ESCAPE FROM THE CULT©
by Janis Hutchinson
The cult leader burst through the door of the small room where I was being held prisoner.
"Are you ready to repent!" he shouted, his face red with anger. "Are you ready to come into our meeting and admit you were worshipping at the altar of Baal!"
I fell back on my bed, emotionally cringing at the thought of another encounter. After nine months of his tirades and charges of being a traitor to God, plus disillusionment over beloved doctrines, and believing I'd never see my family again-I didn't care if I lived or died.
Sick, and fighting waves of nausea, I had no strength to reason with this man . . . a man whom I once thought held special favor with God.
"All I want to do now, is die," I said weakly.
"No way!" He moved closer, his body towering over me. "Wouldn't you just love to have something happen to you so the police would come in! There's no way you're going to bring a murder charge down on me! You're going to stay alive so you can repent!" he shouted. "You're a traitor, not only to us, but God! Denounce the Jesus you found in that Christian church!"
He stormed out of the room yelling, his footsteps echoing through the empty building. I heard the front door slam shut, and I was left alone in the silence.
I lay on the bed, staring up at the bare light bulb dangling from the hole in the ceiling. Looking continuously at bleak, unfinished walls day after day in a small, eight by ten room, was almost more than I could bear.
Captive in that small room for nine months, I suffered through crushing disappointments, unanswered questions, mental and emotional agonies, depression, and failing health. At times it became so bad, I thought I was losing my mind. All I wanted to do was die. Little did I know that a week later my death would nearly become a reality.
I lay there wondering. How did such a noble venture on my part turn into such a nightmare? I prayed to be led to more truth! I hoped to serve God more fully by joining the Order!
My mind retraced the steps of how I had landed in such a frightful situation. I was restless and bored in the mainline Mormon Church, to which I had belonged to for thirty-four years. Having served in practically every church capacity, I was spurred on by their teaching to strive for perfection--hungry for some additional opportunity to draw closer to God. From my studies, I began to suspect that the present LDS Church was in a state of apostasy from its original teachings.
My persistence led to discovering the secret underground movement--Mormon Fundamentalism. I began attending their secret meetings, and studied their literature. I became convinced that they were living everything that Joseph Smith and Brigham Young promulgated.
I also knew that in earlier times the church had practiced a United Order--living communally, and having all things in common. Surely, I thought, if I could live this kind of life, it would be a good test to see if I could unselfishly share everything I had with others.
The Fundamentalists did indeed practice this type of communal living. Spread throughout Mexico, Utah, Idaho, Colorado, Wyoming, Arizona, New Mexico, Canada, California, Oregon and Nevada, their membership of about fifty thousand consisted mostly of excommunicated members from the mainline church. However, besides excommunicated Mormons, there were also a good number who were still in good standing in the mainline church and kept their fundamentalist affiliation and beliefs secret. However, any member, discovered having interests or sympathies with this organization, is excommunicated because of the strong antagonism between the two groups.
Fundamentalists accuse the mainline church of succumbing to federal pressure in 1890, and not standing up for God by maintaining the original doctrines and practices that Joseph Smith and Brigham Young taught. These practices and doctrines included United Order, polygamy (not all Fundamentalists practice the latter) the Adam-God doctrine, and other beliefs. Fundamentalists insist that they have been true and faithful to God by embracing the older priesthood structure, and by wearing the long style of temple garments used in the nineteenth century.
A United Order seemed like an answer to my prayer, and I began attending their secret meetings in Salt Lake City.
I was warned not to drive my own car, but to ride with someone else. "The Investigation Committee of the LDS (Mormon) Church," members explained, "somehow always finds out when and where meetings are to be held, and take down the license plates of all cars in a two block radius. If any attendee is identified as a member of the mainline church, they are called in by their bishop and asked to sign a Test Oath." At that time, this consisted of a lengthy document vowing full allegiance to church leaders in Salt Lake City. (To my knowledge, the signing of this kind of document is no longer required.)
