Children and the Cult
By Barbara Grizzuti Harrison
NOTES: Barbara Harrison went to Island Pond and saw this bizarre cult in its daily life, interviewing various members, and learning what it is like to face fiercely judgmental hatred. She was especially concerned for the welfare of viciously treated children.
In 1971 a carnival barker in Chattanooga founded a church. Elbert Eugene Spriggs, who had studied psychology at the University of Chanattooga, first called the group of troubled young people he gathered to himself the Light Brigade; later — when they removed themselves from the mainline churches — Spriggs’s commune became known as the Vine Christian Community. In 1978 the church — which has small branches in the Dorchester section of Boston and in Clark’s Harbour, Nova Scotia — moved, having found Chattanooga inhospitable, to that remote part of Vermont known as the Northeast Kingdom. It now calls itself the Church in Island Pond or the Northeast Kingdom Community Church. Today Spriggs lives in France with a handful of followers.
I AM IN a sunny, sweet-smelling meadow,” Jan Mon- fort (a pseudonym. The names of all other people in this article are real) says, “vibrant with yellow wildflowers. The children and I play Roll-about. We roll down the slope, and at the bottom there are two huge iron doors. The doors swing open and women in babush- kas grab us by the throat, and on the other side of the doors it is all darkness and smoke and the air tastes of sulphur. When my eyes grow accustomed to the dark I see a lake with tongues of fire playing on its surface. I crawl back to the iron doors and now there are peepholes in it, and I can see, all over the sunny meadow, women in long dresses and babushkas, tearing at the throats of children . . . .”
“What does the dream mean?” I ask, knowing what it means but wishing to break the frightened silence that surrounds her words, and thinking how eloquent Jan’s unconscious is, how simple and urgent and elegant the nightmare is, how nicely fact and symbol dovetail.
“My husband says the dream means I shouldn’t talk to you,” Jan says.
“Is that what you think?”
“I’m tired of thinking, “Jan says. “I’m afraid.”
We are sitting, late at night, at the Common Sense deli, an all-night restaurant owned and operated by the North- east Kingdom church. Jan is drinking Red Zinger tea. She likes it here: An “ex-hippie brought up by hippies,” she is reminded of Woodstock (macrame and candles and rough- hewn wood benches and apothecary jars full of spices — a stylized simplicity). She likes it here and she doesn’t like it here; sometimes, without seeming to notice it, she lapses into local slang and calls the Common Sense “the Yellow Dell. “Jan smokes furiously in the deli she calls “so peaceful” — so peaceful compared to the bar at the Osborne Hotel, at the other end of Cross Street, the bar that is known even to its habitues as “the Zoo,” and to which we now walk.
“Find out what ‘the training’ is,” Jan tells me. “They send their children to ‘the training.’ When the children come back, they’re terrified. Find out what it is.”
“Why don’t you ask them?”
No longer eloquent, suddenly listless, Jan shrugs. “I don’t know,” she says, her voice drained of feeling.
It does not require genius to interpret Jan’s dream: The women of the Northeast Kingdom church in Island Pond wear babushkas. Their children are beaten with rods; the children are also forbidden to entertain fantasies. Members of the cult believe that we are living in the “end-times” and that only those living a sacrificial Christian life — which is to say, them — will survive; the rest of us will be consigned to the Lake of Fire. Jan has seen terrified children. The cult has sworn to “get” her husband (which is to say, enlist him), and although he plays hard to get he frequently goes to their “Celebrations.” He defends the cult’s “disciplining” of their children and sees something admirable and pretty in the submission of their women. Jan says she deplores the discipline and the submission, but she often goes to the deli because she has good friends among the cult members, and also because, she says (not altogether convincingly), she wants “to see what’s going on and to set an example to them of how you’re supposed to raise children.” Her own words sound slightly mad to her. “Dammit,” she says, “how many contradictions can one person stand?”
It is Jan’s very ordinariness that makes her convulsed and convoluted response to the cult so distressing. What Jan knows is that the people of the Northeast Kingdom church are robbing the children of their childhood.
IT WOULD NOT be a gross exaggeration to say that the en- tire town of lsland Pond has gone haywire. Paranoia, anger, hopelessness, apathy, hysteria, bitterness, and fear are everywhere in evidence. And yet haywire seems almost too thin a word to describe what I truly believe (and in this belief I am not alone) to be the contagion of evil.
Fancy religions have become almost as American as apple pie. Millennialists and doom-proclaimers and Uto- pian communities come and go, and unless they directly impinge upon our lives, we tend to regard them with little more than distaste or bemused curiosity. Anybody, after all, can wear saffron or sacrifice to Baal, and provided that it isn’t our children who are the sacrificed or the sacrificers, we take refuge in the First Amendment (which after all protects our right to worship as we please); we either dismiss all such groups as aberrant but not dangerous or view them as emblematic of our freedom and diversity.
We are right in thinking that most fringe groups either disappear or are, ultimately, absorbed into the mainstream. We do not spend our lives anticipating Jonestowns. A sanguine people, we mind our own business and allow others to mind theirs. We call this innocence.
The people of Island Pond have lost whatever claim they may once have had to innocence. They’ve lost what no- body can afford to lose — a sense of the fundamental decency and rightness of things. Being neither rich nor foolish, they have always known that injustice exists. But experience of injustice is not the same as apprehension of evil. When EIbert Eugene Spriggs’s commune moved into Island Pond, two hundred or so strong, the town’s fifteen hundrcd residents had no way to anticipate the traumatic events of June 22, 1984. Now they have no way to recover from them.
Before six-thirty on the morning of June 22, some ninety state troopers and fifty state social workers, empowered by a warrant from a Vermont district judge, removed 112 children, all under the age of eighteen, from twenty com- munal homes of members of the Northeast Kingdom church. The children, together with 110 adults, were taken in chartered buses and police vans to Orleans District Court in Newport. State officials armed with affidavits quoting a dozen former members of the cult, charged that some children allegedly of the Northeast Kingdom church had been brutalized –stripped, lashed, whipped — and sought to gain temporary custody of the children to examine them for signs of abuse.
District Judge Frank G. Mahady, who in an earlier cus- tody hearing had identified several instances of abuse, nonetheless found the indiscriminate police action “grossly illegal” and refused to detain the children, who were re- turned to their homes.
THE MAIN (and only, by urban definition) street of Island Pond is ugly. It takes ten minutes to walk up and down the road, a thoroughfare so bleak, so devoid of charm and lacking in New England grace, that even the surrounding mountains and the pond from which the town derives its name — a pond with a twenty-two-acre island in its center — do not erase the impression of blight.
Island Pond is poor: Three hundred and forty-four Island Ponders live below the official poverty level; 235 people receive food stamps; 123 households receive Aid to Needy Families with Children. Even these statistics don’t accu- rately reflect the town’s poverty. People hunt and fish and gather blueberries and pick apples and cultivate gardens in order to survive, and in the hills, high above the steeples of the Roman Catholic and the Congregational churches, marijuana is a cash crop, grown and harvested by people whose uuderground economy escapes statistical analysis.
