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.
Wednesday, January 25, 2012
“My friends are as strangers and strangers as friends,
and I feel like I’m lost in a lie”—R. Smith
July 5, 2004. I am once again in the church I love with my good friend and mentor, Father Will. I am seeking consolation. My stepfather died yesterday. It was cruel and swift. My mother had called me a week ago to tell me she was concerned that Leroy tired so quickly. He had passed out for a few seconds so she made an appointment with the doctor. It was an appointment he would not be able to keep. Saturday morning, Brian, the children and I had gone to Midland, the largest city close by, to shop. There was a stony silence on the way there and back. Five hours of silence. I hated Midland. I hated the drive. I hated the laughingly passable malls and stores. I despised Brian for bringing me to this forgotten corner of America. I was in line at Old Navy when my mother called to let me know that she had taken Leroy to the hospital. She seemed fine. He seemed fine. The doctor would run tests on Monday morning. I wasn’t too worried. The last thing I ever expected was a phone call at six the next morning—my mother telling me that he had passed away. “We’re coming, Mom. We’ll be there as soon as we can. We’re coming, we’re coming.” All I could think of was my mother. I wanted to put my arms around her and absorb her grief. I wanted to carry her burden. God knows she’s had enough tragedies in her life. It was one of the longest trips of my life, the miles stretching out unnecessarily. I had only been gone a month and already I felt helpless to help when I was so far away. Father Will called when just as we passed Luling, Texas. “Where the heck is Luling?” he asked. “I don’t really know. Far away,” I replied. Far away.
We sit near the altar side by side on a bench, a box of tissue between us. I tell him how heavy my heart is for my mother. I worry about her. It is surreal still. I had talked with him, had dinner with him only a month ago. Everything seemed fine then. “Did you ever come to respect your step-father? I mean even if you didn’t love him, did you at least come to respect him?” Father Will asked. “Yes, I respected him. I loved him,” I choked. I know why he’s asking this question. He has two stepdaughters who don’t really seem to care for him. Maybe it wasn’t love he cared about but about them respecting his power and authority. “I think the reason we miss people so much when we die is that we miss their physical presence. We know they’ve gone on to a better place, but we can’t be with them,” Father Will offers up. Is this a variation on the social penetration theme?
I dry my tears having decided I’d been a burden long enough, and the conversation turns to him. “I’m not doing so well. I’ve been diagnosed as in a pre-diabetic stage so I’m on medication for that. And now the doctor has also put me on testosterone so that gets me going. My wife is worn out!” I laugh with him and nod understandingly. Yet again, this is weirdly sexual and inappropriate seeing as how I just got through talking about my stepfather whom I loved who passed away thirty-six hours ago. He makes a few more comments about his sex life and his wife and once again I nod. It’s weird but it’s not. It’s not because we tell each other lots of things. I tell him most everything and he tells me a lot. I don’t ever feel I can pry because I respect him as my priest, but he offers up these choice bits of his life willingly. I think he is testing me—to see if I’m interested in him? To see if I’ll remain a faithful parishioner? To see if I’ll tell someone that he tells me about his sex life? To astonish me? To see my reaction? I don’t know, but I am bitterly disappointed that our conversation has ended on this note. I came seeking consolation. I went away with too much information. But, strangely, I am flattered that he would share the intimate details of his life with me. I am the priest’s confessor. And he is mine. The bond grows stronger.
I stayed with my mother for a few weeks after my step-father’s funeral. During that time I grew even more despondent and dreaded my return to Alpine. It’s not that life was bad there. It was that I feared I was wasting my potential because I wasn’t working. But I did return to Brian and honestly tried to work on our marriage. It’s not easy when you have someone whispering in your ear that the marriage is doomed. Father Will did say this quite a lot but there were also times that he encouraged me to work on my marriage. These times usually coincided with times that he was unusually happy in his own marriage and I hadn’t seen him in a while. Perhaps, the social penetration had stopped for us too? Father Will once told me that in order to have feelings for someone, they must be present in his daily life—as if he could forget the feelings he had for someone if they were not right in front of him. That was certainly true of his oldest son whom he gave up when the child was about nine. Out of sight, out of mind. He said he wanted a relationship with his son and asked if I could help him bridge that gap that lay between them. Of course I would. It would be wonderful to bring parent and child together again! He said it, but whenever his son would call, he’d roll his eyes to the ceiling and get him off the phone as quickly as possible. When I suggested he invite him for Christmas, Father Will said he couldn’t have his son in his house. He would be afraid things would come up missing. So much for wanting a relationship. But that was Father Will…full of empty words that he spewed from the pulpit and in his personal life. He didn’t have a great relationship with his younger son either although it was light-years better in comparison with his oldest. So, why was I taking parenting advice from him? The best indicator that a parent is a success is if their children upon reaching adulthood still want a relationship with them. I realize that some kids go astray no matter how well a parent parents. But generally, if you miss your mom and dad and want to go see them because you like them and not out of a sense of duty, they’ve done a pretty good job. I thought that since he had gone through so much as a parent and he had the luxury of time to reflect on mistakes and learn from them, then certainly he would be much wiser than Brian or I. Therefore, his advice trumped all.
