1992, 12/14 1. The Unwritten Rules Of Life In COBU

This was my last year in the Church of Bible Understanding (COBU). I was living in an old warehouse in Red Hook, Brooklyn. COBU rented this warehouse to store supplies and for a cabinet making shop. It also housed about 20 men who were members of the church. I began making this tape as I drove away from the warehouse in a dirty old van, on my way to Manhattan. I was mostly talking about my life in the church, past and present. And about how the unwritten rules determined how life was lived in COBU. The church printed a few sheets of paper outlining its version of basic Christian doctrine, but what was not mentioned in any of these papers was the communal lifestyle, the complete denial of self and the forbidding of marriage.

I also talked about how Stewart asked us to discuss whether he should visit the orphanage in Haiti and that the unspoken assumption was that we were supposed to agree that he should go. The expected answer to the question was evident by the fact that he asked us the question in the first place.

Stewart Traill was the leader of the Church of Bible Understanding, the man for whom the entire organization existed and to whom all the benefits and profits flowed, with the exception of some funds and supplies sent to several small orphanages in Haiti where a small percentage of the profit of our labor went to someone other than Stewart.

On the tape, I asked myself living in COBU was harmful to me. I talked about unwritten rules and unspoken agreements. And I talked about attempted relationships in the church and about Joe and Kathryn, who were trying to pair up despite the prevailing prohibitions against marriage.

Relationships were forbidden. (Stewart never pronounced an official ban on relationships. He was able to keep relationships from starting by pitting the men and the women against each other and setting the bar of faithfulness to Christ too high for anyone to be able to prove that they were faithful Christians. A long track record of 100% faithfulness to Christ was an essential prerequisite to marriage and no one among us could make the grade, therefore there were no relationships or marriages. Privately, Stewart told the “Gayle Helpers” (the 20 or 30 young women who were his personal assistants under the pretext of being helpers for his wife, Gayle) that they should give up any of idea of marrying any brother in the church because, as he said, “no one gets married in our church.”

You can read about this in Ann Burkhardt’s testimony.  She says, “He kept reminding me that no one gets married in our church but I was lucky because he would ‘take care of me.’”


Today is the 14th of December. I’m in the old number 50 van, making my way into the city, pulling out of Red Hook.

Of course, I’ve been having all the usual T.A.S., and I’d like to talk about it.

( T.A.S.: “Thoughts About Stewart.” I spent a lot of time thinking about the leader of COBU, Stewart Traill. I was in conflict over whether he was a man of God or a cult leader, there was, it seemed, plenty of evidence for both.)

I think this might also get me in trouble. But also, I’ve been doing some thinking about my life for the last ten years, including life in the Rescue Mission. About how I sank into this institutional life, where I was afraid to do anything. Of course I could say, I was that way anyway. I’ve always been that way. I was the perfect man for the job, to end up in a place like that. I didn’t have any direction in life. I didn’t know what I wanted.

Well, that’s not entirely fair, I began to know what I wanted. I wanted to live a responsible normal upright life, actually. But falling into the fellowship was like falling into a pit. Sure, it saved me in a lot of ways. I remember the relief I had. But, there’s the original impression, then what I thought about it later. I have often thought that I acted like a kid after I got “saved,” since the all the pressure in my life was now was off. I had been under a lot of stress until then. I was frustrated and confused in the world before I came to the church.

I was relieved after I got saved, but that’s just because all the pressures and stress came off. I could relax and be myself. But sometimes I wonder if I lost my quest to become a mature adult as soon as I came to the church, or I began to lose it. And if this thing I considered to be so good, really wasn’t so good.

I was listening back on an old tape I made, about the Aftermath of the “Malaise Meeting” and my thoughts about it. Whether or not it’s all factual, it does contain many of the thoughts I had about things, and that’s why I want to save the tape.

So, what am I doing? I want to put all my thoughts on tap, whether that’s right or wrong. Or whether the thoughts are right or wrong. I at least want to know what I think. A lot of what I think about just goes on, and it passes on and I never think about it again.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading. I just got a book by an ex-Jehovah’s Witness, about Christian Freedom, describing the inner story about how they are manipulated. The author says that you can never really have Christian freedom until you understand the way in which you’ve been manipulated. And to me, this book is the most accurate about what life is like in cults that I’ve found (except for that book on the Oneida Community), and it covers most of the right stuff, in depth. I’ve been reading it and even recording some of it onto tape, to try to understand it.

