The Brother’s Tale: Part Twenty of My Life Inside the Narrowgate Cult at Messiah College
Editor’s Note: This is the first of several entries written by outsiders – that is to say, by those who were friends or family members of Narrowgate members. They can convey far more effectively than I the thoughts, feelings, and emotions experienced when a loved one is in a cult. This particular entry is written by a brother of one of the Enola Six who attended Messiah while I was there. Our paths had crossed before, albeit briefly, back in the 90’s – at WVMM, the campus radio station. As I started writing my Narrowgate experience, he reached out and was ever present with a word of encouragement or an offer to proofread the next chapter. Today, I am privileged to call him a friend, and am grateful for his willingness to share his story.
“…she’s off the deepend of nameitclaimit theology, taking a motherly leadership role in the infamous campus-associated “Narrowgate Fellowship,” which I think should be called “Narrowmind Flowship,” because their closed, selective faith feeds off of and is bolstered by uniformity of opinion (belief?) within the group. One day, I believe, their faith will rise out of the sea like a seven-headed beast, and if it does not devour them, it will devour all those around them, or perhaps merely impale them on each of its ten horns.”
The above, eerily prophetic quote – borrowing apocalyptic imagery from Revelation 13:1 – is from a letter I wrote to a college friend who was away at home for the summer, while I was living by myself in a two-room apartment in a converted roadside motel on Capitol City road in Dillsburg, Pennsylvania. It was August, 1995.
In the process of figuring out how I might tell the story of my relationship with Narrowgate, I had to do some archaeology; I know my memory is like most others – it can’t always be trusted. So I wanted to see if I could unearth actual historical evidence, as Dom has done throughout putting this series together, to at least give myself some evidence to anchor my memories. I dug through the sands of old files I’d preserved some years ago from 3.5” diskettes, saved in obsolete formats and not readily readable, and I include some of what I’ve uncovered here, in this memoir.
The “motherly leader” I referred to in the above letter is Mia. I am her brother.
Twenty-five years since I wrote that letter, Mia and I have both raised kids, been married and divorced, endured suffering and hardship, struggled with mental illness, and are most definitely, in the long view of life, not fine.
I was never a member of the Narrowgate fellowship, but I’ve known and have been in and out of contact with several of its former members over the past two-plus decades, and their experience has affected me profoundly – which is why, when Dom started telling this story, I wanted to become involved. The scars that come from living with a cult experience – whether on the inside or the outside – do not heal beautifully. They maintain at least a constant, dull pain and disfigurement that doesn’t go away.
“Do not offer to the LORD the blind, the injured or the maimed…”
My direct conflict with Narrowgate came to a head in late 1996 or early 1997, at my parents’ house … I don’t remember exactly when it was. This was a while since the whole thing had started, and a few years earlier I’d already wrestled with my sister Mia’s newfound joy of God, instead of her alarm clock, waking her up in the morning, and buying her plane tickets, and performing other such personal miracles – and since then, my opinion of the cult and my sister’s involvement in it hadn’t really changed.
I had graduated from Messiah with a B.A. in Humanities, Philosophy concentration – a major I just landed in after abandoning all my initial ideas of earning a practical degree so I could make a living while I pursued my ultimate calling in seminary: to become a pastor.
All those plans evaporated by the end of my first semester, as even the basic Gen-Ed courses at Messiah pulled down the facade of my faith that had held everything together for me through my adolescence.
“But both girl and boy were glad
’cause one kid had it worse than that
‘Cause then there was this boy whose
parents made him come directly home right after school
and when they went to their church
they shook and lurched all over the church floor
He couldn’t quite explain it
they’d always just gone there …”
(Crash Test Dummies)
As it turns out, I was particularly vulnerable to cult-style manipulation for most of my life.
