It was 1976. I was 9 years old and The Cult was growing.
Daily visits to the Indoctrination Classrooms were required. “Two and a half hours or more” barked the person who seemed in charge, “or your dedication will be suspect.”
They said they had the answers, so she signed on the line.
She was officially “in” and nothing could or would stop her.
Things would need to change in order for this to work. Mom held two jobs and received $180 a month from our dad in child support. We had two sets of clothing and one pair of shoes which we rarely wore. Food filled our refrigerator when she could find something decent in the back alley of the grocery store on Lane Avenue, always in the dark using the car headlights to dumpster dive.
Somehow the three of us were able to spend a lot of time together building forts, playing make-believe or at our athletic events.
With Public Assistance, we were included in softball and soccer leagues from age 9 to 13 which kept us busy, hungry and tired. Almost every game I hitched a ride with a teammate’s family and then waited for her to pick me up. She was always late. More times than not, the lights on the fields turned off and I sat on the curb in the empty parking lot hugging my glove between my knees scared to death. She never apologized for being late or even acknowledged I was scared.
We lived with grandma in small postage-stamp size two story house. All of my family battled problems with drugs and drinking which is why there was never alcohol in our empty refrigerator. We slept in my Uncle’s room, all three of us on two twin size beds among his hoarded electronics junk.
No one in her family knew what she was doing or why things dramatically changed overnight.
We moved into a subsidized housing development called Winchester Station and completely disconnected from everyone. I was heartbroken.
Nightly, because she couldn’t afford a sitter, she dragged us with her to mandatory classes from 6:00pm until 11:00pm at The Prentise-Tulford Manor, the Cult’s local “Church”.
Supper was a hard boiled egg or spoon of peanut butter and an apple which was never satisfying. I often supplemented meals from the “Staff Only” refrigerator taking bites out of cold chicken, old sandwiches or spooning yogurt before someone walked into the kitchen. My arms were long enough to reach into the vending machines and grab whatever the bottom row had to offer which is how my love for Tiger Milk Bars began.
We parked in the back of the property with a few other cars where the old spooky carriage barn doubled as parking for paying parishioners and junk storage.
Because she was always running late we were hurried to the attic where 3 other kids would be stashed as well. I was the oldest, but I wasn’t in charge due to my awful self-esteem. 10 years old and 111 lbs, I was considered obese and weathered the taunts outside of my home regularly. My little sister was 6 and thin as a rail.
Day after day the routine was the same and I watched our family-time extinguished while time in the attic grew out of control. Weekdays in the evening and weekends all day.
The Queen-Anne style 17 room mansion was built in the late 19th Century with gargantuan glass windows, tall ceilings, dark wood floor and decades of gaudy wallpaper peeling off the hacked up plaster walls. It smelled like rotting death and our piece of this heaven was the top story where servants had lived.
Any improvements must have ended in the 1950’s because exposed wires with fabric casings poked out from the walls and only two of the four bathroom toilets flushed. The painted doors had their original hardware and a giant staircase into the foyer transported you back in time when the wealthy Banker entertained his clientele. Despite the bronze and crystal chandelier missing a lot of gems it still twinkled and along with the wall sconces it lit the foyer. To me it was just an enormous haunted sparkling penitentiary.
Two double-hung windows at the far end of the attic let a small amount of light in during the day. That was the only connection to the outside world we had, and despite spending hours looking out I never saw one person even glance in our direction day or night.
The 200-watt bulbs dangling from the rafters cast shadows like a disco tech in every direction giving me the creeps thinking about what spiders, bugs and secrets lurked in the dark corners.
We slept, read, played card games and worked for the few cult staff members folding letters, stamping envelopes, filing or any other menial task you could trust a kid to do. Every single adult smoked and had awful coffee breath.
Like Lord Of The Flies, we policed each other tattling on any unacceptable behavior to Bennick, the short, bearded local leader with beady blue eyes. There was never a conversation to determine guilt or innocence. He treated us like the Cult Holy Scriptures told him to and we were punished with a choice: manual labor or getting my mother banned from the group.
I tried my best to lay low most of the time keeping occupied with stacks of books while my hatred for being forced to stay put for so long grew every single day. I knew this was abuse, but who could I tell?
Reading was my escape and seemed to be my mother’s as well. Before 1976 she took her research with her in the bath flipping pages until she fell asleep often dropping the book into the tepid water. I sat on the toilet perusing her pile of soul-searching materials asking questions about her life. She never had a satisfying reply which kept me questioning.
Symbolism, Numerology, Palmistry, Astrology, Scientology, Parents Without Partners, Alcoholics Anonymous, The Bible, Wicca, Christian Science, Homeopathy, Naturopath, Cupping, Coning and Reflexology. Every trip to the library resulted in another topic.
There was one book I read cover to cover in one sitting. At 9 years old, it changed the way I processed my thinking.
“Have You Lived Before This Life” with true experiences from real people. This was a page-turner with each chapter telling a different tale taking me through life histories filled with crime and a few naughty bits. Case Study after Case Study and 174 pages later, I believed it completely and began to put more significance in my own unexplained thoughts. I opened my mind a crack.
There we were, one easily influenced mother and two little girls. We renovated, protested, paraded, met with government officials and sold books authored by the cult leader. We always had quotas to make. No matter what we were doing, mom was expected in the Indoctrination Room to meet her 2 ½ hour daily minimum or face the Ethics Officer.
Nothing was an acceptable excuse to avoid participation. School, softball practice, homework, playing. Childhood, as we knew it, was over. I was told by a cult staffer, “You are not children, you are able members in small bodies!”
I began a protest that got my mother in a lot of trouble.
She needed us to stop all resistance and conform as well. Her plan was to become a full time member and take us with her, wherever that meant we would go. She told us we would be living in a lighthouse on the coast of Maine and brought home magazines and maps about the eastern seaboard. It got me excited and willing to support her and temporarily stop causing trouble. I would do anything to get out of the attic and away from the embarrassment I felt among my friends in the real world.
There was really only one big problem still looming.
Before my mother joined the Cult she was part of a competitor cult called The Mereta Group. Because of that she would never be completely trusted. She was treated cautiously and watched closely by the local Executive Structure. The slightest infraction was documented and she was called to the carpet by the Ethics Department to explain, in writing, what she did to cause the problem and how she would ensure it would never happen again, ever. Until the Ethics Officer was satisfied with mom’s compliance, she would not be allowed back into the Course Room, which she craved.
My sticky fingers and regular verbal complaints about our situation got her in trouble on a regular basis. She begged me to knock-it-off and tried to convince me things would be alright.
Every so often she lectured us about responsibility and ethics at the start of our drive home in our beat up old blue Gremlin. I had no concept of what she was talking about.
Our life now completely revolved around her required training time. Kids in the attic and adults in the Course Room, every single weekday from 6:00pm to 11:00pm and even longer on the weekends from 9:00am until 11:00pm.
My attitude went from bothered to indignantly furious about spending so much time in that attic. This was an unguarded prison to me. I was embarrassed by my mother so I never told anyone about what was happening to us. I wanted to escape. So I did. thirteen times.
There were hidden doors and paths throughout the Mansion and I quietly sought them out. It took me four tries before I could get from the attic to the kitchen without being detected.