Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Turning Points

I've spent a lot of time wondering about my grandmother's cult in the past two years. Questions like, Why didn't more people speak out against what she was doing? and How did the world dodge the bullet by her cult staying small and eventually collapsing? And I think I have some answers. I'm convinced that my freshman year of high school was the most crucial year for the cult's eventual future. Several things happened that year.

I had run the cult office over the summer (while carrying on a dramatic and maudlin relationship with a boy in the trailer park), but when I went back to school she hired on various "friends". These were followers who had sold everything that had - houses and farms in Ohio and Montana - to come live in the same trailer park my grandmother did. Looking back, I see that year of people moving here as a potential beginning to a "true cult" compound.

Giggy had hosted a Healing in Zion seminar in the clubhouse of the trailer park, and people had flown or driven in from all over the country to hear her speak. I supervised their 40 children over that three day weekend (largely by assigning the older sisters to watch their younger siblings, which they did at home) and even put together a little song and dance with the kids, set to the hymn my grandmother used to rock me to sleep with, "Peace, peace".

Then I started high school, at a school for the performing arts. I made friends with Wicaans and lesbians, and I started to hope that some of Gig's exclusivity claims weren't true. I didn't want my friends to burn in hell forever! Then Harrison died, and the news made the national press. A few of the cult experts my mom and I have talked to this past year point to Harrison's death as one of the first major blows to Gig's credibility. And while she may not think she was involved now, in her dementia, the facts on the matter are clear. Gig was present when Harrison was stung - he actually fell in a yellow jackets nest in the backyard of her friend's trailer, which helped the new main office of the cult .

My mom told me yesterday she spoke with my unfriending aunt Z. Back when Harrison died (and later when Samuel and Jeremiah died), Aunt Z still had the same last name as my grandmother, and so friends and coworkers would ask, "Are you related to Carol?" So while she distanced herself - always - from Gig's practices and beliefs, she is still the one most willing to blame Gig's actions on mental illness. (I don't doubt for one minute that my grandmother was mentally ill. I've thought that since the first time I read the DSM-IV description for OCD, when I was diagnosed myself. But mental illness doesn't excuse killing children.

My grandmother was a pro-life baby killer. I don't think the press from that story warned away potential future converts. I do think it gave my grandmother pause. She never seemed to reconsider her views for the remaining years the cult was active, but she was also less bold in her pronouncements and her recruiting after that. She didn't want to garner negative press anymore.

Throughout her life, my grandmother has been in Redbook, Reader's Digest, and Time Magazine. She was on Jeopardy and three other game shows. Her near-death experience of driving into a canal in her fiance's car at 19 made national press, and her African-American rescuer even appeared on one of the game shows with her. (I don't remember the name of the program, but one person would answer questions to win prizes for another person, so my smart and witty grandmother stood in the spotlight, and won a washer/dryer and other fabulous prizes for the man she told us all her descendants owe our lives to. It's a shame she never told us his name, but I have the feeling she doesn't know it.)

He dove into the water to get her, after three white construction workers wouldn't - three workers who had seen her fall into the water, whose truck she had been trying to avoid when she went around them and off the bridge. (This was before there were guard rails on bridges, on the tiny blue highways in the center of Florida.) He was a trucker, and he dove into the water to save her. He swam down to her car, and wrenched open the door. But the pressure of the water pouring in was so great, that he couldn't keep it open, and the door closed on his right hand, across pinky, ring, and middle fingers. He struggled to get free, and eventually wrenched his hand away so he could swim up for air, leaving his fingers behind.

He swum to the surface, yelled for his son who was still in the truck to throw him a tire iron, and then dove down once again to save her. And as glad as I am that I'm here, and that my son is here, and that I'm alive, I wonder if the world would have been a better place if he'd left her there, as callously as the white men who contributed to her fall.

Today's image comes from MilebyMile.com, a highway website. Now imagine that little metal railing is gone, and you'll understand how she drove straight off the road, while attempting to go around a parked truck in the right lane, on an unlit road at night. There was no breakdown lane to speak of - just water.