In some ways, the first part of this series on the Freemans and their past only scratched the surface. Every ex-member of the Freeman group who was interviewed agreed that the couple played at least a partial role in many broken marriages and shattered churches. But a few members — mostly women who had become extremely close to Patsy Freeman — say there are deeper issues with the Freemans that are much more disturbing.
A request sent out last week for an interview with Bill and Patsy Freeman for this article was not answered.
One ex-member said much of the information disclosed to The Whitworthian and printed in this article is known only to a handful of ex-members and current members in the Freeman group.
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“Many of those that have known Bill and Patsy have yet to comprehend the gravity of what was done in secret,” he said.
Here is the story of what has happened behind the scenes and the story of how some of the ex-members came to forgive the Freemans many years after they split from the group.
Lynne Young spent 25 years of her life close to the Freemans. She says she confided every detail of her life to Patsy Freeman. For much of this time, Young was in Patsy Freeman’s inner circle of a dozen or so loyal women who acted part-time as Freeman’s personal secretaries, cleaners and — in some cases — sources of money.
When Young finally forced herself to leave the group 10 years ago, her world imploded.
Actually, it vanished.
“I didn’t know where to go,” Young said. “I didn’t feel like I could go to another church. That would displease the Lord.”
Young — one of the few ex-members of the Freeman group willing to have her name used in an article — said the Freemans subtly taught that loyalty to the church and loyalty to the Freemans equaled loyalty to God. The closeness of the group created “concentrated indoctrination,” so simply trying out a new church went against her every trained instinct.
“When you’re taught that stuff, you don’t know what to do. That doctrine holds people,” Young said.
It took her four years to feel comfortable at a new church.
When Young left the Freeman group in 1995, she felt like she had left a convent and had to learn how people acted in everyday society. She sat in malls and watched shoppers walk, talk, eat, laugh and act — normal.
She had forgotten what normal was.
A psychologically captivating method of legalism, discipline and peer pressure kept her in the group for decades, Young said, adding that for the four years she was in Patsy Freeman’s inner circle while in Scottsdale Ariz., Freeman’s control of the women in her core group was startling.
Women who wanted to be close to Patsy Freeman and enter her inner circle followed the subtle and often unspoken rules, Young said. In the Freeman group, you were discouraged from wearing makeup or jewelry. You were looked down on as less spiritual if you watched television or read the newspaper. You didn’t celebrate Christmas or any other holiday – or at least not to the same extent that others did. The outside world in general was shunned “because it was so evil, so bad,” Young said.
Most importantly, you looked to Patsy Freeman for spiritual guidance on every detail of life — even what color to paint your house, when to do your laundry or how to clean the house.
Young described Patsy Freeman as the perceived “resident expert on spirit” and said she was viewed as “the one closest to God.”
In the late 1980s and 90s Young lived with a half dozen other women in Scottsdale, who were part of the Freeman group. She and other former members said that the group environment created the sense that the members acted as constant “watchdogs” who kept each other in line by reporting to Patsy Freeman if anyone diverged from the status quo.
“Women lost their person; their personality became straight-line,” Young said. “The will was really broken — they were just puppets in her hand. They didn’t have thoughts of their own, they were just zombies in bodies. It really was just brainwashing.”
Much of how Patsy Freeman orchestrated her control and influence over the group took place behind the scenes in Seattle and Scottsdale, ex-members said. Some members also said there were a lot of positive and exciting things happening at these churches, but underneath it all was Freeman’s pyramid-like control structure: Freeman was at the top and she delegated control over other members to those in her inner circle.
Young, then 51 years old, was brought to the breaking point after Patsy Freeman subjected her to a form of discipline that was used occasionally on the women in her inner circle, say a few ex-members who knew Freeman closely.
One day, Freeman told Young to go to her room and stay there until she repented of a sin. Young didn’t have a phone, wasn’t allowed to talk to others and could only read material that Freeman provided her.
She stayed there for three days and ate only what was given to her. The women who lived with her brought the food up to the door but didn’t go in – “like when the inmates in prison are brought their food,” Young said.
Young realized she needed to get out of the group. When she left and returned to her husband in Washington state, the couple was a “mess.”
That was a decade ago. Now Young is quick to say she has found a welcoming church and loves God “with all my heart.”
But that didn’t stop her from sending an e-mail last December to Whitworth chaplain Terry McGonigal. Young wrote that the Freemans believed “they alone have the truth” and that “lives are broken” by the group.
