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Title Church of Bible Understanding/COBU - Maureen Griffo - Sociology of Gender - Summer, 2000
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Church of Bible Understanding/COBU - Maureen Griffo - Sociology of Gender - Summer, 2000

From the time of the earliest agrarian societies control of the weaker (women and slaves) by those with some means of power (men) has occurred throughout history. In the last 100 years alone gross violations of human rights in totalitarian systems such as in the Soviet Union, Germany and Iran, with varying degrees of further abuses of women, have been prominent in the world. Cults, like the other forms of totalist societies, appeal to people's desire for clear-cut standards as well as clear gender roles. Thus, the increase in the number of cults and their membership has increased as society has undergone profound changes. However, instead of providing meaningful alternatives to traditional roles, cults usually just establish other forms of patriarchy. In fact, within cults women experience a level of abuse similar to that experienced by battered wives. By extension, the rise of fundamentalist sectors within many religions as well as white supremist groups, paramilitary groups, etc., have gained footholds because of their attraction to males, particular white males, who feel displaced. Unlike other new religious groups and healthier groups in general, cults use deceit, manipulation and control to recruit and maintain their members. However, control exists along a continuum with many non-cultic groups exercising power and control to various degrees. Like other thought-reform programs implemented consciously or unconsciously by totalitarian systems as well as individual perpetrators, without control, deceit and manipulation cults would not be able to penetrate people's boundaries so thoroughly.

Indeed, very few or no people set out to join a cult, a testimony to the power these methods hold. From my own experience during my adolescence when a number of these cultic groups tried to recruit me, not only didn't they appeal to me, but their members seemed strangely aloof from reality. Yet, despite my skepticism, one of my friends caught me off guard . She begged me for weeks to visit a 'new and interesting group' she heard about from her brother. Not only did she succeed in getting me to visit, but ironically, I spent 10 years in this group whereas she only spent 6 months. Unlike other groups I met, they adhered to a form of Christianity close to what I had been taught in the Catholic Church. Not understanding the difference between doctrines and deceptive practices, I viewed their orthodoxy as proof that they could not be a cult. No 'typical' profile of a cult recruitee exists as almost everyone experiences vulnerable times in which they could be more susceptible to cult recruitment. Although I experienced abandonment by my parents at age 4 and grew up with a mentally unstable aunt, despite my background I still joined a cult during a time when I was especially vulnerable. The group took advantage of me at a time when I sought help in the midst of profound confusion. Not surprisingly, fear of abandonment overshadowed much of my life growing up. Adopted in the same family by a mentally unstable aunt while still seeing my biological father from a distance every few years or so certainly left me wanting for close relationships. However, when my uncle/adoptive father died a sudden and horrible death and my mom, whose mental state further deteriorated, moved with my young sister to another state, I thought that the group would help me be strong so that I could help them. The seeming warmth and sense of togetherness of the group made me feel that I finally found a family.

While I did have some rewarding and close relationships in the group, friendships that even have continued to this day, in reality the group maintained used my so-called new family really to maintain its strong hold in my life. Not only did the group offer me a 'family,' but they seemed to offer solid answers for those of us who came of age in the mid-1970's. Society changed so quickly for young people that older generations often felt helpless as they watched. Like other young women who generally felt insecure about their identities, I did not feel enthusiastic about these rapid changes. Instead of the sexual revolution of the late '60s and early '70s providing freedom for me and my female peers, males had a window of opportunity to use the changing standards to make sex on even casual dates seem mandatory. Young women had not yet realized that young men's actions constituted date rape, essentially robbing us of our right to say no. At my job I also witnessed women encountering glass ceilings and sexual harassment. Thus, like most young women, I longed for something more stable, more definitive. I wanted a place that I could place my feet and look at my femininity beyond my sexual desirability, or how well I could make it in a still male-dominated society.

The group I joined 'The Church of Bible Understanding' (or COBU for short) seemed like a voice of reason in the midst of gender confusion. The so called special place in which the group promised me contentment and wholeness as a woman in the end entrapped me. . Rather, I experienced constant degradation and loss of personal freedoms that even extended beyond the restrictions placed on men. My treatment in this group was so tied to my being a woman that this paper is a kind of self-analysis in which I talk about women in cults through the eyes of my own extensive and abusive experiences. I hope in briefly discussing why the group appealed to me as a woman, my treatment in the group and the long road of recovering from these experiences that the voices of other women, not only in my former group but other cults as well, can be heard. Not surprisingly, the hope with which I moved in COBU's commune quickly turned to a fight for psychological survival. Soon after moving in with the group, the leader decided that all members must turn in their paychecks. After the leader gained control of our money, his manipulation and control spread like wildfire, and within less than a year the group was totally different from what I had joined.

