May 31, 2018

How Uncover: Escaping NXIVM offers an unprecedented look inside an alleged cult

Josh Bloch interviews Sarah Edmondson in front of the former site of Vancouver's Executive Success Programs (ESP) centre in February 2018. (Kathleen Goldhar/CBC)
Josh Bloch interviews Sarah Edmondson
Jonathan Ore
CBC Radio
May 31, 2018
By any stretch of the imagination, it's an outrageous story.

An Albany-based organization that calls itself a self-help group is accused of being a cult. One former member describes being branded with a hot cauterizing device, searing the initials of the group's leader permanently into her flesh.

Arrests are made. Charges are laid. People implicated include a hypnotist, the millionaire heiresses to a liquor dynasty and a few Hollywood stars.

CBC's podcast Uncover: Escaping NXIVM peels back the layers of this organization, focusing on key figures in the group's history while documenting one woman's quest to free herself from its grasp.

CBC Radio spoke with co-producers Josh Bloch and Kathleen Goldhar about the chance meeting that sparked the podcast in the first place, and what groups like NXIVM have in common with other controversial or cult-like organizations — from their recruitment tactics to the polarizing personalities at their head.
What is Uncover: Escaping NXIVM?

JB: The podcast is about this organization called NXIVM, which fronts as a self-help group, as a humanitarian program, and that has been accused by some people that have left of being a cult – of using the self-help aspect of the organization to groom women to sleep with the leader [Keith Raniere].

How did the idea for the podcast start?

I ended up running into an old friend of mine [Sarah Edmondson] in Vancouver, who had just left the organization. It was August [2017], she had literally just left about two months before that, and was considering going to the media about her experience.

She had been in it for 12 years. She was running their Vancouver offices. She was their star recruiter. And it was a crazy story she was telling me.
The more I looked into it, the crazier the story was.- Josh Bloch, host

The more I looked into it, the crazier the story was. I initially thought, oh, this would be a fascinating interview for The Current or maybe a documentary. [But] it just was too big. It was too hard to imagine how you would tell the story in just 20 minutes, and that's how the podcast came about.

KG: Except you missed one really important detail.

JB: Which was what?

KG: That she told you she got branded.

JB: Right. Yes.

KG: She had been thinking she was joining a women's only support and empowerment group [called DOS, or "dominant over submissive"] within the group. She thought she was going to have a ceremony where she was going to get a tattoo that would sort of tie them all together.

It ended up that she got held down and branded. Then she found out that she was branded with the leader's initials – Keith Raniere – and with the Smallville actress's initials – Allison Mack.

What can people expect when they listen to this podcast?

KG: Well, the story has been in the news. So everyone at this point sort of knows the name Keith Raniere, and knows about the branding.

Arrest of alleged cult leader 'better than my wedding day,' former NXIVM member says

What we do differently, which is what podcasts can do, is bring you into that story like you have never heard or read before. So for the first episode, we literally put you on the table with Sarah while [the branding] is happening.
The other thing that we do is help you understand, through understanding their teachings and their philosophies, [is] how Sarah, this seemingly normal educated reasonable woman, could get to the point where she's lying on a table getting cauterized and burned. And [how] even in that moment thinks this is something she needs to do.
What we do differently, which is what podcasts can do, is bring you into that story like you have never heard or read before.- Kathleen Goldhar, producer

We also do a deep dive into their leader, Keith Raniere. We go to his neighborhood where he grew up; we talk to old friends, we talk to old girlfriends, we talk to people who have left him but have a lot of insights into him, and — as best we can for somebody who's kept very quiet about who he is — try to figure out his true motivations.

And we also introduce you to people that have so far felt tangential to the story. We bring them in and explain how important they are, including people like Clare and Sara Bronfman, who were heiresses to the [Seagram liquor] fortune, who are funding NXIVM.

There's been a long-time fascination with cults or cult-like organizations, especially those that have some kind of Hollywood connection. Were there any similarities in the NXIVM story to other well-known cult stories?

JB: One of the things as we were digging into, and talking to experts about, is you realize how they all have pretty much the same playbook. They all do similar kinds of things in order to recruit people and to get people involved and to make it difficult to leave and to isolate people that go there.

One of the things they did very well was create a really powerful hook. For whatever messed-up things happened in the higher levels of the organization, we've talked to dozens of people who took their entry-level courses … and almost everyone says they loved them. They're really good, they were stimulating, we got a lot out of them, and we had these breakthroughs, etc.
So the entry-level stuff was good, and the higher you climbed up into it, the weirder it got and the more privy you were to this really intense dark misogyny that runs through the whole thing.
They had that self-help side … They had this idea of executive success and really wanted to attract people who were successful and give off this air of, "become part of this organization because you can be as successful and beautiful as everyone in this community." They put a lot of value on money and physical looks.

Over the last few months, arrests were made and charges were laid. How did that change the podcast as you were developing it? Did it make things easier or harder?

KG: In one way it made it weirdly easier because once the FBI puts it down in public documents about an indictment, you can repeat the indictment as the indictment.

Up until this point we had to allege — well, we're still alleging — but we had to work much harder to find people to say it for us. For example the brand: Is it his initials? Well, the FBI says it's his initials, so we can say it that way.
We could get past that part of the investigation and then just start to do the more interesting things which are how they got there, who he [Raniere] is, that stuff. So that made it easier.

What was it like working on a series where you weren't able to talk to the central figure — Keith Raniere? Did it make things difficult?

KG: Well, we got to see him.

JB: We were 20 feet away from him. Maybe less.

KG: We went to court and saw him [after his arrest].

We talked to dozens of people and started to see patterns. And we started to figure out what made him tick, and what he was really about. 

He sells himself as the smartest man in the world with a 240 IQ who's good at everything. And the more we figure out, the more we come to realize his teachings are a mishmash of a whole bunch of other things.

But what's fascinating about him is he's figured out people too because people are incredibly loyal to this man. Everybody that we've talked to who either still loves him or did love him said that he was amazingly good at zeroing in on somebody and making you feel like you were the only and most important person in the world.

He listened really carefully to what you had to say. He knew exactly how to make you feel empowered in going after what you wanted.

Do you think this podcast will help people learn more about these kinds of groups, perhaps break down some of the popular ideas about them?

JB: I think that it definitely moves past the headlines. The really simple characterisation of people inside [these kinds of groups] is they're either simply victims or simply perpetrators. I think it affords people a chance to see the complex humans that are behind the story and that get involved in this kind of thing.

There are a lot of stories being told about cults, through documentaries and books and all kinds of stuff. It just seems to be the zeitgeist and it taps into something bigger, I think: the curiosity about how free-willed we are or the power to manipulate. Certainly people are intrigued beyond just the salacious headlines.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Subscribe now to Uncover: Escaping NXIVM and join the conversation on

May 30, 2018

I wound up at a mental clinic because I thought I was crazy

What is Gaslighting?
What is Gaslighting?

Vanessa Brown
May 27, 2018

WHEN Connie* first met her now ex-husband, she knew it was going to be something more than simply a fleeting relationship.

Connecting online, their relationship flourished — and within five months of meeting — the pair were engaged.

“He was very nice and giving,” the 46-year-old from Georgia in the United States told

“When he proposed, he took me to New York City and it happened in Chinatown.
“I was very vulnerable and had been single for a long time, but he said all the right things. “He did drink, but I was in love and I thought I could change him.”
Connie, who now works as a medical assistant, said the marriage was only short lived. After suspecting her ex of cheating, he became verbally abusive — and the “gaslighting” started.

“He would misplace my keys and put them somewhere else so I looked crazy,” she explained.

“He was using fluorescent paint so I would see writing on the wall at night, but it wasn’t there during the day. I’d question what’s on the wall, and he’d say I was crazy and that nothing was there.

“I spent a week in a mental hospital because I was seeing things that weren’t there, and I even went on medication because I thought I was going crazy. It was all very psychotic, and it was really evil.”

Gaslighting is described by social commentator Ruth Ostrow as “a covert form of ­manipulation, intimidation or psychological abuse, sometimes called ‘ambient abuse’, where false information is presented to the victim, making them doubt their own memory, perception and, quite often, their sanity. Using denial, misdirection, contradiction and mixing of the facts, it attempts to destabilise the victim’s beliefs.”

Connie said when she tried to question him about his behaviour — the texting and her suspicions — he started to crack.

“I believed in the beginning that he loved me,” she explained.
“But as soon as I questioned him about anything, he would throw a rock through a window.

“I couldn’t deal with the controlling behaviour and wanting to control me and everything that I was doing.

“He was cheating on me, and when I found out and started questioning him about it, he would immediately go in to a rage and say that I had no business asking him anything.”

