For Tony Alamo survivors, religious abuse scars the soul

The Oregonian/September 27, 2008

It's been 23 years since Diane Bach left the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries compound in Arkansas, but she still struggles to make decisions for herself.

As a St. Helens waitress hands Bach a menu during a recent lunch meeting, she swallows hard. Her hands begin to tremble; she shifts uncomfortably in her chair. Soon, she's sweating and red blotches pool on her chest like spilled wine.

"I'm sorry," she says. "I have a lot of trouble ordering from a simple menu because, to this day, I have trouble making my own choices."

Alamo's critics, including hundreds of former members, call his ministry a cult that brainwashes its members with punishments including withholding food, beatings and being booted from the church. Those leaving the church were told they would die, go insane or turn into homosexuals.

Many former members have settled in the Northwest, including the Portland area. Some were children who were physically abused at the compound and others, such as Bach, lived there mainly as adults. Surviving in mainstream society has been difficult for them all.

This past week, Alamo, 74, was arrested in Arizona on suspicion of transporting minors across state lines for sexual purposes. Days earlier, the FBI raided the Arkansas compound as part of a child pornography investigation and removed six girls.

Unlike many of the adults and children who say they lived under Alamo's control, Bach, 54 -- who lived at the compound from age 17 to 31 -- says she was never physically or sexually abused. Instead, every aspect of her life was controlled, including whom she married. She wasn't allowed to decide anything for herself and was brainwashed into believing Alamo had the power to send her to hell if she didn't work in his businesses for free.

What Bach lost, she says, is her faith -- in herself and in a higher power. She was thrown out of the compound when her former husband ran afoul of Tony Alamo.

"Having spirituality in my life is very important," said Bach, who now operates a hotel in St. Helens with her second husband, Jim. "Having a belief, something solid, something concrete, was something I needed. I'd rather be physically raped than spiritually raped, because now I don't know what to believe."

Whether it's perpetrated by Catholic priests or charismatic cult leaders, abuse by religious figures can be more harmful than other forms of maltreatment: A building block of recovery for some people -- belief in a higher power or God -- is exactly what's been stripped away.

"Virtually every abuse victim feels alone," said David Clohessy, national director of St. Louis-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "But I believe that no victim feels more alone than somebody abused by a religious figure or in a religious setting. The most universal source of comfort and solace in painful times is God. But if God is perceived to be an integral part of one's abuse and cover-up, victims are left with virtually nowhere to turn."

What to believe?

Clohessy says it's difficult for survivors of religious abuse to find their way back to God and spirituality. Clohessy was sexually abused as a teen by his Catholic priest while growing up in Missouri.

"Being abused in a spiritual context doesn't mean that someone can't have a faith life, but it almost inevitably means that for years or decades people experience a rough, confusing period of spiritual abandonment, doubt and fear," he said.

Among members of his organization, comprising people who've been sexually abused by priests, "many -- not most -- but many victims have found their way back to some kind of spirituality. But almost never without first enduring a long painful period of alienation and uncertainty around even the existence of God."

For Bach, it's about the struggle to reclaim something stolen from her.

For Elishah Franckiewicz, the first child born in Alamo's compound, recovery is about building her own system of beliefs, something she was denied as a child.

Franckiewicz, now a 37-year-old college instructor in the Portland area, escaped when she was 15. When she left, she said she had no reference point for what was right and wrong, true or untrue. Franckiewicz and other compound children were told that if they prayed hard enough, Alamo's wife Susan, who died from cancer after the compound moved to Arkansas, would rise from the dead. Each day she did not awaken, the children were beaten.

For years after leaving, Franckiewicz says she was "absolutely terrified" of everything, including dogs, which the Alamo said were "evil beings that could weaken children's hearts."

With the help and love of her husband, who rescued her from the compound in a dramatic escape, she slowly rebuilt her life by facing her fears and investigating the world both academically and through experience. At one point, her husband begged her to visit an animal pound to try to ease her fear of dogs, which was preventing her from visiting friends' homes. She did, and wound up taking home a puppy that became "one of my best friends on the Earth."

To try to come to terms with the religious aspects of her abuse, she began studying all the religions of the world in college until she arrived at the notion that she simply didn't believe there was only one way to God, if there was a God at all. "I began to view God as absolutely a social construction," she says.

