In 1971 a carnival barker in Chattanooga founded a church.Elbert Eugene Spriggs, who had studied psychology at theUniversity of Chanattooga, first called the group of troubledyoung people he gathered to himself the Light Brigade; later-- when they removed themselves from the mainlinechurches -- Spriggs's commune became known as the VineChristian Community. In 1978 the church -- which has smallbranches in the Dorchester section of Boston and in Clark'sHarbour, Nova Scotia -- moved, having found Chattanoogainhospitable, to that remote part of Vermont known as theNortheast Kingdom. It now calls itself the Church in IslandPond or the Northeast Kingdom Community Church. TodaySpriggs lives in France with a handful of followers.
I AM IN a sunny, sweet-smelling meadow," Jan Mon- fort(a pseudonym. The names of all other people in this articleare real) says, "vibrant with yellow wildflowers. The childrenand I play Roll-about. We roll down the slope, and at thebottom there are two huge iron doors. The doors swingopen and women in babush- kas grab us by the throat, andon the other side of the doors it is all darkness and smokeand the air tastes of sulphur. When my eyes growaccustomed to the dark I see a lake with tongues of fireplaying on its surface. I crawl back to the iron doors andnow there are peepholes in it, and I can see, all over thesunny meadow, women in long dresses and babushkas,tearing at the throats of children . . . ."
"What does the dream mean?" I ask, knowing what it meansbut wishing to break the frightened silence that surrounds herwords, and thinking how eloquent Jan's unconscious is, howsimple and urgent and elegant the nightmare is, how nicelyfact and symbol dovetail.
"My husband says the dream means I shouldn't talk to you,"Jan says.
"Is that what you think?"
"I'm tired of thinking, "Jan says. "I'm afraid."
We are sitting, late at night, at the Common Sense deli, anall-night restaurant owned and operated by the North- eastKingdom church. Jan is drinking Red Zinger tea. She likes ithere: An "ex-hippie brought up by hippies," she is remindedof Woodstock (macrame and candles and rough- hewnwood benches and apothecary jars full of spices -- a stylizedsimplicity). She likes it here and she doesn't like it here;sometimes, without seeming to notice it, she lapses into localslang and calls the Common Sense "the Yellow Dell. "Jansmokes furiously in the deli she calls "so peaceful" -- sopeaceful compared to the bar at the Osborne Hotel, at theother end of Cross Street, the bar that is known even to itshabitues as "the Zoo," and to which we now walk.
"Find out what 'the training' is," Jan tells me. "They send their children to 'the training.' When the children comeback, they're terrified. Find out what it is."
"Why don't you ask them?"
No longer eloquent, suddenly listless, Jan shrugs. "I don'tknow," she says, her voice drained of feeling.
It does not require genius to interpret Jan's dream: Thewomen of the Northeast Kingdom church in Island Pondwear babushkas. Their children are beaten with rods; thechildren are also forbidden to entertain fantasies. Membersof the cult believe that we are living in the "end-times" andthat only those living a sacrificial Christian life -- which is tosay, them -- will survive; the rest of us will be consigned tothe Lake of Fire. Jan has seen terrified children. The cult hassworn to "get" her husband (which is to say, enlist him), andalthough he plays hard to get he frequently goes to their"Celebrations." He defends the cult's "disciplining" of theirchildren and sees something admirable and pretty in thesubmission of their women. Jan says she deplores thediscipline and the submission, but she often goes to the delibecause she has good friends among the cult members, andalso because, she says (not altogether convincingly), shewants "to see what's going on and to set an example to themof how you're supposed to raise children." Her own wordssound slightly mad to her. "Dammit," she says, "how manycontradictions can one person stand?"
It is Jan's very ordinariness that makes her convulsed andconvoluted response to the cult so distressing. What Janknows is that the people of the Northeast Kingdom churchare robbing the children of their childhood.
IT WOULD NOT be a gross exaggeration to say that theen- tire town of lsland Pond has gone haywire. Paranoia,anger, hopelessness, apathy, hysteria, bitterness, and fearare everywhere in evidence. And yet haywire seems almosttoo thin a word to describe what I truly believe (and in thisbelief I am not alone) to be the contagion of evil.
Fancy religions have become almost as American as applepie. Millennialists and doom-proclaimers and Uto- piancommunities come and go, and unless they directly impingeupon our lives, we tend to regard them with little more thandistaste or bemused curiosity. Anybody, after all, can wearsaffron or sacrifice to Baal, and provided that it isn't ourchildren who are the sacrificed or the sacrificers, we takerefuge in the First Amendment (which after all protects ourright to worship as we please); we either dismiss all suchgroups as aberrant but not dangerous or view them asemblematic of our freedom and diversity.
We are right in thinking that most fringe groups eitherdisappear or are, ultimately, absorbed into the mainstream.We do not spend our lives anticipating Jonestowns. Asanguine people, we mind our own business and allowothers to mind theirs. We call this innocence.
The people of Island Pond have lost whatever claim theymay once have had to innocence. They've lost what no-body can afford to lose -- a sense of the fundamentaldecency and rightness of things. Being neither rich norfoolish, they have always known that injustice exists. Butexperience of injustice is not the same as apprehension ofevil. When EIbert Eugene Spriggs's commune moved intoIsland Pond, two hundred or so strong, the town's fifteenhundrcd residents had no way to anticipate the traumaticevents of June 22, 1984. Now they have no way to recoverfrom them.
Before six-thirty on the morning of June 22, some ninetystate troopers and fifty state social workers, empowered bya warrant from a Vermont district judge, removed 112children, all under the age of eighteen, from twenty com-munal homes of members of the Northeast Kingdom church.The children, together with 110 adults, were taken inchartered buses and police vans to Orleans District Court inNewport. State officials armed with affidavits quoting adozen former members of the cult, charged that somechildren allegedly of the Northeast Kingdom church hadbeen brutalized --stripped, lashed, whipped -- and sought togain temporary custody of the children to examine them forsigns of abuse.
District Judge Frank G. Mahady, who in an earlier cus- todyhearing had identified several instances of abuse, nonethelessfound the indiscriminate police action "grossly illegal" andrefused to detain the children, who were re- turned to theirhomes.
THE MAIN (and only, by urban definition) street of IslandPond is ugly. It takes ten minutes to walk up and down theroad, a thoroughfare so bleak, so devoid of charm andlacking in New England grace, that even the surroundingmountains and the pond from which the town derives itsname -- a pond with a twenty-two-acre island in its center --do not erase the impression of blight.
Island Pond is poor: Three hundred and forty-four IslandPonders live below the official poverty level; 235 peoplereceive food stamps; 123 households receive Aid to NeedyFamilies with Children. Even these statistics don't accu-rately reflect the town's poverty. People hunt and fish andgather blueberries and pick apples and cultivate gardens inorder to survive, and in the hills, high above the steeples ofthe Roman Catholic and the Congregational churches,marijuana is a cash crop, grown and harvested by peoplewhose uuderground economy escapes statistical analysis.