Island Pond is also remote: two hours from tile Bur- lington airport, sixteen miles from the Canadian border. Townspeople will tell you that the Northeast Kingdom church established itself here — after they left Chattanooga with eight million dollars derived from sales of property, according to Galen Kelly, a private investigator — precisely because of this combination of circumstances.
The Common Sense deli is located at the north end of Cross Street; the hundred-and-fifty-five-year-old Osborne Hotel is at the south end. An anthropologist might tell you that there are four forces operating in lslaud Pond, forces represented by the Common Sense; the Osborne, where the drinking and the living are hard and where rooms rent for forty-five dollars a week; the conmunes — Mad Brook Farm, Frog Run, Earth People’s Park — that anachronisti- cally thrive in the hills of Orleans and Essex counties; and the folks who go to Congregational picnics and to Grace Brethren fundamentalist and the Roman Catholic and Epis- copal churches. Most Island Ponders will tell you there are only two forces: them (the Northeast Kingdom church) and us.
In this town, the church and its members have purchased seventeen houses . . . no, eighteen. When I arrived in Is- land Pond, there was a For Sale sign on a ramshackle building that lay between the Osborne and the Common Sense; a week later I saw five children staring out a second- floor window of this house. They were cult children. Cult children are not like other children. It’s more than a matter of their not being allowed toys or coloring books. Their expressions are both vacant and watchful; they are preter- naturally grave. The old house, the silent children, re- minded me — though I am not given to hysteria — of a scene from Village of the Damned.
WHEN I WALK INTO the Common Sense deli, I am greeted pleasantly and served by a young woman called Donna. Donna wears a babushka over long blond hair, and a loose, peasantlike dress; she has the pasty look of someone whose diet consists only of starch. She does not wear a watch. None of the church women I observed wore a watch, which seems to me more signifi- cant than wearing a babushka as an outward Sign of submis- sion to men. If your time is not your own, your life is not your own; you have given both your time and your life over to someone else. The elders of the cult — all male- have watches and timepieces; their time does belong to them, as does every decision and every initiative. I say that I have come to Vermont by bus from New York. When l express a weary traveler’s displeasure with New York’s seedy Port Authority bus depot, Donna tells me that “the angels of the Lord” gathered around her when she was at Port Authority: “Nobody had any intention of doing me harm.” It is characteristic of religious fringe groups to see the hand of God in every temporal event, to lay special claim to understanding the ways in which He works. All believers have the conviction that God is present in the world, brooding gently and mysteriously over us all, but members of the cults so particularize God’s activities you’d think the Almighty had nothing better to do than to see them safely across the street.
Donna does not chat with me long. Cult members have no small talk — a casual remark about the weather will invoke a sermon on the bounties of the Lord and the saving goodness of their commune. When I tell Donna that I am a writer, she sends a man called Isaac over to talk to me. I extend an unsmiling Isaac my hand. He places his own hands firmly on the table that divides us: “I’ll wait,” he says. “I like to see where you’re coming from . . . . Of what benefit is it to you to write?” he asks. I have trouble focusing on his eyes, which seem to want to bore into me rather than to see me, to make a statement rather than to observe. Although I try to answer his question thoughtfully and honestly, my answers sound foolish to me.
“Why are you on earth?” Isaac asks. I give him the catechism answer — “To know God and to love Him.” I say, which is in fact what I believe. As this response elicits nothing but an unblinking stare, I add, feeling as foolish as he intends me to feel, “and to try to be good, and to work, and to suffer — that’s the easy part — and to raise children who are better and happier than I am.”
“Your children can’t be happier than you are — they live in the world. You’re not happy. Why do you paint your fingernails that passionate red?”
“How do you know I’m not happy?” I ask.
“Because I’m looking at you,” Isaac says. “I don’t want to shred you, you’re a human being . . . . WORTHLESS,” he mutters. “You don’t know God.”
“How can you be sure of that?”
“If you loved Him, you’d serve Him. You would leave the world. You would die. You would be living with us. You are not my sister. If you were, you’d serve God.”
“Tell me how you know I don’t?”
“If you served God, you’d know the truth. If you knew the truth, you’d serve God. Are your fingernails part of your fantasy? Your fantasy is that you are Lois Lane. You come here in the guise of a writer. You’re looking for Superman . . . . WORTHLESS.”
This cloud-cuckoo-land conversation is tiresome, and discouraging, too. One wishes to believe that there is some- thing in every man and woman that words and goodwill can reach. Nothing can touch or disturb the certainty of Isaac and Donna, their sense of me as worthless, which reinforces their own sense of salvific worth. (The conversa- tion accomplishes its aim, though; it makes me feel frivo- lous.)
So: “Do you abuse your kids?” I ask.
Isaac: “We do and we don’t.”
Isaac: “We don’t. We spank them.”
“And we don’t send them to school. Why should they salute a piece of cloth, a rag?” ‘
I have been told — by an eyewitness — that a boy of three has recently been consigned to a dark, airless closet for half an hour because he pretended that a block of wood was a car. Seen in this light — as a monitor of fantasies — Isaac is dangerous as well as silly. “Fantasies,” he says, “steal the person you are.” It is a surprisingly sophisticated and ornate thought. But how can he know when the children are fantasizing? “If you get down on all fours and bark like a dog, you’re fantasizing,” he says.
Thinking of the children’s impoverished separateness from the world of other children, remembering how my own childish fantasies nourished me when adults and the real world hurt me, thinking of the castles (the refuges) in the air I built when I was growing up desperate in a religious sect, I ask: “What about sand castles? Would they be permit- ted to build sand castles?” Isaac is stumped (as he is when I ask him to tell me the difference between wish, hope, imagination, and fantasy): “I don’t interpret the heart,” he says, but he makes a quick recovery, taking refuge in instantly concocted certainty. “We don’t build sand castles. We live in reality. God is the only reality.”
Children circle around Isaac as we speak — as Isaac speaks, now compulsively, of homosexuality — “a form of global birth control. Sex isn’t love,” he says (once again regarding my fingernails with inordinate interest). “I used to be a pervert, due to reading pornography.” He asks me to define perversion, an invitation I decline. “My knowl- edge of perversity is deeper than yours,” Isaac says. “Roman Catholics are perversions. Garbage and corrup- tion and baloney. You are a pervert.” He veers off into his own testimony: “I left the church for two years. I was not in the Spirit. I was sleeping around, stealing. An outlaw.” The Butch Cassidy of the Northeast Kingdom church. Isaac has long greasy blond hair and bitten fingernails.
