1993, 07/19-20. Thought Reform And The Psychology Of Totalism.

Monday, July 19

I don’t know how to say it in a few words, but I am having a strong reaction to yesterday’s meeting. It’s not that it’s such a big surprise that Stewart could have been wrong about something. (Though now that I think of it, he never said he was wrong about anything.) Maybe it’s just the hard reality of the confirmation of this. I feel like I’m speeding a mile a minute. I was praying about how I need a nice big soft catcher’s mitt to stop me today, or else it’s possible I might do myself damage. I am already imagining a confrontation with brothers. Joe overheard me last night making at least one or two comments about Stewart.

I am thinking about leaving the church. As far as getting confronted, I have a strange sense of, “what’s the use anyway, let them come – what am I protecting anyway?’ In other words, I might not go for the doormat approach, which is to agree with everything in order to save my skin. It’s a strange feeling of, let them do what they may, I really don’t care.

I called Times Square Church today to get David Wilkerson’s address. I gave some thought to writing Ron Enroth a letter.

(This was an attempt to reach out to people outside of COBU. Ron Enroth wrote Churches That Abuse, which has a chapter on the Church of Bible Understanding.  David Wilkerson was the pastor of Times Square Church (where many ex-COBU members were going). I trusted David Wilkerson, because I read his book The Cross and the Switchblade. I wrote letter a letter to David Wilkerson, explaining the situation in COBU and what it was like for me to live in it. I invited him to contact Stewart, adding that I didn’t think Stewart would want to talk to him. 

This reflected, in part, my last attempts at hoping that COBU could change or reform – and that I would not have to leave. I had not yet come to the place where I was facing the truth about life there. I still believed, although less and less, in the “myth” of the Church of Bible Understanding, that it was a good place, which only needed some changes made. And that maybe Stewart Traill was good, but that he had gotten off course, and that other pastors could talk to him to bring him to his senses. 

Because for sure, Stewart was not going to listen to anything that a member of his own church had to say. He had the goods on us, confronting us in the weekly meetings (and via messages all week) accusing us of being unfaithful, worthy of hell and on our way there.

One of the ways did this was by showing us our tired and dull condition – which was really a result of living the way we did there, the lifestyle insisted on by Stewart. He said that all we cared about was taking it easy and “cheating” and “thumbing our nose at Jesus” every chance we could get.

Stewart Traill also said that “99.999% of all other Christians are arrogant,” and that he “only tells them these things (that he teaches) if they’re ready to hear it.” If this is what Stewart believed, then it was unlikely that he was going to consider the counsel of others, including David Wilkerson and Ron Enroth, unless they were not “arrogant” and they were willing to submit to his authority and to agree with his twisted view of Christianity, would he consent to speak to them.  

When I heard Stewart’s claims of exclusivity (that 99.999% of Christians are arrogant and similar statements), I felt so locked up and isolated from the rest of the world, not only because we lived communally, sealed off from the rest of the world (except when we did cleaning or construction work and made small talk with our customers), but also because I understood the exclusivity of Stewart’s claims and the implications that arose from these claims. It also indicated that Stewart meant business and that he was not going to compromise and that he was not going to allow the input of qualified outsiders, who might question him or our way of life.  Stewart ruled us the way he accused the older brothers of doing with the new people – with an “iron fist,” and he allowed no one to question him, his lifestyle, conduct or teachings.

These teachings were applied to our lives and how we lived, which included, among other things, the extreme denial of our personal desires and no relationships or marriage. He was unbending and severe with anyone who even mildly objected to or questioned anything, or who even carefully made hopeful suggestions for changes in the way of life there.)

1 p.m.

I just mailed the letter to David Wilkerson. How long am I going to keep living like a child? I hear that Rick U. is now living in Kansas and he has married (but he is going to hell, right?) It all seems to make less and less sense and to seem more and more self-serving. All these things Stewart tells us, like about not leaving the church. We can’t even leave for any right reason.

(I was beginning to understand that Stewart’s proclamations and teachings were merely self-serving and were designed to bring about his goals, which were largely financial, and that really, our salvation (for which he said it was necessary to practice extreme self denial and to be scared out of your minds every waking moment) was not true his concern, but just something he used to further his own plans with.

We were always told that people who had left COBU were going to hell. Not only that, Stewart constantly those who lived in the church that they were on their way to hell. He did lay out a convoluted and difficult path to salvation, but each week, after furious effort, especially on the part of those who were considered the most “out front,” once again Stewart declared everyone to be unfaithful, and that it all had been a sham to cover the indulgence of our flesh and that we were still on our way to hell. 

