GOUVERNEUR - Sixteen-year-old Ginger S. Griggs of Edwards went to church as usual Sunday morning but decided against returning home afterward, sending a friend and an escort from the St. Lawrence County Sheriff's Department to gather some of her belongings that afternoon.
Her mother, Gail S. Griggs, is afraid she'll never see or talk to her daughter again.
Separating mother and daughter is a state law allowing youths to choose to live on their own at age 16; the Gouverneur congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses; and the girl's fiance, Mark Y. Thomas of Edwards, a 22-year-old fellow church member.
Gail Griggs and her mother-in-law, Marjorie Bevins - who both recently "disassociated" themselves from the Jehovah's Witnesses - charge that the religious group is a cult exercising mind control over Ginger Griggs and its four million members worldwide.
"My kid is having her mind controlled, and because she's 16 I can't do a thing about it," Gail Griggs said. "She isn't acting on her own reasoning. She's doing what they tell her because she loves Mark."
An elder with the Gouverneur congregation, Bernard E. Sloan of Edwards, said Mrs. Griggs' charges of church control over her daughter are not true. "It's a sad situation."
Mr. Sloan said. "The girl is making her own choices and there has been no direction from the body of elders.
It's not a religious decision. It's from the legal authorities that she's getting her direction from."
"There have been accusations of brain-washing, but all the Jehovah's Witnesses do is rigid study of the Scriptures," Mr. Sloan said. "There is no such thing as mind control."
The family's relationship with the Gouverneur congregation, whose place of worship, Kingdom Hall, is on Route 58 in Hailesboro, began about three years ago, shortly after Gail and Garry S. Griggs separated and she moved to Edwards and she moved to Edwards with her three daughters from New Jersey.
Her moth-in-law, Mrs. Bevins, and some other members of her extended family were involved with the group, and Gail Griggs and she was at the time physically and psychologically weak from a drug addiction, ill health and her separation.
After a lengthy period of study, she joined Ginger and another daughter as initiated members last May, but she was skeptical and bothered from the beginning by what she considered to be inconsistencies in the group's teachings.
Smoking by members, for instance, is forbidden, she said. Yet she was a closet smoker when elders baptized her "as told to do so by Jehovah, but Jehovah knows all things. That's God."
The rift between mother and daughter opened on March 6, Mrs. Griggs said, in the middle of cleanup from the north country's ice storm, when Mrs. Griggs formally quit the church in response to her doubts and pressure from congregation members to give consent to her daughter's marriage, a legal requirement in New York state for those under 18.
Engaged Three Months
Ginger Griggs and Mr. Thomas had been engaged for three months, and members said the book of the Watch Tower, Bible and Tract Society - as the Brooklyn based Jehovah's Witnesses organization is formally known - suggested a three-to-six month engagement, Mrs. Griggs said.
On March 6, shortly after she had a letter delivered to an elder announcing her own "disassociation" from the church, Mrs. Bevins and her three Griggs granddaughters prepared to travel to Bayville, N.J., to visit Garry Griggs and other relatives.
Hearing of the trip, Mr. Thomas arrived with his cousin, blocked the car in the driveway, and demanded to talk to his fiance, according to Mrs. Griggs.
"If you come back from New Jersey and you're not a Jehovah's Witness, I want my ring back.' that's what he said to her," Mrs. Griggs said.
The confrontation in the driveway was also carried out along Route 58 toward Gouverneur, according to Mrs. Bevins, who said Mr. Thomas and his cousin drove alongside and in front of her vehicle, succeeding in stopping the car near the hamlet of Fowler.
Mr. Thomas was ultimately allowed to accompany the group to New Jersey, Mrs. Bevins said, adding that was the only way she could convince him the five-day trip was not designed to permanently separate the two.
Asked the Father
In New Jersey, Mrs. Bevins said, Ginger Griggs and Mr. Thomas won a private audience with Garry Griggs and asked him to authorize his daughter's marriage. After considering it overnight, however, he refused, she said.
Since Sunday, Mrs. Griggs and family members have been appealing for help from groups run by former Jehovah's Witnesses, experts on cults, and St. Lawrence County legal and social-service agencies.
Church teachings call for total social ostracism of "dissociated" or "disfellowshipped" members, Gail Griggs said, adding the rule is even enforced within families.
"I am dead in their eyes because I've turned my back on God," she said.
Mrs. Bevins said she had a conversation with her granddaughter from the doorstep outside the Fowler home of Jehovah's Witness Lorraine W. Taylor, where Ginger Griggs said she left home because her "spirituality was being weakened," according to Mrs. Bevins.
Reached Monday night, Mr. Taylor said he was "trying to stay clear of everything so I'm not accused of anything," but he declined to respond to the Griggs family's charges
Ginger Griggs and Ms. Taylor could not be reached for comment.