Article

What was the allure?

As I was writing my last entry about the cult of CUT, I really began to think about what was going on inside the heads of these men who were harshly disciplined on Christmas Day 1989. Clearly, a part of it has to do with the psychological mechanism of the partial reinforcement at random intervals, as discussed. But what brought them to this place to begin with? As I grew up, everyone I knew had been attracted to my parents for some reason. Why?

Obviously, I have to take into account the zeitgeist: which coincided with the years of the largest growth of the Summit Lighthouse, from 1973 to the mid-80s. It was a bit of a delayed reaction from the “turn-on, tune-in, drop-out” psychedelic / new-age ride of the 60s. That train slammed headlong into reality in 1978 as 914 members of the Peoples Temple did away with themselves by drinking cyanide laced Kool-Aid. But before that, many hippies and ex-hippies were attracted to my parents organization. Up until the People’s Temple fiasco showed otherwise, communes seemed like a safe haven from the rough-and-tumble of finding one’s fortunes in the world at large.

The entire experiment had the same genesis: the desire to alter consciousness, the desire to perceive something beyond the veil, to deny the harsh realities of materialist life. During those years, even the popular culture was suffused with these dreams, as we saw John Lennon and Paul McCartney leading the charge, taking the Beatles into their brief flirtation with the guru culture in India. Later we had Shirley MacLaine. The further from reality they got, the more jarring was the rude awakening upon their return.

Gradually, everyone woke up and discovered that it really WAS about sex, drugs, rock ‘n roll and materialism, and we had the highflying 1980s, which some people called the ‘decade of greed.’ I’d refer to it more as the decade of return to reality. Of course the New Age is still prominent even today. Last week I heard a report on NPR about the latest traveling New Age carnival show of bogus health products and auric readings, that continues to make the rounds in the United States. One lady who was interviewed justified her position by saying that her products were only for those who believed, since they would be ineffective for anybody who didn’t believe. Now if that’s not a textbook definition of subjectivist flim-flam, I don’t know what is.

But there’s still something more than the desire to believe. People can fulfill THAT by attending their corner church on Sundays, or by reading their Bibles at home. They can study their Course in Miracles, or have their Conversations with God or read their Book of Urantia on their own. Why was it that people needed to actually rid themselves of their entire physical and emotional support systems? Why was it that they needed to turn over inheritances, shun their families, and plunge headlong into a situation that was virtually guaranteed to disappoint them in the long run? Was it some sort of bizarre ritual to prove that a person can survive giving up total control over their life? Didn’t they think ahead to the day when they might have children, need a home, get sick, want to retire? Was it a terminal lack of self-esteem?

It’s as if cognitive dissonance had reached down into the very structure of their survival instinct. The desire for heavenly answers had become so great that in one fell swoop of self-flagellation, they struck the ultimate bargain. They declared that their desire for heavenly truth was so strong that they would rather live destitute and without family, than acknowledge the painful reality of our materialist aloneness which I firmly believe they also knew.

Now, not everyone who came into Church Universal and Triumphant turned over their inheritance. Many came as young idealists with nothing but their clothing and maybe a sleeping bag. I remember several people who later became leaders of the church showing up in our driveway in their beat-up Volkswagens. Monroe Shearer was one of them. He and his friend Gary were originally hired by my parents to do some remodeling and painting.

Messengers23My father soon took a liking to Monroe, who was about 19 at time, and began to talk about ordaining him a minister. There was one pesky problem: it looked like Monroe was going to be drafted. This was about 1970, with the Vietnam war in full swing. My father used his position as ‘bishop’ of his church, and traveled to Washington and Baltimore, appealing directly to the draft board or whatever government agency could grant a religious exemption. (My memory fails me, I was 6 or 7 at the time). Monroe was soon free of the draft, and well on his way to becoming a lifelong peddler of otherworldly messages. He learned the ropes and eventually became Vice President of the church. But he chafed at playing second fiddle to my mom while at CUT. Today, Monroe, along with his wife, Carolyn, runs the Temple of the Presence, a marginally successful organization modeled on a combination of the Ballard’s I AM movement, and Church Universal and Triumphant.

So it’s clear fortunes could be made as well as lost in the New Age. Hope you’re enjoying yours, Monroe!

But somewhere in between these two extremes, were the run-of-the-mill converts who simply wanted to be led. Along with the spiritual doctrine, The Summit Lighthouse, a.k.a. Church Universal and triumphant offered a reasonably well-run communal living situation. Initially, everyone lived in the house I grew up in, which had been a palace built for an unknown captain-of-industry in the 1930s. We always were told it had something to do with oil. My mom, as she was accustomed to doing (she renamed every property she ever owned), called the sprawling mansion La Tourelle.

