By Carrie Buddington
I entered The Community of Jesus (CJ), a New England religious community, with my husband in 1970, when I was 23 years old and we were newly converted Christians. We raised our three children there. My husband and children all left CJ between the years of 1988 and 1995. I did not leave until 2010, after 40 years The road that finally led to my leaving was painful and difficult. I am now so glad to be free, and I wish to speak out about my experiences at CJ. In this account, I speak for myself alone; other people in the group may have a different interpretation of their experiences.
At the time I joined the community, I had not been raised in any religious context but had recently experienced a wonderful conversion and baptism into the Christian faith, and I felt clean and fresh. The elements of my past that I had personal shame about had already been forgiven, and I was released from them. Between the spring of 1969 when I was converted, and January 1970 when we moved to CJ, I was looking forward to a new life. I was happy and excited. New to the faith, I was eager to learn how to apply the Bible to everyday life, and I joined CJ with this hope and vision. But instead of joy and peace, I found myself in a spiral of physical, emotional, and psychological pain. I will try to share some of my understanding of why I suffered so much while I was living there.
When the stated values of manipulators are the same as a victim’s, deception is easy. I already believed in the Christian faith and did not have to be persuaded to change beliefs. Working within the same ideology made it very hard for me to recognize the errors, especially since I had not had any previous exposure to Christianity. The wonder is not that I was brought under the influence of the group’s teachings, but that I ever took back my own autonomy.
Usually, when people are becoming involved in a new community, there is at least a short honeymoon period, a time of feeling welcome and appreciated. For us, the honeymoon lasted a matter of hours. On the very first day that we arrived, we had an appointment in the morning to meet the leaders. While we waited, one of their religious sisters told us which house we would be staying in and gave us coffee and tea. When 1:00 rolled around and we were still waiting, I asked whether it would be all right for us to start unloading our belongings at our destination home, only two blocks away. The sister said that would be fine, and they would call us when the leaders were ready to see us; so off we went.
We got the call, returned, and were taken into the leaders’ office. Without even letting us sit down, one of them turned on us and let loose a castigating, humiliating, invective-laced tirade about how presumptuous and rebellious we were, and how, if we planned to stay there, we had to learn to be absolutely obedient, that we should have simply sat waiting until we were called in. I had learned well from my father that there was no hope for victory in trying to stand up against this kind of rage, so I simply cringed and promised to be a good girl from then on.
Although there were times of group and even personal praise, and constant acclamations about how especially “called” of God we were, the anger from the leaders and other members at our “sin” was a constant theme of our life there. In any personal sessions, the leaders interpreted my words from their viewpoint, which was that my whole being was steeped in sin. Until that time, I had believed my intent was usually good toward others; but my not being able to refute their interpretations of underlying selfishness and sin confused me. In addition to the lessons I had learned in my childhood home about flying under the radar to avoid being the recipient of outrage, I had just spent 4 years after high school surviving the drug culture in the 1960’s hippie era. Newly a Christian, newly married, and newly pregnant, I was insecure and made every attempt to understand what the church leaders were saying about me.
When other members would start hammering at me in group sessions, I began to doubt my own self-image. I was told every day that my self-assessment was wrong and that the interrogators, who were older and wiser and had been Christians much longer than I, knew more about my inner life than I did. The leaders explained their approach by saying it was God’s command that we give all to follow Jesus. A drastic change was needed to make a new person out of me. They taught that, since human nature is against God, we have to die to every expression of our self-life, in thought, word, and deed. Any attempt on my part to question, explain, or defend myself was considered hard-hearted sin. The person in charge of the house I lived in watched me closely, “corrected” me whenever she could, and reported directly to the leaders. Yielding to the daily confrontations of my alleged sin became equal to yielding to God.
I had to write daily confession notes. At first I met once a week with my “counselors.” These were called “light sessions” and were meant to show me where I was living in sin. This did not mean big sins, but the “little foxes that spoil the vine”sins. If my back was hurting and I wanted to sit down for a while, I was lazy and in rebellion. If I was 5 minutes late to a meeting because of my child’s need, I was in family idolatry and rebellion. I resisted this approach at first. It seemed so picky and unreasonable, and some of it was just not true.
This resistance caused the attacks on me to become more intense. The sessions often ended with the counselors calling the leaders and reporting how “out of it” I was, or with my being given a discipline. Discipline could include isolation, shaming, and degrading or hard labor. Even if the labor in itself was not that bad, the attitude of disgust, rejection, and shaming with which the labor was imposed created in me an excruciating feeling of self-loathing.
