1993, 07/05 1. The Stockholm Syndrome: My Fellow Hostages

After a day and a half of meetings with Stewart Traill, the leader of our cult, during a dinner break, I went into a dormitory building on the church’s New Property, in order to get away from everybody and to seek some relief from the high intensity of the meetings and from Stewart’s requirement that we all stay together during the dinner break to speak to one another and check up on one another according to the terms of the teachings and other processes taking place at the meeting. The dormitories were uninhabited and were being used as storerooms for things donated to the church. (No brothers lived at the New Property – only Stewart Traill, his wife Gayle and about 20 single Sisters who were called the Gayle Helpers lived there.) One of the rooms was full of donated wedding dresses, but no one got married in the Church of Bible Understanding.

On the tape, I took a while to get into any important subject matter, but the things I eventually began to talk about are a good description of the high intensity, crisis point meetings we had in COBU. I was detaching myself from the intense pressure cooker of the meeting by hiding during the dinner break. All of us were expected to remain together and to discuss the meeting (and nothing but the meeting) and to judge one another and examine one another according to the terms of the meeting.  Stewart Traill called this a “shake yourself supper.”  We were not supposed to relax, or to eat for indulgence, but to be “shaking ourselves” and getting on one another’s case. Stewart wanted us to continue the high pressure of the meeting even during the breaks, because there was to be no lessening of the pressure. If you did not walk out of this compression chamber, you might not notice that there was a beautiful summer evening outside, with golden rays of sunlight.

(The verse of the Bible that Stewart used for the above (Stewart always gave a Biblical reason for things – usually twisted out of context), was 1 Corinthians 10:7, which is about what the Israelites did when Moses left them alone for a while. They made an idol (a golden calf), indulged in food and drink and then rose up to play and dance.  This verse says: “Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.’”

But in the case of the Israelites, Moses had been gone for weeks (up on the mountain talking to God) before they rose up to play, and maybe the Israelites presumed that Moses was dead and they began to worry about their future. Stewart always returned after an hour or two for the next session after dinner, yet he often accused us of throwing away the lesson from the previous session, saying that we had “indulged and risen up to dance and play” during the dinner break.


July 5th, 1993. Dinner break. It’s been a day and a half of meetings. It was pretty intense, especially today, the typical scenario of a brothers meeting, the whole crisis point situation. And then there was Stewart’s idea that, all through supper, we’re supposed to continue the same spirit of that meeting, really riding each other, a shake yourself supper, and getting the list of the brothers at 46th Street and whether or not they’re escaping. I just felt I had to walk away. I’m up here in the dormitory wing now. I’ve decided to pray for a little while.

I wanted to pray by a window. And here I can look out and see the maple trees. And, then I thought of making a tape. It’s a form of relief. When I was looking at these trees I thought, when was the last time I went to a park? It was five years ago that I used to go out and jog. I like the feeling of freedom I get by looking at these trees. I’m supposed to be in the meeting room with everyone else. It’s a constant ongoing process. I wondered what it would be like to do this 24 hours a day. I would fall apart. I wouldn’t be able to take it. I was sitting on a bench outside, before I came in here and already Jim O. came out and gave me that look from way over there, because he saw me sitting there alone. It was almost as if they were already coming out looking for me.

Here I am, just enjoying the feeling of the air blowing in this room and the golden evening sunlight on the trees out there. I can see the blue sky.

It might be dangerous to be in there all the time. I need to refresh myself. I haven’t gone out jogging, or been in parks for a long time. Yes, a few times, I have been able to walk through Prospect Park or sit outside at Red Hook. But I don’t do this very often. I never get much fresh air in my life. I guess that’s a general lament I have, the feeling of having lost a piece of myself. And not knowing how to pick it up again, or if I ever could pick it up again. Or, if this relief is something I even need. According to the way here, it is not. But I feel that it is important and that I would like to do that. And doing this is like remembering something I used to do.

(We were in the constant treadmill of cult life, either working all day in the church-owned business, being in meetings or other activities. Before Stewart got involved in our lives again, I used to have more time off this treadmill, and I was looking back to the benefits of that free time.)

