This is an old piece that I’d honestly forgotten I still had stashed away in the depths of my hard drive. I wrote this back in 1997, just a few weeks after the Heaven’s Gate suicides, and maybe a year or less after I left my cult, and just about a week before I started talking to ex-Scientologists online.
People’s legal names and temple names have been changed. I have no interest in blaming anyone, and wish all of them well.
All I can say is: wow, I’m a lot better writer now than I was then – it was hard to avoid temptation and not edit this completely.
Once upon a time, in the spring of 1994, I was most probably at the lowest point of my life. In fact, I was dead. I had received my master’s degree in music composition, from Bowling Green State University, in the summer of 1992. I had been engaged to a fellow graduate student, who had then broken up with me after a long downwards spiral, in which he became increasingly cold and neglectful, and I had become increasingly clinging and dependent. I had stayed in Bowling Green to be with him until he graduated, and then he left for his parents’ home in North Carolina. I never saw him again. I would phone and he would not. After a while, I realized everything he had ever promised me had now died. I had come to depend upon him for my entire emotional well-being; this is most likely why he grew so cold. Who could face such a responsibility?
And now he was gone. I died along with the relationship. I lived in a small apartment; my roommate and I had a stormy relationship. I went to work in a dead-end, unsatisfying job as a dietary aide at a nursing home. I got up at five in the morning, I drove through thirty miles of bleak flat Ohio farmland, I worked in a hot, noisy kitchen with people who hated their jobs as much as I did, I went home, I watched television, I fought with my roommate, I went to sleep.
I was dead. I had no life, no friends, no love, no emotions other than mind-numbing boredom and a listless, dull pain as flat as the landscape around me. Pain is addictive, even more so than heroin, and I was hooked. I made sure to cut myself off from all forms of support — even to the point where I gradually cut off all communication with my own family, especially my own mother. My mother is a fierce, proud, strong woman. I love her, I admire her. I am also afraid of her and what she demands of me. She demands only one thing: that I be the best person that I can be in my own right. This is terrifying for me, even now. You see, I had long ago bought into the notion, so prevalent in this culture, that I could never be good enough, smart enough, or pretty enough to satisfy some nebulous “them,” some invisible and all-powerful jury who had already condemned me as eternally unworthy. Their verdict: guilty. Guilty of being different, guilty of being ugly, guilty of being too loud, too emotional, too unrealistic, too dramatic. Guilty as charged on all counts. The sentence: exile. Exile from society. The greatest dread of all: you do not belong. You are not welcome here. I was ruthless in carrying out this sentence upon myself. I made sure, wherever I went, that I did not fit, that I did not make myself feel welcome. I turned myself into an outcast.
Once upon a time I had been alive. Once upon a time, I had been popular, talented, intelligent, beautiful and successful. I had been engaged to be married and had good career prospects. I had never been satisfied with myself, however, not even remotely: weekly crying fits and even the occasional suicide attempt had been a normal part of my life since junior high school. I worked hard at sabotaging my life. With my fiancé, Jeremy, I was harsh, demanding, and dependent. With my friends I was careless, clinging, and inconsiderate. In my classes I was lazy and disruptive. In my responsibilities I was lax. I saw a counselor but I never applied anything to actually trying to make my life better.
Once upon a time, I had been like any other young sensitive artist in any graduate school: somewhat neurotic, mostly unhappy, constantly choosing to torture myself with any number of irrational anxieties, but still functioning, still alive. I delighted in making myself miserable, but I also had a lot of fun sometimes. I had some good friends who liked me for the most part — when I wasn’t being moody. I liked them for the most part — when they weren’t being moody. I didn’t notice that they were all too wrapped up in what the others thought of them to even notice me being wrapped up in what they thought of me. I didn’t know that they were all as lost as I was.
I procrastinated a lot. I had discovered Eastern mysticism in undergraduate school and ate it up. I promised myself I would learn to meditate. I always found something else to do, more pressing. I would sit down and quickly become bored. Sometime in college, I bought my first Tarot deck and promised myself I would learn to read cards sometime. It seemed so right for me, something that called to me. I tucked them away in my room, behind all the books I had always meant to read but knew I never would. I tried to keep a journal, filled with deep insight that would provide me with the answers I needed to find inner peace. I would write for a few days and then stop. I promised myself I would become better, kinder, more patient, more stable, more what I thought the invisible jury would expect from me. I constantly found myself losing control over myself in one petty crisis after another. I was constantly worried that I could never keep any of these promises to myself. It seemed I could never achieve anything that really mattered.
Once upon a time, I believed in magic. I had been a deeply spiritual person, with my own dramatic, ritual flair. When I had been a small child, I was constantly finding pebbles that were amulets, sticks that were wands, secret places in the woods that were temples. I believed myself to be from somewhere else, deposited here on this earth — to do what? I didn’t know, but I knew that I had an assignment, and that that assignment was deeply important. I felt a deep link to the water, a strong bond that was mystical, loving, even sexual. Quite literally, I have always been in love with the ocean, with all water. I was in love with the idea of being a spiritual being. I was in love with the possibilities on the edge of traditional consciousness. I was in love with the idea of being able to alter reality. I didn’t realize that I was already altering my own reality, and to what extent.
