Sunday, October 31, 2010

WALKAWAY continues...

Here's another installment of Chapter One of WALKAWAY. I'm not sure how much of it I should post at a time as I don't want to split up the scenes. But this next scene is a long one so I'll post the second half next week. Thanks for reading. And thanks again for the encouragement and support. It's nice to know these words are landing on interested ears.

My thirty-three year old brother Owen meets us at the gate and drives us to Connecticut. It's been four years and he looks almost the same as the last time I saw him. His light brown hair is shorter, but he's still slender and pale, living the life of a struggling composer in New York.

I sleep most of the way home, in the back of my mother's Toyota, wedged between the two car seats. I awake to see Mom's church, its white clapboard frame with green shutters aglow under the snowy streetlights, a landmark that says we are close to Mom's house. Last week, just before a February Nor'Easter covered New England in snow, Mom flew out to Oregon to rescue us. Now we're almost home.

We arrive at a little after one in the morning. Mom bustles ahead and turns on the lights in the kitchen, the room nearest the door. I enter with Grace in her carrier. Owen has Josh. Mom is waiting with a long white box in her hands.

"This must be for you. It was sitting here on the table. It's a good thing I don't lock my doors."

I hand the baby to Mom, take the box and open the lid. It's a bouquet of a dozen red roses sent FTD from Portland. Red roses are the Doctor's favorite flowers, a symbol of God's love for us. Mom leans over to smell them.

"They've lost their scent," she says. "At least they're not as bad as those fake flowers they used in that mass Way wedding you were married in. So what does the card say?"

"It says, 'Happy Birthday, Kris. I love you. God loves you. Please come home, Alec.'"

"Well, he's got some nerve after how he's treated you. Some husband he is."

I close the box and place it on the coffee table, saying nothing.

Once the children are settled in bed, I stand near the bedroom window and look outside. Cold air seeps through the glass pane and I pull my nightgown tightly around me. Here in the country, the cloudless sky is ablaze with stars. How different from Portland where it is almost always overcast. My mind turns to Alec for a moment and I wonder what he is doing, where he is now, if he is with Patty, the new believer. I say a prayer for him, for us. Even though I've left him, I can't help praying. It's a reflex as natural as breathing. My mind is calm now, the voice in my head has stopped and I ask for forgiveness. I even speak in tongues because the Doctor taught us that tongues is the prayer God likes best. It is strange to be away from my spiritual family and home in this house alone with my earthly family. In the Way, fellowship with unbelievers is against The Word unless you are trying to convert them.

"Mommy," Josh says. His arms extend towards me and I kiss him on the forehead, the eyebrows and cheek. Then I tuck the old wool army blanket under his chin, covering the scratchy fringe with a worn sheet.

"It's okay, Josh," I whisper. "Go to sleep. We're home now."

Unable to wind down, I walk back into the family room and turn on a small light in the corner. The box of flowers sits unopened on the coffee table. I gather the roses in my arms and go into the kitchen in search of a large enough vase. Mom's bedroom is in the next room so I must be very quiet. I find a tall glass pitcher, run the water and arrange the flowers. The Doctor once gave me a rose after we'd had sex. Alec thought it was the nicest thing, so loving. He never suspected. Then he found out and everything fell apart.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

More about "Walkaway"

The way my mind works is this: I call someone on the phone. Nobody answers. It's my fault. Maybe it's my Jewish genes but guilt runs very deep in my veins. Omnipotent guilt in which I think I'm responsible for just about anything that happens in the world. The cult loved this. I was as easy to manipulate as a marionette. Things have gotten better since I left but I still have to stand guard against recalcitrant brain cells.

So when I post something like the first scene of a new book and almost nobody says anything, my insecurities spike and I wonder if I shouldn't just chuck myself into the fireplace. My husband tells me this is an extreme reaction, especially when there's no fire burning. In "Walkaway", I've been told the character is too weak and no one will like her (i.e. me). That's the problems with memoirs - her is me - you can't get away from yourself.

I'm happy to say that I'm through with memoirs and the narcissistic self-loathing that goes along with them. I'll have more fun with fiction because if no one answers the phone, I won't blame myself and think about throwing myself anywhere. Life is short. Why make it shorter? I'm working on something called "constructive hedonism," commonly known as "having fun." Not something that comes naturally to me. But fiction is fun, memoir is not. So there you go.