I would try to convince myself that, somewhere deep inside, where I was not conscious of it, I had the sins and attitudes they were accusing me of. They taught that the greatest love we could have for our friends was to point out their sins. The result, for me, was a negative reframing of the gospel of love into a caricature that produced fear and shame.
At the end of every session my counselors would lead me in a prayer to confess all my sins, leaving me to name them. If I left one out, they would prompt me. Once I had confessed (oftentimes just to end the light session), they were all smiles and love, and they told me I was now free of the sins and right with God. I felt relieved, but also worn out, beaten down, and ashamed. I walked around in a daze and no longer knew who I was.
The consistent message to me was that I am guilty, as a state of being, not just from any action I had taken. We heard this constantly through the teachings, the tapes, the counseling sessions, and in daily conversation. The community members even composed songs extolling the virtue of always taking the position, whether true or not, of being wrong or guilty in any relationship or situation. Feeling so guilty, it’s no wonder we grew insular as a community. I certainly felt threatened every time I went to town, wondering whether the townspeople could see what a terrible person I was. Out in “the world” people were supposedly cruel and unforgiving about sin, so I ended up looking only to CJ for the eventual release of my pain, and the hoped-for state of spiritual maturity that was promised.
As this state of being took root in me, the harshness of the accusations became acceptable. My body would still react in fear at counseling sessions, with clenched stomach and shaking hands. The process was humiliating and excruciating, but I endured it instead of fighting it. The leaders’ rationale was that the exposure of our sins causes us to die to them, and this was likened to Jesus dying on the cross. The only way we could come into resurrection life was to go through this daily death to self. I relabeled my fear and resistance as sin and accepted the suffering of shame, guilt, and humiliation as my just desserts and the only way to God and resurrection life.
Not only had I accepted the teaching that there was no good in me, but also the added dimension that there was nothing good in my former life or family. For example, I had done well in high school, and I loved learning. I also wanted very much to be a good mother. I would have loved to have read books and gone to classes on raising children; but the leaders said they had the “inside scoop” on what the Bible teaches about raising children, and that, mixed with their unusual take on family idolatry, made me the spotlight of their corrections related to anyone being a bad mother. Specifically, how they separated me from my children and made me believe I was bad for them deserves a study all its own. That is the area my children and I are still the most hurt about.
I also was in charge of the garden, the A/V department, and the CJ’s candle shop at different times; I did a good job and never received any praise or recognition for my work. The CJ philosophy was that the best we did was the least we could do for God.
The way the leaders talked about sin made me think my initial happiness on becoming Christian had been shallow. There was a lot of teaching about the deeper life and the gifts of the Holy Spirit—prophecy, healing, visions. These were rewards that I wanted, so I followed their piper’s tune and was led into a life of sin hunting. They also said that the hardness of this life was not for everyone, but that God had brought me to CJ, so this was the path I needed to follow to be saved. This made me feel that I had a special calling.
There were periods during the week or month when I was not in the spotlight or under the gun. These times made it even harder for me to see how damaging the process was because it was mixed with normal, middle-class life, which I very much wanted. My husband had a decent job; we had a car and could pay our bills, and we were raising a family. All of this outward normalcy blinded me and motivated me to suppress my concerns. I did not want to return to poverty and insecurity, especially now that I had children. I was motivated to fit in and maintain the lifestyle we had gained.
It also seemed that I was the only one resisting “the truth.” Even my husband seemed to go along with it more than I did. The more I hung onto my sense of individuality, the more doing so put me into conflict with others. The conflict would show in chance comments I would make in conversation that others would be disgusted about and in turn isolate me. I would literally stand or sit alone at group gatherings because no one wanted to talk with me. I got to points of desperation where I felt as if I would die.
These breaking points were traumatic and cyclical, repeating several times in my 40 years in the community. I had to conform to survive. I would become so emotionally distraught, confused, and desperate that I would confess I was wrong and ask for help. Then I would get approval; people would be friendly to me again; I was included and accepted and a part of the family. The relief could last for months. I would be given a new job or responsibility, and life was good and worth living—all were positive reinforcements of the change. My gratitude and commitment to CJ was deepened.