At Fundamentalist meetings, I learned about "United Efforts," groups operating on a smaller scale, and that also shared goods and finances.
Since the New Testament saints had tried it in the Book of Acts, I believed it was a heavenly principle, and that God had restored it through Joseph Smith. By participating in a system where everything was held in common, it would be a good method to purge out any hidden selfishness I might have, perfect myself, and grow closer to God--it was the opportunity of a lifetime! I envisioned everyone loving each other in Christ--a virtual paradise! My husband passed away a year earlier, my children were grown, so I was free to go.
I put my home up for sale, more than willing to give the proceeds to the Order. Since the house didn't sell by the time I was ready to leave, I left it in the hands of a realtor. With stars in my eyes I took off with a heavily loaded U-Haul containing every stick of furniture I owned, for one of the United Effort groups in Montana.
It was located on a remote farm in the boondocks, near Flathead Lake. The old, wood-framed farmhouse at the end of its long, dirt driveway served as the headquarters where meetings were held. There was a corral for cows, and a huge cornfield. A large, two-story, unfinished building sat at the back of the property. Its interior consisted only of studs to indicate where future rooms would be. Only the walls of one small, 8 x 10 room were sheet-rocked. The contents of my U-Haul were placed upstairs in this building.
At first, I was treated royally, and showered with love and attention. I thought I'd landed in heaven! I learned later that when one first enters a cult, this is called the "honeymoon period." But, as I was soon to find out, it wouldn't last.
It was a tough adjustment. Drinking water had to be hauled in due to too much iron in the well water. The brownish-red water we bathed in was like taking a bath in root beer--a novelty at first--and we had to drive to a Laundromat in a nearby town to do our laundry. There was only one bathroom for fourteen people, and the toilet was clogged most of the time. There were other shocking conditions that I prefer not to mention. However, I didn't mind--I was living a principle I believed was right!
Gradually, things began to change. Loving attitudes soon reverted to strife, jealousy, and contention. It was a shock when I realized everyone didn't love each other.
Life in the Order grew progressively worse as the months dragged on. Stricter rules were added, and robot obedience to the leader's priesthood authority was demanded. If I had to drive into town to the Laundromat, I was obliged to say, "Please, may I"--and then only if I said it just right, and in a humble enough tone. The joy I experienced at the beginning of my venture was gone--I felt desolate.
In addition, the violent temper and sharp tongue of the leader's wife continually left me in tears. Devastated over her jealous hatred toward me, and shocked at the Order's unexpected demands and control, I began to withdraw. I tolerated the adults when I was forced into their company during chores, but I mostly kept to myself, associating with the children who genuinely enjoyed my company.
Although most of my activities were strictly curtailed, I still had one freedom--that is, if I asked nicely enough. Since the Order's Sunday church services were held in the afternoons, I was given permission to drive up to Flathead Lake in the mornings. When asked why I wanted to go, I told the leader I wanted to pray and meditate on the wonderful principles of the Order. But, the real reason? I needed to get away from what seemed like a dark cloud over the farm.
At the lake, it never entered my mind to flee. I had covenanted before God to enter that Order and felt a sacred obligation not only to hold fast to the covenant I had made with heaven, but also to obey the leader whom, at the time, I believed held the Priesthood.
One morning, by the lake, I poured my heart out to God asking him to lift my depression. I prayed for humility so I would be more submissive to the leader-for charity, so I could become immune to his wife's verbal abuse.
Winter soon set in, and the snow became too deep to drive to the lake. However, determined not to give up my Sunday mornings, I pretended to go to the lake but, instead, drove aimlessly over the barren plains.
One morning, out in the middle of nowhere, I came to the intersection of two lone highways. On one corner was a gas station. On the other was a small Christian church named, The Little Brown Church. I decided to go in, realizing that I would have to keep it a secret from the Order. I quietly slipped into the back row.
