Bob Pardon to the rescue

Cults have dropped from the headlines, but they still destroy lives and psyches. In out-of-the-way Lakefield, one man fights against mind control.
The Boston Phoenix, June 27 – July 3, 2003

By any measure, Kerry is a lovely young woman. A 21-year-old with honey-blond hair, expressive blue eyes, and peachy skin, Kerry seems the embodiment of youthful purity — as though she had stepped out of an ad for Ivory soap, or off the cover of a Christian-music CD. Her manner is candid and friendly. She is well-spoken and thoughtful. The closest she comes to using profanity is the occasional “gosh” or “my goodness,” spoken in a girlish singsong, delivered with a faint smile and an unwavering gaze.

There is something radiant about Kerry, something almost beatific. She certainly doesn’t seem the type to commit self-mutilation, to grind sharp objects into her skin or to pull her hair out in clumps, to assume weird, mangled positions on the floor until her muscles scream. Neither does she seem the type to mete out pain to others — to bully and humiliate, to kick and punch a person until he can hardly walk, until his battered kidneys begin to falter. Kerry seems the last person in the world to play a role in what she describes as “a torture chamber” — yet that is exactly what she did for the better part of two years.

Feroze Golwalla

While pseudonyms are used in this item, later news reports identify the people involved:

Students’ tale of cult ‘evil’

The circumstances of Kerry’s descent into depravity are both ironic and predictable. The person who led her into hell did so by vowing to bring her closer to God. “I fell in love with his vision,” she says, “his purpose, with his dreams. I aspired to be like him. I wanted to be around him. I felt like I’d be a better person by being around him.” These days, Kerry is not so enamored of the man — we’ll call him Tariq — who drew her in. “I definitely think he’s mentally ill,” Kerry says, letting out a hollow, no-kidding burst of laughter. “I personally think he has narcissistic personality disorder.”

Whatever Tariq’s particular brand of mental illness, there’s no doubting that he indulged in abnormal behavior. Kerry, a Concord native, met Tariq in the fall of 2000, while studying psychology at Wheaton College in Illinois. A self-proclaimed envoy of God, Tariq lured Kerry and three others — all male — into his cult with the prospect of a mission to his native Pakistan, where they would minister to an obscure religious sect. “I know it sounds silly,” Kerry says, “but I really wanted that challenge, an unreached group, unreached with the Gospel.”

Most people are inclined to shake their heads at the naïveté of someone who would fall for the shtick of a man like Tariq. After all, what kind of idiot gets involved in a cult? This is a question Kerry has recently been asking herself. “What was it about me?” she says. “But then you think of the Nazis — what was it about them? I can’t say that I wouldn’t have done what they did if I’d been in their position. None of us can. That’s what this experience has made me realize, what a human being is capable of with the power of the situation.”

According to Steve Hassan, a Somerville-based cult researcher, those who scoff at cult victims are taking a simplistic view of the phenomenon. “They don’t understand that these groups use manipulative, deceptive techniques,” he says. “They think, ‘Oh, these people must be stupid.’ But the people who join these groups are, for the most part, highly intelligent, well-educated people who were situationally vulnerable.” Hassan himself was once lured into the Moonies — the church of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon — following a messy break-up with a girlfriend.

“With deception and manipulation,” he says, “you can get very intelligent people to go along with very stupid things.”

Indeed, cults actively pursue bright people, for the sole reason that they make more-valuable group members. Cults, too, look for people who are undergoing a transition of some sort — who have recently moved or lost a job, who are going through a divorce or have just had a death in the family — or, as was the case with Kerry, people who are entering college. Also, cult leaders are good at hiding what it is they actually do. “I’ve never met anyone who joined a cult,” says Carol Giambalvo, who works with the American Family Foundation (AFF), a cult-research center. “They all joined an interesting group.”

At first, this is what Kerry and her cult-mates thought they had done. Tariq seemed to be the epitome of pious devotion. “He offered me Christianity to the extreme,” says Kerry. “I was attracted to that.” He would tell his group that God spoke through him, his eyes burning with religious zeal. He would have them pray for eight hours a day, until they entered ecstatic, trance-like states. Even when Tariq started to grow more and more controlling, more and more demanding, the group rationalized his behavior.