I became again a mouthpiece for the party line. This role created dissonance with my deep inner self and contributed to the next cycle starting up again and slowly growing. I tried my hardest to deny and stifle any inner contrary thoughts. I tried hard to live the life they taught in order to avoid the annihilation I feared, not realizing that denying my true inner self was the very process that would bring the conflict on again. They promised salvation but only gave annihilation of self.
This cycle repeated until the last round in 2008 through 2010 (yes, it lasted 2 years), when I finally recognized the pattern, realized I was cycling and had been the whole 40 years, and was finally able to admit this honestly to myself. During those last 2 years, I would say to myself over and over again, “I have to find the truth. I’m dying.” I meant that literally. My migraines were getting worse. My depression was getting worse. But what I really feared was that I would lose myself, for good. I was afraid of sinking into a place of totally giving up my identity. I knew I was being beaten down. I felt battered to the point of giving up and dying. I began to have passive suicidal thoughts. I felt on the verge of a numbing insanity, and fear of that motivated me to be honest with myself.
In my prayers, for the first time, I admitted to God and myself that I wanted to leave. I felt like Judas, but I admitted it. This inner honesty brought a lot of past and present pain to the surface, like taking the lid off of Pandora’s box. The emotional pain was intense, partly because this was not some foreign culture and political regime I’d been forced to accept. This was Christianity, which I wanted, so I had persevered and endured. When I was completely broken, I had accepted that there was no other life for me outside of CJ. I had locked myself in and thrown away the key. This made it very hard to find the key, unlock the gate, and leave. It was possible, but I had to battle the belief instilled in me that to do so was to turn my back on God. The whole reason I had allowed myself to be in prison was as an offering to God. To think about leaving CJ seemed to be the same as leaving God, which amounted to spiritual suicide. The account of my leaving is available on my blog (https://mylifecoj.wordpress.com).
The first year I was out, all I cared about was to be left alone. I felt like a wounded creature who needed to hide in a cave while I healed. I was also very busy surviving, learning how to handle the myriad daily activities that everyone else might take for granted. Even though I spoke English, I suddenly found myself in a culture that felt foreign to me.
By the second year that I was out, I could not get CJ out of my head. I was having nightmares and daily intrusions into my thoughts. I would startle when I thought I saw someone from CJ on the street. I searched through my health insurance and found a very competent therapist. He has helped me to face my experiences, and to admit just how bad it had really been. I had experienced the pain but not processed it; I had dissociated myself from it. It seemed less painful to downplay the experience, to pretend it had been normal, or that my memory was overblowing it. To speak out about what happened, to speak the truth in detail, quickened the pain again, but it also released it.
The joy of discovering life again is like finding water after living in a desert. The experience has been very joyful and freeing. It also has been scary, especially in the area of making decisions. Do you know there is a whole aisle in the store of just bread to choose from? How do I know what I want when I haven’t bought bread in 40 years? How do I know I will pick the right car to buy? I have questions about what other people do, what is normal, what is accepted, and what I want. It’s a journey; and as I gain in self-confidence, this process is less fearful. I have had an unusual life experience that gives me a different perspective from many people. I am learning to be comfortable with this difference, and to realize that what I learn from this experience can be a constructive contribution to society. Part of the feeling of limbo I sometimes have is that I am still searching for a community connection that will be a secure home base for me, while it will not repeat the poor choice I made previously.
I want to end this article with a positive affirmation of the strength of human nature to recover from trauma and abuse. It is never too late to learn to live, and to pursue full development of our talents. We are all social beings, and we develop our personal narrative in relationship with others. In speaking out, I hope to be a voice against acceptance of abuse, and foremost a voice for the acceptance of ourselves, and of the variability and changeability of our life experiences. I know now that there is always room in life to question, to learn, to challenge, and to love; and any system that stifles individual development must be viewed with suspicion, as dangerous and harmful.
Song of Solomon, 2:15.
About the Author
Carrie Buddington is a former member of The Community of Jesus, Inc., a Bible-based Christian community. She joined in 1970 when she was a newly converted Christian, and she raised her three children at the Community. She worked in many of their offices and became a Senior Sister in the Convent. She left in 2010 and, having been denied requests to pursue education while at the Community, is currently attending Boston College for a bachelor’s degree in psychology; she plans to work toward a master’s degree in social work. She is a member of the International Cultic Studies Association and looks forward to being able to assist others who have left cults to start a new life. As part of processing what she has lived with for 40 years, she is writing a blog: firstname.lastname@example.org