When you choose to live in hell, hell is what your world becomes. When you decide you deserve heaven, life becomes good.
Once upon a time, I had lived. Bad or good, I had been alive. More often than not, I chose the bad. Pain is extremely addictive. Take it from a not quite reformed junkie. Once upon a time I hated myself. After Jeremy left I decided, once again, to kill myself. But this time I wasn’t going to turn back. I wasn’t going to be the coward I had been all my life. This time, I was going to do it right. I wanted the pain to stop.
And I was addicted to the pain.
They say that a heroin addict will do anything for a fix. I wouldn’t know — fortunately — but I do know what I would do to get my agony fix. I would kill myself. But I would keep the pain. There would be nothing of me left but the pain. I decided to kill my soul and leave my body alive. I don’t even remember whether or not it was done consciously — often I had tried to kill myself spiritually and then come back the next day, feeling shame at still being alive. But I do know that slowly, gradually, after many attempts, I died. I lost interest in everything around me. I stopped reading. I stopped singing. In fact, I abandoned music altogether. Whole weeks would go by without me touching my guitar, and when I did it was without joy or any feeling whatsoever, like holding any old block of wood. I withdrew from my friends and ignored phone calls from my family. I smiled less and rarely laughed. When I looked into the mirror I saw nothing, and I avoided looking into my own eyes or anyone else’s.
Once upon a time, I committed spiritual suicide. It was the spring of 1994 and I was dead. Even Northwest Ohio, called the “Black Swamp” by the people who live there, where the land is flat and where the people are all of the same race, religion and political party, where the major city is Toledo and the major sport is celebrity mud-wrestling — even Northwest Ohio is pretty in the spring. The streams were bubbling, the cornfields were turning green, the trees were fresh with leaves, the birds were singing, the air was soft and sweet and warm and I was dead.
For the first time in my life, spring had come and I didn’t give a damn. I had nowhere to go, no life to care about, nothing to look forward to. I had chosen to make it this way.
On this particular spring day — it was sometime in late May — I was driving home from work when I rolled down my window, more as a reflex than from any real desire to get any fresh air. But nonetheless, I got some, and it tasted wonderful. I realized that I hadn’t tasted anything in a very long time. I realized that I had been dead. I looked up at the sky and suddenly felt my eyes well up with tears. I realized that I wanted to live. And then I remembered music. I remembered spirituality. I remembered magic. I wondered, for the first time in what seemed ages, exactly why I was here on this planet. I tried desperately to remember just what my mission was. What was it that I had chosen for myself? What did I want to do?
I opened the window more and let the breeze caress my face. I cried, not having any idea why I was crying. And then, I did something I hadn’t done since I was a small child. I prayed:
“Creator, if you’re there at all, please show me my path. I want to be alive again. I want to become a spiritual being. I want to be a magical being again. I’d like to explore the meaning of life. Please, I’m sick of pain. And I think I have a job to do. Please let me know what it is. I’m ready to start now.”
I’m ready to start now.
The wind rustled in trees and the sunlight dazzled my eyes. Something inside me seemed to open up. I felt like I had gotten an answer. I decided right then and there to start my journey into my own consciousness, and follow that path wherever it would lead.
When I got home, I dug out my Tarot deck out of impulse. It was the most mystical thing I owned, besides a dog-eared copy of the Tao Te Ching I had left over from college, too covered with high lighter and academic dust to be considered a holy object in my mind. I changed into a pair of jeans and set off for the hangout of my grad school years: a little storefront coffeshop/bookstore, cleverly called Grounds for Thought. Someone had told me once that the best way to learn the cards was to play solitaire with the minor arcana — that’s the cards that roughly correspond to our modern playing cards. It seemed like something to do, in any case, while I waited for whatever it was I now felt certain I was waiting for. I was so empty, I would accept anything. I would follow the first thing that presented itself.
Once upon a time, I had been in love with the ocean. I had also felt like an agent of some force for good on this planet, with some definite mission. I decided they must be connected in some way. After all, we all choose our own realities, and this seemed a good a one as any. I did more things on impulse. Following an intuition that still leaves me cold, I wrote down a date on a piece of paper: August 27, 1994. I didn’t know what it meant. I still don’t know how I chose that date. I usually don’t like to think about it.
A few weeks later, I was playing with my deck at Grounds for Thought. I was still no more familiar with the meaning of cards than I had been and I was getting discouraged. I decided maybe I’d get another cup of coffee, and looked up. A young man with black stringy hair and a pale, intense face was passing by. Our eyes met, and he looked to see what I was doing. He smiled with sudden recognition.
“What deck is that?” he asked politely.
Pretty soon he was sitting beside me and we were chatting away like old friends. His name was Jack, and he talked like someone out of some mystical fairy-tale. He was intelligent, arrogant, charming, eloquent, and totally uninhibited. His gestures and his voice were finely calculated for theatrical effect.
