1993, 03/31. Pressure And Crisis Situations Designed To Break Us.
I had just dropped off a new disciple brother at the subway and was driving to COBU’s residence at Woodruff Avenue in Brooklyn. I was away from everyone else, which gave me some free time to think about life in the cult.
I was talking about the social control and pressure used on us and questioning whether these methods were legitimate. I also was talking about making emergency plans in case I was put out of the church, because I had been threatened with being put out before.
Today is March 31st, 1993. I just dropped Antoine off at the subway and now I’m on my way to Woodruff to pick up someone to bring to Red Hook. Today has been one of my extreme days, where things pretty much fall apart, and then I realize the immense pressure I’ve been under. It all seems to come to a head and then afterwards, I realize that I’m really loaded down with a lot of different kinds of pressure. Some of it is because I don’t tell anybody anything. I’m at a crisis point, where I don’t want to tell them what’s on my mind, because of what I would say. And, I also notice the roles assigned to me by the church, regarding the way I should be. Which are in part true, but I rush forward to fulfill those roles, probably a lot harder than I need to. For example, I was thinking today about the way it is in the office and how I sort of snoop around in there, and the way it is in there for me.
(I was also talking about, but not directly mentioning that there were sisters who worked at the church office and it was the only place I saw “safe” women, who were not not women in “the world.” The sisters in COBU were women I was supposed to be able to choose a mate from, from “our own people,” but it is still not possible for anyone to marry in the Church of Bible Understanding.)
I’m expected to be a certain way, to be quiet, docile and submissive, always willing to do whatever I’m told. Impersonal, non-gendered. And I’m pretty eager to be that way and that’s quite a load to bear. The church, and everyone, is really watching me! One false move and I’ve had it! I say how much I hate the censorship, but I extremely censor myself. And that is extremely wearying.
I’m thinking a lot about making plans to leave the church.
(In our book, leaving was a horrible thing to consider and not the great idea it would seem to anyone else on the outside, who would think it would be good for me to leave the Church of Bible Understanding.)
I wrote down some goals today. They’re not necessarily listed in order, but I suppose the order may reveal some things about me. I wrote: marriage and children, to live in a house or apartment. I don’t want to live in a warehouse. I don’t think it’s wrong not to want to live in a warehouse. I’d like to live in a house or apartment with my own room. And I want to be financially independent. Also, not emotionally and spiritually dependent on the church. You know, where the church exercises total control over my life.
(All important aspects of my life were highly controlled. Milieu control is the term used to describe this control and micromanagement of the living environment in cults.)
I never make an autonomous decision, day to day. I’ve been thinking about that time last year when I almost got thrown out, and that I learned more about the church in those 12 minutes than I learned in the entire 11 years I have been here. That is probably an exaggeration, but I’ve been having an extreme reaction when I think about it, almost raging. The idea that I could get put out on the street in a matter of minutes, and maybe I even deserve it, but that is pretty scary. And I thought about getting a part time job.
(About the 12 minutes, I was talking about a meeting where I talked to Stewart about some of the things I thought he was doing wrong, and he threatened to put me out of the church. This also meant the immediate loss of my place of residence and my job. I might have been standing there for 12 minutes, maybe more, maybe less, until I gave up and “confessed” that really I was the problem, not him. But I had been in the church for about 12 years and for some reason, I equated the number of minutes I was standing there, now begging to still be able to be in the church, and the amount of years I had been in COBU, and that I had learned more about COBU in those 12 minutes than I had in my entire 12 years there.)
Maybe I just don’t have peace with God and this is all coming from that.
(I sometimes wondered if my lack of peace, my unrest and my “negative thoughts” about COBU and its leader were merely a symptom of not having a right relationship with God and of being in rebellion (which Stewart constantly accused us of), and that if I were right with God, not only would I not want to leave COBU, I would also have peace of mind and would gladly live this way. I would also be able to get married and I would not live in “hiding” but instead, I would be striving and faithful and have a clear conscience and as a result, would be able to start a relationship with one of those sisters and “rightly” marry her. I would be able to pass all the necessary tests about my faithfulness to Christ and would have the approval of Stewart to marry. But I need not to have occupied myself with that thought. Since the time I left 20 years ago, no one has married in the Church of Bible Understanding. Some years ago, a couple there managed to start and maintain a relationship for a while. They ended their relationship when Stewart said that their “wrong relationship” was “poisoning the fellowship.”)
