Abuse Survivor From Tony Alamo Compound Struggles with Loss of Faith, Confidence

October 25, 2008 at 5:50 am Leave a comment

diane-bach-abuse.jpgIt’s been 23 years since Diane Bach left the Tony Alamo Christian
Ministries compound in Arkansas, but she still struggles to make
decisions for herself.


As a waitress hands Bach a menu during a recent lunch meeting, she
swallows hard. Her hands begin to tremble; she shifts uncomfortably in
her chair. Soon, she’s sweating and red blotches pool on her chest like
spilled wine.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “I have a lot of trouble ordering from a simple
menu because, to this day, I have trouble making my own choices.”

Alamo’s critics, including hundreds of former members, call his
ministry a cult that brainwashes its members with punishments including
withholding food, beatings and being booted from the church. Those
leaving the church were told they would die, go insane or turn into
homosexuals.

Some former members were physically abused at the compound and others,
such as Bach, lived there mainly as adults. Surviving in mainstream
society has been difficult for them all.

Alamo, 74, was arrested in Arizona last month on suspicion of
transporting minors across state lines for sexual purposes. Days
earlier, the FBI raided the Arkansas compound as part of a child
pornography investigation and removed six girls.

Unlike many of the adults and children who say they lived under Alamo’s
control, Bach, 54 — who lived at the compound from age 17 to 31 —
says she was never physically or sexually abused. Instead, every aspect
of her life was controlled, including whom she married. She wasn’t
allowed to decide anything for herself, she says, and was brainwashed
into believing Alamo had the power to send her to hell if she didn’t
work in his businesses for free.

What Bach lost, she says, is her faith — in herself and in a higher
power. She was thrown out of the compound when her former husband ran
afoul of Tony Alamo.

“Having spirituality in my life is very important,” said Bach, who now
operates a hotel with her second husband, Jim. “Having a belief,
something solid, something concrete, was something I needed. I’d rather
be physically raped than spiritually raped, because now I don’t know
what to believe.”

Whether it’s perpetrated by Catholic priests or charismatic cult
leaders, abuse by religious figures can be more harmful than other
forms of maltreatment: A building block of recovery for some people —
belief in a higher power or God — is exactly what’s been stripped away.

“Virtually every abuse victim feels alone,” said David Clohessy,
national director of St. Louis-based Survivors Network of those Abused
by Priests. “But I believe that no victim feels more alone than
somebody abused by a religious figure or in a religious setting. The
most universal source of comfort and solace in painful times is God.
But if God is perceived to be an integral part of one’s abuse and
cover-up, victims are left with virtually nowhere to turn.”

Among members of his organization, comprising people who’ve been
sexually abused by priests, “many — not most, but many — victims have
found their way back to some kind of spirituality. But almost never
without first enduring a long, painful period of alienation and
uncertainty around even the existence of God.”

For Elishah Franckiewicz, the first child born in Alamo’s compound,
recovery is about building her own system of beliefs, something she was
denied as a child.

Franckiewicz, now a 37-year-old college instructor in the Portland
area, escaped when she was 15. When she left, she said she had no
reference point for what was right and wrong, true or untrue.
Franckiewicz and other compound children were told that if they prayed
hard enough, Alamo’s wife Susan, who died from cancer after the
compound moved to Arkansas, would rise from the dead. Each day she did
not awaken, the children were beaten.

For years after leaving, Franckiewicz says she was “absolutely
terrified” of everything, including dogs, which the Alamos said were
“evil beings that could weaken children’s hearts.”

With the help and love of her husband, who rescued her from the
compound in a dramatic escape, she slowly rebuilt her life by facing
her fears and investigating the world. Her husband begged her to visit
an animal pound to try to ease her fear of dogs, which was preventing
her from visiting friends’ homes. She did, and wound up taking home a
puppy that became “one of my best friends on the Earth.”

To try to come to terms with the religious aspects of her abuse, she
began studying all the religions of the world in college until she
arrived at the notion that she simply didn’t believe there was only one
way to God, if there was a God at all.

“This is probably what most people don’t want to hear, but when I
really reclaimed my life, the defining moment was when I said out loud,
`I absolutely do not believe in God.’ It was being able to break a tie.”

She says she “owns her own soul” by making sure her interactions with
others are peaceful and kind. “I believe in my family,” she says. “And
I believe in me.”

Bach was 17 and living alone in Los Angeles when she first met Tony
Alamo’s followers. She says she visited the couple’s church in
Hollywood “mostly out of curiosity.”

Bach didn’t have a religious upbringing, but she thirsted for spiritual guidance.

While attending one of the Alamos’ church services, Bach says she had a
“very real born-again experience.” She threw her last $3 in the
collection plate and accepted an invitation to join the compound, which
then was in Saugus, Calif.

“They asked me if I wanted to move in and be an `on fire’ Christian.
They said that you don’t just become a Christian and walk out the door.
`We spoon feed you the word.’ I decided to give my life for the cause.”

Very quickly, she said, she was stripped of her identity. “You had
someone assigned to you, an `older Christian,”‘ she recalled. “They
were with you every moment. You slept on the floor in a sister’s dorm.
You didn’t have beds, a few of the chosen ones had beds, but you
didn’t. You were like cordwood. You woke every day with someone in your
ear going, `Thank you, Jesus.”‘

Followers, including Bach, worked for businesses owned by the Alamos or
on nearby farms and lived in sex-segregated dormitories. They were told
what to wear. What to say. What to think. All meals were served in a
cafeteria with no choices. She said anyone could be publicly rebuked
without warning, and most of the followers “lived in constant fear.”

“To this day, I have a great fear of going into churches,” she said,
recalling an announcement at the compound that there was “something
mentally wrong” with Bach after she petted a lama on the farm. “I have
a fear of some message coming down that I’m unworthy. That I’m doomed.”

She says she endured years of emotional turmoil. She said she stayed
because she came to truly believe that the Alamos could send her to
hell. Bach says she was ex-communicated when her husband, a man 20
years her senior who’d served years in prison before joining the
compound, was caught stealing. Bach said the marriage was arranged by
the Alamos and that she had no choice but to marry the near-stranger.

Once outside, she and her husband divorced and she went to nursing
school. She moved to Oregon soon after and met her current husband, Jim.

“I couldn’t talk about this for years. It was so traumatic for me that I couldn’t talk about it.”

Seven years ago, she became “plagued with panic attacks.” A therapist
diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder, and told Bach that she’d been
stuffing down her feelings so long that, like too many books on a
shelf, everything just collapsed.

She wanted to rebuild, but she was missing something crucial: her faith.

“I just have a lot of pain inside because I’m not sure what I’m
supposed to do. Why am I even here now? I just feel like a failure.
It’s all of this situation I went through. I feel like I was
spiritually raped.”

Bach continues to struggle. “It’s day by day,” she says.

“I long to believe, but I just can’t.”

Source: Religion News Service

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