The children standing nearby express no curiosity. They are without animation. They do not speak. A beautiful young girl — ten? twelve? — approaches Isaac in a storm of controlled apprehension. He turns an icy countenance toward her. “I was supposed to retun the Spannel bottles,” she says (her name is Phoebe), commencing a conversation I cannot at first decode. Isaac’s silence is stony. “And I failed,” Phoebe says. Poor Phoebe; there is a question implicit in her confession. Isaac allows her to stand there, humiliated for reasons I don’t understand. Then he rewards her, when it seems no longer possible for her to withstand the severity of his gaze. “I have seventeen cents,” he says softly. “You can buy popcorn.” Phoebe, I now understand, wants seventeen cents, but none of the childrcn may ask a direct question or make a choice: if they are offered an apple or an orange, their response must be “I’ll have what you know it is good for me to have.” She wants to buy a bag of the deli’s popcorn. She kisses Isaac’s hand.
Another child, Madeleine, sits next to Isaac. Her enor- mous eyes swivel in her head, attaching their regard to no one and nothing. “Are you afraid of this woman?” Isaac asks, turning her palpable terror to his advantage. (“Of me?”) “She doesn’t live with you,” Isaac says. “You are not part of the body of the Messiah.” Madeleine says not a word. He dismisses her with a glance.
Donna, the waitress who had God shepherd her through the Port Authority, speaks. She is the Good Cop. “You can’t be comfortable at the Osborne,” she says. “We want you to be comfortable. Will you stay with us? Stay with us for three days. Will you have dinner with us on Thursday? At Pleasant House?”
Three days is the standard period of time for what is variously called brainwashing, persuasive coercion, or mind control. I do not believe that I am susceptible to their bullying, or their blandishments, nor do I have complex yearnings for a simple life. I won’t spend three days with
[A small picture of a police car is shown, with the caption: The early morning raid brought 90 state policemen to town; they took custody of 112 children.]
[The picture continues on the next page, showning another police car and an uniformed officer at its door.]
them, but I do consent to have dinner at Pleasant House.
TEN A.M. The drinking starts early at the Osborne. And all the talk is of the cult, Yankee reticence having yielded to obsession. Teresa, the pretty young bar- tender, says: “If we didn’t send our kids to school, we’d get our . . . in jail. Somebody in that church” — this is the majority view at the Osborne — “bought the state officials off.” Jackie, who works at Ted’s Market down the street, says: “One of the church women came in yesterday with a dollar and asked me how much chicken she could buy with it. She wanted to know if a dollar’s worth of chicken would serve twenty people. She bought a can of mackerel and said she’d stretch it with potatoes. The other day a kid came in to return a bottle. Then an elder came in to ask the kid what he had to confess. The kid said: ‘I stole a grape.’ I’d want my kids to be that honest, too. But, oh my . . ., I was scared for that kid. I worried about him all night. The next day I wanted to lift his shirt to see if he’d been hit.”
Lise Grimaldi, who shares a small room without bath at the Osborne with her cat and the man she expects to marry, and who calls this old railroad hotel “a cross between Tennessee Williams and Mayberry, RFD,” is one of two women in town whom I have seen wearing makeup. Twenty-five-year-old Lise is a New Yorker, and in this town she is sui generis; proud to be a misfit. Down on her young luck, an actress out of a job, a waitress without money for a Manhattan apartment, she came here — “as a stopgap” because her sister lived at Mad Brook Farm. Then she fell in love with Lenny, whose sister owns the Osborne, and now she’s here, defiantly wearing New York designer clothes and high heels in a town where women wear jeans — but not because Calvin Klein told them to. Lise feels a kind of vexed sympathy for the women of the cult, a feeling she shares with almost every woman in Island Pond. “What’s better — unwed mothers on welfare whose kids crawl on the barroom floor or those nuts down the street? I’ve seen women in this bar beat up and kicked in the stomach, and you, can’t call the cops because they’ll go fight back to the . . .[one] who beat them.” she says. “So who’s worse? I saw those state troopers the morning of the raid. I was waiting tables at Jennifer’s Restaurant down the street, and they came in — big fat barbarians — eating ten-pound breakfasts and ]aughing, like southern vig- ilantes. You think those guys were protectors of children? And how do you ask a kid of five to believe his parents are bad? On the other hand, their mothers, if they were their mothers — you, can’t figure out who belongs to who in that church, they all change their names whenever they feel like it — they stood around, the mornlug of the raid, grins on their faces like they’d just found glory. I don’t know who’s right and who’s wrong.”
Vicki Guthrie, a woman in her late forties who owns the Osborne, has no doubt as to who’s right and who’s wrong. Vicki parades through her bar and her hotel barefoot in a blue flannel nightgown. She lives here in a room of ruffles and lampshades and geegaws. Her morality is conven- tional, her life is not. Her ex-husband, a diabetic given to bouts of what Vicki calls “insulin temper,” lives down the hall; they seldom converse. Vicki, like some maternal hyena, dispenses money and advice in a barbed roar, offer- ing her opinions and her largesse, solicited or not. And it is her opinion that cult members, who offered her thirty thousand dollars for the Osborne, are “Communists.” When they were courting her, she says, they gave her a copy of what they called “the Love Bible” — nothing but hellfire and hate in it.” Vicki has been told that cult members pray for the death of former members. She says, “The way they’re taking over tht town — it’s killing me . . . . How dare they tell me I’m not a Christian?”
The Northeast Kingdom church pays property taxes and sewer and water rates. Organized as an apostolic order for IRS purposes, they file returns as if they were one family, a family vowed to poverty. They do not send their children to school, nor do they register births or deaths. It is a measure of the induced apathy of the townspeople that Island Ponders feed off the persistent rumor that the cult has its owu graveyard, in which bones of children were found. In fact — a single call to the town clerk provides this information, which church, elders will not provide, prefer- ring to keep their captive audience on the ropes — the Northeast Kingdom church does have a registered private graveyard. Bodies of children were found; one baby was stillborn, another died, apparently, of spinal meningitis. Children of the cult are assigned names “when the Lord reveals their true nature to the elders.” Kathy Cunningham, a state trooper, told a Newsweek reporter, “They’ve taken away all our normal ways to detect child abuse. There are no teachers to report scars, no doctors to report anything funny.” The children are moved from communal house to communal house, which defeats social workers’ efforts to act on allegations that they are beaten. Baptized members of the cult are assigned new names. (Andy Masse, to whose house the Chattanooga group first moved, is now known as Cephas.) What this amounts to is that nobody knows who is who, and it is this facelessness and anonynmity that led to the raid of June 22, state officials having exhausted other remedies.
The Northeast Kingdom church has managed to slip through the net of Vermont’s civil and criminal laws — which drives the townspeople crazy.
IN A DOCUMENT dated July 17, 1984, John D. Burchard, Ph.D., commissioner of social and rehabilitation ser- vices for the Vermont Agency of Human Services, defends the June 22 raid: “Child abuse law provides for authorities to intervene to see if there is a problem while criminal law allows authorities to intervene only if they can demonstrate that a problem (a crime) has occurred. . . . The Island Pond action was . . . a preventive action taken under the standards, mandates and responsibilities of child abuse law . . . and taken under the authority of the Court.” The action was not without precedent: “In the past three years there have been over 200 instances [in Vermont] where SRS, because of a lack of cooperation on the part of the parents, had to obtain the assistance of law enforcement officials to gain access to a child who was alleged to have been abused or neglected.”
