1993, 07/08 1. Prisoners for the Lord. Taking A Break From Cult Life Is Forbidden.
I made this tape while walking through Brooklyn Heights on a summer day. I bought a blank tape and recorded my thoughts as I walked through the neighborhoods, then continued talking as I sat outside the Red Hook Warehouse. I was talking about about trying to detach myself from cult life long enough to think about what I was doing – and also to try to enjoy a summer day for a little while before I went back to the treadmill of cult life.
July 8, 1993
Label on tape: “Walking through Brooklyn Heights to Red Hook. Also: Talking About Summer.”
I’m walking down the streets of Brooklyn Heights on a nice summer day, July 8th, 1993. I bought this tape to record my thoughts as I was walking. Going into that store and buying a blank tape was like buying a roll of film, except that I’m going to record my thoughts on tape rather than record impressions on film.
A more immediate reason, and the reason why I bought this tape, was that I was going through a mental battle. You see, I’ve slipped through the cracks of our intense surveillance system. I’m between Staten Island and Red Hook. I should be out looking for new customers today. I imagine Chuck or someone coming along and saying, “You know, you just do your own thing,” and then trying to explain to him how this isn’t wrong, and that besides, I’m working tonight anyway.
(I guarded the church’s house in Staten Island the previous night and after leaving there, now I was expected to show up at one of the cult’s centers of activity to report for work, either at the office in Manhattan or at the Red Hook warehouse, but I realized that, at least for the time being, no one knew where I was.)
I hardly even realize it’s summer. I’m here on a sweltering hazy midsummer day.
Of course, I realize I can’t win. I imagine being in that circle of brothers again and someone saying, “Oh, so you just do your own thing? What if we all did what we wanted to do all the time?” I could just say, “Then we’d find out who really wants to be here for real.” But, the words “you can’t win,” “no win situation” and “the policy of non-resistance” come into my mind about that.
I’m along walking these streets, going down Joralemon Street, which still has old cobblestones on it. This is the area I worked in February, one the few things I did in the church business that I actually liked and that I considered to be something of my own.
(I walked around this area for a couple of weeks in February, passing out flyers and soliciting work for COBU’s Christian Brothers Carpet Cleaning business. I did this alone and I liked working on my own sales territory and making it my own.)
I just gave an estimate for cleaning at the St. Agnes Center. I went down that street to take a short break in front of that very place and the door happened to be open and I went in and talked to the guy in there.
The two weeks in February when I looked for customers in this area was something I did on my own initiative. I worked hard at it. I staked it out as my own territory, no one else had the area. It was at least something I could truly consider my own and I had a measure of satisfaction in doing it.
Because, I don’t really like any of the work I do. Forget about carpet cleaning. And soliciting now is a total drag to me and I have a hard time working at it. Sanding wood floors just provides certain fringe benefits that I happen to prefer over the other fringe benefits I get when I go out soliciting. Although I suppose there’s the satisfaction of seeing something go from start to finish, especially on the wood floor jobs I do mostly by myself.
Now, with this whole incident with the brothers saying I was arrogant the other night. (This is when we heard that there were two sisters, who were not named, waiting at the train station for a ride, and Joe and Bob both said they couldn’t go, adding that it wouldn’t be good for them to go. Realizing who those two sisters must be then, I said, half jokingly, “Oh, so I’ll have to pick up Kathryn and Carrie at the station then.” And the extreme anger that Ron reacted in, this culminating with a brother saying that I was arrogant.)
It’s entirely ridiculous and I wonder why I can’t talk to these people. Of course, there’s always the possibility that they see something negative about me that I don’t see, but this was beyond ridiculous. And then in the morning, when the brothers came in one after another (I slept at the office) – and these were brothers who weren’t even there last night – the first thing they said when they saw me was, “So, I heard you were being arrogant last night.” That even included when I called over to Red Hook to talk to Andrew. The first thing Andrew said was, “So, Jim, I heard you were being arrogant.”