A rumbling in the church began in 2005. The parishioners were unhappy and they wanted Father Will out. A year and a half-long battle ensued in which they persecuted him without mercy and for no apparent reason except that they did not want to change, did not want to move the church forward into the 21st century. Father Will proposed a new building and parking lot to accommodate the growing of his flock. The building was half paid for and it should have been a no-brainer to go ahead with construction. However, because of a certain family in the church that was opposing his plan, it all came to a grinding halt. Father Will told me that he was not going to be a puppet controlled by his parishioners. “The priest is the leader of the church,” he asserted, “not the laity, and this church fails to understand that”. They need to be taught a lesson. “The priest is the prophet of the church and the congregation his subjects. That’s what most people in today’s church fail to understand.”
If you have not understood anything in that last paragraph, you’re not alone. I don’t really understand what happened in the church either. I was in Alpine and only had Father Will updating me with news of the vestry meetings, church attendance, and even parishioner’s talks with him. I was an exception to the purple stole rule. I was privy to all. The unease at the church grew during the next year and the Bishop’s office was called to intervene. Profanities were exchanged at vestry meetings, the Father’s rules were challenged, and all the while, I was becoming more and distant from my church family. Indeed, I was Father’s spy. Church members would call me to complain about him or ask what he thought about a certain issue. Do you understand the gravity of that? I was 550 miles away and they called me—not his wife. They had no use for his wife, Catherine, the same girlfriend that he complained had left him at our first meeting but later married. She was as uninterested in church as she could be and didn’t attend on a regular basis. They knew that I had his ear so they would call and tell me things they should’ve told Father because they knew it would be told to him in a diplomatic manner from a friend. He would be more receptive. They could not have been more wrong. I listened to their babble with an understanding ear only to turn tail and run to my leader and tell him everything. We’d spend a good deal of time on the phone or the internet devising how to one-up the congregation, how to come out the victors in the battle. We never stopped to consider that in becoming victorious we would isolate ourselves from the very people he was supposed to be shepherding. Together we would map out his strategies for vestry meetings and then afterwards discuss how it went—a failure meant going back to the drawing board, but a coup meant an extended round of back patting and congratulating that we had seen the church’s bet, raised it and then laid out a royal flush.
Do I sound devious? I was and I’m not proud of it. I have deceived my church family, and I regret it bitterly. In my twisted mind I was protecting my friend, my priest, my prophet. I was one of the very few that remained faithful to him. I don’t know all the details of what happened and likely never will. I simply swallowed what was fed to me by Father Will with no questions—a trusting baby. All through 2005 and 2006 I protected Father. I made excuses for him or gave long and diplomatic explanations for his actions. I ran interference for him and never told him the terrible things his parishioners were saying about him. Before this, I told him everything but when the situation began to take a toll on his physical and mental health, I told him nothing. More importantly I used my position as his close friend to deflect much of the fallout from the congregation from him. During this time, I did not talk to him about my personal life which seemed to be taking a turn for the better. I had a new baby—a son, Alden Matthew—and a job teaching pre-school.