I'm still going to try to get "Walkaway" published though. I still think there are people out there, like yourselves maybe, who will relate to the confusion, fear and exhilaration that accompanies leaving a cult. My writing teacher once told me that the reason we write is to "relieve the world of some of its loneliness." If my writing helps one (preferably more but I'll go with one) person feel less lonely, then I have succeeded. Someone has answered the phone. Because writing is often like calling out into the void. When no one answers, you wonder what you did wrong. If someone does respond, even if it's to say "shut up and go back to sleep," at least you know you reached someone. You know you're not alone.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Beginning of my New Book - WALKAWAY

Many leave of their own accord because they become disillusioned,
fed up or burnt out, or they realize the cult was not what it said it was. …
Cult members who leave in this way are known as walkaways.
Margaret Thaler Singer, Ph.D.

I celebrate my twenty-ninth birthday by fleeing from my husband and a fundamentalist cult I joined when I was fourteen. My mother and I and my two kids barely make the jet from Portland, Oregon to New York, afraid that someone will follow us. But no one does. We crowd into the fifteenth row, in the last available seats, and we seem to be safe.

The plane lands at JFK at close to eleven'o'clock at night. Two-year-old Joshua is just starting to wind down, having whined and thrashed since Chicago, tormenting not only his grandmother but all the passengers within earshot. Grace, on the other hand, at one month, slept peacefully the whole trip, crying only when she needed my breast.

The stewardess kindly allows us to leave first. We're that family on the plane whom everyone stares at, daggers in their eyes, for keeping them up for the last three hours of a transcontinental flight. No one offers a hand, not a single expression of compassion. It's not like in The Way where believers would be tripping over each other to help. The Doctor always said the world is like this - cold, indifferent and hard, just like the devil. I pass a row of adolescents dressed in green and white soccer jerseys and one of the boys says, "Cute kid, but try some Ritalin next time."

Mom exits first, pushing the stroller filled with a baby satchel, purses and toys. She maneuvers through the hatch and leads us into the tunnel towards the terminal. I'm carrying both sleeping children, Joshua who has finally dozed, and Grace in her Snuggly. My arms feel like sledge hammers but I don't want to wake up the kids by calling for help.

I straggle behind when suddenly, Mom stops and turns around. She seems tiny compared to the other passengers who have started to deplane. Her dyed black hair is mussed and flattened on one side from pressing it against the window.

"Where are you?" She says with a hint of irritation. Guilt rips through me. See how bad you are, some voice in my head says. You're bad for upsetting her. Bad for leaving your marriage, bad for leaving the believers, bad for being alive. The Doctor always said that if we left The Way, we might as well be dead. "The only way you leave is feet first," he would say.

I train my eyes on Mom. The avalanche of thoughts keeps coming and I'm in free fall. When she sees me, she circles back. She looks angry now, deep hellish circles etched beneath her eyes. Bad. Bad. The voice gets louder. She stops in front of me, empties the stroller and takes Josh. His head is lolling back and forth and Grace is beginning to fuss. We're stopped in the middle of the aisle and New Yorkers are starting to stream by at an alarming rate. A bottleneck is forming behind us.

"Come on!"

"Move it."

"What's the problem?" a man shouts from the crowd.

"YOU'RE the problem," Mom yells. She grabs the stroller and starts towards the terminal without me. I take a step back, holding Grace's head to my chest and someone bumps into me hard from behind.

"Watch where you're going," he says.

I move over as far as I can and hug the wall. The strangers rush past me. I'm rocking Grace against my shoulder, praying God will show mercy and get us through this alive. There's no sign of Mom or Josh. The sounds around me are deafening, feet pounding against the hollow floor, voices echoing off the aluminum frame, the roar of air in the tunnel. My heart is pounding hard. I close my eyes. Bad. Please God, help us.

"What are you doing?"

I open my eyes and Mom is staring at me, a quizzical look on her face. Josh is strapped in the stroller, calmly drinking from a bottle filled with apple juice.

"Nothing," I say.

"Well, come on then. We have to get home."

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Mother of God

Last weekend, I met the mother of a cult leader. There's often talk of Second Generation Adults (SGA) - children of cultists who are born or co-opted into a group without their consent. But what about the parents? I've never given a thought to Wierwille's parents or Moon's or Gurumayai's. What were they like? What did they think?

