Ewan Whyte – Landscape from the Back of a Train

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: Memory of a Cult Childhood

 

I

 

My imagination carries my sight through the kaleidoscopic distance, falling away from what was a moment ago. Trees, bridges, water, and the changing animal clouds in the sky shift with the lights at the sides of the tracks and overpasses that temporarily mark all changing lines of sight.

After dark, the stars wander back and forth over the train through leafless branches, dragging Orion’s feet through the top of the forest. Later Sirius is running through the trees shaking along the rails through my imagination to the opposing train’s violent approach and passing. A harbinger of anticipation of a coming destination, a likely final meeting in the consciousness of memory

..k

II

 

It had been a number of years since I had last seen my mother. I had heard that she was not well, that she was having memory problems. When I would speak with her on the phone she seemed to be mentally declining but tried very hard to hide it. This autumn I travel the distance through New York to Beaufort on the South Carolina coast to visit my ailing mother. It is a long train ride. We do not choose our parents or our genes. These are just presented to us. I was hoping there would be enough left of her to say goodbye to. Goodbye to an emotionally injured mother. We all love our mothers even if they have behaved badly.

 

III

 

She was born in North Carolina shortly before the Second World War. She had had a difficult life. Her mother suddenly died around her 12th birthday. Her father was very sick and in and out of hospital at the time. She was sent to live with others. Her chronically ill father died four years later. The last time I had seen her, she shocked me by telling me that she was repeatedly raped over several years during this time. She eventually moved to New England and refused any activity outside her studies with the sole exception of going to church. She received her MA in Education from Boston University as Valedictorian of her graduating class in her mid-twenties. She then started a life of sporadic teaching and frequent attendance in very conservative religious groups. She married an equally emotionally damaged man and became a mother. When I think of her through the sound of the rails at the back of the train, I think of her in the comforting rhythm of loud calming white noise. Its repeating patterning sounds to the changing landscape.

 

I have come to forgive her.

 

IV

 

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When I was eight years old, she joined an extreme mind-control sect on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, called the Community of Jesus. The compound included roughly 15 houses and had about 250 members. She dropped me off at its compound for the summer that year in the late ‘70s. My immediate reception was hostile and within five minutes I was threatened with violence and laughed at by adult members. It was strange to suddenly be in a place for the whole summer where I had no friends. There were bunk beds crowded into each small bedroom to house the changing number of roughly 15-20 children.

I was not allowed to see my parents, except for a few times, for very short member-supervised meetings, or have contact with anyone from the outside world. Beating of children by anonymous adult cult members was a constant threat and sometimes we would go to sleep at night through the screams of children being beaten.

 

We were subjected daily to a severe brainwashing technique called a ‘Light Session’ that would often go on for hours, during which adults would scream at an individual insulting their very being from point blank range for trivial things or imagined sins of the spirit. There was a technique in a Light Session, called ‘Blasting’ where the adult would put their face immediately in front of most often a child’s face almost touching it and scream as loud as they could. The individual would always give in and admit to whatever completely imagined sin they were accused of, often very quickly, especially if they were a young child or teenager, where physical violence was always a significant possibility. The purpose I learned later was to break our spirits and to eventually make us become adult members of this sect.

 

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I dealt with this very hostile situation through secret escape into my own imagination. The scraps of poetry I had memorized from books became my friends, although I would often get the lines wrong. There were almost no books at the compound and the very few there were, we had no access to. We were forced to work for free, from early morning till around 4 pm every day except Sunday in the vegetable gardens and grounds of the compound.

 

When I eventually saw my mother after over a month, I pleaded with her to let me leave. She told me it was a special place that was blessed by god. She told the adult members that I was complaining and should be punished. She then left me alone there for the rest of that summer.

 

The situation got worse. She became a devoted member of the Community of Jesusand I was moved there permanently before I was 10 and stayed, rarely seeing my parents until I was 11 when I moved to Canada with them. My mother and father maintained their involvement with this cult and I was forced to continue living its extreme interrogation lifestyle, returning to the Community of Jesus each year for the summer.

