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Never Say Die

Cultic Studies Journal, 1994, Volume 11, Number 1, pages 37-55

Never Say Die

Jeanne Marie Laskas

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Abstract

The author reflects on her experiences with the CBJ group (formerly the Eternal Flame), which claims to have discovered techniques of "cellular awakening" that enable its members to achieve physical immortality. Describing a 3-day program in a wealthy Tel Aviv suburb, the author relates how the intense emotions and the stimulus overload seemed to neutralize her critical thinking capacity and cause her to forget the questions that she brought into the group. She also reports on her interview of two parents with a son in the group, and her interview with the leaders, Chuck, BernaDeane, and Jim, paying particular attention to their apparent financial gain. She closes with short vignettes of terminally ill "immortals," whose deaths, by AIDS and cancer, respectively, were explained as falling from the program. CBJ explained the cancer death as a result of the lady's having eaten bacon, and the other death as a result of the person's having clipped obituaries of friends who had died of AIDS.

        Chuck, BernaDeane and Jim have cellular intercourse. As a result, they are going to live forever. Their thousands of followers are immortal, too. Perhaps you'd like to join them.

An airplane is a convenient place to ponder your own personal relationship with death. I was crammed into some kind of TWA monster, headed for a meeting in Tel Aviv. Well, not a meeting, exactly. I had been invited to participate in a three-day "cellular intercourse" with CBJ, the internationally renowned group of physically immortal people. Immortals, as they are called, are a whole new species of human being, each of whom has experienced his or her own personal "cellular awakening."

The leaders of CBJ travel the world waking up cells and hosting events such as the cellular intercourse to which I was bound. You can't, the reasoning goes, be immortal alone. Immortality requires a quantum evolutionary leap. Immortality requires an unimaginably high amount of collective oomph.

CBJ, based in Scottsdale, Arizona, takes its name from its leaders. That's C for Charles Paul Brown, B for BernaDeane and J for James Russell Strole. BernaDeane doesn't use a last name and she likes that capital D in there, but no space between her first and middle names. She was a fashion model before she became immortal, and she thinks "it's not intelligent to die." In fact, she thinks, "it's embarrassing to die." She is 56. Charles, her husband, is the one who first experienced the "cellular awakening," an experience that inspired him to coin the phrase "cellular awakening," a fact that he is proud of. Charles, 58, is the spiritual backbone of the group. He's had a lot of supernatural adventures. Once, his whole body glowed, and another time he had a dream in which he turned into an antibody. As an antibody, he was able to kill off all but one darn evil cell in an otherwise immortal woman who, sure enough and in real life, died. Charles used to be a nightclub singer, an Assembly of God minister and a fashion buyer before he became immortal. He wears a wig. Critics often ask how come, if he's so good at regenerating his cells, he can't grow his own hair. He hates this question. James, the last third of the trinity, sold real estate before he became immortal full-time. At 44, he is the youngest, and he and BernaDeane and Charles have been fairly candid about the fact that the three of them share a bed.

So far, CBJ has about 30,000 people from eighteen countries on its mailing list. But its core members are not nearly that numerous. The Scottsdale and Tel Aviv centers have the largest congregations, with about 300 Immortals each; you'll find smaller CBJ groups peppered throughout Europe, Australia and South America. The Immortals are people of all ages and religious backgrounds, most of them college-educated and in their thirties and forties, most of them in possession of extremely hip and creative wardrobes and most of them glowing with a very weird but very inviting happiness. Apparently, one becomes overwhelmed with bliss when no longer faced with the problem of having to leave this earth and get oneself to paradise or having to turn into earthworm food or something else really disgusting and degrading. Plus, if you are an Immortal with an Immortal lover or friend, then you never have to worry about being alone; when an Immortal promises to be with you forever, it is definitely a long-term type thing.