“He had some very good reasons for what he did — not good reasons, but convincing reasons,” says Andrew, another former member of Tariq’s group. “He’d say, ‘Well, if we were going to Canada or Mexico or something, maybe we’d get by with a little bit of prayer, a little bit of discipline or training, but this is Pakistan. We’ve got to have Olympic training.’ That was how we justified what was happening.”

As the group “trained” for their Pakistan trip, Tariq’s behavior got progressively worse. He deprived his minions of sleep and food. He kept them weak and pliable. “We’d be on e-mail with him hours and hours daily, into the wee hours of the morning,” Kerry says. “We’d report back to him what had gone on during the day, what we had eaten, who we had spoken with. He wanted to know everything, how much water we used, how many paper products we used. He had different procedures he wanted us to go through for washing ourselves. We couldn’t breathe on our food through our noses.”

In many ways, cults are similar to the military. There is a process of breaking down free will and replacing it with blind obedience. One way to achieve such dominion is through dictating the most minute details of a person’s life — how he washes, how much food she eats. Like the military, cults promote a bunker mentality, an us-versus-them attitude. They discourage independent thought and stress the importance of “group think.” They maintain rigid discipline, deftly meting out rewards and punishment.

Tariq was certainly adept at using all these techniques in his own little boot camp — adding liberal doses of intimidation, humiliation, and violence for good measure. He kept his group fearful, off kilter. By the time the Pakistan mission came about, he was presiding over a bunch of quivering lackeys.

When they returned from their summer in Pakistan, in 2001, the group moved into a single basement room in suburban Maryland, which is where Tariq’s mania really began to flourish. “He would beat the guys and he would instruct us to beat one another,” Kerry says. “The guys wouldn’t beat me, but he would make me self-inflict. With the guys it became very abusive, a lot of punching, a lot of kicking. He introduced it gradually, over time. I had to kick and punch them repeatedly, hit them on the head with books. It was awful.”

Awful, but not unacceptable. By this point, Kerry and the others were so far gone that Tariq was able to convince them that the abuse was for the “greater good” — the glory of God. “I would keep repeating this to myself, it was the only way I could do it,” Kerry says of the beatings. “He said it was a way to rid one another of sin. But he interpreted what sin was, he defined what sin was. If we didn’t speak fast enough, it would be punishable. I had to tell myself over and over again, ‘I have to get the sin out of him. I want him to be white on the inside.'”

By occasionally withholding punishment and proffering a kind of paternal love, Tariq was able to inspire a twisted form of devotion, affection, and even gratitude in his group. Like many cult leaders, he kept his followers isolated, tucked away, until eventually he began to serve as an emotional proxy for friends, family, and lovers — not to mention God. “There were definitely periods where I had affection for him,” Kerry says, “and a love for him and a reverence for him. I wouldn’t have stayed if it was just fear.”

And then, one day last spring, something clicked.

“I was in the back of a van,” Kerry says. “I was being punished because I’d fallen asleep that day. I had to do this really painful position in the back of this van, as it was moving, you know, my head banging all over the place. I remember I looked out of the window and thought, ‘Wow, I’d like to be outside on the grass instead of being in here.’ It was the first time I recognized I had an option not to be with him. The next day, I was anticipating receiving more punishment for the sin I’d committed, so I called my mom and told her I wanted to go home.”

Although Kerry’s parents hadn’t realized the extent of the abuse their daughter was suffering — they didn’t even know where she was half the time — they’d been dubious about the group she was in. So when Kerry’s call came, they jumped on the opportunity, recruiting a husband-and-wife team of cult researchers named Bob and Judy Pardon to help them pry Kerry from Tariq’s grasp. They succeeded — sort of. “I went back [to Tariq] three times, three or four times,” Kerry says. “I just kept thinking, ‘I need to get back, I need to get back, I need to get back.'” Last November, Kerry entered Meadow Haven, the Pardons’ Massachusetts-based treatment center for cult survivors, where she has lived ever since.