Island Pond is also remote: two hours from tile Bur- lingtonairport, sixteen miles from the Canadian border.Townspeople will tell you that the Northeast Kingdomchurch established itself here -- after they left Chattanoogawith eight million dollars derived from sales of property,according to Galen Kelly, a private investigator -- preciselybecause of this combination of circumstances.
The Common Sense deli is located at the north end of CrossStreet; the hundred-and-fifty-five-year-old Osborne Hotel isat the south end. An anthropologist might tell you that thereare four forces operating in lslaud Pond, forces representedby the Common Sense; the Osborne, where the drinking andthe living are hard and where rooms rent for forty-fivedollars a week; the conmunes -- Mad Brook Farm, FrogRun, Earth People's Park -- that anachronisti- cally thrive inthe hills of Orleans and Essex counties; and the folks who goto Congregational picnics and to Grace Brethrenfundamentalist and the Roman Catholic and Epis- copalchurches. Most Island Ponders will tell you there are onlytwo forces: them (the Northeast Kingdom church) and us.
In this town, the church and its members have purchasedseventeen houses . . . no, eighteen. When I arrived in Is-land Pond, there was a For Sale sign on a ramshacklebuilding that lay between the Osborne and the CommonSense; a week later I saw five children staring out a second-floor window of this house. They were cult children. Cultchildren are not like other children. It's more than a matter oftheir not being allowed toys or coloring books. Theirexpressions are both vacant and watchful; they are preter-naturally grave. The old house, the silent children, re- mindedme -- though I am not given to hysteria -- of a scene fromVillage of the Damned.
WHEN I WALK INTO the Common Sense deli, I amgreeted pleasantly and served by a young woman calledDonna. Donna wears a babushka over long blond hair, anda loose, peasantlike dress; she has the pasty look ofsomeone whose diet consists only of starch. She does notwear a watch. None of the church women I observed worea watch, which seems to me more signifi- cant than wearinga babushka as an outward Sign of submis- sion to men. Ifyour time is not your own, your life is not your own; youhave given both your time and your life over to someoneelse. The elders of the cult -- all male- have watches andtimepieces; their time does belong to them, as does everydecision and every initiative. I say that I have come toVermont by bus from New York. When l express a wearytraveler's displeasure with New York's seedy Port Authoritybus depot, Donna tells me that "the angels of the Lord"gathered around her when she was at Port Authority:"Nobody had any intention of doing me harm." It ischaracteristic of religious fringe groups to see the hand ofGod in every temporal event, to lay special claim tounderstanding the ways in which He works. All believershave the conviction that God is present in the world,brooding gently and mysteriously over us all, but members ofthe cults so particularize God's activities you'd think theAlmighty had nothing better to do than to see them safelyacross the street.
Donna does not chat with me long. Cult members have nosmall talk -- a casual remark about the weather will invoke asermon on the bounties of the Lord and the saving goodnessof their commune. When I tell Donna that I am a writer, shesends a man called Isaac over to talk to me. I extend anunsmiling Isaac my hand. He places his own hands firmly onthe table that divides us: "I'll wait," he says. "I like to seewhere you're coming from . . . . Of what benefit is it to youto write?" he asks. I have trouble focusing on his eyes, whichseem to want to bore into me rather than to see me, to makea statement rather than to observe. Although I try to answerhis question thoughtfully and honestly, my answers soundfoolish to me.
"Why are you on earth?" Isaac asks. I give him thecatechism answer -- "To know God and to love Him." I say,which is in fact what I believe. As this response elicitsnothing but an unblinking stare, I add, feeling as foolish as heintends me to feel, "and to try to be good, and to work, andto suffer -- that's the easy part -- and to raise children whoare better and happier than I am."
"Your children can't be happier than you are -- they live in the world. You're not happy. Why do you paint yourfingernails that passionate red?"
"How do you know I'm not happy?" I ask.
"Because I'm looking at you," Isaac says. "I don't want toshred you, you're a human being . . . . WORTHLESS," hemutters. "You don't know God."
"How can you be sure of that?"
"If you loved Him, you'd serve Him. You would leave theworld. You would die. You would be living with us. You arenot my sister. If you were, you'd serve God."
"Tell me how you know I don't?"
"If you served God, you'd know the truth. If you knew thetruth, you'd serve God. Are your fingernails part of yourfantasy? Your fantasy is that you are Lois Lane. You comehere in the guise of a writer. You're looking for Superman . .. . WORTHLESS."
This cloud-cuckoo-land conversation is tiresome, anddiscouraging, too. One wishes to believe that there is some-thing in every man and woman that words and goodwill canreach. Nothing can touch or disturb the certainty of Isaacand Donna, their sense of me as worthless, which reinforcestheir own sense of salvific worth. (The conversa- tionaccomplishes its aim, though; it makes me feel frivo- lous.)
So: "Do you abuse your kids?" I ask.
Isaac: "We do and we don't."
Isaac: "We don't. We spank them."
"And we don't send them to school. Why should they salutea piece of cloth, a rag?" '
I have been told -- by an eyewitness -- that a boy of threehas recently been consigned to a dark, airless closet for halfan hour because he pretended that a block of wood was acar. Seen in this light -- as a monitor of fantasies -- Isaac isdangerous as well as silly. "Fantasies," he says, "steal theperson you are." It is a surprisingly sophisticated and ornatethought. But how can he know when the children arefantasizing? "If you get down on all fours and bark like adog, you're fantasizing," he says.
Thinking of the children's impoverished separateness fromthe world of other children, remembering how my ownchildish fantasies nourished me when adults and the realworld hurt me, thinking of the castles (the refuges) in the air Ibuilt when I was growing up desperate in a religious sect, Iask: "What about sand castles? Would they be permit- tedto build sand castles?" Isaac is stumped (as he is when I askhim to tell me the difference between wish, hope,imagination, and fantasy): "I don't interpret the heart," hesays, but he makes a quick recovery, taking refuge ininstantly concocted certainty. "We don't build sand castles.We live in reality. God is the only reality."
Children circle around Isaac as we speak -- as Isaacspeaks, now compulsively, of homosexuality -- "a form ofglobal birth control. Sex isn't love," he says (once againregarding my fingernails with inordinate interest). "I used tobe a pervert, due to reading pornography." He asks me todefine perversion, an invitation I decline. "My knowl- edgeof perversity is deeper than yours," Isaac says. "RomanCatholics are perversions. Garbage and corrup- tion andbaloney. You are a pervert." He veers off into his owntestimony: "I left the church for two years. I was not in theSpirit. I was sleeping around, stealing. An outlaw." TheButch Cassidy of the Northeast Kingdom church. Isaac haslong greasy blond hair and bitten fingernails.
The children standing nearby express no curiosity. They arewithout animation. They do not speak. A beautiful young girl-- ten? twelve? -- approaches Isaac in a storm of controlledapprehension. He turns an icy countenance toward her. "Iwas supposed to retun the Spannel bottles," she says (hername is Phoebe), commencing a conversation I cannot atfirst decode. Isaac's silence is stony. "And I failed," Phoebesays. Poor Phoebe; there is a question implicit in herconfession. Isaac allows her to stand there, humiliated forreasons I don't understand. Then he rewards her, when itseems no longer possible for her to withstand the severity ofhis gaze. "I have seventeen cents," he says softly. "You canbuy popcorn." Phoebe, I now understand, wants seventeencents, but none of the childrcn may ask a direct question ormake a choice: if they are offered an apple or an orange,their response must be "I'll have what you know it is goodfor me to have." She wants to buy a bag of the deli'spopcorn. She kisses Isaac's hand.
