The Story of O: Life in and out of a political cult

Star Tribune/April 6, 2003
By Kay Miller

On a sunny balcony in New Orleans, Alexandra Stein and her mother listened to jazz and feasted on freshly fried beignets. Stein's mother had flown all the way from London to vacation with her daughter.

But when Stein called home to check in, her roommate was irate: Stein's trip had not been authorized by their O. contact in Minneapolis. She must return immediately.

"I didn't know there was a rule," Stein said. "From out of the blue, I was in trouble." Rattled, she concocted a story for her mother and flew home.

Through the 1980s, every aspect of Stein's life -- her work, friendships, conversations, housing, what she read and when she slept -- was dominated by a revolutionary Marxist-Leninist group known as the O. It arranged her marriage and tried to dictate when she had children. It cut her off from relatives and friends, who had no phone number or address for her -- only a post office box.

Today at 48, Stein has vivid memories of a wasted decade marked by panic attacks. The day she left, she began writing down her experiences, compelled to understand how a bright woman like herself could be seduced into joining what she now says was a political cult.

Stein's riveting new book, "Inside Out," is the first detailed insider account of O.

The O. started in Minneapolis during the co-op movement of the 1970s. Perhaps 100 to 300 people passed through it during its heyday, yet it was so secretive that its existence was known only to members, the FBI and local leftist opposition groups that encountered it in its violent early days.

Even after '70s activism faded, the O. continued to thrive in Minneapolis as an underground collective of perhaps 30 true believers. Like Stein, they wanted to change the world.

Arranged marriage

Stein was 28 and living in San Francisco when she first heard of the O.

Personally and politically, she was at a crossroads. The co-ops and women's groups to which Stein devoted her life had become splintered and ineffective. Friends moved. She and her boyfriend split up. Stein was lonely, frustrated and at loose ends when she met an O. member from Minneapolis.

He described a group whose tight organization and seriousness seemed a marvel compared with the haphazard hippie ways of conducting business.

In 1979, Stein spent six weeks in the Twin Cities to check out the O.

Perhaps she should have been alarmed when her O. contacts put the telephone in the refrigerator and turned the radio up full-blast before talking.

But at the time, the FBI was infiltrating leftist groups. Black Panther leaders had been killed. If you believed that revolution was coming -- as Stein did -- it made sense to limit how many O. comrades you could name, to keep cells separate and go by code names. Hers was "Claire."

"Secrecy isolates," she said. "It also creates an aura of specialness."

To join, Stein first had to prove herself. So she returned to San Francisco and became a machinist and then a computer programmer -- as a stream of O. memos instructed.

Weeks before she was scheduled to move to the Twin Cities, Stein received a far more personal directive from her O. contact -- someone she had never met and knew only by the initials P.S.:

"Claire," the memo began, "It has been seen that you should engage in an organizational PR [personal relationship] with the strategic aim of having a child. This will be a critical step in your development. At present it is suggested you establish a PR with Stan" -- code name for a Minneapolis man who repulsed Stein.

Stein wrote back to say that she didn't relate well to Stan but was attracted to his roommate, Ted. She recalled Ted's wit, warmth and the guileless way he brushed his sandy hair from his forehead.

"I was lucky because I got in a marriage with someone I actually was attracted to," Stein said. "Others weren't so lucky."

Later Stein discovered that she was Ted's consolation prize for his giving up a lover outside the O.

The real thing

On May 1, 1982, International Workers Day, Stein packed 10 years of belongings -- personal journals, the complete works of Mao Zedong, feminist books and a quilt from her mother -- and drove to the Twin Cities.

"I was very nervous and very excited," she said. "The excitement is that you're dedicating yourself. This is it. This is the real thing. The old life had its problems. But you're leaving all those behind."

The O. cadre lived in renovated houses in inner-city neighborhoods of Minneapolis and St. Paul. In addition to their day jobs, members worked in O.-owned businesses: the People's Nutritional Bakery, the Working Woman and Man Bookstore, the Eastside Day Care Center, Dependable Computer Programs, a car shop, a food co-op and a print shop.

Stein moved into the study of a drab Minneapolis duplex with Ted and three other O. members. Three weeks later, a distant Ted suggested that it was time to share the same room.

In bed that night, Stein reached for her diaphragm. Why would she be using that, Ted asked, when their objective was to have a child?

"I was not a woman who normally would have ever let anyone make that choice for me," she said. "It was an act of great submission."

Everything about Stein's nights and days came to be dictated by faceless leaders and memos on beige paper.

Many longtime members hadn't met and couldn't name leader Theophilus Smith. As a result, they fantasized about the organization's size and scope. Some thought it was an offshoot of the Black Panthers or the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Others believed it was a nationwide collective run out of Detroit, Chicago or Oakland, Calif.

Secrecy was so tight that Stein didn't know that O. comrades lived on their block. Correspondence was kept under lock and key. She wasn't certain where Ted worked. It was a security breach for them to discuss their work or answer each other's phone calls. Friendly conversation with nonmembers -- even workers in the O. bakery or day care center -- was also a breach.

