A Writer in Bridgewater Found Way Out of Cult

Litchfield County Times/July 10, 2008

Bridgewater - May 14, 1971 issue of Life magazine, spread across almost two full pages is a closely-cropped and candid headshot of a young Kristen Skedgell, gazing innocently into the distance with a kind of mesmerized captivation. At 15 years old, her doe eyes and gentle smile are delicately framed by long, wavy chestnut hair, rendering her the portrait of the unabashedly idealistic flower child so often found in the Simon & Garfunkel generation.

Indeed, she was a lovely girl and very photogenic, but there is something disconcerting about her captivated stare. It's almost as if the spellbound look on her face is more of a trance than it is childlike wonderment.

The photograph's accompany­ing article, "The Groovy Christians of Rye, N.Y.," was a feature piece about the now controversial Christian fundamentalist group known as The Way International, and its then growing band of exceedingly loyal followers. As detailed in the article, Ms. Skedgell was one of those burgeoning die-hards and, as she now laments, she maintained that fervor for the following decade and a half.

Ms. Skedgell, who has lived in Bridgewater with her second husband since the mid-1990s, details those 15 troubled years in a book she recently had published, "Losing the Way; A Memoir of Spiritual Longing, Manipulation, Abuse and Escape."

As her firsthand account develops over the course of the 200-page memoir, Ms. Skedgell argues that The Way was not so much a Christian fundamentalist group as it was a predatory cult. And as she looks back, her hypnotized Life magazine stare reflects the early stages of what was essentially a brainwashing scheme, one designed to prey on the lonely and spiritually thirsty.

"I had an adolescent need to belong; the desire to belong was strong in me," said Ms. Skedgell, explaining how she became so deeply controlled by The Way. "That and I think I was looking for a father figure. All these events created the perfect storm for [manipulation.]"

It wasn't that her father wasn't around, but he spent far more time with the bottle than with Ms. Skedgell or her two brothers. Her mother, who was instrumental in Ms. Skedgell eventual exit from The Way, was a good-hearted person and an intellectual, but perhaps a little too disconnected from her daughter, never even aware of the sexual molestation the adolescent Ms. Skedgell suffered at the hands of neighborhood ne'er-do-wells.

At the age of 14, Ms. Skedgell tagged along with some friends to a Bible meeting in the apartment of a prominent New York City disc jockey. There, she first learned of the love, compassion and acceptance-three qualities that were in short supply at her home-one could find through "the Word," which was code for the teachings of The Way's founder, "The Doctor" Victor Paul Wierwille.

Dr. Wierwille-who received a doctorate in theology from Pikes Peak Bible College and Seminary, a non-accredited institution-was ordained by The United Church of Christ in 1941, but separated from that institution in 1957. His reasons for leaving are unclear, but it was after his departure that his own unorthodox ministry, The Way International, really took off.

In The Way, Dr. Wierwille taught a very preliminary elucidation of Christianity, one that rejects the traditional Holy Trinity notion that Jesus Christ is God. However, The Way does accept Jesus as both a savior and the Son of God.

Such distinctions aside, Dr. Wierwille apparently saw a lot of potential recruits in the 1960s counterculture movement, and through heavy street promotion, he eventually built membership up to about 100,000.

"Oh, he had campuses, a private jet, a training center, one of those big tour buses you see rock bands ride around in," Ms. Skedgell noted of the many amenities Dr. Wierwille acquired with the money of his followers.

Believers worked part-time and gave their earnings to The Way. Classes were conducted at a cost. And for a fee, many recruits, including Ms. Skedgell, were sent to The Way Corps in Kansas, which was a paramilitary training ground to prepare followers for Armageddon, or perhaps the takeover of the "illuminati," which apparently was an esoteric clan of mortal enemies intimately connected with the devil.

When not resisting illuminati propaganda or working their part-time jobs, followers were expected to be "witnessing," a k a recruiting, the unenlightened.

"There was a lot of deception involved in witnessing. We would befriend somebody, be nice and friendly, build a relationship and invite them to a meeting, but it all had a hidden agenda," said Ms. Skedgell, who at one point likened the ritual to the infamous get-rich-quick "pyramid schemes." "But we really felt that we were here to help humanity and bring peace to the world. The leaders would make money from the followers, but from our point of view, we were bringing the truth."

Despite Dr. Wierwille's having such a vast constituency of believers, which ranged all over the U.S. and into other countries, Ms. Skedgell said she developed a personal relationship with him very early on. From her perspective, she was a naïve child who saw him as a strong patriarch, a figure she was desperate for in her life. She put her faith in him and the Word, and never questioned his absolute authority, even if at times it seemed contradictory-or worse.