I had Alden baptized at St. John’s. It would have been easier to baptize him in Alpine, but we made the 550 mile trek to Sealy locking our keys inside our car on the way. It was an exhausting trip with a new baby but one I made willingly because I wanted Father Will to look good. Few things are better than having an infant baptism on Easter Sunday morning. A plump, pink-cheeked baby boy being brought to new life in the Church and in the faith is a reminder of Christ’s resurrection—clean, new, joyous—as well as a reminder to the congregation that we are to be as little children in Christ. AND, most importantly, it made it seem that Father Will was head of a growing church. Alden was a name and number in the church book. One more member. One more accolade. One more reason the Bishop could stay off Father Will’s back. So I dressed my son in his baptismal gown despite the protests of my family who thought he should wear something more boyish. But, ever the traditionalist, I knew it was best to dress him as boys of long ago were dressed—as his father was dressed, as my priest was dressed. Father Will stood, looking regal in his white vestments heavily embroidered with gold, at the back of the church surrounded by acolytes and laity. Brian held Alden as the water was poured over his head. “Name this child!” Father Will directed. And I answered “Alden Matthew Pawlak.”
This bothers me—this image of the three of us standing at the baptismal fount with Alden. It bothers me that I named him. I think because it was the first time I truly felt I was standing in the presence of God in all His glory. This is the other reason why I had Alden baptized at St. John’s. I felt that if someone other than Father Will baptized my child, it would not be valid. It certainly would not be as special. By this point Father Will had become a symbol of God, not only when in church, but in everyday life. I rarely saw him in church but spoke to him almost daily by phone or e-mail. We never transferred our membership from Sealy to a church in Alpine because we could not—mostly I could not—find a church in which we were happy. I was dissatisfied with every priest other than Father Will. I often told him that he had set the bar too high. His services were carefully and laboriously planned. Every detail was perfect so that his worshippers—his audience—would enjoy a good show. Donning his vestments which became more elaborate when he became a Dominican—alb, scapula, zucchetto, stole, chasuble, rosary, and cincture tied in multiple Shepherd’s knots—he would lean over and whisper to me, “it’s show time!” And so it was. Especially during the Eucharistic portion of the liturgy. He would intone “and He stretched out His arms on the cross,” and Father Will would stretch out his arms as if to mimic the words. His arms outstretched, chasuble flared softly, he looked like an angel. I never read the Book of Common Prayer during the Eucharist partly because I had it memorized and was usually at the altar with Father, but also because I didn’t want to take my eyes off of him. It was beautiful. His hands moved effortlessly but purposefully as he blessed the Host and wine, blessed the people, blessed me. Like two tender doves his hands floated through the motions as they told the story of Christ’s suffering and death giving beauty to an otherwise ugly and painful story. His gentle hands broke the bread and held it high for all to see as if in ecstasy—a joyous triumph over death. He held Christ’s own body and blood for all to see. Simple bread and wine transmogrified into the blood and flesh of Christ. In his hands he held those gifts and doled them out to his people. His hands, his hands, his hands holding the tangible love of God.
When the Host fell to the floor, someone would have to eat it. It was usually Alexis or myself when we still lived in Sealy since we alcolyted almost every Sunday. It was unusual when it fell but, when it did, he would pass by us on his rotation from the end of the altar to the beginning and hiss “eat it!”, and we would quickly recover the Host and stuff it in our mouths. I think it’s weird—not that the Host had to be consumed. I understand that part. I just don’t understand why it had to be us. Why couldn’t Father Will eat it? He’s the one who dropped it and, most likely, stepped on it. But here we were, my daughter and I eating the crumbs dropped by our priest and feeling lucky to do so. I mean, the extra Host couldn’t hurt and may even bestow upon us an extra measure of grace. I am not worthy to gather the crumbs at your feet….this always went through my mind when this happened.
Or the wine…he made me drink wine when I was pregnant with Alden while I served him at the altar during a visit home to Sealy. There was a lay minister at the altar who was supposed to help him with the ablations, but Father Will chose me to do it instead. I stood in front of him, the altar between us as he told me to clean up, restore the altar. I had absolutely no idea how to do this since I was not a lay Eucharistic minister, but somehow I fumbled my way through it. When it came time to drink the wine, I refused at first giving him a look that should’ve conveyed that my non-compliance was not due to a lack of loyalty, but because I did not want to harm my unborn child. He had misjudged the amount of wine needed and there was quite a lot left over. Imperceptibly I shook my head and mouthed no. He glared back at me and said “drink it!” so I brought the cup to my lips and drank every last drop and drank again when he mixed the water with it.
