—so intense and piercing-- boring into my soul, surmising how I could be of use to him.  And I wanted to be used—to serve him that is—for the good of the church and, in turn, God so I was hoping that he saw me as worthy.  Those eyes, warm brown, compassionate, ever-understanding but also capable of seeing beyond the façade I wear at times. 

“You remind me of a girl I almost left my second wife for”, he says during our first meeting.  “I was this close to getting on a plane to be with her” his thumb and forefinger a millimeter apart.  “You could be her twin.”
     I really don’t know what to say so I stuff my mouth full of salad and nod uncomittally.  Father Will and I are having lunch at the local diner to discuss the differences in Anglicanism and Catholicism as if there are any striking disparities.  I think I just wanted to get to know him better since I’m thinking about changing churches. 
“My girlfriend, Catherine, of six months decided to walk out on me.  She can’t deal with the church, but that’s all I’m about so what can I do?”
     Another forkful of salad and a shrugging of shoulders.  Is this guy for real?  Why is this priest telling me about his personal affairs—especially that I look like a woman he almost left his wife for?  But, in a way, I am flattered that he would share such private information with me.  I am the priest’s confidante.  And he likes me.  I can tell by the way he looks at me.  There is electricity that passes between us unspoken.  I feel special and I don’t know why.  Am I the priest’s object of interest at the moment?  It simultaneously panics and excites me in the same way a fumbling, sweating, pre-teen boy smuggles a porn magazine under his shirt and out of his house to flip through fantasy pages with his friends.  Or like the crush you had on your high school science teacher.  You volunteer to stay after class to help him clean up that day’s lab project, but really you’re only hoping to catch a whiff of his scent or, God willing, strategically place your hand in such a position that he will accidentally brush your hand, thus providing you with many nights of pleasure in your own mind.  It is forbidden and dangerous and wrong, but it’s also nice to be noticed and to feel special.  And to be noticed by a priest!  One of God’s own!  Remarkable, really.
          I leave feeling confused, almost dirty.  I thought priests were supposed to be the ones that you confessed to not the confessors.
 “How was your lunch with Father Will?” my husband Brian asks. 
“Fine.  Seems nice.  He said the Episcopal Church is like Catholic Lite.  All the benefits of Catholicism and none of the guilt.”
And this was just fine with me.  I was not raised in the Catholic Church.  I had converted five years previous because I thought I would be married to a different man who was Catholic; however, when that didn’t work out, I remained Catholic.  The rituals, the smell of incense, the dark wood, the ringing of the bells all seemed to me to convey the very essence of the Holy Spirit.  If you walk into a Baptist Church or a Presbyterian Church or really any church that is not Catholic or Episcopal, you will smell things such as cleaning products, last night’s potluck dinner—the flavorful smells now taking up residence in the walls and fabrics, untold numbers of perfumes mingled with spearmint gums, and the slight odor of men’s feet shod in leather shoes and dress socks.  But when I walk through the doors of a Catholic Church….and I always do this….I stop for a moment and breathe deeply, as if sucking in a desperate cleansing breath.  I imagine this holy air to eradicate all my sin, oxygen molecules racing through my body with godly swords drawn against impurities.  Only then am I clean enough to be in the presence of the Lord.  I smell the stories of those who came before me.  Tales of young couples who have lost their child, and the mother whose teenage son is an alcoholic, of war veterans who struggle to make sense of all their eyes have seen, of women who have sacrificed themselves for their children and husband and men who have nursed their wives and accompanied them in death.  I smell fat babies being baptized and awkward teenagers as they are confirmed.  I smell the joyous union of man and wife and the most beautiful moment of all—when a lost soul finds his way to God.  All these smells are comforting and I draw strength from those who have come before me.
          But…. and this was the deal breaker for me…..I can no longer take Communion in the Catholic Church.  You see, I was married to a non-Catholic before I married Brian; therefore, I would have to have my first marriage annulled in order for Brian and I to be in full communion with the church.  Brian is a cradle Catholic and is not easily swayed to attend other churches.  Me?  I’m a little of everything including Baptist, Methodist, Mormon, and nothing at all.  To have your marriage annulled, besides the fact that it takes an act of God, is to agree that the marriage was invalid.  I don’t agree with that because I was married, though it was troubled, and it was valid.  To have the marriage annulled would be lying so I chose not to do so…..and this is what led me to Father Will’s church.  It was a match!  Great pseudo-Catholic Church, no guilt, and a cool priest.
Until, that is, he asked me about my marriage.
He seemed to sense that there was something dark lurking under the calm façade of the perfect family we portrayed.  Are you happy, he would ask, and I, ever the pessimist, would answer no because I had really no idea what happiness really was.  I thought if you weren’t just flat-out blissed for ninety percent of your day, you weren’t happy.  It was an illusion that I’ve chased all my life.  So, no, I wasn’t happy in my marriage.  Truth is, Brian had lied to me a year earlier and I never got over it.  It wasn’t a huge, life-changing lie.  We had moved to Conroe, Texas so that he could finish his college degree but instead of going to classes, he stayed home.  He dropped out.  He reneged on his end of the deal.  But it’s not like he cheated on me or lost all our money gambling or had a secret meth habit.  So what’s the big deal?  After a lifetime of relationships gone awry, I was gun-shy.  I reacted to his lie as it he had told me he was secretly a cross-dressing prostitute with a heavy crack addiction to feed and two babies on the way with two different mamas.  You would have thought we needed a Dr. Phil intervention or at least a spot on Jerry Springer’s show about bad men and the women who love them.  It was painful because I thought Brian was different.  Idealistic as it sounds, I thought he would never lie to me, never cheat on me, and never leave me.  He was the salve for every wound ever inflicted upon me by another man.