In July and August each year, a thousand Immortals from around the world go to Scottsdale to unite with CBJ at the annual "convergence." This is the sixteen-day cellular intercourse that all Immortals talk about with glee and longing.

Can you have cellular intercourse if you have not yet experienced your cellular awakening? I didn't know. I was so naive. I was just trying to get through this airplane ride. I began feeling a little nervous, like I always do whenever an airplane starts bouncing so uncontrollably that the overhead compartments drop their jaws as if ready to regurgitate" and sure enough, all the carry-on items started falling onto people's heads. I found myself saying a quick prayer as arms started flailing and people tried to dodge the briefcases and raincoats and those dang fold-up luggage carts. "Ahhh!" a woman shrieked. People should not shriek on airplanes. Shrieking on an airplane means death is about to happen, death to all the people on the airplane.

Then I thought, Wait a second. Maybe there is an Immortal on the flight, headed to Tel Aviv to be with CBJ. If you're on the same flight as an Immortal, does that assure that the plane won't go down? Well, I didn't know. Like I said, I was naive.

The turbulence ended, just as turbulence usually does, and we all took  a lot of deep breaths, and eventually I leaned back and thumbed through CBJ's book, Together Forever. All through it are smiling pictures of C, B and J, wearing coordinated outfits. In the book, you are invited to "sit back, relax and let the words of Charles, BernaDeane and James stimulate your cells." I wasn't even sure that I wanted to be immortal. Death, after all, is pretty intriguing. Death could be seen as an unpleasant event you have to go through, like birth, before your plop into some new place, get smacked and start breathing a whole new oxygen.

But CBJ is convinced that none of us would ever want to die if we could have Heaven right here. So this is what they are out to achieve: the creation of a new species of human beings who can live forever together in their same old bodies in a heaven right here on earth.

Or right below me on earth, as was the case at the moment. I watched with interest as the Hasidic Jews on the airplane got up, put white cloths over their heads, bobbed back and forth and prayed.

I thought about the way of the Jewish people and I thought about the way of the people who reared me, the Catholic people, and I thought about the way people everywhere crave order, meaning and worth. Heaven offers one way of avoiding madness. Heaven, in fact, can be seen as a place that was invented by the human mind as a way of dealing with the fact that there is no Heaven. By and large, and at the very least, you could say that the human mind lacks the equipment needed to hold on to the notion of its own insignificance. The human mind can get totally stuck in a spasm with a thought like this, and to a lot of people it's just not worth it. It is definitely more convenient to have a priest or a rabbi or a guru organize and give meaning to the universe on your behalf.

But a sexually ambiguous ex-night club singer in a wig?

Well, why not?

* * *

I got to the meeting. Like most newcomers, I wondered, Just how, exactly, can CBJ make me immortal? Finding the answer to that question is harder than you might think. The inquiry, in fact, involves going through a process that significantly challenges the steadiness of the needle on your own personal beserkness gauge. We're talking a serious flirtation with madness here. We're talking a one-way ticket to the tippy-tippy-tippy edge of loo-loo land.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. No one walks into an experience knowing that it will make his or her mind go kerflooey.

The meeting was held in an auditorium in Ramat Efal, a wealthy Tel Aviv suburb, and it was there that I witnessed a cellular awakening. It happened after a lot of singing and other entertainment, which turned out to be a big component of CBJ gatherings, owing, perhaps, to Charles's nightclub roots. Also, there was a great deal of hugging and kissing and caressing of bodies, which people did because, as one Immortal told me, "I must! In fact, I must hug you right now!" And so, of course, he came at me. "You are so beautiful," he said. "I love you," he said.

That became a trend.

It is flattering, I'm sure you'll agree, to have a person fall in love with you, but to have 250 people fall in love with you while also falling in love with one another is an awful lot of love for a mere mortal to know what, exactly, to do with. You begin to feel rude for not loving back. You may even begin to fake love. After a while, you think you feel love because your brain can't handle the discrepancy.