Luna Tarlo, an unassuming, soft-spoken woman in her seventies, is the mother of Andrew Cohen, a popular American guru. She was one of his followers for three and a half years and wrote about her harrowing experience in a book called "Mother of God." I was introduced to her through my son who interviewed her for his documentary on U.G. Krishnamurti. U.G. basically "exit counseled" Luna from her son's cult.

Andrew Cohen is the founder of Enlightennext, "a non-profit organization endeavoring to create a revolution in consciousness and culture." Sound familiar? The Way made similar preposterous claims. "Word Over the World." WOW?!? Luna saw from the inside out how "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely." She was denigrated and humiliated by her son who instructed her, a writer, to throw all her writings into an incinerator. She did just that, believing him to know what was best for her better than she did. She was under his spell.

She hasn't seen her son for many years now. I didn't ask her how it felt. I hear from families of prisoners every week, from mothers and fathers whose sons have committed murder or robbery or rape. Some are bathed with shame, others with horror, many with anger. Sometimes I wonder why I work in a prison. I say it is to make fewer criminals, yet there is an identification that takes place in me. A "there but for the grace of God, go I" sort of thing. But I digress.

I'm sure many of us have heard our own parents' relief when they knew we were free of the cult. I know from my mother's reports how frustrating and infuriating and sad it was to have her only daughter seized in the stranglehold of a megalomaniac. But for Luna, whose son IS the leader, what is that like? She seemed perfectly at peace with herself, that she had done everything she could to raise him in a decent path. It's tempting to blame the parents, to say,"Your son is a (fill-in-the-blank) criminal …mad man….cult leader."

Luna's book is a sensitive portrayal of the dilemma we all face as parents. We believe in our children and trust them to follow a righteous path. But what do we do when they veer from our instruction and become someone we do not recognize? Luna followed her son to the ends of the earth and came up disillusioned. She was not afraid to speak out against him once she realized his ends and means were wrong. Her book, like many accounts of cult survivors, is full of sadness, rage and healing. But it has another element - courage - a moral clarity that has the courage to declare something is wrong when it IS wrong. Even when it's your own son.

Luna said she wrote the book in hopes of waking Andrew up. It hasn't. He's become more popular. But she has been encouraged to write the sequel - the book in which she waits, continuing to be there for her son when he at last becomes disillusioned with what his life has become. Because we all know that "every idol has clay feet." But the power Andrew wields is intoxicating. It may take a miracle for him to open his eyes. But Luna hasn't stopped believing in her son, not the one idolized by thousands of people, but the one she nursed and raised. Miracles happen. They happened to us. It can even happen to a cult leader. I hope for Andrew's sake, and for Luna's, that it does.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Reality Breaks

I just visited Betsy Lerner's very funny blog about writing ( It is really entertaining, even if you're not a writer. She writes a few witty paragraphs, asks a follow-up question and gets a lot of responses. I was going to go to my Weight-Watchers meeting, especially after I'd consumed a bowl of chili, cake, ice cream and barbeque chips. But I read her blog instead. It made me feel good. I'm not hungry anymore.

Now Thriving in Reality is pretty serious business. Or is it? I mean, there's my 9 month old grandson and he's got a new toy from Genius Babies, because he is, of course, on the road to brilliance. It's a little workbench type thing with a blue and yellow plastic hammer and four color-coded balls which the genius baby is to hit through a color-coded hole. Sounds complicated even for an adult. My grandson put the hammer in his mouth and sucked on it. A good choice. I probably would have done the same thing.

My son just came into the library asking for a "crap novel" - something to divert himself from his otherwise serious work of editing and making existential films. He wanted a something "light" like a detective story. I looked but the closest I could find was Sherlock Holmes. And who wants Sherlock Holmes? I am disappointed by the astounding lack of good crappy novels in my library. I mean what to do when you're overwhelmed with gravity? How to lighten up?

My son has returned to the library eating a veggie burger and a pickle. He has given up the search for a good dime store novel. I ask him what he's going to do now, now that I have failed to provide him once again with what he needs.

"I'm going outside to smoke half a cigarette then I'm going back to work," he says.

"Why half a cigarette?"

"Because that's all I need."

Everyone needs a break from reality. Reality, even when you're thriving, can be a lot to take. Food, cigarettes, toys, detective novels, funny blogs….whatever gets you through the night. Now, if I were Betsy Lerner, I'd ask "how do you cope with Reality?" What gets you through the night?