Daniel Shaw, CSW
Psychoanalyst, private practice
New York, NY
From Dean’s List to Dumpsters: Why I Left Harvard to Join a Cult
Jim Guerra deserves the gratitude of readers interested in cults for his plain-spoken, vivid, and harrowing account of the 10 years he spent under the control of a self-proclaimed Christian preacher known as Brother Evangelist. Jim was a sophomore at Harvard in 1975 when he was proselytized by members of Brother Evangelist's group. After just one meeting with these itinerant soul-gatherers, and before he could say "pahk the cah in Hahvahd yahd," Guerra was living the life of a fugitive, camping illegally, hitchhiking illegally, stealing food from dumpsters illegally, and preying on college students like himself. All in the name of Jesus.
Religious literature is replete with examples of seekers pursuing agonized self-mortification in the name of God. Guerra’s story provides a well-elaborated, insider's view of this mentality, which the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm called the “authoritarian” theme in religious philosophy, as opposed to the “humanistic” theme. According to Fromm, the humanistic themes in religious tradition encourage man to achieve strength, not powerlessness. Virtue is understood as self-realization, not as obedience. God stands as a symbol of man’s own powers that can be realized in his life, and not as a symbol of force and domination.
The authoritarian theme goes differently, and was probably epitomized in these words of Johannes Calvin: “We cannot think of ourselves as we ought to think without utterly despising everything that may be supposed as excellence in us. This humility is unfeigned submission of a mind overwhelmed with a weighty sense of its own misery and poverty; for such is the uniform description of it in the word of God.” While not all authoritarian religious groups can properly be called cults, religious cults always exploit the authoritarian themes in whatever scripture they use, to justify the paranoia driving the group behaviors. As hard as it might be to imagine, Brother Evangelist seems to have tried to outdo even Calvin when it came to instilling self-loathing and shame in his followers.
Brother Evangelist claimed exclusive rights to interpret the Bible. Under the Brother’s guidance, Guerra learned to feel contempt and disgust for everyone and everything — his family, his school, his country, his mind, his body, his sexuality. Guerra kept his parents and siblings completely in the dark as to his thoughts, feelings, and whereabouts for 10 years. He wore rags, froze in winter, and developed anorexia in the belief that his appetite was sinful. He refused medical treatment for an infestation of mites that shredded most of the skin on his body, because accepting treatment would mean lack of faith in God’s healing powers. He describes in detail how he tortured and tormented himself incessantly for having almost any kind of human feeling.
Guerra describes all this powerfully and evocatively in his book. His account is an important record of the workings of cults and the mindset of cult members. I was disappointed only in that the question raised in the subtitle of the book, "why I left Harvard to join a cult," was never really answered. While Guerra is eloquent about how he lived in the cult, and why and how he got out, he does not offer any substantial contemplation of his own history prior to his recruitment. He leaves the reader in the dark in terms of understanding what might have contributed to his vulnerability when he was recruited. I find this kind of understanding helpful, because although none of us is invulnerable to the seductive powers of cults and their leaders, a fuller picture of the specifics of how, why, and when a person becomes vulnerable can be a valuable key to a deeper understanding of the power of cults.
Additionally, because I am a Jew by birth and an atheist by belief, I found problematic Guerra's assertion at the end of his book that “Jesus is still the truth, that the Bible is still the Word of God, and that life without Him is meaningless and empty.” Putting his personal beliefs in this way, Guerra seems to leave out the possibility that others who do not share his particular faith might nevertheless have lives at least as meaningful and valuable as his.
Nevertheless, this is a book that provides a detailed and chilling account of life in a cult, and the author is to be admired for his courage and his clarity in making his experience available to others. Those who themselves have been through similar experiences will greatly appreciate Guerra’s chronicle of 10 years in the life of a cult member. For those who wonder about a loved one in a cult, the book is a painful illustration of the ways that authoritarian groups degrade the humanity of their members.