Connie, who now has a small Facebook page dedicated to helping others who feel they are being gaslighted by their partners, says she’s only recently started to get her confidence back after leaving the toxic relationship.
“I have been to counsellors who think my ex-husband wanted to keep me around, but he didn’t want me asking any questions,” she explained of the abuse.

“He wanted to be able to live his life and do his own things, but not have me interrogating.”
Connie says since starting the Facebook page, more than 1300 people from around the world have joined to discuss their horror experiences.
This week, British Prime Minister Theresa May says she will be looking to toughen the law on “gaslighting” in the UK, after MPs raised the issue in an emotional moment in Parliament.

Earlier this year, Natalie Lewis-Hoyle — the daughter of deputy speaker Lindsay Hoyle — took her own life after allegedly having been in a “coercive” relationship.

In the UK, gaslighting has been a criminal offence since 2015 as a form of psychological abuse, carrying a jail term of five years.

“This is a crime,” Connie said. “Everything was good until I met him.”
“This is far greater than hitting someone. To put someone in a mental hospital ... it’s worse than anything. I’ve had so many people laugh at me and say I’m ridiculous. People don’t understand, because it all does sound crazy.
“But there are people out there getting destroyed by this, and it’s mostly strong women. He gave me a lot of hurt but I am building myself back up now.”
Full names and identity has been withheld for legal reasons.|4lh5h

Who is the heiress mentioned in the NXIVM sex cult court documents?

Keith Raniere, founder of NXIVM, in 2009.Patrick Dodson via The New York Times
She has spent over $150 million establishing the cult and paying for numerous lawsuits, while threatening former members to remain silent
Sadaf Ahsan
National Post
May 29, 2018

It wasn’t until 2010 that rumblings began to spread that Keith Raniere’s “self-help organization” — which goes by the name NXIVM and was founded in 1998 — might actually be a sex cult. The allegations hit the mainstream shortly before a Vanity Fair profile of Clare and Sara Bronfman, heiresses to the Seagram empire, claimed the sisters spent millions to financially back NXIVM.

Vanity Fair writer Suzanna Andrews described the Bronfmans emptying their family trust funds as a “massive gutting” in 2010. Unbeknownst to their father Edgar Bronfman, “as much as $150 million was taken out of the Bronfmans’ trusts and bank accounts, including $66 million allegedly used to cover Raniere’s failed bets in the commodities market, $30 million to buy real estate in Los Angeles and around Albany, $11 million for a 22-seat, two-engine Canadair CL-600 jet, and millions more to support a barrage of lawsuits across the country against NXIVM’s enemies.”

This was several years before the New York Times’ damning exposé on NXIVM, published in October 2017, which formally accused the cult of sex trafficking through DOS, its “sorority” subset. Following the Times story, which mentioned the Bronfmans were members of NXIVM, Clare publicly denied being a member of DOS in a blog post on her website, but added that she supports Raniere and does not believe he has “abused” anyone.

In March of this year, however, Raniere was arrested in Mexico for sex trafficking, sex-trafficking conspiracy and forced labor conspiracy. Just weeks later, Canadian actress Allison Mack was also arrested under the same charges. While Mack was eventually released on a $5-million bond and is currently living under house arrest, Raniere was denied bail. Both pleaded not-guilty to all counts and are awaiting trial.

In Mack’s court filings, there are several mentions of an “heiress” who ran off to Mexico with Raniere after the New York Times story was published and before his arrest. She is described as an executive member of his organization who has been financially supporting Raniere and the cult itself, spending millions on lawsuits to silence former members and those who have criticized the cult. The court documents go on to suggest that “the heiress” attempted to intimidate former NXIVM members who could be used as witnesses in the case against Raniere, by threatening to publish some of the “collateral” new members have to offer upon joining the cult. This collateral includes personal, potentially “damaging” documents regarding them and/or their family members, including sexually explicit photos.

Former NXIVM publicist Frank Parlato, in an April interview with Vice, claims that the heiress in question is Clare Bronfman. He says that she has risen to the top of the organization following Raniere and Mack’s arrests, and accuses Clare of leading “an estimated dozen or more ‘slaves’ spread between New York and Toronto.”

According to additional court documents, via The Daily Beast, “The Heiress has made multiple attempts to have criminal charges brought against a former DOS slave who has discussed her experience in the media.” Parlato believes this to be actress Sarah Edmondson, a former NXIVM member and recruiter for DOS, who recently came forward to share her experience.

Edmondson is featured in the new A&E series Cults and Extreme Belief. Referring to the collateral mentioned in the court filings, in the show’s premiere episode, Edmondson says, “Keith really thought that this whole collateral thing would just stop people from talking. And it didn’t. I’m not going to stop talking about it until Keith is held responsible. I believe that Keith’s arrest is the beginning of the end for NXIVM. I would say that he messed with the wrong person, and that for such a ‘brilliant’ man he made a big mistake. He really underestimated me.”

Are there Amish graduations? A primer on Lancaster County's Amish and Old Order Mennonite schools

Old Order Mennonite schools
Staff Writer
Lancaster Online
May 22, 2018

It’s graduation time for Lancaster County’s Amish and Old Order Mennonite schools.

Hundreds of schools will send eighth-grade graduates into the world with no pomp and circumstance. Plain-sect children will leave their private parochial schools, which were established as a right fought for and won before the Supreme Court.

In 1972, church members and their supporters argued that their religion and education were so entwined that a requirement to go to high school would take teens away from their culture and ultimately destroy the community. Since then, the number of Plain schools has grown to more than 300.

The schools are more than academic; they’re an important part of culture.

“Education is never a neutral endeavor,” says Steven Nolt, senior scholar at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College. “It’s always shaping you for some kind of life. Old Order schools are training children for a successful Old Order way of life.”

Here's a primer on Plain-sect education, with insight from Nolt, schoolteachers and a school board member who spoke recently to a full house at Garden Spot Village and did not want to be identified.

Where do Amish and Old Order Mennonite children go to school in Lancaster County?

They go to their own private schools. There also are a few schools that combine both sects.

These students attended public schools through the mid-1900s. The first Amish schools opened in East Lampeter Township in the 1930s.

How long do students go to school?

Amish and Old Order Mennonite students attend school through eighth grade.

In the 1940s and ’50s, there were conflicts with the state over keeping older children out of school, and some Amish fathers were jailed. That was resolved in 1955 with an agreement to allow Plain sects to operate their own schools, where students could leave after eighth grade.

If students graduate eighth grade before age 15, they must go to what’s known as a “three-hour school” until that birthday. Students work during the week and keep a journal, then meet one day a week at the home of a teacher to review eighth-grade lessons.

Less-restrictive sects, such as the Weaverland Conference, go through 10th grade and have larger schools.

How many Plain schools are there in Lancaster County?

There are 254 Old Order Amish schools and 54 Old Order Mennonite schools. Most are one-room schools. A new school is built when there’s a need for students in an area.

What is the overall philosophy of Amish and Mennonite education?

The objective is a basic education so students can be an asset to the community.

“Schooling is both a way to get the basic academic skills that you need for making a life in the world,” Nolt says. “And also a place for cultivating the values and dispositions that are necessary for having a successful Old Order life.”

The curriculum and schools discourage competition and encourage cooperation. It’s typical for teachers to have a bulletin board showing when a group has mastered a lesson instead of tracking individual students.

“At recess, they tend to require the students to form new ball teams every day so there aren’t any ongoing competitions or rivalries,” Nolt says.

It’s a structured environment, but that structure can foster creativity.

What are the schools like?

The schools are small, mostly one-room, and are low-tech, with a clock or maybe an engine-powered water pump. That shows technology isn’t important.

Each school has 25 to 35 students seated by grade. The teacher, sometimes working with a teacher’s aide, will call a grade or two to a work table in the front for lessons.

What subjects are taught?

Reading, writing and math, up to pre-algebra, are taught in English. There’s time for penmanship and geography. There’s not a lot of history or science.

Most of the schools have some German instruction, with an emphasis on reading to understand formal religious texts like hymnals, prayer books or the Bible.

Who decides what is taught?

The Old Order Book Society was organized in the 1950s to evaluate books for schools. Each school has a school board made of several students’ fathers. They make decisions on hiring teachers and pay.

Who are the teachers in these schools?

Teachers are graduates of Amish and Old Order schools and usually women age 17 to 20. Few make teaching a career because when they don’t teach after marriage. There are a few male teachers, but that is rare, Nolt says, partially because pay is low.

For example, one local school pays $50 to $75 daily.

Teachers meet every six weeks to share ideas.