Flavil Yeakley conducted research which gives much insight to how cultic groups seem to radically transform their members. In his study (probably the largest to date) he administered the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) on three separate occasions to 900 members of the International Churches of Christ, considered the fastest growing cult in the world today, a small number of members from six other cults and as a control group members of a number of mainline denominations. His results, published in The Discipling Dilemma, shed much light on the difference between normal groups and cults. Whether part of a mainstream church or a cult each participant rated him/herself on the MBTI according to: 1) Prior to membership or five years before if they were long term members; 2) how they viewed themselves at the present time; and 3) how they thought they would be in the future. The results of the first administration of the MBTI showed that all participants had a normal range of personality variations. However, on the second and third taking of this test, those in cults dramatically shifted to the same personality type (and these personality types varied depending on the cult to which they belonged) whereas those in mainline churches continued to show normal variations. For example, when member of this International Churches of Christ took the MBTI a second time, 97% of the members who rated themselves as extroverts on the first administered MBTI remained extroverts on the second one as well, while 95% of those who rated themselves as introverts the first time 'changed' to extroverts the second time. (Yeakley, 23-28) Cults exert inordinate amounts of pressure to conform. Yeakley's research makes it easier to understand how members of a cult can seem like clones of each other. In fact, the leader of COBU often referred to the sameness of members with women being even more alike then men. According to him, women were 'drops of water' with one drop being just like another. What each woman needed was an appropriate container (a husband or through the 'fellowship of the brothers') to contain us, give us form and purpose.

Through the years the abuse I experienced because of being a woman escalated. In order to put my experiences in perspective, over the years I have spoken with a number of female ex-members of COBU. These conversations have been liberating as they not only have helped me to regain equilibrium, but through them I learned that the leader actually said that he purposely made things harder on women so that we would trust God more deeply. COBU is not unique in its mistreatment of women. Besides my own personal mistreatment and the conversations with ex-members of my former group as well as female ex-members of other groups, lectures, various articles and books on this topic have further confirmed that women have vastly inferior roles within these groups. Through this extensive exposure to the condition of women in cults, I realized my situation within my former group could be called domestic abuse as my experiences took place where I lived. Sad to say, there is a paucity of literature written about women's treatment in cults. Although several good books on cults that give some attention to the issues women have in these groups have been written, very little has been written exclusively for the purpose of exploring these issues in depth. So far I have only found two sources, both of which come from the Cultic Studies Journal, the only scholarly journal that addresses cult issues.

In 1997 the Cultic Studies Journal devoted an entire issue to exploring women's experiences in cults, and in 1986 the Cultic Studies Journal reprinted an article that had been previously published in Community Mental Health Journal. Although not devoted exclusively to women who had been in cults, in Judith Herman's book Trauma and Recovery, an entire chapter, 'Captivity,' discusses the various ways that people, particular women, can be held captive and uses religious cults among its examples of various situations in which imprisonment can occur. Another book, It's Not Okay Anymore, by Greg Enus and Jan Black is a guide for women who are victims of domestic abuse, written to give clear understanding of abuse and how to break away from it. Several other books on domestic abuse were helpful to me, but It's Not Okay Anymore provided much of the framework that I have used to understand and explain to others the abuse that not only I, but women who had been in other similar groups, have experienced. Some women have written personal accounts of their time spent in cults. While these are helpful, a desperate need exists for more books written by women who have been in cults. However, these personal accounts, like my conversations with other female ex-cult members, have helped me to placed my own experience in a broader context of women in cultic groups in general.

One book, Heaven's Harlots, written by an ex-member of the Children of God who spent most of her 15 years in the group prostituting as a way to draw in new male members, provided a different kind of insight. Like me she was searching to find a way to define herself as a woman and yearned to fill the spiritual longing she experienced. Sexual abuse, whether by forced celibacy or forced promiscuity, is endemic among cults. In groups that coerce female members to become prostitutes, they must live with the life-long scars of not only psychological and emotional anguish, but the physical results that frequently come with sexual promiscuity. Conversely, in COBU (my former group) enforced celibacy was also sexually exploitive. The leader often acted inappropriately toward his wife in public, even at times openly fondling her. Combined with how he repeatedly told us how as women we were innately evil and that we weren't married because of this evil, he seemed to give us the message that men could denigrate women, and that the women were to be silent and submit to this treatment. I found Susan Jean Palmer, author of Moon Sisters, Krishna Mothers, Rajneesh Lovers, to be the only outsider who examined women's lives in 'new religious movements.' While she either did not recognize, or refused to acknowledge, the widespread abuse of women in these groups, she did provide a clear picture about how, like me, women joined thinking that they could finally have clear identities as women. No matter what the context, there seems to be strikingly similar lists of they kinds of abuse women endure. In fact, the battering wife syndrome is often called the cult of the home. In trying to sort through what happened to me, three different sources were particularly helpful. My experiences are listed below in the framework of these sources. Early verbal and/or physical dominance that escalates into full-blown abuse. Even before COBU imploded into an extremely hermetically structured society, women were always being put down.

