I was badly confused and didn’t know what to do or how to handle what was happening. While in this confused state of mental turmoil, I flew back East for my sister’s wedding, leaving my wife and children in Santa Barbara. To save money, I stayed at my brother’s house.
My sister-in-law’s younger sister, who I’ll call Melissa, took care of my brother’s young sons so that we could have a pleasant evening and stay at the reception longer. It was nice to be with my family and life-long friends. Because it was an escape from all the stress at home, I let my guard down and became extremely intoxicated. My judgment was also impaired.
For years, Melissa had had a crush on me. After my brother and his wife went to bed, Melissa made her move. Well, you can guess what happened. We had an encounter—at the end of which I freaked out. I dressed, left the house, and walked for hours. My life was in shambles, and I knew it. I called my wife and told her exactly what had happened—all of it. I was desperate for help. Her response, which I expected, was to call The Elders.
When I returned to Santa Barbara the following day, The Elders were waiting for me—all of them. I wasn’t allowed to go home until they “dealt with me.” When I arrived, I had never felt so heartsick and remorseful in my life. I was willing to do anything to get back on track. The Elders could see this, but it didn’t matter. They only had one method for handling every situation—abusive verbal intimidation. After two hours of enduring their malicious assault, I started having suicidal ideations for the first time in my life. Shattered and intimidated, I became very compliant.
Their verbal abuse was difficult to handle. Far worse, however, was their chiding and contemptuous ridicule which never ended. By contrast, Confession in Roman Catholicism is sacred, and nothing said is ever repeated. At our church, the exact opposite was true. Confession to The Elders was fuel for gossip, providing another level of disgrace and humiliation. They also kicked me off the softball team—to give me more time “to think about” what I had done.
The Elders for our family were, by far, the most brutal at the church. One was an auto mechanic, and the other was a pressman for a local printer. Both had graduated high school but had no further education. I was expected to “submit” every important personal and family decision to them to see if it was God’s will or not. To this day, I can still see them wagging a finger at me—with grease under their fingernails—to tell me angrily, without question, what God’s will was for my life.
For example, when I decided to get an M.A and a Ph.D., they were my authority concerning educational matters. The pressman could barely read, but he was God’s authority in my life about higher education. Nearly everybody accepted this nonsense. If you questioned it, your loyalty and submissiveness quickly became the issue, and you were “dealt with accordingly.” In other words, they would scream at you, routinely using profanity to do so—while at the same time calling it God’s will.
They actually practiced a de facto infallibility because they would never admit to being wrong about how they handled a situation. They would always say they made a lot of mistakes, but no mistake was ever specific. This is how a cult works and how it exercises power over the young, the naive, and the unstable, which was nearly everybody in our church.
Over time and slowly, The Elders became the head of the household in each family, usurping authority which rightfully belonged to the husband. It’s how they maintained an iron fist of control. They were like the pigs in Animal Farm who ended up dressing like men, calling themselves more equal than the other animals. I knew it was wrong and clearly undermined the sanctity of each family, but nearly all of my friends accepted it as gospel. I couldn’t. To me, it was aberrant, and I found myself at the University of California—Santa Barbara library every day reading about cults and brainwashing.
I began writing about what life was really like in our church and submitted it to the leaders as a critique for much needed reform. It took me a year to complete; I’m not sure the founder even read it. Presenting it to him and the others, however, was very important for me because I wasn’t going to be bullied by their cultic practices any longer, nor would I let them verbally abuse me ever again.
I finally broke free from the cult, but the years of abusiveness took a heavy toll on my wife and me. She drank heavily, stopped taking care of our children, and had numerous affairs. She never recovered from our experience in the cult. Neither did our marriage.
I became an alcoholic and had a string of relationships. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, I became the person The Elders said I would be. I stopped believing God loved me, and I was very angry with Him for many years. My self-worth was in the toilet, and it took a decade for me to figure out what happened. When I did, I did the work necessary to finally get back on track—to reestablish my relationship with God. To this day, however, it’s hard to be a member of a church. I can’t let my guard down completely—I just can’t. The damage is too deep.
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