Do students take achievement tests like the PSSA?

They’re not required, but some schools have used their own written tests or the Iowa Assessments.

How long is the school year?

School starts in mid- to late August and ends in early to mid-May with about the same number of days as public schools: 180. That’s possible because breaks are short (two days off for Christmas) and there are few snow days.

How do students travel to school?

Schools are within walking distance, so students walk, ride on a scooter or get a ride from an older child driving a pony cart. In rural areas, students might use a school bus.

What does a typical graduation ceremony look like?

There is an end-of-the year picnic with family members.

Can a student continue his or her education?

“If you as an eighth-grader are thinking that differently from your parents about your future, you’re probably not on track to joining the church,” Nolt says.

Father, Son Plead Guilty to Fraud Involving Secretive Sect

Word of Faith Fellowship Church
The Associated Press
May 25, 2018

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — A father and son who belong to a secretive evangelical church in North Carolina pleaded guilty Friday to federal criminal charges in an unemployment benefits scheme that former congregants have said was part of a plan to keep money flowing into the church.

As part of an ongoing investigation into physical and emotional abuse at the Word of Faith Fellowship Church in Spindale, North Carolina, The Associated Press reported in September that authorities were looking into the unemployment dealings of congregants and their businesses.

Dr. Jerry Gross, 72, and his son, Jason Lee Gross, 51, pleaded guilty to one count each of wire fraud, which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. They were charged earlier in May. Both men are pictured on the Word of Faith Fellowship's website under a section for pastors and ministers, though the church was not mentioned during the hearing.

Other than the men's spouses, no church members attended Friday's hearing in federal court in Asheville.

Jerry Gross owned the Foot & Ankle Center of the Carolinas in Forest City, North Carolina. His son worked there, managing business operations, including payroll and personnel decisions, according to court records.

As part of his plea deal, Jerry Gross agreed to cooperate with the government. The criminal investigation into Word of Faith is ongoing. Former church member John Huddle of Marion said Friday he was interviewed several months ago by state criminal investigators and U.S. Department of Homeland Security agents. He said he was asked not to discuss the topic of his interview.

The U.S attorney's office said the Grosses' scheme netted nearly $150,000 for which employees were not entitled from September 2009 to March 2013. The two made it appear that they had laid off employees, including themselves, making them eligible for unemployment benefits. But prosecutors said the workers remained on the job.

"The scheme enabled Foot & Ankle Center to survive the economic downturn during those years by creating a free labor force — one paid for by the government, not the business itself," court records said.

Both men were released on $200,000 unsecured bonds. Jerry Gross was ordered to forfeit about $43,000 that prosecutors said was obtained illegally, while his son agreed to forfeit about $38,000, according to court documents. They surrendered their passports and were ordered to give up any guns they have. They also were instructed not to discuss the case.

AP cited 11 former congregants in September who said dozens of church members filed bogus claims at various times at the direction of church leaders. Interviews with former followers, along with documents reviewed by the AP, indicated at least six companies owned by church leaders were involved with filing fraudulent unemployment claims between 2008 and 2013. Most of those businesses' employees are congregants, the AP found.

Former church member Randy Fields told the AP that his construction company faced potential ruin during the struggling economy, so he pleaded with church leaders to reduce the amount of money he was required to contribute every week.

Fields said church founder Jane Whaley proposed a plan that would allow him to continue contributing at least 10 percent of his income to the church while helping his company survive: He would file fraudulent unemployment claims on behalf of his employees.

"The justification was to keep God's businesses afloat. That was the reason. 100 percent, for the people who were doing it, they didn't feel like they were necessarily defrauding anybody," said Vicenta del Toro of Shelby, a church member until 2015 who said her daughter-in-law worked as a nurse for Jerry Gross. "That's how they justified it, and they were told to do that by the pastor. That it was OK."

The unemployment allegations were uncovered as part of the AP's ongoing investigation into Word of Faith, which had about 750 congregants in rural North Carolina and a total of nearly 2,000 members in its branches in Brazil and Ghana and its affiliations in Sweden, Scotland and other countries.

In February 2017, the AP cited more than three dozen former Word of Faith Fellowship members who said congregants were regularly punched and choked in an effort to beat out devils. The AP also revealed how, over the course of two decades, followers were ordered by church leaders to lie to authorities investigating reports of abuse.

AP later outlined how Word of Faith created a pipeline of young laborers from its two Brazilian congregations who say they were brought to the U.S. and forced to work for little or no pay at multiple businesses owned by church leaders.

Those stories led to investigations in the U.S. and Brazil. In March, Brazilian labor prosecutors filed suit to shut down one of the church branches and its school in Sao Paulo, saying the church and its leaders "reduced people to a condition analogous to slavery."


Mohr contributed from Jackson, Mississippi.

May 29, 2018

Why Are We So Fascinated by Cults?

Paris Review
May 21, 2018

In March, I sent an announcement around to friends and colleagues: watch out for my new novel, Buddhism for Western Children. It’s a spiraling story of a powerful, manipulative guru versus a boy who must escape to recover his will, I wrote, and it profiles Western lust for Eastern spiritual mystique and tradition. I got a lot of wonderful goodwill in response, and also quite a few, Wait—is this like Wild Wild Country?
What was Wild Wild Country? I don’t watch TV, a habit left over from my antiworldly, culty childhood, on which my novel is loosely based, but now, obligated, I turned on Netflix. Like so many others, I was hooked, and I began to wonder anew why accounts of cults—novels, movies, docudramas—titillate and resonate time and again.
Wild Wild Country, the true-crime docuseries directed by the brothers Chapman and Maclain Way, is a sprawling, melodramatic, tricky show that follows the guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh from his sixties-era ashram in India to a vast ranch in Central Oregon in 1981. It uses miles and miles of sandy, archival, look-at-me footage (and you feel a little dirty, looking), including incredulous televised broadcasters, and pulls you through a heady succession of the scandals provoked as the cult’s new city arose. “It was really wild country,” says one of the key followers, or sannyasins. Helicopter shots zoom in on the frontier, a mountainous, treeless terrain: “Everything you can see belonged to you,” declares Ma Anand Sheela, Bhagwan’s irrepressible, blithely arrogant lieutenant, who is arguably the mastermind of the soon-to-be metropolis. The interlopers stream and swarm into Antelope, wearing a color wheel of red hues. The locals feel besieged. As tensions between Oregonians and spiritual seekers simmer, schisms also flare inside Rajneeshpuram. The conflict is further animated by an astounding cast of odd and indelible characters and eerie juxtapositions: long-haired Sannyasins against shaking-their-head townies; beautiful, beaming, blissed-out blondes with outdoor tans versus white-bread government officials. And then there’s Bhagwan himself: otherworldly, fragile saint to his disciples, faux mystical, egotistical charlatan to outsiders, berobed, fishy eyed, a magpie for flashy watches and fancy cars. “I’m not your leader,” says the guru, in a voice that seems to come from a little plastic pillbox tucked inside his cheek. “You are not my followers. I’m destroying everything.”
And so they follow him to the ends of the earth. Just like that, they build him a city.
It’s a broad drama, and yet, Wild Wild Country also seems cramped by its datedness. It’s small and specific, one more marginal, creepy cult story in which no one died. So why is it so riveting, so compelling now?
I can explain my own interest. The Rajneeshees looked like my people. Giddy, electrified, childlike in their unabashed belief, exhorting and quivering and shining. The young mothers looked like my mother, and I thought how my father would have loved to captain one of those bulldozers, carving new roads out of nowhere, or straddle the balance beam of a rooftree.
I could feel the messy, lurid tale in my bones. Bhagwan and Sheela use the same machinations and follow the same trajectory as the guru in my own early eighties childhood. Sannyasins—we called ourselves devotees—cultivate a high-minded, even genial nihilism, paired with an acute, voracious interest in the self, its betterment and its pleasure. And there was the same paradox-ridden, trademark guru style: “Never born, never died,” reads Bhagwan’s epitaph. The words to one of the most popular devotional songs in the cult of my childhood were, “For I am not born, and I shall never die.”
Here also were the spiritually estranged, or “worldly,” people from my childhood, “sluggish and guilty,” as I write in my novel, whose inability to pronounce Indian words betrays their ignorance and bigotry. One of the finest Wild Wild Country characters, John Silvertooth, the mayor of Antelope, remembers Bhagwan’s sinister personal pharmacist, “Puta? Was that her name? Puja? Yeah, Puta’s something in Spanish we don’t wanna say.”
Because of my history, this particular tale holds familiar allure, but the question persists: Why is everyone else so enthralled? I have a few speculations.