After “proving” this condition to us, he then gave us a saying or a precept that we had to practice and or say all week as the way out and cure from our condition. This cycle was repeated weekly. But with the constant pressure and prodding to even more activity and work for the church, most COBU brothers and sisters were likely just too busy to notice this cycle, because they were preoccupied with running from the whip and trying to avoid more punishment and abuse.

Or if they were aware of this pattern, they dared not speak to another church member out of fear of being reported and called to account for their words at the next meeting, where they would be dealt with forcefully by all the others – with or without Stewart present – and forced to take back their words and repent, and then made to “face” that their real problem was their “own sin,” which was the “real issue” instead of complaining about Stewart or the way of life in COBU. Stewart said we were all “going to die in two seconds” and face Jesus, and then where would our reasons we gave as excuses to not serve Jesus be then? You would need to have lived in COBU and experienced this in order to know how effective these methods were and how they worked on a person living in a communal group like ours.)

Tuesday, July 20

I ran into Dale this morning at Red Hook. He was telling me about the way it is in the church. Well, if he is right (and if the things I see are right), then he has got the whole thing pretty well pegged.

(Dale was one of the new people we had “swept up” with promises of “Christian training” and a place to stay, and who was now put to work in COBU’s carpet cleaning business. He seemed to have a pretty good idea of what was really going on, despite all the hype and the viewpoint constantly sold to him by and the most fanatical “older brothers,” who told him this work was for Jesus and that he needed to be here for his Christian training.)

I worked yesterday on the wood floors at the Ferzt gallery, then had to go to a meeting at 46th Street. It was in a “nice” spirit, with Joe doing most of the talking. We had to go through everybody. When I stood up to speak, some of the brothers said I was mocking the voting because I smiled before speaking. I did my best to feign sincere attention to what brothers were saying to me, while inwardly begging Jesus, “How long is this going to last?” Fortunately, nobody was really digging for skeletons. Jay was more the focus of the meeting anyway.

Everybody is only allowed to use the right words when speaking. Chuck played the taped message from Brother Stewart over the speakerphone. Quite a few brothers said the message was good and that they really got a benefit from hearing it. (Almost, like what, receiving a tranquilizer – or communion?) I don’t particularly remember the words of the message now. I just wonder if the brothers really mean that everybody is careful, being subdued and quiet. Maybe because they are tired.

When I got back to Red Hook, I noticed how I felt exasperated and broken. I also noticed how these meetings really do resemble Lifton’s re-education classes. The meetings are tedious, exacting, everybody must be steered into giving the right answer.

(Robert J. Lifton’s wrote about re-education classes in Chinese Communist prisons in his book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. This book was vital information for me. It helped me understand what it meant to live under an exclusive, militant worldview and what the purpose was for our constant small group meetings in which we went over each person, each giving a confession and speech about his progress (or lack thereof) in the COBU way of life.

The Lifton’s entire book can be read online here: Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. A summary of the main points of his book is here: Lifton, Chapter 22.)

I read for about two hours at Red Hook before sleeping.

Paul is getting blasted by Chuck over the phone about getting here late today. And you know it, ”being led by God’s spirit” is the new buzzword and billy club to beat people with. Whatever Paul (or anybody else) did wrong, the question that is asked is “Were you led by God’s spirit?” And of course, they have to say “no.” If they did something wrong, how can they say they were led by God’s spirit? (Even if you didn’t do something wrong, but you just made a mistake, would God’s spirit lead you to make a mistake? Hey, what about Stewart’s mistake about salvation teachings? Was he led by God’s spirit?) So, now you have to say you weren’t being led by God’s spirit, which opens a bigger can of worms – to a crime of fantastic proportions – which is that you were refusing to be led by God’s spirit. It is a proverb in the mouth of fools.

(The way this method of working someone over in the name of God worked was: suppose you made a mistake, even if it was unintentional and you had been trying to do the right thing.

You could be asked, “I see you made a mistake. Were you being led by God’s spirit when you did that?”

You reply, “Yes.”

“But, you made a mistake. Would God’s spirit lead you into making a mistake?”


“So you weren’t being led by God’s spirit then?”

“Yes, I was, but…”

At this point, you would have two choices. If you kept insisting that you were, at least trying to be, led by God’s spirit, you would be seen as fighting against everybody and being “arrogant” because “all the brothers say you couldn’t have been led by God’s spirit and you keep insisting that you were.” But you would want to hang on to this claim because of the only possible alternate claim, which was to say that you weren’t being led by God’s spirit.