I left without speaking to him and later called him to tell him I was angry. “Why did you make me drink the wine?” I asked. “What’s wrong with that? I thought you did well,“ he answered. “I’m pregnant!” I retorted…..”Oh, I forgot about that. Well I won’t do it again,“ he said. And he didn’t. But I have to wonder why he did it in the first place. How can someone forget that their friend is pregnant? I was standing right in front of him though my belly was hidden by the altar. I think he did it for one—or all—of three reasons. Ted Chalmers was the lay Eucharistic minister that day. Father Will despised the Chalmers family because he thought the Chalmers tried to control his church through their monetary donations. The Chalmers have been members of the church for a very long time. When Grandpa Chalmers died, Father Will decided that an offering was appropriate especially since the Chalmers coffers ran deep. This offended the Chalmers deeply and the friction between the two factions (the Chalmers and Father Will) intensified. All the while he prepared for Grandpa Chalmers’ funeral, Father Will made snide comments. First about the size of the funeral, then the caliber of people attending, and the riderless horse that accompanied Grandpa to the cemetery. “That’s the fun in funeral!” he joked. Now, you must understand that I have known the Chalmers family since I was about ten years old. I was saddened by the loss of Grandpa Chalmers so I was offended by Father Will’s insensitivity. Grandpa had always been good to us, especially my mother. Father Will hated most of the Chalmers children. I think maybe it was because the Chalmers had an air of wealth about them which Father Will envied. He had grown up in a working class family. His father worked hard to provide for Will and his two sisters and mother. It is not unlike the upbringing many of us have had, and it is nothing to be ashamed of. It is simply the luck of the draw what family you are born into and what the financial status is. Maybe it’s better to not be rich and have everything handed to you. It certainly gives one an opportunity to build character. Father Will interpreted money as control. The Chalmers had the money and, therefore, controlled the church. I was in a precarious position as friend of the Chalmers family and confidante of Father Will. Where does my loyalty lie? Ultimately, Father Will won.
I also think he was trying to test me—to see if I would drink it, if I would obey him. And, of course, I did. But the third reason is more sinister. I have no proof, but I wonder if he made me drink the wine in hopes that it would harm my unborn child. When I was about seven months pregnant, I went to have a routine ultrasound at the fetal maternal specialist. I had to go to a specialist because of the problems we had with Claire and, also, because I fit neatly into that category every woman dreads even if it is simply the label she hates—advanced maternal age.
I was looking forward to having a peek at my boy. Brian and the girls were with me. I could barely contain my excitement as the ultrasound technician squirted the gel on the wand. We saw his little hand and his foot with toes splayed out as if he were digging them into sand. I saw his face—or what I could make out—and thought it beautiful. My lovely boy was loved already. There was a cheerful banter between Brian and I and the tech. “Oh, he’s giving a thumbs up!” she said. “That’s right. Going to be an Aggie!” Brian exclaimed. “No. He’s just too little to know what’s right. I’ll teach him to do this,” I said making the University of Houston sign. And we chuckled not because we were so witty—we weren’t—but because we were drunk with the excitement and anticipation of seeing our son.
But then the tech’s face went dim. Her brow furrowed as she searched the screen image for something. She stopped speaking. She stopped laughing. She stopped the ultrasound and got the doctor. He too searched as if he desperately wanted something to be there or not be there. It was only a few moments before he spoke, but it seemed like an eternity. He told us our son had multi-cystic dysplasia of the left kidney. He showed us Alden’s kidney which looked like a bunch of grapes in an irregularly shaped sac. It was not that big of a problem. The other kidney was functioning just fine. So why the dim faces and furrowed brows? The doctor told us that he could not find Alden’s stomach. That and the dysplastic kidney were potential markers of a genetic anomaly. “Come back and we’ll recheck in two weeks,” the doctor said laying a reassuring hand on my shoulder.
Seriously? The doctor told me to go home and wait two weeks to find out what was wrong with my baby? Heck no! I made an appointment for a week later—as if that week wasn’t agonizing as well. Brian and I were shocked by this development and then broken-hearted when we realized the implications. A baby without a stomach couldn’t eat. A baby who couldn’t eat couldn’t live. We would have to watch as our son starved to death. Could anything in life be more cruel? I called my mom and my friend Judy who told me that they would keep all of us in their prayers. I called Father Will who told me that this was probably caused by taking my anti-depressant. “I was driving into UH-D today and I heard that Paxil can cause birth defects. Maybe you shouldn’t have been on your medication,” he told me. I was furious! I was not on Paxil but did take another anti-depressant. However, during the first trimester I did not take the medication and during the next two trimesters I took a lowered dose—25 mg which is barely therapeutic. And wait a minute. Wasn’t he the one who suggested I get on medication in the first place? Maybe it was your fucking wine, Father Will! Your fucking sacramental wine that you ordered me to drink. How about that? Maybe it was your fault, not mine. I didn’t say that to him and shrugged his comments off.