It’s not like they were trying to find out if I really had been arrogant or not. They act as if they already know and they’re asking me, “Well, what are you going to do about it?” And, not one of them asked, “What happened? I want to find out if you really were arrogant or what the situation was.” Although Andrew said, “What happened?” and in that case I declined to explain, maybe because of how all these brothers had already treated me this morning. But there’s always the feeling of what good would it do. Somehow, if you get into explaining the circumstance, you’re definitely showing that you did what they said you did.
(If I explained the circumstances that happened last night, it would sound like I was making excuses for my actions and whoever I was telling this to would then use this as evidence against me that I had indeed been “arrogant.”)
This is combined with how there really is no forum in our church for discussing anything. Meetings are conducted in a courtroom spirit, yet there’s no church small claims court where you can go with your case to prove that what you did wasn’t wrong and where you can get a hearing. And where you could actually get others to take up your defense. This recourse is totally non-existent among us.
So, I play the doormat, I hang my head and say, “Yes, I was arrogant.” Totally knowing that I’m lying and that I was not arrogant. But then I think of, the whole battle of trying to say that I’m not arrogant, and they only turn the screws tighter on you.
(The story about naming the names of the sisters waiting at the station is also mentioned at The Tangled Web, on the page called A Sister By Any Other Name Would Be Just As Sweet. Scroll down about halfway on the page to find the story.)
This calls to mind how I torture myself worse than my torturers do and how I say to myself that there’s nothing I can do about it, and then I begin to play the part. Don’t I take myself one step further than I’m being taken? And I wonder if ultimately, all of this is unhealthy and that it would better just to stand up for my rights and say, “I didn’t do anything wrong.” Although here, if a person comes off as “standing up for their rights,” they’ve already lost. But then, what about the idea of non-resistance? There is a certain wisdom to non-resistance, and it’s quite possible that I’m not being fully non-resistant. I’m still trying to prove a point and imagining that if I could just show the brothers how this or that is so, then they will consider it. And they don’t.
So now, I’m dealing with what I have been considering for years, which is our church’s utilitarian concept of people where there are no inner realities. There is the other inner reality, the salvation of your soul, but with this great polarity, nothing in between exists, and we are not allowed to refuse to do anything for any reason. There is no turning down work in the church business, because work doesn’t interfere with the salvation of our souls. And of course, there’s no reason why anyone would turn down work except for a selfish reason.
(What I meant by “utilitarian concept,” is that people in COBU were just used for the work they performed and that there are no inner realities. And that the only other inner reality dealt with in COBU, supposedly, was the salvation of our souls. There was nothing in between. So people gave up everything for the salvation of their souls and in the meantime, their bodies were just cogs in the wheel of the COBU business machine, and there were no other things about people, or about yourself to consider or to develop, nor were any of our needs met, other than a place to sleep on the floor and some food to eat.)
Now some of this may just be leftovers from several years ago when the church businesses were even more intense than they are now and they demanded all of our time, leaving us worn out and with little time for anything else. I remember when the schedule of the carpet business was extremely intense and it made my life difficult. A lot of it was learning to accommodate myself to the institution. But on days like this, I still feel it. I left Staten Island, where I guarded last night. Yes it’s true I got some rest. I made the 12 o’clock ferry, having slept there until 10:30. God forbid, but I actually did sleep that late. And I went to Brooklyn and I walked for a while. Then I caught the bus. And that was quite a lot of “free time.” And well, why wasn’t I up a lot earlier and in to the city and out soliciting for work? And then my requisite fear that someone is going to ask me about it and I’ll be absolutely defenseless in trying to give my reasons for taking a break. I certainly can’t give any of the reasons that are on this tape. And I can’t claim that I’m even doing anything constructive right now. I just want to get away from the milieu. That in itself may be constructive. I think it’s a healthy thing to do.
And now, I’m sitting at the corner at the Red Hook mansion. [I came back to the Red Hook warehouse and was sitting outside.] Before deciding what else to do, I decided to just enjoy summer for ten minutes. These ten minute breaks are about all I can get. It is indeed a hazy summer day. The air is humid, the temperature is sweltering. It’s everything summer was meant to be.