Another child, Madeleine, sits next to Isaac. Her enor- mouseyes swivel in her head, attaching their regard to no one andnothing. "Are you afraid of this woman?" Isaac asks, turningher palpable terror to his advantage. ("Of me?") "She doesn'tlive with you," Isaac says. "You are not part of the body ofthe Messiah." Madeleine says not a word. He dismisses herwith a glance.
Donna, the waitress who had God shepherd her through thePort Authority, speaks. She is the Good Cop. "You can't becomfortable at the Osborne," she says. "We want you to becomfortable. Will you stay with us? Stay with us for threedays. Will you have dinner with us on Thursday? At PleasantHouse?"
Three days is the standard period of time for what isvariously called brainwashing, persuasive coercion, or mindcontrol. I do not believe that I am susceptible to theirbullying, or their blandishments, nor do I have complexyearnings for a simple life. I won't spend three days with
[A small picture of a police car is shown, with the caption:The early morning raid brought 90 state policemen to town;they took custody of 112 children.]
[The picture continues on the next page, showning anotherpolice car and an uniformed officer at its door.]
them, but I do consent to have dinner at Pleasant House.
TEN A.M. The drinking starts early at the Osborne. And allthe talk is of the cult, Yankee reticence having yielded toobsession. Teresa, the pretty young bar- tender, says: "If wedidn't send our kids to school, we'd get our . . . in jail.Somebody in that church" -- this is the majority view at theOsborne -- "bought the state officials off." Jackie, whoworks at Ted's Market down the street, says: "One of thechurch women came in yesterday with a dollar and askedme how much chicken she could buy with it. She wanted toknow if a dollar's worth of chicken would serve twentypeople. She bought a can of mackerel and said she'd stretchit with potatoes. The other day a kid came in to return abottle. Then an elder came in to ask the kid what he had toconfess. The kid said: 'I stole a grape.' I'd want my kids tobe that honest, too. But, oh my . . ., I was scared for thatkid. I worried about him all night. The next day I wanted tolift his shirt to see if he'd been hit."
Lise Grimaldi, who shares a small room without bath at theOsborne with her cat and the man she expects to marry, andwho calls this old railroad hotel "a cross between TennesseeWilliams and Mayberry, RFD," is one of two women intown whom I have seen wearing makeup.Twenty-five-year-old Lise is a New Yorker, and in thistown she is sui generis; proud to be a misfit. Down on heryoung luck, an actress out of a job, a waitress withoutmoney for a Manhattan apartment, she came here -- "as astopgap" because her sister lived at Mad Brook Farm. Thenshe fell in love with Lenny, whose sister owns the Osborne,and now she's here, defiantly wearing New York designerclothes and high heels in a town where women wear jeans --but not because Calvin Klein told them to. Lise feels a kindof vexed sympathy for the women of the cult, a feeling sheshares with almost every woman in Island Pond. "What'sbetter -- unwed mothers on welfare whose kids crawl on thebarroom floor or those nuts down the street? I've seenwomen in this bar beat up and kicked in the stomach, andyou, can't call the cops because they'll go fight back to the . ..[one] who beat them." she says. "So who's worse? I sawthose state troopers the morning of the raid. I was waitingtables at Jennifer's Restaurant down the street, and theycame in -- big fat barbarians -- eating ten-pound breakfastsand ]aughing, like southern vig- ilantes. You think those guyswere protectors of children? And how do you ask a kid offive to believe his parents are bad? On the other hand, theirmothers, if they were their mothers -- you, can't figure outwho belongs to who in that church, they all change theirnames whenever they feel like it -- they stood around, themornlug of the raid, grins on their faces like they'd just foundglory. I don't know who's right and who's wrong."
Vicki Guthrie, a woman in her late forties who owns theOsborne, has no doubt as to who's right and who's wrong.Vicki parades through her bar and her hotel barefoot in ablue flannel nightgown. She lives here in a room of rufflesand lampshades and geegaws. Her morality is conven-tional, her life is not. Her ex-husband, a diabetic given tobouts of what Vicki calls "insulin temper," lives down thehall; they seldom converse. Vicki, like some maternal hyena,dispenses money and advice in a barbed roar, offer- ing heropinions and her largesse, solicited or not. And it is heropinion that cult members, who offered her thirty thousanddollars for the Osborne, are "Communists." When they werecourting her, she says, they gave her a copy of what theycalled "the Love Bible" -- nothing but hellfire and hate in it."Vicki has been told that cult members pray for the death offormer members. She says, "The way they're taking over thttown -- it's killing me . . . . How dare they tell me I'm not aChristian?"
The Northeast Kingdom church pays property taxes andsewer and water rates. Organized as an apostolic order forIRS purposes, they file returns as if they were one family, afamily vowed to poverty. They do not send their children toschool, nor do they register births or deaths. It is a measureof the induced apathy of the townspeople that IslandPonders feed off the persistent rumor that the cult has itsowu graveyard, in which bones of children were found. Infact -- a single call to the town clerk provides thisinformation, which church, elders will not provide, prefer-ring to keep their captive audience on the ropes -- theNortheast Kingdom church does have a registered privategraveyard. Bodies of children were found; one baby wasstillborn, another died, apparently, of spinal meningitis.Children of the cult are assigned names "when the Lordreveals their true nature to the elders." Kathy Cunningham, astate trooper, told a Newsweek reporter, "They've takenaway all our normal ways to detect child abuse. There areno teachers to report scars, no doctors to report anythingfunny." The children are moved from communal house tocommunal house, which defeats social workers' efforts to acton allegations that they are beaten. Baptized members of thecult are assigned new names. (Andy Masse, to whose housethe Chattanooga group first moved, is now known asCephas.) What this amounts to is that nobody knows who iswho, and it is this facelessness and anonynmity that led to theraid of June 22, state officials having exhausted otherremedies.
The Northeast Kingdom church has managed to slip throughthe net of Vermont's civil and criminal laws -- which drivesthe townspeople crazy.
IN A DOCUMENT dated July 17, 1984, John D.Burchard, Ph.D., commissioner of social and rehabilitationser- vices for the Vermont Agency of Human Services,defends the June 22 raid: "Child abuse law provides forauthorities to intervene to see if there is a problem whilecriminal law allows authorities to intervene only if they candemonstrate that a problem (a crime) has occurred. . . . TheIsland Pond action was . . . a preventive action taken underthe standards, mandates and responsibilities of child abuselaw . . . and taken under the authority of the Court." Theaction was not without precedent: "In the past three yearsthere have been over 200 instances [in Vermont] whereSRS, because of a lack of cooperation on the part of theparents, had to obtain the assistance of law enforcementofficials to gain access to a child who was alleged to havebeen abused or neglected."
