Knoxville author Debby Schriver exposes cult life, children's exploitation

Know News, USA Today/June 27, 2018

By Margie Hagen

A serendipitous encounter over four years ago brought Farragut author Debby Schriver together with three generations of former and current religious cult members; the result is a meticulously researched and often searing account of life inside one of the most insidious cults in the country.  

Published in April by the University of Tennessee Press, “Whispering in the Daylight: The Children of Tony Alamo Christian Ministries and Their Journey to Freedom” is Schriver’s personal narrative. Conducting over 300 interviews with children, adults and law enforcement, she also relied on court records and attorney documentation.

The book details the humble beginnings of the self-proclaimed prophets Tony and Susan Alamo (pronounced uh-LAH-mo) and their rise to amass great wealth through subjugation and control of followers. Using isolation, fear and authoritarian tactics, the couple persuaded thousands of followers to surrender everything and perform exhausting labor for no wages.

Tony’s birth name was Bernie Lazar Hoffman and Susan was born Edith Opal Horn. She went by a variety of names; both had multiple marriages before meeting, marrying and legally changing their names. Each brought a special talent to the union; Susan was the evangelical leader while Tony was the marketer.

They achieved a level of celebrity, even starting a line of custom clothing featuring bedazzled denim jackets worn by artists like Elvis, Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers. The stars didn’t realize that behind closed doors, children as young as 8 labored 12 hours a day to produce the expensive clothing.

After decades of tax evasion and reports of child abuse including severe beatings and “child bride” marriages, the FBI raided the compound in Arkansas, taking custody of underage kids and placing them in foster homes. The children didn’t know any other way of life, and often their birth parents surrendered them, leaving them devastated.  

A fierce advocate for children, Schriver is a longtime member of the Foster Care Review Board, appointed by the Knox County Juvenile Court. Holding two degrees from the University of Tennessee, she specializes in psychological and sociological development. Retired after a 32-year career at UT, Schriver was enlisted by foster parents who took in six children from the Arkansas compound.

Her goal was to help them adapt to life outside the cult, but as she began peeling the layers away, Schriver found her mission. Calling them “my kids," she speaks to them nearly every day.

“They came with a lot of baggage,” she said. “They had to learn to trust me. What I learned opened my eyes and my heart.”

She plans to use proceeds from book sales to establish a support community for cult survivors. Watch for her in the upcoming Sundance/NBC TV docuseries “Ministry of Evil: The Twisted Cult of Tony Alamo,” to be released in January.

“Whispering in the Daylight” is a fascinating and engaging look at how and why the cult phenomenon is able to exist and proliferate.

Meet the author on Saturday, June 30, during a book signing at Barnes and Noble, 8029 Kingston Pike, from 2-4 p.m. You can also find it at or Amazon, along with Schriver’s other books.

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