I feel like I’m up here hiding and that I could get severely admonished for having done so. Not that they are looking for me, but maybe my absence will be noticed. It’s passive surveillance. I’m just trying to get in touch with the feeling of freshness I used to have in my life. I used to be able to go outside for some relief. I slipped out into the park once a day to escape the doldrums of life at Woodruff. Running through that park meant a lot to me at that time. Maybe this is just a fantasy. But, what did this hurt? Of course, Stewart has a teaching about how if you have to ask what’s wrong with doing something, then you haven’t settled it with God.

(In past times in the church, when I asked what’ was wrong with doing a certain thing, the brothers told me that even to ask that question, it meant I hadn’t settled it with God and that because I had doubts about the thing I was doing, I was sinning by doing that thing – even if it was not a wrong thing in and of itself. In my first year in the cult, Harry, an older brother, said that he didn’t think it was right that I was my room practicing the guitar, instead of being with my brothers and sisters all the time. I asked him, “What’s wrong with playing the guitar?” He told me that if I even had to ask what is wrong with doing something, it meant that I had not settled it with God and that if I was still playing the guitar and had doubts about it, I was sinning. Being introduced to this strange way of thinking and the confused introspection and the inability to be sure about anything that this mindset caused, did not help anyone to be confident in life and was one of many ways that helped COBU members to become dependent on what they were told to do, instead of “doing their own thing” and following their own ambitions or desires, whether it be hobbies, interests or career goals.)

In cults, for every question, there’s already an answer. Everything is so nailed down. Whatever I might think, or whatever motive I might have for something, or if I disagree with something, there’s already a supposed answer. I’m so nailed down. Maybe some people feel secure that way. I feel more or less threatened. Also, back then, when I was living at Woodruff, we didn’t have the intense mind drilling aspect we have now. At that time, I was escaping from a decaying nothingness, rather than escaping from Stewart’s new and intense deny yourself teachings. And the social life in the church back then, or attempting to have one, really lost its meaning for me.

(I was talking about past years in COBU, when I took up hobbies like running in order to escape from the pointless routines and the non-existent social life and that we were not allowed to have relationships with the sisters. I found relief and escapism by taking long runs in the park and enjoying being outside. These freedoms were severely curtailed after the so-called Grace Meeting in 1989, when Stewart Traill became much more involved in our lives. 

I could repudiate my college years as the “sinful past” I lived before coming to Christ (and becoming part of the ever-increasing living under lock and key and behind bars in COBU), but I could not regard my high school years as an utterly sinful time. I saw them as a happier time than my life now in the cult. When I was living at Woodruff Avenue, in the years that Stewart absented himself from our lives, I went back to many of the hobbies and activities I had in my high school years, as a way to escape the nothingness of cult life. Running was one of the most important of those activities for me.)

It’s ridiculous, hiding out here and looking at some trees and hoping to get that feeling back. And it’s actually working a little! I’m not trying to distract myself by burying myself in a book. I’m just sitting here and thinking about the things I always want to think about, and making a tape helps me concentrate these thoughts. Often, I want to sit and look at some branches through a window and meditate, but then my mind drifts. Or, I can’t be alone because I have no peace, so I always have to occupy myself with things. Making this tape forms a bridge, where I’m able to concentrate on a subject for a while and compose my thoughts, pondering and gathering my ideas on looking at branches waving in the wind. The maple branches are beautiful. There are different depths, the closer ones have more light on them. I can see the blue sky peeking through the branches further back. It represents freedom to me.

Images of summertime in my past come to me. When I was a kid I could get up and go somewhere, I wasn’t hammered in with all these restrictions. And now, my life is so tightly restricted. It’s like that Newsweek article I read recently about David Koresh. The article also named some other groups, such as the Church of Christ, where members have to report everything, including what they eat, how many times they masturbate. I understood that. Having to report, having all your moves monitored. Now, yes, that could have been a real Christian church and they’re just being in fellowship with one another.

(In other words, they have accountability and they try to be in the light with one another and confess their sings to one another, which was supposedly the reason why we did this self-reporting and monitoring of one another in COBU.)