If there’s a twentieth century ur-cult embedded in the American imagination, it’s probably India-tinged: a sweaty climate, scant clothes, rupees as play money, a lush, feral sensuality. You definitely see those cult porn stereotypes in Wild Wild Country: video bursts of exposé nakedness, Dionysian frenzies, and hot chicks in tight, vagina-pink sweaters giving long hugs. We catch plenty of glimpses of young skinny white people, with beards and hollow abdomens and beads swinging between loose breasts, variously heaped atop each other or going at it. But I think the sense of abdication—that vacating thrill—ends up seeming even more sexual than the bare skin, and I have to wonder: Does the show provoke a not-so-buried desire to cede control, give up responsibility, and submit to a seemingly greater power?
Individuality is stripped and ravished, as if the cult itself were a bedroom. There’s an electrical charge between sex and power: in offering themselves up, showing their pale throats, they might trip the wire. Sheela chooses an arid box canyon for Rajneeshpuram, and the free-love mood shifts into the shade under her direction. But it still pulses with her jealousy of her position as Bhagwan’s favorite. As Swami Prem Niren, Bhagwan’s lawyer and member of the inner circle, puts it, “Anyone that [Bhagwan] gave juice to, Sheela was gonna fuck over.”
I’ve now come to see Westerners trying to sublimate their egos Eastern-style as escapist and onanistic, as if some kind of spiritual orgasm could replace the problematic needy-wanty ego. Rajneeshee meditation looks like a swoon to me, the persistent stimulation of the mind’s genitals.
As for drugs, it’s a darker vision, and I can’t help but think of Jim Jones, a contemporary. There’s Haldol in the beer—the vilest act of the commune is to bus in six thousand homeless people as a bloc of voters for the Rajneeshee side in a land dispute, and then to sedate them unwittingly when they get out of line—and as the holy war escalates, there are outrageous attempted poisonings.
And there are tambourines, the exotic rhythm anyone can shake, suggesting both trancelike states and something straight out of a kindergarten classroom. So that’s one theory: sex and power always sell, and we’re shameless voyeurs.


Wild Wild Country is a classic retelling of the American myth, refracted and distorted but nonetheless there. We recognize all the big themes: the cant of individualism versus the chant of egalitarianism. There is manifest destiny, hubris, the dogged pursuit of religious freedom, land use, the ironies of the Second Amendment.
Led by the imperious, disdainful Sheela, the Rajneeshees are extreme, even obscene in their entitlement and exceptionalism. There’s heat at the borders, and it turns out the Rajneeshees are packing heat, too. And warrior Sheela knows just how to poke at our precarious balance and hypocrisy of church and state, intuitively weaponizing her brand-new American victimhood by crying persecuted minority religion.
Back to those aerial shots and the thunder of the city-building earthworks—my computer screen was practically sprayed with clods of dirt as the harsh, barren landscape of the ranch at Antelope is conquered and civilized. This time, it’s the other, the Indian and his weirdo followers, swooping in to capture and tame territory with little regard for the local tribe and the scale of the culture that’s already there.
Who’s native now? There’s a small voice, almost lost in a crowd milling for a TV microphone in front of the courthouse in the Dalles, but it’s a key, ironic clip: “We don’t have a place for people like that in America,” says a pinched older lady with dead hair. You realize you’ve unwittingly drifted to her side, but those words are jarring, offensive, and suddenly you want to root for the cult—whiplash. I think there’s a knee-jerk ennobling of conviction in our culture—whether it’s fiercely held opinion, religion, or politics—that’s hard to resist. We’re acculturated to choose sides, and Wild Wild Country has a good old American field day (sixty-four thousand acres, that ranch!) with our allegiances and prejudices, our sense of outsiders, insiders, natives, and nativists.


A cult is already world built and glassed in like a snow globe, a fish bowl. Or a TV show. Recurring aerial shots of the Rajneeshpuram terrarium—by the fourth episode out of six, there’s a verdant saddle where the city has sprung. A promised land of rose-colored guru-lovers, a mini culture, a microcosm. The comings (joinings, coercions) and goings (desertions, disillusionments, banishments) are exaggerated, making the borders clear.
We’ve been creeping in and out of cults since the famous garden in the Old Testament (and before that through every culture back to the Egyptians).
My mother has told me that part of the seduction of our guru was the beauty of his garden. No gas stations, strip malls, parking lots on the sanctuary. In my memory, it is Eden, an oasis dotted with holy sites and temples, groves and grottos and snaking raked gravel lovingly worked over by hundreds of hands. One of the most powerful tools of a leader is to align, embody, and enlarge himself with place.
Fred D’Aguiar, the author of the terrifying Jonestown novel, Children of Paradise, was born and spent the first twelve years of his life in Guyana, where Jim Jones retreated in 1977. He cites nature writing as crucial to writing about cults and invokes another Guyanese writer, Wilson Harris, who has also tackled Jonestown: “His fiction reacts to the landscape as if it were a structural determinant of his prose.” In the town square of D’Aguiar’s fictionalized Jonestown, just barely hewn from jungle, there’s a cage. Not to be missed: a cage within a cage. A gorilla named Adam, deeply feeling, sentient and dangerous, reaches through the bars.
Any biblical Eden depends on keeping its citizens away from dangerous knowledge. Watching Wild Wild Country, I thought of the earliest American cult: the Puritans with their restrictive, punitive pieties. In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne devised an insular world with dark, wild woods encroaching on the exposed, scrubbed-raw town square centered on its pillory, “so fashioned as to confine the human head in its tight grasp, and thus hold it up to the public gaze.” Hawthorne describes a kind of religious freedom dependent on defining and expelling the other, be she Hester Prynne, sexual deviant, or heathen Indians.
More to the point, perhaps, I happened to reread “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” Ursula K. Le Guin’s utopian morality tale, recently, because one of my sons was wrangling with it in eleventh-grade English. In Omelas, “the air of morning was so clear that the snow still crowning the Eighteen Peaks burned with white-gold fire across the miles of sunlit air … ” It’s all joy, peace, and prosperity. But the condition of its perfection, the contract of Omelas, is the unspeakable suffering of the single banished child. Imagine you lived there and enjoyed all that privilege, would you, could you, stay? Would you, could you, leave?
What makes the Wild Wild Countrystory so timely—and timeless—is that in Western literary tradition, from the Garden of Eden on, there seems to be something suspect in utopia. There is always something conditional, a devil’s bargain. Is this why we’re both magnetized and repulsed by cults? Is it baked into our culture that there’s a set balance of good and evil in the world, and therefore the very existence of a utopia would require a dystopia in another corner of the planet?


Fred D’Aguiar has suggested that a cult is the exploitation of “the psychology of faith.” Perhaps another part of our interest in cults is in watching power duck and weave. Reflecting on the fall of Rajneeshpuram, Prem Niren shrugs, “For [Bhagwan], all of this was a game. A game of consciousness to transform consciousness … A big Gurdjieffian device, a device for all of us to see what we would do under pressure.”
In my novel, belief is one of the guru’s best tricks, one of his most powerful plays. I suspect another reason we keep watching Wild Wild Country is because it taps into our insecurities about belief. On one hand, this outlandish, tambourinish behavior—the propulsive, spasmodic dancing—looks affected, and it’s hard to imagine any of these lithe young beauties performing emotional abandonment with no audience. On the other hand, might some of it be real? Are we skeptics, spiritual landlubbers missing out? I’d hazard that this dynamic is part of what keeps disciples hooked inside, too. Sheila’s most ardent and credulous disciple, Ma Shanti B, has a chilling little speech near the end of the show in which she describes being haunted, still, by faith—and bad faith. Did she miss the blow from the master, she wonders? The killing blow that delivers enlightenment. Was she a coward or a heroine for running away?


