13 Jul

A Cult I Had Never Read about Before: the Independent Fundamental Baptists

Book cover of I Fired God

I Fired God

Book Review: I Fired God: My Life Inside—and Escape from—the Secret World of the Independent Fundamental Baptist Cult by Jocelyn Zichterman

This book has quite the audacious title. How do you fire God? Or, as my boyfriend quipped, “Does she have the authority to do that?” Given the author’s experience with religion, I can definitely appreciate her position. This book is part autobiography and part memoir and part political call to action. Jocelyn Zichterman (neé Janz) recounts her abusive childhood, her attempt to find her place in the world as an adult in the Independent Fundamental Baptist (IFB) church/cult, her subsequent liberation from the IFB, and career as an activist. As someone who just can’t get enough of reading about cults, the people in cults, and people managing their post-cult existence, when I saw this book on the new shelf at the library, I had to check it out.

The opening part of the book deals with Zichterman’s abuse at the hands of her father and, later on, brothers. It is inherently hard to read about abuse for me, especially when it goes into detail about the unpredictable nature of their father, Bart, an IFB pastor and expert misogynist, and the times he tortured animals and beat his children bloody with a dowel. However, I appreciate the impact of these events and how they establish a context for the author’s actions later on. They also make it clear that Zichterman has a real, tangible reason to fear her father, and other people in the IFB who enable his behavior.

I had a hard time getting into the narrative at first because it started out feeling really clunky. The chapters were organized into vignettes and each one had a subheading. It felt more like reading blog posts or journal entries than a cohesive story. But as the narrative progressed, I found my irritation waning. I think that it seemed so difficult to read at the outset because the author was describing events from a time when she didn’t have a full understanding of herself, but the narrative became more confident and mature as the author did. I think it can be difficult to recount events from a time when the mind isn’t fully mature, fully settled. Trying to get into a prior mindset (from childhood, or before a major life change—like leaving your religion-based worldview) makes for awkward tellings, no matter how skilled you are. For comparison, I find that when I try to discuss how I used to feel when I was growing up Mormon, I can’t really articulate myself fully, likely because I have my brain engaged on more levels than I did then.

Zichterman recounts an absurd amount of incidences that indicate that women in the IFB have zero standing. The men who run this cult view women on the same level as children. They also describe the need to keep women under men’s “umbrella of protection,” which means that fathers are responsible for girl-children until they marry, at which point husbands are responsible. The whole cult (I will take Zichterman at her word that it is a cult) seems to be based on giving misogynistic, sociopathic men an outlet for dominating and totally gaslighting women.

The descriptions of how women in the IFB are treated highlight some awful behavior, but the true purpose of this book, and one of the main themes running through it, is that groups like the IFB cultivate an isolationist stance, distancing themselves from government and regulation. This this is a huge detriment to its members and is prohibitive for anyone who wants to leave. Like many religious groups, the IFB does a deplorable job of educating kids. The IFB preaches isolation—public schools will convert your children to Satanists, the government is just waiting to round up fine, Christian folk for execution, and calling the police is a sure way to make God mad—and as such, almost everyone is homeschooled or goes to a private, religious school. Homeschooled kids in this group use study booklets that blatantly ignore basically everything we know about history and science, and instead focus on the fact that the Bible should be our main source of information. Kids are left to work on these booklets independently, with minimal supervision. Sometimes, they aren’t supervised at all, as was the case for Zichterman and her siblings one year.

Another of Zichterman’s main issues with the education system is that these home or private schools feed into IFB “colleges” like Bob Jones University or Northland Baptist Bible College, which Zichterman herself attended. These schools do not have accreditation, so their degrees are literally meaningless. When the author and her husband who had graduate-level degrees from these schools were trying to escape the IFB, they found that her husband couldn’t get a job anywhere because his degrees were unaccredited and completely useless. This means that anyone who wants to educate themselves and get out has essentially no recourse. The cult leaders are actively keeping people ignorant (and making money) by feeding members into this system.

