From The Atlantic, JUNE 18, 2014: The Seven Signs That You’re in a Cult by Boze Herrington
1. Opposing critical thinking
2. Isolating members and penalizing them for leaving
3. Emphasizing special doctrines outside scripture
4. Seeking inappropriate loyalty to their leaders
5. Dishonoring the family unit
6. Crossing Biblical boundaries of behavior (versus sexual purity and personal ownership)
7. Separation from the Church
But when it’s your faith, your friends, your community, it’s not so obvious. For several years, roughly two dozen people, all younger than 30, had been living together in Kansas City, Missouri, and following the leadership of Tyler Deaton, one of our classmates from Southwestern University in Texas. In the summer of 2012, Tyler had married Bethany; by the fall, she was dead. What started as a dorm-room prayer group had devolved into something much darker.
* * *
I met Bethany and Tyler during the week of their freshman orientation in 2005. Small, with a heart-shaped face and bright blue eyes, Bethany had an effortless wit and warm presence that quickly attracted a devoted group of friends. She often spoke about the “glories of the world” and its wonders over brunch in the dining hall. We bonded over our shared love of stories and would often stay up late discussing our dreams of becoming great novelists and joining the ranks of our literary heroes.
One day during that first week, I found Tyler in the school’s chapel. He was seated at the piano, the late-afternoon sunlight illuminating his dark eyes and hair as he swayed back and forth, stomping the pedals and singing a popular evangelical chorus in a voice full of heartache and passion:
Your love is extravagant
Your friendship, it is intimate
I feel like I’m moving to the rhythm of your grace
Your fragrance is intoxicating
In the secret place
Because your love is extravagant
At the end of the song, he came over and introduced himself. Something about the nasally pitch of his voice made me wonder whether he was gay. A few months later I would work up the courage to ask him; the question offended him so much that I didn’t bring it up again until the end of that year, when he conceded that he had been “struggling with same-sex attraction” for years.
That semester, we became close friends. Early on, I felt as though Tyler often tried to manipulate people into doing what he wanted, but he was also a committed Christian, zealous and humble. Inspired by his sensitivity toward others and bravery in confronting his personal demons, I learned to ignore my initial reservations and trust him.
Two years later, in the summer of 2007, Tyler returned from a trip to Pakistan and announced that God was going to launch a spiritual revolution on our campus. Those of us who knew him well were surprised by the changes in his personality. He had always been extraordinarily perceptive, but now this ability had reached uncanny levels. He could describe conversations he wasn’t involved in that were taking place on the other side of campus. He said God was always speaking. He claimed he could tell what we were thinking, when we were sinning; he said he could feel in his own body what God felt about us.
* * *
I was kicked out of the prayer group for the first time a year and a half later. Roughly two dozen of us were now living together in group houses in Missouri, sharing our money and working part-time jobs while we attended classes at IHOP University. Three nights a week, we worshipped together.
Tyler and other members of the group claimed I had a “wicked heart, prone to self-protection, anger, unforgiveness, and hate” and a “malicious, accusatory, group-rejecting, self-protective hatred towards most people.” After an intense night of confrontation in the fall of 2010, the group stopped speaking to me. I continued to live in the house, but I was completely isolated.
Why did I stay? I was conflicted. All of my friends said I had a serious problem—so serious that I had been effectively quarantined. These were my closest friends in the world. I began to wonder whether they might be right. Maybe I truly was hateful, malicious—wicked. I no longer trusted my own instincts.
“Hold on,” he said, in a very serious voice. “Are you being shunned as a punishment?”
With his guidance, I emailed Tyler and asked whether I could return; under pressure from IHOP University’s leaders, he consented. The group threw a huge party in my honor, but within a few days, I began to wish I had never come back.
Tyler now said he could sense when a person was sinning. “There’s nothing you’ve done for a long time that doesn’t have sin in it,” he explained to me. Under his mandatory system of “behavioral modifications,” as he called them, the entire group was being rapidly restructured. People were giving up their nicknames, distancing themselves from their romantic partners, and taking breaks from their music or families—anything to which they had developed “idolatrous attachments.” I was forbidden from reading and writing, prohibited from having serious conversations with the girls, and forced to wear new clothes, which Tyler picked out for me.