Stewart, the leader of the group, would berate the men because, according to him, they weren't being the men of God that they were called to be. On the other hand, he berated women for who we were. In many cultic groups men seem to gain or at least regain what they perceive as lost by the males in the greater society. In most cultic groups this is accomplished through males exercising heavy dominance both over females and over men classified as inferior to them. In trying to come to terms with what happened to me, I had to recognize that I lived in physically abusive situations while living with the group. In reading the section 'Examples of Physical Abuse,' in It's Not Okay Anymore (as stated above this is a guide for women who are or have been in abusive relationships), I was startled to realize that some of the points applied to me'and by extension to women in other cults. For example: Destroying your belongings. It wasn't unusual to have items missing or destroyed through carelessness on the part of the borrower (or taker). To complain about this meant that the owner was coveting and treasuring a life in this world. Depriving you of food, shelter, money or clothing: Often there was either not enough food or because of a sizeable population of mice and rats, I felt like I couldn't eat. Since men had easier access to money, they could eat out more often than the women could. For most of my time in the group I lived in poverty conditions. . At one point I even lived in a 2,500 square foot loft with 170 other members and literally had a 6' x 3' space to myself with limited access to bathroom and shower facilities. In exchange for giving my entire paycheck, I received $20/week allowance that had to cover anything extra (shampoo, buying lunch, etc.). We had an inadequate system of obtaining clothes in which a woman had to write down on a 'special request' what she had and what she felt she needed. A committee 'ruled' on if she could even get clothes and if so, the amount of money she should get.

My requests often sounded like sales pitches filled with my begging for money for work clothes. Since money given for clothes was never enough, I bought used clothing. Thanks to a Salvation Army on the next block, I did get decent used clothes. However, I felt humiliated to have a high paying job but not be able to buy good new clothes unless I found a group-sanctioned way to work extra for extra money. It was not unusual for men to pocket tips from the various independent and group-run businesses they worked in, and they usually just had to ask for money to buy clothes without going through a committee. For small items, such as socks or underwear, men and women alike would ask the person who gave out allowances to obtain extra money for these items. One female ex-member still feels affected after years by the humiliation of having to ask a male, who often singled her out for special attention, for money to buy bras. Thus, again, men did not experience the same degree of humiliation that the women experienced. Denying you medical treatment: While officially we were allowed to go to see a doctor, women, especially, felt guilty about spending the money to do so. Sleep deprivation . After working a full day, going out on the streets proselytizing, we often had to sit in meetings until the wee hours of the morning. If anyone fell asleep they would be woken up and reprimanded. This was particularly hard on women, most of whom had typical 9 to 5 jobs, whereas the men, who usually worked independently, could set their own hours and sleep longer. Isolation/Imprisonment; promotion of powerlessness and helplessness.