The singing and atmosphere of peace and love were in such sharp contrast to life on the farm, that my spirits immediately lifted. The song leader and pastor spoke so many kind and loving things that I began to gain a clearer perspective of how wrong things were in the Order. Strangely, rather than the pastor, it was the song leader who influenced me the most.
Before every hymn, he took the time to explain what each verse meant. Perhaps he did it for my sake. Certainly, I was conspicuous in my ankle length skirt, and my up-to-the-neck, long-sleeved blouse. Nevertheless, for the first time I learned what grace meant--something never expounded on in the LDS Church. I also learned that works would never get me into heaven. Since the Mormon Church demanded that, this really sent my confused thinking into a whirl!
He also explained what Calvary and reconciliation really meant. Contrary to Mormon teaching, Adam's sin did apply to me. Inherently, I was a sinner--not a basically good person who was a literal, divine, offspring of God! That was a tough pill to swallow!
But, in the face of it all, I began to gain a new understanding of what Jesus did for me on the cross. This, of course, did not mean I thought of leaving the Order, nor giving up my belief in other Mormon doctrines. I simply incorporated the new concepts into my Mormon thinking.
Returning to the farm, I was able to cope with the abuse for another week. The leader's wife could lash out at me with her sharp tongue, and it was like water rolling off a duck's back. My church experience miraculously lifted all my depression as I focused on the strange new beliefs about Jesus.
My change did not go unnoticed by the others. The children came to me and said that their parents were making remarks such as, "I wonder what's come over Janis? "I don't know," another would reply, "but, whatever it is, it's sure good!"
Eagerly, I looked forward to each Sunday. However, after attending for four Sundays, my worst fears were realized--I was followed!
When I returned to the farm, the leader confronted me.
"Have you been attending that Little Brown Church!" he shouted.
"Yes," I replied timidly. "But, let me tell you about Jesus . . . I got no further. In times past I had seen individuals lose their temper, but I had never seen rage before. I was shocked, as all hell literally broke loose!
"Didn't you know you were worshipping at the Altar of Baal!" he screamed. "Attending that Christian church now makes you guilty of spiritual adultery!"
"Why are you treating me this way?" I cried. "Don't we believe in Jesus?"
"Of course," came his caustic retort, "but you found him in a Christian church instead of through me! I'm your spiritual head! You learn through me!"
Demanding the keys to my car, I dutifully handed them over. I no longer had my freedom, and I was confined to the unfinished building at the back of the property, in the 8x10 room that was sheet rocked. There was a bed, a dresser, and a small window. A bare light bulb hung from a hole in the ceiling. There was no running water, or toilet facilities--only a thunder bucket.
I was to remain in isolation. Everyone was forbidden to speak with me, including the children. The only way I could be reinstated in fellowship was to come into their Sacrament meeting and publicly repent of my sin for attending the church--also to denounce the Christian Jesus. I refused.
Bible verses my Christian grandmother repeated to me when I was young went through my mind--special verses about God's love. I thought of my unselfish reason for entering the Order, and my love for Mormonism. Why was God letting all this happen to me?
Alone, in the small room, I was miserable. To keep from going crazy during my solitary confinement, I began reading books and unpublished manuscripts the leader had given me earlier--books carefully handed down from early Mormon times, and which were supposed to contain "higher truths" of God.
I discovered shocking doctrines about Joseph Smith; also strange temple rituals that I never heard of, nor witnessed, when I had gone through the temple years earlier. I read of men being sealed (married) to men, instead of men to women, and suggestive innuendoes of how these sealings were to be consummated in the temple-even between men!
In addition, I was not prepared to read about women having plural husbands, although I was familiar with the doctrine of plural wives in Brigham Young's day. How could I belong to something that believed like that! Even though these particular doctrines were not presently practiced by the mainline church, I felt that surely this couldn't be what the Mormon Church was founded upon! I was shattered, suspecting that other doctrines I had believed in for so long might also be wrong. I felt let down--cheated.