America has always been fascinated by the foolsone born every minute, as Barnum (may have) crowed—and like any good culture, we relish the cautionary tale.  
It’s sort of intoxicating to watch fugue-state Rajneeshees do what they’re told, like children, only in an adult sphere with mature content. Even in R-rated orgy, even with their assassination schemes and warehouse full of guns, they come across as determinedly childlike. The condition of belonging—the condition of loving the guru unconditionally—is giving up your will.
At some level, perhaps we are tempted by that abdication. But surely none of us would be so easily duped, right? And so we savor the inevitable fall and shiver with the catharsis.
A human trait: We can’t look away from the antics of power or the circus of self-destruction, or the flagrant, the decadent, the grotesque. A terrarium is made to be viewed, and so is a train wreck.
The week I watched Wild Wild Country on my laptop, I typed myself straight into a malware trap, falling for a cute pop-up, a pick-up artist from Hewlett Packard’s customer care website:

[9:09 AM] Kevin: Hi Kirstin you have done a great job
I got your computer screen now
let me start the work

The result was that I’d be deep in Rajneeshpuram when suddenly the cursor (that spirit) would be wrested from my control, and there was “Kevin” scrabbling across my screen, shutting down Netflix, grabbing and erasing documents. I felt invaded, obviously, and red-pill paranoid. Was this the demon-ghost of the guru in my childhood (he’s dead now), come to extract latent devotion or deliver punishment? And then I wondered, more cogently, was this anything like the loss of identity and control that the Rajneeshees—or my parents—gobbled up, ushered in?
Are we fascinated by cults because we want to watch folks just like us get smitten, overtaken, ensorcelled, Stockholm syndromed without even having to be kidnapped? To watch them expose themselves? We’re riveted by a version of it in politics every day: the cult leader in the White House; the puppet master of the Twit Theater; the savant who stepped into the vacuum, filled the spot for fundamentalist tyrant.
At some level, in watching all this, we’re complicit. Our almost lascivious appetite for the accounts of cults, their rises and falls … I’d say we’re hooked because it’s the story of us.
Kirstin Allio is the author of a short-story collection, Clothed, Female Figure, and a novel, Garner. Her new novel, Buddhism for Western Children, is the inaugural work in The Iowa Review Series (University of Iowa Press), coming out this fall.

May 26, 2018

A-listers line up to meet famed yoga guru in Central Park

Page Six

May 25, 2018

New York society is flocking to a new guru.

We’re told socialite Hannah Bronfman, Anna and Andrew Chapman, music mogul Jason Flom and fashion insider Kelly Cutrone among others, have all pilgrimaged to Central Park to meet Sadhguru — as he refuses to meet his supplicants in office buildings.

It being 2018, the Indian mystic is also a YouTube star, naturally, with 1.2 million followers.
We’re told the group sought answers on everything from the global plastic waste crisis to bringing yoga into prisons.
Sadhguru is the author of “Inner Engineering” and has spoken for groups of up to 100,000 people.
He’s in the US as part of his mission to get 4.5 billion people to do yoga.

When Living Your Truth Can Mean Losing Your Children

Chani Getter, a manager at an organization that helps formerly ultra-Orthodox Jews, said that the ultra-Orthodox community has stepped up tactics against parents who leave the fold.
Sharon Otterman
The New York Times
May 25, 2018

The questioning went on for days. Did she allow her children to watch a Christmas video? Did she include plastic Easter eggs as part of her celebration of the Jewish holiday of Purim? Did she use English nicknames for them, instead of their Hebrew names?

This grilling of Chavie Weisberger, 35, took place not in front of a rabbi or a religious court, but in State Supreme Court in Brooklyn, during a custody battle with her ultra-Orthodox Jewish ex-husband after she came out as lesbian and decided to leave the ultra-Orthodox fold. The stakes could not have been higher. In fact, the judge, Eric I. Prus, eventually ruled that she should lose custody of her children, largely because she had lapsed in raising them according to Hasidic customs.

Ms. Weisberger’s case, which was reversed on appeal in August, is still reverberating through New York courts that handle divorce and custody matters for the state’s hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews.

A New York State appellate court ruled that Justice Prus had erred in making religious observance the paramount factor when deciding custody. The court also said he had violated Ms. Weisberger’s constitutional rights by requiring her to pretend to be ultra-Orthodox around her children, even though she was no longer religious, in order to spend unsupervised time with them.

“It’s coming up frequently,” Kim Susser, a family law attorney, said of the impact of the case. “It is being used to underscore that you have to look at the totality of the circumstances when you are determining a child’s best interests. You can’t just look at this one factor, which is what the Orthodox community tries to have you do.”

Ms. Weisberger and her husband had originally gone to a Jewish court, known as a beth din, to receive a divorce in 2008. The religious divorce agreement granted her full physical custody of the children, who were then 5, 3 and 1.

She was raised ultra-Orthodox in Monsey, N.Y., as part of a family of revered rabbis — her grandfather is the founder of the Hasidic sect to which she formerly belonged, Emunas Yisroel. She fully expected to maintain traditional customs, so she barely noticed the clause requiring her to do so in her divorce agreement. “I don’t even remember seeing it,” she said.

But by 2012, she began openly identifying as lesbian and wearing more secular clothing. Shocking some religious neighbors, she had a transgender friend as a houseguest. That was when her ex-husband, Naftali Weisberger, sued for sole custody, claiming that her changed lifestyle was violating the divorce terms and traumatizing their children.

When divorce agreements inked in Jewish courts are disputed, the matter is often brought to civil court, where secular judges can be asked to enforce their terms. Sometimes, particularly when one parent has decided to leave ultra-Orthodoxy, this can lead to personal religious matters being placed under a microscope as a judge seeks to determine whether the parents are honoring their original agreement.

A civil court judge’s rationale for focusing on religious practice, family lawyers said, is that once a religious divorce agreement is signed and submitted to the secular court, it is seen as a legal contract. There is also a strong interest in custody cases in maintaining the status quo for children — meaning a divorce should not upend their lives. For the children of the ultra-Orthodox, that would favor maintaining religious customs.

Yosef Rapaport, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi who has been a litigator in Jewish courts in Brooklyn, said that he feels the details of religious practice are pertinent, insofar as they relate to the well-being of the children.

“It is something that matters, be it kosher food, or the way the mother dresses,” he said. For example, he said, when “the mother has to take the child out to the bus stop in front of the house, and the whole block looks, it is something that might embarrass the kid.”

“It might look trivial for a person who doesn’t observe these things, but it’s not trivial for the friends and for the peers of the child,” he added. “You don’t want the child to be shunned in school. Children can sometimes be extremely vicious.”

Mr. Rapaport said that it was only to be expected that a judge would look unfavorably on someone who reneged on an original agreement, even if that agreement was signed in a beth din. But family lawyers say they see differences in how much weight various secular judges give to the rulings of a Jewish court.

Pronounced deference to beth din agreements, they say, tends to happen in jurisdictions where judges, some of whom are familiar with Jewish customs, are elected by large populations of ultra-Orthodox Jews, like Brooklyn or Rockland County, N.Y.

“A lot depends on the judge,” Ms. Susser said. “Some are excellent, some may be biased.”

Etty Ausch, 34, a formerly ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman, had her children placed in the custody of relatives by order of Judge Prus. Along with general questions about her fitness as a parent, she also faced quasi-religious questions, including one about footwear: Were the fuzzy socks she bought for her children related to Christmas because they were adorned with snowmen?

Judge Prus, who lives in Cedarhurst on Long Island, is an observant Jew himself, which some advocates for the formerly ultra-Orthodox believe contributes to his willingness to wade deep into the details of religious practice in his Downtown Brooklyn courtroom. But he hears every kind of matrimonial case, and on Wednesday, he was a stern, fast-talking presence, chiding an estranged couple for relying too much on attorneys rather than working out small issues face to face.

“I can’t instill common sense in you,” he told them.

Ms. Ausch, whose story was featured in the Netflix documentary “One of Us,” began the process of leaving the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in 2015 after alleging abuse by her ex-husband. Though her case remains open, she has taken a break in trying to regain custody of her seven children because, she said, the emotional toll has been so high.

“I didn’t foresee my family turning on me,” said Ms. Ausch, who has also since come out as lesbian. “I didn’t foresee my best friends, my family, coming to court and testifying against me.”

It is not only women who are losing access to children based on details of their religious practice. Julie F. Kay, a human rights lawyer in private practice, said she knew of at least one court that issued an order denying a formerly ultra-Orthodox father visitation rights because he showed up to a parental visit in jeans, which are not permitted to be worn by the ultra-Orthodox.

The situation is raising human rights concerns, she said, in part because American case law strongly establishes that children should not be kept away from a parent just because a conservative community might disapprove of his or her identity.

“We have a strong protection of religious rights in this country, and it’s supposed to be a shield,” Ms. Kay said. “But they are using it as a sword. The government is enabling people to force their religious beliefs on others as a condition to maintain their relationships with their children.”

Part of the issue, family lawyers said, flows from the guiding principle in family court: all decisions are made to serve the “best interests of the children.” A parent’s rights can quickly become secondary in this setting, where overworked judges may pressure parties to settle quickly.

“It’s almost presumed that what’s in the best interest of the child is for the parent to subsume their own personal needs,” said Anna Maria Diamanti, the director of the family law and domestic violence unit of South Brooklyn Legal Services. “Your need to not be oppressed is not more important than your child’s need to have stability.”

