Friday, September 11, 2009

Bad Dreams and HIZM

I have frequent nightmares of starting my own cult. Ideas for different cult audiences and niche markets occur to me quite often. In part, I'm sure, it's simply because I spend so much of time reading and thinking about cults. Cults are on my mind. A cult made my mind. Let's not forget the other part of this - besides just being a topic I'm interested in, it's what I was originally brought up to become. I was trained to cast out demons, heal the sick, bind the strongman, remind God of promises He'd made and hold Him to them. More subtly, I was taught that, while I was utterly wretched and sinful and deserving of hell and death my own self, at least I was better than everybody else. My grandmother couldn't see a person, at the store or on TV, without finding some fault - "His eyes are too close together" or "Did you hear how many times she said "um" while talking? She said it 14 times. You know, people will judge you by how well you speak."

I know how to manipulate people. I know how easy it is to get sheep to follow you. That's really the most astonishing part about cults to me - that the leader has to do so little to get people to throw their lives away. Gig was too lazy to really concentrating on fundraising, but people sent her a tenth of their income anyway, unasked. We never lived on a compound or wore funny clothes. Her followers were spread out across the rural United States and Australia. It was a shadow cult, operating in the background, influencing hundreds of little churches and thousands of individual believers. And these believers would call the phone number on the back of her books, and reach me.

They would tell me their story - how far along their pregnancy was, how many children they already had, what complications they were worried about. I treated it like any other customer service job, smiling while I talked to them on the phone, and then taking their order for additional books, workbooks, and teaching tapes. Sometimes I prayed with them right there at my desk, and then a few weeks later they would send us money. Gig lacked organization and drive, and except for me, she was terrible at picking personnel. She routinely hired thieves, whether it was Pastor Steve Bell of Christ Church who stole her books and continues to print her things in violation of copyright (hey asshat - I'm talking to you!) or Van and Nicole (hey you - I *never* liked you and it was totally inappropriate to try to crash family parties), who paid their private rent and car notes out of the Ministry checking account. Gig didn't want to have to think about the money, to know about the money. She just wanted to know that it would be there when she ran her debit card.

I spent nearly every weekend as a middle school student working at my grandma's. My mom or sister would drop me off Friday afternoon and I'd stay till Sunday, swimming at the pool, balancing the bank accounts, and updating up the newsletter mailing list to include every possible person who might donate their tithe to the Ministry. I built the original Home in Zion Ministries web page (now down) with painstakingly hand-coded html, before the days of CSS and rich text editors. I'd never had any training in web design, and had to teach myself as I went along. I also taught myself the inner workings of Microsoft Access, although now I wish I could clear out that space in my head for something useful.

In truth, looking back on things, I alone kept that Ministry running for about two years, until I was old enough to start MacDonald's at 14. For the next decade, I would work part-time or an as-needed basis for the cult, while earning my primary income somewhere else. It definitely creates an illusion of greater job stability than is strictly accurate. As a centerless, selfless teen and young adult, I tried out a number of jobs and careers. Through high school, I never stayed at a job for more than six months, and most for only three. But I had HIZM to put on my application each time, showing that I'd been steadily working at the same place since the start of 1998, which meant I could selectively leave out 20 or 30 of my past jobs, without any gaps in my employment history. (It's also a job history that makes me look older, since most 12-year-olds aren't putting in 20 hour weeks on top of school.)

In a sense I feel much worse, much guiltier, for those simple office tasks, that I've reproduced for secular employers repeatedly since then. I copied, I filed, I faxed. I talked to customers on the phone and filled out purchase order forms and managed a database. I mean, none of that is inherently wrong, right? But I've come to believe that my grandmother's words are toxic, and I worry about how many people I infected. When I read about Samuel Roubidoux, and realize his parents were at that same weekend convention as Harrison's parents, and that I probably met his mother and father, I wonder if my hands placed the book into the box, sealed it, and labeled it. Did I personally send the poisonous words that would eventually lead to a child being starved to death?

From all I could see at the time, what I was doing was simply office work. From all I can see now, I was the number lieutenant for a madwoman's army. If I had been less competent, would the Ministry have folded sooner? If I had been less driven, would fewer books have gone out into the world? I forgive myself for not knowing better, but I still feel responsibility. Maybe that's why I have to write this book now, debnking my grandmother, shedding light on the fringes of Christian faith, and absolving some of my own guilt for my part in it. I was raised to be a cult leader, and the paranoid part of me stays ever-vigelent. I worry that I'll lose just a small sliver of sanity, but it will be the thing that makes the difference, tips the scales, and leads me to be the most ruthless cult leader the world has ever known. (Yes, grandiose thinking is an aspect of narcissism.)

I try to fight this stuff. I know that these fears of my own self, this distrust of my mind and my body, is left over from the decades of Fallen Man belief. And yet - at two in the morning, when I can't sleep, the idea suddenly occurs to me, "The best way to start a cult - start a cult survivors group and invite them all away for a long, intensive, brain-washing weekend!"

And then I worry that I'm evil.