I’m working on a special project and am going to take a break from Skinny Girl Journals to tell you about it.
Two years ago I received a telephone call from an individual who wanted me to write the story of her family. I agreed to meet, and I found myself sitting with a mother and father who wove an extraordinary tale. Each had raised children in previous marriages, but they wanted children together and decided to enter the foster care system.
In the fall of 2008 a knock on the door changed their family forever. They opened the door to find a young teenaged girl accompanied by a Department of Human Services counselor. The couple brought her into their home, and soon after welcomed four more children into the family. Many others followed, and the parents worked to train others as foster families so each child could have a loving and safe home.
Was this the “happy ending” to these children’s story?
Not at all. The story had just begun and they still had miles to go on their path toward stability. These children—these many children—were taken from the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries in an FBI raid. For their entire lives they had been separated from the outside world. They were severely abused both mentally and physically. They were born into a cult—some with grandparents who were first-generation members—and the cult was their family. In growing to know many of these children, I discovered their journeys toward freedom were extraordinarily painful, but, all told, not without joy.
Through tracing the roots of this story, I have met so many women and children—and men too—whose voices had been silenced. Their search for life’s meaning led them to a crafty, manipulative leader whose claim to have the answers looked like salvation. Anyone could be drawn to such a charismatic individual who promises shelter, nourishment, education, and redemption from a Lord who loves them. However Tony Alamo’s promises came with conditions—realized by his followers too late to walk away—made clear only after they were stripped of their self-confidence, family ties, and trust in fellow beings.
After the FBI raid, Tony Alamo was apprehended and is now serving a life sentence without parole in a federal penitentiary. Remarkably, he still leads his church from prison through his faithful wives and followers and his cult is still operational.
It is clear that Alamo’s example is just the tip of the iceberg. Experts in cultic studies estimate the number of cults in the US is 5,000 and growing. Cults can be secluded and cut off from society, or they can be present within the community, functioning openly with its controls hidden from public view. The common thread in all of these cults is their dependence on vulnerable members of society—these easy targets are the bread and butter of any charismatic leader’s livelihood.
I am at work now writing the story of these children and their experience within the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries. The existence of the children who are now free and on whom the victimization Tony Alamo practices is not lost, gives us hope. And hope is needed because there is still work to be done. There are thousands more who could reach freedom if we work to expose these dangerous entities.
Please share with me your thoughts. Do any of you have knowledge of cults today? Opening and continuing a public dialogue on this subject is important. What do you think can be done to help?