It was also a double bind, because to continue to insist you were led by God’s spirit would be turned against you as proof you were not being led by God’s spirit right now, because God’s Spirit would not lead you to fight against your brothers – because continuing to disagree with everyone was considered to be “fighting” with them.

Or, you could say, “No, I wasn’t being led by God’s spirit.”

Then someone would say to you, ”So you were choosing to not be led by God’s spirit then? Well, there is only one other spirit, the devil’s spirit. Which were you choosing then?”  

Here they would try to move you toward the admission of a serious “crime,” that of choosing, yes consciously choosing, to follow the devil’s spirit. Few people would say they were doing this. They tried the middle ground of saying that they thought they were following God’s spirit, but must have drifted away. It might finally be accepted that you didn’t consciously choose, but you were rolling along, indulging in your “hideout life,” and “cheating,” – and the Bible says “He who is slack in his work is a brother to him who destroys.”

This is just a small example of what anyone faced while being tried by the “brothers court.” The accused usually seriously outnumbered. All reason was thrown out the window and charge after charge was brought up against the offender. Few people would risk rising to the accused’s defense, because he was usually expected to be found guilty of the offense and if anyone had defended him, they would also come under serious question as to whose side they were on. (We were either on the side of God, or the side of the devil.) Anyone who stood up for the accused must be in the same “spirit” and taking part in the same wrongdoing as the accused, because they were defending him.  

Through this kind of treatment, church members learned to be docile and pliable doormats, usually confessing immediately to any charge brought against them in order to avoid this treatment, and even giving self-incriminating reasons, if necessary, to prove that they weren’t just saying it because someone made them say it.)

I have been yearning about summer a little here and there. I can hardly tell it’s summer. I see the sky in Soho, I smell the salt air outside Red Hook. Otherwise it is routines: go to work, go to the meeting, sleep, wake up. There will probably be another meeting tonight. I am not looking forward to it.

I have my Greek Bibles with me. I’m trying to read them more often. I really can’t get much reading done anyway, although I read a World War II story for two hours last night.

I am thinking about writing to people about our church. A verse came to mind:  “Cast your bread upon the waters. You will find it after many days.”

Looking at Red Hook, the place is such a dump. The whole place is a dump – the whole church.

1 a.m.

We have finished working on the floors at the Ferzt Gallery. Paul, Peter and I are waiting for a ride. While on the job, I gave some thought to my confirmed suspicion that Stewart’s salvation teachings of last year weren’t right. But, this confirmation is an isolated case. But I have such thoughts on many matters.

You see, whatever I think is wrong here, my thoughts are supposed to be wrong. (Even though it will ring as clear as a bell, and in specific terms at that). So, I have to bury it. But then Stewart, the maker of these things comes along, saying that what he had told us before was wrong – therefore, what? My suspicion was right then, because he said so. (But I couldn’t really believe it until he said so. There is still that prohibition in me that I can’t believe – or disbelieve – something until Stewart says so. My mind is that much captive.)

But, somehow, until then my mind is not free, it is not unfettered. In other words, Stewart saying last Sunday that his teaching on salvation from last year was not correct (and that we let him get away with it, because we must have wanted it) re-opened that whole can of worms in me (which I know is there anyway). It is open-ended. Just because only one issue or subject was “amended” doesn’t mean that my doubts, which are probably right, at least in part, don’t exist in vast quantities.

(If only 50% of my similar doubts and questions are true. If ten are. If only four or five are. If two. Still, it’s a big thing. Stewart’s teachings and their subsequent practice and enforcement set the tone and have sway over my entire life. There is probably not a single corner of my life that his teachings don’t find their way into. Or, if they don’t get there by themselves, I put them there because I think – or fear – that they apply to me. What if Stewart’s views about why the brothers are too unfaithful to Christ to get married are wrong? What if his ideas on self-abnegation, on how we are supposed to live are wrong, period?

I’m sitting outside at one in the morning, waiting for our ride. A summer breeze is blowing. Summer, what little of it I get to see. Even at 1 a.m., the streets are noisy, with cars and garbage trucks making their rounds. There is nowhere I can go to rid myself of the noise and filth of the city. Not a finger I can lift to change anything – but, I would like to.

(Then, I wonder, how much of Stewart’s teachings and views on life are wrong?Will he say “Sorry fellas, I was teaching wrong all these years” to us again at some time in the future? Or maybe it will never be acknowledged. We just have to live with it. If we don’t like it, it’s just our arrogance, or it’s because our flesh doesn’t like to hear it. We can’t have any substantive reason against something – doesn’t our flesh put up all its rational arguments in order to get its own way? Don’t we have “fallen thinking?” We can’t trust our own thoughts, you know.)

