I am writing this at the conference of the International Cultic Studies Association in Washington DC. Although the weather is extremely hot, we cope by relying on the massive amount of air conditioning flowing into every room of the Sheraton Hotel which is the setting for the conference. The conference proper begins tomorrow but I arrived for the pre-conference session. One of the topics was to discuss the academic research that is being done in the broad area of cultic studies. I went along to this anxious to find out the academic tools that are used to research this area of life that is so hard even to define.
The session passed off fairly uneventfully with individuals describing aspects of research work they were undertaking in different parts of the globe. My own method of research, which is to range widely across relevant disciplines seeking insights into this difficult area of study, seemed more interesting than collecting vast amounts of interview data before subjecting it to analytical scrutiny. I told the assembled group about my random methods of study and then the woman next to me began to speak.
What follows is an impression of her story and some of it was gathered afterwards at lunch. I asked her whether I could include it on the blog and she agreed. She was particularly grateful to me because I had been able to put some of her story into a wider historical and theological context.
Tammy was born to parents who had converted to an obscure Protestant sect in around 1971. The date is significant because it is the time when vast numbers of ‘baby-boomers’ moved away from Vietnam protests and the ideas of ‘hippiedom’ to embrace evangelical ideas and groups. The whole family had joined including her uncle and aunt and her maternal grandmother. At first the sect was fairly typical but very early on the group embraced fashionable teaching of ‘shepherding’. This teaching ensured that everyone was under the ‘covering’ of someone else. The whole church was like a massive pyramid so that each person was obedient to someone over them. I explained that this teaching had emerged in the 1960s in Argentina to help beleaguered Protestants survive a period of oppression by a military dictatorship. It was then imported to the States and countries around the world. Whatever the intentions of its founder, Juan Ortiz, it was applied with great crassness and even cruelty. The movement was officially abandoned in the mid 80s but, as Chris will testify, the ideas have lingered in many churches up to this day. The church members received little benefit from being shepherded and instead many suffered severely when the care was applied by immature shepherds. These no doubt were attempting to gain compensation from being badly shepherded by others above them. Tammy mentioned that the leader of her group was supposed to receive oversight from some ‘high-ups’ in the movement but broke away from them when they demanded he go through a session of deliverance from spirits.
Higher education was denied Tammy as being inappropriate for young people, so Tammy was married off at the age of 18 to another member of the group. The marriage produced three children but eventually broke down when Tammy began to question the teachings of the group. It was easier for her when the dispute between the leader and those above him became an issue and the energy of the group was deflected to this rather than retaining control over the lives of all the members
In due course Tammy and her children fled leaving behind the husband in the group. To date Tammy has had to spend vast sums of money to prevent the father claiming custody. When the lawyer helping her had explained to him the issues and patterns of control that existed in the group, he expressed surprise. The simple answer is that almost anything in America goes in the religious realm on the grounds of freedom of worship.
Tammy is making a good recovery, and in her 40s has stated studies which will lead her to being a counsellor. I have not recorded every detail of the conversation but I was struck how many times over lunch, I would comment, when she referred to some practice by the leader in the group, ‘that was to maintain their control’.
Shepherding was one the massively abusive practices by the church which spread from obscure beginnings in Argentina via the States to be found all over the world. It provided a method of coercion and control which fed the egos of those in charge and left those at the bottom with very little sense of self-worth. Such identity that remained was often filled with shame and self-loathing. I hope that my ability to interpret in part Tammy’s story will help her on her path to healing. She has done well to escape but in telling a part of her story, one is reminded of all the many, many others who still remain in thrall to extreme cultic groups.
I expect to have more to report over this week.