Friday, July 31, 2009

Senseless Tragedy

So my profile says that I'm a cult survivor, and that's true. My grandmother started a Word of Faith faith healing cult in the late 1970s. I was born (at home, with her as "spiritual midwife") in 1983, and grew up with her as our live-in childcare. I'm writing a book about all this and posting excerpts here. I've changed names in this posting, but real ones will appear in the final product. [EDIT: Names have now been restored. Whatever fear I still had, whatever concerns about staying anonymous, are gone by now, Jan. 2010.]

This excerpt begins with me watching 30 children for 3 days while their parents attend my grandmother's faith healing lecture, held in the clubhouse of a south Florida trailer park. This all happened in the fall of my Freshman year of high school.

Harrison Johnson was two years old, blond, quiet and sweet. He was one of the kids still in diapers, but he was the only one in cloth ones. I thought they were gross, messy, and more work; I was worried about sticking him with one of the pins.

Now that I have a young child, I know what a huge stress that weekend must have been for Harrison. He had never been left with anyone other than this grandmother before, and hadn't even gone to Sunday School with other children. He spent with 3 days in a strange mobile home, with 30 strange children, cared for by a strange teenager with purple hair who didn't understand his diapers. He did remarkably little crying for that combination.

Somehow I wasn't involved when the terms of my pay were discussed. Gig just told her followers to pay me whatever they felt was right, and these were not the kind of people who would fight over the honor of paying the check at IHOP. Left to the generosity of her followers, over the course of three days, for watching 32 children, I received a grand total of $40, or about $1.35 per kid (or an hourly per child rate of just 15¢).

Three months later Harrison's parents, Kelly and Wylie, brought him back to the trailer park, for a visit with my grandmother, and her ministry employees Van and Nicole. I wasn't there that day. I read about it the next day though, on the front page of four different newspapers. My grandmother was inside with Kelly and Nicole while Harrison, his dad, and Van were all talking outside, at the edge of the green belt - a swath of protected Florida woods running between the outer edge of the trailer park and a nearby water treatment facility. Somehow, Harrison fell onto a yellow jacket's nest in the ground. They swarmed and stung him, over 400 times.

The men took him inside Van and Nicole's red double-wide trailer, and my grandmother instructed them to give him a bath and make him comfortable. Gig later reported to police that Harrison seemed "fine", that he was watching television, and that he only asked for a glass of milk. Seven hours after Harrison Johnson was stung 432 times his parents called 9-1-1. Seven hours. Harrison wasn't allergic to stings, but the sheer volume of poison in his small body overpowered him, and his heart stopped. His parents, my grandmother, and her employees waited for over forty minutes between the time when Harrison stopped breathing, and when they called for help.

Even then, I still believed that my grandmother was good, and that she was right about medicine most of the time. A little boy I had known, a toddler with the kind of face that makes the news if he gets hurt, died a slow, painful death, in my grandmother's presence. And he didn't have to. It saddened me, and it worried me, but I wasn't ready to rewrite my programming just yet.

My son got stung by a yellow jacket recently. We were on a walk around our neighborhood and he stuck his hand into a hole in a light post. He drew it back out quickly, screaming. I carried him - running - a quarter mile home. As I did so, I called a med-student friend and left a frantic voicemail asking for help. Then I called my mother and asked her to look up yellow jacket stings online, and tell me how to treat my son's hand. The whole time he was crying in my ear, and I was panicked and running home. I got him home, cleaned his hand, removed the stinger, and put Benadryl cream and a bandaid on it. The total time between my son being stung by one yellow jacket and having that bandaid on him was less than 15 minutes.

Yet I am descended from, was raised by, and was brainwashed to follow, a woman who would sit for seven hours and watch a toddler die. Gig's own fourth daughter, my mythic aunt Natalie, died at six weeks old of a congenital heart defect. I can't help but wonder sometimes, when I think about the children she knew were dying because of her teachings, if she wanted other parents to suffer as much as she had.


  1. This is hard to read because of my natural impulse to protect the weak. I can't wait for the book.

  2. I'd swear I remember reading about that when it happened. (We get a couple of Florida papers here.) When your book comes out I'll definitely grab a few copies for myself and friends/family.

