A 30-Year Odyssey
ICSA Today, Vol. 4, No. 2, 2013, 16-23
Ava Lynn Williams
I am Ava Lynn Williams, and my life’s story has often been called an odyssey of more than thirty years. One would hope that such a life belonged to ever so few. I was startled to learn that some research indicates 3,000,000 people in the United States of America have been involved in cultic groups at some point in their lives.
Just as I was, most people are not aware of a group’s ability to destroy the very essence of who you are, your autonomy; to change your belief system; and worst of all to remove you from society and your family.
In my early teens, my mother placed me in the hands of a small Christian group. I became one of the original members of what was to become one of the most infamous and destructive cults. I was brought up to love the Lord, commit scripture to memory, and evangelize. Coming from what I now understand was a very dysfunctional family with strong controls and limited socialization, I was predisposed to join a high-demand group.
In the beginning, this environment was so much better than my home life. The era was the 1960s, what some now call “the last innocent generation.” The only literature we used in evangelism was a little red verse book from the Gideon Bible. Witnessing straight from the Bible felt wonderful. The beatniks and then the hippies had just begun to emerge, and at the same time a revival of Christian faiths occurred. Many churches and Christians began to have Bible studies in private homes. We would join in with them and also keep our bigger ministry to those outside the churches. We sang and held Bible studies, taught witnessing, and worked with the youth in the churches. But most of the time we lived in the midst of the hippies, dressing like them with our guitars on our backs and Bibles in hand.
Many have said we were the beginning of the Jesus revolutions, with our skits, beach baptisms, and the three-finger sign of our spiritual rebirth. Many young people wanted to become members of our group as well as other congregations, so that our generation could reach Christ and go into the world to preach the Gospel. We patterned our lives on the early church in the book of Acts. While still in our virgin days, many of our teams of young people left for foreign countries and to preach.
However, as our numbers increased, obedience to our leader as God’s prophet slowly became a greater goal than preaching God’s Gospel. A cult of personality emerged. My mother and three of my brothers joined and left; my oldest brother remained and married and had four children. He later left with his children, many years before I did, while his wife remained. Early in 2001, one of his daughters rejoined her mother in the group, only to lose her life shortly after. Members of my family were pierced through our hearts.
My adult children and I lived and worked in 25 different countries around the world, and I bore children in 9 of those countries. Each of my two marriages within the group had other wives and children. Instead of bringing more unity and the promised utopia, this practice brought even more separations without individual choice or control. In addition, living daily with the belief that marriage to the group was more important than my own marriage stole the last vestige of my personal feelings and hopes. One good result for me was that I have 12 children, and three wonderful stepchildren by a second wife. Our children have given me 17 fabulous grandchildren. Happily, we are now all former members.
We had both great and terrible times, but it seemed we were always “running against the wind.” I was away from America for 19 years and absent from my immediate family for twenty-four and a half years, except for two brief times when they visited me. My last husband remained in the group and is to this day a full-time member. I know very little about his present life, and he has sporadic contact with our children.
When I Finally Walked Away
When I finally walked away from this group, my parents took me, eight of my children, and a granddaughter into their humble, two-bedroom home. I had to start over at 47 years of age in an America that was a foreign country to me. We had to adjust to a different society in a small Southern town where newcomers were not accepted. My children had never lived in their own country. We spoke English and looked the same as everyone else; but when folks found out our background and began to see the difference between our history and theirs, they rejected us. We had little money and few resources or job opportunities, no vehicle, and no credit history. We were mistrusted even by the churches who knew my relatives well.
Despite all of this, I was bringing myself and my children home. Not only was it their first encounter with their biological family and our roots and heritage, but it also was a new reality. Neither they nor I had been able to become bonded to anyone, not even each other, because we lived as a group with no individuality. We each had to find our own identity and begin to find our autonomy. Doing these things is still a struggle at times for all of us, as my children have grown and entered American culture and politics. My parents’ and brothers’ open arms and loving hearts made all of this possible.
