ICSA Today, Vol. 10, No. 3, 2019, 18-21
Growing Up in the Culture of a Cult: Whispering in the Daylight—The Children of Tony Alamo Christian Ministries and Their Journey to Freedom
An earlier version of this article was published in the spring 2019 edition of the IPS Newsletter, a quarterly newsletter for members of the Institute of Psychoanalytic Studies and the mental health community at large. Throughout the academic year, IPS, a postgraduate training institute for mental health professionals, provides a variety of programs of interest to this population.]
On April 7, 2019, in Teaneck, New Jersey, the Institute for Psychoanalytic Studies (IPS), along with the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) and the New Jersey Society of Clinical Social Workers (NJSCSW), hosted a panel discussion of a spellbinding book about an abusive cult entitled Whispering in the Daylight: The Children of Tony Alamo and Their Journey to Freedom. We heard from author Debby Schriver and three young women who had grown up in the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries. They brought this book to life by telling their stories. We felt heartened from hearing about the courage and resilience of these three women after they had left an abusive environment.
Debby shared how she had become involved in writing Whispering in the Daylight…, and then she asked questions of the other speakers, inquiring about their everyday life in the cult. Vanessa, Alsandria, and Ange reported that their education, focused upon Bible study, was secondary to Alamo’s demand that they work long hours in cult-owned factories. They described sewing denim jackets to be sold to boutiques. Sometimes they had to work with dangerous chemicals. For example, the cult would receive donations of outdated cans of fruits and vegetables. The children would then use acid to erase the sell-by dates, and the cans would be sold in the cult’s grocery stores. Frequently, the children would travel to other cities, where they would hand out leaflets to recruit new members.
Audience members next joined the author in asking questions of the young women, who now were in their twenties. Alsandria, Ange, and Vanessa described the severe beatings that they received if they broke the rules, which Alamo could capriciously change from day to day. When they were chosen to live in Alamo’s house, they feared the looming potential of becoming one of his “brides.” They received little protection from parental figures, who were held in thrall by Alamo. This existence suddenly ended on Friday, September 19, 2008, when the FBI, responding to charges of cult child abuse, tax evasion, and economic exploitation, raided the compound and took the children to the outside world.
The audience, mostly comprising therapists, gained firsthand knowledge of the particular issues that confront those who leave a highly restrictive and traumatic environment and must face the challenges of making their way into mainstream culture. The shift to a completely new culture had a destabilizing effect on their identity. As with refugees from authoritarian regimes, the women experienced confusion about the new cultural behaviors and expectations they encountered, and the loss of the only world they had known. It became clear as the discussion continued that postcult therapy needs to provide practical information about the bewildering mainstream world in addition to helping former members deal with many issues, including the guilt that new pleasures in their postcult life may inspire.
The women initially experienced anxiety because Alamo had filled them with fear that they were joining the world of “sinners.” Therefore, upon leaving, they were adolescents who not only felt as if they were sinners, but who also were dealing with an array of new adolescent freedoms, which led them (in their new imagined role as “sinners”) to test out previously forbidden and, at times, risky and potentially self-destructive behaviors.
Additionally, these former cult members were primed not to trust outsiders. This mistrust initially made it difficult for them to relate to their high-school peers or to trust adults, including therapists, who wanted to help.
To manage all of these overwhelming feelings, these women escaped by using the healthy coping mechanism of reading books. Books not only allowed them to retreat from uncomfortable feelings but also helped them gain information about this perplexing new world. These former cult members initially were particularly uncomfortable with school peers, who were seen as frivolous. The freedom to play and to take pleasure in childhood had not been a part of their cult environment.
Fortunately, they were aided by the loving care and resources of their foster parents. In time, Ange and Vanessa went to college, and Alsandria joined the military and now has a career in dance and modeling.
The three women described how the cult primed members to be passive, placing the future in God’s hands. This passivity and lack of agency initially made it difficult for them to assert themselves on their own behalf after they left the cult. Their learned passivity and innocence about the outside world also led them to becoming “sitting ducks” who could be taken advantage of in new relationships. They talked about the consequences of having been forbidden in the cult to say, “No!”