Before June 22, the state had exhausted "all less intrusiveways to ensure protection of children." In October of 1982,social workers attempting to investigate were refused entryto homes -- church members would not give their names andsaid either that they'd never heard of the individuals beingsought or that those individuals had moved. When state'sattorney filed petitions in November of 1982 to gettemporary custody of four named children, law enforce-ment officers were unable to locate the children or to notifythe parents; church officials said they had no knowledge ofthem. Again in January of 1983, state's attorney was unableto locate children or parents -- even though registerednotices of the hearing date Were sent to named parents. Thestate continued to receive reports of abuse from formerchurch members visited by SRS in four other states. In thesummer of 1983, two elders were charged with simpleassault of two children, both of whom had left the churchafter alleged beatings. On every occasion on which thesecretary and deputy secretary of the Agency of HumanServices visited elders in an attempt to arrange for thecooperative examination of children, they were unsuccess-ful. In February 1984, the church was unwilling to allow anyVermont physician to look at the children. The action of June22 was therefore, Burchard maintains, "the culmi- nation of along, complex, and thoughtful process to pro- tect thechildren." The state, he said, acted on these specificallegations, obtained during child custody hearings and fromaffidavits from former church members:
A named four-year-old was hit fifteen to twenty times forimagining that a block of wood was a truck.
A named seven-year-old was stripped naked by severalpersons besides her father for asking for more food. Thespanking went on until her bottom bled.
A named three-and-a-half-year-old boy was "disciplined"until his neck bled.
A named thirteen-year-old girl was stripped to herunderpants and hit with a rod for being deceitful. She had asa result more than eighty welts.
A named eleven-year-old was hit with a two-by-four forlaughing at a church member, receiving a large blister andbruise.
According to Burchard's document, sworn statements bywitnesses and victims attest to these acts of brutality; inseveral instances, photographic evidence exists.
At one custody hearing before the raid, Judge Mahady, whowould later declare the action of June 22 unconstitu- tional,said, "At all material times while the children have beenresiding at that religious community, they have beensubjected to frequent and methodical physical abuse by adultmembers of the community in the form of hours-longwhippings with balloon sticks. These beatings result fromminor disciplialary infractions."
ON MAY 21, 1983, Roland Church, a farricr and a cultmember, called Suzanne Cloutier, a former practical nurse atthe North Country Hospital in nearby Newport. Church toldCloutier, who lives in Or- leans, that his thirteen-year-olddaughter Darlynn had been stripped to her underpants andbeaten for seven hours by elder Charles (Eddie) Wiseman,Elbert Spriggs's apparent surrogate in Island Pond (Spriggshimself lives in France). After meeting with Cloutier, RolandChurch issued a state- ment to the press to that effect. Threedays after the beating, Cloutier saw "twenty-four marks --linear scars -- on Dartynn's legs." SRS in Newport haspictures of Darlynn's scars, and emergency-room records atthe North Country Hospital confirm Church's story andthose of Darlynn Church and Suzanne Cloutier. Accordingto Cloutier, Ro- land Church and his wife, Connie, drewdiagrams of the bedrooms in communal houses in whichchildren were beaten -- information that Cloutier turned overto the state. Both Darlynn and Church's older daughterRolanda told Cloutier of many other beatings theyhad-witnessed. Both Darlynn and Rolanda, Suzanne Cloutiersays, were "no more physically developed than aten-year-old," pre- sumably as the result of malntutrition.Another former cult member, Carol Fritog, told Cloutier offive teenage girls going into a bedroom and being told, by anunmarried church elder, "Take off your clothes, take offeverything." Children have been beaten, according to formermembers, for asking for one more strawberry, for refusing totake a nap, for wetting the bed.
Suzanne Cloutier's involvement with the Northeast Kingdomchurch began when Juan Mattatall came to her for help in1982. Mattatall, a member of the cult for seven years, suedfor custody of his five children, who had disap- peared intothe maws of the church. He did eventually gain custody ofthe children -- one of whom, one-year-old Lydia Mattatall,was found living at the time in Nova Scotia with Spriggs.Before Mattatall gained permanent custody of his children,he recorded two of his daughters, eight-year-oldJelmifcr andsix-year-old Anna, on tape: "We want to feel decent," thevoices say. "Do something like spanking us, or hit us . . . .Spank us or put us in the corner . . . . Do you rather put usin the corner, Papa? . . . If you love us . . . then you'll spankus. If you spank us, then you love us. If you don't spank us,then you don't love us . . . . That's what it says in the Bible."
On August 5, 1984, Roland Church recanted. In a state-ment issued "at the request of Roland Church" by "thechurch in Island Pond," Mr. Church said: I've had a changeof heart. I'd like to make that public so that I could have afree conscience and that Charles, or Eddie, Wisemanwouldn't be convicted ofbeating a child for 7 hours . . . theordeal went for 7 hours, not the discipline. Now if I had it todo over again it would never have happened that way. Iwould learn to discipline my own child . . . . I didn't quiteagree to discipline myself, and I was weak in that area. So Iasked Eddie Wiseman if he would do it. And he did.
"I have nothing against the way they discipline. It isaccording to scripture -- it's the church. I'm weak in thatarea." He claimed to have been pressured by the "newsmedia" and by Suzanne Cloutier: "She . . . called everyone inVermont. I guess . . . . She's the instigator of it all."
After Roland Church recanted, Suzanne Cloutier- who hasfour children of her own, and who says she spent fivethousand dollars of her own meony in her fight to protect thechildren of the cult -- announced her intention to stopfighting. "I'll help individual members," she says, "but I can'tgo on beating my head against a wall. I feel betrayed byRoland Church. He stayed in my house on and off for elevenmonths after Darlynn was beaten. It bugs me out. . . . Godforgive me, I almost pray a child dies. Nothing will happenuntil then -- and they're all dying a slow death."
The state of Vermont has decided not to appeal JudgeMahady's decision on the June 22 raid.
"These roles, they are interchangeable: pharisee, journalist,witch hunter, . . . reporter, murderer of the innocent, are allinterchangeable in their spirit and likewise in their reward." --"Open Letter To the Editor of a Local Paper From theChurch in Island Pond." , .....
"We do not pray for the death of ex-members . . . . We onlypray for mercy . . . . For some, the mercy of the Lord is thatthey would not incur greater judgement from the Lord byremaining on earth." -- "Open Letter To a Reader of theNewspaper From the Church in Island Pond."
ALTHOUGH I REGARD IT as an unnecessary precaution,I have told three peoople outside the church that I am goingto Pleasant House for dinner, towns- people having warnedme that cult mcmbers are capable, in the space of less thanan hour, of "debasing" people with whom they choose toplay mind games, and -- this from Jeff Hare, a first-gradeteacher and a member of the St. James' Roman Catholicparish -- "making you doubt ev- erything you've ever helddear, all your beliefs and values." Even Suzanne Cloutier,whose informed opposition to the cult has never been inquestion, says, "I wouldn't have believed their charisma -- Ifound myself doubting my own perceptions. I snapped backwhen I saw the marks on the children and when I kepthearing the terrifyingly consis- tent stories of ex-members."