Some who have left the ultra-Orthodox say that in recent years, the community has become more organized in how it aids the religious parent and ostracizes the parent leaving the fold.

For the parent leaving, the trauma goes beyond the private dissolution of a marriage. “Their job gets in jeopardy, their home,” said Chani Getter, a program manager at Footsteps, an organization that offers support to formerly ultra-Orthodox Jews. “If they are renting from a religious landlord, surveillance goes up,” she said. Each child, she said, is considered by the community as a Jewish soul that cannot be lost.

But Mr. Rapaport said it was conspiracy-minded to accuse the community of acting as a monolith. Instead, he said, individual parents suing for custody are relying on their large networks of relatives and friends to help make their case, as anyone would.

“It’s not that simple,” he said. “We are the most split-up community you could ever think of. It’s very rare to get people together for one cause. Everyone marches to their own drummer here; it’s like herding cats.”

Ms. Weisberger married her husband, Naftali, in 2002 when she was 19. They decided to get a religious divorce in 2008 after she came to terms with her sexuality and revealed to her husband that she was a lesbian. As she came to accept herself, she also began to reject her ultra-Orthodox upbringing, which teaches that homosexuality is forbidden.

She involved her children in her transformation. In their apartment, they made a word wall that included universal values like “perseverance” and “integrity” to guide them. She allowed the children to try nonkosher food, like a chicken kebab at a street fair, and permitted her girls to wear pants in the house. That violated the terms of her religious divorce agreement, which required her to raise the children Hasidic.

Her ex-husband, meanwhile, had remarried. He was failing to pay child support to Ms. Weisberger, or even to visit regularly with the three children, according to court papers. But as soon as he sued for custody in 2012, the couple’s children, then 5, 7 and 9, were removed from Ms. Weisberger’s care. A week later, Justice Prus permitted her temporary visitation for part of each week, provided that she maintain strict religious practices in the presence of the children.

It took three years for the Judge Prus to make his ruling. During that time, Ms. Weisberger acted religiously as ordered, but she was also open with the court about her sexual identity and her shift toward a secular worldview.

“I had been scrambling to find my truth and to live my truth, and it was just like, ‘I’m sorry, this is where I am,’” she said.

Justice Prus awarded sole custody to her ex-husband, ruling that her personal transformation had caused too much turmoil for the children, who attended yeshivas and were struggling to live between two worlds.

“Given the existence of the agreement’s very clear directives,” Justice Prus wrote, referring to the Jewish divorce agreement, “this court was obligated to consider the religious upbringing of the children as a paramount factor in any custody determination.” It is, he added, “the crux of the agreement.”

“Each party’s lifestyle is completely antithetical and antagonistic toward the other,” so no compromise was possible, he added in his ruling.

Ms. Weisberger decided to appeal. Her attorneys enlisted the help of the Lambda Legal Defense Fund, which advocates for gay rights, and the New York Civil Liberties Union, both of which wrote briefs on her behalf. In August, the appeals court overturned Justice Prus’s decision and restored full physical custody to Ms. Weisberger.

Justice Prus, who was elected to the court in 2005 and is running for re-election this year, had given “undue weight to the parties’ religious-upbringing clause,” it ruled. And the appellate court also reminded lower court judges that requiring an adult to act religiously is unconstitutional. Judge Prus declined to comment for this article.

“It is beyond dispute that, at a minimum, the Constitution guarantees that government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise,” the judges of the Second Judicial Department of the Appellate Division wrote. “A religious upbringing clause should not, and cannot, be enforced to the extent that it violates a parent’s legitimate due process right to express oneself and live freely.”

Ms. Weisberger now works at Footsteps, helping other formerly ultra-Orthodox men and women adjust to secular lives their upbringings did not prepare them for. Though she no longer has to pretend to be religious, she still keeps kosher at home, and sends the children to ultra-Orthodox yeshivas, because the appeals court granted authority over schooling decisions to her ex-husband.

But the children can now check out secular books from the public library, forbidden to them before. Ms. Weisberger recently had a Harry Potter-themed birthday party for her youngest daughter. The children, now 11, 12 and 15, are learning how to navigate both of their worlds, and adjusting to more regular visits with their father.

Mr. Weisberger, who now also has five children from his second marriage, did not respond to a request for comment. His upstairs neighbor in the two-family house where he lives in Borough Park said she thought the whole situation was a shame.

“He’s very nice, he wants the children to be on a good path,” she said of Mr. Weisberger, giving her name only as Tzyve. “They are very nice children, very cute. The new wife, she takes care of them very well.”

Ms. Weisberger said she hopes her case will give other parents leaving the ultra-Orthodox community courage to be honest about their secular or gay identities in court.

“People kept telling me I was choosing nonkosher food over my own children; I was doing this to my own children. But I was that confident that I could be the person I am, and that’s what’s best for my children — that I was able to shut out those messages.”

But family lawyers and advocates say they still advise parents turning away from ultra-Orthodoxy to be cautious with their new identities because of the likelihood that access to their children could still be threatened.

“Yes, it’s really nice to come out and be honest,” said Ms. Getter of Footsteps. “But when you have kids, and you are in the court system, and have the community fighting you, I always say you need to slow it down.”

Follow Sharon Otterman on Twitter: @sharonNYT

A version of this article appears in print on May 27, 2018, on Page MB1 of the New York edition with the headline: Leaving the Fold and Losing Custody.

TV Program - NXIVM

May 28, 2018 at 10 PM


In Cults and Extreme Belief, Elizabeth Vargas, alongside former members of controversial organizations, goes on a search to uncover how these sects use their influence to prey upon people's desperation to create powerful and often destructive belief systems. Each episode will take an immersive look at one currently active group through the eyes of past devotees and get perspective from believers and leaders that are still inside.

Right after the Mormon church gave blacks the priesthood, a polygamous offshoot saw its ranks grow

Owen Allred, then leader of the Apostolic United Brethren, in 1988.
Owen Allred, then leader of the Apostolic United Brethren
Nate Carlisle
Salt Lake Tribune
May 25, 2018

A recent blog about happenings in the polygamous Apostolic United Brethren church posed a question:

“If you find out from your DNA test that you have a percentage of Nigerian DNA, would you be worried about your right to the Priesthood and all of its blessings?”

For some respondents, the answer was yes.

“I would acknowledge that I don’t have authority, that my children don’t,” a commenter replied, “and I’d separate myself from my white spouse so as to not condemn her.”

Next month, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Salt Lake City-based faith lifting its ban on black men and boys holding the priesthood and black women and girls entering LDS temples.

Making males of all races eligible for the priesthood, which Mormons believe to be the authority to act in God’s name for the salvation of humanity, is considered a monumental pivot point in LDS history, making the religion more inclusive and acceptable in America and spurring its growth in Africa, Brazil and other parts of the world.

While the vast majority of mainstream Mormons embraced, applauded and even rejoiced at news of the priesthood change, the reaction was much different in the Apostolic United Brethren, a polygamous religious community that, in 1978, was still known to most Utahns as the Allred Group and nowadays makes headlines as the church where the Brown family of TV’s "Sister Wives” fame worships.

“I burst into tears,” said Peggy Lynch, a member of the AUB. “We were so sad because we loved the [LDS] Church. We believed the church had priesthood, and they just gave it away.”

Those already practicing so-called Mormon fundamentalism weren’t the only ones upset. Researchers and people who belonged to the AUB in 1978 say the group saw its membership jump after the LDS Church ended the priesthood prohibition. The converts were LDS families who believed blacks should not get the priesthood.

Within a few years, the AUB opened its own temple and offered ordinances to its members. The AUB has never followed the LDS Church in allowing blacks to hold the priesthood.
Parallel tracks

These fundamentalists follow what they regard as the original teachings of Mormon founder Joseph Smith and the pioneer-prophet who succeeded him, Brigham Young. Fundamentalist groups began to emerge after the LDS Church officially gave up polygamy in 1890. Today, the LDS Church excommunicates any members found practicing it.

But these fundamentalists believe in more than plural marriage. Their attitudes toward whether blacks can enter the priesthood, for instance, can be traced to the Bible story of Cain and Abel. Mormon folklore holds that the mark, or curse, God placed upon Cain was black skin.

“That curse will remain upon them,” Young is quoted in the “Journal of Discourses” as saying on Oct. 9, 1859, in Salt Lake City’s renowned Mormon Tabernacle, “and they never can hold the Priesthood or share in it until all the other descendants of Adam have received the promises and enjoyed the blessings of the Priesthood and the keys thereof.”

The LDS Church has disavowed such teachings, stating that they never were doctrine, and notes that Mormon leaders today “unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.”

