The Nominee's Soul Mate

Excerpted material

Washington Post September 10, 1991
By Laura Blumenfeld

New Page 1

Who's afraid of Virginia Thomas? She's a soft-spoken, hard-working daughter of the heartland. A brainy Omaha lawyer who has scaled the sheetrock of professional Washington. A churchgoer who invites homeless people out to lunch. A good friend. A good family. Why the fuss over Mrs. Supreme Court Nominee?

"My real question is, Why me?" said Virginia Thomas, when asked for an interview. She has declined to talk with reporters until after the hearings. She's not the story, she said. Yet she is a compelling and persuasive figure.

"The one person {Clarence Thomas} really listens to is Virginia," said longtime friend Evan Kemp, chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. "He depends on her for advice."

During the early '80s, Thomas enrolled in Lifespring, a self-help course that challenges students to take responsibility for their lives. Most of the program's 300,000 graduates have found it be a favorable experience. There are, however, a small percentage of clients who are deeply disturbed by Lifespring's methods, which involve intense emotional self-examination.

Thomas told a Washington Post reporter in 1987 that she was confused and troubled by some of Lifespring's exercises. In one session, trainees listened to "The Stripper" while disrobing to skimpy bikinis and bathing suits. The group stood in a U-shaped line, made fun of fat people's bodies and riddled one another with sexual questions.

"At first Ginni was feeling pretty good and enthusiastic about Lifespring," recalls her minister, the Rev. Rodney Wilmoth of Omaha's St. Paul United Methodist Church, who corresponded with Thomas at the time. "But later she was concerned about its influence and began to sense the organization had a cultlike mentality."

Terry Nelson, vice president of Lifespring, said the group is not a cult and that Virginia Thomas's account of the training exercises has been taken out of context. "Are our people enthusiastic, intense and emotional? Yes," Nelson said.

Bronson Levin, a clinical psychologist in Bailey's Crossroads and a Lifespring graduate who specializes in treating what he calls "casualties," said people who are not prepared for the intense emotional experience of Lifespring or who have hidden traumas tend to become overwhelmed as childhood memories come thundering back to them during training.

"I remember Ginni felt manipulated by the group," Wilmoth said. "She was losing her own freedom of who she was." 

It took Thomas months to break fully from Lifespring's "high-pressure tactics," she told The Post in 1987. "I had intellectually and emotionally gotten myself so wrapped up with this group that I was moving away from my family and friends and the people I work with. My best friend came to visit me and I was preaching at her using that rough attitude they teach you."

Finally, Daub, Thomas's boss, confronted her. "We talked about it and ultimately she thought it through and took action to extricate herself," Daub said.

Thomas contacted Kevin Garvey, a Connecticut stockbroker turned counselor, who gets a steady stream of referrals from psychologists and physicians.

"I got a phone call from her asking for help," Garvey recalled. He met with her from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. at Hamburger Hamlet in Georgetown on a Sunday afternoon in 1984, he said, and left feeling satisfied that the young woman would be all right. "The picture of her as a totally destroyed individual is not true," he said.

Thomas felt guilty about breaking her Lifespring "commitment," she said in the 1987 interview. She hid out in another part of the country to avoid constant phone calls from fellow trainees who felt it was their responsibility to make Thomas keep her commitment to Lifespring.

Her friends describe her as levelheaded, thoughtful, smart. Her involvement with Lifespring baffles them. But at least one close friend had an inkling.

"There's a kind of naivete about her, a kind of innocence you have to be careful with," said Wilmoth, her minister. "Ginni is a very, very trusting person -- she once invited a homeless man out to lunch with her in a fancy Washington restaurant -- I'm sure that's one of the reasons she was very susceptible to this group. She was looking for spiritual growth and trusted those people would do the right thing."

Cult Awareness

Since 1985 Ginni Thomas has been a public advocate against cult activities. She has attended Cult Awareness Network conventions, including the 1990 convention in Chicago, according to Patricia Ryan, who is the organization's president and the daughter of Leo Ryan, the congressman killed at Jonestown, Guyana. Thomas has spoken on panels and organized anti-cult workshops for congressional staffers in 1986 and 1988.

"Ginni feels she has been personally victimized and feels a responsibility to educate others," Ryan said.

CAN, however, has had its own share of trouble. Religious liberty advocates accuse it of supporting deprogrammers who kidnap members of religious groups and coerce them to undergo treatment. CAN's adversaries have included fundamentalist Christian splinter groups, the Church of Scientology and the Unification Church.

CAN officials maintain that cults tried to stifle Thomas's activities while she worked at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as a labor relations attorney during the mid-'80s. Fred Krebs, Thomas's supervisor, confirmed receiving letters objecting to her involvement in anti-cult work. He declined to name the group that sent the letters but said, "Ginni was very careful not to identify herself with the Chamber while pursuing her anti-cult activities."

CAN officials said cult groups are trying to use Virginia Thomas's involvement with the network to torpedo her husband's nomination.

"If Ginni is the wife of a Supreme Court justice, it's probably a little scary for the cults," Ryan said.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.