Before June 22, the state had exhausted “all less intrusive ways to ensure protection of children.” In October of 1982, social workers attempting to investigate were refused entry to homes — church members would not give their names and said either that they’d never heard of the individuals being sought or that those individuals had moved. When state’s attorney filed petitions in November of 1982 to get temporary custody of four named children, law enforce- ment officers were unable to locate the children or to notify the parents; church officials said they had no knowledge of them. Again in January of 1983, state’s attorney was unable to locate children or parents — even though registered notices of the hearing date Were sent to named parents. The state continued to receive reports of abuse from former church members visited by SRS in four other states. In the summer of 1983, two elders were charged with simple assault of two children, both of whom had left the church after alleged beatings. On every occasion on which the secretary and deputy secretary of the Agency of Human Services visited elders in an attempt to arrange for the cooperative examination of children, they were unsuccess- ful. In February 1984, the church was unwilling to allow any Vermont physician to look at the children. The action of June 22 was therefore, Burchard maintains, “the culmi- nation of a long, complex, and thoughtful process to pro- tect the children.” The state, he said, acted on these specific allegations, obtained during child custody hearings and from affidavits from former church members:
A named four-year-old was hit fifteen to twenty times for imagining that a block of wood was a truck.
A named seven-year-old was stripped naked by several persons besides her father for asking for more food. The spanking went on until her bottom bled.
A named three-and-a-half-year-old boy was “disciplined” until his neck bled.
A named thirteen-year-old girl was stripped to her underpants and hit with a rod for being deceitful. She had as a result more than eighty welts.
A named eleven-year-old was hit with a two-by-four for laughing at a church member, receiving a large blister and bruise.
According to Burchard’s document, sworn statements by witnesses and victims attest to these acts of brutality; in several instances, photographic evidence exists.
At one custody hearing before the raid, Judge Mahady, who would later declare the action of June 22 unconstitu- tional, said, “At all material times while the children have been residing at that religious community, they have been subjected to frequent and methodical physical abuse by adult members of the community in the form of hours-long whippings with balloon sticks. These beatings result from minor disciplialary infractions.”
ON MAY 21, 1983, Roland Church, a farricr and a cult member, called Suzanne Cloutier, a former practical nurse at the North Country Hospital in nearby Newport. Church told Cloutier, who lives in Or- leans, that his thirteen-year-old daughter Darlynn had been stripped to her underpants and beaten for seven hours by elder Charles (Eddie) Wiseman, Elbert Spriggs’s apparent surrogate in Island Pond (Spriggs himself lives in France). After meeting with Cloutier, Roland Church issued a state- ment to the press to that effect. Three days after the beating, Cloutier saw “twenty-four marks — linear scars — on Dartynn’s legs.” SRS in Newport has pictures of Darlynn’s scars, and emergency-room records at the North Country Hospital confirm Church’s story and those of Darlynn Church and Suzanne Cloutier. According to Cloutier, Ro- land Church and his wife, Connie, drew diagrams of the bedrooms in communal houses in which children were beaten — information that Cloutier turned over to the state. Both Darlynn and Church’s older daughter Rolanda told Cloutier of many other beatings they had-witnessed. Both Darlynn and Rolanda, Suzanne Cloutier says, were “no more physically developed than a ten-year-old,” pre- sumably as the result of malntutrition. Another former cult member, Carol Fritog, told Cloutier of five teenage girls going into a bedroom and being told, by an unmarried church elder, “Take off your clothes, take off everything.” Children have been beaten, according to former members, for asking for one more strawberry, for refusing to take a nap, for wetting the bed.
Suzanne Cloutier’s involvement with the Northeast Kingdom church began when Juan Mattatall came to her for help in 1982. Mattatall, a member of the cult for seven years, sued for custody of his five children, who had disap- peared into the maws of the church. He did eventually gain custody of the children — one of whom, one-year-old Lydia Mattatall, was found living at the time in Nova Scotia with Spriggs. Before Mattatall gained permanent custody of his children, he recorded two of his daughters, eight-year-oldJelmifcr and six-year-old Anna, on tape: “We want to feel decent,” the voices say. “Do something like spanking us, or hit us . . . . Spank us or put us in the corner . . . . Do you rather put us in the corner, Papa? . . . If you love us . . . then you’ll spank us. If you spank us, then you love us. If you don’t spank us, then you don’t love us . . . . That’s what it says in the Bible.”
On August 5, 1984, Roland Church recanted. In a state- ment issued “at the request of Roland Church” by “the church in Island Pond,” Mr. Church said: I’ve had a change of heart. I’d like to make that public so that I could have a free conscience and that Charles, or Eddie, Wiseman wouldn’t be convicted ofbeating a child for 7 hours . . . the ordeal went for 7 hours, not the discipline. Now if I had it to do over again it would never have happened that way. I would learn to discipline my own child . . . . I didn’t quite agree to discipline myself, and I was weak in that area. So I asked Eddie Wiseman if he would do it. And he did.
“I have nothing against the way they discipline. It is according to scripture — it’s the church. I’m weak in that area.” He claimed to have been pressured by the “news media” and by Suzanne Cloutier: “She . . . called everyone in Vermont. I guess . . . . She’s the instigator of it all.”
After Roland Church recanted, Suzanne Cloutier- who has four children of her own, and who says she spent five thousand dollars of her own meony in her fight to protect the children of the cult — announced her intention to stop fighting. “I’ll help individual members,” she says, “but I can’t go on beating my head against a wall. I feel betrayed by Roland Church. He stayed in my house on and off for eleven months after Darlynn was beaten. It bugs me out. . . . God forgive me, I almost pray a child dies. Nothing will happen until then — and they’re all dying a slow death.”
The state of Vermont has decided not to appeal Judge Mahady’s decision on the June 22 raid.
“These roles, they are interchangeable: pharisee, journalist, witch hunter, . . . reporter, murderer of the innocent, are all interchangeable in their spirit and likewise in their reward.” — “Open Letter To the Editor of a Local Paper From the Church in Island Pond.” , …..
“We do not pray for the death of ex-members . . . . We only pray for mercy . . . . For some, the mercy of the Lord is that they would not incur greater judgement from the Lord by remaining on earth.” — “Open Letter To a Reader of the Newspaper From the Church in Island Pond.”
ALTHOUGH I REGARD IT as an unnecessary precaution, I have told three peoople outside the church that I am going to Pleasant House for dinner, towns- people having warned me that cult mcmbers are capable, in the space of less than an hour, of “debasing” people with whom they choose to play mind games, and — this from Jeff Hare, a first-grade teacher and a member of the St. James’ Roman Catholic parish — “making you doubt ev- erything you’ve ever held dear, all your beliefs and values.” Even Suzanne Cloutier, whose informed opposition to the cult has never been in question, says, “I wouldn’t have believed their charisma — I found myself doubting my own perceptions. I snapped back when I saw the marks on the children and when I kept hearing the terrifyingly consis- tent stories of ex-members.”