The group was being run like a military boot camp, with chores and activities to keep us occupied virtually every hour of the day. The girls would wake up around seven to clean their house before the guys came over for lunch. During the afternoon, some of us would go to class at IHOP University while others worked or prayed. Around five, we would reconvene at one of the houses to prepare dinner. We would eat between 6:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. and then spend several hours praying or singing. Once every few weeks, there was even a surprise evacuation drill.
We had prophecy time at least three nights a week. During these sessions, the group would sit in silence and listen for the whisper of God’s spirit. Everyone said similar things, although many of them ended up being proved wrong later. Those who disagreed were called out for being arrogant and rebellious and were forced to repent.
By the end of that summer, even the slightest gesture, no matter how innocent, could be misconstrued as evidence of demonic influence. One night in August, Tyler and June both had dreams in which God “revealed” that my individuality was endangering the community. As a precaution, I was isolated, and two of the boys kept constant watch over me. I could be reprimanded for scratching another man’s back, for sitting with a blanket over my legs, for looking at someone the wrong way. Once, Micah accused me of manipulating someone into coming over and hugging me.
After a woman in the group had her bedroom door and Bible taken away from her, she complained to IHOP. The organization’s leaders met with Tyler and warned him that his group was becoming “cultlike.” Tyler began having regular meetings with them. He was ordered to quit punishing people and stop mandating that the students in our group attend his Saturday worship session rather than IHOP University’s mandatory meeting.
* * *
The weeks after Bethany’s death were among the blackest of my life. One of my dearest and best friends was dead, and I couldn’t accept the explanation that she had killed herself two months into a marriage that she had been looking forward to for years. Even the logistics of grieving were complicated; on the day of her visitation, Tyler tried to have me removed from the funeral home.
Meanwhile, IHOP sent several leaders to investigate the prayer community. It took them only a couple of hours with the group on the night after Bethany’s death to conclude that Tyler was leading a cult. The boys who still lived with Tyler were asked to move out immediately, and current and former members were questioned.
And then they interrogated Micah, the person who had been charged with guarding me during one of my periods of isolation from the group. During questioning, he broke down and confessed that he had suffocated Bethany. He later said Tyler had told him to commit the murder, saying he “had it in him to do it.” The next day—the day of Bethany’s funeral in Arlington, Texas—he drove to the police station and turned himself in. There, he told a lurid tale: He and other men in the group had sexual relationships with Tyler, and together, they had ritually assaulted Bethany. She had been killed, Micah said, because they were afraid she would tell her therapist about the assaults.
This raised intense questions in the IHOP community, and Bickle and others held information sessions to address them. When one student asked how this kind of dangerous group could have existed with hardly anyone noticing, they explained that my friends and I were transplants from Texas who had developed an intense loyalty to one another and a spiritual leader who operated in secrecy. “There were people there who should have had careers,” he said. “They had degrees, law degrees. But they had given up their goals for the vision of this one man.” He reminded the students that Judas had spent three years in the company of Jesus and his disciples without anyone suspecting the wickedness he was capable of.
*These three names have been changed for privacy purposes.
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NOTE FROM KARLEIGH BON:
This article is not about about personal beliefs, nor for engaging in Apologetics or Polemics. After much study of cult behavior, that is necessary to write my book, one has to wonder how a human could be so captivated as to give up one’s own life without second thought; indoctrination so complete as to make life or death decisions so uncomplicated in the mind. That is my focus today as I ponder my writings.
In our shadow cult, the first contentious behaviors are found in the ritual of expectance, where the subjects fervently allow themselves to be degraded and mutilated to prove they would speak no heresy about their god, their leaders or beliefs. In our second encounter the shadow cult followers stand firm as each on of their lives are brutally and utterly destroyed at the hand of their god. This pattern seems to continue even though the human element does not always agree.. much to their own peril. 10/10/2020