Vicki Guthrie does not want me to go to dinner at PleasantHouse. "Don't think they can't hurt you," she says to me. Shewill call the state troopers if l do not check in with her by tenP.M. I am not alarmed; I am warmed by people's concern,although it seems to me excessive.
In the event, Donna, whom I have arranged to meet at theCommon Sense, tells me that dinner will be at Belle- viewHouse. No reason is given for this change of plans. Thereare two playpens in the large kitchen of Belleview, arambling Victorian house with an unloved yard and garden. Iam introduced, by Donna, to a score of people -- all themen sport beards, all the women wear babushkas. Theeffect is of a small army in uniform. Donna disappears intoher bedroom with my briefcase. The children -- I countthirteen, including three babies -- are objects of intensefastnation to me, and I reproach myself for this: I do notwant to regard any child as a specimen, yet it seemsimpossible not to. None of the children touches me orexpresses any curiosity about me. A beautiful little girl comesin with a shoebox in which, she says, there is a bird. "I won'tkill this one, though," she says. I hear a hissing -- a sharpintake of breath -- as all the adults in the kitchen freeze.After a silence in which the child trembles and looksbeseechingly around her, Sandy, one of the women I've metat the Common Sense, says, "They had a baby bird onceand they touched its wing. The bird died. Now she knowsnot to touch its wings." The shoebox is taken from the child;the child is removed from the room. I do not see the child orthe man who took her away again.
At dinner, served at long tables, the seating is choreo-graphed. If I wish to see the children, who are seated behindme, I have to swivel, which I don't like to do (I feel like theEnglishman in the jungle -- good manners seem, at thismoment, almost crucially important). As we are serveddinner -- thin soup made of flour and water with bits ofbroccoli floating in it, plates heaped with good whole wheatbread (no napkins) -- a young girl falls off her chair and hitsher head sharply (there is an audible crack!) on the wallmolding. One strangled cry, then she turns bright red andreseats herself. No adult comments. A baby in diapersmakes the gurgling noises appropriate to a baby in diapers;the baby is hit on the hand and wails. After a second slap,the baby is taken upstairs. I hear no sound from upstairs. Ihave been given a baby spoon with which to eat my soup.When I dribble soup on my dress, I apologize, and threepeople tell me that it's "normal"; when I ask if may haveanother piece of bread -- "I'm greedy," I say -- I am toldthat this is "normal."
Donna hands me an embroidered handkerchief to use as anapkin. A man called Asher says he wants to "share" with usevidence of the Lord's miraculous intervention in his life thatday; there follows a long story about a tractor that almost,but didn't, run him over. This is greeted with beamingapplause. A woman called Ruhama "shares" that when thechildren were being taught that day, they learned howCatholics persecuted heretics in the Middle Ages and howthe Pilgrims persecuted those who did not share theirreligious beliefs. "And I never knew that!" she says, her faceablaze. "I never knew that, and I went to college! I wasleveled in college, I was leveled! I wasn't cognitive!" Ashersays, "Our children will inherit the earth. They will be calledupon to speak before kings and judges. It is appro- priatefor them to know these things. They must be cogni- tive."During this time -- the "sharing," punctuated by glad cries,has occupied thirty minutes -- no child asks for more food ordeclines food. No child talks. An elder says, "Donna, isthere any reality to Phoebe's having to help Joseph? Shesays there is." "There is no reality," Donna says, and Phoebeis led away.
At seven-thirty the children are led, in a group, to bed.Donna and Sandy talk with me about the raid -- about theirterror, and the children's. I ask them to hit my hand with aballoon stick -- a thin reed -- with as much strength as theywould use to hit a child. Donna immediately obliges with asharp rap. "That's for disobeying," she says. "For lying itwould be harder. Do you want me to hit you again? Youunderstand why the children can't fantasize? Because whenthe Lord calls our children, they have to be sure it's Hisvoice, not the voice of another. They have to live in reality."
A black man called Theton, who is afflicted with a dreadfulstutter, tells me that he comes from Manhattan and that hewas a seminarian, but he wasn't "cognitive" then. Soon themen drift away to prepare for a meeting at the CommonSense. I am left at the table with Donna and Sandy andRuhama. Theton reappears, his face disfigured and clottedwith rage. He screams: "Doesn't anybody know there's abody in this house?" His explosive rage unsnarls his speech:no stutter. "He means there's a meeting tonight," Donna sayscalmly. Ten minutes later, Theton appears on the lawn,where I am having a cigarette in the company of Donna andone of the men. "I want to repent," he says. His stutter hasreturned. "I want to repent for my anger and for giving a badtestimony." He is embraced. Donna says, "It's normal,Theton; that's reality. We all have different ways ofexpressing our anger. We're cognizant." Theton stands there,shuffling his feet, looking chastened, fearful -- and somehowalso pleased, as if a necessary cycle has been completed.
WHY DO THEY throw dirt in my yogurt?: Hope asks.Hope Bowen is eight years old. She lives near one of thechurch's communal houses. She would like the children ofthe church to play with her, but they will not. "And in mychocolate pudding, too? One girl came to my house towatch television -- her name was Spring -- and the next dayI saw marks all over her. That's when she threw dirt in myyqgurt. They don't know how to please so much. They justgrab. And sometimes they go around in rags. I know one girl-- her name is Know-It-All -- and sometimes she plays withme. She's pretty and she has such nice hair. But they hurtlittle birds. Robins. All kinds of birds, I don't know why."
IT WAS BECAUSE of the dogs that Frank Forbes didn'tjoin the church. The beatings, which he has not witnessed,do not trouble him. His mother beat him with a buggy strap,Frank says, and he grew up okay. Forbes, a formerTeamster, is fifty-seven, hearty, and sad. In the space of oneyear his wife died of cancer and he was focibly retired andhis own church, he says, let him down: "Methodists," hesays. "That's one hour a week."
The people of the Northeast Kingdom church, Frank says,"give it their life." And he -- after his wife died and time layheavy on his hands -- was "ready to give them my home.This fells called Dante . . . he said they could use my cellarfor growing marijuana in. See, they needed money. A lot ofit is misery and marijuana at that church. But they're nicepeople. They talk to you when nobody else cares. They dochores for you. But they wouldn't let me live with my dogs ifjoined. They said I'd have to get rid of them. And thechildren -- very well behaved, but they teased my dogs.They threw stones at them.
"Misery and marijuana," Frank says. "But whaddya do whenyour life is empty?"
ELBERT EUGENE SPRIGGS, according to publishedsources, was married three times. According to Isaac at theCommon Sense, Spriggs was married "oh, about ten times"-- the former wickedness of their leader is presumably proofof his present goodness. Isaac says the church had to leaveTennessee because "Chat- tanooga was inhospitable to thepeople of God. They got us on entrapment. Marijuana."