I desperately wanted to belong, and the churches and youth ministries I got involved in fed the fear of “those others” so effectively that I wouldn’t even try to find acceptance from my “secular” peers. Instead, I was most keen to gain the approval of authorities in the faith (i.e. the only faith I knew – the holy-rollin’ Pentecostal version). I pursued a sense of belonging via the validation of pastors, youth leaders, evangelists, and the like; not to mention that I also had close relatives to seek validation from, as my maternal grandparents were missionaries in Africa for 51 years, and all of their living children (except my Mom, who always felt “lesser-than” in that respect) had become ministers of some kind; missionaries, pastors, pastoral counselors…. So until I got outside of that bubble and instead was thrown into a dark and unfamiliar ocean of other-than-Pentecostal Christianity, I had been groomed quite well to fall prey to the psychological manipulations of a cult.
The soundtrack of my adolescence was dominated by Mia’s green LED clock alarm blaring every school morning, un-snoozed, for so many cumulative hours that the warble finally gave up the ghost and the clock could only emit a single, monotonously smooth tone … and it still didn’t wake her up. Sometimes she would miss the bus and walk to school; sometimes (once she started driving to school and I’d planned to ride with her so I didn’t have to ride the bus) we’d get off for school so late that I handled the steering wheel from the passenger seat while she put on makeup and mascara and manned the gas and brake … without looking at the road. At least once, my Dad got so frustrated with her somnolence vs. the blaring alarm clock that he threw water on her to wake her up. It worked, but it was like waking a dragon; that was a pretty rough morning.
But In spite of her life-long alarm-clock deafness, once in Narrowgate, by Mia’s report, after fully submitting to God, she now no longer needed an alarm clock, and would wake up naturally without it. On time. And cheerful.
I didn’t have a good explanation for her miraculous new ability, but I was more than skeptical of miracles …just like the other one I heard about, where she and Sophia needed to get to California for something or other, and God miraculously provided them plane tickets. I don’t remember exactly when this other miracle happened, but I do remember being irate at her self-centered belief that God would buy her plane tickets when he didn’t give enough of a shit to stop plainly gratuitous evil and suffering.
I had seen Schindler’s List in high school; I graduated in 1992, but this plane-ticket-buying God showed up about two or three years after that, while the images of brutal death in that movie had stayed with me, and even more so after I had started college at Messiah, had my own faith turned upside down, became atheist, agnostic, and who knows what else. By age nineteen, I felt like I had been lied to all my life … and only a year or two after that, my sister was diving headlong into Charismatic bullshit that was exponentially more intense and whacked-out than our Pentecostal upbringing, and I wanted none of it.
I had even written a poem about this dead-Jew/sister-miracle contrast. I went digging for it, and located the file on a hard disk, rescued it from my college 3.5” floppies about 12 years ago, when I’d realized that medium was going extinct… it’s really a rambling treatise, rather than a poem, but here it is, unearthed in all of its Word Perfect glory:
GOD IS NOT A RESPECTOR OF PERSONS says the saint, saintly and wise beyond knowing what he says, for we, souls imprisoned in flesh, casing sausages, know no respect from God.
NOT SO NOT SO says NO FUCKING WAY means the deaconess swinging from the Rot-iron mother-fucking-of-pearly narrow gates.
His eye is on the sparrow
and I know he watches me
I know he cares for me He loves me just LOOK, LOOK, see beyond the veil of your bastard philosophy. We had no money. but we planned in faith to go to LA, to Disneyland, to Arizona, to take up wings of steel high above the clouds to uplift us beyond our fecal concerns and bask in the freedom and glory of Sabbath. We had no money. going up to the ticket counter to pay for our Flight tell them your father was supposed to pay God told me told you to lie oh pardon my fucking cynicism God is your Father we went up and they gave us the tickets We had no money. we paid nothing. PRAISE THE LORD JEHOVAH JIREH squealed the monkeys swinging from the gate isnt God wonderful and they wonder how can i say we know no respeckt from God
personal favors, petty concerns, oh no Sabbath is not petty but really, God bought you a plane ticket? He then paid the fare for the cattle cars which hauled die Juden to Auschwitz, naked, cold, cast into the furnace where no fourth man no son of God awaited in open embrace. We Breathe the ashes of God’s chosen, cough them from our black lungs and spit them out onto the dirt, we drink from the bitter urn but still God is Good, he’s pleased to shove his magical finger into your epicurean life and tickle your religious libido. We’re beyond the days of justifying the gas chambers by accusing the Jews of rejecting Christ of murdering our saviour so we congratulate our progress but NO NO NO the sun stands still as we raise our hands toward heaven claiming God’s unlimited blessing.