He told me he had been looking for me. Over the course of many late-night conversations at Grounds and over tomato bread at the local pizza joint, we began to form a strange paranormal bond. We were brother and sister, we decided, here on this planet to help it through this dark time. There were many of our family here, and he reeled off names and places that I convinced myself I recognized. I found myself convincing myself that I “remembered” an increasingly fantastic shadow-world where I belonged, where you could change the world with magic. He gave us identities from one of his favorite science-fiction books, claiming that the author had met some of us and had “remembered” us. We had distinct roles and personalities: I would gather people together, call the family and help them remember. He would help us all become ourselves again. Then we would all teach the world how to be whole again, how to love each other again. He encouraged me to start meditating again, and this time it came easily. He taught me the basics of the Tarot, and I absorbed it with frightening ease. He told me this was because I had known it before, that in fact, once upon a time, I had been one of the first people to use a Tarot deck. I felt proud and respected.
Did I completely believe him? I tried to convince myself that I did. Pretty soon, Andrew, a nodding acquaintance of mine, joined us. We did readings at each other, wrote poetry, meditated, and “remembered” more of who we “really” were. Every once in a while, Jack would “remind” me of something else, give me another piece to add to this growing persona. Jack told me that everything the human race had ever believed was true, that the gods and goddesses were all versions of real entities who could be contacted and interacted with. I was fascinated and told them my feelings about the ocean. This was obvious, of course. I was the bride of the sea-god Poseidon, who would join us in our fight for the good of humanity. We would raise Atlantis and defeat our enemies, the armies of ignorance. Half the time I would go home, shaking all over, wondering if it were all true, sure that I was losing my mind. It didn’t feel like I was going crazy. Our delusions fit each other’s delusions too well. After all, three people couldn’t all go crazy at once in the same way, could they? Weren’t we just coming to ourselves, really? I was desperate to believe something, anything. Anything to belong. Sometimes I would tell myself that I wouldn’t keep involving myself with Jack and Andrew, but I felt like I belonged when I was with them — something I hadn’t felt in a long time. And as we drew our circle of belonging, we defined enemies to fight against, enemies, Jack said, who were all around us, attacking us constantly.
We were fighting against the forces of ignorance and hatred, he told me, the people who would keep human beings from attaining their own spiritual path. One phrase kept popping up over and over again, a quote from Alister Crowley, the famous early twentieth-century mystic and writer: “Do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.” The meaning was simple. No matter what, every single person must do what he or she thinks is right. Everyone must take ultimate responsibility for their own actions. Once I asked if our enemies had free will, too, and if they made their own realities, too, then weren’t they right in their own realities? Wasn’t it wrong to count them as enemies? No, I was told. After all, they had turned away from the light, they had thus turned away from their own true will. And since they had thus forfeited their wills, it was up to us to relieve them of their lives.
I was frightened at this. I wasn’t there to kill people, I was there to teach, to learn, to fill the world with light and love and peace. Of course I wasn’t there to kill, Jack reassured me. I was a teacher, not a soldier. It took all types to make up a world — it took all types to make up our new world. We were all there for peace, love and light, he would tell me, but sometimes you have to burn an old building down to put up a new one. I remembered my history classes. Yes, sometimes revolution, even bloody revolutions, had been necessary in order to end injustice and establish lasting reforms. Not to mention, we weren’t going to kill them physically, oh no — we would just attack them on the “astral planes” and let their karma take care of them. We would stand back and let them destroy themselves, and then take over after the cataclysm. We were going to be remembered for centuries, celebrated by historians, our diaries read and re-read by thousands of students after us. After all, hadn’t I always had the sense that I was here on this planet for something important? What else could it be if not this? I wasn’t sure, but by now I had no other social contacts to tell me otherwise. And the feeling of importance, of respect, of belonging finally to someone and something — these feelings kept me believing in Jack when his stories sounded too weird to really believe.
We were given names: our given, or “mundane” names were to be disregarded. We were to disassociate ourselves from whom we had been before, from the human lives we had lived. We were to strive to transcend mere humanity and become more. Jack was now “Sequoia,” and was now claiming that he alone was the keeper of a mysterious “word of the Aeon,” which, when spoken with the proper ceremonies at the proper place, would usher in a new era of peace and magic — and us in charge of the world. Andrew still insisted upon being called by his given name, claiming that he had chosen that name for his parents to give him anyway, but Jack added “Corwin” to it, after one of his favorite books that he claimed we were all in. I was given the name “Alarawanda,” which I was told meant “Songmaker,” in a language older than this planet. Normally, they called me Lara, which I liked. I’d never felt comfortable with my own given name, and this new identity as the Songmaker of a new Aeon flattered me. Besides, I had never had friends who had given me a nickname before.
People would join the group and then leave within a week, scared by the oddness of our belief system and disgusted by Sequoia’s rudeness. He would often yell at people for no apparent reason, other than he felt they were giving off “negativity.” I ate it up. At least someone was paying attention to me, telling me I was special. But still my doubts bothered me. Sequoia told me it was my negativity and attacks from the enemy.