Vicki Guthrie does not want me to go to dinner at Pleasant House. “Don’t think they can’t hurt you,” she says to me. She will call the state troopers if l do not check in with her by ten P.M. I am not alarmed; I am warmed by people’s concern, although it seems to me excessive.
In the event, Donna, whom I have arranged to meet at the Common Sense, tells me that dinner will be at Belle- view House. No reason is given for this change of plans. There are two playpens in the large kitchen of Belleview, a rambling Victorian house with an unloved yard and garden. I am introduced, by Donna, to a score of people — all the men sport beards, all the women wear babushkas. The effect is of a small army in uniform. Donna disappears into her bedroom with my briefcase. The children — I count thirteen, including three babies — are objects of intense fastnation to me, and I reproach myself for this: I do not want to regard any child as a specimen, yet it seems impossible not to. None of the children touches me or expresses any curiosity about me. A beautiful little girl comes in with a shoebox in which, she says, there is a bird. “I won’t kill this one, though,” she says. I hear a hissing — a sharp intake of breath — as all the adults in the kitchen freeze. After a silence in which the child trembles and looks beseechingly around her, Sandy, one of the women I’ve met at the Common Sense, says, “They had a baby bird once and they touched its wing. The bird died. Now she knows not to touch its wings.” The shoebox is taken from the child; the child is removed from the room. I do not see the child or the man who took her away again.
At dinner, served at long tables, the seating is choreo- graphed. If I wish to see the children, who are seated behind me, I have to swivel, which I don’t like to do (I feel like the Englishman in the jungle — good manners seem, at this moment, almost crucially important). As we are served dinner — thin soup made of flour and water with bits of broccoli floating in it, plates heaped with good whole wheat bread (no napkins) — a young girl falls off her chair and hits her head sharply (there is an audible crack!) on the wall molding. One strangled cry, then she turns bright red and reseats herself. No adult comments. A baby in diapers makes the gurgling noises appropriate to a baby in diapers; the baby is hit on the hand and wails. After a second slap, the baby is taken upstairs. I hear no sound from upstairs. I have been given a baby spoon with which to eat my soup. When I dribble soup on my dress, I apologize, and three people tell me that it’s “normal”; when I ask if may have another piece of bread — “I’m greedy,” I say — I am told that this is “normal.”
Donna hands me an embroidered handkerchief to use as a napkin. A man called Asher says he wants to “share” with us evidence of the Lord’s miraculous intervention in his life that day; there follows a long story about a tractor that almost, but didn’t, run him over. This is greeted with beaming applause. A woman called Ruhama “shares” that when the children were being taught that day, they learned how Catholics persecuted heretics in the Middle Ages and how the Pilgrims persecuted those who did not share their religious beliefs. “And I never knew that!” she says, her face ablaze. “I never knew that, and I went to college! I was leveled in college, I was leveled! I wasn’t cognitive!” Asher says, “Our children will inherit the earth. They will be called upon to speak before kings and judges. It is appro- priate for them to know these things. They must be cogni- tive.” During this time — the “sharing,” punctuated by glad cries, has occupied thirty minutes — no child asks for more food or declines food. No child talks. An elder says, “Donna, is there any reality to Phoebe’s having to help Joseph? She says there is.” “There is no reality,” Donna says, and Phoebe is led away.
At seven-thirty the children are led, in a group, to bed. Donna and Sandy talk with me about the raid — about their terror, and the children’s. I ask them to hit my hand with a balloon stick — a thin reed — with as much strength as they would use to hit a child. Donna immediately obliges with a sharp rap. “That’s for disobeying,” she says. “For lying it would be harder. Do you want me to hit you again? You understand why the children can’t fantasize? Because when the Lord calls our children, they have to be sure it’s His voice, not the voice of another. They have to live in reality.”
A black man called Theton, who is afflicted with a dreadful stutter, tells me that he comes from Manhattan and that he was a seminarian, but he wasn’t “cognitive” then. Soon the men drift away to prepare for a meeting at the Common Sense. I am left at the table with Donna and Sandy and Ruhama. Theton reappears, his face disfigured and clotted with rage. He screams: “Doesn’t anybody know there’s a body in this house?” His explosive rage unsnarls his speech: no stutter. “He means there’s a meeting tonight,” Donna says calmly. Ten minutes later, Theton appears on the lawn, where I am having a cigarette in the company of Donna and one of the men. “I want to repent,” he says. His stutter has returned. “I want to repent for my anger and for giving a bad testimony.” He is embraced. Donna says, “It’s normal, Theton; that’s reality. We all have different ways of expressing our anger. We’re cognizant.” Theton stands there, shuffling his feet, looking chastened, fearful — and somehow also pleased, as if a necessary cycle has been completed.
WHY DO THEY throw dirt in my yogurt?: Hope asks. Hope Bowen is eight years old. She lives near one of the church’s communal houses. She would like the children of the church to play with her, but they will not. “And in my chocolate pudding, too? One girl came to my house to watch television — her name was Spring — and the next day I saw marks all over her. That’s when she threw dirt in my yqgurt. They don’t know how to please so much. They just grab. And sometimes they go around in rags. I know one girl — her name is Know-It-All — and sometimes she plays with me. She’s pretty and she has such nice hair. But they hurt little birds. Robins. All kinds of birds, I don’t know why.”
IT WAS BECAUSE of the dogs that Frank Forbes didn’t join the church. The beatings, which he has not witnessed, do not trouble him. His mother beat him with a buggy strap, Frank says, and he grew up okay. Forbes, a former Teamster, is fifty-seven, hearty, and sad. In the space of one year his wife died of cancer and he was focibly retired and his own church, he says, let him down: “Methodists,” he says. “That’s one hour a week.”
The people of the Northeast Kingdom church, Frank says, “give it their life.” And he — after his wife died and time lay heavy on his hands — was “ready to give them my home. This fells called Dante . . . he said they could use my cellar for growing marijuana in. See, they needed money. A lot of it is misery and marijuana at that church. But they’re nice people. They talk to you when nobody else cares. They do chores for you. But they wouldn’t let me live with my dogs if joined. They said I’d have to get rid of them. And the children — very well behaved, but they teased my dogs. They threw stones at them.
“Misery and marijuana,” Frank says. “But whaddya do when your life is empty?”
ELBERT EUGENE SPRIGGS, according to published sources, was married three times. According to Isaac at the Common Sense, Spriggs was married “oh, about ten times” — the former wickedness of their leader is presumably proof of his present goodness. Isaac says the church had to leave Tennessee because “Chat- tanooga was inhospitable to the people of God. They got us on entrapment. Marijuana.”