 

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As well as being forced to take part in “light groups for light sessions” [1] with Community of Jesus members at the cult’s affiliate (where sworn members of the Community of Jesusran) Grenville Christian College in Brockville, Ontario,[2] I was later forced to attend Grenville Christian College boarding school, for three very abusive years [3]  where it was understood that if I escaped, the police would bring me back, as they did to so many other children and teenagers. During this time, my mother was a devoted follower and teacher there. She, along with the other cult members, forced visits to the Community of Jesusevery summer until I was sixteen years old when I went down for a final confrontation with them before leaving for good.

 

V

 

Self-styled Mothers Cay Andersen and Judy Sorensen, the leaders of the Community of Jesus, had visited other self-styled Mothers in Germany who earlier had set up their own sect in Darmstadt called the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary in 1947. The two ‘mothers’ from Germany gave themselves the names Mother Basilia and Mother Martyria, and appeared to be Lutheran-based originally. They were obsessed with German guilt over the Second World War and they wanted to employ the same techniques used by Germans during the war but for the good of pointing out that German guilt.

Mother Basilia had a PhD in psychology and seems to have used her knowledge to considerable effect. The website of the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary states: “God commissioned our two spiritual mothers to build a chapel where he would receive honour and worship. As confirmation they received the following scripture: ‘Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them’” (Exodus 25:8). According to Andrew Hale-Byrn’s book Grenville, their group has been researched as a cult in European academic papers.

Here are excerpts from a piece originally written in German by Charlene Andersen about her 14 years as a member of the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary in Darmstadt. (She left in 1999). (titled, Eine ehemalige Marienschwester erzählt ihreGeschichte in 2007)

 

… “and Mother Basilea took over the lead to the community and also the lead of the ‘Lichtgemeinschaften’. On the basis of Johannes 1.9.” (If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.)

 

“These ‘Lichtgemeinschaften’ meetings were meant to cleanse the sisters from all evils.” (Lichtgemeinschaften means Licht = light, Gemeinschaften means communities – so it means ‘Communities of Light’)

 

“And this is how the ‘Lichtgemeinschaften’ were carried out: one sister after another had to confess which of their own words and deeds had harmed the community. While she (one sister) was standing there, everybody, who found something sinful in the standing sister, was invited to speak …”

 

“The ‘Lichtgemeinschaften’ meeting took hours and it happened often that the sisters who were criticized a lot broke down, cried and condemned themselves … During these meetings it was not allowed to justify oneself. One had to act quietly and subservient and to humiliate oneself …”

 

“I think the terrors of these meetings I have never overcome. Instead of creating harmony and healing within the community these meetings created, to my view, mistrust and fear … My description will be eventually a warning for the subtle power of spiritual seduction.”

 

“The ones among you who have never been a member of a sect will have challenges to understand what I am talking about …” (She uses the German word Sekte, but it arguably could also be translated as cult – it appears to be a much stronger word than the English “sect”).

 

There appears to be a link between Nazi interrogation techniques and this group. Peter Andersen, son of Mother Cay, stated in Andrew Hale-Byrns’ self published book Grenville:

 

Both Mothers from Germany spent months at Rock Harbor (The Community of Jesus) in the late 1960s training Cay and Judy in Light Sessions, or “monastic” discipline. I think Cay and Judy brutalized it to an extent they didn’t practice in Germany and then (Headmaster) Farnsworth took it to a whole new level at Grenville. The institutional foundations were, for sure, rooted in the practices of that order in Germany. And to an extent, in the Third Reich. (2015, page 262)

 

According to Peter Andersen, Cay said: “We’re going to do this ‘community thing’ better. We can do better than these people.’”