But when one reports what he ate, you know there’s too much control. Sure, there is the confession of sins, but this sounds like reporting everything you do to a central authority. And they probably have an entire bulwark of beliefs, scriptures and teachings built up, so that the people in that church, at least the ones who are true believers, think that living this way is God’s will, and that not doing this is disobeying God. And we have our own version of this, where we’re nailed down at every aspect. It’s sloppy in some ways, but more sophisticated and dangerous in other ways. And gee, if I were discovered up here, not only would I be accused of hiding, I would be accused of doing my own thing and it would be really hard for me to answer for what I’m doing right now!

I should say, I’m not laying my life down for the new brothers. Well, I could always go back down there in half an hour and do that. The problem is that the individual has no value here. Or, I’m damned if I walk out for a while and relax and try to muse on my surroundings. It could only be evil and only tend to evil. And of course, I’m in so much trouble now for looking back to my life in this world, because seeing the trees out the window reminds me of when I was in high school, when I first stared noticing these things and enjoying summer, and how secretly, I look back to those days and wish I was free from all this. Free enough to step away for a while. And I would like to step out now and do something, at least for a little while. I would be so happy to be able to do this.

(“Looking back to this life” was a serious sin in COBU. Jesus said, “He who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is not fit for the kingdom of God.” I often found myself looking back to my life before the cult, when I was free to do things and was not subject to restrictions and constant pressure. My life before COBU was the only other life I could compare my life now to and I often found myself longing for those times. I didn’t look back on my college years, because I considered them to be sinful. I got lost in long daydreams about my high school years, when I spent a lot of time fishing and jogging, a time in my life when I was happier than when I was in COBU. 

During the period from 1986 to 1988 when Stewart Traill mostly left us alone, I took up many of the activities again that I used to do in high school, especially jogging and artwork. I still thought I could not leave COBU without leaving Jesus and going to hell. But I found ways to enjoy myself more, though many of these things had the aspect of escapism. This abruptly ended in 1989 with Stewart Traill’s show of repentance, and is part of the longing for freedom that I was talking about here, freedoms that I longed to have again, or to at least be able to think about for a while. I found a place to hide away from everyone, because I was not able to keep up with the constant pressure to be down in the meeting room with everyone else. Stewart said that we were not supposed to be alone, but I just had to get away and spend time by myself.)

Yes, underneath all these things going on in this intense meeting, it’s actually a summer evening. This world of summer is going on outside here while the cult rages inside. When we’re in there, that’s our only world. It’s extremely intense. We went through a long brothers meeting and then we got together in our little groups. Everyone with their intense, rapt looks of attention, as we dealt with the issues in our little groups. It reminded me of Lifton’s description of the pressure groups in communist prisons. I fully understand how anyone would break down under this pressure. It’s just too much.

So, I came up here to get away. It’s therapeutic. Though really, I don’t have to give any rhyme or reason for doing it. I just had to get out of there. I just knew I had to leave. I was wondering when the session would be over and when I heard Stewart say that during supper, we were supposed to be doing this and that, I thought, I have to get out of here, because it’s just too much. I cannot handle this. I try to survive meetings by being as detached as possible inwardly, because if I plug into what’s going on, it just wears me down. Whether that detaching is involuntary or not, well, I do that on purpose. But I find that I can’t engage anymore. And now I realize what I’m doing. Because of certain things that have happened within me, I’m not able to engage anymore inwardly into what’s going on, and for it to move me. A veil or a shield has come through.

(I was now shielded by a buffer zone between me and the cult teachings, pressures and way of life. I never had this detachment before and now, it was protecting me from these pressures. I was now an utter skeptic about Stewart, his claims and about our way of life.)

I have the sense that maybe all is not right and that what’s going on here isn’t right. But I will probably have to say something like, well I’ve sinned so many times that I’ve become dull. And I’m so proud and that’s really why this is no longer getting to me anymore. I’m getting dull and unable to be corrected. Whether or not that’s true, I don’t know. Because I’m beginning to believe certain things now and of course, God sends a strong delusion upon those who refuse to love the truth, so that they won’t be saved.