“I have 25 years of experience with these people and I could write a whole book,” Young wrote. “These people are ruthless. They will stop at nothing to get what they want.”
Young says she doesn’t want to see students at Whitworth go through a similar experience. She’s still befuddled by how she spent half of her life in the Freeman group.
“You wonder how people get sucked into this thing,” Young said. “I even wonder how it happened to me.”
A common pattern
Young’s story is unique since only a select few have become part of Patsy Freeman’s core group, but in many ways her experience in the Freeman group – though an extreme case – represents a common pattern, say ex-members.
Those who were close to the Freemans while they were in Seattle during the 1970s and 80s and in Arizona during the late 80s and 90s point to consistent strategy in how the Freeman group built a stronghold in these communities: First, they recruited Christians who were looking for a loving environment, then they drew them into their group through a process called “love bombing” until they viewed Bill and Patsy Freeman as authority figures.
Then, in an environment of exclusivity, seclusion and separation, they fostered the members’ loyalty to the group, which is seen as “the church.”
Eventually, Patsy Freeman drew on some of the older women to add to her core group of about a dozen or so women. Others – kids, high school students and adults – helped remodel and refurbish the Freemans’ houses. They also made up Bill Freeman’s congregation and some supported the Freemans financially.
Many former members say Bill Freeman’s teachings and doctrines did not veer that far from sound Christian theology and the standard teachings of the Local Church, a movement that the Freemans helped lead for about two decades before splitting from the church in 1986.
A former member said the Freemans “love the Bible and study it a lot and I suspect that you would not find any of their beliefs that are not accepted by mainline Christianity.”
All the ex-members, however, agreed that the Freemans’ practices were damaging.
Because of how closely the group operated and its lasting influence peoples’ lives, many ex-members have labeled the Freeman group a cult. Others say it depends on your definition of a cult, but agreed their practices were abnormal and troublesome.
“Anything that’s as ingrained as that is, is clearly a cult,” said one longtime ex-member who was close to Patsy Freeman.
Brent Barber, a former member who lived in the Freemans’ house for eight months in the early 1980s, said that the Freemans fit the definition of a cult: “They create a ‘closed system’ of those inside and those without the group,” he said, adding that he was told to cut all ties with family members skeptical of the Freemans.
Another former member said that based on their practices, the Freemans are a “classic cult.”
“They are not aware of it, but (they) really think that they are the most enlightened,” he said.
When you first meet the Freemans and their followers, they offer so much acceptance and attention that the experience can be exhilarating, former members say. A few ex-members said that Patsy Freeman purposefully arranges things so that a newcomer will suddenly be invited out to lunch or dinner by a different member of the group every day.
“They present very well,” said one former member. “They’re very outgoing people – in some ways, just what a young person is looking for.”
Another former member, who joined the Freeman group shortly after graduating from college, said first encounters with the group were “overpowering to most of us that became involved with their group as college students.”
Barber had such an experience.
Barber, whose father was an elder in the Local Church, joined the Freeman group in Seattle at the age of 19. He said he was “struck by the friendliness and genuine humanity of the seeming atmosphere of love and respect in their church.”
In a 1998 e-mail to a friend, Barber tells of his experience living in the Freeman’s Seattle home for a year:
“At first I was enthralled with the typical ‘love-buzz’ used by all cults to snare the convert and was treated to a great deal of pampered attention,” Barber said. “… I must admit there is a strong spirit which one meets at first encounter with the Freeman group, and it feels quite euphoric and spiritually sensual. It is a high of sorts, and I, along with others, felt a blissful transport as long as one fully transferred one’s mind and will, in complete surrender and submission, to the group construct headed by Patsy and Bill.”
Barber said he was being groomed by the Freemans for a leadership position in the Local Church and was “ranked high in the group hierarchy.”
It wasn’t long, however, until Barber said he realized that there were costs that came with his elevated position. The Freemans expected adherents’ undivided loyalty, even if it wasn’t openly asked for in public.
One former member said the process of drawing people into the group was like “boot camp in the Marines. … An attempt is made by Patsy to break down the individual’s will and strongholds that may frustrate her efforts to convince members to drop their individual identity and to take on and operate only according to the group identity.”
Mental boot camp
He said that as he became more deeply involved in the group, he felt his “soul shrivel and become a shell of my former self.”
“One had no independence of thought and acted like a tentacle of a great octopus, with all actions requiring a top-down approval from Patsy, who wielded the imprimatur of Bill,” Barber said, adding that Bill Freeman “spent all day with his books and only emerged on occasion to rubber stamp (Patsy Freeman’s) decisions.”