Home_in_winterTo me it was just my house. I had my own large room and bathroom with walk-in closets in each. I had every toy a kid could want. I had the run of a house that was, conservatively, 15,000 square feet. It had three floors including a basement. It had a rotunda with curved marble staircases, the highest of which led up to a fourth floor turret my mom called “the tower.” She used this for her office. (Hence “La Tourelle”) There was an elevator. There was a “gate house” with room for five vehicles, which also had upstairs apartments (servant’s quarters). The house sat on five acres in Colorado Springs, and was surrounded by a stone wall with wrought iron gates.

This sounds like unbelievable luxury, and it would’ve been. But there was one difference: about 50 people lived there. They were crammed in the attic, stuffed in the basements, sleeping in tents on the grounds, shacked up in the boiler room. The basement of the main house was filled to the brim with equipment. There was a press room, mailroom, dark room, an entire publishing facility. I used to play in and around the shelves that held boxes of books and publications ready for shipment. There were so many of them, a boy could have a great game of hide and seek with his friends.

Mom_and_dad These 50 or so people were provided with their room and board, such as it was, and a stipend of $30 per month. They kept a rigorous monastic schedule, getting up as early as 5 a.m. for morning prayers, eating communal meals, and working all day in the various publishing operations, or on the grounds, or in the kitchen or laundry room keeping things running. There were noon prayers, and evening prayers, and as often as not, I would hear the adults in the community walking around muttering prayers under their breath. It was prayer, prayer, and more prayer. They prayed the rosary, they gave their “decrees”, they sang their songs. Mercifully, as a young child, I was not required to attend all the prayer services or dictations. I would roam the basement, or the grounds, or make paper airplanes, or read science books. It was a great childhood, until the later years when my mom tried to “convert” me. But that’s another story.

Mom_and_sisters_colo_spgs As I started writing this, I thought I had some ideas as to why people joined. I thought maybe it was the friendship, the camraderie, the ready-made spiritual answers, the not having to worry about success, paying bills, logistics. But now, after having taken myself back to that time, I remember many people seemed happy. They were very nice to me even though I lived in luxury while they retired to their cots. They were only too happy to be there, to endure cold attics or basements, or even sub-zero temperatures outside in a tent. They had successfully sublimated their need for earthly comfort—for a time. Could it all really be that simple? Just another foolish diversion of their wasted youth? Later I saw the hardship and heartache that ensued, as people in their 40s 50s and 60s reckoned with a lifetime of almost deliberate denial and lack of planning for their future. Apparently they expected god would provide.

For example, Walter Maunz, who lived at La Tourelle in the 60’s and 70’s, was a great mentor for me. He taught me much of what I knew as a child about science. In 1999, I talked to him. He was in his late 60s, with no money or place to go. He was not sure what he was going to do. I wished I could have offered some kind of help, but I was in no position to do so. (Walter, if you are reading, I hope you are well, and I thank you profoundly for the gifts you gave me as a child).

A few years earlier, I had seen a woman, Dorothy Angleton, who also cared for me as a child, then in her 60s, who was sent out by the church to get a job to pay for her own dental work (which was estimated to cost $10,000), after having served and lived in the church for over 20 years. (Until the mid-to-late 1990’s, the church provided absolutely no health coverage.) Thank you also, Dorothy, and I’m sorry.

This end should’ve been seen from the beginning. But it wasn’t. My parents did not consider people’s physical needs beyond the basic food and shelter needed to keep them working. They were fighting a cosmic and epic battle of light and darkness. These types of “petty” human concerns were not part of their battle plan.


Comments (9 comments)

Mike Bommerson / January 16th, 2006, 10:30 am / #1

A strong belief in reincarnation was the common denominator of all the groups that I “hopped” to and from during my studies.
That belief also gave some sense to apparently useless things happening in one’s life. (“Uh, it must have something to do with a past life”). So it made otherwise inexplicable things worth enduring. Sort of.
It was also amusing to find out about past lives that wellknown people had supposedly lived. CUT wasn’t the only group that indulged in tasty stories about past lives of celebrities but they did come up with some noteworthy ones.
Fortunately I never stayed in a group long enough to get all squeezed out my general interest in cults left me with at least one broken relationship.
Looking back I can still say I wouldn’t rather just have missed it all.
And I’m glad •••••• is back in an even more mature form than before.
You could certainly have followers (or are they called anti-followers) yourself I’m sure. :-)

Regards from freezing cold Amsterdam,
Mike.