This steady stream of misinformation is, in fact, state-approved. In Wisconsin, where the author grew up, all parents who wanted to homeschool their children had to do was submit a form. These schools and “colleges” also receive federal funding either through voucher programs, or more directly.

Zichterman makes the case that none of this should be legal. I Fired God highlights the profound unfairness of abuse and how it continues to affect the lives of its victims long after the abuse has supposedly ended. Not educating children properly is abusive. It limits their options. Zichterman argues that freedom of religion should also be freedom from religion and it is impossible to free yourself from such a religion when everything you see or do is controlled by it. Everyone should receive an education that enables them to make it on their own if they so choose. Of course, that is what the leaders of cults like this fear. They know that if people were not kept entirely ignorant, they wouldn’t choose to stay in such conditions and live these lives. This book is part of Zichterman’s campaign to fight back.

Ultimately, I did enjoy reading this book. I like getting perspective on how other people live and it is insane to hear about such systemic abuse even within my own country. I really support Zichterman’s cause; I think that having more regulation and robust education for everyone would solve a lot of problems. I sympathize with people in this situation and I hope that change will soon be enacted. If you like reading about fringe religious movements, people breaking out of oppressive systems, or women overcoming hardship and becoming activists, then you will probably enjoy this book.

One other thing that I want to add: if you don’t want to commit to a whole book, this 20/20 episode features Zichterman, her cause, and an expose on the IFB.

What should you read after you’ve finished I Fired God? Here are some things that I’ve read or have been meaning to read that play well with this subject:

  • Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement by Kathryn Joyce. I read this book a few years ago and really enjoyed it. It deals with the Quiverfull ideology, which stipulates that parents should have a “Quiverfull” of children. That means people shouldn’t use birth control and just accept however many children God wants to give them. The IFB subscribe to this mindset and it is another way in which women are subjugated.
  • Write These Laws on Your Children: Inside the World of Conservative Christian Homeschooling by Robert Kunzman. I’ve had this book on my radar for a while, but have yet to read it. Now I want to read it a lot more. This book deals with exactly what Zichterman is concerned about: people homeschooling children with little or no oversight.
  • Escape by Carolyn Jessop. Zichterman recounts seeing an interview on television featuring Carolyn Jessop and realizing, for the first time, that the IFB was a cult. Jessop is a former member of the FLDS (fundamentalist, polygamist Mormons) and her story has a lot of parallels with Zichterman’s. I haven’t read this particular FLDS memoir, but I have read Lost Boy, Favorite Wife: Escape from Polygamy, and Shattered Dreams, which are all written by survivors/escapees from the FLDS sect.
21 Apr

Scientology, Comparative Religion, and Fun with Cults

Book Review: Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright

Going Clear cover

There is so much to say about this book that it’s hard to know where to begin. I love reading about cults/people who survived cults/wacky religious beliefs and the rest, but this is my first read on Scientology. Up until this point, my main exposure to the subject was via South Park (I’m not proud). Going Clear spans nearly 100 years of history, beginning with L. Ron Hubbard’s birth in 1911 and ending with Paul Haggis’ (the work’s protagonist, such that it can be said to have one) departure from Scientology and the subsequent uproar in 2010-2011. This book is packed with information and there are a lot of people who were interviewed and who played parts in the narrative (it has more characters than a George R. R. Martin novel). Some of the people involved are introduced early in the book as young people involved in Scientology and show up again later as adults, which I found hard to keep track of–I didn’t know I’d have to manage all the people!–but I don’t think you need to remember exactly who everyone is (other than a few power players) to appreciate the absolute insanity of a lot of the things that happen.