You are having your first official mind-kerflooey moment.

Seated onstage were Charles, BernaDeane and JamesCor Chuckbernieandjim, as they are usually referred to, in one breath--along with Chuck and Bernie's 27-year-old immortal son, Kevin. (They also have a 30-year-old immortal daughter, Kim, who was back in Scottsdale.) Jim took the microphone and explained the way life works in the "death-oriented culture" into which all of us were, unfortunately, born. "You are brainwashed by public opinion," he said. "You are a member of the biggest cult in the world! You are all fucking cult members until you decide to jump out of it!" Death, in other words, is just for stupid and lazy people who don't know any better.

Next came BernaDeane. She was a lioness let out of a cage. She growled. She flirted. She told personal stories. She told of being raped at 15. And over and over again she demanded a commitment, a promise to live together forever. She demanded more people. If more people didn't show up, she was not coming back to Israel. And she screamed "I want you to see how important it is to lay some money down on the three of us!" She spun on her heels and threw her head down. A pause. A breath. She looked up from beneath her long blonde bangs, giant eyes in a too-small face, a puppy dog, a kitty cat. Suddenly, she threw out a pure sex smile, a giant come-and-get-me-big-boy-grin, followed by ... a giggle.

"Woooooo!" said the crowd. "Weee! Woooo!"

The cellular awakening I witnessed happened to a curly-haired Israeli woman in a state of near hysteria. She was handed a microphone. She was weeping. She was shaking so hard she needed help standing.

"I feel!" she shouted finally. "I feel! I don't know what I feel. It's something I've never been through, my body is making the choice, my body is talking to me, my body is saying so many things! And my mind is fighting it, I know it's hard for me to accept it. Right now, I don't know anything! Everything is open! Everything is new! I need some help. I don't know if you know what I am talking about, but please say something to me and make it easier for me!"

"Woooo!" said the crowd.

They jumped to their feet and cheered and screamed and rejoiced almost uncontrollably, as if a grand slam had just been hit with two outs in the bottom of the ninth in the seventh game of the Series. They did this often, so it was hard to tell what, exactly, the score was. The cheering worked pretty much the same way as the love. Pretty soon, you're clapping because everybody else is clapping. Pretty soon, you're clapping uncontrollably. Pretty soon, you're believing in what you're clapping about because the old brain cannot stand the discrepancy. It's either believe and clap or don't believe and don't clap. You brain can't handle any other combination. And you don't want to be rude....

Mind-kerflooey moment No. 2.

Chuck stood up to help the hysterical woman. He took the microphone. He was wearing all black topped by a leopard-print vest. His outfit worked nicely with BernaDeane's leopard-print leggings and Jim's all-black ensemble. Chuckbernieandjim almost always wore coordinated outfits. These were very fancy and very fine clothes, and you never see Chuck, Bernie, or Jim in the same outfit twice.

"Your body is there, ready to receive and transmit!"Chuck said to the woman. "Wooo!"said the audience. "But there's a torment that happens!"said Chuck. "Right!" the people shouted. "And that's what you're getting; you feel an intelligence of your body that's sending signals to your brain, and you're thinking things you never thought before ["It's true!" "Right!"], and it's contradictory to the program that is already there, you need to go with the new ["Right on!"], you're reprogramming yourself; we're not reprogramming here! ["Wooooo!"] CBJ, I wish, I tell you, I wish we could really brainwash every one of you! ["Wooowooowooo!"] But we can't do it--not only brainwash but to body-wash! ["Woo-hoo!" "Ha!" "Woooo!"] Because even for the DNA to change the genetic intelligence that has been there, but we are waking up that gene! ["It's true!"] There is an immortal gene within the body already! ["Yes, yes, yes!"] We're waking up that immortal gene to where it becomes the predominant gene in the body and consumes the genetics that accepts that death is inevitable!"

"Woooooooooo! Wa-ha-ha-ha! Wheee! Woo-hoo!"

