Mar 16, 2019

Participate in research on the difference between religious instruction and religious indoctrination and how these pedagogies the rights of the child

The purpose of this anonymous questionnaire is to develop a clearer understanding of religious indoctrination and how it affects children and adults who perceived they experienced it growing up. 

The questionnaire arises from the work of Dr Janet Goodall and Joy Cranham, in the Department of Education, at the University of Bath. 

There are ten questions in this survey and it will take about 10 minutes to complete; your participation is greatly appreciated. 

We would like to understand the similarities and differences between religious indoctrination and religious instruction and the impact these two pedagogies have on a child’s development especially with regards to The Convention of the Rights of a Child. To compare the two positions, we require participants who may have experienced either or neither instruction or indoctrination as children.

You can participate by clicking on the link below:

Once again, thank you for your participation. We will be presenting our findings at ICSA’s 2019 International Conference.

If you have any questions or concerns, please contact Joy Cranham at

Kindest regards,

Joy Cranham

Ex-church member takes plea deal for 'cult' vandalism

News 8
March 14, 2019

CARSON CITY, Mich. (WOOD) — A former member of the Church at Carson City accused of spray-painting words like “cult” on property tied to the church has agreed to a plea deal.

Anna Morris appeared in a Montcalm County Circuit Court Thursday morning where she pleaded guilty to malicious destruction of a building and malicious destruction of property. In turn, prosecutors dismissed another count of malicious destruction of a building.

They also agreed to drop one of the other charges if Morris completes probation, which would leave her with only a misdemeanor conviction and no additional jail time.

Police say Morris and her 14-year-old nephew spray-painted the church building, church van and some homes of church leaders.

"I didn't write the words to be a threat to hurt anyone," Morris wrote in her confession. "I wanted them to think about how bad they hurt others and maybe they would know how wrong they are about the stuff they do and teach there."

Other former church members told Target 8 they understood Morris's motives. Some responded by calling the church a cult, accusing leaders of breaking up families and covering up sexual assaults over the last 40 years.

A police report obtained by Target 8 show that leaders acknowledged that the church's late co-founder, Lee Sherman, molested children decades ago, and that it wasn't reported.

But church leaders have denied other allegations.

Former psychiatric nurse expected to plead guilty to co-founding sex cult that branded women

Others charged in the case include Salzman's daughter, Lauren Salzman; Clare Bronfman, Seagram heiress, Allison Mack, from television series, 'Smallville'

Barry Meier
National Post
The New York Times
March 13, 2019

NEW YORK — Nancy Salzman was known to her followers as “Prefect.” She was a co-founder of Nxivm, a cultlike group near Albany, New York, in which women were branded with the leader’s initials and forced to have sex with him, federal prosecutors say.

On Wednesday, Salzman is expected to plead guilty to charges including possibly those contained in a federal racketeering indictment filed last year against six people in the group, including the former leader, Keith Raniere, a government official and a lawyer familiar with the case said.

Salzman, a former psychiatric nurse, helped Raniere found the group in the 1990s. In addition to being accused of being part of a criminal enterprise, she was specifically charged with identify theft and altering records to influence the outcome of a lawsuit against the organization.

On Tuesday, prosecutors filed a notice of a “criminal cause for pleading” for Salzman in a Brooklyn federal court, an indication that Salzman would enter a plea the following day. A government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss private plea negotiations, confirmed she had agreed to plead guilty but declined to give details.

Robert Soloway, a lawyer representing Salzman, did not return an email seeking comment. Another lawyer involved in the Nxivm case, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss confidential plea negotiations, said that he had been informed that Salzman would plead guilty. Her intention to enter a guilty plea was first reported Tuesday by The New York Post.

A guilty plea by Salzman would be significant given her high position within Nxivm (pronounced Nex-ee-um). Others charged in the case include Salzman’s daughter, Lauren Salzman; Clare Bronfman, an heiress to the Seagram’s liquor fortune; and an actress, Allison Mack, best known for her role in the television series, “Smallville.”

An indictment filed last July charged the defendants with a variety of crimes, including racketeering, identity theft, money laundering, sex trafficking and extortion.

The federal investigation into Nxivm started after The New York Times published an article in late 2017 detailing how women seeking to join a secret sorority within the group were branded on their hip with a symbol that contained Raniere’s initials.

In addition, women had to provide personal secrets as “collateral” to join the sorority and were warned that the damaging or embarrassing information would be made public if they revealed the sorority’s existence.

Federal authorities described Raniere, known to his followers as “Vanguard,” as the ultimate master of the sorority. They charged in a criminal complaint that women were forced to have sex with him because they feared that their personal secrets would be released if they refused.

Salzman’s daughter, Lauren, was reportedly involved in the secret sorority and oversaw branding ceremonies. For her part, Nancy Salzman worked closely for two decades with Raniere and developed the behavioral programs that formed the basis of Nxivm, former members have said.

Beginning in the late 1990s, an estimated 16,000 people enrolled in courses offered by Nxivm, which said they were designed to bring greater self-fulfillment by eliminating psychological and emotional barriers. Most participants took a few workshops but others were deeply drawn into the group, giving up careers, friends and families in order to move to the Albany area.

It was only after they left Nxivm, several former members have said, that they realized it operated as a cult.

Last March, Raniere was arrested in Mexico, where he had gone after the federal inquiry started. A few days later, federal agents raided Salzman’s home in Halfmoon, New York, an Albany suburb.

Nxivm has since shuttered its operations. The trial of the remaining defendants in the federal case is scheduled to begin in late April.

Chamber boss Simon Williams quits over Universal Medicine cult claims

Frome chamber of commerce said it had accepted Simon Williams' decision to quit
BBC News
March 13, 2019

The president of a Chamber of Commerce has stood down from his role following a BBC investigation into a cult which he is a follower of.

Simon Williams owns the Lighthouse home of the UK HQ of Universal Medicine, which teaches people are sexually abused due to past life actions.

BBC Inside Out West investigated the group, with one daughter saying she had "lost" her mother to them.

Frome Chamber of Commerce said it had accepted Mr Williams' decision to quit.

Universal Medicine was founded by Serge Benhayon in 1999, and its European headquarters are at the Lighthouse in Tytherington, near Frome in Somerset.

The former tennis coach, who lives in Australia, is a friend of Mr Williams.

The cult also teaches that people with autism were former dictators, and followers are expected to go to bed at 21:00 and get up at 03:00 and they have to follow a strict diet, which forbids even vegetables.

Another belief is that bad spirits can be "burped out".

In December an Australian court, during a libel claim, found it was true to say that Universal Medicine was a "socially harmful cult" that makes false claims about healing.

In the BBC Inside Out West report, Mr Williams claimed people "don't understand" what the organisation is about.

He said the Australian court ruling was "totally untrue" but when he was questioned over Universal Medicine's beliefs over sexual assault and disabled people he refused to answer.