These past fourteen and a half years have been a traumatic journey. I have struggled daily, to parent so many children while going back to school myself, to help my children transition from home schooling to a public-school environment, and then to care for my elderly parents until their life’s journey ended. I have been more fortunate than most; my children have not let their integration back into society prevent them from helping one another and me as they are able. My oldest children living at home were my right arm and worked the hardest to fill the gap the absence of a father had made.
Coming home, I closed the door on my past and threw away the key, just as I had done 30 years earlier when I went into the group. I was now beginning a third life with three sets of four children. None of these three sets of four siblings knew each other very well because there had been so many separations. Even though I was born in America, my mother had sheltered and taught against “The World.” This upbringing included very little TV, and no worldly music or movies or outside friendships; so American society was still foreign. It was as if I just woke up from a 30-year coma. I didn’t know where or how to begin.
I was at the center of a hurricane, but there was no peaceful “eye” in my personal storm. My emotions had all but died, and then this figurative hurricane blew the skeletons out of my mental closet. One thing I knew, and that was how to work hard and persevere every day as if it were my last, to keep up a brave front, and make the best of the worst. I worked hard at moving on, stayed positive, and attended self-help workshops and all kinds of counseling for both myself and my children. No one understood my situation, least of all the churches. (I have not lost my Christian faith; however, it is deeply scarred and I am easily triggered by “religious” associations.)
I tried to give my children a normal life, but they carried the damage of trauma and abuse, just as I had. This damage only festered as the years passed. All of these issues are another chapter in my life; I wish not to write more of them here—only to express that there is such a vast need for us to help the second generation and their children. How to stop this cycle of trauma? Before tackling these questions, I first had to work on my own recovery.
I entered MeadowHaven, a residential program for former members, in September of 2008. I was totally exhausted, both physically and mentally, and emotionally dead. I didn’t want to die, but I had no will to live. Having my children had always kept my will alive. This time, I felt so bad that I feared I would hinder their recovery. My little life’s flame was on its last few flickers until the directors of MeadowHaven came to my rescue.
It was at MeadowHaven that I was inspired to begin art as part of my healing. I loved the outdoors and was drawn there in my darkest hours. It was at just such a time that I was inspired to create a memorial garden for former members who lost their lives, many who have been forgotten, to build their legacies and keep their dreams alive.
My healing has also been a journey of self-discovery. My works of art have been a major part of this process. My art has been an avenue to calm my tortured mind and tell my story. The wonders of nature renew my strength and spirit, and rocks give me a sense of stability and safety because they never change. On my walks I had picked up so many that I sought a way to display and keep them, to remember these precious days of my healing journey. So I created many different arrangements with the rocks from the sea, pathways, and streams.
Personal affirmations were encouraged in our self-talk therapy, but my traumatized mind had difficulty remembering and staying focused. I lived as if I were outside of my life looking in. I would wake up feeling disconnected, and I found myself needing to touch my surroundings and repeat my affirmations. Soon I began painting the affirmations on my favorite rocks. Others requested these objects. I have now branched out to create these objects to help others and not just myself.
Through art, I have been finding out who Ava Lynn Williams is. My art brings me to life and gives me the joy of living in the present.
Mélange art, made up of broken things or what others had thrown away, became a way for me to express my broken life, mind, and dreams. At MeadowHaven, we were diagnosed and given medication and therapy; but we also were given books, tapes, and classes about the traumatized mind. Inspired by Change your Brain, Change Your Life, I created several pieces about the traumatized brain. I created three-dimensional pieces instead of paintings because paintings reminded me that my life felt flat. As I created these pieces, I felt as if I was taking my trauma out of my brain and putting it there before me. Those feelings and images were no longer inside; they would not haunt me anymore.
Three-dimensional art is still one of my favorite art forms, but I have also evolved to paintings, poems, happy pieces with humor, and what I call “Memoryscapes.” Art is my avenue to allow the phoenix inside to rise up from the ashes of defeat. The phoenix is an icon for the goal of my art, and to give hope to the hopeless where I had once been.
[] Change Your Brain, Change Your Life: The Breakthrough Program for Conquering Anxiety, Depression, Obsessiveness, Anger, and Impulsiveness, by Daniel G. Amen, MD (1999).