Throughout the oncoming difficult months, the leader periodically came into my room to revile me, and force me to recant my stand.
Over and over he demanded that I renounce the Christian Jesus. "Repent!" he yelled. Again, I refused.
"If you ever get into the Celestial Kingdom," he screamed on his way out, "it will only be because I, a priesthood holder, decide to reach down and pull you up!"
My health deteriorated. I grew thinner, and my thinking processes became sluggish. At times it was difficult to even make my mind work. Other times, I found myself going through mental gymnastics in an attempt to rationalize my circumstances. Soon I actually had myself believing my situation was what I deserved.
I slipped in and out of deep depression--sometimes so deep, that I was on the verge of suicide. I had so wanted to live the principle that Joseph Smith had advocated, and what the New Testament Christians tried. I was willing to share everything I had with others--even to giving the leader practically all of my life's savings, in the belief I was giving to God.
Surprisingly, after the first few months, I never tried to escape, even though I concluded that the rules of the leader and the principles he lived by were wrong. Gradually, I began to entertain the idea that Mormon doctrines might possibly be wrong. Yet, I was concerned about the commitment I made when I went into the Order. I promised, before God, to share everything I had!
Whenever I briefly thought about leaving, the leader's words resounded in my mind over and over again: "God doesn't like a covenant breaker--God doesn't like a covenant-breaker"--a kind of brainwashing that he drilled into members.
Not wanting God to think I was a covenant-breaker I resigned myself to my fate. Come what may, I would not try to escape and become that! I would be faithful to whatever promise I made to God. A promise was a promise, and was binding even if done in error. More especially, I was determined not to renounce the Christian Jesus.
Seven months passed . . . eight . . . nine. My health grew worse. I lost all incentive to live. I was at the lowest ebb of my life.
"Why don't you let me die?" I said one day to the leader on one of his abusive visits. His response was always the same.
"You're staying alive--the law's not coming come down on me!"
In my weakened condition, I wondered how long it would take to actually die--my answer came sooner than I anticipated.
One afternoon the six-year-old son of the leader managed to sneak into the building in an attempt to visit me, and found me unconscious on the floor.
As was told to me later by the leader's oldest son, the child ran out and told the adults. The leader and his so-called, priesthood-holding cronies rushed into my room.
They lifted me back upon my bed, and immediately began praying and anointing me with oil. At the same time, they called upon the authority of their Holy Melchizedek priesthood to raise the dead.
They feverishly worked over me--not because they were concerned about me, but because their worse fears might be realized--I might die and their revered leader could face a murder charge!
I have no idea how long I was unconscious, but when I finally came to, my body felt so horrible that I weakly raised one arm to look at it.
I had never before seen anything so grotesque! There was no pink color at all. Every bit of my flesh was a solid fusion of black, gray, and purple. My other arm was the same. I assumed that my whole body had to be that way.
Seeing that I had rallied, they left. To my relief the leader quit coming to my room, when he finally realized that I was not going to repent of my so-called sin. However, the leader made sure his wife brought better food in to me. She reluctantly complied, along with hostile looks of anger toward me. She was mad because by my nearly dying I had almost jeopardized the legal safety of her husband. How dare I!
During the next two months I slowly regained a degree of strength, but not without growing health problems. Crippling pain spasms shot through my neck and back, striking without warning. In addition, I had a completely paralyzed colon (as diagnosed later by a doctor) as well as other complications which, after I escaped, required surgery.
One day something strange, but marvelous, happened. Kneeling by my bed and praying aloud--entertaining no thoughts about asking for help to escape--I was right in the middle of a sentence when I was interrupted with these words:
"I shall deliver you."
Stunned, I sat back, recognizing that it had to be from God. A surprising peace filled me--then suddenly, elation!
