For Tony Alamo survivors, religious abuse scars the soul
Diane Bach gives her horse Star Point a smooch on the nose at her home near St. Helens.
A former member of the Tony Alamo ministry in Arkansas, Bach lived there from age 17 to 31 and was thrown out in the early 1980s after her then-husband sewed her a shirt from factory scraps and Tony Alamo called it stealing. She still struggles daily with diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder as a consequence of brainwashing.
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.
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.”
Inside the Arkansas compound, tales of abuse and neglect
If only she prayed hard enough, she could make Susan Alamo rise from the dead.
At age 12, having not set foot outside a religious compound in Arkansas since she was 4, Elishah Franckiewicz believed it was possible.
Day after day, she lay down beside the corpse, dressed in a wedding gown, for Susan Alamo was “the bride of God.”
And day after day, she endured beatings by church elders because the dead woman — wife to sect founder Tony Alamo — did not open her eyes.
“We prayed over her open coffin for months,” said Franckiewicz, now 37 and an English teacher at an area community college. “When she didn’t come back to life, Tony (Alamo) started losing his mind. He believed that it was because the devil was in the children, because we had weak souls.”
On Sunday, the morning after federal investigators raided the Arkansas headquarters of Alamo’s ministry as part of a child pornography investigation, Franckiewicz, for a brief moment, became that 12-year-old again.
In a resolute voice, she made clear how she and others in the greater Portland area endured and escaped unspeakable abuses at the compound. Franckiewicz fled in 1985 at age 15.
Franckiewicz said she and a loose network of adult compound survivors spent Saturday evening on the phone, calling one another from opposite ends of the country to discuss what they could do to help the six children who have been placed in temporary state custody as they are interviewed in the wake of the raid.
“We’ve been watching CNN,” Franckiewicz said. “They announced that authorities were doing what they could to return the children to the parents again as soon as possible, which is the worst thing that could happen.”
Franckiewicz says she was the first baby born at Alamo’s first compound in California. Years after her escape, she testified against Tony Alamo, now 74, whom she describes as a “seriously dangerous man,” in his tax evasion trial in 1994.
For that, he was convicted and served four years in prison for failing to pay taxes in the lucrative line of “Tony Alamo” brand sequined denim jackets he sold in the 1980s.
Franckiewicz said Sunday she decided to tell her story because she worries that the public will be swayed by Alamo’s arguments that his group is being persecuted. At one time, she says, Alamo was married to 10 girls ages 15 and younger, including her two nieces.
Arkansas police said Saturday that they had received complaints from former ministry members about allegations of child abuse, sexual abuse and polygamy. In turn, they turned over information about the allegations to the FBI.
Alamo has publicly denied the child abuse allegations.
“I want to talk about this because I am so afraid that once again allegations are just going to somehow find a way of not coming to fruition,” Franckiewicz said. “He’s been on the news before. He’s been raided before. Yet, he’s still here. My story doesn’t matter now. But there are people’s stories who do matter. They’re more recent. I want to tell mine so there’ll be safety in numbers.”