Bounty hunters, mercenaries: God lavishes plane tickets from his cornucopia of wealth for each Jew whose bullet-riddled head spouts the fountains of blood we smilingly guzzle. Schindler was a very imperfect man; one who whored, abused, and boozed but he bribed God for the lives of hundreds of Jews. Spielberg portrayed him that way, at least–Spielberg, whose name in loose translation means “castle of the Game,” a man whose blessings outnumber Job’s, whose lineage escaped the respect of God. Millions, hundreds of millions saw this story yet still continue to hoard the manna. The deaconess saw this story months before God bought her a plane ticket. i watched with her and she turned to me asked what’s Auschwitz? Should i have been surprised, looking up from the stagnant moat to the dark window in the stony corner steeple piercing the sky, this fortress of faith, this castle of the Game overtowering my heart.
The holocaust is there in her Bible, she would accept and ponder it and meditate on it and weave it into her hermeneutic if only if only God’s reign had not soaked the pages and welded them together, impossiblizing any attempt to peel truth from truth, layers of Micah, that sheet-cleaving mineral in feldspar and granite she takes it for granted that God is working in his mysterious ways but i take God for granite, a rock from which we carve decorative facades for our city skyscrapers, from whom we hew mammoth representations of human forms, reclining as we are on the grey wooden bench, savoring a Bologna sandwich and a diet Coke, basking in view of the cold stone manipulated into being by human hands.
the essence of power. the same hand which he dreams will take hold of the cripple and raise him from his wheelchair to prove God to the atheist is the same hand which pulls the trigger, blowing the heads off six million Jews
the same hand which scribbles the tormented thoughts of the author who sits in God’s hand,
his own hand.
By the time of my rage against the plane-ticket God, I had already excised myself from anything remotely Christian as much as I could; dropping my former involvement in a music and drama ministry, as well as leaving my position as the Music Director at WVMM, the campus Christian radio station, that I’d been elected to just the year before (and I’m pretty sure is where Dom and I first met). I think maybe I did one more semester of DJ’ing, and then I could no longer bear to be anywhere near the orbit of CCM, with its ever-unsatiated appetite to provide a “Christian Alternative” to any and every form of popular music it could poorly imitate.
I was done. I was still forced to go to chapel by Messiah’s rules, but I refused communion and stopped all forms of churchgoing and fellowship. I was extremely angry and grieving the life that I’d never had, left with only the memory of all the ridicule and self-abasement that I went through in school, all for nothing, all because I’d been born into a family of spiritual heirs to the Azusa street mission revival, and its tongue-talking, holy-rolling, suspicious-of-demons-in-everything-but-ignorant-of-anything except the magic book and the mystical baptism in the Holy Ghost.
Oh, and Jesus, and songs about blood. So much blood. I was singing that my sins were under the blood, and I was terrified of hellfire, by the time I was three. By the age of 20/21 I had so much rage, yet so little ways to comprehend it, much less to release or articulate it.
“I’ve been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb,
Filled with the Holy Ghost, I am:
All my sins are under the blood,
I’ve been redeemed.”
All that was left of me was blood and rage. So to have to deal with Mia’s lofty, fantastical giddiness of plane tickets and discarded alarm clocks was just too much. I don’t think I associated much with anyone from Narrowgate after that.
However, in December of 1995, I did personally respond to the scoop on Narrowgate in the Swinging Bridge (the college’s student newspaper), with a letter to the Editor. (I had forgotten about this, until Dom made a comment about it in a recent email exchange, so I again went prospecting through my old writings, and found it.)