    Sorry your son had an encounter with one of the stingy things that live down here. It sounds more like a honeybee than a yellowjacket though. They're about the only thing that leaves the stinger in the wound. It's usually best to remove the stinger asap because they continue to pump venom even when the bee is dead. Best thing I ever found for bee stings was benadryl to keep the swelling/itching down. Meat tenderizer is supposed to work too, I'm less confident about that one. Never managed to have any handy when I got stung. ;)

  3. Angie,
    Horrfying. Is the reason there was no sense of urgency because they were unaware of the danger, or entirely because they "put their faith in prayer"?

    Was it lack of knowledge, or misplaced trust in their religion that allowed that little boy to die?

    And were there no legal reprocussions / investigation by the authorities, no findings of neglect or anything?

    Yeah..put me down for a copy too.


  4. Larry Carter Center posting:
    Insurance companies kill.
    Faith kills. Ignorance kills.
    I too know of innocents who did not have to die. The word "cult" is not strong enough, is not explicit enough to describe the evil loyalties religion brainwashes into the stupid brains of believers.
    Blind devotion to a central leader living or having allegedly lived in a book or story.
    Blind loyalties which harm normal relationships between people.
    Luckily I never suffered a direct cult relationship other than observing cultists for a few moments or hours free to leave them.
    I can only state here that my averse reaction as a child to religion was the correct reaction.
    Whether feeling lied to about "Santa Claus" or feeling shocked taught the prayer "now I lay me down to sleep... if I should die before I wake....," I remember the revulsion I felt that adults, even my mom & dad, big people would lie to a child just to get me or any other child to "believe" or feel grateful for "presents."
    It is all evil.
    Evil is not some word that is some scary round the campfire spooky bump in the night word. Live spelled backwards.
    Evil is the opposite of live.
    Just as die is the opposite of live.
    I am so sorry Angie, that as a young hs girl, you had to learn that a sweet toddling boy was killed by the scourge of faith.
    And I am so proud of you to come fully out of the closet of freethought into the full light of day in Atheism.
    There is no greater good nor strength of character nor depth of compassion greater than the Atheist's "gospel."
    There is no hell to fear, no heaven bribe to be deluded with as Atheists demand proof and ethical ways of living.
    The little boy shall not have died in vain if future little boys are not circumcised, are not bee stung and are not ever again subjected to insane delusional religions without the full compassionate reaching out by Atheists for freedom from religions evils.
    Say that under the flag, not pray to the piece of cloth.
    Theocracy IS Treason, as religion betrays life.
    Peace, Larry Carter Center 843-926-1750

  5. I heard after my son's sting from a few people that rubbing tobacco (like from a cigarette) onto a sting will release the poison, but I'll have to wait for the next sting to test that one out. Yellow Jackets do leave their stingers in, which ultimately had a lot to do with "Alexander's" death. 432 stingers in a 25 lbs. kid.

    It's not like I blame his parents at ALL for him getting stung. I live here, and I know what the insect population of Florida is like! Even waiting a couple hours (I was in the cult, so I do remember the mindset) I could understand. It's the waiting half an hour after he stopped breathing that kills me. And of course, it's very odd to actually know people who have prayed their kids to death.

  6. @Hump. They parents were arrested and brought to trial, but the judge informed the jury that they were only supposed to convict them if they felt the parents *intended* for him to die. So they got off. My grandma got some bad press for this, and for other deaths I'll be posting up here soon.

    @Larry. You're assuming the central leader was Jesus, but it was really my Giggy.

  7. I read about this when I wrote a report on faith healing / child abuse in university. And I remember that this family got off because these actions were entirely legal in Florida and forty-five other states. Didn't this family also neglect to report the death of another child in the sect?

  8. Yes Irena, you're thinking of the right family. And they did get off on criminal charges, although it did go to trial. This is just one story; there are dozens that I know of, and probably more that I don't.

    1-5 children dies a month in the US alone due to religious medical neglect.

