Armageddon: Part Eleven of My Life Inside the Narrowgate Cult at Messiah College
Author’s note: This blog was quite possibly the hardest yet to write. Of all the experiences we’ve had in the Narrowgate cult, this is most certainly one of the most traumatic experiences of my entire life. It’s difficult to dig this up – several people who I have talked about this experience have blocked it out, or remember very little about it. For me, I blocked much of it out in the 25 or so years since. To read my journal, where I documented the experience in vivid detail, is re-traumatizing. There is no other way on this pathway to recovery and healing but to walk through this, and re-process it through my modern-day lens. This takes time and emotional energy.
I see a bad moon a-rising. I see trouble on the way. I see earthquakes and lightnin’. I see bad times today. (Creedence Clearwater Revival)
Given how the last blog ended with me confronting Liam and Noah about moving Mason into our living room, it is perhaps no surprise that leadership realized there were issues and concerns within the group. Was I alone with my rapidly compounding issues with the direction of the group? Pooky most certainly had concerns. And some of the recent teachings had produced concerned feedback from others. How would leadership deal with the very real possibility of mutiny from within? How does any religious leader usually deal with concerns of the congregation?
Sometimes, if the leader is mature, they may humbly listen to the concerns, take them to heart, and perhaps change. In my 30+ years of being a Christian, I’ve seen this happen just a few times.
Usually the leader chooses the opposite approach, which reminds me of a scene from Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, when the Emperor tells Luke “If you will not be turned, you will be destroyed.” This is usually followed by something like death bolts of lightning, eradicating the challenge to their authority.
Liam had a meeting where he addressed his concern that people weren’t fully submitting to God. The theology behind this “submission” (or lack therein) was presented in light of being born again. We were told that you were only born again situationally, that you had to be in complete obedience to the voice of God all the time to be born again. If you stopped submitting to the voice of God at any time, you became lost again. The challenge to entering Heaven was to be listening to God when you died. And that meant you had to be born again at every moment, in every situation, by submitting to the voice of God.
And though he did not say it outright, it was crystal clear to me that Liam meant we must completely submit to the voice of Liam. In the case of my home invasion, God did not tell me to submit to having a new room-mate forced upon me. But what God told Liam superseded anything I did or did not hear: there was no circumventing his absolute authority. There was no doubt in my mind that when Pooky and I said no to Liam about moving Mason into our home, this was viewed as an act of rebellion against God, who told Liam what to do. I can only assume that other concerns brought up by group members were viewed in the same way – as a lack of submission to God, high treason against the almighty. And high treason against Liam.
And so, being born again was correlated with being in total submission to what God told Liam. And anything short of absolute obedience was equated with being lost. Then Liam went around the room and individually made each person say yes or no to this teaching, and to totally submit themselves to both this teaching and to the group. If that person was not convincing enough to Liam then he would tell you so.
It was absolutely the worse moment of my life. I sat there locked with fear, my heart pounding, knowing that in my heart I hadn’t submitted to this teaching and that I could not convince Liam of it. Some people were accepted right away as being convincing. Others, not so much: If they weren’t convincing enough for Liam, he would tell them he thought they were horrible and that they should be ashamed of themselves, and berate them with some of their faults. Liam continued bullying that person until they would break down and cry, confess that they were all in, then he would tell them that he was satisfied they were submitting and move on to the next person.
I curled up in the corner, panic stricken. He was going around in a circle, and I was next.
I felt like the entire world was closing in around me, crushing me with huge tentacles of darkness. I began to cry softly to myself because I knew that I was trapped: I had no option but to either cave in and convince Liam, or to get up and leave this group forever. And how could I leave? These were my only friends I had in the entire world. And if I left, what would I do about my wife? She hadn’t gone yet, either. Was she on board with this? Would she leave the group with me? Or would I lose her, as well?
In that moment, I was a terrified animal in a trap.
Liam called my name.
With that single word, I emotionally broke apart into a million pieces. I sobbed like a baby and stammered that I was so scared, that I had nothing left to turn to. Liam walked over to me and knelt down and stared at me, without speaking, for what felt like an eternity. I cried for so long and sobbed and rocked, waves of fear and desperation bursting from my eyes and nose and mouth. I knew that I had nothing else left to live for but the group, and nowhere left to turn. I remember looking around the room at everyone in the group and saying that this is who I really am inside, just a scared kid. To this day, I can still remember looking into Olivia’s face. She wore such a look of smug delight at my misery, as if I was the funniest thing she had ever seen. I felt so ashamed of myself then. I was laid bare before them all, a flogged Christ, stripped of all my dignity.