Wow! I thought. God evidently approves of my leaving! That means if I leave, he won't consider me a covenant-breaker! I truly felt God had spoken to me--it was all I needed!
Although extremely thin and still suffering from serious physical problems, I became excited about leaving. Then I wondered how? When?
My thoughts turned to my furniture and personal belongings stored on the floor above me. I didn't want to leave without them. Since my house in California had not sold, I would need them. Suddenly, my plan of escape began to form.
I watched out the small window of my room on the day that I knew the leader and members went into town. After they piled into their cars, including mine, I waited about twenty minutes. Leaving my room, I walked through the vacant building and towards the door. Miraculously, it was unlocked.
I crossed the yard and headed toward the main farmhouse. My heart suddenly stopped. Two men came out of the house, headed towards the corral. They were about 150 feet across the yard, and seemed to glance in my direction. Yet, it was as if they didn't even see me. They continued on to the corrals, and I hurried to the rear of the farmhouse, my heart in my throat.
Quickly slipping through the back door, I reached for the kitchen telephone and fumbled through the telephone directory. I dialed a Mayflower moving company and made arrangements for them to come the following week. I then hurried back to my room.
The night before the van was due to arrive, I waited until dark, when everyone was in bed. I crept out of my room. I knew the leader kept the keys to my car on a nail inside the back door of the main house. I was glad for one thing--he had been using my car the last nine months, so the battery wasn't dead! Quickly, I grabbed the keys and hurried back to my room.
The pre-arranged morning arrived, and I saw the Mayflower pull into the long, dirt driveway. Hurrying out of the building, grateful for what strength I had, I waved my arms and motioned to the driver.
At the sound of the huge truck, the leader and others came rushing out of the main house. They can't stop me now, I thought, not with strangers on the property!
I spoke with the drivers, a husband and wife team. Signing the papers, I wondered why a large white dove was painted on the door of their cab. I learned later that they were Christians.
I directed them to where everything was stored--then stuck to them like glue. The leader and other members stood their distance silently fuming, daring not to prevent me with outsiders there.
When nearly finished, the driver and his wife asked, "Is everything all right?"
"Yes," I said, sensing that although they were puzzled, they knew I was in some kind of tense situation.
"I'll meet you in three days at my California address," I said. "But, just before you drive out, do me a favor? Let me pull out in front of you." They seemed to understand.
Nervously, I walked to my car and climbed in. Suddenly, in the side-view mirror I saw the leader start towards me. I panicked.
Turning the key, I jammed my foot against the accelerator and took off. Momentarily losing control of the car, I sideswiped a pile of railroad ties stacked alongside the driveway, and bashed a huge dent in the passenger side. I gunned the car down the long dirt driveway and onto the open highway. Free at last!
I headed towards Kalispell, to wire my California bank for money. I had just enough left to finance my trip home. Other than that, I had nothing. However, for now my dominant thought was, I'm free!
As I drove, I began to cry. First, I cried out of relief. Then I cried because my body felt so sick and terrible. Next, I cried because my Mormon beliefs had been destroyed. But, lastly, I cried because my dream of finding a community sanctioned by God, with everyone wanting to live, love, and share, had been a delusion.
But now, at least, it was over--or so I thought. I was unaware of the length of time it would take to overcome all the physical and emotional aftereffects.
I was facing three to eight years of flashbacks, conflicting emotions, and nightmares. Plus, after nine months of severe isolation, I grappled with disorientation and an inability to speak and relate to people. It was like learning how to talk all over again.
In addition I had anxiety attacks, fearing that the cult leader would find me and either force me back to the cult, or carry out the doctrine of "Blood Atonement" on me, and I was afraid to walk by any window at night, for fear of being shot. In the cult's eyes, I had apostatized from God, and Jesus' blood couldn't cover something that terrible. The only way I would inherit some degree of salvation in heaven, was if my own blood were spilt--and it was their responsibility to see that this was done.