I need something to stave off the threat of imminent annihilation. [The threat of getting put out of COBU suddenly and without warning, then needing money to find a place to live] So if it does happen, I have somewhere to go. I need to have back up systems. I wouldn’t want to get embroiled in a lawsuit with the church, claiming that they owe me back pay if they threw me out abruptly, and then try to collect damages or try to get money from the church for a downpayment for an apartment. I would rather just have a couple thousand dollars saved up, so if I left, I would have it. It would be hopeless to try to get money from the church anyway, plus the time and effort it would take to try to get it. It would be better to have a thousand dollars in the bank, just in case. And I also thought of writing my mother and telling her about my situation. She might suggest that if I ever need anything, to call her. It would be good to know that a buffer zone is there, because I’m tremendously overwrought with worries like this, to the point where they’re running me ragged and to the point where I can’t take it.
Now, I’m just talking off the top of my head, at random. Maybe, out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. And I would like to have a perfectly orchestrated dialog, and I see that I’m just talking about these things and that it’s awfully shallow, or is this all there is. But, these are the things that have been on my mind.
I don’t know if I’ve ever been more intensely thinking of leaving. But I’m trying to do it in a rational way. Like, two years from now, if I don’t desire to continue to live this way, and not where I’m saying, “Look, I’m just busting out of here.”
(The assumption was that if anyone left COBU, it was because they were in rebellion against Christ, or had fallen into sin (or both). It was never accepted that there was a legitimate reason to leave, or that anyone had ever left COBU for a good, honest reason. And certainly not because they had come to realize that this was a false way – though it was known that some people had claimed this was their reason for leaving.)
It’s more like my general discontentment and not wanting to live under these constraints anymore and wondering if these constraints are even real and necessary. For example, can a pastor tell me whom and when to marry, or that I can’t marry? Does it say anywhere in the Bible that a church can tell someone that? It seems like my whole life is controlled. Such as where to work. And because my job, residence and church are all in the same sphere, any foul up in one area inevitably leads to the dissolution of all. There’s no place I can run to get out from under the crushing weight of Stewart’s correction.
(“Correction” was the word Stewart used for anything from exhortation to abuse. A saying he used in my earlier years in the church was “Don’t turn correction into condemnation.” (Though Stewart was speaking, he said that this correction was from Jesus.
Because the three areas of my life – job, residence and church membership – were lived under one roof, if the church said I was doing wrong in one of these areas, it punished me in some way in all three of the areas. This made it impossible to go anywhere for relief. In a non-communal living arrangement, if a person ran afoul of his pastor, he would still have his job and his residence. But not in COBU.)
And except for this weird hiding and burying of my real person that I do, there’s nowhere I can go where I can be myself. In a normal situation, if I had trouble on my job, I could go talk to everyone at my church about it, or I could talk to my wife at home. (Yeah, marriage, family…) Likewise, if I got thrown out of my apartment, I could get support from my church. Or if I disagreed with the pastor of my church, I wouldn’t find out when I got home that my apartment was boarded up and that when I went to work on Monday, they were firing me because I disagreed with our pastor. And this ensures that I’m really docile, that I’m a doormat. There’s nowhere I can go to let my guard down and be myself.
I’ve got to be so circumspect, guarded and so watchful of myself that I can’t be myself in any way. Let’s take as an example, when I worked for Dave and Pete [when I did not work in a church-owned and controlled business]. Things weren’t so under surveillance back then. When I didn’t like what was going on in the church, I could go there and talk about what was happening. And I wouldn’t get reported.
What did Goffman say? A person can insulate themselves, they can manage to keep face; a person constructs a self out of his surroundings. And that in Total Institutions this possibility is ripped away. And I do feel that way here myself. I have no defenses. I can’t compose a self. Not that I don’t have a self, or that I am not a person. But I find difficulty in that area. Like say, when my pastor doesn’t agree with me, I should still be able to go find a wife. Or maybe I’d fail at finding one. But he couldn’t pass a law that I’m not allowed to get married.
I was thinking of what Stewart said about me once in a meeting. He didn’t say it to me, but he said it in the air, in general, after he had talked to me. He said, “Maybe some people shouldn’t get married.” He was talking about the way certain people are, that they shouldn’t raise children because they don’t live in reality or that they’re too selfish. And maybe that’s his opinion on me. But then it becomes a law. And not that Stewart is watching me over it, but I’m at his mercy. [Actually, he was watching over us on it.] I would be at his mercy until he changed it. If he said, ”Yes, you can,” giving permission now. He would probably never say “you cannot marry.” But he’d speak in general into the air, “Some people shouldn’t get married.”
