Lunch with a Sociopath is a non-fiction novel I have written--now available on Amazon.com--about my struggle to recover after a cultic one-on-one relationship with an Episcopal priest who used thought reform techniques extensively. During the eight year period that I knew this priest, I lost my family, my children, my health, my faith, and very nearly my life.
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.
Monday, January 9, 2012
“All the rainbows end in every step you take.”—R. Smith
My mother is sitting on the edge of her bed. It is late afternoon and the sun is streaming through the blinds slashing the blue paint on the walls. There is a big blue chair beside the bed where I like to sit and watch my mother get dressed. She sits at her vanity and pencils in eyebrows, rouges her cheeks, paints her lips and daintily blots them with a tissue. Sometimes she lets me put on her make-up and then I feel big. I can’t wait to grow up and be like her and wear pretty dresses and go out with my husband. Her bedroom always smells of her perfume and it is comforting. Sometimes I sneak into her room when she is downstairs and take the top off of her cologne and inhale deeply letting the aroma of my mother run through my body. It makes me happy again.
I am playing in my room which is across the hallway from hers when I hear her sniffle….a tiny muffled catch in her breathing….so I go to her. She sits with a tissue clenched in her right hand, staring at the floor, motionless even as I enter the room. This scares me because I’ve never really seen my mother sad except at her mother’s funeral. I remember that I prayed all during the funeral that my mother’s mother would come back to life so my mom could be happy again. It was possible, my seven-year old mind contrived. God or Jesus or maybe both had raised Lazarus from the dead and that other girl who was the daughter of Jairus so couldn’t he do this one little favor for me and bring back my Mawmaw? Please God, I pleaded. And it’s not even selfish because I’m asking for my mom. But then they took the casket outside where a gaping hole stood ready to swallow her up forever, and I knew my prayer wouldn’t be answered so I turned my attention to a different prayer. My mother and each of her sisters had a flower which I suppose was from my Mawmaw’s casket. So I prayed to God with the same fervor I had just prayed for my Mawmaw’s resurrection to keep the flower alive, for always and forever because it was a symbol of my Mawmaw. A tangible reminder for my mother of her mother’s love.
But that stupid flower died too. God doesn’t answer prayers. He never even listens, especially to little kids. I hated him for killing my Mawmaw and making my mother sad. My Mawmaw didn’t deserve to die and God is mean to let her. How I hated Him….but not for long because it’s very hard to stay mad at God so I forgave Him for killing my Mawmaw and my mother’s flower.
As a child I never really knew if I believed in God or whether He was just someone we talked about on Sundays while we ate crackers and drank grape juice. If He did exist, He must be pretty forgiving since I went through that phase of hating Him and also the time I almost burnt down the church when I dropped a match on the floor because they let me light candles. They really shouldn’t have because I am afraid of fire and then God would have been mad at them too because I burnt down His house.
My mother is so far away from me as she sits on the bed. I kneel in front of her and take her hands. I don’t know what to say, so I begin to weep with her. I don’t know exactly why we are crying. I just know that I want to take away her pain. I love my mother and I want to hurt for her and return her to joy.
Joy is elusive. My parents are divorcing. My mother now has three children to rear on her own. She has three jobs at one time and still cooks for us and washes our clothes. She does well but she is tired and angry and sad. As I grew older, my mother shared with me something that happened to her during that period of her life—during the time when I found her sitting on her bed as broken as a person can be.
My mother had always been a faithful person—not just religious, but faithful. She read the Bible and consulted it often when she needed answers. She was just about the smartest person I knew when it came to Bible stories and songs. She reared her children in a God-loving environment, but when her life fell apart, that faith grew more personal. She told me she had been praying in her room one day. She didn’t know what to do, how to go on with life when she had children to take care of, no job, and a broken heart. She sensed a brightness in the room, opened her eyes, and before her stood Jesus. He told her “You must go on for your children. They need you”. And so she did. When I was young, before I had children, I was flattered that Jesus would take such a personal interest in my well-being that he would present himself to my mother and tell her to take care of me. I figured I was pretty important. It wasn’t until much later after I had children that I considered the possibility that my mother had been contemplating suicide, and Jesus was telling her that she had a responsibility to her children. It was not her time to go. I don’t know if she really was thinking of killing herself, but given the situation, who would blame her for the thought crossing her mind.
So it wasn’t me that was important after all. It was my mother. And it was my mother’s enduring faith that allowed her to be so in touch with God that he would speak to her. I yearned to have this connection with God. All my life I have wanted to be close to Him and to serve Him. As a young girl in high school, I wanted to be a nun. Shocking because I did not behave like a saint at all and we were not Catholic. Oh, but how I wanted to wear those holy robes that distinguish those who have committed their lives to the service of the King of Kings. After my mother told me of her experience, I wanted God to speak to me, to show Himself to me, to show me that He loved me and to answer my prayers. I wanted Him to be so unlike the God that let my Mawmaw and my mother’s flower die so quickly and needlessly. Why was my mother’s God so kind and caring. He didn’t chastise her for her moments of weakness. He simply reassured her with calm, quiet love. God never spoke to me at all. And if He did, I was sure he would be angry with me.
My mother turned seventy recently. I drove over 1,000 miles for the occasion. Sitting in my sister’s living room eyes heavy with road fatigue, I watched her as she smiled and talked with other family members. I was amazed that this woman had single-handedly held the family together when my parents divorced. She worked three jobs, and we scraped by on that meager income and the child support paid by my father. I missed her when I was growing up. I missed her when I came home from school to an empty house. I missed her when she worked late into the night, and I went to bed without seeing her. And I missed her most of all during the days when she could not smile. But now I look at her and see that she is triumphant in spite of the rocky path she has walked. Or maybe it is because of it that she is a success. Whatever the reason, I know that I want to be like her. I want to come out of this on the other side laughing and smiling and knowing what is really important to me—family and God. My mother’s steadfast faith was for her the anchor that held her safe when her world was dissolving. That same faith transferred to me on the day she told me about her experience with Jesus has wavered but had remained unbroken until I met Father Will. It is the same faith that led me to seek him. It is not my mother’s fault, however, that there are wolves in sheep’s clothing hiding in the temple of God. The blame lies squarely on the wolf.
Nevertheless, I loved God and wanted to live my life for Him. With all sincerity, I wanted to change the world, to make it a better place, to bring all people into the fold of Christ. But, then idealistic me learned that I couldn’t really do any of those things so I gave up.
I gave up slowly by degrees, my youthful optimism lasting well after graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in English. But, maybe, just maybe it really never left me after all. My desire to serve others was one of the many things that led me to Father Will. I believed that he had a purpose in this life, and I was to be part of his mission. To serve him is to serve others which, in turn, is serving God. The time was right when I met him having just started graduate school and once again imbued with the hope that I could change lives.