Mr Benhayon has previously denied any wrongdoing. He says he does not run a cult and that he is a victim of a media witch hunt.

Frome Chamber of Commerce said Mr Williams had stepped down to avoid bad publicity for the chamber.
Directors 'eat carrots'

In a statement, the chamber said it had "never had any dealings with Mr Benhayon" and "for the avoidance of doubt the chamber strongly disapproves of the activities and beliefs attributed to Mr Benhayon" in the Australian court case.

"As there are rumours that the chamber has been infiltrated by Universal Medicine so the remaining directors wish to state that they have never attended any Universal Medicine courses, and do not share the doctrines attributed to it.

"They do not go to bed at 9pm and get up at 3am, they eat carrots and they drink coffee."

Watch BBC Inside Out West's Investigation into Universal Medicine on the BBC iPlayer.

Mar 15, 2019

Victim advocates ecstatic after Utah Senate passes polygamy refugees reparations bill

Sen. David Buxton, R-Roy, explains the polygamy reparations bill on March 13, 2019, at the Utah Legislature. The Senate passed the bill 23-4 and sent it to Gov. Gary Herbert for his signature.
March 14, 2019

SALT LAKE CITY — Utahns who flee polygamy will become eligible for crime victims’ reparations if Gov. Gary Herbert signs a bill passed by the state Senate Wednesday.

The measure adds bigamy to the list of crimes that can qualify victims for grants from the Utah Office for Victims of Crime. The office reviews grant applications individually and can award funds for counseling, medical care or other needs.

Fines charged to people convicted of crimes provide the money for the fund.

“We are all so happy,” said Melissa Ellis , who left the Kingston polygamist clan and helped work toward passage of House Bill 214.

She said women need therapy after leaving polygamist relationships but can’t afford it.

“They have to feed themselves before their mental health,” Ellis said.

She said the bill means the state recognizes women and children who flee polygamy as crime victims.

“I hope this will help those who are trying to escape,” she said.

Angela Kelly, director of Sound Choices Coalition, said the bill came about last summer as she was researching ways to generate more funding for polygamy victims and the nonprofit groups that help them.

“This is what they’ve wanted,” Kelly said. “This finally recognizes victims of polygamy.”

She said the societal conversation on polygamy has been mostly about religious rights, “but instead, the real conversation is, this is a crime.”

She said news of the bill has had an impact already.

“We already know of women that are in (polygamy) that are happy about this bill,” Kelly said. “It’s one thing for people who have left, but if we’ve already had an impact for one person, that is huge.”

The bill was sponsored by Rep. Kyle Andersen, R-North Ogden. The House passed the bill 56-17 on Feb. 25.

Senators approved it on a 23-4 vote Wednesday. Voting no, all Republicans, were Deirde Henderson, R-Salt Lake City; Kirk Cullimore, R- Salt Lake City; Lincoln Fillmore R-South Jordan and Daniel McCay, R-Riverton.

The bill now goes to the governor. Upon approval there, it will become law.

You can reach reporter Mark Shenefelt at or 801 625-4224. Follow him on Twitter at @mshenefelt.

Appeals court reinstates lawsuit filed by former polygamous sect members against their old lawyers

 Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Eldorado - Attorney Rod Parker advises a group of FLDS women as they prepare to speak to the media after being separated from their children Monday, April 14, 2008, at the YFZ "Yearning for Zion" Ranch.
Nate Carlisle
Salt Lake Tribune
March 14, 2019

Former members of the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints have provided enough evidence of misdeeds by their old lawyers for parts of a lawsuit to proceed, the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Thursday.

The former sect members must still prove their case in a Salt Lake City courtroom, the appeals court said. The Denver-based appeals court only considered the narrow issue of whether federal Judge Ted Stewart correctly dismissed a lawsuit filed against FLDS President Warren Jeffs and the law firm which used to represent his church, Snow Christensen & Martineau.

Stewart ruled some of the the plaintiffs waited too long to bring their suit and that others hadn’t proved enough legal malpractice to proceed to trial. The appeals court upheld Stewart’s dismissal of some of those plaintiffs or certain claims they filed, but overturned the dismissal of others.

Brent Hatch, an attorney representing Snow Christensen & Martineau, said he was pleased with the decision. Even though the appeals court resurrected the lawsuit, he noted, the court upheld the dismissal of more than half the claims. Also, he said, the appeal judges didn’t advance any of the revived claims to trial; they sent them to Stewart so he can hear further evidence.

“We’re happy because we’re confident that the remaining claims will be denied [as being without] merit," Hatch said. "So we view it as a victory.”

Attorneys for the plaintiffs did not return messages seeking comment Thursday afternoon.

Former FLDS members, 31 of whom were listed as plaintiffs in Thursday’s decision, regard the suit as a way to obtain justice from the lawyers. The ex-Jeffs followers contend the lawyers helped Jeffs find legal mechanisms to hide child rape as well as benefit from child labor, kick people out of their homes and separate them from their families.

The plaintiffs filed suit in 2016, alleging the law firm portrayed themselves as being attorneys for each sect member, but really only gave legal aid to Jeffs. One former FLDS attorney, Rod Parker, is singled out as a defendant. A key issue in the lawsuit is how Parker in 1998 helped Jeffs change the terms of a trust that owned most of the property in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. The change gave Jeffs control over who could live in trust-owned homes or could use the trust’s commercial and agricultural properties.

The lawsuit also recounts how, after Texas authorities raided the FLDS-owned Yearning For Zion ranch, FLDS members were told to contribute all their income and max out their credit cards to help the church pay Snow Christensen & Martineau.

Jeffs is serving a sentence of life plus 20 years in prison in Texas for crimes related to sexually assaulting two girls he married as plural wives.

'J.R. "Bob" Dobbs and The Church of the SubGenius': Film Review | SXSW 2019

Church of the SubGenius
John DeFore
Hollywood Reporter
March 14, 2019

Sandy K. Boone tells the surprising tale of a Texas-born fake religion whose imaginary leader is named Bob.

I first learned of the Church of the SubGenius in a small counterculture bookstore near the Austin coffeeshops and street corners where Richard Linklater had just filmed Slacker. It was in a building housing a video arcade, a bagel shop, and a storefront where impressionable college kids were being targeted by the "free personality tests" of a cult called Scientology. There could hardly have been a better place to thumb through the mysterious mumbo-jumbo of a satirical group that wore cultishness on its sleeve, whose sole real purpose was to mock the nonsense its founders saw all around them. Introducing the real people behind the Church and its fictitious figurehead, Sandy K. Boone's J.R. "Bob" Dobbs and The Church of the SubGenius is not only a colorful piece of weird-Texas history but a surprising commentary on the current state of the world. That second facet may not be fun to confront, but the nose-thumbing attitude of our heroes will help viewers get through it.

