An American Christian Chapter XIII — Isolation Part I
I used to joke around with friends and family years after leaving the church that I was in a cult. I downplayed a lot of what happened for many reasons. Maybe I never thought I would get a genuine, meaningful apology from the Joneses, so I just moved forward with my life as best as I could. Maybe I would never let myself fully believe that I could be a victim of abuse and manipulation. It wasn’t until the last year that I have truly reflected on my time there, the trauma that occurred, and the lasting effects it has had on my life. I began reading about cults and different people’s experiences with evangelical churches. To put it plainly, it blew my mind. While people may argue that this was not a cult in the typical sense, and I may never have physically “drank the Kool-Aid,” the fear and isolation tactics that were and still are being used are most definitely cult-like and abusive behavior.
Isolation is one of the first tactics implemented in a cult or abusive relationship, yet it is also one of the hardest things to identify while in the midst. Abusers want and need to separate victims from friends and family or other voices of logic to ensure complete control. When I entered the program my first year, one of the first topics addressed was spending time with friends and family that did not go to church or believe the same teachings that this church believed. They were deemed unfit to be around and would only drag us down. This was not always physical isolation as much as it was emotional and mental isolation, although the latter resulted in physical isolation. If we spent too much time in the proximity of “sinners,” we would somehow fall victim to their evil ways. In reality, we were isolated from people who had contrary beliefs.
I recently shared these articles on my social media to help bring awareness to these significant issues. The responses I received were both positive and eye-opening at the same time. I want to list some of the most common responses that made me think and reflect even more on the abuse in that church and still occurs in many evangelical churches worldwide.
- “I never knew this happened to you.”
- “I didn’t know you were cut off from relationships.”
- “I’m sorry you felt so alone.”
- “I wish I would have known you felt alone.”
- “When I left, I also felt alone.”
- “Reading these reassures me that I’m not alone or crazy!”
Whenever people left the church, especially if it was because of a falling out or disagreement with the Joneses, those people were automatically made to look like the enemy or that they had “fallen into sin.” We were never encouraged to reach out; it was as if those people just vanished off the face of the earth. They were often labeled with different evil biblical “spirits,” which makes me sick to my stomach to think about now. Who knows how many people were dealing with (or suffering from) serious mental health issues, and instead of encouraging people to get help, they were pushed out. No conversations were had, nor any explanations were ever given. We were conditioned never to ask questions and simply believe what we were being told was the truth.
Fear and isolation go hand in hand in cults and abusive relationships.
When I was given no choice but to leave the church, I still felt this sense of loyalty towards the Jones family. I felt like I had to keep my relationship with Devon a secret because that’s all I ever knew. I wouldn’t figure this out until years later, but I was not acting out of loyalty; I acted out of fear. I was afraid people wouldn’t believe me. I was fearful that I would be judged and ostracized even more than I already was. I was scared I would be criticized, and the friends and family that I had isolated myself from would meet me with a giant, “I told you so.” So, instead of speaking out, I stayed quiet and alone. I was brainwashed.
This is not earning respect, trust, or loyalty; it’s using fear as a weapon to control people’s minds and actions. The Joneses and many other evangelical church leaders and abusers are experts at disguising fear as loyalty. No one willingly joins a cult, nor do they knowingly enter into an abusive relationship, but it’s the fear that keeps them in.
When I entered GTC, I was isolated from friends and family. When I left the church, I was isolated from my church friends and family. The Joneses knew they needed to keep people separate and divided, and quite honestly, they have been pretty successful at doing this thus far. The problem is people have had enough. And not just people who have experienced abuse at the hands of the Joneses. Evangelicals across the nation and world are being called out for the same problematic behavior. Unfortunately, it’s not new! Blocking people on social media will not make the problem go away. There is no amount of fear or intimidation tactics that can be used to keep me quiet. I have nothing to lose from speaking my truth and only healing to gain, and I can only hope this opens the door for others to begin the healing process.
When the author wrote this, we decided to ask for feedback from some people who have followed this writing. Those that agreed to contribute found themselves at a loss at where exactly they should start.
Fear-based isolation isn’t something pleasant that any of us like to keep at the forefront of our minds. It’s difficult, painful, and worst of all, anxiety-inducing. People who have suffered trauma of any kind often repress it unconsciously. It’s our brain’s way of protecting itself.
PTSD isn’t limited to soldiers or those that have survived a bloody event. You can suffer the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder by living in an abusive home or relationship, working at a high-stress job for a long period of time, or in my case, suffering unending panic attacks. Church abuse is no different.
Growing up in a church that had such strict rules and guidelines regarding sex and sexuality, relationships, history, the omnipresence of God (He’s always watching you), finances, family structure and social hierarchy, patriarchy, politics, and even clothing choices is enough to warp anyone’s outlook on life. Especially after beginning a deconstruction process. These issues are not something you simply move on from because you changed your mind or have a different perspective. They stick with you for years.
Isolation comes with the territory. You may isolate yourself because you feel ashamed, scared, or angry. You may feel isolated because everyone around you is oblivious to your trauma, or they simply won’t acknowledge it. Worst of all, you may feel isolated because those that were so close to you before were rejected, shunned, or pulled away from you simply because you chose to no longer think like them.
The Joneses are experts at this. In 2014, Ben and Beth Jones asked my partner and me if we’d like to grab lunch since they were vacationing in the city we lived in. We met at one of our favorite diners, knowing full-well they wouldn’t darken the doors of one of the local breweries. At this time, we had just stopped going to church but hadn’t said much about it yet. Under the guise of wanting to catch up and Beth insulting my partner by “guessing” she was eight months into her pregnancy, Ben grilled us for the entire encounter on what people our age looked for in a church. He and Beth were looking to increase the attendance of young families in their congregation, and apparently, we became the focus group.
He asked us about concert lighting, flashy worship bands, bulletins, PowerPoint, coffee bars, et cetera. We simply said that people wanted to feel welcomed and wanted substance over style. We told them it was more important for there to be diversity and open communication than another Sunday morning concert.
After this, they blocked us on all social media, and Ben expressed this to my father. When asked why, Ben said that my partner and I were too far gone and no longer a good influence, encouraging my father to distance himself as well. My dad, who is no stranger to abuse and manipulation from the Joneses, delivered some choice words to Ben and instead did the opposite.
It wasn’t long after that we noticed old friends disappear from our feeds. Calls and texts were no longer responded to, and we, after having recently moved 1,800 miles away from our previous home, were isolated once again.
The next chapter will include stories from other people detailing their experiences in and out of a high-pressure religious system.