I just want to stop for a while. I want to get off the boat and on land. I want to get off the merry go round briefly, to stop and consider what I’m doing. Not that I don’t know what I’m doing. What is there to figure out? It’s not like I have to figure something out, I just want to stop for a while. I’ve been running for a long time and I want to lean against a tree to catch my breath. I want to rest. Just like at night when I go to sleep, I don’t need to figure out why I need rest and why they won’t let me rest and how I used to be able to get rest. That’s essentially what I’m doing right now.
I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to recapture summer in its fullest measure, like I once had in my life. It even appears I’ll never even get it like I used to when I lived at Woodruff and could go out to the park [an earlier time in COBU, when I had more time to myself]. Though I never really got to enjoy summer back then. I was always trying to enjoy it. But when I lost the ability to use that park, I realized I lost something and I was upset over losing it. I’m still this way, but I’ve grown dull to the pain or I don’t even think of it anymore. I get up every day and work, it’s not a part of my life anymore. And I have learned from experience that there’s no use in trying to recapture it. It would require too much effort, even when I did have the opportunity.
In fact, I see the opportunity so completely outside of my grasp that it’s not even worth bothering to try to grasp it anymore. Although I do enjoy making this tape, sitting here, around the back of the Red Hook warehouse, among all the green growth and the weeds. I can see the sky, the bay and the Statue of Liberty.
I realize that wherever I may be, such as at the 46th Street office, but especially at Red Hook, that once I walk out the door, I feel better. The moment I step out the door everything changes. Well, I have to disappear from sight too. If I’m standing out front, I’m still vulnerable to being seen by the others as taking a break and relaxing. I realized this one day when I walked away from the Red Hook warehouse, how once I walked down the street, my whole mental outlook changed. I felt completely different about everything.
Here I am around the corner. There’s a good chance I won’t be found here. Whatever pressures there are in there, around all the other church members, are not out here. As soon as I walk in there, I become really uptight, walking on the eggshells. Is someone going to come up to me, asking, “What are you doing about your arrogance?” And it’s back into the fish tank.
I remember in February, even when I wasn’t under such direct pressure as I am now, I walked down the street one Sunday morning and by the time I got to the spice company down there (I was just going to get coffee), I realized, “Wow! Everything seems totally different. The vice grip is off my head,” or whatever way I want to explain it. I thought, “Man! What a difference!”
(I used walk away from the warehouse – where a group of COBU brothers were living communally – and after walking out of that milieu for a while, I noticed how much better I felt. And this was at a time when I was not being hounded by groups of brothers to confess to being arrogant because of some incident where my behavior was deemed not to match the meek and compliant doormat behavior that was expected of us. I had shown a little savvy and even humor at a ridiculous situation, and now I had to do damage control – mostly by going back to doormat behavior and just agreeing with whatever the brothers were saying about me, because they considered any response other than this as “fighting,” which they folded back on me as more “proof” of my “arrogance,” as charged.
This was a difficult tightrope to walk, but it was a tightrope I knew all too well, and the others were eager to enforce that behavior. I was also saying that even at a time when I was not being so intensely hounded by the brothers, that once I walked away from the cult by walking down the street, I felt refreshed and by contrast, realized just how locked in I was in all my thoughts and actions when around the others.)
Because in fellowship life, our life is spent in three basic locations, not including the Philadelphia property: our place of residence, the office, and then the floating location, which is the job site we’re on. And there’s sweeping too. But all our time is spent in these places. The only other thing we have is transit between these points. I can take a brief trip to the library, but I’m watching the clock. I either got there an hour before closing or I realize that I can’t stay long and get into something. I have to try to cram something in.