The men who took the names Ivan Stang and Philo Drummond grew up in North Texas during a time when the area was even more whitebread than it is today. One was from a religious family, one wasn't, but both latched onto the same escapes from normalcy as teenagers — comic books, Captain Beefheart records, pranks. When they met, they bonded immediately, spending time perpetrating hoax calls on CB Radio — "we were trolls before they had that term" — and collecting bits of ephemeral propaganda like the fundamentalist pamphlets of Jack Chick.

The apocalyptic tone of that stuff begged to be lampooned, and in 1979, the youngsters spent sixty bucks to print copies of a parody: The "Sub Genius Pamphlet #1" declared on its cover, "The World Ends Tomorrow and YOU MAY DIE" before launching into frenzied, scattered texts about a strange new religion whose god was a piece of clip art. The jokey contents proclaimed "a spazz-church of macho irony!!!," but also made assertions so bold — about the intelligence of those reading the pamphlet and the soul-sucking agenda of the Normals surrounding them — that it had a certain affirmational value for any self-identified weirdo who discovered it. Miraculously, weirdos did discover it.

Now comes the inevitable reminder: This was before the internet, when there was real cause for amazement when bizarro ideas spread beyond the confines of one city. Boone recounts how Stang and Drummond's Xeroxed oddity was passed around by new fans; the men started getting mail from around the country, envelopes stuffed with dollar bills and requests for new publications. Soon, the founders of the church realized they needed to stage a proper, Baptist-style revival.

Interviewing the middle-aged men and women who got involved early on and never gave up the act, the film charts the growth of this, what — spontaneously generated, collective act of performance art? There were half-serious public events and plentiful interviews with bemused TV reporters; a date was set for the prophesied end of the world; factions grew up, with angry rival leaders trying to promote a more violent version of the faith. (Mostly in good fun, of course — unlike the "Christian" sects in the real world that have tried to make that faith all about hellfire.)

Artists like Linklater, Nick Offerman, Penn Jillette and Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh drop in to help describe the group's appeal, and, in the film's final third, to explain how a group that embraces weirdos can also have trouble with those who are actually mentally ill. The church whose core motto was "f--k 'em if they can't take a joke" wound up confronting both people and law-enforcement agencies with no sense of humor, and a couple of bad scenes resulted.

More upsetting, though, were broader real-world developments. Seeing what happened with Jim Jones, David Koresh and the like, Stang started trying to make sure nobody took his claptrap seriously. Temporarily breaking character in his interview, he says, "it's important to me not to leave behind another Scientology, or Mormonism." That concern has only grown as the world elects leaders who actually believe nonsense as bizarre as anything Stang's publications ever contained, and who reject the truths our culture is founded on. It's a hard time for anyone trying to hatch satires that are weirder than our reality. But people continue to seek answers, however tongue-in-cheek, from the SubGeniuses.

Venue: South By Southwest Film Festival (Visions)
Director: Sandy K. Boone
Screenwriters: Sandy K. Boone, Jason Wehling
Producers: Michelle Randolf Faires, Alyssa Spiller Sajovich, Jason Wehling, Suzanne Weinert
Executive producers: Sandy K. Boone, Louis Black
Directors of photography: David Layton, Kyle Cockayne, Fady Hadid
Editor: Lauren Sanders
Composer: Curtis Heath

84 minutes

After Falling For A Man Outside The Jehovah's Witnesses, I'm Learning To Balance Love And Faith

Poet and storyteller Jeni De La O tells her story of secret love, being 'disfellowed'
March 15, 2019

Poet and storyteller Jeni De La O tells her story of secret love, being 'disfellowed' from her faith, and the way back, as part of a collaboration between The Moth and HuffPost UK

It was my 33rd birthday. I don’t celebrate my birthday, because I’m one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, but I know it’s my birthday.

Hitting your thirties as a single woman can be tough, but hitting your thirties as a single woman who’s a Jehovah’s Witness is brutal.

A couple of weeks earlier, I’d heard a statistic that confirmed something every single Witness girl already knows: the ratio of single women to single men in our organization is nine to one. Yeah. So that’s tough.

When you factor in the rule that we cannot date or marry outside our faith, it gets even tougher. So this was weighing on me as I was sitting with my gorgeous, funny, smart, single girlfriends.

I had dreams. I had things I wanted to do. I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to put myself out there. I wanted to find love. But the idea of finding a mate had become such an unattainable goal, such a pipe dream, that by extension all my dreams seemed unattainable. I felt, at 33-years-old, as though my entire life had already passed me by and I’d missed it.

I’d lost my joy, and joy is a fundamental requirement of being a Jehovah’s Witness. Only joy can get you out of your bed on a freezing-cold Michigan Saturday morning to go knock on people’s doors and try to talk about God. You have to have joy, and I’d lost mine.

I talked to the brothers in my congregation about it. They told me to read the Scriptures, to meditate on them, and I did. I prayed. I read the Bible. Wasn’t really working.

During this time there was one Scripture that I meditated on specifically, and that was Philippians 4:8: “Whatever things are chaste, whatever things are lovable, whatsoever things are pure, think on these things.”

And I did. I kept myself busy, so that I wouldn’t think about what I felt was missing in my life. But I thought about other things, too. Like what it would feel like to have a life partner and what it would feel like to wake up in the arms of a man who loved me.

So on my 33rd birthday, surrounded by all my gorgeous, funny, smart, sexy, single girlfriends, I made a decision.

I decided I needed more than Scripture.

I needed more than prayer.

I needed Tinder.

Tinder, for the uninitiated, is neither chaste nor lovable nor pure. It’s also a visually-based dating app, and that presented a problem for me because I couldn’t have my face out there.

Can you imagine going to someone’s door, knocking, saying, “Hi, I want to talk to you about God’s—”

“Aren’t you that girl I saw on Tinder?”

“No, no, no, no, no.”

It’s a sure way to get caught.

Remember, Witnesses can only date other Witnesses, and that’s not a suggestion, that’s a rule. And if you break that rule, there are consequences.
So I’m a planner. I launched a plan.

I put on my best wrap dress, I took a really flattering picture, and then I cropped my head out and prayed for the best.

There were some creepy responses to a headless torso on Tinder – there were. But there were some, the gentlemen of Tinder, who were nice, and one of these nice gentlemen was a guy named Josh.

Josh and I hit it off immediately. We’re both obsessed with Parliament-Funkadelic. He had great taste in music, he was funny, he was smart, he was witty, he was not a creep. Best of all he was a grad student – he was doing his capstone – so he was perpetually busy and four hours away. That was perfect for me, because we became texting buddies.

Most guys on Tinder, they want to text one day, maybe two, before you meet and get the show on the road. Josh was always busy and far away, so we texted, and the texting was delicious. All that flirting. I was sizzling, I was vivacious. Here was a man who saw me as a woman, not as a spiritual sister. It was awesome. I had a pep in my step, and it spilled into the other parts of my life. I found the joy in my ministry, I was friendlier at work, I wasn’t the wet blanket at parties anymore.