In all, I don’t know what I’m going to do. Basically my only policy now is to keep my mouth shut. I’ve been blabbering a little to others about cults and other things. Then I realize, out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. I might get a reputation for talking about these things, because certain people here know the code words. They know what I’m really saying, just as much as I know what Joe really means when he says, “Actually,  it was a pretty good meeting.” He’s implying, “it was a good meeting this time.” What he’s leaving unsaid is that usually it’s not a good meeting. In other words, he doesn’t think everything is so great around here, and I can read between the lines in the things he says.

Speaking of reading between the lines, last night there was a question from Stewart about whether or not he should go to Haiti. You know, he may be very right about what he’s doing. It’s not that I think everything he does is wrong. But I realized there was a message in the questions he asked. He told us to decide and discuss our opinions on whether he should go to Haiti. First of all, I don’t think our opinions matter. And I got the impression that he was going to go anyway. And I could be wrong, but the thing that made me think of it, is when he asked a question.

(When people ask questions, especially people in authority who expect a certain reaction out of you, the response that they intend for you to give is encoded in the body of the question. You can take the question apart and pretty much see the way in which you are expected to answer, because the information is stored in the question, like the way DNA is stored in a cell. There are quite a few presuppositions in the question itself, or in extended questions that are asked when one is asked to consider something.)

Stewart presented certain information and we went through the fraud or charade that he was really asking for our opinions. But we had been given certain information, and we knew that if we answered according to the side he didn’t want, that we would get talked down. It wouldn’t be so bad if Stewart just came out said, “I’m going to Haiti.” But the charade is that we are asked to freely discuss it.

Well, we all pretty much did as expected. I refrained from saying anything. But most said, “Yes, he should go.” And the reply came back from the sisters who relay Stewart’s messages on the phone, “We want opinions.” It’s necessary for us to go through the motion of giving our opinions. I don’t think Stewart really consults us, because he might hear all our opinions and that we had decided against him going to Haiti. But then he might say, “But don’t you think I need to go?” He just wants it to look like he’s consulting us, but I don’t really think he is. That’s my opinion and that’s my impression.

(What I was saying in this last sentence was that, if we came up with a conclusion other than the conclusion Stewart intended us to come up with – in this case if we said that we didn’t think he should go to Haiti – then he would have kept up on us with more persuasion to get us to say that he should go, until we were guided into the answer he wanted us to give.)

So, I don’t know exactly where to go on this tape. I often start tapes like that. I start rambling. But the idea of leaving our church, well one of the thoughts on my mind today has been, is it damaging for me to continue to live like this? What am I going to be like when I’m 45? Is this preparing me for any useful future? Is it damaging for me to live like this? Do I even want to live like this? Is it necessary for me to live here to have a relationship with God? Is this hindering my relationship with God? And for certain, I’m never going to get married here, or so it seems. And I’ve got some real problems in that area. Sure, I can see and talk shop with the sisters at the office, or even say things to them about Christ, but otherwise, I can only look a beautiful woman in the face and I know I can have nothing to do with her. I understand that I can’t have any woman or every woman, but there ought to be one person for somebody. It seems like there ought to be at least one woman for me. And it’s hard for me to believe that an organization can defer my life goals or determine whether I can marry or not. Marriage isn’t forbidden here, because nobody ever gets that far.

Stewart doesn’t have to forbid marriage. He doesn’t have to stop people from crossing a finish line if they’re already hobbled, because no one is going to get that far.So, it never comes to a crisis point where they try to get married and they get shot down by Stewart, or by the committees who are are acting on Stewart’s behalf or who are trying to say the right thing, being politically correct. No one ever gets that far.

There’s Joe and Kathryn, I see them talking sometimes, snuggled up in the corner of the office, discussing the carpet cleaning schedule. And if I were deaf and if I didn’t know what they were talking about, I’d think they were planning for their next baby. That’s the way they looked over there, cuddled up with each other. They weren’t physically touching one another, but they looked like two high school sweethearts discussing their future. Which maybe they are, without saying the words. Just the fact that both can accomplish spending some time with each other, alone. Even though their words are about making the schedule for the carpet cleaning teams. The fact that they both have this unspoken agreement to talk for a while with one another.

Like I was thinking the other day, no one really consciously and objectively decided many of the things about the way we live here, but thoughts go through their minds and they have a reaction. That’s a way to not take responsibility for their own thoughts. In other words, the options go through their minds, like they could think about leaving our church without planning it, but the thoughts keep going through their minds. And if they don’t leave, well they decided not to. It wasn’t really an objective decision, where they weighed out all the possibilities.

