Cutting the Fringe

New York Times/November 20, 1996
By Irene Davidson

I thought we had made it. My daughter had decent grades, good board scores, a successful preliminary interview at the private college of her dreams. The shaved head, purple hair, secret forays to after-hours clubs and failed chemistry Regents exam didn't seem to add up to much after all.

In her senior year, I signed her up, at an information table in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, to volunteer for the Women's Press Collective. Remembering the happy years my sister had given to a feminist printing group, I thought this might be the cure for my 17-year-old's "senioritis" -- and a creative way to complete the community service credits she needed to graduate.

They called her, she went and she hated it. They called and called and when she finally went back something changed. She started going to meetings regularly, coming home exhausted. She began missing morning classes. She answered incoherently about what she did there. She spoke of a famous labor organizer who had lectured, and was surprised none of our leftist friends knew him.

Invited to tour the collective, I asked questions about the money and politics behind the operation. The guide responded blankly. Last week, the woman was one of five people held on weapons charges after New York City police officers raided three buildings in Brooklyn, the headquarters of the so-called Provisional Communist Party, also known as the National Labor Federation.

The raid uncovered not only a cache of arms but the story of the group my daughter joined four years ago. Long headed by a self-styled revolutionary poseur, Eugenio Perente-Ramos, it recruited idealistic young people but promptly isolated them, demanding total commitment. The Women's Press Collective, like the Eastern Farm Workers Association, was one of its front groups.

It was when my daughter starting talking about 2 A.M. classes that I started screaming "cult!" I noticed changes in the way she talked, in the way she held her body. Her cool blue eyes shone with impatient intensity.

We sought help. Experts on cults told us not to alienate her with criticism. We were warned that periods spent in this group were typically long -- often many years. I couldn't believe the group wasn't drugging her. "Believe it," one expert said. "Mind control is powerful."

After Thanksgiving dinner, she ran off to the group's headquarters. After Christmas dinner, her comrades picked her up. And after completing the semester, she slept home less and less. At midnight on the day of her final interview at her dream school, she called to say she did not want to go to college.

The window was closing fast. I begged the experts to intervene before her 18th birthday in February. The plan was to present her with family, former group members and exit counselors to get her to decide to leave the organization. But the meeting didn't happen. The day after her birthday, she slept the whole day. I rushed home early from work, just in time to greet the comrades who had come for her.

It was two and a half years before I could engineer one unmonitored conversation with my daughter, during which I gave her some of the information we had unearthed about the organization and its leader.

Several months later, last Thanksgiving, my daughter called home. She had left the group, shaken by changes after Mr. Perente-Ramos's death last year and, I like to think, by the information we had given her. We were lucky. Others wait, their children still in the grip of people driven by a will to save the world using means that could never achieve that end.

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