A new refuge for walkaways:
Center to aid ex-members of cults
The Boston Globe, 25 August 1999
By Jordana Hart
LAKEVILLE – A nursing home that sits empty and ramshackle in farm country about 50 miles south of Boston is slated to open next summer as the nation’s first residential home for people who have left or escaped religious mind-control groups.
The New England Institute of Religious Research, which says it helps former cult members put their lives back together, is remodeling the 2 1/2-acre property it bought here last month as a treatment center for up to 25 people, including families.
Each resident will be given three months to be reintroduced to their families, jobs, homes, even to their own names, according to the institute’s director, the Rev. Robert Pardon.
Some clients may come from such high-profile communal groups as Heaven’s Gate and the Branch Davidians. But most will have left largely unknown New Age and religious groups that allow members to live on their own but use coercive means to make them give the group everything, including wages and every free moment.
These “walkaways,” as therapists, ministers, and cult specialists call them, often have no money, no job, no friends outside their religious group, and frayed family ties. In addition, they often have a deep fear of leaving groups that work hard at promoting dependency.
“I wanted to call and tell them why I left. For a while, I thought I had made a mistake” by leaving, said Jeffrey F. Brown, 50, who spent most of the past five years with the Twelve Tribes on their 11-acre property in East Aurora, N.Y.
Brown said he joined the group out of a yearning to study the Bible every day. He was initially captivated by the group’s peaceful lifestyle and loving care of members’ children, he said. He worked long hours in construction and then worked in the group’s bakery. Though he was fed and clothed, Brown was not paid for his work.
An international group with 28 branches worldwide, the Twelve Tribes believe they are direct descendants of the biblical Israelites.
Brown – who was renamed Zacharyah Cham by the group’s elders – said he finally decided to leave last May 5 after he was forbidden from taking anything but homeopathic medicine for his worsening diabetes.
Deborah Reichmann, 26, a divinity school student in St. Paul, Minn., left a Twelve Tribes communal farm in Bellows Falls, Vt., two years ago, after four cult-awareness specialists, including Pardon, met with her at her parents’ request during a visit to her family’s Indiana home.
Reichmann said she joined the Twelve Tribes after meeting members at a Grateful Dead concert in 1995.
“I was willing to join them because I wanted to please God, and I wanted to live out the Bible. I believed they knew how to do that,” said Reichmann, who taught the sect’s children. “But I realized that while I was with the tribe, I could not see things clearly.”
An estimated 300,000 Americans like Brown and Reichmann walk away from 5,000 mind-control groups or communes each year in the United States, specialists say.
Leaving such groups often means having to rebuild lives and deal with guilt, fear, and regret, say former cult members.
Therapists who work with former cult members say it can take up to four years to overcome the effects of being in an abusive group. Therapists liken the work they do to counseling substance abusers.
But despite the large numbers believed to be affected, specialists say, there are only two short-term treatment centers: Wellspring, run by a cult awareness educator in Ohio, and the Odenwald Residence in Leibenstadt, Germany. Both offer two-week programs.
Meanwhile, Lakeville officials are not at all sure how to respond to the center planned for Crooked Lane. They have met once with Pardon and say they have more questions than answers.
“I don’t even know know if this is something I am for or against,” said Selectman Chawner Hurd. “Let me put it this way: This is a nice, quiet neighborhood in a nice, quiet town. We don’t want anything that will cause furor or uproar. But we are not sure what our powers are.”
Hurd said he has asked the town attorney whether the center requires a local or state license, whether children can be allowed to live there, and, if they can, whether those children have the right to attend Lakeville public schools, even though their families would not pay property taxes here.
Pardon said he was not aware of any licensing problems, but he stressed that he wants to work with the town because the services the home would provide are badly needed.
“Leaving these groups is not like leaving the Kiwanis Club,” he said. “These people are leaving God’s groups.”
Judith Barba, the institute’s associate director, said: “You lose your identity. They name you, and every aspect of your life is regulated.”
Pardon and Barba say that one of their biggest hopes is that the center will help dispel myths about cults and the people who join them.
For example, studies have shown that people who join cults are no more likely to be mentally ill or depressed than anyone else. And specialists say that, for the most part, people do not knowingly join cults, but join what they consider to be a group appealing to their needs.
“We don’t come out against beliefs, but we look at abusive practices,” said Julia Bronder, executive director of a foundation in Connecticut that helps former cult members.
“The halfway house will give people a safe place to work out everything that is conflicting them,” Bronder said.