When she arrived at Meadow Haven, Kerry was withdrawn to the point of being mute. In time, her silence gave way to bouts of “wailing and hollering.” She was afflicted with eating disorders, a shattered sense of self, and deep-seated paranoia. “I’d constantly be having evil thoughts about people,” she says. “I didn’t trust my parents, I didn’t trust my friends, I didn’t trust anybody. All I trusted was Tariq. I don’t know what my life would have been like had I not come here. I can’t honestly say that I wouldn’t have committed suicide.”

Kerry’s stint at Meadow Haven is almost over. In a week or two, she will venture out into the world again, to find a job, an apartment, maybe go back to college, pick up where she left off before she met Tariq. The treatment she has received at the center, according to those who have tended to her over the last seven months, has not necessarily cleansed Kerry, but it has equipped her to cope. “She has the tools now to be able to function better,” says Bob Pardon. “Kerry has worked through this. She can look back and not feel the sting quite as much.”

Though deciding what, exactly, constitutes a cult, can be a slippery and contentious issue, cult researchers generally agree on a single, broad definition: any group whose followers pledge blind allegiance to a leader, to their physical, emotional, or psychological detriment, through a process of manipulation and duress, can be put into the cult category.

According to the AFF’s Carol Giambavo, there are between 2000 and 6000 cults in the United States. There are religious cults and therapy cults, marketing cults and UFO cults, yoga cults and political cults. The groups range in size from army-size outfits like the Moonies and Jehovah’s Witnesses to mini-cults like the one that held Elizabeth Smart and the one in which Kerry became ensnared. If there are any Al Qaeda cells in the US, then they are part of a large, destructive cult. Some marriages have an internal dynamic similar to that of cults, as do many street gangs. Locally, according to Bob Pardon, the groups the Twelve Tribes and the International Church of Christ fit the standard definition very well.

Generally, cults — or “destructive mind-control groups,” as the experts like to say — come to the public’s attention only when something catastrophic happens, such as the 1978 mass-murder/suicide at Jonestown, in which 900 followers of Jim Jones drank cyanide-laced Kool-Aid; or when 80 Branch Davidians died in an FBI raid, and subsequent fire, in Waco, Texas, in 1993; or when, in 1997, 39 Heaven’s Gate members left California for that big sci-fi convention in the sky. Here in New England, cults hit the headlines in 2000 following the discovery of two infants buried in Baxter State Park, in Maine — both of whom had been born into the so-called Attleboro sect.

For the most part, though, these groups go about their business in relative anonymity. There’s not much headline potential, after all, in the break-ups of families, the loss of jobs, the suppression of free will. And some cults could actually be described as relatively benign — no more coercive or bizarre than many forms of Christianity, with their tales of eternal hellfire and the End of Days. Certainly Tariq’s group — though no deaths have occurred — represents a fairly extreme form of the cult phenomenon.

While anti-cult activists like Hassan and the Pardons have had some success in countering these groups, there has been an unfortunate side effect of their work — a splintering effect, wherein those who have been liberated from large cults go on to form little cults of their own. As for how many people are in cults large and small, nobody knows, but the figure is at least in the tens of thousands. Bob Pardon, for one, guesses that 300,000 Americans leave a cult every year, while another 300,000 people join. If the number is only a fraction of this, the cult problem is far more urgent than the help available to its victims would suggest.

In a country teeming with alcohol- and drug-abuse clinics, halfway houses for habitual criminals, rehabilitation centers for chronic gamblers and spouse abusers, Bob and Judy Pardon’s enterprise is unique. Though there is a short-term “emergency room” in Ohio, the Pardons run the only long-term residential cult-member-rehabilitation center of its kind in the country.

“The whole issue of mind-control cults is vastly misunderstood,” says Steve Hassan. “People have a perception that there aren’t that many cults any more. I think there is just widespread ignorance about this.”