Sixty-five-year-old Al Bresciani has had complicated realestate (and complicated human and emotional) dealings withthe church. He says he has sold four houses to the NortheastKingdom church and given them one. The church thrift shopis located in a large, partially boarded-up building oncecalled Kathy's Kozy Crnmer, 'which Bresciani gave them, hesays, for "the remaining mortgage and back taxes."According to Island Ponders, Bresciani is a "hus- tler."According to Bresciani, church members are "ex- tremelygiving people." Bresciani's wife, Jean, is a church member,as are three of his children, Edward, Josephine, and Angela.Like_ Dante, who flies regularly to France to see Spriggs,who lives outside the commune with a non- member towhom he is not married, and whose bullying sexuallibertinism is widely excoriated, Jean Bresciani ap- pears tobe exempt from many church regulations. She owns a watchand carries a purse and lives with Al. Jean and Josephine arenow living with Spriggs's group in France.
"When I came to Island Pond," Al says "I was the onlyItalian in town, and I was hated for it. I bought a lot ofproperty here, and they hated me for that -- they said Ibelonged to the Mafia. Nobody else invites me to theirhouse but the church people. My own church -- Catholic --is good for nothing. When my first wife left me with threekids, the priest came in asking for a donation for a new roof.I said, "I'm all alone with three kids -- how about giving metwenty dollars?" And he said, "Courage, my son, courage." Igot courage -- courage to get out.
"So what if the church people wanted my property? If youneeded ten thousand dollars for an operation, they'd give itto you.
"I whacked my own kids. I'd brain them before I'd let themhang out on the street. The church people's kids haverespect. I tell these punks in town, 'If you say one bad wordabout my daughter, I'll kill you. I'll cut your hands off. I'llmurder you.' My wife had to stop me from smashing a guy'sAdam's apple . . . . They're not violent people. They're thekindest people you ever saw.
"The only reason I don't join the church myself is, I'm notready to give them my whole heart and soul. I'm an easyguy. I like to go fishing."
WHAT SCARES ME most is the silence," says MarinnBarnes, who lives alone on Birch Street, across from acommunal house. Sometimes at night she hears a cry fromone of the children, then an adult voice saying "Don't youcry!," then nothing. Her summer nights have been punctuated by noises she has learned to dread- adeep-throated, gurgling wail that fades into a moan. Severalyears ago, thirteen-year-old Randy Langmaid, grandnephewof a one-time boarder of Marina's, made his third escapeattempt, coming to her from a communal house on the hillthree-quarters of a mile away. He was wearing layers ofclothes -- all that he had -- and he said, "Close the curtains,Marian, they'll see me and give me a licking. I'll kill myself iTI have to go back." Marian Barnes is seventy-one; she saysof the church greet her with smiles: "You're old, Marian" theysay. "Aren't you afraid of living alone in that big house?Aren't you afraid something will happen to you?" Then theycall her Satan.
ON SUNDAY the Northeast Kingdom church has itsCelebration in a barnlike room above the Com- mon Sensethat smells of spices and human sweat. I enter to the soundof tambourines. The women are danc- ing heavily on thewooden floor, but their bodies are stiff, out of sync with thetambourines and with their own feet.
Kirsten, a young woman in her mid-twenties who has twicebeen deprogrammed, has now returned to the church,delivered by a man called Gladheart, who stands over herwhile she testifies, her head bowed. Kirsten had been takenby her brothers, her sister, and a deprogrammer fromSpriggs's chateau to Paris and then to a deprogram- ring"safe house" in Iowa, from which she had managed toescape, having called the Vermont church to say she'd waitfor a rescuer at an appointed time in the town library. "I justplayed along with the deprogrammers?" Kitsten says withthe lilting inflection used by all the female mem- bers of thechurch. "I just really wanted to serve the Lord? So I toldthem, 'Oh yes, I just really wanted to get out, I'm so gladyou kidnapped me.' And a miracle happened? The twothings I said in my heart I wouldn't do would be to appearon videotape to show other kidnapped members mydeprogramming? And I wouldn't eat pork? And the videomachine broke down? I just really want to praise the Lord?And even some of the deprogrammers know we have thetruth? Because when I told them the church teaches us thatwomen are equal in grace but not equal in authority, one guysaid, 'Where is that place? Take me to it.' And I just loveGladheart so much? He shaved his beard off for me, he'd doanything for the Lord. And I'm just so glad to be home?Back in the land of the living? And I was so grateful when Idrunk the wine of the new covenant? And all I want to do isbe with my husband in France?"
No one asks why, if Kirsten wants so much to be with herhusband in France, she has been obliged to make this detourfrom Iowa to Island Pond. The obvious reason is that she isgiving the church in Island Pond a buzz. Persecu- tion alwaysacts as a jell for members of cults. It proves to them, in theabsence of history, liturgy, tradition, and doctrine, that theyare God's chosen.
After her first deprogramming, Kirsten and her twin sisterlectured on the college circuit for two years, talking aboutthe dangers of the cults. I learn this later, from SuzanneCloutier. Church members do not allow me to talk withKirsten. After Kirsten's testimony, I see a young girldescribe an arc in the air with a large sweeping gesture:"Whack!" she says. "Whack!"
On Cross Street, Al Bresciani is cruising in his van. He stopsme. "I'm riding around with a gun," he says, "in case there's adeprogrammer in town."
THE CHURCH is sure enough that we are living in the"end-times" to be building an ark in Nova Scotia -- in anycase, a ship. "I'm just a child," the chtldren sing. "How will itfeel to be on a boat in Nova Scotia?" The church is sure thatGod has "a shadow government, a resistance government, akingdom forming, an under- ground." The church defmesitself largely in relation to what it is not and what it does not:Is it not "Christian -- as you understand Christianity"; and"You can't trust America" (for which reason church membersdo not regis- ter for the draft, so that the government, "theFBI and the CIA, can't keep track of us").
Every member of the church talks of his or her previousmisery: They had been drunks, they had had traumaticabortions, they had been "so depressed I couldn't even washa dish," they'd been on drugs, they'd been suicidal, they'dkilled. All had been full of self-hatred, a condition theydescribe as "emptiness." No one, apparently, came to thechurch relatively whole or happy. (And yet the sad parentsof lost children -- the parents who stand at the windows ofthe Osborne with binoculars looking for youngsters whohave drifted into the cult -- say that their children were likeany other children. Some say the young people who are lostto the cults are the brightest and the best.) Perhaps, astownspeople say, all the church members' talk of pasthorrors is a result of malnutrition and brain- washing and aninhuman workload placed by the leaders upon the led.Perhaps their present acquiescent state obliges the youngpeople of the cult to redefine their blurred past. The fact thatthey do not yet know exactly how to flesh out their simpleapocalyptic beliefs does not prevent them from knowingexactly what it is their children do not need to know: BillSmith, who says he is a former seminarion and who is theolder in charge of the children's education, says he sees noreason for the children ever to have to read Henry James,Emily Dickinson, Shakespeare, Dickens, Chekhov, Tolstoy-- no need, in fact, for them to read anything but materialwritten for them by their elders. "For example," Smith says,"we might make up a story about a child who waspersecuted or a child who needed to be disciplined fortaking a cookie out of cookie jar."
Could the children sing "Here We Go Round the Mul- berryBush"? "Never heard of it," Smith says. "Humpty Dumpty"?"That was by Lewis Carroll, wasn't it? A verse disguising anattack on a scholar? No. Why should we teach our childrenabout a cracked egg?"