 

VI

 

A Globe and Mailarticle from 2007 stated that Mother Judy started having a sexual affair with one of the nuns from the sect in Germany. (That was hypocritical as we were told at the Community of Jesusthat, if anyone gay stepped on the property, the mothers would feel it in the spirit of god). After this, all of the women were called back to Germany for serious correction.[1]

It was on the basis of the very harsh, mind control ‘Light Sessions’ lifestyle that the Community of Jesus was organized and controlled. Its leaders managed to live lives of luxury with a private plane and an estate in Bermuda, while so many of those of the low ranks and young children suffered.

United Church of Christ USA (and later, United Church of Canada) Minister James Whyte wrote this about my time at the community of Jesus cult and Grenville Christian College in 2007:

 

“The children of community members were dealt with in a strict and often harsh manner. My son was 10 when we lived in the community in separate homes as was the policy. He was forced to eat all his food and on several occasions was forced to eat his vomit after he had thrown up.” [5]

 

Growing up in a hostile environment, isolated and without emotional or practical family support, was difficult. As a child it was hard to get over the sickening level of abuse that just got worse and worse. The far reaching after-effects of this were far more significant than I initially realized.

 

VII

 

I ended up homeless in my twenties, sleeping on public benches in parks during the day as it was too dangerous to try to sleep at night. I had my consuming interest in writing and memorizing poetry. Even in the roughest of circumstances it was always some form of comfort. When you are suffering Homer is still great poetry, despite edging on parody from time to time. Of Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey, “And then he beat his breast and cried, be strong my heart, far worse have you endured.”

 

VIII

 

My mother remained an ardent supporter of the cult till the very end of her mind. Oddly, she did not seem surprised that eventually there were legal proceedings and criminal investigations against the group, with many pages of shocking affidavits. From what I can surmise from her behaviour, it appears she adhered to this cult as it related to something in her that was lost in her years of sexual abuse; and with the same intensity as she felt her emotional wounds she clung to this cult. She claimed to be tithing part of her income and she told me she signed papers of loyalty to them for life.

 

Well I forgive her anyways; a person has to be very ill to treat their own child in that way. In the end I have come to realize, it was actually about her and not about me.

 

IX

 

As if in comic metaphor, my first evening visiting my mother in her home, at her insistence, we watched a nature documentary together. It was focussed around a mother hippo and a baby hippo in a central African lake. Presented with commentary, a baby hippo was beside its mother when a large crocodile came near. The mother was alert and looked menacing. The crocodile swam away. The baby moved immediately beside its mother. It knew it was in danger but soon forgot after its mother eased her guard. It swam around looking at the fish in an almost ballet like display from an underwater camera and got so engrossed at what it was doing that it got further and further away from its mother who did not follow. She did not call to the baby hippo.

The camera showed a crocodile going along slowly behind tracking it. The little hippo continued in playful moments, of seeming joy and delight in the world of colourful fish around it. When the baby hippo finally noticed the crocodile behind it, the crocodile was quite close. The small hippo crept to the side of the lake but was trapped by dense reeds and could not escape. The crocodile moved close. The mother just watched from a distance.

The crocodile paused a moment, looked at the mother hippo who did not move, then at the baby hippo who had given up and was looking scared, accepting its fate. The crocodile moved in casually without the speed it is known for. It snapped its jaws down hard on the baby hippo killing it in one bite. It slid back and watched the body floating for a few seconds before coming back and dragging it away under the water. Like a reality show, there was a camera shot on the mother who looked almost humanly sad. My mother was quite upset by this. She used to like happier ending nature shows.

 

X

 

As a child I would often look at older people and think that this was their personality, their demeanour that was their character throughout their entire lives. As a teenager, we realize  it is only part of them. Even vicious dictators can descend into dopey kindness and remarkable calm when the situation calls for it.

 

I did not know what to expect seeing my mother after three years. There was another time when I saw her at the airport I was shocked at how she had changed, at how old she had become. I had travelled a long distance to tell my mother who can no longer remember well or perhaps fully understand that I now forgive her.

 

I find it sad she is not the same woman who attended the University of North Carolina, Boston University and attended classes at Harvard. She is not the self-involved woman who would argue about the American nineteenth century novel before going to her cult meeting where she would often be the only educated person in the room. She was not the same woman who would go out of her way to teach poorly performing students while giving gifted students a hard time.