(Stewart did not forbid marriage by directly and plainly stating to anyone “you can’t get married.” But he spoke about the inability to marry as if were a fundamental truth about a person, and he was merely observing and pointing out that person’s defective nature and condition, which was keeping them from being able to marry. And he said this about all of the older brothers, that we were unable to marry.)
And I guess I just have to take that as the law for me. And if Stewart sees me as unfit for marriage, well that’s it! This is the only world I live in. I don’t have a social life apart from the church. I can’t choose, date or meet a woman anywhere, but in the church, where I am both known and evaluated and spoken of in a certain way. And it’s like a powerful trap. And it is very effective, to the point where I have no real defenses against it. Sure, I can withdraw into self. Like what Edwin T. Hall wrote about Arab people who live together. Their way of going off to be alone is to withdraw into themselves and be quiet, even when they’re in a crowd, because they live in places without walls.
The only way I can be alone is by withdrawing. Either by not talking to those around me, or by becoming this thing where I adopt the perfect doormat personality. Where I never express any desire or anything I would like to do. I just wonder if living this way is taking a toll on me, to the point where I can’t go forward in any area of my life. And Stewart tells me it’s because I’m not right with Christ, so therefore I can’t form relationships with the opposite sex. I can’t change my job. I can’t pursue leisure activities, which he heavily speaks against. It really bothers me that I can’t run. If I were to talk to others about this, I would hear, “Oh, he’s talking about what bothers him. On and on! Oh, we have to hear this again now!” And I see strong and extreme methods of coercion, where people are forcefully homogenized.
(There were supposed to be no individual differences among us in the church. All of us were supposed to be working at the church agenda and not doing any of our own desires. There were supposed to be no individual thoughts, opinions or beliefs that differed from the party line.)
This is very much how I feel. I can feel this pressure very strongly. Something else I read, in a book about ultra-fundamentalism, was that when Jesus talked to Nicodemus, he didn’t use coercion on him to make him get born again! The whole thing here is arranged to produce a coercive pressure, designed to produce a crisis situation, where I must break, I must sell all I have.
It’s like this floating sensation I had, which people have talked about when they were under pressure while visiting the Moonies. It creates a tension where the only relief is to give in to what Stewart is telling me to do. And this floating sensation I had was about giving up all I have and giving up all control of my life. I felt pushed to the brink, that I’ve got to sell or get rid of all my possessions. And that then I would be finally free. And although I didn’t agree with it, this pressure was so heavy, it worked on me so strongly. I remember coming up to that point, that I almost snapped. Maybe under more direct pressure, maybe if I lived with Stewart like the Princeton sisters do, I would have snapped. Stewart would have my mind. And I would be forced to say that Stewart is doing this for my good. We have to say he’s doing this for our good. But I have questions.
(We were required to say that everything that Stewart was doing to us was for our good and that our salvation and attaining to eternal life was the goal of all of his conduct toward us. I got in a lot of trouble when I questioned these motives.)
Well, I’m rambling incoherently. How to even talk about these things? It really does escape me. It’s hard to find a way to talk about it. There’s no one I can talk to safely, where there’s a safe zone. Not the people out there, not family members. There’s no one for me to go to. And a certain scenario is presented here for what is correct behavior and whether I’m doing it or not. And it’s no questions asked. I’m not allowed to say, could I change this or that? Or, is this really necessary? Or, I can take all that, but I don’t know if I can handle this. That’s unacceptable. One either accepts it all, or he has nothing.
(This internal standard of behavior, of thought and of right and wrong was the only thing I had to go to, and I judged myself with regard to my faithfulness to it and in believing it was the true way, because this was the only thing I saw and the only reality I lived in.)
It’s time to end this tape soon, I’m getting close to Woodruff.
The way Stewart’s whole coercive structure is built is, if you don’t believe it, it’s because your flesh doesn’t like it. I was saying yesterday to Peter that, if I was going to cut your arm off, would your flesh like it? Just because your flesh doesn’t like something (and who is to say it is your flesh?) is not necessarily a sign that you’re resisting the God’s spirit, or that you’re coming from a base and selfish motive for not wanting to do something.