I don’t remember most of what the breaking news had alleged, but even in my non-belief and blood rage, I came to the defense of the Narrowgaters (names changed for anonymity as per the wishes of those involved; otherwise, the text is preserved exactly as written for the paper):
As a response to last week’s Special Report on Narrowgate Fellowship, I would like to affirm what was reported as Eldon Fry’s suggestion in the article’s conclusion–that “we need to talk honestly with them [NGF members], show them that we care about their futures, and regardless of whether this changes their minds, show that we care about them.”
I come from a family of four–Mom, Dad, my sister Mia, and me. Mia and I grew up in Assemblies of God churches, and in our teen years we became involved in youth groups and–Mia especially–Bible quizzing. Over the course of her quizzing “career,” Mia memorized word-for-word six entire books of the Bible–a total of about 3,000 verses, I think. Although I only memorized two books, I am well familiar with the Bible, having read it in its entirety at least twice. Simply put, both Mia and I had a good, Bible-based childhood, albeit strongly influenced by our Pentecostal denomination.
Right now, I’m a Senior. Mia graduated from here in ’94. And here’s what’s perplexing: Mia is a core member of NGF/New Life, and I write “heretical” editorials such as “A Necessary Evil” and “Another Necessary Evil . . .” which question the nature of God and of Scripture. How do two siblings with similar upbringings, Bible-based upbringings, end up so differently, and at such extremes?
I can’t answer that.
But let me offer another question: how do people with such extreme religious differences manage to love and care about each other in spite of their differences? I can’t figure this one out, either–but it has something to do with considering a person to be more important than a belief. This is not to say we throw our convictions aside; Mia and I DO argue quite heatedly about God and Jesus and the Bible. And, I must admit, we tend to go our separate ways and we don’t see much of each other. We don’t really understand one another. But we don’t hate and tear each other to shreds (odd, given the fact that we’re siblings!).
Narrowgate is not my kind of thing, cult or no cult. I adhered to a similar “go with God” “REAL Christianity” mindset in my teen years, and it ultimately poisoned my ability to believe. Of course, Mia will argue that it was the Assemblies’ fault, that hypocrisy and false teaching–not True Christianity–were what destroyed me. I’ll disagree vehemently. She’ll try to convince me of the truth she’s found, and I’ll try to warn her of the truth she’s found. But beyond that, we will let go and love each other.
NGF members are NOT evil. My sister can make me quite angry, but she is NOT evil. Certainly, I am uncomfortable when I am with her in the midst of her friends; certainly, I disagree with their beliefs; certainly, I sometimes feel a sense of compassionate condescension when I’m around them. But I make people uncomfortable. I can be condescending. None of us are saints. My sister and her Narrowgate friends–the ones I’ve met, the ones I’ve eaten big family-dinners with–they are loving and caring people, in spite of what the rumors flying all over campus may say. I will not allow myself to ridicule and demonize them; that just breeds hate. Whether or not NGF has “gone astray” is irrelevant; there can be no excuses for refusing to love.
With these reflections in mind, it is my sincere hope that we as a community can respect and embrace the members of NGF, even if we disagree with them. Even if we think they are destroying peoples’ lives. Because if we can’t love, we will always be worse than those we hate.
Just like the Swinging Bridge’s expose, the context of the conflict I mentioned at the beginning of this writing has already been covered in earlier entries in this blog’s historical accounting of the Narrowgate story. While the schism of the group into the “Enola Six” and the remaining refugees was transpiring somewhere in Eastern Pennsylvania, one concurrent evening in Western Pennsylvania, I was visiting at my parents’ house (the same house Mia and I had grown up in since late 1984) with my new wife and inherited 4-year old son. My parents were fretting about the information they were getting from the group of parents who were allying to figure out how to rescue their kids from this cult.
According to the information they’d received, the cult was telling people who was married to whom, and my sister Mia was supposedly assigned to be married to Noah, and I don’t know, some other sex-related stuff between leaders and members I guess? I don’t really remember the details, because by that time, I frankly didn’t care. I had long since made up my mind that my sister was gonna do what she was gonna do: believe in a magic Divinity who approved of all of her own choices, and live her own magical-God-directed life.