I did not spend that much time with my mother, so in some ways I did not really know her in the way that many other children know their parents. But I see her on her back steps now, again and again, playing with the kittens that her outside cat keeps having, and holding them in her arms like a small child, admiring them, comforted by them, far more than I have ever seen her comforted by people. Perhaps this is a good thing.

 

She asked me about my poetry. Had I been writing it? She must have remembered it from years ago. She used to ask me to write her a poem. For years I could not write her anything. Now finally I had written her a poem on one of her favourite saints (despite having no belief in her god), St. Francis of Assisi, who was born wealthy and after a dissolute youth gave away all his possessions and wandered out of his town singing. She used to talk about him when I was a small child. She asked me to recite it to her and I did.

 

Fioretti (of St. Francis)

 

Returning home
after a wealthy party

&nbsp
stopping for shelter
in a half fallen country chapel

looking out over the fields
through the holes in the walls

he took off his rich clothes.
For a week he spoke with sister moon

and brother sun,
hearing their songs in inflected light.

After the last night at the first
moments of dawn

when the sun sends its sheets of fire
over the living surface of the earth

he woke with joy and shuddered
to the opening of the fields of flowers.

 

She said again that she loved St. Francis and she said she liked her poem. She spoke of medieval saint stories. We agreed to go for a long walk on the Hunting Island beach in the state park the following morning.

 

XI

 

At the beach she asked me to turn on my recorder – she must have remembered I carried one around for years – as we walked along the sand with her old fellow teacher friend.

I said: “You have always liked playing with plants.”

 

Mother:Oh I like them … earthbound … (laughs)you don’t agree?

Ewan: Oh yes.

Mother: Just standing here and looking at the beautiful trees it’s lovely.

(Huge branches, Spanish moss, twisting to an imagined heaven.)

Mother: I do like looking at the trees.

(Their thick gnarled branches under a smooth green canopy.)

(Now picking up giant pinecones from our walk on the beach, Gathering shells.)

Mother: This one in the middle … but it’s a pretty one I think … don’t you want it? It’s yours if you don’t want it.

(Now on from every side, some of them, it seems, as big as my head.)

 

I look at her form now as she is walking ahead of me. She looks like an ageing ghost, her long grey dress fluttering around her. It hurts to see her like this.

One of the remarkable things about talking to those who have caused significant suffering to others is often discovering their incredible ability to deny anything ever happened.

Is it that on one level they don’t care and any sense of prevailing justice is for saccharinely comforting Hollywood movies or children’s books? It is a stark reality. Asking someone to deny their own emotionally charged lie for another’s truth, sometimes it seems like it is almost bordering on arrogance.

 

She started visiting with her friend on a bench near the lighthouse and said she would stay seated on the bench. She told me that she knew I wanted to go up to the top of the famous 150-year-old Hunting Island lighthouse. I wondered if it’s because she remembered or because she almost knew me.

The 167 iron steps to the top of the lighthouse provoke imagination to run with its history. Ships from the civil war blockade came within sight of this light. It has been fifteen years since I first came here. Now there are two boats miles out, pushing themselves across the sea, frozen in the sea with a small white wakes behind them, though they seem utterly still.

Inland in the other direction, trees, birdsongs, deer tracks and the promise of alligators continue in their impersonal task of being; turning back, the ships no further out, struggle against the day and press on.

 

XII

 

And my Alzheimer’s affected mother with her rehashed memory replaying again and again experiences from many years before, still remembering, now confused, in fragments. I wonder where it all goes, memory, steadily falling away. We are on former Cherokee Native land but they have been nearly expunged from remembrance here.

The clouds recycle into new shapes: one looks like a mushroom which my imagination thinks is running away with words that my present watery clasp of language fails to grasp. The echoing lighthouse chamber from below lifts voices up from the ground: porpoises are jumping out of the water, a pelican is eating an oversized fish and looks like Groucho Marx swallowing a giant pickle whole.

