Moments of Grace
Cultic Studies Journal, 1998, Volume 15, Number 2, pages 107-108
I have really enjoyed this seminar with the Seminary and AFF-it’s an exciting format to be part of. And I have really enjoyed listening to the other speakers; it’s amazing how similar our stories are.
I grew up in a Christian home as well and went to Methodist and Presbyterian churches. We moved quite a bit, so where we worshipped depended upon which town we were in. I had a love/hate relationship with my churches in high school.
I would get very angry at the church for its hypocrisy, but I was very involved. I was a youth leader and went to church camps in the summer. Then at the end of the 1960s and the early 1970s, I went off to college. I got into the whole hippie scene and got very far away from church for a while.
I was in Wisconsin at the time, and I had friends who were looking into all the areas of New Age and alternative kinds of groups. My friends were coming out here to Colorado to all these seminars, particularly one with the Divine Light Mission and Guru Maharaji. At the end of that seminar, they were all set to sign up for the classes and receive enlightenment. For some reason, the guru bestowed enlightenment upon one of my friends that same day (he was evidently more enlightened than some). But my friend figured out then that this guy didn’t know any more than he did, so my friend took off and ended up in a place in Loveland [Colorado] called Sunrise Ranch, where he was told he could get a good free meal. In fact, a couple of my friends stayed there for a week, then came back to Wisconsin to tell us all about this place they had found.
We sort of humored these guys as we heard their story-they had done this with several different groups, and we were just listening to the most recent escapade. For some reason, though, they stuck with this group longer than they had others, so we had to listen a little bit more. We eventually got on the group’s mailing list and started receiving its literature. My friends got a speaker from Sunrise Ranch to come out to the campus in Wisconsin. When he spoke, he gave us the standard line about love and acceptance and living what we preached, not just talking about it. So we got more and more involved.
Joining the Group
In that phase, we were not told the organization was called the Emissaries of Divine Light. The organization had a sort of front group that members referred to as The Universal Institute of Applied Ontology-ontology was a good buzzword at the time-it sounded very academic and philosophical. And I was very interested in existentialism, so this was appealing to me. We stuck with this group for a while, and it was several months, possibly even a year later, before we heard of the Society of Emissaries and later of the Emissaries of Divine Light. Again, the recruitment process and indoctrination into the group were gradual.
This all began in 1971. My involvement with the group continued through my years of college. The summer after my junior year, I went to a one-month-long class in upstate New York, which is really where the indoctrination set in. The class involved all of Lifton’s eight points of thought reform. We were isolated. We were outnumbered. We had four hours of classes every morning. The group dynamics were very strong, because half the people attending the class were already members. We ate all of our meals together. We had what they called a “work pattern” in the afternoon; then, after supper, we had either more classes or lots of homework to do. We were not to contact family. That wasn’t an absolute; it was just a strong suggestion. And with only one phone on the property, contact was difficult. We had no televisions (there were one or two televisions on the property, but some of the leaders owned them, so we didn’t have access to the news or anything else). The milieu control and the indoctrination through the classes were thorough.
We initially had not been told the group had anything to do with religion, yet our classes were definitely about spiritual issues. One of the morning classes of the four-hour sessions was an hour of Bible study, which for us gave lots of credibility to all the other stuff we were learning. Somebody would go to the front of the room with the Bible every day, and even though it might never be opened, it still had a really strong symbolic effect on us. This mix of the group’s own theology and the Biblical teaching was confusing, but it also sucked us in more easily.
After that summer, I did go back and finish college, but I was unusual in the group. Many people were talked out of finishing school. I think now that part of why the group allowed me-even encouraged me-to finish was because I was getting a degree in education and I would be valuable to them, because they wanted to start their own school.
I finished school, and then I skipped graduation to go to a three-month-long class of the same sort as the previous one-month class I had taken. At that point I was really entrenched, and I stayed at the training headquarters in upstate New York to continue training new recruits, where I lived for another five years. During that time, I met another member of the Emissaries whom I married a year later. (Because the group initially would not sanction our relationship, it took him a year to convince them to do so. They finally decided they’d have to sanction it, so they made it look like the idea was theirs, and we got married.)
Now that I look back, I realize that, fortunately, the fellow I married was a rabble-rouser, even within the context of the group. He was as thoroughly indoctrinated as I or anybody else was, but he pushed the edges a little more than some people did. About six months after our marriage, he decided that this part of the group was becoming corrupt, and we really needed to move to some other part of the group. We felt the group was still fine, and that they truly did have the truth with a capital T, but we needed to be with a different part of the organization. So he managed to get us out of that part of the group.