I actually tried to argue this point with my parents … which did not go well. My Dad, who throughout my growing up had terrified me with explosions of non-physically-abusive rage – not sure how to describe it otherwise, but now looking back I would call them autism spectrum meltdowns – his deep concern erupted into meltdown rage over my disagreement with his and my Mom’s hyper-anxious concern for my sister.
I was livid. I grabbed my son and wife Lisa, pulled them outside and into the minivan, and then stormed back into the house, screaming at my Dad that there was no way I was going to let my son be exposed to the same behavior I grew up with. I don’t remember my literal words, but I swear my Dad must have thought I was going to deck him – while all the while he was shaking and screaming back with his open but clenched hands shivering up and and down and behind his head, and his combover disheveling while sweat pooled and saliva sputtered out in gleeks and droplets.
But at that time, I couldn’t even feel bad for my parents – and in fact, I never wanted to see my Dad again. I was done.
He tried calling me once a few weeks later, but it ended up in a shouting match over the landline, and that was it. I never spoke to him again until several years later, after my parents had finally divorced (after 32 years), late into the 2nd year of my third son’s life, whose health, after birth trauma and multiple neurological and physical disabilities was failing (we did not know how much, but we could sense it), and I relented of my rage and felt I should try to repair our relationship, especially so he could know his grandson (who he’d only seen once, at his baptism, because the pastor had insisted that I let my Dad be there).
Several letters were exchanged, and we were ready to start meeting face to face.
But it was too late. The first time I saw my Dad, after that raging fight over my sister’s involvement in the cult, and the pastor-forced inclusion at my son’s baptism, was when he walked in the door of the funeral home, now bearded and buzz-cut, and came and hugged me; a different man than I had known all my life. As I was too.
And by that time, Mia was a different person as well – even before my son died. She and Oliver, as we’ve learned earlier in the story, had finally escaped the cult, and during this time while they were rebuilding their lives, residing in Philadelphia, they would come visit, and when Lisa was considered a high-risk pregnancy, and at 4 months was ordered to bed rest – a tall order when you have three boys already and one of them being severely disabled – my sister came to stay with us during the weekdays to help care for the kids while I worked.
It was Mia’s idea. Whether by that time it was God telling her, or it was just her generous heart, or just a random instinct she honored – she offered to drive six hours out and six hours back every week to make sure that her sister-in-law would be able to follow the doctor’s orders for bed rest and keep our newest child safe until delivery. And each time she was back in Philly, Oliver would go to the market and buy oranges, and Mia would bring them back with her for Lisa, as the oranges were one of the few things she pregnancy-craved that she could eat without feeling sick. Soon, my first daughter was born, and she was our first child to come into the world without any serious medical problems at the time of birth.
There’s more to the story of Oliver and Mia, and myself and Lisa; we shared many years with them as they tried to recover from Narrowgate and deal with the divine fabulations that had put them together. They walked with us through some very dark times in our family, when two more of our kids were close to death, and again, dropped everything and drove for hours at a moment’s notice so they could spend time with our kids, to keep them connected to their true family while the courts kept them away from us. Oliver and Mia gave us so much that we could never repay – yet ultimately, they could no longer survive together.
You’ve read from Oliver’s tale that they never should have been together in the first place – but perhaps what was not obvious is that Oliver and Mia both tried so very hard to survive after the cult – and were very good to us, and even Christ-like, if I can fairly use that adjective. The contrast between the magical God of Narrowgate and the actual divine spirit, if there really is such a thing, could not be more stark.
If there is a God, God showed up through what they did for us, not through some mystical “answer” divinely granted to a narcissist who could pull people into his irresistible orbit under the guise of Holy authority.
I think this is important for the readers to know – that even with no happy endings, some of the people who were so contorted by Narrowgate before they escaped were able to live on and actually become the kind of people they were seeking to be when they were abused and nearly destroyed.