But some of the faith’s splinter groups still abide by Brother Brigham’s words.

Rulon C. Allred, for one, founded what became the AUB in the 1950s. For Latter-day Saints who wanted to try fundamentalism, moving to the AUB was an easier transition than to other such groups.

While other fundamentalists distanced themselves from the LDS Church, the AUB saw itself in parallel with the larger faith. Allred even encouraged some of those who worshipped with him to maintain their standing in the LDS Church and to receive ordinances in Mormon temples. He didn’t see the need for the AUB to have its own temples or ordinance ceremonies, save for plural marriages.

To this day, AUB followers such as Lynch refer to the LDS Church as “the church.”

Allred was murdered in 1977. His brother Owen Allred became the new leader of the AUB, which is believed to have had as many as 5,000 members at the time.

But many of the AUB’s fond feelings for the LDS Church soured in June 1978, when the latter announced that then-church President Spencer W. Kimball had received a “revelation” ending the priesthood and temple ban.
Conversions follow

Lynch had converted to the AUB years earlier, married one of Rulon Allred’s sons and moved to what is now Pinesdale, Mont. When she heard about the priesthood change, she phoned her mother, who was still a Latter-day Saint.

“I remember calling my mom and saying, ‘This is awful,’” Lynch recalled in an interview. “I was shocked when she said, ‘Isn’t this wonderful?’”

Owen Allred expressed his disappointment days after the LDS Church announcement during a sacrament service in Bluffdale. A transcript makes clear he regarded Kimball’s action as caving to political pressure rather than a revelation from God.

Allred wondered aloud whether the LDS Church soon would endorse abortion and grant the priesthood to women, too.

He advised his followers to stop participating in the LDS Church and cease entering its temples.

“Do not go into a temple,” he preached, “that has been defiled by the Canaanite being invited into it.”

Allred made his opposition more public July 23, 1978, in a full-page ad in The Salt Lake Tribune. The ad quoted Young’s statements on race and accused the LDS Church of giving away the priesthood and shunning its teachings.

The last two sentences read:

“Will Latter-day Saints remain true to their former revelations, or will they yield to the pressures of this crucial day?

“Where do you stand?”

Craig L. Foster, a co-editor of the three-volume “Persistence of Polygamy,” said the ad appeared to be intended as a rebuke. If it led to some mainstream Mormons jumping to the AUB, “then so much the better.”

Another co-editor, Brian Hales, a historian who has written books about fundamentalism, has reported that “hundreds” of LDS families converted to the AUB after Kimball’s priesthood expansion.

In an interview, Hales said AUB leadership relayed that information to him; he did not have actual statistics.

An AUB spokesman did not return messages seeking comment for this story.

John Llewellyn, a former Salt Lake County sheriff’s detective who oversaw complaints about polygamists and joined the AUB a few years after 1978, estimates the priesthood change prompted “dozens” of LDS families to convert but not hundreds.

Most of those families already had been curious about fundamentalism and completed their conversions because they didn’t think blacks should hold the priesthood, Llewellyn said. But a few AUB members sought out LDS men they already knew and thought would be agreeable to the AUB’s stance on the priesthood.

“They used it as a recruiting tool,” said Llewellyn, who left the AUB a few years after joining.

Whether hundreds of families or dozens defected to the AUB, either amount would have been insignificant to the global LDS Church but a boon to the AUB. By 2000, according to Hales’ research, the AUB was up to 6,000 members. By comparison, the mainstream Mormon church counts more than 16 million members today.
Still waiting for a revelation

With LDS temples now, in Owen Allred’s view, defiled, AUB leaders decided they needed to preserve the ordinances performed there.

They built an “endowment house” in Bluffdale in the 1980s, and, in the ’90s, a temple in Ozumba, Mexico.

Owen Allred died in 2005. The current AUB leader is Lynn Thompson.

Foster said AUB members have told him that blacks would be welcome in their church. Opposition to them holding the priesthood is based on scripture, he said, and not on a belief that they are intellectually, physically or culturally inferior.

“I really have not seen any indication of racism,” Foster said. “I really haven’t.”

Lynch, who runs the blog in which she posted the DNA question, said AUB “old-timers” like her still believe blacks should not hold the priesthood, though she points out that younger generations are more flexible.

She believes in treating blacks equally in secular life and hopes for the day when they do receive the priesthood. But that permission must come directly from God, a revelation she and other fundamentalists believe Kimball never received.

Said Lynch: “I do not believe myself any more of a racist than God.”

May 23, 2018

From Polygamy to Democracy: Inside a Fundamentalist Mormon Town

Ash Sanders
Rolling Stone
May 23, 2018

How does a community long run by a cult-like leader move away from a theocracy and into a new era?

On a sunny day in May, a very strange reunion is happening in the dusty desert town of Hildale, Utah. In an empty lot, tables and chairs stand in long rows, covered with plastic tablecloths that flap in the wind. At noon, the guests arrive. They come in Hondas and cargo shorts, Toyotas and tank tops, lining up at the buffet and fanning themselves with paper plates. On the other side of the table, women in pastel prairie dresses and braids dish out macaroni salad, molded Jell-O dishes and a local specialty called funeral potatoes. When the plates change hands, some smile and others shyly look down. People are nervous, and for good reason. Half of them are members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints – a polygamous sect commonly known as FLDS – and the other half are apostates, pariahs who have left the faith. They're also the women's brothers, sisters, cousins and aunts. And it's the first time they've interacted in years.

The luncheon is an attempt to rebuild a community riven with animosities. For over a decade, Hildale and its neighboring town of Colorado City, Arizona (collectively known as Short Creek) were controlled by FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs. Paranoid and punishing, Jeffs ran the community as a theocratic fiefdom, appointing cronies to government positions and dictating everything from what his followers could wear to who they could marry. As Jeffs consolidated power, he began to break up families, re-assigning husbands and wives and banishing hundreds from the community. According to Elissa Wall, one of the FLDS child brides who helped bring Jeffs to justice, Jeffs and his brother, Lyle, told their followers that these apostates were to be "left alone severely." The line comes from Nineteenth-century Mormon prophet Brigham Young, but the Jeffs took it and weaponized it. Apostates could lose their homes, their families, and their jobs. Once shunned, they could go for years without seeing their relatives – even if they lived on the same block.

Eventually, Jeffs' draconian measures caught up to him. In 2007, he was arrested outside Las Vegas with his favorite wife, Naomi, 16 cell phones, various wigs and disguises and $55,000 in cash. In 2011, he was convicted of sexually assaulting two underage girls – he claimed they were "spiritual wives" – and sentenced to life in prison. Jeffs continued to control Short Creek from his Texas jail cell, but in 2016, a federal jury dealt a crushing blow to his power when it found both Hildale and Colorado City guilty of housing discrimination and police misconduct, sending in an outside monitor to oversee sweeping reforms to the town government.

While Jeffs was in power, Short Creek was a town that many ran from. But as his stranglehold loosened, the once-banished are running toward it – and with ex-FLDS residents now in the majority, they're hoping to revive the community they once loved. Last year, Hildale staged the first elections in town history, electing Donia Jessop, an ex-FLDS woman, as mayor. RISE, a fair elections group Wall started in early 2017, is currently looking for candidates to to repeat the miracle in Colorado City this November. No one has formally declared yet, but Wall says several are busy collecting the signatures to do so.

In the process, they've ratcheted tensions between theocracy and democracy to a breaking point. In their ochre desert valley, the FLDS have taken cover, erecting tall fences and hanging wooden ZION signs above their doors. The idea is to protect themselves from the wicked – but the wicked, increasingly, are right next door. Some of the apostates have kept the signs, but flipped them over, reading NOIZ. It's a fitting image for a place that's been turned upside down.

Terrill Musser never expected to come back to Short Creek – much less to be leading a grassroots democratic movement. Born and raised in a polygamist FLDS family, Musser fled after refusing to kowtow to Jeffs when Jeffs took over following his father's death in 2002. For years, Musser lived in his car in nearby St. George, Utah, trying to survive in the "gentile" world. But when in 2014 he heard his dad's home was standing empty, he knew it was time to go back. Musser, who suffers from bone cancer, weighed only 90 pounds at the time; doctors said he'd be dead by spring. But he had to try.

When Musser returned, the once-thriving town of his childhood looked apocalyptic – houses empty, businesses shuttered, the town hall locked. But the faithful were still there, and they were still in charge. It took Musser three months to get his utilities turned on, and he worried daily that if his health suddenly deteriorated, the FLDS paramedics would refuse to send an ambulance.