I AM SITTING in the house of Diana Marckwardt, in EastCharleston, a ten-minute drive from the center of IslandPond. With us are Cheryl ("I won't give you my last namebecause I'm scared of those 'Christians' and I don't want myhead manipulated any more") and a handsomethirty-two-year-old man called D.T., whose wife and twochildren are living with the mysterious Dante. D.T. is "waitingto get it together" before he tries to get custody of his kids --"I'm just a poor [he uses a coase noun] sitting in a corner,"he says. "How am I supposed to fight them? I don't have anymoney for a lawyer."
Although Isaac has told me that Dante is "in rebellion," achurch member not in good standing, Diana and Cheryl andD.T. are convinced -- as is almost everyone else in IslandPond -- that Dante is a member of the church hierarchy whoenjoys special status and privileges. Dante's ambiguousstatus bolsters their belief that the church has "runners" whopose as civilians in order to infiltrate the community andgather information. I have a hard time convincing them that Iam not a runner. Diana's eagerness to talk, to dischargeherself of the poisonous feelings she has been harboring,overwhelms her suspicion.
Diana is a person who needs to believe that her motives aregood and that she is fair. Two years ago people sheidentifies as runners -- "undercover agents" -- insinuatedthemselves into her life and assaulted her where she can leastafford to be assaulted: They defeated her idea of herself as agood, sane person, a member of an extended, nonbiological"family," of which Cheryl and D.T. are a part.
Her story is a complicated one. She is the first to ac-knowledge that nothing she has to say about the runners, orabout one named Debbie, in particular, is susceptible ofproof: "She started coming over and canning with me. Andshe asked me a whole lot of questions about a whole lot ofdifferent people that I know. I've been up here for seven-years and I have been a part of the Family for that long, andI know a lot of people. I gave her a lot of generalinformation -- nobody's secrets." (The "family" is a scatterednetwork of people in these hills.)
The runners, Diana says, moved in on her because theythought she was vulnerable. "I got straight-out, flat-outconned. I also noticed that they were starting to move into allof these groups that I had told Debbie about during thecourse of our canning," In fact, Diana -- who reproachesherself for sounding incoherent -- has not discussed therunners with an outsider before. "I feel like a jerk," she says.Juan Mattatall, the former church member who was trying towin custody of his five church-bound children, stayed withher. He was considered a good person until he started tryingto regain his children and the church turned on him. Suddenlythere were rumors that he had raped a young girl in thechurch community.
"Debbie played me on every single emotional point that Ihad. They had been through every single low-income,hard-pressed organization up here. I'm a patsy, you know.They started feeding back to me the fact that I am a patsy.They pushed me all the way down to the bottom of my basicmorality, and I discovered I was all right. So in a way theydid me a favor. But it also took me six months to pick up thepieces . . . . I believe they had designs on my son.
"I'm good at growing gardens," Diana says. "Debbie told memy expertise was gardens. Juan Mattatall's exper- tise is thathe knows all the wild herbs and edible plants. Knowsenough that they can survive up here all year round on whatcan be found in the woods, and that was his expertise. WhenI began to see how they were using us, I panicked and Ikicked them out. Then I started getting phone calls --southern voices -- threatening my life." DECEMBER 1984 ú67 Diana's friend Cheryl has been told by Isaac ("their sexsymbol, their bait") that if she were to join the cult, shewould be "treated like a queen." D.T. says he thinks thechurch was after his kids and his wife. "After I met them theyplayed nice-nice to me, asking me to teach them things. AndI was finding books in their library -- books on growingthings, you know what I mean?" His books disap- peared,he says; so did his wife and kids.
This sounds like crazy talk and Diana knows it: "Either I amcrazy or I am not, and I don't think I'm crazy," she says.Diana is so trusting one is afraid for her, she wishes to be ofuse. She locks her door now. She has a watchdog. She triesnever to let her child out of her sight. She is moving awayfrom Island Pond because three-year-old Isaac will be goingto day school next year. Perfectly composed when shespeaks of anything else, when she talks about the cult sheshakes. The cult robbed her of her goodwill, her easy faith inthe goodness of others. She will never forgive them.
I never did get to speak to the people Diana and Cheryl andD.T. refer to as runners; they sent word out that they wouldnot talk to me. Al Bresciani says they are "friends of thechurch -- like me." ' "
DIANA AND HER SON and I are sitting at the edge of thepond: "I will catch you a fish, Barbara," the three-year-oldIsaac says. He is pretending a twig is a fishing rod. "I willcatch you a chocolate-chip fish." He deposits the"chocolate-chip fish" in my lap -- sweet little boy, I've justtold him chocolate-chocolate-chip is my favorite ice cream-- and then he catches a "fierce red fish" and then a"strawberry fish" (strawberry is his favorite flavor), and thenwe eat the fish, which has been cooked, he says, by "watermagic." He hugs me. For this enchanting piece of business,this child, whose brown eyes gaze into mine with perfecttrust, would be beaten if he were a child of the cult.
NOT ONE of the cult children has called me by name. Thecult children are empty vessels with nothing to fill them butthe insistent words of their elders -- not even music: Theymay not listen to music with "worldly" lyric or "demonic"themes. At the thrift shop, a church member named Barbaratold me she vomited when she heard The Sorcerer'sApprentice. And that Beetho- ven's Ninth Symphony wasjust as bad. "How about Mi- chael Jackson?" I asked."Who's Michael Jackson?" she said. Adult cult members donot read newspapers or magazines or watch television; thoseelders who are permit- ted to read edit and verbally presentthe news to their followers.
The Northeast Kingdom church does not believe theevidence of Jonestown was consistent with Jim Jones'sfollowers having killed themselves. They believe it is muchmore likely that Jones and his followers, with whom theyidentify, were killed by helicopters using "chemical war- fare"for "political reasons."
I AM SCRIBBLING at the Common Sense, and Isaacsays: "Are you taking notes? We don't want you to. Wedon't speak to reporters, only to compassionate, caringhuman beings with good hearts: I don't want you to takenotes. When was the last time you examined your con-science? I'm not talking about that hokey stuff in that blackbox, that corruption, that evil, the confessional, that gar-bage," Isaac says. "Does your conscience tell you you areworthless and needy? Needy."
I am saved from more lunatic conversation with Isaac by theentrance of a young Vietnamese. Church "walkers" --proselytizers -- in Boston have given him literature thatinveighs against homosexulaity, the military, cold and un-caring hospitals, capitalism, Communism, liberationmovements, Walt Disney, and all the woes and com-plexities attendant upon the industrial and technologicalrevolutions. The literature invites people with a deep sense ofinjury to separate themselves from the world and to leave"fear, death, loneliness and isolation" behind.
"Give him anything, anything he wants, everything," Isaacsays expansively. What the Vietnamese is given is a bowl ofpopcorn and a glass of water.
"Isaac doesn't like me," I remark to the elder called Asher.Five minutes later, Isaac, who I think cannot possi- bly haveheard me, reappears: "I don't want you to think I don't loveyou, Barbara," he says. "I do. I love you very much. I wantyou to live our life."