Once they stopped insisting that God show up, they showed up in God’s place.
I think this was true of Mason, too, although I think he probably suffered the most of everyone who made it out alive – until he didn’t. His parents were successful in extricating him from the cult, and he moved back to North Central PA with them. One of my former roommates, Marshall, had even reconnected with him, and they would go hiking and snowmobiling and spend time together catching up. Work-wise, Mason had become a well-loved custodian at the local schools.
But this all ended tragically, by his own hand, on December 19, 2015.
I learned about it from Rose. When I emailed Marshall after learning he would be attending Mason’s funeral, asking him to carry my condolences to Mason’s family, he refused:
“This may sound harsh, but I am emissary to no man. I will get their address if you wish. Write them and it will be much more touching. If you’re feeling a need to send condolences, God has given you the obligation for such an act.”
It didn’t matter whether or not I believed in the God that Marshall presumed to speak for; he gave me no choice; I had to write. As I expected to have a lot to say, I wrote the letter on a computer, then printed it out and mailed it – so I still have the text of that letter, and I’m sharing the full text of that letter here for your benefit, in all its raw honesty. (As previously, names have been changed for privacy):
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Mason’s Parents:
You may not remember me, but I was a friend of your son Mason in college, and you welcomed me and some of my friends and roommates to stay overnight at your home one weekend. Mason was super-excited about making us hot wings, and his recipe did not disappoint. It was winter, and I remember Mason (Sr.) taking all of us out to a field off a back road where there was a small camp trailer; I remember finding a pair of prescription sunglasses and also a few old glass pop (soda?) bottles in the field nearby, which I kept – and while I had an apartment in Dillsburg (about 11 miles south of the college) I remember keeping the bottles on the windowsill. For some, these objects may have seemed to be worthless, but for me, I latched on to them as a connection to the past – a past which I knew (I remembered the old style pop bottles from when I was a child) and a past which I did not (I did not know to whom the prescription sunglasses had belonged), but a past which felt very present to me.
I’m not sure why I’m telling you this, except for the fact that that weekend left an impression on me, and I still remember it over 20 years later, and I hope this fond memory provides you comfort. I remember you both especially as very kind people, and I, having lost my own son (who died a few months short of his third birthday), know your grief even though I can’t fully know it. I know just a small part of Mason’s life; a large part, I do not; but I latch on to all of my memories with him as a connection to an old college friend who still feels very present to me.
However it happens, losing your child mortally wounds your spirit; as a parent, you have failed at the very thing that defines you as a parent. Whether that’s a rational feeling or not, there’s no way around it, no matter what your child’s age. In Compassionate Friends support groups, my wife and I spent many hours with others who had lost their children – some younger children, some adult children – it did not matter; for all of us, the common denominator of losing our children brought us together, but on the other hand each of our grief was so unique that it alienated us from each other – even from our own spouses. We witnessed many couples stay together, and just as many fall apart.
As of January 24, 2016, it will be 15 years since my son died. It does not get any easier; the pain (maybe) only gets duller, but it never goes away. It infects all of your relationships and tempers any joy you may one day be able to have. This is my witness. Perhaps it may be better for you – but for us, it was not; it was (and is) horrible, and I feel compelled to warn you to not fall prey to those who try to over-spiritualize what you are going through in losing your son. Jesus wept over the death of Lazarus – but then brought Lazarus back. My son never came back. Mason will never come back. The religious comforts fall short, because when it really matters, they don’t apply to you. That’s my experience anyway; I hope it is better for you, but because I don’t want you to suffer the way we have, I want to caution you ahead of time to not have false hope, and to not ignore your real emotions as parents because of religious expectations. Mason is gone. It has made me cry, but I am sure my tears do not compare to yours.