 

XIII

 

She was still wearing the membership ring of the cult: a broad flat band in gold with a negative Maltese style cross stamped out of it. Sitting on a bench beside her, looking at that membership ring, I tell her I forgive her.

Because of the years of mind control Light Sessions, in which members’ supposed dark intentions of their emotions were interrogated ad nauseam, individuals sometimes no longer had access to their own personal emotions. My words to her seem to have little meaning, but that’s okay. She looks at me in silence this time.

 

XIV

 

“Ever since you were a child you used to wonder how much a tree would like to walk,” I said.

Often she would talk about this passage from Mark 8:23-24: “And he took the blind man by the hand, and led him out of the town; and when he had spit on his eyes, and put his hands upon him, he asked him if he saw anything. And he looked up, and said, I see men as trees, walking.”

 

Mother: Yes

Ewan:  And what would it do when it was walking?

Mother:  I don’t know what it would do, I just don’t know, I just would play that the tree was walking over here or over there or whatever, because I was an only child I had to make my own playmates.

Ewan: Would the trees talk?

Mother: Sure they talked if any of them made any noise I took it for speech I guess the squirrels were in their hair. It was a nice big back yard when I was a child and I enjoyed it … I enjoyed the critters. My mother had some fits when I brought some wounded critters, it was a fiasco. She would say: ‘Don’t you bring any more critters home. Your father’s sick and in the bed.’ And he was.

 

(A cat comes close, she leans to pet it.)

Mother: We have one like you at home. Bless your little heart.

,

Ewan Whyte

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Bio – Ewan Whyte is a writer and translator. He has written for the Globe & Mail and The Literary Review of Canada. His essays, art criticism, poetry, and translations have been widely published in journals and magazines. He has read his translations of the ancient Roman poet Catullus on public radio in the U.S. He has recently completed two books. He lives in Toronto.

 

 

Notes:

 

[1]Margit Mayberry, a former teacher at Grenville Christian college stated in an affidavit

“Light sessions were common. I witnessed both staff and students’ light sessions …

“For students, sometimes the whole student body would be pulled out of classes and brought to the chapel, sometimes for the entire day, and Charles would yell in general and at individuals for certain sins / attitudes.  It was just public humiliation and it was awful.  I recall my stomach cringing in pity for students being humiliated in front of the whole student body, but there was nothing anyone could do about it.  I recall students coming back to the dorms and / or class and being very upset and crying as a result of these sessions, but they wouldn’t talk about it.  It was also a real disruption to academic life and it was hard to make up the lost class time.” Margit Mayberry

 

“My experience of Grenville had long-term effects on my life. I felt guilty about getting married, and I wasn’t able to go to church for many years.  I felt like a worthless piece of garbage for 20 years, and I was an adult when I was at the school.  I was a very healthy stable adult when I first arrived at the school but was in therapy for years after I left.  If it had this effect on me as an adult, I can’t imagine the effect that it must have have had on the students.  I can see how students were extremely damaged by being at the school, and I feel that they are justified in their claims against Grenville.” Margit Mayberry

 

[2]Don Snider went to Grenville (Christian College) in the ‘70s, this is from an affidavit and is also included in .Andrew Hale-Byrn’s self-published book Grenville

“The death of Mike Grey outweighs most complaints.  Chuck Farnsworth found him dead in the dorm.  There was no autopsy.  Just lots of political pull to keep things quiet” he says.  “Mike was a student who knew I had taught first aid while there in grade 12 the year before.  He told me that they would not let him have his heart medication as, “You don’t need meds, God will heal you.”  Mike told me that without his medications that he would die.  I expected that the result would be that he would get sick and go back to the doctor.  I remember seeing his chest all cut open from heart surgery and his not being allowed to play sports.  Soon after, we went to his funeral here in Oakville.  The police were going down to see his mother and lay charges until the head coroner said there was no autopsy, and no definitive proof that he would not have died on that date naturally.  But there was sleep deprivation and vicious abuse.  He was put on such extreme discipline that a person in the best of health would find difficult.  They also found out he was gay.  He was cremated in his school uniform.”