As I began to study more, life got better: I found a new apartment, with a roommate who worked the night shift, so we would rarely see each other. I was promoted at work to the activities department, where I felt I was doing something decent with my life. Here I was actually helping people instead of just slinging food on a tray. I started to pick up my guitar again, and learned all the old, beautiful songs of the forties and thirties. These came easily to me, I claimed, because, after all, I had been alive back then and still remembered them. In my past life, I told the group, I had lived in London in World War II, had been a man, and had been murdered in a bathtub. Sequoia ran with it. “You must have been an evil man,” he told me, “you are a fundamentally male spirit. You’re in a female body this lifetime so you can see exactly what it feels like to be a woman.” We decided that in my past life I had been a wife-beater and had sexually abused my daughters — hence my feelings of guilt and self-loathing in this lifetime. But not to fear, soon we would find my soulmate, soon I would be married to the incarnation of the god Posideon. Soon we would be taking off in unimagined directions, with no limits in sight. Soon the new world of peace and love and magic that we imagined would be a reality. I decided Sequoia must be right: after all, he’d been right about so much else.
One of the people who had joined us for a week tried to talk to me. “Jack is crazy,” he said. “You’ve got to see this — you can’t possibly believe any of this is true, can you?”
Well, I knew that I wanted to belong so badly at this point that I would believe almost anything. Still, my doubts nagged at me.
I knew that I had to decide between two worlds before I could go any further: I had to choose between the safe, mundane world where I was Sara Miller, who worked at a nursing home in Northwest Ohio, who didn’t have too many friends, whose life was dull and painful, or the strange, mystical world where I was Alarawanda the Songmaker, a warrior and magician, betrothed to a god, powerful, revered and loved. In one world, there was monotony and reality, a humdrum existence with no direction, where I had failed at so much, where I had never lived up to even my own expectations of myself. In the other world, there was excitement, magic, love, community and belonging, where I could do anything I tried. I realized that I had already chosen — after all, hadn’t I deliberately failed in the mundane world? Hadn’t I decided to cut myself off from love, support or success?
Alarawanda the Songmaker seemed a lot more interesting than Sara Miller.
On a hot summer morning, I pulled on my clothes and began to leave my apartment. Almost on impulse, I went over to my bulletin board. There was a small piece of paper down on the corner, a piece of paper with a single date on it, in my handwriting. I had forgotten. August 27, 1994. It was August 26th. My stomach turned. Something would happen tomorrow. Or maybe not. I went to Grounds for thought, armed with my tarot deck and the piece of paper. I decided to make a test. If Sequoia showed up, I would forget my doubts and follow him and his path. If the friend who had warned me against Sequoia showed up, I would leave this path behind and become Sara again.
I waited. While I was waiting, I flirted with a handsome young man at the next table. He flirted back, and we fell into a wonderful conversation that had nothing to do with dark forces or strange gods or things that I’d done on the astral planes that I shouldn’t have done. I was enjoying myself and thought that maybe it wasn’t so bad being Sara Miller after all.
Sequoia walked in. My heart did a double-flip. He was wearing his serious face. He was flanked by Andrew on one side, and a punkish looking boy on the other. They came straight to my table.
“We’ve got to talk business,” Sequoia said. “This man here is only in town for a few days and we have to take care of some things.”
The cute young man mumbled a hasty excuse and left. I often wonder what became of him.
The boy with the punk outfit eyed me strangely. He smiled. I smiled back. “Lara, this is Robin.”
Three hours later, at midnight of August 27, 1994, we stood at a makeshift altar as Sequoia bound our hands together with a piece of cloth and instructed us in what to say. I didn’t even know this boy, and yet I felt something when I looked into his eyes. I convinced myself that I had fallen in love. Sequoia swept us through the ceremony with his usual dramatic flair, correcting us harshly when he thought we had said the wrong things (and yet it was part of the game that he refused to tell us what the “correct” words were — we were to intuit these ourselves — and any deviation from what was “supposed” to be said promptly corrected). Tonight, Sequoia was in top form and did most of the talking.
After Sequoia decided we’d done enough, we left the altar, Robin and me holding hands. I turned to him nervously and kissed him — our first kiss. He hugged me close.
“My husband,” I whispered.
“My wife,” he whispered back.
That was it, I thought. No turning back now.
Robin didn’t even know that he was supposed to be the incarnation of Posideon. “What do you mean?” he said at first. “I’ve always hated water.” He knew himself as Nightmare Moonbringer. But Sequoia was pretty convincing. Soon Nightmare Moonbringer was Nightmare Posideon Moonbringer, the proud ruler of Atlantis. Sequoia had managed by now to convince me that I was sister to Jesus Christ, daughter of Jaweh and Shekinah (“The scripture says Jesus was Jaweh’s only son,” Sequoia told me once. “They never said anything about a daughter — typical male oppressors.”) After all, when you’ve made a failure of your mundane life, someone telling you that you’re really a god or a goddess in disguise is a pretty seductive thing. So the constantly shifting theologies were sometimes muddled and even contradictory: I tried to keep them straight, but yesterday’s dogma became tomorrow’s heresy and soon I learned just to go along with whatever Sequoia said. It was easier.
I’d told Sequoia once that I’d always been convinced I would die before my thirtieth birthday. Sequoia told me that that wouldn’t happen anymore, that he had done something that would save my life, that he had changed that reality for me. As long as I stayed with the group, I would not die. He had given me life, he had given me a purpose, and now he’d given me a soulmate, a husband. No matter that I didn’t know him. We were meant for each other, and that was that.