“Maybe the two of you aren’t a good fit,” Father Will suggested.
On Good Friday about a month after I met him, Father Will suggested we go out to eat as a family so that he could observe the relational dynamics in my marriage.  To an outsider it would seem to be a simple family dinner with the parish priest albeit a bit somber, but that could be explained by the fact that we had just come from a Good Friday service and, really, who is joyful after being reminded of the gruesome details of Christ’s death.  But it was more than that.  That weak bond forged at the first meeting with Father Will had already strengthened, and I could read what went on behind his eyes.  With knowing glances, he let me know that we were, indeed, a mismatch.  He was not overly fond of Brian.  He would not pursue a relationship with Brian beyond the priest-parishioner.  He would never tell Brian of his deepest secrets, fears, and needs.  Brian was not to be the father’s confessor.  Later Father Will confirmed my suspicions that he felt Brian and I were not meant to be. 
     “You’re a well-educated woman, a career-minded woman who doesn’t need to be tied to the home.  Your happiness lies not in being Brian’s wife or Alexis’ mother, but in fulfilling your own needs by working.”
     But I had to finish graduate school first.  I had promised Brian’s mother that he would finish school.  It was a promise I broke more than once.  Part of me wanted to go to graduate school simply to have more letters after my name, but I think another part of me wanted to say “I’m sorry I couldn’t make your son finish the last eighteen hours of school so I’ll get a degree for you instead of him” to his mother.  Then again, I wanted to make my father proud.  Growing up I never felt my father was as proud of me as he was my sister Susan.  High school was agonizingly painful for me as she racked up one award after another both academic and athletic.  She was truly gifted.  That I cannot deny.  I remember watching her play in basketball games wishing I could do that though my stumbling feet and complete lack of athletic prowess stunted my sports career almost as soon as it started in seventh grade.  Before it died in junior high school, my career as the family athlete lay in a deep coma since I first signed up for softball when I was about eight or nine.  I didn’t want to play, but my parents signed me up anyway because, to have worth, you must play sports…. and be good at them.  I hated—no despised—softball.  It was the biggest waste of my time.  I could have been reading a book or daydreaming.  Instead I was standing out in left field waiting for a ball to come my way….and they never did because everyone was too little to really hit the ball.  So I began daydreaming about being Laura on “Little House on the Prairie” or Pippi Longstocking with my red pigtails standing at attention or Ramona who drove her older sister absolutely crazy just by being a little sister.  I’d look at the ants crawling on the ground flirting with danger as I stepped aside at the very last moment lest they bite me.  Oh, and there were ugly, scraggly half-dead pink and white flowers on the field starving for water and attention, but to me they were the most fragrant and beautiful flowers of which to make a daisy crown….which is why when the occasional ball was hit my way I couldn’t catch it.  My glove was full of flowers. 
          My sister, three years older than me, would come home from her games tired and sweaty, a towel hanging about her neck, take off her shoes, and watch television before going to shower.  Man, she stunk!!!  She smelled like girl sweat and feet that hadn’t been washed since the last game.  But I didn’t mind and I kind of liked it.  I think I would die if she ever knew that.  I liked it because I wanted to smell like her, to play sports like her, to make good grades like her, to have my father proud of me the way he was proud of her.  I wanted to be her!  Why didn’t God grace me with all her talents?  Because obviously I had none.  I was just a screwed up kid who had screwed up friends in a godforsaken screwed up little bohunk town.  While my sister was floating through high school on a cloud of recognition and praise, I was busy devising ways of killing myself.  So many times I took handfuls of various pills.  I cut my legs, my face, my wrists, and got sent to a psychiatric hospital for my efforts.  However, I did well in school except for math.  I always did my homework before attempting suicide….just in case. 
     I have forgiven Susan for being the perfect athlete and scholar and for making my life a living hell because I know it was all a lie.  Not that she wasn’t smart and accomplished.  That’s not her fault.  It was mine for not accepting what I was (and wasn’t) and for trying to live up to a standard I could not possibly attain.  I’m sure I made her life hell by virtue of being her little sister and wanting to be just like her.  Really it was my dad who never really valued my accomplishments in band or theatre.  But I couldn’t be angry at my father, and I didn’t really understand that it was wrong of him to never go to my band contests or football games when we marched at half-time or to my speech tournaments.  Instead I aimed my flame-thrower of vengeance at Susan and unloaded on her for all I was worth….which was, apparently, not much.  In that family, you have to be good at sports to be something.  You can’t just be a troubled girl in black who listens to The Cure and plays the flute.
          So it flattered me when Father Will told me I was intelligent and witty and full of promise.  He was almost old enough to be my father—sixteen years my senior.  But, let’s get this straight…this is not about my father.  We all do the best we can when we parent and then we have the rest of our lives to look back over what we have done with our children and, with great sighs, say I wish I would have and I should have.  I’m sure I will heave great heavy breaths from my aging body when my children are older.  I only tell you this because I want you to understand that I grew up with a self-esteem that could only be viewed under an electron microscope on a sunny day.
Father Will told me I was a kindred soul and, to me, that was the best compliment of all. He was educated, charming with an acid wit, and, most importantly, he was a man of God with a growing church besides his career in academia. He was success. He was holy. He was as close to God as I was going to get considering my life of failures and out and out sins. Surely God could not love me. And if He did, it would be a pitying kind of love you have for a dog that tries really hard to be good, but always ends up making a mess on the living room floor…in front of company no less.

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