[I was working my way here through all the things that Stewart told us over the years, which I had believed – or had believed to enough of a degree to harm me. And if these things were not always directly and consciously on my mind, they were operating in the background and I often came up against them when I was questioning Stewart and what was going on in COBU. Stewart told us that if we wanted to believe a lie bad enough (such as that if we wanted to believe that we didn’t need to be in COBU to follow Jesus), God would send a strong delusion upon us to make us believe a lie, so we could leave and do what we wanted, because we wanted to get out of serving the truth so badly, God would let us have our way.

The verse in the Bible that Stewart used about God deceiving us if we wanted to rebel badly enough, is in 2 Thessalonians, Chapter 2, verses 9-12: “The coming of the lawless one by the activity of Satan will be with all power and with pretended signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are to perish, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.  Therefore God sends upon them a strong delusion, to make them believe what is false, so that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.”

This verse talks about those who will be deceived by the Antichrist because they refused to love the truth, and so they followed the ultimate lie, the Antichrist. Stewart used this verse for people who wanted to leave COBU, who thought that there might be an easier way to follow Jesus, or that this was not the right way to follow Jesus. This verse was not used for those who just wanted to go out and sin. It was for those who no longer believed in the COBU way – especially for those who were rather accurate and vocal in their observations about the falsehood practiced in COBU. According to Stewart, God was allowing them to be deceived, because they wanted it badly enough.

Part of that deception was that a person could have well-formed and pointed reasons that made sense, even though they were cleverly crafted lies of Satan. This is why I was often afraid to believe my own observations and conclusions about life there. It was a panic fear that seized me. Of course these things make sense to me!  God is allowing me to be deceived and to believe these lies, so of course these reasons sound plausible to me.)

So, that’s always the catch, I think I’m realizing things about the way it is here, but actually God is sending this delusion on me. And I wanted to believe it, so now I can. Therefore any independent conclusions I come to on anything that’s going on here that is contrary to the way I’m supposed think about it, well of course, I’m being deceived and I wanted to be. So I get scared and I try to run back to the fold. But I find the door closed. Or, the gear shift just won’t go into gear for me anymore.

And I’m just bent on self preservation. I know I had better not say that I don’t agree with something, because if I do, all hell’s going to break loose and it’s all going to come down on my head. I saw what happened to a brand new brother who just tried to say that something was not right here. Stewart conceded that this brother had a point, but that it was just his emotions. But by the end of the session, Stewart said that this new brother was “the leader of the murder-suicide pact!” Among the new disciple brothers, he was their “leader.”

The things Stewart says about people! Someone says that something is not right here, or complains about what’s going on here. Stewart begins to use labels on people. And he says things about them. In this case of this new brother voicing his complaint, Stewart now portrayed him as the leader of the new disciples’ rebellion. Now, that’s amazing! He paints and caricaturizes people, assigning roles to them that are beyond what they ever thought they might be doing! [On the tape, I was laughing aloud at my awareness of this.] The poor guy was just trying to say what he thought was wrong here and he ended up being an enemy of all righteousness, extremely arrogant – and destroying the brothers.

And when Stewart began to yell and rage and some new brothers started leaving the room, Stewart they said they were leaving because of that new brother. Then an older brother said that this brother had just caused three new brothers to leave. I thought these new brothers left because saw the treatment he was getting from Stewart, so they walked out. I mean, it’s amazing – do these people not see this? Do they not want to? They act like people who are in fear, like stories I’ve heard about people who are kidnapped or taken hostage. In any group of hostages, there are always a number of them who will obey their kidnappers and turn upon the other hostages who are not willing to obey. They do it out of fear and in order to save themselves. “What the kidnappers are telling us is right! We must do what they say!” And they start terrorizing their own fellow hostages even more than the kidnappers are terrorizing them. There’s something like that going on here.

[What I was bringing out here, is that the rest of the brothers and sisters in the meeting room, except the very newest people, were in agreement with Stewart and fully supported his statement that his new person was the leader of a rebellion and that was why other new people were walking out. An older brother spoke up in agreement with Stewart, saying that this brother made those people walk out. Didn’t the church members see that Stewart’s harsh treatment of that new brother was the cause of this and that the new brother had not made anyone leave the meeting? The church members were like hostages who were cooperating with their kidnapper, taking his side, against the obvious evidence. This is known as the Stockholm Syndrome. The principle behind the Stockholm Syndrome goes a long way in explaining just one out of the many strange behaviors in COBU.)