And so on. Chuck eventually got into more-religious-type talking, at one point insisting that he was not a god, thank God, because "being a god is a lonely, lonely place, and all you can do is masturbate." Chuck used the word "masturbate" a lot. Beyond that, he would use a lot of other words that strung together sounded something like the hum of an air conditioner, followed by "Oh, I could go on and on," and he would. It was not uncommon for Chuck to speak in one sentence that was a full twenty minutes long.

It's hard to follow a sentence that long. Now imagine eight continuous hours full of sentences that long. Now imagine three straight days of eight continuous hours full of sentences that long. And no breaks. Not even for lunch. IF the leaders had it their way, you wouldn't even get a break when you went to take your own personal toilet time; in Tel Aviv, they want to put speakers in the bathrooms. In Scottsdale, these bathroom speakers have been in place for some time now.

EventuallyCif not before and if not sooner or laterCthe newcomer interested in learning how, exactly, CBJ can make her immortal forgets what her original question was.

Mind-kerflooey moment No. 3. Your brain has just settled into a very deep snooze. Your brain cannot bear "and can you blame it?" to try to figure out what the heck is being said in another one of those sentences, so it is checking out.

Pretty soon, you'll be offered a new brain. And it won't be as conflicted as your old one. It will come to you prepackaged with all the answers to all the world's problems. "How convenient," you'll say, and you'll buy it, seeing as your old brain isn't working anymore. In fact, that snoozing old thing won't even register the transaction.

At that moment, you will have been officially sucked in. Make no mistake about it: People get sucked into the darndest things. You think you're too smart or too clever to get pulled in by the hose of one of life's hungry little vacuums. YOU ARE WRONG. A sucker is born every minute, and so is a suckee.

The microphone got passed around, and everyone was invited to give "expressions." The people would face CBJ up there onstage and say things like "I have such a praise for you." And "I feel your penetration." And "Your cells have impregnated me."

And "I'm yours! Every cell is yours! I'm yours 100 percent. You need it, you deserve it, you cannot go on without it, it's flesh, 100 percent. It's all I want. I want to give it to you, my flesh, 100 percent. You need it so much. You must be covered physically! Let me in! Let me in all the way! Please ! I love you! I love you so much! I'm covering your flesh! I'm covering your flesh now!"

And "I want to make a lot of money and I want to give you a lot of money."

And "I got paid and I took a number of hundred-dollar bills and I put them in my pocket. And that was the money that was burning. It made me feel that I never knew what it was to burn with physical passion before. That was my gift to CBJ."

And "I'm giving to CBJ every month now more than my salary. We don't need to keep a savings. "Savings" is another code word we use to mean something bad will happen to us. Nothing bad will ever happen to us if we will be together and be with CBJ!"

And "Here's a check for a thousand dollars."

And, finally, "If you don't pay to CBJ, you are committing suicide."

* * *

You may find this all a wee bit preposterous. How could any sane human being stand up and swear his life and bank account away to three show people in leopard-print outfits who sing bad songs and yell at you and demand your commitment and demand your money and promise to never leave you for all eternity and--perhaps most remarkably--convince you that you actually want them in your life forever? Easily. It's the process that sucks you in, not the content.

I did not arrive at this conclusion without a certain amount of my own personal psychic discomfort.

It is easy, I tell you, if you sit long enough in the landscape of some very odd picture, to being thinking What is wrong with me? instead of What is wrong with this picture? You see that everybody else thinks this odd place is normal, and because you don't see it as normal, well, then you must be abnormal. You start questioning yourself, your judgment gets wacky, you don't want to be odd, you want to fit in, so you become normal as defined by the abnormal picture. You become odd.

I became odd. Beserk? I became furious. Uncharacteristic and unformed rage came out of me as I sat in those meetings. The rage bounced all over the place. I put the rage onto my family. I put the rage onto the Catholic Church. I put the rage onto every church. I put the rage onto Jim and Tammy Bakker, Jim Jones, Sun Myung Moon, Satan, Jesus and a lot of other people I had never met.