Hassan has been trying to spread the word about cults for 27 years. The Pardons have been doing the same for about 12. Before he got involved in the cult business, Bob was a pastor for seven years at a church in Middleborough, and then for eight in Watertown — which is where he met Judy, then an elementary-school teacher. In 1991, Bob left the church, Judy quit teaching, and the two founded the New England Institute of Religious Research (NEIRR), an informational clearing-house about cults. “I’ve always been tremendously fascinated by the subject,” Bob says. “It’s always been an interest of mine.”

Intervention is indeed a tricky and controversial business. The days when cult-busters could ride into town and snatch victims out from under their captors’ noses are long gone. Though forced extraction was widely used the 1970s, a series of crippling lawsuits and mounting ethical concerns have rendered the practice obsolete for the past 20 years. “I used to be involved in that,” says Hassan, “but I don’t do abducting any more. It’s so incredibly traumatizing for everyone, including me. I basically don’t do anything illegal any more.”

One of the last holdouts of the old-school approach was a New Jersey-based researcher named Rick Ross, who admits to having used coerced-extraction techniques as late as 1994. “I got involved in a lawsuit with the Church of Scientology,” he says. “I realized I was going to spend more time with my lawyers than with my work, so I stopped.” Today, none of the dozen or so full-time cult researchers in the US uses coercion — or at least none will admit to doing so. “It’s not like the old days where you could literally go and kidnap someone, take them to a motel room, and nail the door shut,” says Bob Pardon. “You have to have a much more respectful approach.”

Cult FAQ Frequently Asked Questions About Cults, Sects, and Related Issues

Includes definitions of terms (e.g. cult, sect, anticult, countercult, new religious movement, cult apologist, etcetera)

Plus research resources: articles, books, websites, etc.

Listing of recommended cult experts, plus guidelines to help select a counselor/cult expert
– CultFAQ is provided by Apologetics Index

These days, the Pardons favor a process called “exit counseling,” which entails spending up to a year educating the family of a victim, creating strategies to build trust between the family and group leaders, devising a way to lure the victim away from the group for a few days, then subtly giving that person information about cults that will help him see his own predicament, and thus willingly make his escape. Which isn’t as easy as it may sound.

Generally, interventions are initiated by the families of cult members. For the vast majority of the people actually in cults, leaving is a wrenching, painful affair. “You never have people saying, ‘I’m so glad you came! Let’s get out of here!'” says Bob. “People routinely tell you, ‘I’m happy here. What are you doing?’ The cult has essentially created a cult persona. A layering of cult identity has been established.”

In recent years, the process of breaking through those layers has also undergone a major overhaul. Today, few exit counselors ascribe to the once-popular strategy of “deprogramming,” in which the survivor has his cult-instilled beliefs drummed out of him, forcibly and mercilessly. At best, goes the conventional wisdom now, this fighting-fire-with-fire approach leaves an individual with a slew of unresolved issues buried just below the surface. At worst, it sends that person back into the arms of the group.

“People have to come to their own conclusions,” says Bob. “When you come out of a group, you’ve already had people dictating reality to you. The last thing we want to do is dictate reality for them. So what we do is give them the tools to work through things, to understand things on their own.”

“The biggest thing is the issue of trust,” adds Judy. “They don’t trust anyone, even themselves. So the first thing we have to do is build bridges, so they’ll trust us enough to start doing this work. It’s incredibly emotional, very draining for them. It’s a long, involved process.”

“This isn’t like leaving the Kiwanis or some kind of fraternity or sorority,” continues Bob. “You have based the very essence of who you are on this belief system, and you find out now that it is false.”

Dismantling a belief system, of course, is no walk in the park. Over the years, the Pardons came to believe that they could work more effectively with some of the more damaged cult survivors if they had full-time access to them. For a while, Judy put people up in her own home. “That,” she says, “was very difficult.” Last fall, with the help of private donors, the couple opened Meadow Haven, a rambling former nursing home in rural Lakeville, in Southern Massachusetts.

“We’re here to help people put their lives back together,” says Bob, “to help them in any way that they need.”