People noticed, but I kept the reason to myself. I had to keep it a secret, because Josh wasn’t a Witness.

So one day I get a message from Josh, and he writes, I’m in your neck of the woods, what are you doing?

I happened to be home by myself that day, and I had this rush of boldness.
I texted back: I’m home alone. do you want to come over and make out for 15 minutes?

To which he said, yeah.

And I immediately started to question every life choice I’d ever made, because I am not this girl, this is not me.

This is the start of every Lifetime movie ever made. My roommate’s going to come home and find my dead body splayed on the living room floor, and what are my parents going to think?

I’m spiraling. But before I can cancel, Josh is at the door.

I open the door.

Wow. Tall, dark, and handsome.

I let him in, we sit down on the couch, I set my timer. He makes small talk because he’s a polite Midwestern boy. And then he leans in for the kiss.

That kiss was magic, it was electric. I felt it in my toes. I’m telling you this story years later, and I feel it in my toes right now. My whole body was buzzing.
And then the timer was buzzing, our time was up.

I thought, Oh, no, I want more.

But I stood up dutifully and said, “Okay, thank you.”

He said, “Really? Okay.”

And then he said, “Can I see you again?”

I told him I’d have to think about it, and I did. I had to think about it, because the texting, the flirting, that was good and fine, but we’d crossed a line. I knew where this could go, and I knew what the consequences could be. But I also knew I wanted more. It felt good. So I started carving out time to be with Josh.

Jehovah’s Witnesses, we have a big culture of accountability. If you miss your meetings, people will text you or call you and ask where you were. If you have a roommate and you’re out late, that roommate might call you and say, “Where are you, what are you doing?”

So I had to start lying. I started “going to the gym” a lot, I started “working late” a lot, to carve out time for me and Josh. We’d meet and we’d go to a movie or we’d cook a meal together.

I remember one time we ordered takeout and watched Sherlock at his apartment, and I was so deliriously happy. I wanted to call my parents and my friends and tell them how happy I was. But I couldn’t do that because, not only was Josh not a Witness, he was a lapsed Catholic altar boy who questioned the existence of God. And if you googled Josh (like I did), the first thing you would see is an article he wrote while he was attending MIT about leaving religion behind altogether.

Yeah, this is not a guy I could take home to my family.

I realized I was falling in love with Josh when my youngest brother got engaged and my first thought was, I can’t wait to dance with Josh at the wedding, and my second thought was, Have you lost your mind? You can’t take Josh to this wedding!

So I launched a four-part plan.

Phase one, introduce Josh into conversation: “There’s this really nice Midwestern guy. He keeps asking me out. I’m dutifully rebuffing him because of my faith.”

Phase two, and this one was tricky: convince my family to convince me to take Josh to the wedding as my date.

And I did it. Here’s how: I called up a couple of escort services and priced how much it would cost to rent a date, then called my family and said, “Listen, guys, it’s about three hundred fifty dollars an hour – can you pitch in?”

When my mother picked her heart up off the floor, she said, “Why don’t you just ask that nice Midwestern boy to come with you?” Mission accomplished.

Phase three was simple: take Josh to the wedding, keep it platonic, have him charm the pants off everybody. That’s easy, he’s a really lovable, affable guy.

My grandmother fell in love with Josh. She’s not a Witness – she’s a little old Cuban lady – but the Grandma Seal of Approval? Super important.

Phase four, I will admit, maybe I didn’t plan it out as carefully as I should have, but here was the general idea: We would get back, I would wait two weeks, and then I would announce that I had decided to start dating Josh. He wasn’t the big bad wolf anymore – people knew him, they liked him. I knew I’d take my lumps and maybe lose some friends, but I didn’t think it would be the end of the world.

You know what they say about best-laid plans. By week one of phase four, a Witness friend had put two and two together. She says to me, “Have you been secretly dating Josh?”

I was exposed. The lying, the dating, the intimacy, all of it. I couldn’t ask her to hold that secret. I knew what the next steps were.

So I called the elders in my congregation, and I told them everything. The decision was made to disfellowship me. So for those of you who don’t know what disfellowshipping is, it’s a disciplinary action that Jehovah’s Witnesses take when someone is an unrepentant wrongdoer, a fornicator such as myself.

What it means in practical terms is your family can no longer talk to you, your friends can no longer talk to you. You walk into a room full of people who’ve been your only social network your entire life, and they can’t even say hello.
Some of them won’t even look at me. It’s not to be mean, it’s because they’re hurt.

So now, for the first time, everything is on the table. On the one hand, there’s my family, my friends, my community, my God, my faith.

On the other hand, there’s this man who loves me, and his parents, who have my picture on their mantel, and his friends who have welcomed me, and the wedding we talked about, and the life that we wanted to build together, and that feeling of joy that he gives me. It’s time to strip everything down to zero and come clean to myself about who I am and figure out what I want.

I break up with Josh.

In the absence of that culture of accountability, where no one is checking on me and no one is calling to see where I am, I surprisingly find myself still going to my meetings. The doctrine feels insurmountable, but I keep going, and I realize that I believe, I really, truly do believe, what they’re teaching here. And, to my shock, I want to be a part of this organization. I want to find my way back.

There is a path back. You go to all your meetings, you pray, you study, you stop doing what you’re not supposed to do, and then you meet with your committee.
And it was interesting, because I didn’t just go to my meetings. I went to my meetings, and I marched all the way up to the very front row, and I sat there. I made sure everyone could see me. I wanted them to know, I’m human, I fell short, but I’m still here. I’m not giving up.

But I missed Josh. I missed him so much it hurt to breathe, and I’m not one of those girls, I never have been. So, four months into this ordeal, I called him up and I said, “This is how I feel. How do you feel?”

And he said, “Whatever it is, we can figure it out together. This is not insurmountable.”

I had to believe that the God who loves me wants me to have love, too.
So we decided, “Why not?”

Josh and I got engaged in June. I’m still disfellowshipped. I’m still going to my meetings. We’re figuring it out together. It’s messy, it’s work, but it works for us because we love each other.

There have been times through this journey where things get dark, and I feel like giving up because it’s hard. And in those moments Josh has never once said to me, “Why don’t you walk away from this faith?”

He’s never asked me to give up my religion. So I have to have faith that, if this man can make room in his life for my faith, with time my community will make room for him in my life.

So Saturday, two days from now, Josh and I are getting married. I’m still disfellowshipped, so it’s going to be a small ceremony. My family will not be there, and I’m not going to lie, I’m sad about that. It’s a small sadness, though; it’s a tender spot that I know will heal with time.

I’m excited about the prospect of being reinstated with time. I’m excited to be part of the congregation again. I can’t wait to go knocking on people’s doors again.

But what I am most excited about is that Sunday morning I’ll finally get to wake up in the arms of a man who loves me.