Stein got a machinist job -- as directed -- until she found a better one as a computer programmer at Lee Data in Eden Prairie. There, she dressed in dowdy button-downs to look inconspicuous, dashing after work to shifts at the bakery; it meant that her workdays lasted 18 to 20 hours.

She existed in a kind of weary netherworld, marked by freeway drives across the city at odd hours, mass-produced sandwiches hurriedly grabbed from the freezer and stolen snatches of sleep.

"Most of us were just too tired to think properly," she said. From work she made cult-related calls. "I'd be whispering into the phone about buying a panel truck for the bakery and hoping no one was listening."

She wasn't allowed to visit her family in England, except for the time she was directed to raise money from her father.

"I remember once Ted telling me not to write to this person in San Francisco -- that it was a relationship that was holding me back."

When Stein didn't immediately conceive, the O. leadership through Ted pressured her to undergo fertility tests. Exhausted and depressed, she asked for a break from the O.

After a withering cross-examination, her O. superiors agreed. She could leave -- but without Ted. Stein moved to an apartment in the Uptown area. Visits by O. members were forbidden.

After three months, she returned in total submission -- but not before superiors rebuked her, telling her that "the revolution isn't a dinner party."

She and Ted adopted two children -- a boy and a girl from Central America. For the next decade they would be her only reliable source of joy.

"We squeezed the happiness and joy and laughter out of life. And good food. And friendship. And love. All those things that are part of life -- for the greater good."

Fierce maternal instincts

For all the O.'s tough talk and self-denial, the underground revolutionaries looked and behaved more like middle-class drones. Stein had done nothing to organize the working class or change the world.

But for her to grasp how deeply she was enmeshed and devise a plan to get out took years. The first major step came in 1987, when O. discipline grew oddly lax. For an entire year Stein got no memos.

She and Ted started a computer consulting business. And they began raising money for the African National Congress (ANC).

Stein's passion for save-the-world politics had been born in South Africa, where her father was a prominent antiapartheid journalist with connections to Nelson Mandela and the ANC, and London, where her family's four-story Victorian home teemed with liberal writers, artists and politicians.

Now, through the ANC, Stein met revolutionaries doing dangerous, and what she perceived as historic, work. Yet they laughed, gossiped, ate well, danced and made friends outside the ANC.

"They were changing the world. And that was a wonderful model for me."

Only later did Stein learn that during that year of relative freedom, Smith had been in jail for manslaughter. The year before Stein joined O., Smith had shot and killed a man on the green shag carpet where Stein's son later learned to walk. By the time Smith returned to reestablish control, Stein and other members with doubts were talking.

But it was a series of upsetting events involving her children that pushed Stein to do for them what she couldn't do for herself. Three of the children's favorite teachers were suddenly purged from the O. day care center. Then their son was barred from playing with an O. friend after they were caught pretending to be Ninja Turtles. Both came on the heels of O. memos criticizing Stein and her husband for their children's free-form play.

"My idea of a happy child did not involve controlling their every move," Stein said.

Stein challenged the firings, only to have her criticisms turned back on her. Instead of supporting her, Ted crumbled. So when Stein plotted her exit, it was without Ted.

Leaving the O. was like stepping off a cliff.

Stein's belief system was shattered. She feared violent O. reprisals. She was undergoing a separation from Ted and fighting to keep her kids. And while she was lucky to have a decent income, she and Ted were splitting the computer business.

And, at 36, she had no social life.

Stein recalls being at a gathering that first year and blurting out her bizarre story to a transfixed circle of strangers.

"You're around normal people. But you don't feel normal. You've got this great tidal wave behind you of roiling emotional upheaval. You're in the middle of a divorce. You've out of this cult that you discover was led by a murderer. And here you are in this Loft class and people are writing about their summer vacations."

Electric shock memories

Twelve years after leaving the O., Stein lives with her children, both teenagers, in a comfortable north Minneapolis home, warmed by a pot-bellied stove and lively South African art. Her children are doing well in school.

Ted left the O. a year after she did. And though their efforts to hold their marriage together failed, they cooperate well when it comes to the kids.

Starting with 10 people who left the O. in 1991, Stein built a wide circle of friends. She loves rolling up her living room rug and dancing, laughing and eating good food. She dates less than she would like.

"You should see the looks on these men's faces when I tell them how I got to Minneapolis. Or what I studied in school. Or what my book's about."

Odd things trigger electric-shock memories of the O. -- driving by the old day care center or placing nonwork calls from her office.

Stein parlayed a peer-reviewed journal article she wrote on mothers and cults into admittance to the University of Minnesota's master of liberal studies program. She is working on a doctorate in sociology and researching the social psychology of extremist groups. But she feels she was robbed of the most productive decade of her life.

Occasionally, Stein is asked to counsel families that have loved ones in a cult.

"I say you have to keep trying. My family didn't know to even try. But I think if they had tried to reach me -- if they'd figured out there was a problem and what it was -- I would have come out much sooner."

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