Exactly what kind of help a recovering cult member is supposed to get remains somewhat up in the air. The field is, for sure, more an art than a science. “You can’t go to school for it,” says Bob. “I can tell you that.” Over the years, researchers like Steve Hassan and Robert Jay Lifton have published books outlining what destructive mind-control groups are and suggesting ways to ease people out of them. Still, the cult-member-rehabilitation process remains a nascent, amorphous enterprise, and the Pardons will readily admit to drawing heavily from whatever sources are on hand. “I’m very eclectic,” Bob says. “I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel.”

The kind of help that has been made available to residents of Meadow Haven so far has been a mix of therapy, religious counseling, exercise, education, rest, and large doses of TLC. “I’ve been overwhelmed with gratitude to Bob and Judy,” says Kerry, sitting on a sofa in the center’s large, brightly lit living room. “This whole experience has been so intrusive to my person, to my identity, to my family structure, to my relationships. I lost all my friends. It’s such a devastating point to be at. So to receive unconditional love from people was an incredible experience. They didn’t expect anything from me — they just gave and gave and gave.”

But the work that Bob and Judy Pardon do is not without controversy. A few years back, Bob became a central figure in the Attleboro-sect case, in which members Jacques and Karen Robidoux were arrested in connection with the deaths of two children. Along with becoming a constant presence in news stories about the episode, Bob served as an adviser for authorities handling the case, writing up a comprehensive report on the sect, and was even named guardian ad litem — or court-appointed advocate — for the group’s remaining children. Today, Bob routinely consults with police, social-services agencies, and lawyers about cult issues.

Andrew Walsh, a religious historian at Trinity College in Hartford, finds this troubling. “I’m by no means an expert on cults,” Walsh says. “I wouldn’t go around saying that what Robert Pardon does is bad for people. But what’s interesting to me is that he got an awful lot of mileage out of being a ‘cult expert’ while not being open about that fact that he is religious himself. His group sounds academic and nonprofit-y, and he presents it that way because if he called it the Anti-Cult Ministry, people wouldn’t call him, judges wouldn’t call him. It seemed to me that he positioned himself as a kind of free agent able to comment objectively about the [Attleboro] case, and journalists just ate that up and gave him oceans of ink without saying who he was.”

One journalist who did call into question Bob Pardon’s religious background was the Boston Globe’s Eileen McNamara, who, in February 2002, wrote a scathing column in which she basically accused Pardon of browbeating Attleboro group members into accepting his version of Christianity. To bolster her case, McNamara included excerpts of a letter Pardon had written to member David Corneau. “I can testify to you that your beliefs and practices are not consistent with His Word, nor, more profoundly, with His character,” the letter read. “How God must weep over your decisions.” Bob, meanwhile, insists that his letter was taken out of context. “She misinterpreted it,” he says. “She quoted only parts of it, had it say things I didn’t intend to say.”

Even those who count themselves among the Pardons’ supporters, however, admit to having concerns about the couple’s fervent Christianity. “This is a hard one,” says the AFF’s Carol Giambavo. “It’s better to have someone who understands the issues around Scripture-twisting, who can help unravel that. But when you help get someone out of a group, very often they’ll transfer their dependency needs onto you. You have to be very careful not to transfer your religious beliefs onto them.”

“They are very careful about that,” insists Kerry. “They joke about it — ‘This is the Cult of Bob.’ But they definitely didn’t try to take the place [of Tariq’s group]. I became very needy with my mom, much more than with Bob and Judy. They encouraged me to branch out and make friends.”

Then there’s the question of who pays for all this. Meadow Haven has an annual operating budget, says Judy Pardon, of about $100,000. Though some of this is offset by gifts from the families of cult members the Pardons have helped (they do not charge for their work), the bulk of Meadow Haven’s funding comes from private donors, many of them Christians who, as Steve Hassan puts it, “maybe have expectations that Bob and Judy are doing more evangelical work than they are.”

All the same, Hassan is quick to add that he doesn’t believe the Pardons have a surreptitious religious agenda. “I don’t think they’ve ever tried to tell me I shouldn’t be Jewish,” he says, adding, “I think the world of Bob and Judy. They’re genuinely kind people. They’re for real.”