"This is probably what most people don't want to hear, but when I really reclaimed my life, the defining moment was when I said out loud, 'I absolutely do not believe in God.' It was being able to break a tie."

She says she "owns her own soul" by making sure her interactions with others are peaceful and kind.

"I believe in my family," she says. "And I believe in me."

"I have a great fear"

Bach was 17 and living alone in Los Angeles when she first met Tony Alamo's followers. She says she visited the couple's church in Hollywood "mostly out of curiosity."

Bach didn't have a religious upbringing, but she thirsted for spiritual guidance.

"When I was a little girl, even though I didn't come from a religious background, I really had a love for Christ," she says. "I used to pray. And I would look at the trees, even the flowers, and think how everything was outstretched, like it was worshipping God."

While attending one of the Alamos church services, Bach says she had a "very real born-again experience." She threw her last $3 on the collection plate and accepted an invitation to join the compound, which then was in Saugus, Calif.

"They asked me if I wanted to move in and be an 'on fire' Christian. They said that you don't just become a Christian and walk out the door. We spoon feed you the word. I decided to give my life for the cause."

Very quickly, she said, she was stripped of her identity. "You had someone assigned to you, an 'older Christian,'" she recalled. "They were with you every moment. You slept on the floor in a sister's dorm. You didn't have beds, a few of the chosen ones had beds, but you didn't. You were like cordwood. You woke every day with someone in your ear going, 'Thank you, Jesus.'"

Followers, including Bach, worked for businesses owned by the Alamos or on nearby farms and lived in sex-segregated dormitories. They were told what to wear. What to say. What to think. All meals were served in a cafeteria with no choices. She said anyone could be publicly rebuked without warning, and most of the followers "lived in constant fear."

One day, Bach said, she petted a llama on the grounds. Soon, an announcement came over the loudspeaker during a church service from Susan Alamo, who said there was "something mentally wrong" with Bach for petting the llama.

"That was the message. There was no explanation. The rest of the prayer meeting was a blur."

The rebuke meant that others in the compound refused to interact in any fashion with Bach for several months.

"That was the one time in my life that I wished I could grow old really quick so that moment would be far away from me," Bach recalls. "And to this day, I have a great fear of going into churches. I have a fear of some message coming down that I'm unworthy. That I'm doomed."

She says she endured years of emotional turmoil. She said she stayed because she came to truly believe that the Alamos could send her to hell. Bach says she was ex-communicated when her husband, a man 20 years her senior who'd served years in prison before joining the compound, was caught stealing. Bach said the marriage was arranged by the Alamos and that she had no choice but to marry the near-stranger.

Once outside, she and her husband divorced and she went to nursing school. She moved to Oregon soon after and got a job working at Dammasch State Hospital, where she met her current husband, Jim.

"I couldn't talk about this for years. It was so traumatic for me that I couldn't talk about it."

But seven years ago, while working at Fred Meyer, she had a breakdown.

"It was like I woke up from a coma. I suddenly realize I was the age I am today. I woke up from a sleep."

She became "plagued with panic attacks."

She went to a therapist, who told her that she had post-traumatic stress disorder.

The therapist said that she'd been stuffing down her feelings so long that, like too many books on a shelf, everything just collapsed.

She wanted to rebuild, but she was missing something crucial: her faith.

"I just have a lot of pain inside because I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do. Why am I even here now? I just feel like a failure. It's all of this situation I went through. I feel like I was spiritually raped."

Bach continues to struggle. "It's day by day," she says. "I long to believe, but I just can't."

Her husband of 18 years says he tries to help rebuild his wife's esteem.

"I don't like to control people," he says. "If I wanted to talk to somebody to simply reflect what I was saying, I'd look into a mirror and talk to myself. I try to empower her."

She said some friends recently invited her to a Christian group. That alone was enough to send her back into a tailspin. "I was very leery. I told them I'd had a bad experience. Now, I'm kind of back to where I was with the pain."

Clohessy said Bach's struggle is "painfully, painfully familiar."

"It's as though spiritual abuse robs people of a sense of innocence and purity dealing with the world."

But Clohessy says healing is possible.

"I firmly believe, based on my own experience, that recovery is absolutely possible," he says. "I think it takes a ton of work and patience and therapy and support and just almost an iron determination to focus on every scintilla of progress. Survivors have to celebrate every day of sobriety, every single nightmare-free sleep, every healthy human interaction."

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