Sadly, I hadn’t kept in touch with Mason at all since college, but I’ve always kept fond memories of hanging out with him, going for wings at Alliger’s, staying up at your place in Towanda (or was it Sayre?) … I got a little insight into his experience after college as I found out from my sister and brother-in-law (Mia and Oliver) that he had also been involved with the “Narrow Gate” cult and some time after having been rescued from that, had been diagnosed with Asperger’s. I also learned this from Rose, who had dated Mason in college, and lived with my sister after she and my brother-in-law, who “God had told them to get married” during the cult years, separated and eventually divorced. I lived in a small room (essentially a closet) in the house with Mia and Rose for 2 weeks every month for about a year and a half, while I had a job that split my time between York and home in Pittsburgh; Rose would tell me how Mason would call her incessantly and was obsessed with her, and how she was struggling between still loving him as a person and friend but yet trying to deal with his obsession with where she was and what she was doing. In fact, I know she still cares for him, as she was the first person from whom I learned of Mason’s death and she was (and is) devastated.
So, though I did not know Mason personally after college, he still remained alive to me. And very much in a way I could understand. He reminded me, in many ways, of my own Father – who, although never officially diagnosed, most likely also has Asperger’s, and has had a very difficult life because of it – including alcoholism, depression, outbursts of anger (meltdowns) since as young as I can remember, and unsuccessful suicide attempts. I found out from my sister, after initially hearing of Mason’s death from Rose, that Mason took his own life. Seeing what my Father has suffered, I can understand it; but having experienced my own child’s death, I find that Mason’s decision only makes the grief worse for those who survive, even though we all know he was already suffering. I myself have fought depression over the years – including in college when I was close to Mason – and it is a sinister demon to deal with. But although I’ve had some mild social awkwardness and psychological issues of my own, I don’t believe it can compare to the challenges that my Dad and Mason faced. I dealt with frustration and anger, but aside from a few socially damaging outbursts and dangerous and reckless meltdowns while driving and skidding into parking lots, I didn’t face a lot of alienating repercussions for my maladaptive behavior. I don’t know how difficult it’s been for Mason, but I gather it has been far from easy. In Mason’s case, one incident that stands out to me in particular is when Mason tried, and failed, to upgrade DOS on my computer. He was obsessively excited about upgrading my computer to the new DOS because it was so much better, and I agreed to let him do it. But soon, it was a disaster. My computer had a ROM version of DOS which was incompatible with the new DOS version Mason was installing. The ROM (read-only memory) could not be changed, and the computer was left in a TOTALLY unusable state and EVERYTHING was lost. Mason was FLIPPING OUT and completely distraught. The only thing that saved my computer was a recovery disk I had made beforehand; we used that, restored my computer, and it was usable again. This rescue was the only thing that calmed Mason down.
I wish I had a recovery disk for Mason. I want to bring him back, to restore him to the time before everything was lost. I can’t believe he is gone. Though I lost touch with him personally, I know he was, and is, a good person, and the world has gotten much darker without him.
I am so sorry for your loss, but I want you to know that you are not alone.
So while, unlike my former roommate Marshall, I never saw Mason after college, I was still horribly devastated to learn from Rose about Mason’s suicide. As I wrote to his parents, I wrote as a fellow bereaved parent, to express my sorrow for them, and on their behalf; but one conclusion I kept to myself. That is, that the trauma of Narrowgate was a primary factor that set him on the path to make the ultimate choice he did.
I can’t know that for a fact, but I do know trauma, and as my own trauma never leaves me, I can only believe Mason carried this trauma with him to his death.
I was an outsider to Narrowgate, but in my mind, what happened in the group and to the people in the group, whether they escaped at some point or not, was and is unequivocally evil. Deadly evil. After learning about Liam, and everything he tortured the fellowship with, I must recant my original statement from 25 years ago: “NGF members are NOT Evil.” While I believe this is still true for most of Narrowgate’s refugees, for Liam? I was completely and categorically wrong.
Mason’s mom wrote back to me, a handwritten letter, sharing about Mason’s life and grieving that her son died before she did; it wasn’t right! She had stage 4 ovarian cancer, but Mason died before she did. Between the folds of her letter she had slipped a photograph of Mason and the rest of us from the hot wing-weekend I’d written about, as a gift to me.
