WordSmith Publishing, Inc., March 2003, 336 pages. $24.00 U.S., $28.95 Canada. ISBN: 097234988X.
There are now many books about cults and abusive religion, but few fiction writers have explored the dynamics of mind control and its devastating emotional consequences.
Dianne Kozdrey Bunnell has crafted an interesting and moving first novel based on her own experience of losing two daughters to an abusive mind manipulator. (Although she has resumed contact with one of the daughters, she hasn’t seen or talked to the other for more than 10 years.)
In Bunnell’s novel, the protagonist Jane, her family, and her husband are part of a high-control Christian fellowship in Washington state led by charismatic Reverend Logan Churlick. Trapped at age 21 in a loveless marriage, Jane turns to Churlick for counseling. During a session, Churlick seduces Jane; she becomes pregnant with twins. Taught all her life that abortion is a sin, Jane opts to give birth to the babies, and they become the focus of her life.
Jane realizes that she was manipulated into the sexual liaison through the married Churlick’s skillful mind manipulation. As she explains at a child-custody hearing, “He said God had appointed him to teach me ‘yieldingness.’ The problem with my husband … oh, God, I can’t even believe I used to be this way. But, I believed him. Honest, Your Honor. And here’s why it could happen…. It’s drummed into you that you’re not to question God, not to assert yourself, but let His will be done. His will, as related by Reverend Logan Churlick. Any need to question why, and you’re not a believer. You don’t have faith. Question God? Not if you want to belong… and more than anything in the world, you want to belong to this church, belong to God. Question God’s man, Reverend Churlick? It just wasn’t done. By anyone. He said God told him he was to minister to me to teach me yieldingness to my husband.”
Jane manages to extricate herself from the group and from Churlick’s influence, alienating her strict parents and cutting herself off from nearly her entire social circle. But she is drawn back into the abusive pastor’s orbit when he presses successfully for custody rights.
During the time the girls spend with their father, Jane notices a gradual and finally a sudden change in the girls’ personalities as Churlick turns them against her by mind manipulation. The pastor and his submissive wife constantly tell the girls that their mother is a sinner who can never reach God. Ms. Bunnell also explains the alienation of her daughters by a phenomenon new to me known as parental alienation syndrome (or what we used to call simply one parent bad-mouthing the other).
Thwarted by the legal system, Jane opts to turn her 12-year-old daughters over to Churlick and his wife completely rather than to continue to let them be torn apart. This act of self-sacrifice brings redemption to Jane in spite of Churlick’s insistence that his way is the only path to God.
After a confusing beginning, Bunnell stirs the reader’s interest. The story is a very sad one, but she enriches it with vivid details and, ironically, often with humor.
Ms. Bunnell intends the novel to be a helpful teaching tool to others caught in similar family situations. However, her discussion of mind manipulation, other than Jane’s explanation in the above quote, is not detailed enough to inform someone not already well acquainted with the phenomenon. She could have made more use of Steve Hassan’s expertise (Jane accidentally comes across a copy of his book while browsing through a book store) or of other cult experts whose books she lists in the appendix. Also, she relies on only one person, Dr. Richard Gardner, author of The Parental Alienation Syndrome, to put forward this mysterious new syndrome as an additional explanation of what happened to her daughters. In fact, at one point in the story, Jane says the two are just different names for the same thing. I disagree: Although one parent often does try to convince a child involved in legal custody issues that the other parent has shortcomings, this is not the same thing as systematic and sophisticated mind manipulation.
Bunnell’s list of reading and resource organizations for others caught up in abusive religious situations is inadequate. A better list would improve the usefulness of the book.