Escape From the Cult
Coming close to death in order to find real life.
by Janis Hutchinson
The cult leader burst through the door of the small room where I was being held prisoner. “Are you ready to repent?” he shouted. “Are you ready to admit you were worshipping at the altar of Baal?”
I fell back on my bed, cringing at the thought of another encounter. After nine months of his tirades and charges of being a traitor, I didn’t care if I lived or died.
Fighting waves of nausea, I had no strength to reason with this man — a man I once thought held special favor with God. “All I want to do now is die,” I said weakly.
“No way!” He moved closer, his body towering over me. “Wouldn’t you just love to have something happen to you so the police would come in! There’s no way you’re going to bring a murder charge down on me. You’re going to stay alive so you can repent!”
He stormed out of the room, his footsteps echoing through the empty building.
I lay on the bed wondering, How did this turn into such a nightmare? I prayed to be led to more truth. I hoped to serve God more fully by joining the Order.
My mind retraced how I had landed in such a frightful situation. After thirty-four years in the mainline Mormon Church, I had become dissatisfied and bored, yet I was spurred on by its teaching to strive for perfection. I discovered a secret underground movement called Mormon Fundamentalism. Anyone having interests in it could be excommunicated from the Church of Latter-day Saints.
I learned about United Orders taught by Joseph Smith and Brigham Young that were no longer practiced. In these orders everyone equally shared goods and finances. By participating in this system, I thought I would purge any hidden selfishness, perfect myself, and grow closer to God. I envisioned everyone loving each other in Christ. My husband had passed away a year earlier, my children were grown; I was free to go.
My first shock came when I realized everyone in the Order didn’t love each other. I had been showered with love and attention when I first entered; now I saw attitudes revert to strife, jealousy, and contention.
As the months dragged, life in the Order grew progressively worse. Stricter rules were added. Robot obedience to the leader’s religious authority was demanded. The violent temper and sharp tongue of the leader’s wife left me in tears.
Devastated over her jealous hatred toward me and shocked at the Order’s unexpected demands, I began to withdraw. The joy I experienced at the beginning of my venture was gone. I felt empty and desolate.
Although most of my activities were curtailed, I still had one freedom. Since church services were held in the afternoons, early Sunday mornings I was allowed to drive to a nearby lake. I told the leader I wanted to pray and meditate on the principles of the Order. Actually, I needed to get away from what seemed like a dark cloud over the farm.
One morning by the lake, I asked God to lift my depression. I prayed for humility so I would be more submissive to the leader, for charity so I could become immune to his wife’s verbal abuse.
Winter soon set in, and the snow became too deep to drive to the lake. Determined not to give up my Sunday mornings, I pretended to go to the lake and instead drove aimlessly over the barren plains. One morning I noticed a small country church and decided to slip in quietly.
The singing and atmosphere of peace and love sharply contrasted life on the farm, and my spirits immediately lifted. The song leader and pastor spoke many kind and loving things. I began to see how wrong things were in the Order.
Before every hymn, the song leader explained what the verses meant. For the first time, I learned what God’s favor to humanity really was — something never talked about in the LDS Church. I learned that “works” would never gain me eternal life. The song leader also explained what Jesus’ death on the cross and reconciliation meant. I began to get a new perspective on what Jesus did for me. This, of course, did not mean I thought of leaving the Order or giving up my belief in Mormon doctrine. I simply added the new concepts to my Mormon thinking.
I returned to the farm, able to cope with the abuse for another week. All depression was lifted as I thought about the new concepts about Jesus.
But after attending four Sundays, my worst fears were realized: I had been followed. When I returned to the farm, the leader confronted me.
“Have you been attending that church?”
“Yes,” I replied timidly. “But let me tell you about Jesus. . . .”
I got no further. The leader accused me of “spiritual adultery,” of finding Christ in a Christian church instead of through him.
He demanded the keys to my car, and I dutifully handed them over. I was cut off from all communication. I could not be reinstated with members or leave the farm until I came into their sacrament meeting, publicly repented of attending the church, and denounced the Christians’ Jesus.
Through the months, the leader periodically came into my room to revile me. As my health deteriorated, my thinking processes became more sluggish. At times I struggled to make my mind work. At other times I found myself doing mental gymnastics to rationalize my circumstances until I actually believed I deserved confinement.