Nightmare had his own ideas about what he wanted from life. He hated everything “yuppie,” and would frequently tell me that I was too old-fashioned, that I listened to the wrong music, wore the wrong clothes, and didn’t act the way I should. I was too light, too giggly, too sunshiny. I grudgingly allowed him control of the car radio (“We always have to listen to your music,” he would frequently say). I tried to dress more punk, but Robin told me I didn’t look right (“You’ve chosen the wrong body. You’re supposed to be tall, blonde and beautiful”). I developed a rough, tough persona and a hardened demeanor. (“You’re supposed to be harder. I need a strong wife. You’re too bubbly and white. You sicken me”). When he told me that he liked pain and bondage, I submitted to scratching and rough treatment instead of tender caresses (“You’re too vanilla, you’re just a plain fuddy-duddy”).
The theology of the group got noticeably darker as Sequoia and Nightmare went into a spiral of macho one-upsmanship. Who was older, who had had more and gorier lifetimes, who had gone through more pain. I tried to throw some levity in, telling them the point was to be happy and make the world happier. This was immediately punished. Sequoia declared that I was just a young soul and didn’t know what I was talking about. Nightmare told me that all existence is pain, and you had to burn the world down. Sometimes Sequoia would shout at me in long, nonsensical syllables that were supposed to be curses in his “native” language — a language supposedly older than the physical universe. By this point, I really didn’t care whether or not I believed him. I was in it for better or worse.
When Nightmare married me, he left his girlfriend of nine months, a young dark-eyed girl named Lisa. Sequoia promptly told her that she was to be his mistress. She had even less self-esteem than I did, and soon she rejoiced in making emotional scenes while he tore her apart in front of us, insulting her, using her as an example of bad behavior. She would throw what Sequoia termed “ego-fits,” which was his code for any behavior he didn’t like. Any time I said anything either Nightmare or Sequoia didn’t like, they would tell me that my ego (that is, my sense of self) was acting up and that I had to be punished. Ego was the inherent evil, our group’s version of original sin. Desire, emotional need, anger, any sense of self or selfishness, any sense of wanting or needing anything — this was all strictly forbidden and punished severely.
Lisa, as Sequoia’s consort, had the worst of it. Sequoia would play with her emotions mercilessly, first drawing her closer with kind words and promises and then pushing her away, telling her she was not worthy of him. She relished the bad treatment and thrived on drama, just like me. She and I both played the martyr to the hilt, each allowing our men to treat us brutally. But she played for higher stakes than I: she was already into pain and bondage. It was no secret that Sequoia enjoyed physically hurting her to the point of leaving bruises for his sexual pleasure. They were quite literally into whips and chains and handcuffs. Soon Lisa couldn’t take the abuse any more. Their fighting became more fierce and he used her more and more as an example of evil to warn us. She left our group, and Andrew left with her: he didn’t like being second banana any more.
We cast endless spells of destruction on Lisa and Andrew. They became traitors of the worst order overnight. Lisa flunked out of college, and left for home. The last time we heard of her, she was addicted to heroin and pregnant by some guy she met who was now in jail. Sequoia told us that drugs like heroin and cocaine not only kill the body but the soul (I tend to agree with this viewpoint), and he claimed to be responsible for her downfall — after all, he had cast a spell on her forcing her to become a drug addict — using her own karma against her, he said. We all let this be a warning to us. This was what would happen if we turned away from our true wills. Sequoia, of course, knew exactly what our true wills were, much better than we could. I heard a rumor that she had died of an overdose. She deserved a better end.
Soon Nightmare outranked me, and began advising me as Sequoia’s second in command. When I rebelled against this, the hitting started. I went to Sequoia, telling him I was afraid in my own home, that my husband had hit me in anger.
“Fear is failure,” Sequoia snapped. “In any case, if you were in better control of your emotions, this wouldn’t happen. It’s not his fault that he can’t defend himself against your abuse save with his fists.”
There was a young female prospective member with us at the time when he said this. She soon left the group in disgust. Sequoia blamed me for being a bad influence on her, even though I had always defended his actions to her.
Sex with Nightmare had always been rather rough, with little tenderness. Soon he shied away from any affection to me whatsoever. He claimed to be too tired to do anything, he claimed that the moon was in the wrong phase, that Hermes was in retrograde (without ever really knowing what this meant — I found that he was very good at parroting Sequoia’s terminology, but he was not intelligent enough to grasp even the most rudimentary concepts): a million excuses arose for his rough behavior and words. When I tried to tell him any insight I might have, he would make sure that he added some correction, some twist to it, so that I could not claim to have so much as an idea of my own. And I willingly followed. I allowed him to slowly sap my will from me. Soon I stopped talking about my own insights, and about anything spiritual in general — any remark of mine slightly off the theology du jour was sure to precipitate a yelling match that would end in disciplinary action for me, and sometimes a dramatic shift in the theology: one time a chance comment of mine, and the ensuing argument with Nightmare, resulted in the “execution” of my Guardian Angel — that is, my higher self — for “incompetence.” I became silent out of fear, and now Nightmare would yell at me, “You never talk magic business with me any more. You’re not doing your job.”