That’s what I would like to believe at least. The next week the doctor found Alden’s stomach. All was well except for the kidney. He is almost four now and he sees a pediatric urologist to monitor his remaining kidney. But each time I take him to Texas Children’s Hospital, I wonder as I walk through the door, “is it my fault? Did my medication do this to him?” Father Will planted the seeds of doubt in my mind and what I cannot fathom is why a priest when confronted with an obviously grieving parishioner---or a friend called by an emotional friend—would be so cold. It was as if he delighted in sharing his news tidbit about Paxil with me but could care less about my baby’s well-being. He was cold. As I spoke with him on the phone, I imagined him driving and talking to me at the same time, hands low on the steering wheel, radio tuned to smooth jazz, eyes ahead staring at traffic. Eyes cold and dead and empty of concern. Eyes void of any emotion except when it concerns him or benefits him to show something. I had just told him my little boy might die, and he grips the wheel and stares straight ahead with dead, dead eyes.
Alden was born a few days after Christmas 2005. I spent the last month of my pregnancy in Sealy with my mother and Claire while Brian and Alexis remained behind in Alpine for work and school. It was wonderful anticipating his birth during that time of the year though I did worry my water would break right there at the altar while acolyting. I likened my wait to that of Mary. I never wanted a boy. I was used to girls, but, once I got over the initial shock, I fell in love with the idea of having a son. I thought about Mary carrying her son, feeling him move, growing to love her child who would carry the weight of the world. My son would not be so exalted in the world, but a son! A son to carry on the name. A son for me to dote on. A son for me to teach the ways of being a gentleman. A son with whom I could play Legos and Batman instead of tiresome Barbies. I had never really thought of the intimate mother-son connection between Mary and Jesus. I suppose I thought once He was issued into the world, her job was done. But that is not the case. She felt his moves inside her body, waited in anxious delight to see his face and caress his delicate skin, to count his toes and fingers, and to whisper her love in his ear. Seeing Mary as a mother also made me realize the agony she felt as her Son was sacrificed. She watched Him die slowly and painfully and cruelly. I did not have to watch my son die but got a miniscule glimpse of her pain when we thought Alden might die. That Christmas season was a holy time, a bonding time for Mary and me, as I came to understand how precious a son is—my son and the Son of man. I served at the altar a week before I gave birth. I was surrounded by Father Will, the assistant priest, and two Dominican brothers. I vested in the acolyte room but went to Father Will with my belt because I had no waist and didn’t know where to put it. He put it on me and, that, for some reason, struck me as very intimate. He was gentle—almost delicate—as he wrapped it around me and tied the knots. The atmosphere was charged that day in church. I don’t know what was different, but it was holier, more intense than usual. Later a parishioner found me and told me “You looked like Mary up at the altar serving Father Will. A pregnant and beautiful Mary.”
My labor was induced. Brian and Alexis were with me. We watched a movie—National Treasure—but I didn’t know what was going on most of the time. Brian and Alexis went out to eat. I stayed in the bed and watched helplessly as the nurse turned up the Pitocin. Brian and Alexis took naps. I lay in bed and again the evil nurse turned up the Pitocin smiling sweetly all the while. “Doctor’s orders,” she said softly before she left. Brian and Alexis told jokes and made trips to the snack machine. I lay in bed and writhed in pain finally crying out “I want it out! Get it out of me! Get me the epidural! Just get it out!” A knock at the door. “Please, God, let it be the anesthesiologist,” I moaned. In walks Father Will. He stands beside me opposite Brian. I cannot speak but I want him to either pray or get the hell out. I am twisting on the bed as if my flailing movements could ease the pain. Father Will is not leaving. He is making jokes. He is not praying. He is inserting himself into what is a private family moment. “You need to leave….right now!” my doctor tells him sternly. He leaves and, minutes later, my son is born.