In Judith Herman's chapter on Captivity in Trauma and Recovery, she explains how, as opposed to a single traumatic event that can happen at random, prolonged repeated trauma can only occur when the victim is under the control of the perpetrator and is unable to leave. As mentioned above, religious cults often hold their members in captivity. Captivity brings the victim into prolonged contact with the perpetrator and creates a special type of relationship, one of coercive control. This is true whether the victim is taken captive entirely by force or by a combination of force, intimidation and enticement as in the case of religious cult members, battered women and abused children. The perpetrator becomes the most powerful person in the life of the victim, and the psychology of the victim is shaped by the actions and beliefs of the perpetrator. The perpetrator's first goal appears to be enslavement of his victim, and he accomplishes this goal by exercising despotic control over every aspect of the victim's life. But simple compliance rarely satisfies him; he appears to have a psychological need to justify his crimes, and for this he needs the victim's affirmation. His ultimate goal appears to be the creation of a willing victim. (Herman, 74-75) It was no accident that I was broken down by the group's routines. The leader did not want any of us to think clearly as we would have recognized the abuse and left. Sometimes we would sit in silence for 8 or more hours with no one getting up to even use the bathroom'all because we were too unfaithful to speak. At these meetings women were very good at internalizing what we were taught about our being 'Eves 'who had to be watched and treated each other accordingly. In order to work in COBU's office or at the leader's house, women had to sign a contract, probably made up by the leader (men didn't). Here are some excerpts: "I also have certain specific problems that, left unchecked will lead to my own destruction" "As a woman being special to a man matters, sometimes so much, that it looks better to try to steal special attention rather than living honestly. Pulling the plug [ruining a project] would be an excellent way to get wrong attention this contract is designed to not allow that sort of behavior. In was not uncommon for us to be brutal with each other over this contract with each minor infraction being treated as a major transgression. As a woman, I deserved harsher treatment. As opposed to the men, I also deserved to have my liberties even further restricted. In most of the places I lived within the group, women were not allowed to go anywhere alone, but had to have a male escort. On the other hand, women had to hand in 'special requests' for clothing. A committee would then decide what she could or couldn't have and the amount. For small items, such as underwear, a woman had to ask the money handler (as the name implies, the person who held onto the money that the members used). One ex-member told me how humiliated she felt in asking a male money handler for money to buy bras. Sexual exploitation While no official rules against marriage exist, there have been no marriages blessed by this group since 1977. According to the leader, he could not condone any marriages because no one was faithful enough in their spiritual lives to get married. Sexual purity was strictly upheld and in my 10 years there I only knew of one couple who violated the rule by having sex. Since no one could meet the standards for marrying rightly, dating not meant to be casual but rather was meant to lead to marriage was taboo. In 1981 a male in the group, Jerry, announced his intentions (to marry me) in private and then announced his intentions to the whole group. Within less than a week I was thrust into a whole new role within the group and didn't even have time to think about my feelings about Jerry. Around that time the leader was refusing to meet with the 'older ones' (24 and over) on a regular basis because of our faithlessness. Those who were in my age group decided that it was those who were in relationships who had brought a 'bad' spirit among us. If they could rectify the situation by breaking us up, they could get rid of the wrong spirit and the leader would again meet with us Women within these relationships were viewed as 'Eve' who tempted and brought down 'Adam,' and thus they were the major targets of the campaigns to break up relationships. Fear arousal and maintenance; enforced loyalty to the aggressor and self-denunciation One of the most successful tools of the control COBU used on us was keeping us in a state of hyperarousal. This was accomplished through sleep deprivation, inadequate diet, deficient living conditions, vigorous schedules and debilitating meetings. The leader pitted us against each other through phone messages he would leave with us when we meet without him. His messages caused so much frustration that our meetings more resembled wild caged animals attacking each other than a gathering of cordial, rational religious people. We would have sessions in which we would vote on each other according to various categories. No matter what I would think about myself internally, the group's vote on me became the absolute truth. I would experience crises in which my internal world, which was how I thought about myself, did not match my external world which was my acquiescing to the group's vote. Psychologists call this cognitive dissonance, and the way it is resolved is by believing one's behavior over one's inner world. Thus, I experienced a sense of doubling in which the personality induced in me by the cult became more dominant than the 'real' me. In COBU not being our real selves came at a heavy price. Since women were always viewed with suspicion because of being evil by nature, small matters concerning women could be drawn out for hours. Guilt Induction Because of our isolation, our dependence on the group for our self views and living in a state of constant hyperarousal, it didn't take much to make us feel guilty. This guilt was so powerful that strange behavior, such as the inability to hold a normal conversation, would result. Since women were already 'guilty' by mere association with Eve, the men were constantly warned to keep up their guard lest they be overcome. In fact, for a period of a couple of years, in order to help the men not be fooled, if a woman wanted any kind of attention from a man, she had to ask for it by saying "I would like some attention." The man would ask her if she wanted 'Christian, person or woman' attention. From there the man would interrogate her and often she would experience repercussions at the next meeting because the man judged her as asking wrongly. Contingent