Move To Colorado
It was now 1979, and we moved to Manhattan for six weeks to earn money to move out to Colorado. The group had not given us permission to go to New York City. So I was in major turmoil because we were going against the hierarchy and, I felt, must be out of the grace of God as a result. I was terrified that we would be struck down at any moment, but I still went along with my husband. We went to New York and earned the money to come to Loveland, Colorado (the international headquarters for the Emissaries) and attend another class, thinking that this would redeem us-clear our involvement with the group and make everything holy again. In and of itself, that move to New York City was a culture shock; but as I look back, I realize it also was significant as the beginning of our eventually leaving the group.
We did live at Sunrise Ranch for a few months, but then the group moved us to a very small center in Colorado Springs, which was a demotion. We had been in the big center in New York where we trained everybody else, and we were now being pushed to the outskirts of the group. We were in Colorado Springs only about six months, then we moved to Glenwood Springs with another couple who had also been rabble-rousers of a sort. The four of us thought that together we would start a new Emissaries Center, and thereby redeem ourselves, and regain the good graces of the group. Well, I can say now that fortunately we failed. That was 1980, and it was still another four years before my husband and I finally left.
Leaving the Group
I look at our marriage as the beginning of our leaving, because my husband was willing to question, even within the context of the group and the mind control. While we were in Glenwood and trying to start a group, we received very little support. Finally, it started to become obvious that all our energy, money, and efforts were going up the hierarchy of the group while nothing was coming back to us. So my husband did not want to be involved any more, partly just for financial reasons. He couldn’t keep driving from Glenwood to Loveland every weekend. Then he ended up being out of work for a while, which was devastating to him. But he had a lot of time to think, and he was privately beginning to think that our involvement with this group was not a very healthy thing, though he did not tell me this. He also was having lots of physical symptoms of illness, and he was terrified that he had cancer. As I look back, I really think now that his symptoms were a phobic reaction to our leaving the group, to our moving away.
Let me just say here that our group was not as extreme as other groups. We were not physically abused; we were not tormented. Yet the suggestions were certainly there that if we left, we could fully expect to die; so the thought of leaving was a terrifying one.
My husband was having enough physical symptoms that he did go to a medical doctor. The doctor could find nothing. My husband continued to have the symptoms, so the doctor gently suggested that he get some counseling. He was desperate enough to hear that, and he did seek a counselor. The counselor happened to have been to one weekend workshop on cults, so she had a little information-which, as most of us know, is not very common. So we were fortunate.
My husband went just a couple of times to the counselor, then he asked me to come, too, for some marriage counseling. I was not at all interested: The counselor was not an Emissary, so she didn’t have anything to say to me. My husband continued to try to convince me to come just once. I finally did, and the counselor didn’t have horns or anything, so I went a second time.
The second or third time we were together in counseling my husband was able to say to me in the counselor’s presence that he thought we were in a cult. To do it that way was very wise on his part, because if he had said it directly to me, I would have bolted and been right back to Loveland-I would have left him immediately. But to tell me in her presence tempered the impact, and at that point I had to listen to some rational ideas.
The counselor really didn’t know about our group, because it was small enough that it hadn’t had articles written about it. She really wasn’t questioning our involvement at that time either, except that because we had said either we’re both in this group or we’re both out, or the group will not let us stay together, she became a little bit curious. She had the packet of information she had gotten at the cult workshop, and she handed it to us.
As I read the several different articles in the packet, I had a very distinct moment of knowing that we were in a cult, and I was out of there. The information was what was so powerful. As we’ve all heard here, the control of information was a large factor in our even choosing to go into the group in the first place, and certainly access to information was an important factor in our coming out.
At that point, in 1984, when I had been in for 13 years, we left the group. About a month later, we wrote letters to the group telling them, “Don’t have anything more to do with us. Do not contact us. Don’t call us.” And they didn’t, which also was sad for us, because we had given our lifeblood to this group for 13 years, and now they acted as if we didn’t exist. They took us at our word and had nothing more to do with us.
That was the end of our involvement with the Emissaries of Divine Light, but it was also the beginning of the end of our marriage, because our marriage had been so much a part of the group, and we were both completely indoctrinated when we met. This was, for me, the beginning of a major change-of reinventing myself, figuring out “Who am I?” “Where do I fit?” and “Where is God in all of this?” It was the beginning of a long time of recovery. I stayed in therapy for two years from that point.