And even our workplaces are microcosms. They’re portable fellowships. I remember when we were working in Locust Valley. That’s a town that has never known the fellowship and it has existed as a town for about three hundred years. And there was that little blacksmith shop converted into an antique shop we were working in. And one day, when I walked away and down the street a little ways, I realized the job site was like a little fellowship with all the requisite pressures and feelings and all the requisite expectations on my behavior and thoughts.
We’re always in one of these pressure capsules. And I realized we had brought a selection of new brothers and older brothers with us. It was like one of those space stations they send out, with a man, a woman, a dog and some plants. They try to have all the representatives of life on earth. And they send all of them out there together, trying to recreate the same conditions that exist on earth. And here it was, the same conditions as in the fellowship and we never realize that’s how we live all the time. We’re always within the same confines, whether it’s the same location or portable locations, like fellowships in tents that set up shop in different locations for a day or two.
And of course, this has always been considered to be an asset. We have a fellowship so we don’t have to be in the world, or alone in the world, and so we don’t have to obey the world’s rules or at least not to such an extent. This living arrangement is supposed to be an asset, but sometimes I wonder just when it ceases to be an asset or, as the author of the book about the Shiloh Community said, “It had great potential for good, but it also had great potential for evil.” And, “who was to say which was which” or “who was going to be able to restrain it or know the difference or create a balance.”
(More about the Christian sect called Shiloh can be found here: Frank Sandford and Shiloh.)
Then there’s the question of how much does this affect my mind and my thinking, and my actions that come from my thinking. And even today, as I was coming back here, I felt like I never get a break from this. Or last night at Staten Island, after writing a letter to my mother, I stepped out to walk to the store, just for a moment. It was a relief, just walking away from there. Not just the place, it was also walking away from my thoughts that I had been ardently pouring into this letter, describing my life here. Then I think, I wish I could just walk down the street. But, I find that it doesn’t work very well, just walking down the street, I either have no peace, or there’s something I want to do, or I feel like I’m not doing anything.
That’s the one thing I used to be able to do when I lived in Woodruff. I could go out to the park for two hours. Sometimes it seems that was a lot better. I had no burdens, as far as feeling I had to learn any knowledge and I hardly read the Bible or anything else. All I wanted to do is was to go back to the life I had before coming to the church, and I just wanted to be out in that park in all seasons and to remember various time periods in my past.
In many ways, that time in the church was carefree as compared to now. Now I feel like I can’t go out there and enjoy two hours in the park, because either I’m not hitting the books or because I know more now. These last four years have been an onslaught, an assault on my mind. And there are all the things Stewart tells us and he says we’re not doing them. It creates a considerable burden on me, whereas before this, it was better not to have known. I didn’t know these things back then. And often I wish it was 1988 and I had my delivery job again and I could be away from everyone all day.
(I was talking about how our cult leader, Stewart had essentially left us alone for a couple of years and I had a lot more free time. Then he decided to involve himself in our lives again and our lives became a constant treadmill of working for the cult. And Stewart introduced new teachings which were mostly about denying our lives in this world and about the threat of going to hell. I was longing for easier times in the cult, before this started up. The “hitting the books” that I mentioned was how much I was studying about cults and manipulation, as well as Christian doctrine, to try to understand what was happening to me and what I was being influenced by. The quest to understand this was often a great burden and I tried to give up on it sometimes, but circumstances and the pressure of cult life always drove me back to examining these things again.)
Now, I could go back to my diary from 1988 and read about times when I was in absolute misery then too and how I just hated everything that was going on and I wished I wasn’t here, and that I was at the Jersey shore instead. Maybe I could just say it’s gotten a step worse and now that I see it, I’d rather be there than here.
I often wish I had a delivery van to drive alone in every day, away from everyone here. It’s not that I want it because it’s a job without responsibilities, it’s more because it’s a job with definite time limits and set hours. I had time for myself after work for back then, whereas technically, we don’t have after hours now, even though being on the wood floor schedule frees me from the relentless carpet cleaning schedule. But back then, at four o’clock, my job was over. I wouldn’t hear anybody tell me, “You’re on a night job tonight,” or, “You have to work this Saturday.” There were definite borders on my work time. And I could use the other time for what I wanted. And that might have been more healthy.