By now we had three other permanent members of our group: Tom, who claimed to be an ancient Samurai warrior named Hoshi, Mike, who claimed to be Pain incarnate, and Herman, who claimed to be the god Hermes. Hoshi was a quiet, intellectual sort, sensitive and caring toward me, and we quickly became close friends. Nightmare claimed not to have anything so base as human jealousy, but his abuse would get worse just after one of Hoshi’s visits. I found that of all the temple, I could trust and even like Hoshi, but yet he advised me to stay with my husband when sometimes I came to him crying after Nightmare would hit me. However, how can I fault him for not giving advice that I would not give myself? Mike, a small, roly-poly boy who never bathed and rarely changed clothes, reveled in filth and humiliation. Soon he was staying over at my apartment, sleeping on my couch day and night. One time we all watched and cheered as Sequoia kicked Mike like a dog — repeatedly, with combat boots on, for saying one “wrong” word during a ritual. We all hit, cuffed and mistreated Mike, and he licked it up like a dog, much in the same way I savored my humiliation and abuse. Herman, or Hermes, was tall and lank and enjoyed using the politics of the group to set us all against each other. He soon became the informer of the group — the slightest word would be twisted around and reported to Sequoia as possible treason. Because I usually did nothing to attack the others, let alone defend myself, I was the easiest target. I was not his only target, however. One time, after some argument with my husband, Hermes told Sequoia that he had received a message from the future (which was fixed or totally fluid, depending on Sequoia’s whim and convenience). Nightmare, it seems, had raped someone in a future lifetime, thus generating enough interference and bad karma to jeopardize his mission in that lifetime, and possibly even our mission in this lifetime. In a master stroke of manipulation by fear, Sequoia kept my husband in a suspense for over a week, telling him that he might be “erased.”
“I will survive this,” Nightmare said, meaning that his next incarnation (the one accused of rape) would atone for this sin.
Sequoia shook his head and smiled his meanest smile, the one that showed a lot of teeth. “You might,” he corrected smugly.
I was the only one of the group that thought it was unfair that my husband was assumed guilty and such a complicated story of betrayal had been woven from the whim of just one person. But even Nightmare would not listen to me and accepted his punishments gladly. The abuse got markedly worse during this period as Nightmare grew more and more tense. I still bear the physical scars from where he scratched me for even daring to tell him that Sequoia might not be infallible.
By this time, I was sure that I didn’t believe half of the theologies pushed at me. But I knew I was trapped. I had four — and sometimes five or six — men living in my apartment, eating my food, and making me do all the housework. It was a punishable offence to complain, and sometimes just looking at them in the wrong way could bring down punishment. I revelled in the abuse, made myself a martyr to my pain. Sometimes the punishment was physical, but mostly it was spiritual: I would be constantly “demoted,” and made to do endless rituals of atonement, told that I was low and rotten and worthless, that my actions were taking energy away from the mission. I burrowed further into myself — I couldn’t see any way out: I didn’t want any way out. I considered suicide. Twice Hermes caught me trying to slit my wrists and convinced me, gently, to “come back to the group.” He had a knack for knowing just when I was feeling low enough to die. Perhaps, though, I was never quite desperate enough to do it: I always allowed myself to be found, even though it invariably meant another beating from my husband and a lecture from Sequoia ( I don’t know which hurt me worse: my husband’s blows or Sequoia’s words).
The group spiraled quickly downwards. Less and less was said about any concrete goals of the group, and more said about enemies and how to fight them. War was declared, and I didn’t really ever find out against whom, nor did I care by this point. The theology was confusing to the point of overwhelming as more and more roles and fantasies were layered atop one another, constantly shifting. We were given more assignments: I was supposed to look up grants to start a University based on the group’s beliefs. My husband was working on something that involved a lot of charts and graphs with strange figures on it, which required him to stay up well into the middle of the night and sleep well into the day. When I tried to wake him up anytime before one in the afternoon, he would yell at me that he was “working” on the dream plane, and roll back to sleep.
The bills were not getting paid enough to keep the phone on, and now I suffered from constant sinusitis, which I wasn’t allowed to take any medicine for until it developed into bronchitis. More than once I called off sick from work because Nightmare had hit me and I couldn’t take going in. I started acting irrationally at work and was in danger of losing my job.
One time, after I had paid enough to get the phone turned on again, my mother called me. We had been estranged for over a year now, but she had to call: my grandfather had passed away. I went to New Jersey for the funeral and remained aloof from my family. I never even cried, because Sequoia had convinced me that my family were all “constructs,” that is, they really didn’t exist. My feelings for them were viewed as an obstacle to my spiritual development.
My mother knew something was dreadfully wrong. She offered to make me a home back in Vermont, to buy me a condominium and set me up in a good start at life. I replied with silence at first, but then the worst happened: my nursing home lost its license to train its own nurses aides. This meant severe cutbacks in the other departments. Half of the activities staff would have to go, and my own job would be reduced to twenty hours a week. I knew I couldn’t support myself on that, let alone the three members of the group that I now supported: Mike, who slept on my couch and eyed me lewdly, Hermes, who slept in the spare bedroom and told everyone what a bitch I was, and my husband, who now beat me more often than he made love to me. None of them did anything to support themselves, nor did they contribute to the housework, often making me pick up after them as a “spiritual exercise.” Every once in a while, Mike would be made to do the dishes as a spiritual exercise, but he did them so sloppily, often leaving clumps of food in the pans, I found it better to do them myself. By now I was living in Hell. I made a decision.