I was also left with prolonged health problems. A neck brace controlled crippling pain spasms in my neck and back; a severe hemorrhage required six blood transfusions; and with a paralyzed colon, I faced a possible colostomy. (I was spared the latter because of the focused efforts of Christians praying for my condition--plus a later miracle). However, I underwent surgery for other related matters.
Further, although I had no desire to return to the Montana group, I was plagued with Mormonism itself. What if the Book of Mormon is really true! What if Joseph Smith was really a prophet! What if I become a daughter of perdition by leaving! These "what if" questions, I learned later, are typical concerns not only of ex-Mormons, but all those exiting cults.
Dealing with the emotional aftermath would prove to be the most soul-wrenching, excruciating, experience of my life, as I underwent one psychological crisis after another.
Nevertheless, I knew that God had watched over me through the whole ordeal. If He had not spoken to me in that moment of prayer, I never would have left the Order. There was no question in my mind that if I had stayed, I would have died.
God also saw to it during the year that I was gone, that my house didn't sell--I had a home to return to. Further, he protected my house from four fires started in the basement by children breaking in.
However, at that moment, all I knew was that I had escaped from the cult alive, and was headed home--to my new life as a Christian!
Adjusting to a Christian church, and dealing with the bewildering aftermath of problems, proved extremely difficult. The Christian pastor and his wife, while very loving people, could not understand what I was going through. Most pastors, even with all their training in counseling, are unprepared to address the unique problems that former Mormons, or ex-cultists, bring with them.
Therefore, an ex-Mormon friend and I drove six hours to Salt Lake City, to search Christian bookstores. We hoped to find a book that would explain the problems we were having. Finding no such book, I decided it needed to be written.
Therefore, in 1994, after earning a B.th and M.A. degrees in Theology, Kregel Publications published my first book, "Out of the Cults and Into the Church: Understanding and encouraging ex-cultists"--the only book on the Christian market to describe, in extensive detail, the difficulties ex-cultists go through.
This book is an excellent resource for lay Christians and pastors, enabling them to understand the unique problems. It is designed two ways:
First, it offers insight and guidelines to Christians who are trying to help former cultists. At the end of each chapter is a section entitled, "How Christians Can Help." Christians indeed need to be educated in this area, since ex-cultists usually will not share their problems with those working with them. They will deceptively portray a positive and joyful fašade. This is due to (1) they sense that Christians expect them to overcome their problems faster, which they are unable to do, and (2) they know Christians can't possibly understand what they're going through, even if they try to explain it to them. The stress of covering up problems proves traumatic, and with no help many return to their cult.
Second, the book is designed for new converts to Christ who will see, probably for the first time, why they are having such severe problems. In the midst of their emotional upheaval, they are incapable of assessing this.
In 1995, Kregel Publications published my second book, "The Mormon Missionaries: An inside look at their real message and methods," and a Spanish version: "Misioneros Mormones," for distribution in Latin America. This book is appropriate to hand to Mormons. It also serves to confirm to ex-Mormons that they made the right decision to leave.
"The Mormon Missionaries" is set against the backdrop of a Bible College where I taught for a short time. At that time, two Mormon missionaries bravely ventured onto campus, and the book spring-boarded from there.
The story is about Susan, a student, who falls for one of the handsome Mormon missionaries. Believing she can convert him to Christianity, she agrees to take their lessons. She soon finds herself in over her head, torn between her emotions and her Christian faith. A concerned teacher on campus, a former Mormon, accompanies her to the lessons, counsels Susan about their false claims, and discusses the Mormon material in her cults class. The book exposes Mormon evangelizing strategies, unveils doctrines purposely concealed from potential converts, reveals sources that Joseph Smith used for his doctrines, and much more.
*Copyright 2003 - 2013. This story cannot be copied and used in a professional publication without express permission of the author.