Edmonton -- It was no mythical fairy tale for Joanna when she joined a cult-like group in Victoria in 1985. And it was her determined sister who came to her rescue, not a valiant prince.
"I was like Cinderella, living in a house with a wicked stepmother and her two daughters," said Joanna, who was a member of the Emissaries of Divine Light for 16 years. It all ended in 2001 when Sarah drove across Canada to the group's home in Nova Scotia, picked up her 41-year-old sister and drove her home.
To protect their identities, the names of the women have been changed.
"I would not let them have my sister any longer," Sarah said as tears filled her eyes. "I had to get her out."
The women spoke to the WCR during the first American Family Foundation conference in Edmonton on cults and cult-like groups. Some 50 speakers attended the conference at the U of A conference centre. Joanna was 25 and searching for meaning in a new city when a friend took her to a Sunday worship service run by the Emissaries.
"When I initially connected with the Emissaries, it was very comfortable. I had recently moved to Victoria and I was searching for the familiar Anglican association I was used to. I hadn't become disillusioned with traditional Christianity, but rather I was looking for a similar affiliation," she said.
"When I attended the service, I thought 'Oh, he's saying exactly what's inside me.' It was like a mirror of what I was searching for, for such a long time. I felt excellent. I felt affirmed."
Some people have told her she was hypnotized because as she listened, her brain was aware of what was occurring but she could not move her hands.
Joanna described the moment as "pretty intense. I felt I had no control over my body. Yet, I felt like I had arrived."
What is peculiar is that the worship service was a video presentation. The leader had no direct contact with Joanna.
Were there hidden messages in the video presentation that heightened its appeal?
"What came across to me were parallel Christian messages, especially 'Be still and know.' I felt I had an immutable experience of divine reality. It was very blissful," she said.
Following their mother's death in 1985, Joanna needed some spiritual purpose and valuation. Watching the video calmed everything that pulled at her heart.
"The man in the video said Jesus was the master of the Emissaries and Jesus left us a message and taught us a way and our responsibility was to follow that example."
Steven Hassan was one of more than 50 speakers at the conference. He said most cults and cult-like groups keep their true natures well hidden from newcomers.
"A healthy religion tells you up front what will happen. They tell you what to expect," said Hussan, a psychologist and licensed mental health counsellor. "But some organizations are deceptive and they spoon-feed their spirituality. People have to be educated and warned of the danger signs."
Hassan described what Joanna experienced watching the video as "an altered state of consciousness.
"It's like when time passes while you're reading a good book. There is nothing particularly wrong with that, but I have found people are vulnerable to outside suggestions."
Eventually, Joanna heeded the demands of the authority figures, denounced her parents and siblings, and moved to Nova Scotia far away from her sister. By her own description, in 2001 she was malnourished and well under her ideal weight. She was a chain smoker.
The dynamic of the group was such that Joanna performed the cooking and cleaning tasks, drove everyone to work before going to her own job as a sales consultant and in her free time alone in her bedroom, she would read more literature to better understand the Emissaries.
All the while Sarah, seven years older than Joanna, kept tabs on her sister and the group by befriending Emissary members in Vancouver.
"They got 16 years of my life," Joanna said. "I wasted my prime years as a woman, from 25 to 41. I was earning about $40,000 a year and when I left, I had $98 and not one item of possession more than when I joined them."
Proudly, Joanna says she is now a non-smoker. She is learning to deal with other issues, one at a time.
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