  9. Angie,
    I remember this story, and I was sad for the poor kid who suffered at the hands of those who were responsible for his welfare.
    Call it a fine line, a slippery slope, whatever you want, but it's really just plain ignorance makes folks do this... blind faith is ignorance.

    (for a normal bee sting, after removing the stinger use baking soda on the wound. It draws out the poison and stops the itch.)

  10. It is a difficult thing to shake off, but you have, and you should be proud. It is sad that these things happen, and bittersweet when someone breaks free.

  11. @Secular FL - Thanks. The internet played a huge role in it. Actually, it was doing a Google search on my grandma's name that did started me down the path to atheism; that was March 2008.

    @Kitty - I don't even know if his parents tried something as simple and non-medical as that. Sometimes people got very weird about not intervening at all physically, and only having faith in prayer. I remember seeing a newborn that wasn't breathing, and his parents felt like God didn't want them to do CPR. I'll post that story another time.

  12. Angie, I am so sorry for what you went through in this cult. I'm glad you survived it.

  13. What a horrible story. How did they get off from criminal charges? What was their argument? Was anyone ever put away?

    And did I read you correctly---did you really become an atheist only in the last 16 months?? Is your grandmother still around?

  14. @Daniel - The judge set things up in the parents' favor by telling jurists to only vote guilty if they believed the parents *intended* for their boy to die.

    And yes, I'm a very new atheist :) My 3yo kid was actually baptized, but he hasn't been in a church for over two years now.

    My grandmother is in a care home, with Alzheimer's. Occasionally I call her up and tell her that I'm an atheist, that she sucks, etc. and five minutes later she forgets. I cannot get my emotional issues "worked out" by talking with her, so I have this blog and the future book.

  15. @Heidi - Thanks. Now if we can just get the other 6 billion people on board...

  16. So blatantly homicidal negligence is no longer criminal? you have to deliberately intend to kill? That's enraging!

    Were you in the cult to the end or were you in a more mainstream kind of Christianity in recent years? Was that a previous switch over?

    I'm glad you made it out---if you ever need philosophical help, be in touch.

  17. @Daniel. Well, we went to other churches the whole time. My grandmother had followers all across the country, and many in Australia as well (weird, I know). So people would attend church or have "home church" in their own areas, but follow her teachings for their lives. She didn't actually want to micromanage people; she just wanted to give dictates from on high and have them obeyed. She got what she wanted.

    I attended a very charismatic as a child, Vineyard as a teen, and in the end I was Episcopalian lol. I was slowly letting go of the various layers of attachment to my childhood indoctrination - first the "manifestations of the Holy Spirit", then the emotional sense of release I got during the musical worship service at Vineyard (really, the music was beautiful poetry, and my aunt who led our worship band has one of the most beautiful, clear voices I've ever heard. Very soulful and moving. Finally, I let go of tradition by going to the Episcopal church. I was married there, and had my son baptized there (doh!) In the end it was the priest of that church who said, "Have you considered a divorce?" That gave me my 'blessing' to leave the whole thing. I left my husband for good (I'd already moved in with my mom) and I started sleeping in on Sundays and just concentrating on being a mom. When my kid turned 2 I went back to college for a year. I studied Islam at uni, and learned about US launched cults from the 1800s. Long story short, I googled my grandma's name and every result had "cult" somewhere in it. Three months later I was on giving my deconversion story and declaring myself an atheist. That was last May.

  18. okay, I see. So I take it you were very much going with the flow without rabidly participating religiously?

  19. I had a full blood allergy analysis done for my son when he was an infant, for both food and environmental allergies, so I already knew that he wasn't allergic.

    Angie - I'm a doctor with wide experience of anaphylactic shock. There is no blood test that guarantees your child is safe from allergy. Usually - and particularly in the case if stings, you need a first exposure to make your immune system aware of the toxin. Prior to that you won't react at all, and no blood test will show anything at all. Classically anaphylaxis occurs on the second, third or later exposure. Worsening allergic reactions (urticaria, dizziness, facial swelling) with each exposure are a warning that anaphylaxis is likely to occur next time, however you can go from first exposure to full-blown anaphylaxis on the second.