Going Clear is meticulously researched. It draws on interviews with lots of current and former Scientologists, court documents, medical records, and the writings of L. Ron Hubbard and other parties. The book is also peppered with footnotes to the tune of “[person’s name]’s attorney denies that X happened” and “The church denies that [person] ever did Y,” which makes one wonder what kinds of behavior that anyone’s attorney would admit to, but that is another matter. The title of the book, Going Clear, refers to the first step in being a Scientologist. When one becomes “clear,” one is free of malicious engrams and is able to work towards being an Operating Thetan (OT). Various people throughout the book are described by their Scientology levels; OT VIII is the highest level that anyone other than Hubbard has ever had access to (Hubbard supposedly penned several more levels, but no one has seen them). Operating Thetans are supposed to have amazing mental powers that can prevent sickness, bend others to one’s will, and basically a certain level of telekinesis. At least, OT levels are described this way. There is as yet no one on the record demonstrating these amazing powers, which of course makes one question why people keep on believing in it, but of course, we could ask such questions about any number of movements.

The book opens with Paul Haggis, that archetypal, directionless young person of the 1970’s who finds Scientology. People like Haggis were attracted to Scientology because of its idealism, they state that they’re working toward “A civilization without insanity, without criminals and without war, where the able can prosper and honest beings can have rights, and where Man is free to rise of greater heights,” as stated by Hubbard himself. This narrative that Scientology is actively working to improve the world seems at odds with basically everything that happens to individual Scientologists in the book, and yet, they all kept stating that they were in it for this ideal; they thought they were really helping. Haggis is the bread in this Scientology sandwich. After his introduction, the reader doesn’t hear about him again until much later in the book when he begins questioning Scientology.

L. Ron Hubbard’s (the L is for Lafayette) early years, when examined from the perspective of Scientology as it is today, are quite revealing. Wright traces the development of some of the themes of Scientology back to Hubbard’s youth, which I think is one of the most interesting aspects of the book. Analyzing modern “religions” and charismatic leaders is so different from tracing the history of someone like the Prophet Muhammad because there is actually a record of what people did and one can draw conclusions about how that influenced their later work. One of the formative experiences of Hubbard’s life was traveling by boat from Seattle to Washington D.C. via the Panama Canal. Hubbard was taken in by Commander Joseph C. “Snake” Thompson on the trip, who was “of the US Navy Medical Corps. A neurosurgeon, a naturalist, and a former spy, Thompson made a vivid impression on [Hubbard].” Thompson also schooled Hubbard on Freudian theory, which doubtless had an impact on Hubbard’s later preoccupation with pyschiatrists and psychologists. There are so many anecdotes (and fabrications, which Wright compares to evidence and accounts from other people) about Hubbard’s early life  that it is difficult to choose what to discuss in a short review, but I will mention that Hubbard briefly served in the US Navy during World War II. He insisted he was a hero and I’m sure this also was a part of his choice to later make Scientology a maritime venture. He was also connected with several people on Hollywood, and it seemed that he was fascinated with society there, but he never made it big, which I think was also a factor in the later choice for Scientology to court celebrities so seriously.

Dianetics was Hubbard’s first effort and producing a work that would define a movement. It quickly became popular because it capitalized on the public’s interest in psychology and psychotherapy, but it supposedly offered people the tools to treat themselves without any actual academic or scientific grounding. Although its popularity burned brightly, it burned out quickly when people realized that Dianetics didn’t actually enable them to do fantastical feats with mental powers. Hubbard, an autocrat at heart, decided that Dianetics had gotten out of hand, and choose to rebrand it as Scientology. He is quoted as saying “I’d like to start a religion. That’s where the money is.” Shortly after Scientology began, Hubbard moved to England with his family (well, his new family, Hubbard had three wives and seven children throughout his life). Soon, Hubbard became paranoid that “British, American, and Soviet governments were interested in gaining control of Scientology’s secrets in order to use them for evil intentions.” To combat this, he bought three boats, gathered up his staunchest believers (who all signed billion year contracts, yes, billion since Scientology subscribes to reincarnation) and founded the Sea Org, which came to be what is essentially Scientology’s clergy. The Sea Org is when, it seems to me, that the real abuses of power began. Parents were separated from their children, abandoned at various ports, and in one case, representatives were caught up in a popular uprising in Morocco. At this time, many of Scientology’s procedures were codified, like the RPF rundown, which involved locking up a dissenter in a room with no contact for several weeks. The practice later evolved to include making such people stay in confinement for years, in some cases, and do labor while there.