Theology of the Group
Let me talk some about the theology of the group. It was loosely Bible-based, in that they used the Bible as a springboard. In a nutshell, they referred to the Old Testament as the first sacred school and the New Testament as the second sacred school, and they were writing the third sacred school. They incorporated lots of New Age kinds of ideas as well. There was much “You-create-your-own-reality” and “You-are-at-the-center-of-the-universe” thinking. They referred to theirs as a vibrational ministry, so your vibes always had to be clear or you were wreaking destruction in the world. Mixing this and their version of biblical history and teaching gave us a real mish-mash of stuff to try to sort out. We had lots of responsibility. For example, if we were “vibrationally centered,” we would bring peace to the world. If we were “vibrationally off-center,” we might cause war in Lebanon!
The group had the classic hierarchy, with the leader being the divine person at the top. They said they didn’t believe in reincarnation, but the fellow who started the group back in the 1930s was supposed to be the incarnation-they wouldn’t call it reincarnation-of the spirit of John. The second man, who was the leader while I was involved, was supposed to be the incarnation of the spirit of James. And his son, who was loosely the leader later, was supposed to be the incarnation of Peter. Quite an elaborate system they developed.
As I mentioned earlier, all of Lifton’s points of thought reform seem to apply very directly to this group. (It was helpful for me to get that information later, to see how systematic the group was.) Yet certainly it was not as if the leader sat down and studied Lifton and decided to do things that way. It’s just human nature for somebody who is unethical or doesn’t have a conscience or is accountable to nobody and is in charge to go into these patterns of manipulation. That pattern is easy to fall into, and I think the fellows at the top in this group probably believed what they were saying. They really thought they were inspired, so anything they did in the name of their “truth” was OK.
To tell you something about my recovery, I, too, was very angry when I got out because I had grown up with a spiritual life, and I truly did want to serve God. I was looking for something, so I was perhaps unusual in that way. But I also felt very duped-totally betrayed and totally taken in. I was very angry with God as well as anybody else. And there was a time when I really questioned whether there was a God.
As I said, I did stay with therapy. About a year after I’d been out of the group-at the time, I called it coincidence, but I look back on all this, and I am less willing to call it coincidence now-I met a couple of ex-cult members who were with the Cult Awareness Network. One was a woman from here in Denver, and the other was Steve Hassan. They were both ex-Moonies, and they came to visit me. (In my group, too, we had expressed “Oh, the poor Moonies. They’re in a cult.” We had also been trained about why we weren’t a cult and the Moonies were.) As I talked with these two people, they would ask me a question, I would start to answer, and they’d finish the sentence. I would ask them a question, they’d begin to answer, and I would finish their sentences-the ideas they had been exposed to were the same as those I’d learned, even down to the theology. Moon’s theology was very close to that of the Emissaries. That experience with these two people was both validating, in that I did know somebody else understood, and humiliating, in that I realized everything about the group was so predictable, manipulative, and external. That realization was devastating.
About three years after I was out of the group, I went to a Cult Awareness Network (CAN) conference, which was really a very different beginning for me than the counseling had been. Sharing with other ex-members who had been through the same thing began a different, more serious, kind of healing. It was the beginning of some healing of the heart. The counseling, I think, was healing of the mind. Meeting other ex-members was very significant for me, and I stayed quite involved with CAN and with FOCUS, the ex-member’s support part of the organization-those continued to be important support systems.
Also, during that same time, I had a friend who was alcoholic and was just going into treatment. I knew nothing about alcoholism, so I went to an Alanon meeting. That first meeting also was a significant turning point for me, because I realized there was a way to have a God in my life again. And it was a God of my understanding-nobody else’s definition. For me, that was very, very important. It was the first time I was able to have any kind of a God in my life again. I went through several years developing more of a spiritual life. I could not go back to church because it just had too many triggers.
I did begin to have some kind of a spiritual life again, just through the idea of a God of my understanding. I was able to get mad, which also meant a lot to me-to find out that God could handle that.
My parents were very concerned and supportive all the way through this. Even at the outset of my involvement with the Emissaries, they had wondered whether the group was a cult, but at that time, there was just not much information. They tried to find information but could find none, and they didn’t know what else to do except stay in touch, which they did. In spite of my not getting back in touch with them, they stayed in touch with me-no matter what I did-and that was really important. They prayed for me, and they had friends who were supportive and prayed for me too.