Now, there are no definite boundaries to anything. Coming back from Staten Island, I hope that nobody realizes that it’s two o’clock and I’m not out soliciting. And I can’t prove that I need sleep, because I just had a whole night’s sleep at Staten Island. And even though I’m working tonight, here I am hiding, hoping not to be known or seen by anyone and that no one knows where I am right now. Hopefully, I’m working the system. Between these hours, maybe no one is going to try to find out where I am. I might not be on anyone’s mind. The best I can hope is to say is, “I really wasn’t feeling well. The heat was getting to me and I felt wiped out.” I usually don’t lie about being sick. Well, I don’t lie about being sick. But it happens to be true that I feel really exhausted right now. It’s getting at least borderline close enough to where I could probably say I’m not feeling well.
Just a side note: before I left Staten Island, I was in the living room with some of the young people there. We were watching a documentary about Hurricane Andrew. There are a lot of things on my mind about that, such as getting to watch television, and it was interesting to watch that. It’s the kind of thing I like to see. I wouldn’t mind having a VCR and documentaries to watch. Sure, it’s good to read about things, but pictures help a lot.
(Watching television was forbidden in COBU, although a special exception was made for the Staten Island house where mothers lived with their children.)
So now, I’m rambling on here in this apparently directionless tape. Maybe I’ll describe my life during my delivery job, but that would take some effort. I don’t know if I’m really into that. The other night, I was talking on tape about the year I was in the Jersey City fellowship. I desire to talk about these past times. I want to remember my life. But sometimes it feels so tedious to sit down to try to record that. Sometimes I wonder what the point of it all is. Somehow, my past doesn’t mean anything anymore. My initial years here in the fellowship are just totally invalid as far as having any meaning that could be extracted from them and I never really did especially apply any meaning to my years in the fellowship. I used to extract meaning from my years prior to coming to the fellowship. But I feel like Stewart’s recent teachings have invalidated my total life experience. Or is it because I’m unfaithful to Christ that nothing I’ve ever done will ever matter, not even to myself, and I can sit there and try to remember the things I used to do, but it’s not going to help me.
(Stewart was constantly accusing COBU members of being unfaithful to Christ, which he proved to us at nearly every meeting, according to the criteria and standards of faithfulness he preached. I felt worthless.)
Being out here is a good opportunity to look at the clouds. Puffy cumulus clouds are beginning to come by. That’s one of the things summer is all about. And, I’m not crazy about walking back into the warehouse here, I’m just not. I guess due to the quality of my relationships with others these days. And in our church, we’re supposed to be around the others at all times and it’s never understood that anyone might want to get away for a while. This is not recognized or considered valid, nor does anyone ever speak of it. No one would ever bring up the subject. It just doesn’t exist. And I guess the only reason it exists in my mind is because I’m a wicked person or a backslider, or whatever. What does that say about me, that I would even think of such a thing?
It’s weird that I have to go through this intense gyration to justify taking some time in the afternoon to sit out back behind the shop. Because it’s summertime and I just wanted to stop for a while and see that it really is summer. Because I can guarantee that all summer long I will try to look at summer, but I can probably count on the fingers of one hand the actual times when I stop and say, “Hey, it’s summer. Let’s have a look at this; let’s just go out and sit down and see that it really is summer,” and do the best possible to immerse myself in summer for a while and lose myself in it. Because I have to do that to really feel it.
I had to turn this tape recorder off for an entire two minutes, as trucks came by and went and went. It’s really true that you’re never free from the sound of motors for very long. And this is a backwoods corner of Red Hook. It seems like it should be quiet back here. Oh, and one of the trucks that went by had the word “Utopia” on the side of it. And you know, it all goes to show that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, there’s such thing as Utopia, there’s no such thing as a quiet place. It’s really strange that there’s absolutely nowhere I can go right now without people being around. There’s a new disciple cleaning up out front, there are people inside the shop, Paul’s sleeping in the closet. There’s the noise out here, if I walk down the to end of the street, there are people there, there are people down by the water.