Sixty-five-year-old Al Bresciani has had complicated real estate (and complicated human and emotional) dealings with the church. He says he has sold four houses to the Northeast Kingdom church and given them one. The church thrift shop is located in a large, partially boarded-up building once called Kathy’s Kozy Crnmer, ‘which Bresciani gave them, he says, for “the remaining mortgage and back taxes.” According to Island Ponders, Bresciani is a “hus- tler.” According to Bresciani, church members are “ex- tremely giving people.” Bresciani’s wife, Jean, is a church member, as are three of his children, Edward, Josephine, and Angela. Like_ Dante, who flies regularly to France to see Spriggs, who lives outside the commune with a non- member to whom he is not married, and whose bullying sexual libertinism is widely excoriated, Jean Bresciani ap- pears to be exempt from many church regulations. She owns a watch and carries a purse and lives with Al. Jean and Josephine are now living with Spriggs’s group in France.
“When I came to Island Pond,” Al says “I was the only Italian in town, and I was hated for it. I bought a lot of property here, and they hated me for that — they said I belonged to the Mafia. Nobody else invites me to their house but the church people. My own church — Catholic — is good for nothing. When my first wife left me with three kids, the priest came in asking for a donation for a new roof. I said, “I’m all alone with three kids — how about giving me twenty dollars?” And he said, “Courage, my son, courage.” I got courage — courage to get out.
“So what if the church people wanted my property? If you needed ten thousand dollars for an operation, they’d give it to you.
“I whacked my own kids. I’d brain them before I’d let them hang out on the street. The church people’s kids have respect. I tell these punks in town, ‘If you say one bad word about my daughter, I’ll kill you. I’ll cut your hands off. I’ll murder you.’ My wife had to stop me from smashing a guy’s Adam’s apple . . . . They’re not violent people. They’re the kindest people you ever saw.
“The only reason I don’t join the church myself is, I’m not ready to give them my whole heart and soul. I’m an easy guy. I like to go fishing.”
WHAT SCARES ME most is the silence,” says Marinn Barnes, who lives alone on Birch Street, across from a communal house. Sometimes at night she hears a cry from one of the children, then an adult voice saying “Don’t you cry!,” then nothing. Her summer nights have been punctuated by noises she has learned to dread- a deep-throated, gurgling wail that fades into a moan. Several years ago, thirteen-year-old Randy Langmaid, grandnephew of a one-time boarder of Marina’s, made his third escape attempt, coming to her from a communal house on the hill three-quarters of a mile away. He was wearing layers of clothes — all that he had — and he said, “Close the curtains, Marian, they’ll see me and give me a licking. I’ll kill myself iT I have to go back.” Marian Barnes is seventy-one; she says of the church greet her with smiles: “You’re old, Marian” they say. “Aren’t you afraid of living alone in that big house? Aren’t you afraid something will happen to you?” Then they call her Satan.
ON SUNDAY the Northeast Kingdom church has its Celebration in a barnlike room above the Com- mon Sense that smells of spices and human sweat. I enter to the sound of tambourines. The women are danc- ing heavily on the wooden floor, but their bodies are stiff, out of sync with the tambourines and with their own feet.
Kirsten, a young woman in her mid-twenties who has twice been deprogrammed, has now returned to the church, delivered by a man called Gladheart, who stands over her while she testifies, her head bowed. Kirsten had been taken by her brothers, her sister, and a deprogrammer from Spriggs’s chateau to Paris and then to a deprogram- ring “safe house” in Iowa, from which she had managed to escape, having called the Vermont church to say she’d wait for a rescuer at an appointed time in the town library. “I just played along with the deprogrammers?” Kitsten says with the lilting inflection used by all the female mem- bers of the church. “I just really wanted to serve the Lord? So I told them, ‘Oh yes, I just really wanted to get out, I’m so glad you kidnapped me.’ And a miracle happened? The two things I said in my heart I wouldn’t do would be to appear on videotape to show other kidnapped members my deprogramming? And I wouldn’t eat pork? And the video machine broke down? I just really want to praise the Lord? And even some of the deprogrammers know we have the truth? Because when I told them the church teaches us that women are equal in grace but not equal in authority, one guy said, ‘Where is that place? Take me to it.’ And I just love Gladheart so much? He shaved his beard off for me, he’d do anything for the Lord. And I’m just so glad to be home? Back in the land of the living? And I was so grateful when I drunk the wine of the new covenant? And all I want to do is be with my husband in France?”
No one asks why, if Kirsten wants so much to be with her husband in France, she has been obliged to make this detour from Iowa to Island Pond. The obvious reason is that she is giving the church in Island Pond a buzz. Persecu- tion always acts as a jell for members of cults. It proves to them, in the absence of history, liturgy, tradition, and doctrine, that they are God’s chosen.
After her first deprogramming, Kirsten and her twin sister lectured on the college circuit for two years, talking about the dangers of the cults. I learn this later, from Suzanne Cloutier. Church members do not allow me to talk with Kirsten. After Kirsten’s testimony, I see a young girl describe an arc in the air with a large sweeping gesture: “Whack!” she says. “Whack!”
On Cross Street, Al Bresciani is cruising in his van. He stops me. “I’m riding around with a gun,” he says, “in case there’s a deprogrammer in town.”
THE CHURCH is sure enough that we are living in the “end-times” to be building an ark in Nova Scotia — in any case, a ship. “I’m just a child,” the chtldren sing. “How will it feel to be on a boat in Nova Scotia?” The church is sure that God has “a shadow government, a resistance government, a kingdom forming, an under- ground.” The church defmes itself largely in relation to what it is not and what it does not: Is it not “Christian — as you understand Christianity”; and “You can’t trust America” (for which reason church members do not regis- ter for the draft, so that the government, “the FBI and the CIA, can’t keep track of us”).
Every member of the church talks of his or her previous misery: They had been drunks, they had had traumatic abortions, they had been “so depressed I couldn’t even wash a dish,” they’d been on drugs, they’d been suicidal, they’d killed. All had been full of self-hatred, a condition they describe as “emptiness.” No one, apparently, came to the church relatively whole or happy. (And yet the sad parents of lost children — the parents who stand at the windows of the Osborne with binoculars looking for youngsters who have drifted into the cult — say that their children were like any other children. Some say the young people who are lost to the cults are the brightest and the best.) Perhaps, as townspeople say, all the church members’ talk of past horrors is a result of malnutrition and brain- washing and an inhuman workload placed by the leaders upon the led. Perhaps their present acquiescent state obliges the young people of the cult to redefine their blurred past. The fact that they do not yet know exactly how to flesh out their simple apocalyptic beliefs does not prevent them from knowing exactly what it is their children do not need to know: Bill Smith, who says he is a former seminarion and who is the older in charge of the children’s education, says he sees no reason for the children ever to have to read Henry James, Emily Dickinson, Shakespeare, Dickens, Chekhov, Tolstoy — no need, in fact, for them to read anything but material written for them by their elders. “For example,” Smith says, “we might make up a story about a child who was persecuted or a child who needed to be disciplined for taking a cookie out of cookie jar.”
Could the children sing “Here We Go Round the Mul- berry Bush”? “Never heard of it,” Smith says. “Humpty Dumpty”? “That was by Lewis Carroll, wasn’t it? A verse disguising an attack on a scholar? No. Why should we teach our children about a cracked egg?”