This story is cross-posted from The Moth’s latest book, All These Wonders, for a special edition of HuffPost UK’s Life Less Ordinary blog series. You can buy the book here

Life Less Ordinary is a weekly blog series from HuffPost UK that showcases weird and wonderful life experiences. If you’ve got something extraordinary to share please email with LLO in the subject line. To read more from the series, visit our dedicated page.

Mar 14, 2019

Police charge owner of Valley psychic business with theft from nonprofit

Francis Scarcella
Daily Item
March 14, 2019

SUNBURY — The owner of a Valley energy healing and psychic readings business faces felony theft charges after Sunbury police say she stole $13,192 from nonprofit organization Parent to Parent.

Jessica Mena, 40, of Old Farm Lane, Milton, was arrested and charged with five felony counts of theft by deception, access fraud, computer theft, forgery and possession and use of unlawful devices. Police say she stole the money through 19 unauthorized transactions.

According to Sunbury Police officer Brad Slack, Parent to Parent officials reported in August that an employee may be involved in possible fraudulent activities. Parent to Parent is a nonprofit resource and support network created by parents for parents.

Parent to Parent officials told Slack that Mena began working for the nonprofit to maintain financial records, police said.

They showed Slack two separate transactions, including a payment of $576.31 to Mena from Parent to Parent through PayPal in May, police said.

Parent to Parent officials said they were unaware of any payments authorized to be made to Mena. Slack said he suspected there would be more transactions so he requested bank records.

Weeks later, he received the records and Slack found 19 unauthorized transactions to Mena with the majority of the money being used for bills, according to court documents.

In June and July, two payments were made to Mena's home payment from the Parent to Parent account, according to the charges. Police said Mena forged the name of another employee on a check made out to Mena.

The total loss to Parent to Parent was $13,192.54, according to Slack.

Slack said he made multiple attempts to speak with Mena but she would only respond by email and when Slack told her he wanted her to come to the police station, Mena asked if she was charged, according to court documents. All communication stopped between Slack and Mena. Tuesday night, Mena was arrested at her home.

Mena appeared before Sunbury District Judge Mike Toomey via video and remains in Northumberland County Jail on $50,000 cash bail.

In 2015, Mena was one of the inaugural Sunbury Revitalization Inc. Biz Pitch Award winners when her business provided a plan on opening a holistic center and academy in the downtown area. The business has since closed. Mena also owns Mena's Healing Center, and the website says she offers energy healing such as Reiki and psychic readings.

Mar 13, 2019

Spiritual leader of alleged New York sex cult hit with child porn charges

Keith Raniere was already facing allegations that he coerced women to have sex with him and brand his initials into their flesh.

March 13, 2019

By Adam Reiss and Rich Schapiro

The spiritual leader of an alleged New York sex cult was hit with child pornography charges Wednesday, escalating a case that already featured allegations of female "slaves" forced into having his initials branded onto their flesh.

The additional charges against Keith Raniere, 58, were revealed hours after Nancy Salzman, the co-founder of the Albany-based group known as NXIVM, pleaded guilty to a charge of racketeering conspiracy.

Federal prosecutors said in court papers that Raniere, who was known inside the organization as "Vanguard," engaged in relationships with two underage girls, including a 15-year-old.

The government has images of the 15-year-old, "constituting child pornography, that were created and possessed by Raniere and electronic communications between the victim and Raniere reflecting their sexual relationship and indicating that it began when she was fifteen years old," prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney's Office in Brooklyn said in court papers filed Tuesday.

Raniere's lawyer, Marc Agnifilo, disputed the new charges in a sharply worded statement.

"These eleventh hour charges three weeks before the trial begins serve only to taint the jury panel," Agnifilo said. "Had they been legitimate, the government would have brought these charges a year ago."

Earlier Wednesday, Salzman, 65, admitted to committing racketeering offenses, including stealing the identities of some critics of the group, while working as the president of NXIVM.

Salzman, who was known to her followers as "Prefect," faces 33 to 41 months in prison. Her sentencing is set for July 10.

"I did things I knew were wrong and justified it was for the greater good," Salzman said in a hushed voice during a hearing at Brooklyn Federal Court. "Some of what I did was not just wrong but criminal. If I could do it all over, I would, but I cannot."

Salzman, Raniere and four other members, including "Smallville" actress Allison Mack and Seagram's liquor heiress Clare Bronfman, were indicted last July for their roles in running the controversial group. Salzman's 43-year-old daughter, Lauren, was also ensnared in the case.

Supporters say it was a self-help group committed to changing the world. Prosecutors describe it as a criminal enterprise built around a pyramid scheme designed to enrich the top officials and supply the leader with a stable of sex "slaves."

Members paid thousands of dollars for NXIVM-sponsored classes promising personal and professional development. Prosecutors say the courses forced many into debt, drawing them into a multilevel marketing scheme that rewarded the recruitment of others with payments and increased status.

The group was led by Raniere, a self-described ethicist who prosecutors say used the organization to satisfy his sexual appetite.

Raniere is accused of creating a secret society within NXIVM that coerced women into having sex with him and having his initials branded on the skin below their hips.

The secret group was called DOS, an acronym for "Dominus Obsequious Sororium," which translates to "Lord/Master of the Obedient Female Companions," according to court papers.

Prosecutors say DOS masters groomed their slaves for sex with Raniere and forced them to turn over "collateral" — sexually explicit photos and damaging secrets — that would be made public if they ever disclosed the existence of the secret society.

Raniere denies that NXIVM was a cult or pyramid scheme and says any sexual relationships were consensual. He has pleaded not guilty to racketeering, trafficking and conspiracy charges.

Mack, 36, who prosecutors say recruited "slaves" for Raniere, pleaded not guilty to several charges including sex trafficking conspiracy, racketeering conspiracy and wire fraud.

Bronfman, 40, who prosecutors say helped bankroll the organization and is paying the legal fees for her co-defendants, pleaded not guilty to racketeering conspiracy, conspiracy to commit identity theft and other charges.

A trial is scheduled for mid-April.


Mar 12, 2019

Indonesia sees rise in number of self-proclaimed prophets promising to save the nation

ABC News

March 13, 2018

By Erwin Renaldi


It is a time of purported visions and miracles for tens of thousands of Indonesians, as the world's most populous Muslim nation experiences a rise in the number of self-proclaimed prophets thanks to social media.

Key points:

·        Many self-proclaimed prophets claim they have received revelations directly from God and angels

·        The rise of social media has increased the prominence of new religious groups

·        Many are being persecuted under laws against blasphemy pushed by conservative forces

But the emergence of new religious movements claiming divine connections, which often draw on elements of Islam and Christianity, has been highly controversial in the increasingly conservative Muslim nation.

Several new religious leaders and their followers have already been prosecuted and imprisoned under the country's strict blasphemy laws.