(Bill Freeman still maintains his Ministry of the Word company in Spokane to sell the dozen books he has written over the years.)
Barber said he soon became ill and was told that he was “under attack by demons.” He said he was “nearly sick with fright and lived in near-perpetual panic.”
“I began to have cyclical looping thoughts which I could not stop, for which I prayed even more fervently,” Barber said. “When I came to Patsy yet again for help, she told me my problem was that I had not repented to my former sins.”
Barber said that out of desperation he eventually called his mom – who he was told to cease contact with – and finally heard “a voice of reason.” The next day, he was on a flight home to Oklahoma.
Barber has cut all ties with the Freeman group, but many ex-members say that the Freeman’s current followers are not as lucky and continue to be subjects of Patsy Freeman’s influence.
One former member who has some relatives living in the Freeman group said the relatives are “quite innocent, yet fully taken in.”
“The kids are fine people, but inordinately dependent on a couple of the adults,” said another former member. “They would feel they were disobeying God if they did or said anything different from their leaders.”
Followers the victims?
Dianne Denton is an example of these young followers.
Denton attended a Seattle private school that the Freemans had heavy influence over. She said she was ingrained with the group’s indoctrination from sixth grade through high school.
“You sacrificed your children to this cult,” Denton said, explaining that she was influenced more by her time at the school and in the Freeman group than by her parents, who were members of the group.
Denton and other former members said that in the 1970s the Freemans held occasional “burnings.” In an effort to have its members rid themselves of worldly trappings, the Freeman group would ask its members to burn anything that seemed to hold them back from being more spiritual, including stuffed animals and pictures of relatives.
As a student at the Heritage school – which had about 150 students at its peak — Denton and some of her classmates were “ridiculed, belittled, … yelled at, isolated, driven by fear, and stripped of all dignity and self worth,” Denton said in a 1999 e-mail to a number of friends.
Denton said the girls in the school and other women in the Freeman group were all pressured to wear maternity clothing at one point so that their “figure wouldn’t tempt a man.”
Denton said in her e-mail that the goal of the school was to “assimilate children into this cult and regulate them at all times.”
In an interview, she said that the “idea was to clone everybody” and “make them robots.”
Some former members said that Denton’s description of the Heritage school is accurate. A longtime member of the Seattle Local Church, who had some kids in the Heritage school, said he felt much of Denton’s description was true and acknowledged Patsy Freeman’s legalistic and controlling habits. However, he said the school was an overall benefit to his children and it taught them strong academics and studying habits.
A Sept. 1981 transcript of Patsy Freeman talking about how to discipline children backs up Denton’s and other’s account of Freeman’s strictness.
The transcript, which a handful of former members say is accurate, quotes Patsy Freeman calling some nursery rhymes and children’s books “inspired by the devil.”
In the transcript, Freeman also described how she once disciplined her daughter:
“At five months old one of our children insisted on turning around in her stroller and standing in it. I mean somebody had to win. And I did, and I spanked her.”
The transcript continues: “You know it was against my concept then to spank a five month old. I turned her around and said, ‘We’re going to sit down now.’ She just wouldn’t listen to me. So I needed to let her know I meant what I was saying. So I took her and said, ‘You’re going to sit down! Mommy says sit down!’ As I was putting her down in the seat, I spanked her again. She cried real hard and she never did it again.”
Earlier in the transcript, Freeman said that she “used to pray for opportunities to have a way to spank my five (children), because I knew there was no other way to deal with their need.”
After Denton and her family finally left the Freemans in 1986, she eventually found a new church where she says she heard the real version of Christianity for the first time.
“I was so stunned when I heard the truth,” she said. “I had no idea God was this good and it was so great.”
Many others who have left the group are still entrenched in bitterness toward the Freemans, Denton said, adding that many have rejected Christianity entirely.
“Probably the few who did find Christianity can name person after person whose life is devastated,” she said.
But Denton said she’s confident others can heal from their experiences if they turn to God: “I don’t think you can ever be free from it until you find the truth and let go,” she said.
Another former member, who left the Freemans in her mid-30s, and says she had to start her life over again after splitting from the group. But she says she’s no longer bitter – something she credits to God.
“I still hold out hope that since God did a miracle in my life, maybe some of those in Spokane can have some reconciliation,” she said.
Denton is equally as hopeful. “Bill and Patsy can do so much, but God can do more,” she said. “They certainly don’t have the corner on power.”