Five years in hell
By Ron Taggart
I woke up on June 17 and savored a number of things most take for
granted: a decent amount of sleep, a bed, no physical threats or fear,
a roof over my head, the chance to start the day at my own speed,
the feeling of being in my own safe place. Fifteen years ago I knew
none of these things.
Over twenty years ago my search for meaning in life had led me to
become a "born-again" Christian. This set the stage for my involvement
with a man who had come to Kent State University preaching and playing
Christian rock music.
In a very gradual (and what I later learned was an intentional and
carefully orchestrated) process, I became heavily involved in many
activities that the "Church" sponsored: Bible studies, long church
services, prayer meetings, street witnessing, helping on the church's
farm, etc. Circumstances arose (which I later learned were contrived)
which convinced me to sell my business and move to the "Farm."
In the beginning life at the Farm was fun. New members or visitors
were not required to wake up at 4:00 a.m. as most of the other members
did. Often, the leader would take new members on trips to the auction
house, to buy farm supplies, visit bookstores, etc. Gradually, though,
I began to feel guilty about sleeping in until 8 or 9 when everyone
else was up doing farm chores and then off to their jobs.
The church's meetings were full of talk about the church's financial
needs, and I also began to feel guilty that I was not contributing.
Without any prompting from the leader, I fell lock step into the grueling
regimen that was to constitute my daily life for much of the next
five years. All within a matter of weeks, the power to make decisions
over the smallest details in my life was taken away, without me realizing
Up at 4:00 a.m. (a punch in the stomach or lashes with a whip might
await you if you slept in), run a fast two miles, do 100 pushups,
situps, leg lifts, all in a very strenuous workout. Feed all the animals
and clean their stalls at a hectic pace, fifteen minutes of devotions,
and then breakfast. Hitchhike to work (sometimes as far as 40 miles
one way - a real chore in the winter). Put in eight hours at work
(I remember falling asleep walking and almost running into working
machinery). Hitchhike home and start the chores all over. The animals
got their stalls cleaned twice a day and I can remember thinking that
they lived better lives than we did. Eat dinner and then back to the
barn or fields for manual labor projects that might last til 1:00
a.m. Or a long church meeting, called at random.
Secretly, I think we all preferred the manual labor, for the church
meetings often meant being "called on the carpet"for both material
and spiritual infractions. During these meetings, sentence would be
passed and would bear no relation to the crime. Perhaps writing Bible
verses over and over, running ten miles, or receiving a beating with
a riding crop or a bull whip. What little sleep we managed was interrupted
by taking a turn on watch.
I can remember turning to a friend and remarking how well I thought
I could function if we could only average three hours per night. But
we didn't. I thought about sleeping all the time. Whenever anyone
got behind the wheel of a car, they put themselves and others at risk.
There were numerous accidents and three people died in auto accidents,
including the leader's eldest son. When 4:00 a.m. came, a sense of
sorrow came over me because I knew again it just wasn't enough sleep.
June 17, 1977, Father's Day. I had decided to take this occasion to
go with my parents to visit my grandfather, who was not expected to
live long. Some ex-members of our group came to talk with me. They
couldn't get me to see how I was being manipulated, but one ex-member
told me to call an ex-member with whom I had gone to high school.
I went over to his house, and while interpretation of what had happened
to us seemed incredible, I remember thinking: "This is my friend,
and I know he won't lie to me." Suddenly, a great sense of relief
came over me - I wouldn't have to go back. I began to understand for
the first time how I had been manipulated into thinking this hellish
nightmare was somehow serving God. That day I regained my physical
freedom and started on the journey to regain freedom for my heart
A number of people that had left the Farm constituted an informal
support group. We were able to prod the authorities into initiating
child abuse charges against the leader and one of his lieutenants.
The resulting pressure caused the group to fracture and still more
people were able to leave.
What we also began to sense was that even though these efforts were
laudable, we needed to begin to pay attention to our own needs and
lives. We also felt that we were picking at our own wounds. We didn't
know where to go to get our wounds healed. I vowed never to speak
about the Farm again, and I kept that vow for one year.
I became good friends with a woman who was puzzled about the time
period in my life that I would always avoid speaking about. She made
a very astute guess about my experience and then encouraged me to
try going to a counselor. In retrospect, it seems incredible to me
that I couldn't grasp why I might need a counselor, but I did it to
If ever there was a candidate for counseling, I was certainly it.
I remember that after the first session a realization came over me
that I didn't have to feel the way I felt, that that was not what
life was about. I felt that I was in this cloud in a river of darkness,
but at least now I knew that there was a bank on the other side of
this river, and I sensed that if I wanted to, I could go there. The
counselor explained to me the fee, and said that she would like to
see me once a week. I allowed that I could only afford to come every
two weeks, and she said she would cut the fee in half so that I could
come every week. I had, quite by chance, chosen a therapist who was
not intimidated by issues she had not seen before, and saw the root
issues behind my problems and their commonality with other patients
she had treated. (Recently, we both theorized that perhaps the physical
deprivation I had undergone was a significant indicator to her of
how powerful the cult influence was, and that therefore it became
the central issue in my treatment.) I discovered later that a frequent
criticism of therapists is a tendency to be sidetracked from the cult
issue arises from a lack of understanding about cults and the power
they have to manipulate adults into becoming pawns of the cult leader.
Thus had begun the inward journey of facing who I had become and the
enormity of the fraud perpetrated against me, and mourning the loss
of years in the group and of my friends still trapped. It has been
painful, frightening, and most of all, rewarding. The journey has
caused me to look at non-cult related issues in my life as well. I
don't think I ever would have done this had it not been for my experience.
I have been able to become who I once was, and more. Fifteen years
ago, I would have felt the following words to be blasphemy, but I
now know that I could never have accomplished both personally and
professionally what I have done without the cult experience. I'm not
advocating going to jail to learn, but if you find yourself there,
understand that every bit of life teaches.
On June 17, 1992, I held a dinner to honor those who have helped me
along the way: two trusted co-workers who believed in me and stood
by me. My dearest friend who saw my suffering, encouraged me to seek
help, and listened. Three friends who showed me kindness when I had
only known cruelty. And a counselor, now friend, who did her job well.
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