Ms. Skedgell, who can't help but observe how Dr. Wierwille's name sounds like werewolf, remembered when the sexual advances started, to which she reluctantly complied.

His rationale, according to her book was that woman is made for man and man is made for God. Her rationale was: Even though it kind of feels like incest, the Doctor says it's OK.

According to Ms. Skedgell, Dr. Wierwille, who was old enough to be her father, taught a Christian Family and Sex course, which would use street lingo to describe sexual acts in uncomfortably graphic detail. He often informed students that God's position on intercourse is more lenient now in the "Age of Grace," she said.

Dr. Wierwille wasn't the only minister in the group to take advantage of the susceptible Ms. Skedgell, she recalled. Though it was clandestine, the sex was, in her words, "rampant." Even after she married fellow devotee Alec-whose name, just like that of everyone in the book except for Dr. Wierwille's, was changed-Dr. Wierwille still expected her to continue with their affair, explaining away the sin of adultery with his own distorted interpretation of the Bible.

Apparently, as far as Dr. Wierwille was concerned, The Word was not an interpretation, but the only manner the Bible could be perceived. Ms. Skedgell remembers thinking she understood that, even when she didn't.

"Inside, I am frantic, pedaling to keep up with what the Doctor is saying, to keep up with him...It is either embrace what he says or quit the ministry entirely. If I do that I might as well die," Ms. Skedgell writes in the book, right after Dr. Wierwille instructed her, for the good of The Way, to lie about their first sexual tryst. "Suddenly, something shifts deep inside of me. Now I get it: 'all things are pure to the pure.' A great door has opened and the Doctor has ushered me into the deeper mysteries of the Word, where grace reigns supreme. I promise the Doctor I will keep his secret."

The speed with which she jumped from confusion to understanding is The Way's brainwashing in action. According to Ms. Skedgell, "We were taught to see everything in terms of black-and-white, because there is no in between."

Ms. Skedgell recalled once speaking with her biological father, who broke free of his alcohol addiction a couple of years before his death, about the Bible. At one point in the conversation, she was taken aback by his use of the qualifier "in my opinion" to describe what he believed was the best biblical verse. The Doctor never gave opinions-he only stated facts.

As for her now ex-husband Alec, with whom she has two children, their marriage turned sour early in the honeymoon stage. She claims he was abusive and had an explosive temper. But he was also corrupted by the control of The Way. After she finally admitted to him the affair she was having with the Doctor, he was surprisingly compassionate and apologetic, but after a "man-to-man" conversation with Dr. Wierwille, Alec suddenly shifted the blame to her, Ms. Skedgell said.

For the sake of their children, both of whom are now adults, she has kept a cordial relationship with Alec, Ms. Skedgell said, and it's easier now that he has left The Way and remarried.

"He told our daughter that it is too bad he was married to a writer, because now I'm going to write about the worst time in his life as well," she noted. Since word of her book got out, Ms. Skedgell has received seven e-mails from women who also alleged sexual manipulation by the Doctor, who died in 1985. His departure came not long before a very confused, downtrodden and suicidal Ms. Skedgell escaped Alec and The Way with the help of her mother, who was living in Roxbury at the time.

Though she is free of the ministry's influence, more than 20 years after the Doctor's death, Ms. Skedgell did obey one more of his requests. He once asked her, during post-coital "afterglow," as he referred to it, to write a posthumous book about him, because "people need to see the heart of a man of God."

"I cried at the thought of losing him," she states in the book, "but I promised him I would do whatever he asked."

After his death, The Way International went into decline, and now has a mere fraction of the followers it had in the 1970s.

As for Ms. Skedgell, she went on to study at Johns Hopkins University, Yale Divinity School and Columbia University, where she learned to become a clinical social worker.

It took her "years before she could even step foot in a church," but she has since made her peace with God.

She said writing the book was "cathartic and therapeutic" but she still urges people with family members under the influence of cult-like groups to maintain consistent contact with them, consult an "exit counselor" and set up an intervention. However, she warns against deprogramming measures, which often employ harsh, counter-brainwashing tactics.

"You know, being in a cult, it's kind of like when people talk about killing a frog by putting it in slowly boiling water," said Ms. Skedgell. "It's the same kind of phenomena.

You just don't even realize you are getting sucked in until it is too late."

Ms. Skedgell will be signing copies of "Losing the Way" at the Hickory Stick Bookshop at 2 p.m. on Sunday.

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