I put the rage, finally, onto my shrink.

From Tel Aviv, I made more than a few long-distance calls to my shrink in which I accused him of being a cult leader, of trapping people with the promise of psychic or spiritual freedom just so he could rob them of their money. He was pretty silent on the other end of the line. The truth is, shrinks don't like being called cult leaders. Anyway, I felt better. I felt righteous. I would never, ever, give a single penny to another human being in exchange for a good feeling.

This was a major mind-kerflooey moment. At some point, you eschew all your past ties--fire your shrink or your family or your church or your friends--and wipe the slate clean, making sure your snoozing old brain has no chance of waking up.

Many people who are getting drawn into cults make desperate calls to their loved ones, maybe without even knowing why they're calling and maybe saying stupid things. If you're lucky, you call someone who knows the signs and will call you back. If you're really lucky, you call someone who knows how to awaken your old brain. It will be like someone slapping you and waking you out of a nightmare.

You will say "Whew." You will say "What happened to me?" Like everyone else, you will be stunned and amazed and 100 percent dumbfounded when you realize that you, too, are vulnerable to the seduction of a cult.

No one wakes up in the morning, looks in the mirror and says "Hey, I think I'll join a cult today." It doesn't work that way at all.

Ambush happens.

* * *

I flew home from Tel Aviv, got my brain unwashed, made some calls and then headed for Scottsdale, the CBJ Mecca.

To help gain some perspective, I met up with Rick Ross, a cult deprogrammer. I visited him at his Phoenix condo. He did not try to hug me. It was a relief. He explained that he specializes in Bible-based cults--most notably (and formerly) the Branch Davidians of Waco, Texas--but he also happens to be an expert on CBJ, since it is right there in his backyard.

We sat in the living room, and he popped a tape into the VCR. "When deprogramming," he said, "I use this one for comic relief." He clicked the remote, and there on the TV appeared Chuckbernieandjim, trinity of coordinated outfits. They were talking about cells and intercourse and penetration and immortality. "People coming out of cults usually feel kind of humiliated and depressed about what they got sucked into," Rick said, "And then they see this and they go "Oh, that would be even worse!.." And they crack up, laughing." He said CBJ is fun to study because "it's a good example of how ridiculous a cult can be."

I did hear of a more ridiculous cult. It was affectionately termed "the Two-Dollar Haircut Cult--by a lawyer I met. Some lady in the Midwest goes around pronouncing that she can teach you how to perfectly cut a head of hair in two minutes. If you charge $2 for the haircut and work full-time at this, you can, she claims, become a zillionaire. So you pay your money and go to her seminar, ostensibly to learn how to cut hair. Once in, you learn that you have to free your mind before you can achieve the knowledge of the $2 haircut. Can't free your mind? Come to the next seminar, and the next. Before you know it, you're two years into seminars and she still hasn't gotten around to talking about hair. But it doesn't matter--you've long forgotten your original purpose for attending.

It reminded me of CBJ. "Charles Paul Brown, BernaDeane and James Russell Strole are like all the other cult leaders," Rick said emphatically. "They're feeding off of their followers, taking advantage of them, luring them with the promise of eternal life and then turning that into a way to suck them into the group and exploit them, take their money, take their time, take their commitment, turn it around for recruitment of other victims, and on and on it goes, like some kind of pyramid scheme with the leaders at the top benefiting constantly financially."

He showed me his file on CBJ, which basically consisted of little phone-message slips from people saying "Help!" These were from the families of folks who had gotten involved with CBJ, and the mood states of the callers seemed to range from the terrified to the furious. That wasn't funny. It also wasn't funny to think of the cancer victims and the HIV-positive people who had gotten sucked into CBJ as a last hope.