 

[3] there were many different kinds of abuse at Grenville  Jacqueline Thomas made this statement  about her time at Grenville Christian College:

”Father Farnsworth repeatedly squeezed and fondled my breasts during my time at Grenville. Every Sunday before church in the Sacristy (little room behind the chapel where the priests robe, and vestments and altar implements are kept) Father Farnsworth would grope me.  To this day I cannot breastfeed my daughter, or let anyone touch my breasts, because of the memories of that, which make me physically sick.” Jacqueline Thomas

“When it came to the academic aspects of this so called ‘university preparatory school,’ I was told not to even try to go to university.  I was academically blackballed by Father Farnsworth’s followers. They would give me the same exam over and over, which I knew I had done well on, only to falsely tell me that I had done poorly and manipulate my academic average.” Jacqueline Thomas

“With regards to sex education, Father Farnsworth told me in one of his instructions in the dining room that all women who had been raped had asked for it”

 

 

[4] Jill Elmer who is the daughter of Mother Judy Sorensen wrote to Andrew Hale-Byrne in 2013 “They are evil people. They think nothing of lying, breaking & entering, stealing, they even kidnapped my children when they were tiny.”

Chronicle, a news magazine (WCVB-TV, Channel 5 Boston), made a documentary on the Community of Jesus in 1993. And its host spoke of the affidavit Jill Elmer signed about her children being taken from her by Community of Jesus members while she was in hospital. Richardson commented that this was not just anyone, this was founder Mother Judy Sorensen’s own daughter.

 

[5] United church of Christ USA (and later United Church of Canada) Minister James Whyte wrote this about the Community of Jesus and Grenville Christian College in a signed letter several years ago. This is the only statement from an active member of the clergy (at the time) I have seen on this cult.

 

“They were masters at zeroing in on a person’s weakness or some sin in past or present. One woman was hounded because of an abortion she had had.  Homosexuality was condemned and it was claimed that the mothers could tell if a gay person had come onto the property.  It was claimed that angels had been seen on the fence of the community protecting it from the dark forces of the world.  Obviously, any criticism of the community was forbidden.  It was a sacred cow, a shrine, a holy site, as holy and sacrosanct as the Vatican.  It was said that if a community member left, he or she would be judged by God and would fall prey to the world, the flesh and the devil.  They expected bad things to happen to those who left, and if no calamity occurred, some members would wonder why not.  Indoctrination into the teachings and light groups was unrelenting …

 

United church of Christ USA (and later United Church of Canada) Minister James Whyte “The children of community members were dealt with in a stricter and often harsh manner. My son was 10 when we lived in the community in separate homes as was the policy.  He was forced to eat all his food and on several occasions was forced to eat his vomit after he had thrown up.” “An example of how a rebellious boy was treated in the home in which we were living indicates the harsh manner in which teens might be dealt with on Cape Cod as well as in Brockville. The boy was 15 or 16 and had talked back to his parents at meal time in the home in which we were living as “live-ins.”  The men at the table jumped up and three or four of them grabbed the boy by the throat and slammed him against the wall.  The father was ordered to strap his son.  The father was accompanied by another man, and crying, took his son to a downstairs bedroom where the boy was strapped.  We could hear the boy crying”. 

 

 “The community was strongly authoritarian with the individual always subservient to the group.  Some members believed they had been predestined, chosen before the foundation of the world to be members of such a select group.  We were told that no group in the world could match the Community of Jesus.  The members felt a strong affinity to the Separatists who came on the Mayflower. They also believed they were predestined and chosen before the foundation of the world to be part of the Elect.”  

 

The Poem: Fioretti has references to the medieval poem the Canticle of the Sunonce attributed to St. Francis but now considered a later work, as well as a prayer by the late 19thand early 20thcentury saint Teihard de Chardin.

 

 

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