In her grief, she still was so kind as to give up a piece of her son for me, when she had so little of him left.
During Advent the following year, I wrote to Mason’s parents again to let them know I was thinking of them. Mason (Sr.) wrote back, and shared of his wife’s death on August 14, 2016.
We’ve kept in touch since then. But this past year, I missed sending an email on December 19th; and when I did send one a few weeks later, I never got a reply.
* * * * * * *
In the fantasy realm of the Harry Potter series, when a wizard murders someone, that supreme act of evil splits the wizard’s soul, and the wizard can then deliberately or unintentionally cast part of his dark soul into any object, creating what is called a “horcrux”. Once a wizard has made at least one horcrux, the wizard cannot fully die until all of his horcruxes are destroyed. The final novel of the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, recounts Harry Potter and his wizarding friends’ quest to find and destroy all horcruxes of the Dark Lord – Voldemort, a corrupt and fanatical wizard whose ultimate goal is to kill Harry Potter and assume complete authority over the wizarding world.
As it turns out, Harry Potter himself is a horcrux of Voldemort, unintentionally created when Voldemort killed Harry’s mother when Harry was a baby – and as it will not be possible to defeat Voldemort without destroying all of his horcruxes, Harry must die. It is the only way.
In the story, Harry does not realize that this is the reason he has struggled within himself his whole life, fighting internal battles against a crushing belief that he is descending into evil and darkness and can’t be saved. He only knows what has been revealed to him at the time – that he must give up his life. So he presents himself to Voldemort to be killed.
But what Voldemort does not know, and Harry does not quite understand, is that Harry has found the Resurrection Stone, which is granted to him right before his death.
After letting Voldemort murder him, Harry finds himself in a dreamlike place that resembles King’s Cross railway station. There he encounters Albus Dumbledore, his former professor who had previously been murdered (as told in an earlier book). Dumbledore explains to Harry how he became a horcrux, and Harry finally understands why only his own death could break the curse. At this point, he has a choice – to board from the railway station and go on, or to return. He chooses, and comes back to life.
But Voldemort is unaware. Harry’s body is retrieved by his friends, they destroy the remaining horcruxes, and in a final battle between good and evil, Harry defeats Voldemort. But in the meantime, many of his friends have died in battle and Hogwarts, the school of Wizardry that raised Harry and his friends, has been almost completely destroyed.
So why am I telling this story?
Today, the date this entry in the Narrowgate series has been published – December 19, 2020 – marks exactly five years since Mason chose to die.
Five years: longer than his enshacklement in the Narrowgate dungeon. Longer than its very existence.
But not yet as long as he lived beyond his escape, carrying the darkness of Narrowgate within him – as if he were a real-life horcrux, created from the cult’s soul-killing, twisted, evil, spiritual and psychological manipulation.
We do not live in the wizarding world, but as a metaphor, the Harry Potter story is instructive. There is no way to eliminate the cultic darkness that binds itself to you – except to die. And while Mason had no Resurrection Stone, perhaps he is not gone forever; several faiths do teach of the General Resurrection at the end of all time – not that we will live forever after death as some ethereal vapor for all eternity; not that we will vanish into nothing; but rather, that we will be reanimated to life in a physical body; some of us to eternal life, and some to eternal damnation.
As it was in Narrowgate, perhaps it is universally true: those who are most certain of their direct connection to the Divine, most confident in their spiritual powers, and most unwavering in their belief of their eternal destination are completely wrong.
And maybe those who have been deeply pierced and cannot heal, who have no hope and can no longer bear this present darkness, might, in death, finally become free.
When we try to divine the purpose or plan or reason we suffer gratuitous assaults like Narrowgate, we come up empty. Nothing. We don’t know why some of us can survive the assault of evil bound to us, while others cannot. We don’t know why we live, or why we die.
But that should never silence our witness.
“The LORD said, “What have you done? Listen!
Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.”
(Genesis 4:10, NIV)