No matter what you say about the Pardons, you cannot doubt their commitment. Even their romantic relationship — they married two years ago — seems to have blossomed from the work they do together. At first glance, they are an odd couple. Bob, 51, is a bearded, slightly ruffled, jovial man with a penchant for wearing Stetsons and making wisecracks. Judy, 59, is a slight woman with long, reddish hair, bird-like energy, and a tendency to use the language of self-help. On the issue of their work, however, Bob and Judy speak very much with one voice — sometimes literally.

Bob: “We deal with this all the time’…”

Judy: “People say because we’re Christians’…”

Bob: “We’re jamming our beliefs down people’s throats’…”

Judy: “The spiritual aspect has to be dealt with…”

Bob: “Has to be dealt with…”

Judy: “Because that’s what the foundation is on…”

Bob: “At some point you’re going to have to deal with this…”

Judy: “But we’re not going to tell people they have to believe what we believe…”

Bob: “That would be unethical…”

In any event, it seems clear that Kerry has benefited from her stay at Meadow Haven. “There are times I’ve been extremely angry,” she says, “especially remembering the abuse. It makes me infuriated. But it took me a long time to get to that point. For a long time I still had intense feelings of love and adoration for Tariq. I’d like to reach a point where I could forgive him, if only for myself. He’s a sinner just like I’m a sinner. I also did terrible things to people.”

Recently, Kerry made contact with her old cult-mates — the people to whom she did those terrible things. “Obviously, it’s very weird,” she says. “I’ve apologized, asked for their forgiveness. They even say to me, ‘Kerry, we know it wasn’t you, we know it. You weren’t the one doing this to us.’ So they understand, you know, why. But it’s awful for me to have to face them. I don’t even know how to express my sorrow and my remorse and my guilt and my — just total disgust with myself for doing that.”

At the other end of the recovery process is Andrew, who was recently liberated from Tariq’s group, and who is just now entering Meadow Haven. Andrew also spent two years with the group, but he seems far more impassive about his ordeal than Kerry does. He’ll call Tariq “an interesting fellow” and then laugh. He’ll talk about “the typical charismatic leader” and how “the Bible is very clear about forgiving those who wrong us.” Even when describing the most depraved acts of Tariq’s reign, there is an air of detachment about Andrew, as though he were describing a novel. “I seem to have no gut reaction when I talk about the horrors that happened,” he says.

Otherwise, Kerry and Andrew seem very much cut from the same cloth. Like Kerry, the 24-year-old Andrew has a blond-haired, blue-eyed wholesomeness about him. Like Kerry, he comes from a comfortable, mildly religious background. He, too, became enamored with Tariq’s religious zeal while attending his prayer meetings at Wheaton College, where his brother, Benji, went to school. And, like Kerry, he makes a mockery of the idea that people who join cults must be a bit slow in the head.

In fact, when Andrew first met Tariq, he was studying linguistics at Harvard, from which he graduated magna cum laude. “[Andrew is] absolutely brilliant,” says Bob, “one of the smartest we’ve ever had. Which is a strength and a weakness. The upside is that he puts two and two together, he sees connections. But your emotions don’t always follow your head. You live in your heart. That is where life is lived out.”

At times, Andrew’s dispassionate manner makes his story even more chilling. With something approaching wry amusement, he recalls one particular instance when Tariq subjected him to public humiliation. “Once he had me go out into Harvard Square and do what people from subcontinental India call the ‘Rooster Position,'” he says, crouching down on the floor to illustrate. “You put your hands under your legs and grab your ears like this. He made me do it for a half an hour.”

Oddly, this occurred while Andrew and Tariq, who was then lurking around the Wheaton College campus, were separated by hundreds of miles. “He seemed to have a way of knowing whether I did things,” Andrew says. “And I felt like he was God’s authority in my life, so I had to be honest with him. That’s where my Christian upbringing dealt me a blow.”

A few months after the Harvard Square incident, Andrew went to visit Tariq in Illinois and found himself being pressured to sign a kind of kangaroo contract that would have committed him to the group for life. “I told him I didn’t want to join for life and he punched me in the face,” Andrew says. “I’d never been punched in the face before, so for Tariq to do that was unthinkable. He actually had me pull down my pants and whipped my bare bottom, which is really humiliating and very unusual.”