Rick's phone rang a lot. All the calls that day were from frantic people with questions about Waco. Nobody, of course, knew that the Branch Davidian compound was soon to go up in flames. Nobody knew that the innocent people inside would soon meet their death due to the facts that (a) like humans everywhere, they were susceptible to a cult and (b) Really Big Law-Enforcement Agencies and Important People, including the president of our own United States of America, are astoundingly ignorant as to the insidious nature and fundamental workings of the more than 1,500 cults in this country. Authorities should definitely think about getting educated before they go after other people with guns and tear gas and extremely loud recordings of the screams of animals being slaughtered.

Rick showed me the checklist of criteria used to discern if a group's leaders are employing mind-control techniques (a list developed by psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, a sort of guru for cult deprogrammers), and you could see CBJ line up ever so perfectly. We talked about milieu control and pseudoscience and "love-bombing" and repetition. "They hammer the message over and over and over again," Rick said. "Again and again and again and again. Constantly. It's reinforced; that's the program: >You cannot be separate from us, you must be with us, you must have contact with us or you will lose your life, you'll start dying....= So there's this fear coercing these people to stay in the group."

He said CBJ is a con job, a moneymaking machine, a scam. "We're talking about three people who found a hustle from which they can make more money than anything else that they've ever done in their lives. And they are.... I mean, what's their background? Hype, sales, selling people. Entertaining people, pulling people in, persuasion techniques. They've simply put what they've learned over the years together into their current road show, which is "CBJ Presents."

        * * *

I visited Charles, BernaDeane and James at their home in the Pinnacle Peak Estates, in north Scottsdale. Their house is pale pink. Their Cadillac is bright white. Their Harley-Davidson is sort of a deep salmon. We stepped outside onto the patio overlooking the pool and the Jacuzzi and a golf course with golfers on it.

We made small talk, which is pretty big talk when you are making it with an Immortal. We talked about how CBJ wants to make physical immortality available to all people on the planet, and we talked about why people can't just be physically immortal all by themselves. BernaDeane did not join in the discussion. BernaDeane went inside and retrieved her manicure set. She did her nails and then leaned back in the sun and took a nap. Meantime, Chuck likened human beings to the molecules in a laser beam: It takes a lot of them to fall into phase, and only then can they pierce the shield of death that for all time has imprisoned life.

"But what about money?" I said and asked them to tell me how much money, exactly, they make.

The question, first of all, woke BernaDeane up. The question caused an apparent revocation of my own personal invitation to any future cellular intercourses. The question did not go over well at all.

JIM: I don't think it should be public knowledge what we earn. It's not that we have anything to hide in that area.

BERNADEANE: We have nothing to hide.

JIM: People think we have a lot more money than we do. We walk with high self-esteem, we dress well; it's how the person displays themselves.

They went on about how much money they didn't make and about how I shouldn't be so interested in money anyway. Finally, they said they did not know, precisely, how much money they make, but they could certainly get those figures for me.

I did some math in my head. It costs $845 to go to the annual CBJ convergence in Scottsdale. If the expected 1,000 people show up, that's close to a million tax-free dollars for Chuckbernieandjim. (CBJ, or "Flame Foundation Inc.," is listed with the IRS as a church.)

Anyway, the event I attended in Tel Aviv costs $175. About 300 people showed up, so that's another $52,500. The three-day event I attended in Scottsdale cost $175, times 400 people, so that's another $70,000. They have about twelve of these events a year. They also have parties; it costs $15 to get in. It costs $25 to subscribe to the CBJ magazine, Forever Alive. It costs $6 for each of the twice-weekly CBJ meetings. It costs $1 for a pitiful sheet of paper listing fellow Immortals. It costs $20 for a CBJ "DEATH SUCKS"T-shirt, $5 for the "FRIENDS DON'T LET FRIENDS DIE"license plate holder and $99.95 to subscribe to the CBJ cassette series, so you can enjoy a cellular intercourse in the privacy of your own home.