BlackSun / January 17th, 2006, 9:15 pm / #2

Mike, yeah, it’s interesting that all the past lives are always famous people. But it would be kind of dull otherwise, wouldn’t it? ;-)

Myriam, glad to hear from you. It seems we were in Pasadena at the same time (1976-1978?), but I’m not sure I remember you.

It’s a unique perspective to grow up in such a group. Other people actually sought this stuff out. But growing up there means that we had no choice–and finding ourselves becomes kind of like I’ve heard Catholics describe. When you are immersed in something while your brain is forming, it’s very hard to sort it out later. But we have to. It’s the only option for coming to sanity and rationality.

I also think the seeker part explains some people’s hostility to the deconversion process. It’s one thing for us (“It wasn’t our fault, we were born in it.”) But in order for people who were seekers to deal with the situation, they have to own up to having made an error in judgement.

This is especially true if they spent long years in the group. They may defend the teachings or practices of the group, or resist looking at the problems, because they are defending their decision to have invested years of their lives.

I’m not without compassion for their difficulty. But ultimately, it still is important for the truth to be told. If you can’t be honest with yourself about something that happened in your life, how can you be honest about anything?

BlackSun / January 18th, 2006, 12:33 pm / #3

Mike, I wanted to address one more thing: the “follower/anti-follower” question.

Even though I’ve got a strong position, I’m sure you knon that I’m really not looking for followers. Individualism is a kind of intellectual anarchy–although you’ve heard me argue strenuously against political anarchy.

The point is I think we find a certain freedom in structure. If rational individualists can first agree to a basic structure by which we test and evaluate our premises, it opens up the whole world/universe. We can go as far as observation, time and intelligence will take us.

Paradoxically, the vague irrational fantasies offered by faith and belief systems seem unlimited and open-ended. But actually they are limited by the simulation capacity of the grey matter that’s producing them. They also doom their adherents to an intellectual backwater.

The only thing I think people should follow is the application of rational principles to their thoughts and lives. Necessarily, this involves a continuous and thorough debunking of the reverse.

Sandra / January 24th, 2006, 8:58 am / #4

What was the allure?…

My feeling is, if you were to be in a room with 100 people and ask that very same question, you would probably get 100 different answers.

In my opinion, CUT used the old “bait and hook” method.Simple as that…their recruiters were very experienced,well versed and knew their stuff.I am not saying that they weren’t sincere in what they were saying-after all they were out to “save the world”-however,they were so persistent (very much like an Amway salesperson)they refused to take no for an answer.

My husband and I were in our mid 20’s with two young souls to worry about (aged 4 and 2)when we were introduced to the world of “new Age Religion” …It began quite innocently…

Of course we wanted nothing but the best for our children, so we started eating healthier food (organic no sugar, etc)This was the early 80s, so our choices were very limited.We frequented our local health food store and lo and behold!the owner was a CUT follower.Of course we didn’t know this initially..After the usual introductory chit chat period, a genuine friendship developed(or so I thought).We were were invited to their home to meet some friends…all the while, we were constantly told what wonderful parents we were to watch what we fed our children, and what beautiful children we had-they were such souls of light! (I was so naive and gullible back then..)Of course our children were our WORLD- and secretly I KNEW I had given birth to the best children that ever walked on this planet :) So we were hooked ! The human ego has no boundries…

We did come to meet their “friends” – with children in tow…Talk about gushing…”What a beautiful family-and so much light!” yadayadayada…it was shameless.Yet oddly enough, WE WERE HOOKED. I never realized how needy I was for acceptance back then-but that’s another story.To make a long story short-we were regaled with the wonderful stories of the Coming of the Golden Age-how certain children of light were being born and how they were the “chosen ones” to bring in this Golden Age.It was pretty obvious that our children were part of this wonderful plan.So, in less than a year’s time, we sold our house,my husband abandoned his construction business (that he was doing quite well in) and headed out to Montana. We were so excited because we were CHOSEN to become part of the church staff-and the children were granted free tuition to attend the best school ever-Montessori International!!How lucky were we??!

When we finally got settled in-it was the same year Camelot was sold and CUT was relocating to Montana.I must say the first few months were wonderful-people were so friendly and caring…we were all there with a common thread-we were going to save the world, plain and simple.After the rest of Camelot came-things changed drastically- I never saw my husband or my children, because we all were scattered throughout that 33,000 acre ranch!I worked at the kitchen and MI school at North Ranch, my husband worked at the South Ranch, and my children were at MI North and South.Plus we had to attend all decree sessions and services-no exceptions.Thank goodness we owned our own home and that was our resting ground-away from all of the insanity.That’s when I became so-called “rebellious” questioning the staff, my superiors,and finally (gasp!) MOTHER.