And it’s the same thing with Joe and Kathryn. They just sort of agreed, tacitly, to see one another. Both of them know that they’re not allowed to say anything about it, not even to one another. But yet Kathryn lets herself be talked to, or makes herself available and Joe seeks her out. They might be staking their claim for a future time when the wall comes down and the restrictions against marriage in our church are removed. I mean, it’s clear to me that there are restrictions all over the place, and that there are unwritten rules. You see, that’s the thing, I try to expose an unwritten law and someone says, “No one ever said that!” And it gets pretty detailed and intricate if I try to expose it. And yet, we all know this is the way things work here.

And this ties into how we have a lot of sayings that mean one thing, but the words have enough padding in them that they can be twisted to mean something else – when necessary. Like about leaving our families. It’s pretty clear to me that we are supposed cut them off. Sure, we might go and see them, but it’s in attitude. Well, it’s the same with marriage. No one has ever said outright that we can’t marry. But the result is that we can’t. You know, we can’t marry because of this or that reason, or because a certain requirement has not been met, and we would have to be seen as living up to this requirement first, before we could get married.

And this prohibition is not just in our minds, it’s not just something we made up. There are a lot of unspoken rules in our church, and it would only be imaginary if it really wasn’t effective, and if we could just say it was imaginary. But it’s pretty clear, the whole understanding among us about how things are. And we can’t ever pin it down.

And that also ties into how the other day, I was thinking about how the Christian plus the communal ways of life are lived together here. Now, that is not written down. We never hear Stewart say, “I believe that everyone must sell their possessions and live communally.” He never preaches this or teaches this, it’s just lived. The only thing that he preaches or puts into print are these Christian things, or so-called Christian things.

(What I meant here is that all COBU literature was only about the Christian things, such as the “U Point of View” and other Christian teachings, but nothing was published about the need to live communally and to sell everything and give up everything in this life. You won’t see that anywhere in COBU literature. There is the published version of life in the Church of Bible Understanding and then there is the way the life is actually lived there. All the unwritten rules and requirements that were binding and effective on our lives.)

You could say that deny yourself, sell all you have, is implied in Christian teaching, but the only things that are ever printed or actually openly talked about here are the Christian teaching side, but everything else we do goes with the territory. But if you ever tried to point these things out, Stewart has never directly spoken any words on it, so you can’t pin doen anybody on it. And that’s what I mean by the unwritten rules and how it’s hard to expose unwritten rules, because they’re unwritten. They’re intangible, but everyone knows them clearly, like a dance routine and they know what moves to make, and they know what is acceptable and what is not acceptable.

The other thing that Franz, the author of In Search of Christian Freedom] wrote about those who joint cults, is that they are normal people who are externally directed, who have spent their whole lives making sure they do what’s acceptable. So, they are subject to manipulation and they probably never have an original thought. They’re always careful to have the correct opinions. And, that’s a lot like life here too. I mean, we’ve got the homeless people we bring in who are careful to obey the rules, because they want to make sure they have a place to stay. And you’ve got us, the older brothers, also obeying the rules. You know, people have always tried to be politically and socially correct and it fits in right there. Maybe I’m a little different, because I’ve been a social outcast most of my life, but I can’t say that I greatly differ from the others here in my life and my reactions. I just have these inward thoughts, which, probably almost everyone here has, but they just don’t talk about them. No one wants to be set up and become a target. [Which is what happened to anyone who spoke up about these things.] And there’s no channel or mechanism in our church with which to deal with this, or to talk about these things. So I get the feeling that it’s just me who thinks about these things.

Read the next section of Sinner In The Hands Of An Angry Cult Leader here: What Are The Costs Of The Benefits We Receive In COBU?


These pages, as well as my other pages, A Day In The Life Of A Cult Member and The Tangled Web, are part of the source material of my book, Captive Congregation: My Fourteen Years in the Church of Bible Understanding, which is available as a Kindle book or in paperback.


One Response to “1992, 12/14 1. The Unwritten Rules Of Life In COBU”

  1. Jen Says:

    What you wrote about the decision-making process at meetings and how questions formulate the results reminds me of the fateful meeting when the question was “Should we sell 515 [West 47th Street in NYC]?” I remember it was Jim G. who was leading the discussion but all of us understood he was acting for Stewart. We knew the answer was supposed to be “Yes.”

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