So, I have to trust somebody else’s thoughts. Whatever Stewart says, it’s God’s will for us, until further notice. God showed us. When Stewart changes it to something different, God showed us.

Even if I did have substantive reasons to question or disagree with these things, I will be asked, “So you are going to be selfish?” Or, “How can you be sure your thoughts are right?” I need to “trust the view of the church” or “the view of the brothers and sisters,” which of course, means to trust what Stewart says, because that’s what this really means.

It’s a real gamble to go your own way. Or, I may have my reasons, but when I speak of them, someone will say, “How is this helping right now?”

Shelve your mind, your thoughts – but I can’t, my “flesh” fights for its own way. I can’t rest, I can’t accept these things. I have too many doubts, too many questions. And this “truth” is well-protected with threats. Believe it or else. If you question, you’ve had it. Better not get too near. If what Stewart tells us is so true, why does it have to be this way? As far as Stewart is concerned, the whole thing is in flux, and he can change his teaching at will. But for us, it’s the hard and fast truth, woe to anyone who questions it. We are subject to it – but he is not subject to it, if he is able to change it. We cannot change it, only he can. (Whether these changes are at his discretion and whim, or only after serious study, does that really make a difference? I don’t know).

None of us have the “gift” of charisma – the ability to make, and yes, to enforce new teachings. Only Stewart has that. It’s so strange, a man makes my beliefs for me. I get the idea that he is in the process of  remaking everything.

(This was a time when Stewart often changed or a revised a teaching, discarding some previous revelation as untrue. But for us, whatever he said was true until he changed it. Then the new thing was the truth, which we had to accept without question.)

Even if Stewart does study for 12 hours a day, he can still make mistakes. I have a better sense of that lately. His admissions of last week gave me a renewed sense of that little man behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz. It had looked so formidable, so impressive.

(I remember thinking about the Wizard of Oz illustration four years ago, but there’s always something slamming me down, making me obey, keeping me quiet. Some kind of spiritual blackmail. Possibly also, some kind of ongoing diversion: This time, Stewart says that the women are trying to break us down. Now it’s our turn – he says that the older brothers have a dinosaur club. Now a move to 810, just trying to survive, to hang on. No time to debate the finer points, so I forget. Life is a series of tasks, problems. Now I am woven in under layers of guilt. Stewart has the goods on me, he’s got my blueprints.)

Of course, something’s wrong with this whole thing – and with the boss…but what, but how? What do I do, how do I get out?  Jay saw [ex-member] Charley U. today. He said to Charley, “How is it going?” Charley said, “Don’t do your condescending stuff on me.” After being gone for 10 years, he’s still on the defense when he meets a COBU member. Does anybody ever truly leave this place (in one piece)? After they are gone, do they ever resume a normal life, or are they ever in conflict with themselves, with God, with us even. Nobody that I know of is ever free and cut loose and being here was just something they did 10 years ago, and they have another life now. Maybe I just don’t know, I have not talked to enough ex-members. Maybe they’re not all like this.

It’s July 20th, August will be here real soon. Where does all the time go? I will pray to God for one more chance to enjoy a piece of summer somewhere, like I got when we were working in Locust Valley. This is what bothers me a lot – not necessarily this specific wish to enjoy summer – but here I am, a 36 year old man and I can’t even go somewhere. Even less now than back in 1986-88 when I used to take up the same lament. What’s happening? Am I regressing?

I feel stuck, that I couldn’t do something if I wanted to. I resign myself to it, go on with it. Life becomes something where I just want to make sure I get enough sleep. I want to get a cup of coffee, read a little bit, have my walkman with you to “make use of the time.” Try not to look at women on the street. I wonder if I will ever get married, I know I need to. I hope that if and when I ever get married that I won’t be under so much control. It must be weird to be married and be under such control. You are supposed to be the man of the house, make some decisions, not be kept (by the church, I guess) as some kind of house pet. It did cross my mind today about what it would be like to raise up kids in this situation, aside from the more obvious form of “Why does Dad act like that at the meeting, why does he act that way around that man? Why does Daddy always have to do what he is told?”

(I was speculating here about what it would like to be married (if that ever became possible) and raise up kids in the COBU. Even if marriage and family became available in the church, would I want to live that way here? I was trying to imagine what it was like, based on what I knew about what was required of me now in COBU.)