The abuse against Andrew and the other members of Tariq’s group increased in frequency and severity as time went on. It also got more and more bizarre. For a while, Tariq tried to fatten Andrew up by forcing him to eat “12 eggs for breakfast and six glasses of milk a meal.” In Pakistan, Tariq accused Andrew of plotting to kill him. “He made me confess to the others,” he says. “I had solitary confinement for three days, with no food, wondering if this was something I did.” And then there was Maryland, the house of horrors.

“I have scars on my hands because he would beat us on the hands with a coat hanger a hundred times,” Andrew says. “If I winced and showed weakness, he would start over. It was a plastic hanger, and if it broke, the jagged end would form divots in our hands. Kerry would have to take the broken end of the hanger and actually twist it into her cheeks, she had to twist it into her rear end. He would pull our hair out on a regular basis. We had fat lips, bruises. One time he punched me in the face repeatedly until I almost fainted.”

For some reason, Tariq would often single out Andrew for special punishment. “I became bitter,” he says. “I’d say, ‘You wait, he’s not going to stop with me.'” Andrew remembers the relief he felt when Tariq finally turned his wrath against a group member named Aaron, who responded by going home. “When Aaron left, because of the pounding on his kidneys, he was jaundiced. He was limping — we hit him repeatedly on the tailbone. He’d be kneeling on the floor and we’d kick him on the behind with our shoes on, or stomp on his back. He looked terrible. His hair was growing back in patches, he had lacerations from being whipped, he had no eyebrows.”

But Aaron was at least limping away from Tariq. Andrew stayed with him for close to another year. “Yeah, it’s weird, isn’t it?” he says with another of his incongruous laughs. “Every time I thought of leaving, Tariq would say, ‘Andrew, check your heart. What’s in your heart?’ I’d say, ‘Nothing.’ He’d say, ‘I know there’s something there.’ How could he know? It never occurred to me until I left the group that it could have been anything other than God. That to me was God’s confirmation that he wanted me to stay.”

It was, of course, Tariq who wanted Andrew to stay. And, like any cult leader worth his salt, he knew how to get his way. “Tariq had told us that if we ever left the ministry, God would plague us,” recalls Kerry, “He would break our legs, He would make me lose my hair, have splotches all over my body, that everything in my life would be a miserable failure. Here I am believing in God, thinking this is going to come true. So what’s the use?”

This is one of the more-pressing questions Andrew will have to face over the next few months. It’s not the “How could he do this?” or the “Why did I do this?” that matters now; it’s the “What next?” Getting to the heart of this question may indeed be a long, emotional process, but the answer itself is actually quite simple. To some extent, Andrew already knows it. “I was at a Bible school,” he says, recalling his last days with Tariq. “I remember the faculty were up on a stage. This guy in the back row gets up, goes to the bathroom, comes back, and sits down. For me, this was like a glass of cold water in the desert.”

By this point, Andrew has already listed a half-dozen ways he finally found the will to leave Tariq — all of them concerning the power of prayer. But it was this simple act — someone going for a pee — that proved to be his ultimate inspiration. “You don’t understand,” he says. “I couldn’t do that. I had to say, ‘I need to go to the bathroom.’ Sometimes Tariq would come and wait at the door. Just to be able to decide to leave the room and come back. I wanted that.”

But then, sudden freedom, like sudden light, can be a jarring, disorienting thing. Surely it must be a little scary, being out here in the middle of nowhere, with no friends, no family, and all these memories welling up inside you. “It’s not frightening at all,” Andrew says. “I feel great.” With this, he disappears along one of Meadow Haven’s dim hallways. Bob and Judy are out. The house is desolate. Quiet as a crypt.

N.B.: Tariq is currently holed up somewhere in Texas. Unless he is arrested or, less likely, sees the error of his ways, he will keep trawling America’s college campuses for fresh recruits. Right now, as far as anyone knows, there is only one person left in his cult: Andrew’s twin brother, Benji.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday August 4, 2003.
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