I told Sequoia that I wanted to start the college of magic (supposedly the educational branch of our organization) back East. A long time ago, we had agreed that we would end up in Boston. Burlington, I told them, was not that far away (I used their poor knowledge of New England geography for my own uses: I believe I told Sequoia that Boston was only a two-hour drive from Burlington. Well, it is – to some Massachusetts drivers). I told him that the universe had “opened a gate” for us to start the college back in Vermont and then move it to Boston. I told them about my mother’s offer. Hermes immediately didn’t like it — he said it was an “enticement” from the enemy and I would be away from the group. But I had to get home. I knew, deep down, that my survival depended on it. I could have just walked away from the group at any time, but I let my fears rule me. After all, what if they were right? What if all of this tangled web of twisted theology was real? Wouldn’t it be best to ride it out and see what happened? So I decided to make the best of it. I did my best fawning to Sequoia, and used my best twisted logic to convince him to let me go: I knew I had to get home. One way or the other, things would be better back in Vermont. I did endless tarot readings for Sequoia on the subject, slyly putting in my own interpretation. I discovered I still knew enough of the language of the group to sway his decision.
He decided to let me go, but on one condition: I was demoted back to a neophyte, and my husband was to be my teacher and spiritual guide.
“But won’t that be a problem?” I asked, and mentioned my husband’s unfortunate tendency to hit me whenever I disagreed with him.
Sequoia fixed me with a stern look. “Only if you make it a problem,” he replied.
I decided that would have to be good enough. Perhaps out of Sequoia’s direct influence, Nightmare would treat me better. I called my mother.
“Mom,” I said, “I want to come home.”
Within a month, she had a place picked out and everything arranged for me. The plan was simple: I would go to Vermont, find a job, and send for Nightmare. My mother wouldn’t let us both come out at once: she felt that I should have a job first before Robin. It was going to be hard, I realized, to call him by that name. I hadn’t heard my mundane name used in a long time. We also had to pretend not to be married.
The three weeks it took me to find a job were hard. Nightmare had to stay with Sequoia, and the two of them regularly found some offense that I had committed that warranted punishment. At one point, I was told that I had to accept the responsibility for the fact that some girl I barely met had had two years of bad luck: Sequoia was convinced that I had told her not to join the group. I had, in fact, told her that we needed her to join the group. This was not enough. Sequoia then told me that I shouldn’t have been there that night and that my presence had “ruined” everything, forcing her away from him and thus creating her bad luck for the next two years. It was all my fault and I had to accept the responsibility for it.
I gave in. It seemed easiest. There were long shrieking arguments on the phone as Nightmare made sure that I knew I wasn’t finding a job fast enough. He felt that I should be able to “manifest” one — even though he himself had never managed to keep a job for more than a short time while he lived with me. As it happens, I found a very good job, in a record three weeks. Nightmare started out for Vermont the next day.
Now I lived a double life. To my family and my co-workers, I was Sara Miller, slightly eccentric but cheerful, bright, and happy, living with my boyfriend Robin. After hours, I was a student of a strict and brutal teacher and husband. I didn’t have any friends, and Nightmare made sure that I stayed underneath his thumb. We only went out where he wanted to go, we did what he wanted to do. He started to sleep most of the time, claiming to be “working” on some project on the dream-plane. He found a part-time job as a dishwasher, just enough to pay his part of the rent — barely. Many times I would take extra money away from my paycheck so that he could pay my mother or, more often, buy him expensive meals or some book or trinket he wanted. There was always something.
My studies, such as they were, involved sleep deprivation and Nightmare yelling at me whenever the whim moved him. He, unlike Sequoia, was not intelligent enough to grasp many of the rudiments of our beliefs. He simply would shout some phrase over and over, often without really knowing the meaning of what he was saying. Out of the rest of the group, he became more, not less, brutal, and threatened to leave me almost every other day. I clung to him pitifully: I thought that maybe if I did better, the abuse would stop. After all, I told him now, he was my spiritual guide. Even if he did abuse me, I would be in worse trouble if he left.
Soon we heard that Mike and Hermes had defected. Left without a meal ticket, they’d moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, and formed a splinter group of two. The other members just trailed away. The group was falling apart fast, and now there were only four members left: Sequoia, my husband, myself, and Hoshi, who although remained loyal to Sequoia, was now basically out of touch with the rest of us. Sequoia’s directives became frantic. Where was this college I was supposed to set up? Where were the loyal followers I was supposed to be bringing to him?
My husband hit me at least every other day now. I started keeping a calendar, with an “X” marked on days that he’d hit me. He found it, tore it up, and threw me down the stairs. This time I yelled for help. I screamed with rage. I was officially fed up.
“You’re beating me,” I shrieked at him. “You beat me and yell at me and I don’t deserve this!”
“Shut up,” he yelled back. “The neighbors can hear you.”
“I don’t care who hears me!” I yelled. “I don’t want you beating me anymore!”
A neighbor heard and called the police. I was never more scared in my life. Mumbling piteously, I told them that I was in the wrong, that I had hit him first, that it had never happened before.
They didn’t believe me, but there was nothing they could do. They left me alone with my husband. My rage was gone and I knelt at his feet, begging for forgiveness. I begged him not to leave me, I told him I would try harder.