Yet Musser wasn't intimidated. He launched the Short Creek Community Alliance from his sickbed, an online forum for the community to build a better town. The premise was simple, but daunting: persuading people who'd never made a political decision in their lives to sit down with rivals and hammer out a blueprint for democracy. Despite obstacles, the Alliance quickly racked up an impressive resume of firsts. They organized the first protest in the town's history, demanding the reformation of the largely Church-controlled police force. They hosted the first Fourth of July celebration since Jeffs had banned holidays, where they united exiled FLDS children with their mothers. And when the FLDS-controlled town council refused to work with them, they began to plan the first real elections in town history. For Musser, the elections were all about inclusion and accountability. "We the people created this problem," he says. "If we don't like it, we have to fix it. We want people to know that this town can be a community again."

Building an inclusive community might sound like a sentiment everyone could get behind, but in Short Creek, unifying messages are hard to come by. When ex-FLDS residents approached FLDS women about hosting the town luncheon, Norma Richter agreed, but only because Voices for Dignity, a local nonprofit she trusts, persuaded the middle-aged believer that it would be a good opportunity to build bridges and debut the craft pop-up that VFD had been working with FLDS women to create. But Richter doesn't share Musser's democratic sentiments. "People say they're just making the town great again, but to me it's not great," she says. "It's a completely different place. The spirit of it, the atmosphere. Some streets I don't even want to go down."

Richter is sitting in a chair apart from the lunch hubbub, wearing a long blue prairie dress, gray hair neatly tucked at the nape of her neck. She watches the customers handle jars of jam and handcrafted aprons as she answers my questions. When I ask her how she feels about the luncheon outside, she chooses her words carefully. "I'm glad we're doing it here," she says.

By 'here', Richter means FLDS land. It's a reference to a property battle that dates back to the 1940s, when Church leaders founded a housing trust to administer what they saw as God's land. The United Effort Plan trust held all property in common, with members consecrating their land, businesses and housing to what was essentially the Church. But when members left the faith, the Church kept their property, becoming land-rich at the expense of exiles. In 2005, the state of Utah stepped in, appointing an outside fiduciary to manage trust assets. To stay in their homes, the trust – managed since 2015 by a local board of largely ex-FLDS trustees – requires residents to pay their property taxes, sign an occupancy agreement and pay a nominal fee of $100 a month. But the FLDS have refused to cooperate, saying it violates their religious beliefs to work with apostates. In response, the trust began evictions – so far, of at least 175 homes – and FLDS began flocking out of the community.

The reformed Trust, which is now run by an ex-FLDS Executive Director named Jeff Barlow, says it simply wants to protect trust land for all beneficiaries. "Our goal is not to evict anybody," says Barlow, pointing to the many ways the trust accommodated the FLDS, from working with FLDS-approved third parties to waiving rental fees in cases of financial hardship. Barlow is willing to work with the FLDS, but he believes everyone has to compromise. "We've got to work together," Barlow says. "Whether we like it or not."

The idea makes sense if you believe that Short Creek is a democracy. But for Richter and her fellow believers, it's not. It's God's town, and anyone who defies His chosen leaders defies God. In Richter's opinion, the people coming back to town are thieves, trying to take back something they willingly gave to the Church. "Thou shalt not steal," Richter says, before explaining what she sees as a solution: The state should compensate the FLDS for taking their homes, and offer money to ex-members to move elsewhere. But ex-members argue that Jeffs used religious pretexts to bilk them out of property that was rightfully theirs. The disagreement seems intractable, an ideological chasm between freedom of religion and the rule of law. After all, what law could bridge heaven and earth?

Donia Jessop never intended to run for mayor. Like Musser, she grew up in Short Creek. Her family practiced polygamy, although Jessop herself married only one man. For years, Jessop loved living in the Creek. But after Jeffs took charge, things changed. Every Sunday, Jeffs banned something new or claimed a new degree of power. It got to the point where Jessop dreaded going to church. And she wasn't alone: In one year, she helped almost two dozen friends and neighbors pack up and flee a town they no longer recognized..

Eventually, Jessop fled, too, landing in the nearby town of Santa Clara, Utah. In Short Creek, the only choice had been obey or go to hell. Now she was signing on a house and putting her kids into local schools. Her life began to feel like her own. But a few years later, Jeffs went to prison and her husband wanted to return to their old town. Jessop agreed, on one condition: she would bring the experience of choice back to the community.

Her opportunity came almost immediately, when the Alliance announced their call for election candidates in January 2017. At first, Jessop was scared. Her neighbors saw her as a wicked apostate. Besides, she was, in her words, "just a chick from the sticks." But then something changed. "The night that they said if you're willing to run, throw your hat in the ring, I knew," she says. "Something settled over me that was like, this is what you're doing next. And I knew I would win."

So Jessop declared her candidacy. She cleaned up voter rolls. She went door-to-door. She joined a democracy study group, poring over the nuts and bolts of running a city. And then the unthinkable happened: she won. On November 7th, 2017, she became Hildale's first ex-FLDS mayor, its first female mayor and its first democratically elected mayor, period. At her victory party, the crowd was electric with excitement. Forty percent had voted for the first time in their lives, and many had cried while filling out ballots. But in the city hall offices across town, the mood was somber. The next day, 11 men resigned from their city posts, saying they refused to work with a woman and an apostate.

Jessop's struggle was only beginning. After her second council meeting, she went into her office and sobbed. She didn't know how to run a city. Two FLDS councilmen refused to come to meetings at all. When Jessop and a fellow councilwoman went through the budget for the first time, one of the men quipped, "Ladies, try to keep up." And when Jessop wanted to appoint a zoning commissioner who shared her broad vision of equality and her practica vision for growing the local economy and getting better water, roads, and infrastructure, the FLDS mayor of Colorado City told her that approach was wrong for Hildale. It was a moment that would normally have shut Jessop up, sending her into a spiral of insecurity. But this time, she stood her ground. "I am Hildale," she told him. "The people voted me in, and I will have a zoning commissioner who shares my vision." For Jessop, it's not just about elections. It's about standing up to an authority she has always feared.

Ideas like this rankle Norma Richter. She doesn't mind Jessop being mayor, but she thinks she should focus less on grievances and more on fixing potholes. She can't understand why Jessop badmouths Warren Jeffs, or why the ex-FLDS insist on dredging up all the ways they've been hurt by FLDS leaders. It makes Richter suspicious. Just a few years ago, many of these people were believing members, and had no problem with the way the Church did things. "The only thing that changed [for these people] is their perspective on who they are," Richter says.

But for Jessop and Musser, that's exactly the point. More than a platform, they believe residents of Short Creek need a fundamental shift in the way people see themselves. "When I first moved out here and said 'you matter,'" Musser says, "people would look at me point blank and say, 'No I don't.' But when you insist, people start thinking, 'Maybe I do matter. Maybe I do exist.'" Jessop feels the same way. "Hildale had a heart," she says. "Warren Jeffs didn't take a gun out and shoot people. He ripped the heart from their bodies." Jessop and Musser are trying to heal the hearts of residents and of the community, and that means showing up, again and again, building relationships. It's hard work, and in another town they might have given up. But in Short Creek, their enemies are also their family – and for Jessop, it's this bond that's pulling them through this crisis. "[The FLDS] love me," Jessop says, "They just forgot. But I'm standing here no matter what, loving them."

If the FLDS do love people like Jessop, they've got to start remembering it soon. In November, Colorado City will go to the polls for the first time, and the faithful will likely face off against another batch of apostates. This battle is a bigger challenge than Hildale. With a poulation of nearly 5,000, Colorado City is almost twice as big, the FLDS presence is stronger. But organizers say there's a different mood this time. After Hildale, people don't scoff as much at the idea of government. Instead, they ask how to register to vote.

Regardless of the results, Musser feels like he's done what he came back to Short Creek to do. He didn't die in the spring. Instead, he seemed to get better as the town did, eventually trading in his bed for a wooden cane. And Jessop has stopped flinching when she drives into town. "We are all joined up," she says. "We're not one above the other. We are all on the same level. We are all humans. We have a light and that light is stamping out the darkness."

The battle in Short Creek is far from over, and old enmities are strong. Richter may have made food for the luncheon, but she still doesn't believe in a compromise. Instead, she relies on a higher power. "Heavenly Father knows what we're going through," she says. "Yeah, we'd like Him to [make it] stop, and we hope it's soon. In the meantime, you just have to love." Most people would see that as a rejection, but Musser and Jessop see it as an invitation, a possibility for relationship to overcome ideology. Sure, the FLDS might want God to get rid of them. But still, people are here, at an awkward reunion on a dusty lot, serving macaroni salad across the gap. As Jessop would say, they love each other. They just forgot.