Not having a home of my own precludes the ability to have a quiet space. And the ethic of our fellowship and also the physical arrangements of it preclude privacy. Privacy is pretty much considered to be an evil here. I mean, there’s privacy when you’re in the bathroom. You can close the door behind you. But, one of the avowed purposes of the fellowship is to destroy one’s own privacy, one’s own thinking, one’s own choice. These are all spoken against as evil. Stewart’s idea is that there shouldn’t be any walls between us, that we should all sleep where there are no walls, we should all eat and live as one.
Here I am down the end of the street, I hear the water lapping against the stones here. It’s like being back home at the Manasquan River, except for that tanker out there. I’m experiencing some of the feelings I might have on a summer day in Point Pleasant by being here.
[I was having success, to some degree, of enjoying the things I used to enjoy before I came to the cult, while taking this break.]
But I feel I can’t stay here because of all the people around. I can never truly get comfortable.
The water is amazingly clear, in spite of all the things that are floating on top of it. I wouldn’t mind being able to walk for a while in Point Pleasant, walking along the water somewhere. Sometimes, that’s what I think I need, it would be good to get away somewhere and go walking.
Wherever I go, I have a feeling I can’t settle down. There’s a guy over here, looking at the crane, there are kids over there by the water, someone over there by the shop. And fellowship life is designed so that you have to keep the fronts up at all times, living crowded in like that. It would be really bad to be seen just sitting on a porch. That makes people worried. The idea of any inner self-expression, or anything like that, makes their hackles rise. Exactly why, I don’t know. We all have to get up at the same time, eat at the same time. It’s like a family, living and working together. Fortunately, I’ve escaped a lot of that, but that’s the feeling. Well, the new disciple brothers like doing that. The older brothers at least pay it lip service. They would rather not, but they have to. Then again, no one would dare say, “Well, I don’t think I should.”
I don’t know if these brothers really believe this or not, but, I would just have to add my own experience to the picture and say, I know why I wouldn’t say anything. Besides, just from the exposure I would receive for being a tremendously selfish person for wanting time to myself, and [imitating Stewart’s voice, spoken slowly, deliberately], “You don’t want to live this way? Well then, what do you have that’s better?” Or any of the kind of pressure that can be brought to bear on me. What it will amount to is: I will wish I had never said anything. And that’s pretty much any time I express an opinion contrary to our way of life here. I never end up thinking that at least I said what I thought. What I end up thinking is, I wish I never said anything.
That ought to be my conclusion. Well, I can’t really call that a conclusion, but that will be the result of any speaking up that I do. And I guess I’m just an complainer; it’s just the way that I am and I just don’t like anything.
Yes, I would like to go away to Point Pleasant for a couple of days. But, you know, I can’t. None of us would even think of expressing a wish like that, because we would have to say why we want it. And I already know the reasons why we’re not allowed to do these things. It’s not that I tried asking for it and I found out the answer was no, and now I know not to ask again. I’ve already heard what Stewart has spoken. I heard the terms of the law being laid down, long before, when Stewart said, “Christians don’t take vacations.”
(Stewart Traill said that “Christians don’t take vacations.” Stewart often took little vacations in the Caribbean himself. While saying that he was on official church business at COBU’s orphanages in Haiti, he stopped over in the Bahamas for a couple of days and hung out on the beach with his wife Gayle.)
It would be horrible for me to even express such a wish openly and I would be instantly accused of the intense crime of wishing to get away from here for a while. What would that show about me, what are things that this would point out about me? You have the feeling that others really know the way you are anyway, but you don’t want them to have to say anything about it. And doing such things would make them say something about it. Imagine if I said, “Hey brothers, I want to take a short break and go somewhere.” The whole thing of having to say to somebody.
Read the next session of Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry Cult leader: The Overwhelming Pressure To Conform To Cult Life.
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.