    Multiple stings at the same time are a separate issue; this is where the volume of toxin is simply to gtreat to survivbe without treatment. You don't need a prior exposure for this.

    Please don't ignore allergic symptoms in the future in the belief that your child cannot have anaphylaxis. Unfortunately, it sounds as though you have been scammed over that test (I would make a formal complaint).

  20. Thank you for talking about this. Too many people seem to be way too willing to sweep this kind of behavior under the rug. I have one relative in particular who insists that it is a mother's right to do whatever the heck she wants to her children and it would be too much of a bother to stop this kind of abuse what with all the Christians crying persecution.

    I wasn't a member of a cult. I belonged to a church that, by Southern Baptist/Pentacostalist/sheer batshit insanity standards is pretty sane. But they have their moments, and faith healing is one of them. I have seen so many people die under the care of this church. Mothers, babies, young children. Two of my own siblings, five cousins that I know of, an aunt, and an uncle. All born at home, without an attending physician or midwife.

    I remember one time in particular that one of my aunts had lost a child. It had been a very traumatic birth; the baby was dead before it was born, which had caused great discomfort to the mother. When she became pregnant with her next child, she decided that she couldn't go through it again, and gave birth to it in a hospital.

    I still remember my mother's disapproving words as she told me that, though she had the utmost sympathy for my aunt's decision, my aunt was displeasing God by taking her birth to a hospital. And I believed her. I remember the dull feeling of disconnection that, thanks to my mother's careful brainwashing, I felt for anyone who "went to doctors." I realized that even though she fancied herself a Christian, she wasn't truly one of us. And that meant, according to my mother's careful tutelage, that while I should love her and not condemn her for her choices, I also shouldn't become too closely involved with her or her children. After all, the Bible says not to associate with willful sinners.

    It doesn't really come as a surprise to me that my first real crisis of faith happened because of a baby. At the time, I was regularly reading the blog of a lesser celebrity, and he often posted snippets about his private life. He'd been having sex with his girlfriend - Oh! So sinful! - and she'd gotten pregnant. The entire pregnancy played out with the aid of doctors, and in the end, the baby was delivered via emergency Cesarean section, without which he would have died.

    It was at the moment when I first saw that baby's picture that my mother's careful influence began to break down. There was a baby - a beautiful expression of human life, so full of possibility and promise. And if these people had lived their lives according to my mother's standards, he never would have come to be - or, far worse, would have died before he was born, strangled by his own umbilical cord. It was then that I knew: no matter what an ancient rabbi said about it, there was no way that what they had done could truly be condemned. I could not, in good conscience, continue to label their choices as wrong.

    I am not a "sanctity of life" person. I believe in the responsible use of contraception, abortion (if necessary), and assisted suicide. But these are all willful choices, the person having made a conscientious and usually well-informed decision that is designed to improve their life or the lives of those around them. Refusing medical attention for your child doesn't even come close. No one is benefited by the accidental death of a child - except maybe the child, spared from a life with parents who are willing to leave his/her entire life up to chance.

  21. Home birth is a real nightmare. My sister and I had our kids only 4 months apart. I had a 98 hour hospital labor with several necessary interventions, and at the end a healthy baby boy (9/10 on APGAR infant health test). Then a couple months later my sister had her planned home birth, which lasted 125 hours. For one whole day my niece's head was stuck in my sister's pelvis, and she was born covered in meconium (fetal shit) and with an extremely conical head. Both are kids are fine now, but the fact is my sister put herself and her child at risk for some archaic notion of femininity and modesty. (She wanted a female midwife rather than a male doctor looking at her. I just got a female doctor.)

    I completely identify with how you felt when you saw the pictures of that baby. When I held my son for the first time, the wickedness of "original sin" struck me. There was simply *no way* this tiny, perfect, innocent little baby had harmed anyone or had sinned against any god. It was a couple more years till I was an atheist, but it was a huge turning point just the same.

    If you're interested, a couple of great online communities (where you can be open with your story like this, but hide your IRL identity) you might enjoy are and On the A/N site, I highly recommend joining the "Life After Christian Fundemntalism" group headed up by Nate Phelps.