There are various ways in which we’re undermined. I was explaining to an new brother, Henry, today, about how if you say you don’t want to do something, they’ve got you on that. They’ll tell you, “We’re not here for what ‘I want.’” It’s like a net, and they can just scoop you up with that one, because you’re on really weak ground. And the “God’s will” talk leaves you set up to do whatever you’re told. God’s will for your life, as shown through the plan revealed in this church. And that all the underpinnings and supports that you might have normally gone to to resist this stuff have been knocked out from under you. And any traditional ways you go to, such as saying, “I don’t really like to,” is viewed as extreme rebellion. It’s wholly unacceptable for us to refuse and to not do any of the things we’re told to do.
(I would have been accused of “poisoning a new disciple” by talking to Henry like this about how things really worked in COBU. But I was no longer able to push the church’s agenda on the new people that we were bringing in.)
So, here’s how I developed the doormat response. I’ve learned to try to cite previous commitments. That way it isn’t me who is turning something down, it’s that something else is already scheduled for me. Therefore it wasn’t a personal decision, but I can’t do what they’re asking me because I’m already on the schedule for something else. I learn to turn things down when I can, I learn to work the system. It’s imperfect. It doesn’t give me what I want, but it helps.
Through four years of this now, I’ve learned some loopholes and some ways to protect myself. But it’s what is called a secondary adjustment. I would prefer not to live this way if I could choose not to. Sure, one could say that however I’m living, that’s how I prefer to live, but I find adjusting to life here extremely difficult. And often, I just refuse to accept that a lot of these things are real. This is a strange community. There is extreme pressure. And Stewart’s teachings are an inverted pyramid, with the point directly placed on my head. Everything in this society is geared to make me accept and accomplish these teachings. More of late, I’ve looked at it this way: I’m resting firmly on an anvil, a hard surface that I’m struck against, so I get it from both sides. I can’t move out of the way of the blow, and that’s the whole living in community factor.
(Stewart’s teachings were like a hammer and the communal society I lived in was like the anvil I was struck against. If I did not live in COBU, there would have been more ways to seek an outlet from this effect. Living in, I got pressured from both directions, because the community and those in it reinforced Stewart’s teachings and Stewart could use the other COBU members against me.)
Now here we are at Deadcliff. I’m sitting in the van, waiting outside. There’s some shady characters a little way down the street. I’m not especially interested in getting out of the van unless they leave. Although it might be a good idea to get out of the van and go inside. Of course, I’m wildly afraid of a shootout breaking out, which I always was afraid of while living here during the past eight years. It never happened, but the feeling is always, but it could happen this time.
(Deadcliff, and also Roughwood, were names the brothers used for the COBU’s residence at the sometimes violent Woodruff Avenue, in Brooklyn. These names were used by the few who were predisposed to gripe on some level about life there, but who were careful not to gripe about our cult leader or to say that he was a problem in any way.)
And now a little reminiscence about Woodruff. Up until a year ago, I lived here for eight years. Those years can be divided into the Proposition years, then the in-between, free fall years, where I developed a life and a personality based in, around and on whatever I could do here. And then finally, the last three years here after the Grace Meetings and Reawakening where, though it’s a little one-sided to say, a lot of screws were tightened on us.
(This was my uncertainty about whether I was right in my thoughts and whether the abuse Stewart constantly subjected us to was justifiable “correction” due to our rebellion, which he administered to us because he was concerned for our good, or whether it was just the extreme abuse that it really was.)
I suppose I could roughtly divide my life at Woodruff into those eras. I often filter out unpleasant things in the past, so aside from the potential violence, I remember the walk down the street here to the park in the summers. I always liked that.
(The Proposition years were several years when we did “The Proposition,” which was going out witnessing and then having meetings in a storefront with Stewart. Then Stewart all but disappeared from our lives for several years, ruling from afar, but essentially uninvolved. During that time, I developed a life alone (while living in the apartment building at Woodruff Avenue with about 80 brothers and sisters) in which I jogged in the park, did artwork in my room and studied languages, and began looking back to my life before I came to COBU and thinking about leaving. I often indulged in vivid daydreams about good times in my life before “getting saved” and moving in. I tried to talk to sisters sometimes, in the hope I could start a relationship. I sometimes wandered down into the kitchen during the evenings where I could see some of the sisters, but it was hard to get any of them to talk to me. And COBU’s relationship and marriage ban was in full effect, even in Stewart’s absence. The last era of my time spent in Woodruff was after Stewart apparently repented and started over, and we had the Grace Meeting. Our lives got intense then. Most of all my tapes and journaling are from this time period.)
Read the next section of Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry Cult Leader here: If I Wrote A Book About 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.