Liam put his hand on my shoulder and looked me in the eye and asked if I would join them. I said yes, that I had nothing left. Then Liam moved on. I had passed the test.
I lay there on the floor for a while, not really comprehending or paying attention to the other people’s supplications to Liam. I looked up when it was Pooky’s turn. Perhaps it was no surprise that Liam was not convinced with her performance, and he subjected her to a verbal tirade. He told her how she was only holding me back, and that she kept me and our marriage as an idol. He said some personal things, about how it was wrong for her to hug me and rub my shoulders, that she was holding back within the group, stuff like that. I remember wanting so desperately to help her, to be her knight in shining armor… but being unable to. Liam had broken me completely, and now he would crush her will as well. At one point, Pooky looked over at me and our eyes locked, and in that moment I saw that her hopelessness mirrored my own. We were both trapped here, but trapped together. She broke down and cried, and Liam accepted her penitence and moved on. In addition to the shame, I now felt the guilt of abandoning my best friend in her time of desperate need. I felt so empty inside, so emotionally drained. We had made it through this twisted crucible of Liam’s rage and shame, and yet the victory was bitter and hallow. I got up and went into the bathroom and sat on the toilet for a long while, trying to compose myself. One thing I have learned in life is that the bathroom is almost always a safe place: no one messes with you if you’re in the bathroom. That, assuming you don’t have children – then, all bets are off.
Fear of living on. Natives getting restless now
Mutiny in the air, Got some death to do (Metallica)
When I came out of the bathroom and sat on the floor, I was greeted with a horrible sight. It was Charlotte’s turn, and she could not convince Liam that she was on board. Liam was really giving her a hard time, but couldn’t seem to get the response from her that he wanted. Liam said that he needed some help, and then he and Noah and Robert started jeering at Charlotte and telling her that they thought she was the most horrible person in the world, that she was rotten on the inside and wasn’t following God at all. Elijah sat there in silence as the three tirades engulfed his bride-to-be. Finally he blurted out that Charlotte was horrible and that she needed to give in to the group and “God”. He screamed at her and cried and then yelled some more. Then he stopped and cried so hard, great wracking sobs, and Mia pulled him into a hug and held him as he wept into her shoulder. Charlotte was crying and yelling that she hated Liam for what he was doing, that she didn’t understand, that she had submitted.
Liam called her a liar, and then said that since she hated him, she might as well kill him. He said that hating was just the same as murder, in a reference to a passage from 1 John in the Bible. They then got a great gleaming knife out of the kitchen, and handed it to her but she refused to take it. Robert said that she might as well kill him, she was rotten on the inside and evil for refusing to follow God. He stood up and moved right in front of Charlotte and turned his back on her, and told her to stab him in the back with the knife like the rotten person that she was. Charlotte was crying so hard, seated there on the couch.
I felt so very sick inside, and could not believe what I was seeing. Finally I stood up and walked towards Charlotte. People looked up at me in greedy anticipation of the attack I was sure to launch on Charlotte. I then walked through the living room, past Charlotte, and walked out the door. As I passed Charlotte, she cringed as if fearing a blow from me. The look of despair and fear on her face as I passed by her is forever burnt into my mind.
As I type this now some 25 years later, I am still broken and weep with shame. That I sat by in silence as these kind, misguided people who I loved like family were methodically broken, psychologically tortured and emotionally abused haunts me to this day. I will never forgive myself for my cowardice. Some stains will never, ever wash out.
I got in my car and drove around for a while, not ever wanting to go back but knowing that I had to: I really did have nothing else left. Most of Mason’s stuff was in my living room. I hadn’t talked to my family in weeks. My best friend in the entire world was still trapped there in the room with them.
When I returned and stood beside the door in Liam’s living room, Charlotte was on the couch weeping loudly. There was silence as everyone stared at her, a jury reaching their verdict. Then Liam told her to leave. She slowly got up as if dazed, and walked out the door, banished forever from the group. Elijah was crying so hard and Mia was still holding him. Charlotte and Elijah’s wedding plans were most certainly over, all they had was gone in a moment. I sat down on the floor and Pooky came over and sat beside me and we just looked at each other and silently held hands. We had survived the night, but at what cost? And what more was to come?
(to be continued)
Narrowgate Blog Series: Part One; Part Two; Part Three; Part Four; Part Five; Part Six; Part Seven; Part Eight; Part Nine; Part Ten; Part Eleven; Part Twelve; Part Thirteen; Part Fourteen; Part Fifteen; Part Sixteen; Part Seventeen