Are people here really that far gone? They would actually say that that new brother made three new brothers leave, by opening his mouth. He only opened his mouth for a short time and the rest of the time he was getting come down on. And while he was getting come down on by a Certain Someone Else, that’s when these other new brothers were leaving. As they were walking out, they said, “This is crazy. Forget this!” And I thought, they’re looking at the way this new brother is getting treated. They’re sensitive to that and they’re walking out. They don’t have enough of our ideology in their minds to tell them that if they walk out, they’re rejecting Christ, or whatever they’re supposed to believe. They just see what they see before their eyes and they’re walking out. But, you know, my fellow hostages would actually turn on this new brother and say, “You’re causing this problem.” And I just wonder, what do these people really think? And I realize, there is absolutely no one here I can talk to. And now when I look at it, this has been one of the more intense meetings we’ve had in a long time. Even though other meetings may have been more wearing. And I look at the older brothers who I see here and wonder: are you going to be coming after me and doing that? They’re like a bunch of evil maniacs who have just been terrorized, and now they’re ready to go out and terrorize others.

(I considered this new brother who raised a minor question about things being not right there and I saw the treatment he got from our so-called pastor (who called this brother “the leader of the murder suicide pact”) and the treatment he got from the older brothers, accusing this brother of being the reason why other new people are getting up and leaving during the beating he was getting and I saw how my “fellow hostages” supported Stewart Traill, my abuser. And I realized that if it was like that for a new person saying “something doesn’t seem right here,” then what is going to happen to me, someone who is supposed to know better to not even speak up about such things?

If the know-nothing new guy was not guided gently with an explanation, how about me, if I gave well-defined objections and spoke coming from years of experience in knowing what was wrong there? I realized that there was no one, absolutely no one, I was going to be able to talk to about any of these things. Not even on the side, not even in private. I was not going to get a fair hearing, I was not going to get an objective audience. Stewart Traill was going to accept no opposition (not even helpful suggestions) and everybody else, Stockholm Syndrome style, was going to speak and act in complete agreement with him. And whether that was because they truly believed in this way, or it was because of abject fear and a desire to save their own necks, whatever their motivation was at that point was not going to matter very much to me, because the effect would be the same.)

And of course, I’m supposed to say yes, the fear of God has been stirred up in them and they’re really urgent to escape hell. Really, they look like hostages who have turned to terrorize their fellow hostages and they’re running around with weapons and clubs and they’re going to beat the heck out of anyone who doesn’t do as they’re told. Because no one is talking calmly or rationally. They’re all desperately shouting that they’re doing this “because we’ve got to escape!” And everybody is acting like totally possessed madmen, they’re like growling like animals and running around. It’s amazing how one man can whip up 80 grown men into such a powerful frenzy. Although certainly the older brothers are more likely to get whipped up, but it’s an incredible response that Stewart gets from everyone.

Read the next section of Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry Cult Leader here: Then If Anyone Says To You, “Lo, Here Is The Christ!” Do Not Believe It.


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.

Below is a description of the Stockholm system.  (Source, Wikipedia.)

Stockholm syndrome, or capture–bonding, is a psychological phenomenon in which hostages express empathy and sympathy and have positive feelings toward their captors, sometimes to the point of defending them. These feelings are generally considered irrational in light of the danger or risk endured by the victims, who essentially mistake a lack of abuse from their captors for an act of kindness.

Stockholm syndrome can be seen as a form of traumatic bonding, which does not necessarily require a hostage scenario, but which describes “strong emotional ties that develop between two persons where one person intermittently harasses, beats, threatens, abuses, or intimidates the other.” One commonly used hypothesis to explain the effect of Stockholm syndrome is based on Freudian theory. It suggests that the bonding is the individual’s response to trauma in becoming a victim. Identifying with the aggressor is one way that the ego defends itself. When a victim believes the same values the aggressor, they cease to be a threat.




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