When I leave the Common Sense that afternoon, Isaacsneaks behind me: "BOO!" He is stroking a jackknife. "I justlike to play," he says. "Did I scare you?"
From this time on, whenever I make a phone call from theOsborne, someone from the cult stares in at me through theplate-glass window. Whenever I have coffee with atownsman at Jennifer's Restaurant, a cult elder honks thehorn of a vehicle that follows me everywhere. He is lettingme know that I am under surveillance.
This behavior strikes me as more silly than diabolical,although some townspeople are telling me that I am press-ing my luck.
ON AUGUST 28, members of the press were invited tohear Roland Church publicly repent. He shared a platformwith Charles (Eddie) Wiseman, the elder who, according toRoland's previous allegation, had beaten his daughterDarlynn until "she looked like a zebra." Church, who hadalso said that the church's troubles with Darlynn stemmedfrom unspecified sex games, repeated what he'd said in hispubLished, recantation: Darlynn had lied. She was beatenbecause she lied -- neither he nor Wiseman would say inwhat way she lied -- and she had lied when she signed adeposition to the court saying that she had been beaten. The"ordeal," Wiseman and Roland said, had made Darlynn"freer and lighter"; the "scourging" and the "controlled sever-ity" had produced "the fruits of the spirit." Why it had alsoproduced a signed statement in which Darlyrm claimed tohave been beaten for seven hours was a problem thatRoland -- who, not to put too fine a point on it, looked andsounded like a zombie -- could not resolve for the press.Wiseman showed us pictures of Darlynn's neck and back,on which there were no marks. He declined, with a greatdisplay of delicacy of feeling, to show us photographs ofDarlynn's buttocks and legs. It was motive that counted,Elder Wiseman insisted. While most people who beat kidsdid so when they were drunk or angry, Darlynn waschastised by a loving elder with love, and Darlynn thereforeknew love. When someone remarked that abused flesh wasincapable of interpreting motive, Roland said, "I don't knowwhat you're getting at."
For the first time since I arrived in Island Pond, I allowedmyself to express anger to members of the cult. I think it wasDarlynn, so present in her absence, who provoked it
The next day I was driven to the Common Sense by FatherFrancis Connors, the pastor of St. James' Roman CatholicChurch. I thought, arrogantly, that I could tough it out. Anelder I'd not met before stared at me, unblinking (how dothey do this?) for half an hour and told me (many variationson a single theme) all about the Lake of Fire, in which, if Idid not change my evil ways, I would soon find myself. Idon't remember his words. They were silly words. Iremember what I felt -- virulent hatred focused on me, thekind of hatred that is like an invasion of the body: I felt myheart being attacked. Nobody -- pity the children -- canstand being the object of such intense hatred. The women,their voices sweet, chanted about the Lake of Fire. Thechildren watched.
Three hours later I was admitted to the North CountryHospital for chest pains. Hutch Jenness, the Quaker doctorwho examined me, must at first have thought -- I amperfectly healthy -- that I was crazy: "Do you often feel yourbody is flying apart? Have you had any suicidal thoughts inthe last six months?" When I told him that I'd been in IslandPond, talking to members of the church, he said, "Well, whydidn't you say so? You're not crazy. You're respond- ing tocraziness. You're lucky that it was your body that wenthaywire. It could have been your mind. I know thosepeople. They're evil. You can't go back there."
WHAT TO DO? Bernie Henault, Essex County co-ordinator of the Northeast Kingdom Commu- nity ActionAgency, says, "If they disciplined a child to death with lovewe'd never know about it. The laws of this country stop atthe borders of Island Pond and have for sLx years . . . . I'veheard them say [to Spriggs]: 'Did I do all right, Lord?' WhenI hear them say the Lord says this and the Lord says that,are they talking about our God up there, or are they talkingabout Elbert Spriggs?
"I never go and solicit anybody to leave. Because Jim Jonesleft San Francisco and went to French Guyana, didn't he?And look what happened there." Henault says the NortheastKingdom church is missing two entire genera- tions: Whereare the older people? he asks. Where are the teenagers? "Iget burnt out," he continues. "I had seven people in my officein one day that were leaving. I was up a wall." Oneafternoon a church member told him that he would "wake upsome day and find out that the wrath of the Lord has fallenupon your head." The church even approached his daughter."We adopted a young girl last year -- twelve. And Donnahad some spedal needs. She'd been in special education allher life. And these suckers are inviting her down to theirCelebration and telling her how evil we are and that sheshould come and join. This is how they operate."
"They watch," he says later. "It's good, smart leadership, thatgroup that plays with the system, that mocks the system andsays, 'Here we are. We're a religious group. We're doingwhat we want and we're only responsible to the Lord.' TheLord, everybody says, is Jesus Christ, the Son of God.Except maybe," Henault says, "it's Elbert Spriggs."
Selectman Bud Wade is "so . . . mad I can . . . hardly talkabout it. It's hard to keep getting beat. We've triedeverything, but the state won't even act on its own zoningordinances to get those people. And those civil libertylawyers are paid by the state to defend people who are justlaughing at the state." .
One might expect that the mainline churches would act toremedy the misery in lsland Pond, and to an extent they do.Father Connors has put up young people who wish to leavethe cult at the Osborne and has seen them safely out ofIsland Pond. But by and large the mainline churches keep alow profile -- to avert bloodshed," according to churchsources (or, more cynical voices say, because the churchesare afraid to act lest they be acted upon). In many quartersthe silence of the churches is interpreted as a perverse formof "do unto others": If the churches leave the cult alone, theytoo will be free from state intervention.
Reverend Dale Jenks of the fundamentalist Grace Breth- renChurch says, "There is no organized effort to help. Part ofthat is because when people leave the cult, they're stillsufficiently indoctrinated to believe that we're evil. I don't-know what the answer would be," he says, "unless it's lesspublicity, less press. They rejoice in negative publicity."Jenks is conservative; he believes that to spare the rod is tospoil the child. His quarrel with the cult is that "there'snothing more dangerous than to believe you are the only onein possession of the truth." He places some of the blame forthe existence of the cult on the the mainline churches: "Weoffer people a building. They offer people a life."
GOD WORKS in mysterious ways; the wheels of justicegrind slowly; there are no simple solutions. (lt's easy tobecome fatalistically axiomatic in Island Pond.) As long asthere are people who require the absolute simplicity ofabsolute authoritarianism, as long as the wounded, thedefeated, the hopeless, the idealists-gone- awry exist, and aslong as spiritual con artists hungry for power are around toauthenticate them and to give them a life empty of choice andfull of the busyness and spiritual double talk that passes formeaning, the cults will thrive. As long as there are peoplewilling to sacrifice their lives -- and those of their children --for the promise of transcen- dency, the cults will thrive. Aslong as the bludgeoned and the bewildered and thebrainwashed are willing to endure a drab present for thehope of an exalted future, the cults will thrive.
But what of the children? Island Pond may learn to deal withits problem, and to deal -- though this is far from certain --with the scars left by fear, paranoia, and loathing. But it isnot Island Pond's problem alone. They are all our children. Ifthe Northeast Kingdom church is forced to leave IslandPond, where will it go? Where will the children go, and whatwill become of them?
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