When I came out of the group, my parents did not pressure me to come back to church, which would have slowed me down by leaps and bounds. It was really important that they gave me lots of space and trusted that I would find my way.
I went back to school in 1990 for a degree in counseling, also another significant turning point, because it gave me the time and the space to look at psychological issues in depth. Those issues overlap tremendously with spiritual issues as far as I’m concerned; it’s hard to draw the line between them.
During the past two or three years, I really wanted to be a part of a community, but I didn’t know how to do that. I didn’t have any sense that I could go back to church-it still was just too triggering. At the annual CAN conferences, FOCUS sessions always were on spiritual concerns, and I looked forward to these renewing and rejuvenating experiences. People talked about what they were finding that worked for them. I remember different people, both clergy and ex-members, talking about finding a path out of the fear. Another person, interestingly enough, quoted a line from some rock-and-roll song, that he had held the hand of the devil. He was saying of his own experience, “I have done that,” and that for us to go back to church was far safer than what we had done in our groups. That made sense to me: I’ve been there-holding the hand of the devil, so this won’t be as bad. It also helped to hear that to be in a true community of faith was to be in a relationship, that you didn’t go and spill your guts at the feet of some person, but learned how much to say and how much not to say, and to trust slowly, to proceed in small steps to see if this person was trustworthy. Another part of building community and relationship for me were my conversations with a Christian friend, who is also a counselor.
It was interesting to hear people saying yesterday that moments of epiphany, of “Aha!,” are often moments of privacy, when you’re alone-not those big group productions that so many of us went through. I had a moment like that two years ago when I realized that I was still seeing all of Christianity through Emissary eyes, and I had been out nine years. That realization was extremely important for me.
At that point, I started asking my parents about their experience of Christianity, and they were able to tell me. Then I told them that I might have to reconsider my involvement with Christianity. And, bless their hearts, they just sat there in the living room reading their newspaper and responding to me with, “Oh, yes, dear,” instead of leaping off the couch. They were calm and accepting.
My mother said, “You know, maybe you need a different Bible.” My group had used the King James Version. My Bible was sitting on the shelf all these years, and I could not open it! I would try, it would be triggering, and I would just get angry and throw it across the room again. I couldn’t do it. There had, however, been one incident just a few months before this when I was able to open it-I still don’t remember how it happened-to Micah 6:8 and read, “And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?” I thought that if I never read another verse, this one would take me a lifetime. So I read that one verse.
My mother bought me a different translation, and that’s all it took to make the Bible readable again. That was an important moment for me, too-to realize that the version my group used was so triggering. The week after I received the new Bible I attended a CAN conference, where we heard all these things about ways to go back to church, to not be fearful. I remember one suggestion was, “Go in after the service has started, leave your coat on, sit in the back pew, and if you have to run out, then you can.” Those suggestions, as silly as they sound, and as much as we laugh, were very helpful in my going back and not being triggered into the whole Emissary experience.
Another suggestion that was important and helpful to me was that I find a minister I could scold. As silly as that might sound, the point was that there would be equal power, that someone would listen to me and be willing to learn from me as much as I would learn from him or her. That would be the basis for a relationship, not a hierarchical command structure. The accumulation of all these things let me go back to church, and I did find a minister I could scold.
Let me finish on a note that risks sounding like magical thinking. I did go to a couple of churches after the CAN conference. The first one I went to was a Methodist church because I knew it would be predictable. I went in, it was predictable, and I didn’t go back to that one. The next Sunday, I went to another church, and it felt very familiar. I realized it was the same denomination as youth leadership camps I had attended, which was really something to me, because I didn’t realize until I was in this church that it was the same denomination. I was wandering around the church afterward and found a little pamphlet up on the wall that described the church and its beliefs. In the very front of the pamphlet was the verse from Micah [6:8], and I thought, “I’m home.”
This journey has been long, and I attribute all these pieces as important steps on the journey. I could not have done it any other way. God was gentle. I needed to go through the mental part before I could get to the spiritual part. I needed to take time. I needed to be angry with God. I needed to cry with God. As I look back now, I am aware that God acts through time. I have been fortunate to have a number of people who respected that I would find my way-that they didn’t have to do it for me. That gave me the space to do it, which has been extremely helpful.
I also look at my experience as an important part of my life; it has not been a waste. I’m glad to be done with it, and I wouldn’t wish it on someone else. But I have grown a lot, and I’m grateful for that. Thank you.
Nancy Miquelon is a psychotherapist working with chfildren and adults with a focus on training. She has married a man she met in her church and has two step-children.