expressions of 'love' and hope instilling behaviors All of us would live for the times that the leader was kind to us. Perhaps we met a certain goal that week or he would just be nicer to us. At those times it would seem that our situation would change for the better, that we would finally be considered faithful and be able to live better Stewart lived in Princeton in an expensive house while I lived in Hell's Kitchen in a run down tenement. But, if as a woman I 'behaved' myself, I sometimes would be given the opportunity to go to Stewart's house 'not to rest but to work there. Even the chance to scrub his toilets would be considered an honor. During meetings with the women he would continual repeat how all the women were into him. Given that we were sitting in silence for most of this time, his words had a powerful effect. Stewart gave so little attention to us that we would try to catch every drop and hang onto his words. Some women would literally throw themselves on the floor in front of him acting like a star-glazed groupee who has encountered her favorite rock star. Even through these women often were reprimanded by the leader for their behavior, he certainly seemed to like the adoration. They got what the group would call 'wrong attention,' but given how desperate Stewart made us feel about getting his attention, in a way their behavior was understandable. Within COBU everyone, men and women alike experienced abuse. While men had certain advantages that women didn't, life was extremely hard for them as well particularly when it came to their sexuality. Undoubtedly whatever comfort might come from realizing that they had had certain advantages that women didn't would be overshadowed by the memories of their own abuse. However, due to various circumstances during my time there, I experienced the full force of the group's beliefs toward women who were ostracized. If men experienced the same sort of extreme treatment on a daily basis, I simply never witnessed it.. Even most of the other women in the group did not experience the extremes of the group's doctrine about women like I did; although through me, they knew what could happen to them. Thus, in secret, some would come to comfort me, and they would feel that with me they were safe to speak about the anguish they, too, experienced. Just two months after ending my three year relationship, the group threw me and about 20 other women out on the streets. The trouble began when the women begged to have better living conditions. Given our impoverished circumstances, our request certainly was not unreasonable. The all-male board, with the leader's approval then sold the building from under us. We were told to come up with plans and present them to the group. However, anything we tried to do was labeled as maneuvering and the group withheld approval for any alternate living arrangements. We were told that if we ended up on the streets we only had ourselves to blame and were often openly mocked about how we would find ourselves in front of the building, next to the fire hydrant, with our bags. I never believed that the group would go so far as throw me out. I always had thought that the rest of my life would be spent with them. Because I had been abandoned as a child, what the group did reinforced for me that God, at whim, could simply discarded people. While the women were on the street bewildered by our homelessness, the men stood by and called us harlots, telling us we deserved to be where we were. They had a place to sleep that night (the men in the building were simply allowed to quietly move to other places), but we didn't. One of the women thrown out with me was blind, and her situation was even harder to grapple with than my own. Fortunately the blind woman was looked after by women she was close to and somehow we all made it through that and subsequent nights without sleeping on the streets, although we had some close calls. While I have needed much counseling and other help to heal from what I experienced in the group, today I am grateful that they threw me out. I now look at what happened to me with irony. Throwing me out because I was a 'rebellious' woman who dared to want to live better was meant to be a punishment, yet it was my gender that ultimately provided a way out for me and set me free. COBU, like other cults, upholds a functionalist view of gender roles. COBU believes that Christians should aspire to the purity of the early church in new testament times, including distinct and unequal roles for men and women, without acknowledging that life for women during the time of early Christianity was oppressive and abusive. As gender roles in general society changed, COBU's leader worked hard to turn us against and also to condemn 'women libbers' and men who were so overrun by these powerful and controlling women that they were effeminate. We felt that men were made for leadership and power and that women were made to be submissive to the husbands and 'help-mates.' In conclusion, while men and women still need to feel certainty about themselves just as much today as in the '70's, cults still do not offer real answers. Systems as totalitarian as those found in cults need 'stronger' and 'weaker' members in order to keep members 'in line,' as they thrive on oppression. Because I did not recognize how deeply the group indoctrinated me concerning my place as a woman, for another 7 ½ years I was in church situations in which women were viewed as inferior to men and did not recognize the continuing abuse. Finally I realized that what I had been taught was lies. During the past 7 years my journey of self discovery has often been painful but nevertheless always rewarding. I deeply appreciate simple things in life that most people would never notice, and I am still filled with awe at being free.

Bibliography: Boulette TR and Andersen SM. ''Mind Control' and the Battering of Women,' Cultic Studies Journal, 3(1):25-33, 1986. Enns E and Black J. It's Not Okay Anymore. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, 1997. Herman JL. Trauma and Recovery. New York, NY: Basic Books/Harper Collins Publishers, Inc., 1992. Cultic Studies Journal. Special Issue: Women under the influence: a study of women's lives in totalist groups. Lalich J., Ed., Vol. 14, 1997. Palmer SJ. Moon Sisters, Krishna Mothers, Rajneesh Lovers: Women's roles in new religions. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1994. Williams M. Heaven's Harlots: My Fifteen Years as a Sacred Prostitute in the Children of God. New York, NY: Eagle Brook/William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1998. Yeakley F. The Discipling Dilemma. Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate, 1988.