Al Makin, an Indonesian expert in new religious movements at Sunan Kalijaga State Islamic University in Yogyakarta, said the movements had gained traction mainly due to increased exposure on social media and people seeking answers during periods of economic and political uncertainty.

"Their existence often stems from uncertainties surrounding an unstable political climate," he said, referring to the widespread social instability after the fall of former president Suharto and the 1998 Asian financial crisis, which caused job losses and increased poverty.

He said the emergence of a "prophet" often came from attempts to seek answers to social insecurities through new beliefs that retained familiar elements of existing structures, such as Christianity and Islam.

Professor Makin estimated about 600 Indonesians had claimed to be the recipients of "divine revelations" since the the colonial period ended after World War II.

But despite Indonesia's traditional religious and cultural diversity, the emergence of conservative Islamist politics in recent decades had seen many new "prophets" face increasing persecution.

'Give us permission for our UFO to land'

The belief structures of each group varies wildly: one believes the angel Gabriel will return to Earth in a UFO, while others claim to be replacements for the Islamic prophet Mohammed.

One of the most high-profile cases of the phenomenon dates back about 20 years.

Lia Aminuddin — also known as Lia Eden — a former Jakarta-based florist, has over the last 20 years claimed to have been appointed by the angel Gabriel as the reincarnation of the Virgin Mary, ostensibly to save people from the day of reckoning.

The now-70-year-old established the cult Eden Kingdom, encouraging members to wear white to maintain their purity.

She once wrote to Indonesian President Joko Widodo asking for permission for a UFO to land to collect her followers.

"We hope that President Jokowi will approve and give us permission for our UFO to land," she said.


Under Indonesian legislation, blasphemy, or any public expression of hostility, hatred or contempt against the five recognised religions of the state — Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism — is punishable by imprisonment of up to five years.

In 2006, Aminuddin was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to two years in jail following her calls to abolish official religions in Indonesia. Three years later in 2009, she received another two-and-half-year sentence for a similar offence.

Professor Makin said given Indonesia was historically built on a diverse set of beliefs that spanned the archipelago nation, criminalising anyone on the basis of their religious beliefs was wrong.

"This phenomenon of fake prophets should have been seen as a test as to the extent of Indonesia's respect and tolerance towards other religions and beliefs," he told the ABC.

"Unfortunately, we are not that tolerant — many of them were dragged to court, jailed, and even accused of insanity."


Notable examples of the laws being used and causing uproar include the cases of a Buddhist woman in North Sumatra who complained that a mosque was too loud, and the imprisonment of former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama over comments he made about the Koran.

New 'prophets' now gaining thousands of followers

More recently, Sensen Komara from West Java claimed to be a messenger from God after receiving messages in his dreams, and he has since attracted about 4,000 followers.

As a part of his teachings, he changed the Islamic pledge to replace the prophet Mohammed's name with his own.

Komara was charged with blasphemy last year after his teachings were condemned as "astray" by the Indonesian Ulema Council [MUI], the peak Muslim body in Indonesia, but judges later ruled him unfit to stand trial due to mental illness and ordered he be sent to a psychiatric hospital for rehabilitation.

But due to a lack of funding, he has now been released to continue his teachings.

Ahmad Musadeq is a self-proclaimed messiah and the founder of Gerakan Fajar Nusantara (Gafatar), considered to be an Islamic sect with more than 55,000 followers, making him one of the most popular prophets in Indonesia.

The group has been banned, with members often victims of "worsening intolerance, discrimination and violence against religious minorities in Indonesia", according to Human Rights Watch, and thousands forced to flee after angry mobs burnt their homes in Kalimantan province in 2016.

In 2017, Musadeq was sentenced to five years in prison after being found guilty of blasphemy for "mixing religions", according to a district court.


Jehovah's Witnesses Are Being Persecuted in Russia

Jehovah’s Witnesses Are Being Persecuted in Russia 

National Review


March 11, 2019

On Thursday, February 28, the U.S. Mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) delivered a statement to the OSCE’s Permanent Council in Vienna about reports of torture of Jehovah’s Witnesses at the hands of Russian law enforcement. The issue has been met with equivocation by Russian president Vladimir Putin, but it sheds light on a serious problem: Jehovah’s Witnesses are being persecuted and driven out of Russia.

The report states that the United States is “gravely concerned” by the behavior of the Russian authorities who conducted early-morning raids on the homes of Witnesses in the Russian town of Surgut on February 15. They arrested 19 Witnesses and opening criminal cases against them for “organizing an extremist organization.” The victims described beatings, electrocution, and suffocation; they also report that the authorities stripped the men naked, put bags over their heads, tied their hands behind their backs, and began smashing their fingers, electrocuting them, and pouring water over them.

This incident is especially gruesome, but it’s yet another violent blot on Russia’s record of treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses. They have been subject to raids on their homes and worship centers, physical violence, property confiscation, and classification as an “extremist organization” among the ranks of terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS — despite being pacifists. In Russia, heightened tensions with the West have brought hostility to “foreign” religions, and in July 2016, Putin supported legislation that made missionary work by Mormons and Baptists illegal. Less than a year later, the Russian supreme court would classify Jehovah’s Witnesses as extremists because they were a threat to “public order and public security.”

There are 170,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia. Of the 480 organizations classified by Russian authorities as extremist and/or terrorist, 404 are Jehovah’s Witnesses. Out of 303 properties owned by Jehovah’s Witnesses organizations, 20 have been confiscated by the Russian government. On March 1, Russia confiscated a $30.4 million property in St. Petersburg belonging to the American-based Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania. According to Jarrod Lopes, the communications representative of the Office of Public Information for the World Headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses in New York City, despite the aforementioned U.S.-based group having paid $3 million in property taxes to the Russian Federation, the Russian government schemed to steal this former administrative campus by claiming that ownership was invalid. The tax money was never returned.

Despite the daily transgression toward Witnesses that has spanned years, at the Presidential Human Rights Council meeting in December, Putin called the classification of Jehovah’s Witnesses “complete nonsense.” “It is true that we should treat representatives of all religions the same,” he said, “but it is also necessary to take into account the country and the society in which we live.”

Some cases, such as that of Dennis Christensen, who was sentenced in February to six years in a penal colony for violating Russia’s extremist-organization law, have drawn plenty of attention. But there are hundreds of lesser-known cases of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ fleeing Russia for neighboring Finland due to the persecution they face at home, out of fear that they, too, could be doomed to a fate similar to Christensen’s. According to the Finnish Immigration Service, there was an increase from five applications from Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2016 to over 100 in 2017 and 2018, after the extremism laws targeting Jehovah’s Witnesses were enacted. Applications for asylum seekers grew from 193 in 2016 to 309 in the first eight months of 2018.

Today, people such as Evgenii Chusovitin and Sergey Kotelnikov live in refugee camps in Finland, forced to leave their homes in Russia out of fear of being the next victims of raids on their homes, torture, and criminal charges for practicing their faith. Kotelnikov, 32, says that belief in God became a part of his life at an early age. In April 2017, he says, the mass persecutions of Witnesses began while he and his wife were living approximately 30 miles from the Finnish border with Russia. When they learned they were to be expecting a child, they fled Russia to seek asylum in Finland in September 2017, and they have spent the past one-and-a-half years there as refugees alongside refugees from war-torn countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan while awaiting a Finnish court response for their asylum case.

“We want to save our family, we want to protect our child,” Sergey tells me. “Now if we return to Russia, I face up to ten years in prison, my wife will be left without a husband, and the child without a father for such a long time.” While Sergey and his family would like to return to Russia someday, their return is entirely dependent on the status of Jehovah’s Witnesses persecution, which Sergey notes is only becoming more frequent and more violent.

Evgenii, 43, also fled Russia with his family after Jehovah’s Witnesses were classified as extremists. He initially lived in a refugee camp until they could afford a small apartment in Finland. An experience with Russian police in 2011 suggested to him that conditions were worsening for Witnesses, and that staying in Russia would put him and his family’s safety at risk. While he was serving as head of a religious organization for Witnesses that arranged activities such as Bible readings, performances, and discussions about God, Russian police pressured him to cooperate with them in their searches of Jehovah’s Witness gatherings, which Sergey refused, thinking that they weren’t serious. After police returned with a search warrant, he realized that they were serious and that staying in Russia could mean a long prison sentence for practicing his faith.

“Because of belonging to the ‘wrong’ religion, a person may lose his job, face a search, humiliation, arrest, and more,” he tells me. “In any civilized country, a citizen, when he is in danger, seeks help from the state. But where do you look for protection when the state itself has made you its enemy? How do you live in a country where there is a war against you? You just live and wait for trouble to knock on your house’s door.”

The infringement of the most basic right to freely worship in Russia does indeed warrant “grave concern.” The raids of Jehovah’s Witness homes — which are available online to watch — are reminiscent of what Putin suggests is a bygone era and are a de facto example of the Kremlin’s repressive regime. It is especially harrowing that Jehovah’s Witnesses, a denomination known for their refusal to engage in war and their devotion to non-violence, are being sadistically tortured under the expectation that they will not retaliate.

Evgenii and Sergey are skeptical that they will return with their families to Russia anytime soon; and this is a reasonable prediction, given that Putin has given statements that suggest his opposition to the “extremist” status of Witnesses in Russia, while his security forces continue to raid homes in the middle of the night and torture innocent Russians behind closed doors. The U.S.’s human-rights groups should continue pressing him on this topic, and not accept mendacity as a response.


MARLO SAFI — Marlo Safi is a Collegiate Network Fellow with National Review.


I Spent 16 Months Of My Childhood Locked In A Warehouse



I Spent 16 Months Of My Childhood Locked In A Warehouse



Huffington Post

Cyndy Etler

Guest Writer


When I was a kid, my mother locked me in a warehouse and left me there. For 16 months. Her husband had been beating and molesting me, but then I hit puberty and started fighting back ― and nobody wants to deal with a loud, angry teenager.

The warehouse was occupied by a “tough love” program called Straight Inc. Straight branded itself as a drug rehab for kids. The American Civil Liberties Union called it “a concentration camp for throwaway teens.” Straight opened in 1976 with a single facility in Florida; over the years it would branch out to include operations in California, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, Texas and Virginia. My stint began in one of the more brutal branches in Springfield, Virginia; I finished my time in the Stoughton, Massachusetts, warehouse.

My story starts out like your standard Oprah guest’s: My father died when I was 1. My mother needed a place to live. She shacked up with a guy with a foxy accent and a home. The guy turned out to be a sadist, an alcoholic, a Chester the Molester who began abusing me when I was in first grade. Ho-hum almost, right?

Except then I turned 12, grew some balls, and got loud when he fucked with me. And then I turned 13, and he beat me into a corner while my mother stood and watched. And she didn’t move a muscle when I begged her for help. So I ran the hell away. I turned 14 in a homeless shelter for kids.

One month later, in 1985, with the Just Say No campaign in full swing, Nancy Reagan and Princess Diana visited a branch of Straight to witness the miracles being worked there with troubled teens. A distant relative saw the newscast and called my mother. The timing was handy, as my 30 days at the shelter were up and there weren’t any foster families lining up to take me in. Next thing you know, POOF! I’m being diagnosed as a drug addict (I’d smoked weed three times in my life at that point), cavity-searched by a teen male staff member, and steered, with a fist clenching the back of my waistband, into the never-ending warehouse room.

To lay eyes on the rows and rows and rows of chairs.

Chairs filled with rows and rows and rows of teenage bodies.

Bodies with arms in the air, hands whipping around, heads bashing and cracking, left, right, front, back.

I was shoved into the front seat of this agony carnival and left there to rot. I wouldn’t be allowed to speak to my mother for the next eight months. At month eight, I earned the right to a three-minute supervised “talk” with her, where I was only allowed to recite the party line: “I want to tell you about a druggie incident from my past” and “I’m sorry. I love you.”

I earned that right by finally (but falsely) confessing, to the hundreds of brainwashed Straight clients I was locked up with, that I had realized I was a true druggie scumbag. That I had made my stepfather molest and abuse me by being a flirtatious 6-year-old. That it was all my fault.

Those words ― “It’s all my fault” ― were a winning lottery ticket for my mother. *Ting!* She was off the hook. For 16 months, she wrote fat checks made out to Straight Inc., drawing from the Social Security funds I got after my father’s death.

For 16 months, I sat in that warehouse for 12, 15, 18 hours a day, motivating ― the head-whipping, arm-spinning Straight version of raising our hands ― and confessing to false sins.

Straight had a brilliant formula for getting us to believe we were addicts and admit to our misdeeds, whether we were one of the handful of kids who actually had a drug problem or one of the vast majority who had barely drank a beer.

The strategy:

Lock us in a building with no windows.

Beat the crap out of us verbally, physically and psychologically.

Make it clear the beatings won’t stop until we not only admit but believe we are evil druggies.

Show us the look, the behavior, the thoughts we need to adopt, in the form of kids who have earned what we most crave: tiny slivers of freedom, and eventually, release from the warehouse.

It’s a time-tested, proven method for behavior modification. A congressional investigation of The Seed, the program from which Straight Inc. was a spinoff, compared it to the brainwashing techniques used in Communist North Korean prisoner of war camps.

Straight used torture techniques taken right out of the POW handbook ― isolation, starvation, sleep deprivation, humiliation ― and updated them for American teenagers, giving them v. cute names. There was “the spanking machine,” where a string of kids lined up pubes-to-butt, spread their legs, and leaned forward, eagerly spanking the butt of the poor soul crawling through their parted knees. And “the peanut butter diet,” where an especially resistant kid would eat nothing but peanut butter, bread and a cup of water for weeks or months at a go. And the old reliable “spit therapy,” where kids took turns screaming insults, and hocking loogies into the designated victim’s face.