All those dollars could add up to something like $2 million a year, but it's the "heart money" that makes up, perhaps, the biggest chunk of cash. I talked to people who give the organization $5,000 a year, and I talked to people who give so much more than that that they were too embarrassed to tell me how much. And it was odd the way so many of the Immortals said the same thing, almost word for word, about money: "I wish I could give more to CBJ, and I don't care what they do with the money."

I asked Chuckbernieandjim how they respond to people who accuse them of being a cult.

"Oh, nobody says that anymore," BernaDeane said.

Chuck said it was stupid, pointing out that people can, after all, leave CBJ at any time. He said that Scottsdale is no Waco. There is no compound. There are no gates. You are free to come to the meetings whenever you want, and you are free to leave whenever you want.

It's entirely your choice, they said. And it's not a very complicated choice. You can stay or you can leave. You can live or you can die.

* * *

I wondered what it must feel like to be immortal and then to suddenly be asked to be mortal instead.

I found a couple I'll call Albert and Marie. When they realized eighteen months ago that their then-23-year-old son had gotten involved with a group of people who claim to be physically immortal, they tried to reason with him.

He blew up, according to his parents. "He will just get up and scream and beat his chest," said Albert, a Washington, D.C., attorney. Marie, a writer and community activist, recalled two of the more intense incidents: "He basically had a psychotic fit, which I don't mind if I never see again. He gets up and his pupils dilate and he's shaking and he's yelling things like "You want me dead! That's why you're saying things like that! You're trying to kill me!" Or he's saying "You're dead! You're dead!"

This from their handsome, athletic, creative, cum laude son.

Like many of CBJ's truly devoted followers, their son eventually moved to Scottsdale. (He had met up with CBJ while living in Tel Aviv.) You can be a part of CBJ while living anywhere in the world, but Scottsdale is generally considered the CBJ paradise. Most people live in group residences, six or seven to a house; many volunteer to work in the Flame Foundation office, CBJ's U.S. headquarters, and faithfully attend meetings two times a week.

Albert and Marie reported dramatic personality changes in their son after he joined CBJ. He couldn't hold a job, not even a menial one. He couldn't find his way into the city from the airport. When he came home to visit, he was vicious to his brothers and sister. "He does not let a moment pass without pointing out their faults and telling them how they would all be fixed if they would just join CBJ,"said Marie.

"He's lost his autonomy," she continued. "He has surrendered his identity; he doesn't think for himself anymore, and that literally means he does not think for himself.... He thinks he is part of a special elite. He thinks he can't leave the group because if he leaves he will die. It's become a phobia."

Albert and Marie have no idea how much money their son has given to CBJ; all they know is that his inheritance from his grandfather was gone within a year of his joining CBJ. So far, they have made two attempts at exit counseling with their son. Both failed.

Other families have made serious attempts to pull their loved ones out of CBJ. Back in 1983, a Tulsa family, seeking a court ruling that their 77-year-old mother was incompetent to manage her affairs, charged that she had been bilked out of $150,000 by CBJ, which at that time was publicly known as Eternal Flame. The judge denied the petition "with great reluctance," but the publicity surrounding the case did some serious damage to Eternal Flame. A Phoenix television station secured the services of a Gray Panther with a tape recorder and sent her to Eternal Flame meetings. The station then ran a week of special reports featuring recordings of Chuckbernieandjim saying their usual inflammatory things, denouncing family, demanding attendance, and just generally behaving like creepy cultists. Then 20/20 ran a segment that, in that handy TV way, accused, tried and convicted Eternal Flame, while entertaining millions with the story of a cult that preys on old people.

When I mentioned the 20/20 investigation to Chuckbernieandjim, Chuck sort of gulped. Then he said, "I am so glad you brought that up." He said it is a painful memory for him, so painful that at one point he began to weep and Jim had to hold him up.