The therapists in the audience learned that they can help former cult members by addressing the cult-induced character traits of passivity and obedience to authority. Occasionally, former members can have difficulty in seeing manipulative behavior that is a repetition of the past. Therefore, therapy not only must address these traits picked up by induced countertransference feelings, but also needs to incorporate a collaborative approach that challenges the undermining cult’s authoritarian, black-and-white worldview by encouraging different perspectives and helping former members learn to live with ambiguity.
As I listened to these women’s stories, it became clear that therapists can best gain the trust of former members over time by being open about the process of therapy, showing benign curiosity coupled with respect for the need to share at one’s own pace (showing an appreciation for boundaries), and being aware of potential transference reactions that stem from relationships in an abusive, authoritarian environment.
The women described how, in their Alamo cult experiences, children often needed to wall off emotions and appear as if they were managing their lives. For example, it wasn’t safe to show anger. Therefore, for many, anger often was transformed into secret rebellion. Former members might repeat all of this within the therapeutic relationship, and secret rebellion might take the form of their “forgetting” sessions, coming late, or maintaining aspects of a secret life. Other former members might experience ongoing anger at those who had abused them in the past and, possibly, at those in their present life whom they perceive as abusive.
Additionally, therapy needs to address the profound sense of loss of the past that is common in such experiences. The young women spoke movingly about how, with leaving the cult, they were leaving the only world that they had ever known. Once they left, they struggled with having relationships with parents who had failed to protect them. Tony Alamo was an example of the idealized, all-knowing cult leader who usurped power from the parents, becoming parent to all, while parents were relegated to being siblings. Through countertransference, therapists might experience some of the feelings that former cult members had toward their parents and the cult leader.
In telling their stories, Ange, Alsandria, and Vanessa encompassed those qualities that make many of those who were born and raised in cults appear so impressive to others: They displayed resourcefulness; they were hardworking; and, despite such a harsh early life, they displayed compassion for others.
It was a pleasure to see three confident young women who have used their inherent skills and capacity for insight to thrive. Their ability to survive both their abusive cult experience and their difficult entry into the wider world has given them strength they can draw upon to manage future obstacles.
For the audience, this was a remarkable example of posttraumatic growth, and the three young women created a feeling of awe at the book event. Audience members were touched by their candor and openness. For the women, telling their stories had become part of their healing process, and the audience could see how beneficial this was to them. Telling their stories allowed them to better make sense of their past, and to integrate their past into their present. This experience seems to have contributed to their sense of continuity and acceptance of who they were in the cult and who they have become in the aftermath. Their stories were powerfully told, and their willingness to share them led to an emotionally satisfying morning. Although the women were understandably disillusioned with religion after being enmeshed in a group that reshaped Christianity to control and abuse, they are finding their way by developing and taking ownership of their individual belief systems, which they now have the opportunity to change over time.
Lorna Goldberg, LCSW, PsyA, board member and past president of ICSA, is a psychoanalyst in private practice and Director at the Institute of Psychoanalytic Studies. In 1976, she and her husband, William Goldberg, began facilitating a support group for former cult members that continues to meet monthly in their home in Englewood, New Jersey. Lorna and Bill received the Hall of Fame Award from the authentic Cult Awareness Network in 1989 and the Leo J. Ryan Award from the Leo J. Ryan Foundation in 1999. In 2009, Lorna received the Margaret T. Singer Award from ICSA. Along with Rosanne Henry, she cochaired ICSA’s Mental Health Committee from 2003 to 2008. Lorna has published numerous articles about her therapeutic work with former cult members in professional journals, including, most recently, Goldberg, L., (2012), “Influence of a Charismatic Antisocial Cult Leader: Psychotherapy With an Ex-Cultist Prosecuted for Criminal Behavior,” International Journal of Cultic Studies, Vol. 2, 15–24; and Goldberg, L., (2011), “Diana, Leaving the Cult: Play Therapy in Childhood and Talk Therapy in Adolescence,” International Journal of Cultic Studies, Vol. 2, 33–43. She also wrote the chapter “Guidelines for Therapists” in the book Recovery from Cults (1993), edited by Michael Langone. She cowrote with Bill Goldberg the chapter “Psychotherapy With Targeted Parents” in the book Working With Alienated Children and Families (2013), edited by Amy J. L. Baker and S. Richard Sauber. Most recently Lorna co-edited (along with William Goldberg, Rosanne Henry, and Michael Langone) Cult Recovery: A Clinician’s Guide to Working With Former Members and Families (2017).