He decided to stay and forgave me.
A few days later, my mother called me. She’d called the condo association for something and the woman in the office told her about the police coming around on a domestic violence call.
“He’s going,” she told me simply. Within an hour, she came over and packed him out of there.
For all of this, I remained loyal to him. I took hundreds of dollars out of my account in twenties and thirties to feed him and pay his rent in a long string of low apartments. I would run off to be with him, where I would find him sleeping on the floor of one apartment after another. He couldn’t keep a job and he kept on getting thrown out of each living situation. His roommates told me he was lying and stealing and sullen. He told me that it was my negative influence keeping him down, that it was all my fault for making him live like this. One time I went downtown to meet him in City Hall Park. He yelled at me for being there. Out of frustration, I flung the soda he was drinking into his face. He slapped me to the ground and kicked me in the shins.
Three rather burly college boys saw him hitting me and tried to intervene. I took the soda bottle and broke it on a railing and threatened them with it. No one was going to hurt my husband, who stood there with a triumphant smile. They left in disgust. I turned to apologize, but Nightmare told me I was wrong to have interfered in “his battle.” He told me he could have taken all three of them on. He sent me home without a kind word, telling me he would decide what to do with me. He called a day later, apologetic and tender. I gratefully went to see him.
By now my mother was getting suspicious. She knew I was still seeing him and noticed how my finances didn’t quite add up. One lie after another fell flat until I finally had to admit that yes, I was still giving him the money. Soon enough of the story came out for my mother to realize what was really going on. She forced me to decide: my home or Robin. One or the other. Security with my family or a life of abuse with my husband.
It was October eleventh, nineteen ninety six. I told Robin that I could not see him again. He told me that I should pay his way back to Ohio. I brought him out here, he told me angrily, the least I could do was get him back there. I refused.
I decided to let him down easily, to avoid any chance of retribution. I lied and told him that I was still loyal to the group, but the Spirits had dictated that I go on “hermitage.” I was not to be contacted, or there would be dire karmic results. He agreed. He called me twice and I ended the conversations quickly. Soon I heard nothing from him.
Winter came. My mother and I slowly rediscovered a relationship. Bit by bit, I told her my story. She told me she loved me no matter what, that I was still her daughter. She helped me reassemble the pieces of my life and encouraged me to get out and meet new people. I started to go to the UU services. Here I felt like I could belong without too many demands on me. I could give without being tread upon. It felt good.
I hadn’t gone too many times before I met some people I thought I could like. Then, during one coffee hour, I turned around to see a man walking just past me. He looked friendly and so I struck up a conversation. He turned out to be a musician like myself and we made a date to play together. Soon we became close friends.
It is now the spring of 1997 and I am coming into the best part of my life. Slowly, I am learning to like myself, to respect myself, even to love myself. I have found I can be happy if I choose to be happy. It’s a slow process but I have time. I will heal because I have decided to heal. I have decided to live. I deserve all that life has to offer; this is the one right that we as humans must grant to ourselves — if we do not respect ourselves, who will?
As I write this, the sun is rising. It’s about 5:30 on Sunday morning, and soon I will get up from the computer, get maybe a few hours’ sleep, and then get up and go to the UU. The man I met will be there; we’re planning to go out together after church. We have been dating for about three months and I am still amazed at how he treats me. He is gentle and kind, and above all, respectful. I think we are falling in love, but we have all the time in the world and I am still healing.
Once upon a time, I was dead. Now I am alive. Once upon a time, I put myself at the mercy of a cruel husband and a sadistic madman. Now I am surrounded by love and part of a society founded on respect and diversity.
I still wake up in the middle of the night with bad dreams. Sometimes I still find I must just sit down and cry. When the Heaven’s Gate cult in California committed mass suicide a few weeks ago, I had a hard time keeping my emotions under control. But I am getting better. I now know that I must speak out, that I must let people know that my situation was not unique. So many people feel lost and alone, so lost that they will follow anyone, do anything to belong. As the century approaches, many more people will turn to spiritual leaders to find answers. Some of these people will be even more lost and lonely than I was. What kind of leaders will they choose? What kind of path will they follow? I would like to make sure that at least some of them know that they do not have to destroy themselves, that they do not have to submit to another’s will, in order to find spiritual peace. That path leads only to injury, and possibly even death. I was one of the lucky ones. I survived. Others were not so fortunate.
I realize now that I have been given unique gift: the gift of spiritual death. They say that only cowards die before their deaths. I disagree. Death is not for cowards. When you die, you change, you transform into something completely new, like the Phoenix born from the ashes of its own funeral pyre. I killed myself, was reborn, killed myself again, was reborn again, and again, over and over, until I finally died. Then I woke up — and I realized that I’ve been alive all along.
Another note: about a year or so after I wrote this, I heard from Lisa, who had not been pregnant, or died of any overdose; this was all a lie Jack created to scare us. She was back at a different college and doing well, but did not agree that we had been in a cult: “Jack’s not a cult leader, he’s a circus act,” she laughed. We agreed to disagree and chatted pleasantly before saying goodbye. Wherever she is, I’m sure she’s doing well.
I leave you a bit of art of the same vintage: