As a young person I felt it was necessary to become intellectually “well rounded”. I pushed myself in school, taking difficult classes intentionally. I felt that would make me more “well rounded”. I read many books, some theological, including the Bible, cover to cover. I felt that any “well rounded” individual would have to at least do that. I embraced different points of view and different cultures. By my mid twenties I was a “well rounded” and open minded individual, I felt.
This is what we are taught to do, honor intellect and be accepting of others. This seems at first glance to be an admirable approach to life. Yet there can be a downside to it all, as I can attest. That desired open-mindedness can also leave one vulnerable.
I’m borrowing a quote from a “Dear Abby” column - not my favorite author, by any means, but it was an interesting statement. “Well intentioned people tend to accept without skepticism information that seems to parallel their hopes and beliefs.”
Being “well intentioned”, open-minded, and certainly curious, allowed me to open myself up to an organization that seemed benign at first. Out of curiosity I agreed to listen to their weekly teachings. Out of politeness I didn’t openly disagree or correct them when their teachings seemed incorrect. They were kind people, and out of kindness I didn’t want to hurt them by discontinuing our meetings, as they seemed to genuinely want or even need to meet with me. Their teachings were revealed to me slowly... bit by bit, as I needed to assimilate the least disturbing information first before I was led to the “deeper teachings”.
I didn’t believe that they were drawing me in. I had no intentions of joining this group. My studies were just meant to add to my stores of information, I thought. Surely this would add to my sense of being “knowledgeable”, “well rounded” and “open minded”. Their messages didn’t work on me at first, as I was resistant enough to not believe everything they would tell me. They would say things like “You’d be much happier in your life” if I’d join their organization. Yet I could look at them and think that they certainly didn’t look too happy and I’m not unhappy. I felt it was more important to be content than “happy” so this reasoning wasn’t working on me.
But then came a teaching that really shook me up - no, it frightened me. The way it was led up to or set up prior to being presented it seemed to be undoubtedly true. Why didn’t the whole world already know this, I wondered. Everyone needs to know this right away!! And thus the hook was set.
I now began to listen seriously to their reasoning - still in silent disagreement with some teachings, but frightened enough by that one “revelation” that I was willing to look to them for more information. I continued to study for several years. They preferred people to move along faster than I was, but it was my silent misgivings that slowed me down. The deeper I allowed myself to get into this group, however, the more control the group exerted in my life. I found out that there are many rules imposed on the individual and the family. The kind of work you can do is regulated, the way you dress and wear your hair, what you eat, how you are to spend your “free time”, who your friends can and cannot be etc. If you become a member, you can and will be reported to the authority figures if you break these rules. You are then firmly counseled to get back in line with the organization, because it is taught that only this group has the Truth. Once you join the group, it is very difficult to leave it peacefully.
In about my third year of studying I discovered that one of my sisters was a student of the organization, as well. As students, one of the first lessons taught is that your family and friends will likely disapprove of your studying with this organization, and so we weren’t eager to reveal that fact, especially to our family members. I didn’t know how far my sister had “progressed” with the group. One day I decided to reveal to her that I too had been studying for several years. I felt that as she and I were sisters I could share with her some of the doubts and questions I had regarding some of the teachings.
I wasn’t prepared at all for her reaction. At first she seemed to be listening, but within two minutes she began raging at me. “I am so tired of everyone persecuting me for my beliefs!” she screamed at me. I immediately recognized this response as one that is repeated by the group - we will be persecuted for our beliefs, we are taught. And here my sister was using this response on me, yet I too was studying with the group. I was not persecuting her at all; I was merely asking her a question in hope of settling some of my concerns. But in doing so I had dared to question the teachings and thus, as we were taught, I was guilty of questioning the authority of the organization. Now I was to be seen as one who cannot be trusted. I knew immediately that this breach was grounds for being cut off from my own sister permanently.
My eyes began to be open at this point. Whoa! Something’s wrong here. How could asking a simple question have such dire consequences to family ties? How could the rules of an organization that claims to bring truth and peace bring such anger and destruction? Rather than bringing a family together it was breaking it apart. Instead of the happiness it promised, it was bringing misery.
I had seen an ad in the paper addressed to this group, but had ignored it until now. I had thought that some “kook” who had an axe to grind probably placed it. After all, up until now, I thought this group was pretty nice and couldn’t have anything to hide. But now that I faced being cut off from my sister, I felt I should call. As students we were taught not to listen to outside information about the group. I called and agreed to meet with Greta.
Greta tried to put me at ease, and quickly we were going through a notebook containing copies of the organization’s literature since its founding. This exposed their false teachings throughout their history, and deliberate attempts to misinform their followers. I questioned the authenticity of her photocopies, but she was able to back them up with originals from her library, which I examined. I was shocked and in some ways relieved. I knew that I had to share this information with my sister immediately while I still had the chance to speak to her. I sent her a packet of information with a letter explaining it all. I received two calls from her in response. The first, to tell me that she had received the material and would read it. The second, in which she informed me that these things were untrue or unimportant, but she would not share it with others. She admitted at that time that some of the things revealed in the literature I had sent her bothered her. She spoke of one particular teaching that, should it be proven wrong, the group would be proven false and she would leave. That teaching failed in 1995, and she’s still in the organization. The group now directs every part of her life, in some degree. She has lost many personal freedoms and I have lost her.
It took me some time to regain independence of thought and to lose the fears the organization had embedded within me. I see my sister once in a while, but cannot talk with her freely. It is my hope that by sharing this experience you can be more aware of the mode of operation of groups such as the one I became involved with. No one is immune.
Written by Patty Villa