There are more finer points and inner issues like, what would it be to raise up a kid in this kind of landscape, maybe doing it just so you can avoid life in “the world” so your kid doesn’t get messed up. At what price, though? When you are expected to be a programmed robot who has no backbone, who must not talk back and can’t even act on your own desires. Why, you can’t take your kids out to the mountains for a day, was that God’s will?

You have your obligations and duties to the church. That is the right way to raise you kids – if they see you doing that, they will see a right example. Hey, all the brothers see you withdrawing into your family life…imagine all the checks and balance and controls on you, that you must be careful to obey at all times or the others will see you going off into your own world and will be compelled to talk to you. In fact, you will be driving yourself very hard to comply, so as not to become embroiled in that sort of litigation.

Because, think of the battle, you will not do it again, especially with the way they were working on your wife the last time and said these things to you in front of your kids. Sure, they can’t take your wife and kids away from you, but you see, they want that childish doormat compliance where you are a little less than a person. This is the behavior they expect of you, then everything will be okay. But, it costs you something – it costs you your person, maybe.

Those brothers meetings, even the little ones we have on our own at 46th Street, they are like those Communist re-education meetings…the tedious, sometimes gentle, sometimes harsh, though always constant, pressure to bring the person around to the “right confession,” being guided persistently into it, until you do it. “We’re doing it, so can you. Come on in, the water’s fine. There’s Joe – he’s being re-educated and things are going better for him now, he’s getting a few perks. See, we mean you no harm, we just want you to come around to our way of thinking. It’s all for your own good.” Why fight those who are your real benefactors?

Those desperately serious faces…not an extra facial movement, looking forward, perhaps dazed, but certainly not trying to look like their thoughts are really elsewhere. We go through each person.

(At every meeting we reviewed each brother and each had to talk about how he was doing, and the others commented on him.)

The slightest smile, or extemporaneous comment that isn’t part of the script or not part of the delineated stock of words, expressions and concepts is immediately declared invalid. It’s like a card game, where only the moves according to the rules are valid. We are only going to do this thing…there are no new ideas, nothing originated by ourselves. Only a set stock of words, possible actions or choices.

It’s like a play. You must talk in that lingo to get anywhere – to make a point, to get your voice heard. (But, where are you getting anyway?) We are so woven in – everybody folds their hands, plays along.

What is all of this? All I know is that I am under extreme pressure to act a certain way and everybody is going to make sure I do, in no uncertain terms. The “meeting” is the highest form of this behavior, the pinnacle of it, where it all comes together. Maybe the meetings with Stewart are the highest form of all, because when we’re with Stewart, this behavior is all the more intensified. But also, because when we’re with Stewart, we receive new “programming.”

One of the reasons, the official jargon, the published ideal for why we do this – is that I am going to hell, so I need all this. I know the official and plausible reasons for everything we do here. Maybe these reasons get in the way of seeing what it is really all about. We are so glued in with this stuff. We are headed for hell, we must escape 46th Street, that’s why we have to have these meetings.

When you escape (from 46th Street at least, but maybe not escape from hell yet) then we have to go live, or at least work, at Woodruff and on to another level of this stuff. More reporting, being evaluated and corrected. There sure is a lot of attention paid to one another and to our standing and to what we did or didn’t do and what we are going to do about it. Always going through everybody and checking everybody, every time we get together.

(It’s like holding nightly talent shows or beauty pageants. We get into ourselves to the point of indulging. Everybody gets into the swing of this. The older brothers do it out of fear, the new brothers do it because everybody else is doing it.) How could you walk out of it and say you have had enough of all this evaluating and reporting and confessing and voting in an endless loop or cycle? It practically becomes your entire life. Where is Christ; where is Jesus? Theologies are laid on with so many coats of paint (and revisions) and interconnecting links, all aimed directly at you and what makes you tick. A whole theology and training papers…what does it produce? A fearful and quiet compliance where everybody is a robot. Everybody watches each other like a hawk to make sure they believe it and do it.

Perhaps the best control Stewart has over us is this constant scanning, that is, the evaluation and making each other watch and report on one other…the use of the whole backdrop of the community to evaluate everybody against. Of course, you don’t want to get out of line – because everybody is watching and will be constrained to say something if you do.

Well, this is getting too treacherous. I just have to stop writing about it at this point. Again, how can I know it is all true? Where is the confirmation I need? What can help me? I am like a man without an anchor, I can’t hang on to anything. I’m always adrift.

Read the next section of the journal here: The View Of Me, As Defined By Our Leader And By Those Around Me.

(These journal pages are part of the source material for my book, Captive Congregation: My Fourteen Years in the Church of Bible Understanding, which is available as a Kindle book or in paperback.)


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