The initial indoctrination period was called “first phase,” and first phase was hell. We were trapped, and Straight made sure we knew it. Every time a first-phaser stood up or walked around, an “oldcomer” ― a kid who had made it to a higher phase by “admitting to their addiction” ― gripped a hand through their back belt loop and waistband, then pulled upward in a wedgie. This practice had multiple benefits. It was humiliating, it felt like sexual violation, and it prevented the first-phaser from running.

When a first-phaser got to go to the bathroom, an oldcomer stood 18 inches away and stared. If the first-phaser was being punished with “T.P. therapy,” they got three squares of toilet paper. Period. No matter what dropped into that toilet.

On first phase we spent every waking hour in the Straight warehouse, sitting in a blue plastic chair, motivating for the right to stand up and talk about what absolute demons we had been in the past. We did not have contact with our families. We were not allowed to speak without being told to speak. We were not allowed to read or listen to music or watch TV. Upper-phase guys guarded the doors and stood circling the guys’ side of the group; upper-phase girls stood flanking the girls’ side. They were angry layers of human barricade.

At night, we were put into empty rooms with locks and alarms on the outside of the doors and windows. These rooms were in the homes of upper-phasers; their brainwashed parents locked us in. When “60 Minutes” did an episode on Straight, a parent described the concern he had voiced to Straight staff: “What if my home were to ever, uh, catch on fire during the night?” He then gave staff’s canned response: “If your child was on the street, the child would die. In the case of a fire, the child would die. So you’re not any worse off.”

It took me 10 months to get off first phase. My first phase was considered short.

On Monday and Friday nights, we had marathon spit therapy sessions called “review.” That was when the real psychotic breaks took place. Kids who hadn’t yet “gotten honest with themselves about their addiction” were stood up in the middle of the seething mob and assaulted.

One after another, frenzied Straight kids ― whose loud anger at their parents had been bastardized into loud anger at their peers ― would lunge up into the victim’s face and scream and spit and tell the kid that they were hated by everyone they knew, that their being locked in Straight was proof. When one abuser finished and sat down, the victim stood still while the hundreds of peers around her started motivating, punching and smacking and slicing her with hands and arms and heads, until another got called on to give her more spit therapy.

If a kid tried to run or tried to sit down when they were being spit on or tried to cover their face or wouldn’t sing a Straight song or didn’t put their hands up to motivate or leaned back in their chair or spoke to the kid sitting next to them or didn’t look at the person speaking or did any of hundreds of other innocuous, vanilla, basic human things, they were slammed to the concrete floor and “sat on” by the biggest, meanest kids in the group. One big kid on each arm, another couple angry kids on the legs, a fifth brutal kid cramming the “misbehavor’s” skull down onto their lap. In one of the many, many lawsuits filed against Straight, a girl won a $37,500 settlement for, among other things, being “sat on” for 10 hours.

For 16 months, I watched as Straight kids tried, and tried hard, to kill themselves. As the other kids laughed at their hand-carved, bleeding limbs. I never saw the sun. I never saw the moon. I never pet a dog. I never had a friend.

I’m not sure why Straight released me when it did. It certainly wasn’t pressure from my mother, who was delighted to have one less body in the house. I suspect it was a combination of mounting lawsuits and increasing negative press coverage. Straight needed to be slippery and lean in its later years, holding on to just a small number of lucrative clients, for when social service agencies compiled enough information to close one branch down, Straight had to be ready to pivot. Sometimes that meant shuttling kids to another building and calling it a new Straight. Other times it meant keeping the same kids, and the same staff, in the same building, but giving the program a brand-new name. The last Straight was closed in 1993, but copycat programs live on.

When I got out of Straight and went back to my mother’s house, I was a decimated human. I was 15 and a half and ancient ― a brainwashed zombie, deeply believing the lies I’d been forced to tell about myself. I returned to my “druggie high school” with all the trappings of being a religious cult freak: My mother’s to-the-ankle skirts. Enormous thrift store shirts. Haunted, staring eyes. Man, did I need a friend. Man, did I not find one.

I spent my nights and weekends at recovery meetings ― Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous ― swearing I was an addict, though I’d never done the drugs. The adults there were kind to me. A kindness you can’t imagine. They listened to me talk. They gave me store-brand cookies. They told me I could call them. Anytime, day or night. I finally had parents. Hundreds of them.

Then I got a miracle, in the form of a 10th-grade English teacher. Soft-spoken and blowsy, she was in love with the literature she taught us. She worshipped every one of our vocab words. And she saw something good in my writing. She read it, out loud, to the class … and the high school kids who laughed at me ― the jocks, the cheerleaders, the still-stoners ― they liked it. They asked to hear more of it. In English class, I was reborn. My writing would be my savior.

It took decades to scrape together the chutzpah to really write. The messages from Straight were concrete in my brain. I was a scumbag. I was hated. I wasn’t worth three squares of toilet paper. I moved away from my mother’s house as soon as I was able, but my mental health was a dumpster fire. I couldn’t hold a job. I couldn’t maintain a relationship. And they don’t give college scholarships for the sports I excelled in: getting taken advantage of by men and carrying a pitched desperation to die.

But I’m stubborn. And creative. I scraped through my 20s cleaning rich people’s toilets by day and disappearing into library books at night. For a stint, here and there, I got free therapy. Word by word, in books and in counselor’s offices, I pieced back together my soul.

At age 29, when I finally got to college, I shed my Straight-freak skin and turned human. Just like in that heavenly high school English class, during my classes at university, I had strong ideas. I had standout talents. I was seen as what I presented myself to be, instead of what sadistic observers told me I was. I started winning awards. I graduated with honors. I walked out with a spinal cord.

When I met my safe, kind husband, the concrete cracked and the Straight memories flooded in. Instead of drowning in them, I wrote about them. It took 10 years of obsessive writing ― 10 years of flashbacks and panic attacks and micro-breakdowns ― but in the end I had a manuscript. And then I had an agent. And then I had a book deal. Today I have two award-winning memoirs about my experience with Straight. They’re featured in big media. I now life-coach and speak to teens all over the world about how to power through hard times.

My mother is little more to me now than a number in my cellphone, a digital reminder of the narcissistic blame she puked at me in our final call. She paid Straight to disappear me. To break me. To cut off my balls. But I figured my shit out. I took all those beatings and morphed them into lessons. And words. And power to help other kids. I didn’t have much of a childhood, but you know that old saw, “Living well is the best revenge”? Today, revenge is mine. And damn, is that shit sweet.

Cyndy Etler is a teen life coach and author with two award-winning memoirs about her experience in Straight Inc. Her work has been featured on CNN, The Independent, The Progressive, She Knows, Jane Friedman, Vice, Bustle and CBS’s The Doctors. Visit her website for more info.