I AM SITTING in the house of Diana Marckwardt, in East Charleston, a ten-minute drive from the center of Island Pond. With us are Cheryl (“I won’t give you my last name because I’m scared of those ‘Christians’ and I don’t want my head manipulated any more”) and a handsome thirty-two-year-old man called D.T., whose wife and two children are living with the mysterious Dante. D.T. is “waiting to get it together” before he tries to get custody of his kids — “I’m just a poor [he uses a coase noun] sitting in a corner,” he says. “How am I supposed to fight them? I don’t have any money for a lawyer.”
Although Isaac has told me that Dante is “in rebellion,” a church member not in good standing, Diana and Cheryl and D.T. are convinced — as is almost everyone else in Island Pond — that Dante is a member of the church hierarchy who enjoys special status and privileges. Dante’s ambiguous status bolsters their belief that the church has “runners” who pose as civilians in order to infiltrate the community and gather information. I have a hard time convincing them that I am not a runner. Diana’s eagerness to talk, to discharge herself of the poisonous feelings she has been harboring, overwhelms her suspicion.
Diana is a person who needs to believe that her motives are good and that she is fair. Two years ago people she identifies as runners — “undercover agents” — insinuated themselves into her life and assaulted her where she can least afford to be assaulted: They defeated her idea of herself as a good, sane person, a member of an extended, nonbiological “family,” of which Cheryl and D.T. are a part.
Her story is a complicated one. She is the first to ac- knowledge that nothing she has to say about the runners, or about one named Debbie, in particular, is susceptible of proof: “She started coming over and canning with me. And she asked me a whole lot of questions about a whole lot of different people that I know. I’ve been up here for seven -years and I have been a part of the Family for that long, and I know a lot of people. I gave her a lot of general information — nobody’s secrets.” (The “family” is a scattered network of people in these hills.)
The runners, Diana says, moved in on her because they thought she was vulnerable. “I got straight-out, flat-out conned. I also noticed that they were starting to move into all of these groups that I had told Debbie about during the course of our canning,” In fact, Diana — who reproaches herself for sounding incoherent — has not discussed the runners with an outsider before. “I feel like a jerk,” she says. Juan Mattatall, the former church member who was trying to win custody of his five church-bound children, stayed with her. He was considered a good person until he started trying to regain his children and the church turned on him. Suddenly there were rumors that he had raped a young girl in the church community.
“Debbie played me on every single emotional point that I had. They had been through every single low-income, hard-pressed organization up here. I’m a patsy, you know. They started feeding back to me the fact that I am a patsy. They pushed me all the way down to the bottom of my basic morality, and I discovered I was all right. So in a way they did me a favor. But it also took me six months to pick up the pieces . . . . I believe they had designs on my son.
“I’m good at growing gardens,” Diana says. “Debbie told me my expertise was gardens. Juan Mattatall’s exper- tise is that he knows all the wild herbs and edible plants. Knows enough that they can survive up here all year round on what can be found in the woods, and that was his expertise. When I began to see how they were using us, I panicked and I kicked them out. Then I started getting phone calls — southern voices — threatening my life.” DECEMBER 1984 ú 67 Diana’s friend Cheryl has been told by Isaac (“their sex symbol, their bait”) that if she were to join the cult, she would be “treated like a queen.” D.T. says he thinks the church was after his kids and his wife. “After I met them they played nice-nice to me, asking me to teach them things. And I was finding books in their library — books on growing things, you know what I mean?” His books disap- peared, he says; so did his wife and kids.
This sounds like crazy talk and Diana knows it: “Either I am crazy or I am not, and I don’t think I’m crazy,” she says. Diana is so trusting one is afraid for her, she wishes to be of use. She locks her door now. She has a watchdog. She tries never to let her child out of her sight. She is moving away from Island Pond because three-year-old Isaac will be going to day school next year. Perfectly composed when she speaks of anything else, when she talks about the cult she shakes. The cult robbed her of her goodwill, her easy faith in the goodness of others. She will never forgive them.
I never did get to speak to the people Diana and Cheryl and D.T. refer to as runners; they sent word out that they would not talk to me. Al Bresciani says they are “friends of the church — like me.” ‘ ”
DIANA AND HER SON and I are sitting at the edge of the pond: “I will catch you a fish, Barbara,” the three-year-old Isaac says. He is pretending a twig is a fishing rod. “I will catch you a chocolate-chip fish.” He deposits the “chocolate-chip fish” in my lap — sweet little boy, I’ve just told him chocolate-chocolate-chip is my favorite ice cream — and then he catches a “fierce red fish” and then a “strawberry fish” (strawberry is his favorite flavor), and then we eat the fish, which has been cooked, he says, by “water magic.” He hugs me. For this enchanting piece of business, this child, whose brown eyes gaze into mine with perfect trust, would be beaten if he were a child of the cult.
NOT ONE of the cult children has called me by name. The cult children are empty vessels with nothing to fill them but the insistent words of their elders — not even music: They may not listen to music with “worldly” lyric or “demonic” themes. At the thrift shop, a church member named Barbara told me she vomited when she heard The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. And that Beetho- ven’s Ninth Symphony was just as bad. “How about Mi- chael Jackson?” I asked. “Who’s Michael Jackson?” she said. Adult cult members do not read newspapers or magazines or watch television; those elders who are permit- ted to read edit and verbally present the news to their followers.
The Northeast Kingdom church does not believe the evidence of Jonestown was consistent with Jim Jones’s followers having killed themselves. They believe it is much more likely that Jones and his followers, with whom they identify, were killed by helicopters using “chemical war- fare” for “political reasons.”
I AM SCRIBBLING at the Common Sense, and Isaac says: “Are you taking notes? We don’t want you to. We don’t speak to reporters, only to compassionate, caring human beings with good hearts: I don’t want you to take notes. When was the last time you examined your con- science? I’m not talking about that hokey stuff in that black box, that corruption, that evil, the confessional, that gar- bage,” Isaac says. “Does your conscience tell you you are worthless and needy? Needy.”
I am saved from more lunatic conversation with Isaac by the entrance of a young Vietnamese. Church “walkers” — proselytizers — in Boston have given him literature that inveighs against homosexulaity, the military, cold and un- caring hospitals, capitalism, Communism, liberation movements, Walt Disney, and all the woes and com- plexities attendant upon the industrial and technological revolutions. The literature invites people with a deep sense of injury to separate themselves from the world and to leave “fear, death, loneliness and isolation” behind.
“Give him anything, anything he wants, everything,” Isaac says expansively. What the Vietnamese is given is a bowl of popcorn and a glass of water.
“Isaac doesn’t like me,” I remark to the elder called Asher. Five minutes later, Isaac, who I think cannot possi- bly have heard me, reappears: “I don’t want you to think I don’t love you, Barbara,” he says. “I do. I love you very much. I want you to live our life.”