“I came here to help bring in the “Golden Age,damn it-so where is it?”

Apparently it was hidden in the Hills of Glastonbury, because that is what happened next-the shelter cycle.At this point we were so far deep into the survivalist mentality- all sense of reason was forgotten.All I wanted to do was save my children, and seeing everyone prepare for doomsday-I admit, I got caught up in it as well.The further we became involved the harder it was to listen to the voice of reason…and if you even dared to share your doubts with ANYONE-these so called friends would avoid you like the plague. I have to say that was when I discovered who my true compadres were…

After the shelter cycle,we lost just about everything -including our own self worth. My husband was in such denial -he actually stayed in our shelter for a while believing that something would eventually happen…

So I did something drastic. I gathered my most precious things – my children, borrowed money from my sister for airfare, and flew back home.It was the hardest thing I ever did-I left my beloved behind.After two weeks reality set in, and I decided to come back for him…after struggling in my mind what to do, I decided that the best way to do it, was to leave my children with my family, while I collected my better half.I knew that if they were to accompany me, we would probably end up living back in Montana-in my mind that was NOT going to happen…

Now, 16 years later, we are still very much a family… There have definitely been some ups and downs and twists and turns,but we are all basically happy and healthy and are leading productive lives.I still think my children (who are now young adults) are the “best thing that ever walked on this planet” – Of course, I haven’t been blessed with Grandchildren yet :)

My husband tells me that he is gratefulthat I was strong enough to do what I did.He isn’t sure if he would have made such a decision at that time-he was so depressed and confused…thankfully, we both feel we made the right choice.

So what was the allure?…For me,It was the posibility of a better tomorrow-not for me, but for my children.

CUT gave me hope for that-if only for a brief moment.That was the bait…and boy, did they get their hooks in…fortunately we were able to wriggle off and swim away to the safety of this crazy world we now live in…Life has so many surprises to offer…

Sandra / January 25th, 2006, 11:17 am / #5

Myriam,

“It is easy to make mistakes when one is immersed in a culture that promotes them.”

That is a very profound statement.

I hope the children that were witnesses to the so called “shelter cycle”, can understand that.

Even though my two were young(5 and 7)during that period, it took a while for them to overcome the guilt and fear that was instilled into them.We were fortunate enough to have children who were able to communicate with us, so as parents,we were able to deal with it the best way we knew how.

Later on down the road we decided to bring them back to our shelter-I believe they were 10 and 12 at the time. We hosted a sleepover pizza party with their friends that still lived there locally, and they all had a blast!(no pun intended)It was an effort to “replace the bad memories with good ones”-a collective decision made after many family discussions of what their(children’s) perspective was during that period.We had no idea what was going through those young minds…it was quite an eye opener…and I for one was devasted to think that I had put my children through that VOLUNTARILY. What kind of a parent was I? How could I have gone through that and not see the obvious?

We all make mistakes believing that we are doing the best for our children…I think the best we can do for them, is to admit to our mistakes and help them understand that we are not perfect. My favorite advice to my children is “Learn from my mistakes as well as yours – you’ll save a lot of time and avoid a lot of heartache if you do.” They got a kick out of that… especially my son.He told me that most parents think they have all the answers-we are the only ones that the he knows of,that admit we don’t.

I am sure that your parents believed that they were doing their best for you.Whenever you doubt that-just remember a profound statement posted in here written by a very wise soul;

“It is easy to make mistakes when one is immersed in a culture that promotes them.”

Best of luck to you in your soul searching…

Sandra / January 25th, 2006, 1:29 pm / #6

Myriam

I agree with you – I believe my children did take the wisdom and insight from that time and used it to their benefit.I am constantly in awe of how they are able to handle themselves in difficult situations. They are much more experienced in life than I was at their age.

I was very sincere in when I said that you made a very profound statement. It meant a lot to me personally…to hear that from someone that understands the dynamics of a cult-like existence validates something that that I have felt inside, but was not able to say out loud.

For many years I was very hard on myself, and my husband, for not seeing more clearly, and recognizing the bizarre.Your statement helped me understand why we chose to make the mistakes that we did. It reminds me of the that faiytale ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ It took a young child to speak the truth.Had it not been for my children-I might still be living in Montana decreeing with the others,still believing that the Golden Age will soon descend upon us…

Anyway, I hope you did not take my posting as an attack on your observation. On the contrary. You struck a chord in me that obviously needed to be dealt with. After all these years…there is still much work to be done…

My sincere thanks,
Sandra

RML / February 16th, 2006, 2:14 pm / #7

Did 10 years … LA and Montana. We miss many of our friends and the Camaraderie.