I grew thin and slipped in and out of deep depression. Suspecting that the doctrines I had believed in for so long might be wrong, I felt let down, cheated. My health gradually worsened. Despite it all, I was determined never to renounce the Christian Jesus.
One afternoon a small child wandered into the building and found me unconscious on the floor. The leader and others rushed into my room. They began praying and anointing me with oil, while calling on the authority of their Holy Melchizedek priesthood to raise the dead. They feverishly worked over me — not because they were concerned about me but because their worse fears might be realized: I might die, and their leader could face a murder charge.
When I finally came to, I weakly raised one arm and looked at it. There was no pink at all; every bit of my flesh was a solid fusion of black, gray, and purple. My other arm was the same. I assumed my whole body was that way.
After that, the leader made sure his wife brought better food in to me. To my relief, he quit coming to my room.
During the next two months, I slowly regained strength but not without more health problems. Crippling spasms shot through my neck and back, and my colon was paralyzed.
One day something strange but marvelous happened. As I knelt and prayed aloud, these words interrupted me: “I shall deliver you.”
Peace totally filled me, then elation. God must approve of my leaving!
But how? When? My thoughts turned to my furniture and personal belongings stored in another building. I didn’t want to leave without them, since my house in California had not sold and I would need them. Suddenly, my plan of escape began to form.
I watched out the small window of my room on the day I knew the leader and members always went into town. After they piled into their cars, I waited twenty minutes, left my room, and snuck out the door.
Quickly slipping through the back door, I reached for the kitchen phone and fumbled through the telephone directory. I dialed a moving company and made arrangements for them to come the following week. I then hurried back to my room.
The night before the van was to arrive, I waited until everyone was in bed, then I crept out of my room to the main house. I grabbed my car keys, hanging on a nail, and returned to my room.
The morning of the move arrived, and I saw the Mayflower truck pull in. Hurrying outside, I motioned the driver down the long dirt driveway.
At the sound of the truck, the leader and others came rushing out of the main house. They can’t stop me now, I thought. Not with strangers on the property!
I began talking with the drivers, a husband and wife team. Signing the papers, I wondered why a large white dove was painted on the door of their cab. I didn’t realize before that they were Christians.
I pointed them to the building where everything was stored, then stayed with them. The leader and other members stood their distance silently fuming, daring not to prevent me.
“I’ll meet you in three days at my California address,” I told the driver and his wife. “But just before you leave, let me pull out in front of you.” They seemed to understand.
I nervously walked to my car and climbed in. Suddenly, in the side mirror I saw the leader start toward me. I panicked. Turning the key, I jammed my foot against the accelerator and took off. I momentarily lost control of the car, sideswiping a pile of railroad ties alongside the driveway and bashing in the passenger side. I gunned the car down the driveway and onto the open highway. Free at last!
I immediately headed toward town to wire my bank for money. As I drove, I began to cry — first out of relief, then because my body felt so terrible. Then I cried because my Mormon beliefs had been destroyed and because my dream of finding a community sanctioned by God — with everyone wanting to live, love, and share — had been a delusion.
I was left with prolonged health problems. A neck brace controlled the painful spasms in my neck and back. A severe hemorrhage required six blood transfusions and, with a paralyzed colon, I was anticipating a possible colostomy.
I was also facing three to eight years of flashbacks, conflicting emotions, and nightmares. After nine months of isolation, I had to learn how to communicate all over again, grappling with disorientation and an inability to relate to people. I had anxiety attacks and fear that the cult leader would find me and either force me back to the cult or carry out the doctrine of “blood atonement” on me.
Although I had no desire to return to the Montana group, I would also be plagued with Mormonism itself. What if the Book of Mormon is really true? I asked myself. What if Joseph Smith is really a prophet? What if I become a daughter of perdition by leaving? — all typical concerns of ex-Mormons, I later learned. Everything effected a critical sense of tragedy, and I underwent one psychological crisis after another. Dealing with the emotional aftermath would prove to be the most soul-wrenching experience of my life.
Nevertheless, I knew that God had watched over me. I escaped from the cult alive and was headed home to my new life as a Christian!