When I leave the Common Sense that afternoon, Isaac sneaks behind me: “BOO!” He is stroking a jackknife. “I just like to play,” he says. “Did I scare you?”
From this time on, whenever I make a phone call from the Osborne, someone from the cult stares in at me through the plate-glass window. Whenever I have coffee with a townsman at Jennifer’s Restaurant, a cult elder honks the horn of a vehicle that follows me everywhere. He is letting me know that I am under surveillance.
This behavior strikes me as more silly than diabolical, although some townspeople are telling me that I am press- ing my luck.
ON AUGUST 28, members of the press were invited to hear Roland Church publicly repent. He shared a platform with Charles (Eddie) Wiseman, the elder who, according to Roland’s previous allegation, had beaten his daughter Darlynn until “she looked like a zebra.” Church, who had also said that the church’s troubles with Darlynn stemmed from unspecified sex games, repeated what he’d said in his pubLished, recantation: Darlynn had lied. She was beaten because she lied — neither he nor Wiseman would say in what way she lied — and she had lied when she signed a deposition to the court saying that she had been beaten. The “ordeal,” Wiseman and Roland said, had made Darlynn “freer and lighter”; the “scourging” and the “controlled sever- ity” had produced “the fruits of the spirit.” Why it had also produced a signed statement in which Darlyrm claimed to have been beaten for seven hours was a problem that Roland — who, not to put too fine a point on it, looked and sounded like a zombie — could not resolve for the press. Wiseman showed us pictures of Darlynn’s neck and back, on which there were no marks. He declined, with a great display of delicacy of feeling, to show us photographs of Darlynn’s buttocks and legs. It was motive that counted, Elder Wiseman insisted. While most people who beat kids did so when they were drunk or angry, Darlynn was chastised by a loving elder with love, and Darlynn therefore knew love. When someone remarked that abused flesh was incapable of interpreting motive, Roland said, “I don’t know what you’re getting at.”
For the first time since I arrived in Island Pond, I allowed myself to express anger to members of the cult. I think it was Darlynn, so present in her absence, who provoked it
The next day I was driven to the Common Sense by Father Francis Connors, the pastor of St. James’ Roman Catholic Church. I thought, arrogantly, that I could tough it out. An elder I’d not met before stared at me, unblinking (how do they do this?) for half an hour and told me (many variations on a single theme) all about the Lake of Fire, in which, if I did not change my evil ways, I would soon find myself. I don’t remember his words. They were silly words. I remember what I felt — virulent hatred focused on me, the kind of hatred that is like an invasion of the body: I felt my heart being attacked. Nobody — pity the children — can stand being the object of such intense hatred. The women, their voices sweet, chanted about the Lake of Fire. The children watched.
Three hours later I was admitted to the North Country Hospital for chest pains. Hutch Jenness, the Quaker doctor who examined me, must at first have thought — I am perfectly healthy — that I was crazy: “Do you often feel your body is flying apart? Have you had any suicidal thoughts in the last six months?” When I told him that I’d been in Island Pond, talking to members of the church, he said, “Well, why didn’t you say so? You’re not crazy. You’re respond- ing to craziness. You’re lucky that it was your body that went haywire. It could have been your mind. I know those people. They’re evil. You can’t go back there.”
WHAT TO DO? Bernie Henault, Essex County co- ordinator of the Northeast Kingdom Commu- nity Action Agency, says, “If they disciplined a child to death with love we’d never know about it. The laws of this country stop at the borders of Island Pond and have for sLx years . . . . I’ve heard them say [to Spriggs]: ‘Did I do all right, Lord?’ When I hear them say the Lord says this and the Lord says that, are they talking about our God up there, or are they talking about Elbert Spriggs?
“I never go and solicit anybody to leave. Because Jim Jones left San Francisco and went to French Guyana, didn’t he? And look what happened there.” Henault says the Northeast Kingdom church is missing two entire genera- tions: Where are the older people? he asks. Where are the teenagers? “I get burnt out,” he continues. “I had seven people in my office in one day that were leaving. I was up a wall.” One afternoon a church member told him that he would “wake up some day and find out that the wrath of the Lord has fallen upon your head.” The church even approached his daughter. “We adopted a young girl last year — twelve. And Donna had some spedal needs. She’d been in special education all her life. And these suckers are inviting her down to their Celebration and telling her how evil we are and that she should come and join. This is how they operate.”
“They watch,” he says later. “It’s good, smart leadership, that group that plays with the system, that mocks the system and says, ‘Here we are. We’re a religious group. We’re doing what we want and we’re only responsible to the Lord.’ The Lord, everybody says, is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Except maybe,” Henault says, “it’s Elbert Spriggs.”
Selectman Bud Wade is “so . . . mad I can . . . hardly talk about it. It’s hard to keep getting beat. We’ve tried everything, but the state won’t even act on its own zoning ordinances to get those people. And those civil liberty lawyers are paid by the state to defend people who are just laughing at the state.” .
One might expect that the mainline churches would act to remedy the misery in lsland Pond, and to an extent they do. Father Connors has put up young people who wish to leave the cult at the Osborne and has seen them safely out of Island Pond. But by and large the mainline churches keep a low profile — to avert bloodshed,” according to church sources (or, more cynical voices say, because the churches are afraid to act lest they be acted upon). In many quarters the silence of the churches is interpreted as a perverse form of “do unto others”: If the churches leave the cult alone, they too will be free from state intervention.
Reverend Dale Jenks of the fundamentalist Grace Breth- ren Church says, “There is no organized effort to help. Part of that is because when people leave the cult, they’re still sufficiently indoctrinated to believe that we’re evil. I don’t- know what the answer would be,” he says, “unless it’s less publicity, less press. They rejoice in negative publicity.” Jenks is conservative; he believes that to spare the rod is to spoil the child. His quarrel with the cult is that “there’s nothing more dangerous than to believe you are the only one in possession of the truth.” He places some of the blame for the existence of the cult on the the mainline churches: “We offer people a building. They offer people a life.”
GOD WORKS in mysterious ways; the wheels of justice grind slowly; there are no simple solutions. (lt’s easy to become fatalistically axiomatic in Island Pond.) As long as there are people who require the absolute simplicity of absolute authoritarianism, as long as the wounded, the defeated, the hopeless, the idealists-gone- awry exist, and as long as spiritual con artists hungry for power are around to authenticate them and to give them a life empty of choice and full of the busyness and spiritual double talk that passes for meaning, the cults will thrive. As long as there are people willing to sacrifice their lives — and those of their children — for the promise of transcen- dency, the cults will thrive. As long as the bludgeoned and the bewildered and the brainwashed are willing to endure a drab present for the hope of an exalted future, the cults will thrive.
But what of the children? Island Pond may learn to deal with its problem, and to deal — though this is far from certain — with the scars left by fear, paranoia, and loathing. But it is not Island Pond’s problem alone. They are all our children. If the Northeast Kingdom church is forced to leave Island Pond, where will it go? Where will the children go, and what will become of them?