The other URL http://piscesgroup.blogspot.com/
is for the esoterica.

I’ve seen a few attempts (film scripts) at describing the CUT scenario. They were boring, and not well structured.

All the best to you.

Lynette / February 20th, 2006, 2:25 pm / #8

I spent several years receiving literature from the Summit Lighthouse. Then, I dropped out of college in the early 70s to join the Summit Lighthouse. I went to Colorado Springs and took a taxi directly to the SL from the airport. I sat in a waiting room while people decided what to do with me (I had not told anyone I was coming.) Your dad walked through the area twice and kindly asked me if I had been helped, but I did not want to impose on him since someone else had already told me they would see to my situation, so I just thanked him and said I was already being helped. Within one or two days of my being in Colorado Springs, your dad had a stroke. In the confusion that followed, I was not allowed back in the building, and I decided to go back to my parents’ home, and I went back to college the following semester. I kept receiving literature from the Summit Lighthouse and went to conferences for several years after that.

I think all of us have complex psyches and we can only know in part why we do what we do, even after years of reflection. However, I will say a little about what I have come to see was going on in me that attracted me to the Summit Lighthouse.

1. Although my family was not rich, we were certainly comfortable enough financially that I could see that happiness did not come from money or material things. So I was looking for meaning and happiness somewhere other than the material world.
2. I had a deep yearning for a relationship with God and was searching for Truth. I was willing to learn from anyone whom I thought might know more than I did about God and the Truth.
3. I felt the need for someone to tell me what to do – it was very hard for me to bear the responsibility of making decisions. Making decisions was hard for me because I always felt I could see things on both sides of any question, and I was afraid of making a wrong decision. Obviously, this was a psychological problem I had. It did not go away when I left the SL, I just allowed a different entity to control me (a person I married).

Here are how these situations have been resolved so far in my life. I am now in my 50s.

1.) I am still convinced that happiness and meaning do not come from riches and material things. However, after experiencing the materially hard side of life, I now understand why people spend so much of their lives seeking money and material things. Life here on earth is hard without them.
2.) Several years after my time in CO I actually did find God. Someone might say it was just a psychological thing within me because of my quirks – but it happened in 1976 and the experience was so overwhelming I have never doubted it since. I had what people term a “born again” experience through encountering Jesus. But it is so much more than the cliche that it sounds like. Although I now attend a Christian deonomination, I realize that no one on earth has a complete grasp of Truth – no one cult, no single religion, no person. It is bigger than anything our minds can handle, individually or even jointly.
3.) After more than twenty years of bondage to another human, I grew to be strong enough to bear decision making. I think I had to go through that time to develop and realize that as bad as the consequenses might be from making a wrong decision myself, it would be better than the life I found myself living enslaved to someone else.

Sean, you sound like such an intelligent person. I am impressed by many of the things you say, and I think they are interesting, even though I don’t totally agree with them. I only saw you once, and that was at a conference in CA when you got sent out because something you were doing was a distraction to your mother, I guess, although I hadn’t noticed anything.

I am wondering what happened to Martin Lasater, and if he stayed with the SL, and if so, how long, etc. It was his visit to my university that prompted me to quit school and come to the SL. He impressed me as a very intelligent and good person when he visited our group. I am not at all upset about his influence over me – I think he was worthy of the respect he got from me, and he was doing the best he could see to do at the time, just as I was.

I am also wondering about a lady named Rosanne Piazza Spencer. I stayed with her and her husband the short time I was in Colorado Springs. Later, she had a daughter named Madeline – then I lost track of her. She was there in the 70s – I have no idea after that if she stayed or left. I wish the best for her and her daughter.

Thanks for opening up on your web site, Sean. Best wishes always

dave johnston / December 1st, 2006, 6:32 pm / #9

Sean– its been 17 years since I walked away from SU Spring quarter 89. I was 23. I believed everything but I couldnt stand the judgementalism and anger I felt in the community. The guilt was overwhelming on every level and I suffered years of anxiety and fear for ” leaving the path”. I ended up in a mental health unit with anxiety attacks and depression.( I did have an existing condition I think, so I’m not blaming it all on the church) Im fine now and have had an Ok life. I LOVE your site and all the accounts of your life. It took me 17 years to even look up your mom and find out what was happening with the church. I loved your mom and it is a huge shock to find so many that left, but it all makes sense now. She got caught in the trap of wielding that much power. I wish the best for your sisters and you and your kids. Also your little brother. Its great that you can tell your mom that you love her still on your site. She was human after all! and we all make mistakes. God Bless you and ALL your family, sounds like you’re all doing OK. Dave Johnston LA. CA. djmibx@yahoo.com

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