There are a lot of tragic events described in Going Clear, but I want to spend some time looking at Scientology from a comparative religion perspective, with a focus on similarities between Scientology and Mormonism (full disclosure: I was raised Mormon). Later in the history of Scientology, when they were back on land, Hubbard was working to get a film made. The script was shopped around and an offer for $10 million came in (at the time, a record sum for a script purchase). Upon investigation of the buyers, they learned that the  buyers were mormons and “Hubbard figured that the only reason Mormons would buy it was to put it on the shelf,” which is probably true. I find it interesting that Mormons would want to suppress a Scientologist message, considering that the movements really have a lot in common as modern religious movements. There are a lot of parallels to be found between Joseph Smith (the founder of Mormonism) and L. Ron Hubbard. Smith was a known huckster and treasure hunter before starting Mormonism, as Hubbard was a prolific science fiction writer before Scientology–both had a flair for the fictitious. Hubbard also took multiple wives (to say nothing of mistresses) without divorcing, although a few wives isn’t much compared to Smith, they are both outside cultural norms. I would also make the argument that Scientology’s doctrine of spirits being sent to Earth as punishment by a more powerful force has some parallel to Mormonism’s concept of there being a “war in heaven,” which Satan lost and God won. Except in the case of Mormonism, the losers weren’t sent to Earth for punishment, they went straight to hell. Both movements also have a period of being on a journey early in their  history. The Mormons, of course, were hounded out of New York and across the Midwest, finally taking a long trek to what is now Utah to escape persecution. Hubbard sailed the Mediterranean and Carribean for several years with his Sea Org to escape what he perceived as persecution. Although the early periods have a lot in common, I will admit that the later histories diverge. Mormonism doesn’t have the forced labor of the RPF (although young people are required to serve missions under extremely spartan conditions) and it also seems to have found a broader appeal than Scientology. However, as comparative cases they are interesting to consider in the context of the development of modern, American religions.

Although there are many differences between contemporary Mormonism and Scientology, some of the tactics they use have similar roots. One line from Going Clear regarding a Sea Org member who wanted to leave explained, “Most of those who fled were torn by conflicting emotions. On the one hand, they were often frightened, humiliated, and angry. They desperately wanted a life outside the organization.” Many people who leave Scientology quickly realize that they don’t know much of the real world, and many of the people who joined as young people or who were born into the religion lack a formal education and haven’t graduated high school (which reminds me of fundamentalist Mormons–the ones that practice polygamy and live in compounds). Scientology is described as being completely consuming. While Mormonism allows people to have lives outside of church, they pack the week so full of church functions that people often find it difficult to do much else, it truly can be difficult to figure out what one’s life is after the organization. Another tactic used by Scientology is “disconnection,” which is the practice of encouraging Scientologists to cut themselves off from anyone or anything that isn’t related to Scientology. This ensures that Scientologists are so emotionally and socially invested that leaving involves a total social suicide. Mormons operate in similar ways. As the good people of Reddit’s exmormon community will tell you, families do disown members who leave Mormonism with alarming frequency.

Comparing Mormonism and Scientology is both part of my fascination with cults and also a way of validating my own experiences. Something about seeing similar tactics documented in other cults (I will go ahead and call it a cult) makes me feel a little less foolish. Obviously these strategies work. We have seen all sorts of movements rise and fall and maintain zealous members using these strategies. Some parts of Going Clear hit close to home, but there were just as many things totally outside of my experience that were absolutely tragic. It’s hard to know what to write about this book because there is just so much to tell; so many stories, so many lives ruined or people’s emotions and sense of self destroyed. This is probably not my best review because I did react very emotionally to this book. I appreciate non-fiction work on religious movements like some people are into horror. It produces that “can’t look away” fascination. I marked a lot of sections in this book that I wanted to talk about, but instead I’ll leave you with this. Be rational for your own self. Be compassionate to other people and then maybe they won’t feel such strong needs to find meaning and acceptance in cults. Read this book because you will be horrified and sad and feel like you want to punch someone.