"We were set up,"Chuck said. "There was such a conspiracy ... the payoffs were unbelievable ... we were maliciously maligned ... it was a nightmare, everything, I wanted to hide, I wanted to run away forever ... we wanted to sue, but we couldn't get an attorney that would touch it for less than $50,000 down."

And he didn't have $50,000. In fact, he went bankrupt. Bernie went bankrupt. Jim filed for bankruptcy.

But that was then, and this is now. Things are going better now that the "Eternal Flame" name is no longer used and Chuckbernieandjim feel positively resurrected as "CBJ." These days, the demographics of the group include only a small number of old-people Immortals. Now there are HIV-positive Immortals, Immortals with cancer, as well as plenty of your more generic Immortals who, like mortals everywhere, have  serious problem with the notion of being abandoned.

The pit of loneliness is the one sure hell all humans come to know. If it is not the trickiest piece of the human soul, it is, certainly, the most easily tricked.

        * * *

Finally, about that money question. I waited for Chuckbernieandjim to get back to me with those figures. Eventually, I got a call from Carlos, Chuckbernieandjim's personal assistant. They wanted to meet with me, Carlos said. And so at the appointed time, Chuckbernieandjim met me by the fireplace in my hotel lobby. Chuck and Bernie were theme-dressed in black and white.

Jim's outfit didn't match. He said, "The uncomfortableness you feel with us now isn't something personally with you, it's how we've been scrutinized, and we're learning ways to handle it. Because we're dealing with a real, you might say, it's a revolution in its own self."

He explained that he is on a mission to raise the consciousness of the world in terms of how much money social workers make. "I'd like to see social workers millionaires," he said. "I think they should be as highly paid as a professional basketball player, for example."

CHUCK: We encourage prosperity.

BERNIE: For everyone.

JIM: I feel personally that what we're doing is the greatest step for humankind that's ever been taken.

BERNIE: At this point, I feel like I am a manifestation of physical immortality.

JIM: And you know, I'm proud to say, you know, I like money and I want to make more money. I'm out to raise that consciousness, you know, to where not only social workers but everybody in human development--and if we put as much money into, or at least 25 percent as much money into, human development as we do into war, we could have a whole different world. So. Okay.

They declined to answer the question of just how much money, exactly, they make but insisted that they each fall well within the range of middle-class income-earners, and that the Flame Foundation takes in about $750,000 a year, total. Interestingly, the Flame Foundation had just declared projected annual sales of $1.4 million in a Dun & Bradstreet report.

"We don't ask people how much money they make, nor do we ask how do you have your sex," Jim said. "That's the distinction I'm getting at. I don't want to tell people about my personal sex life, just like I don't want to tell people how much money I make."

I was getting bored with the money question, which was taking three days to answer, and I certainly didn't want to get into a discussion of how they enjoy their sex--I didn't even feel like imagining it--and so I said good-bye.

Where will CBJ go from here? On to billions, if they have their way. It was Chuck who said at one meeting that it's going to take billions and billions of dollars to get the word out to the world, so that the genetic shift to immortality can happen to all mankind. And those billions needed to come quick, he said; there was no time to waste. It's hard to understand what, exactly, the rush is, given the fact that eternity is definitely a long-term type thing.

Anyway, the point of this whole story is that mind control, thought reform and brainwashing are not illegal in America, so here's a way to make a buck, if you have the energy. You just make it up as you go along, and whenever you're confronted with a blatant inconsistency, you'll need to think quick, so get ready. Okay? So say, for example, that an Immortal with AIDS dies and so does another terminally ill Immortal. How will you explain this? How can you possibly justify the existence of a dead Immortal?

Do what the pros do.

The terminally ill Immortal was eating too much bacon, said Chuckbernieandjim. This is a true story. Chuckbernieandjim had asked that diseased lady to please stop eating bacon. She didn't, and so sure enough she died.

And that Immortal with AIDS, he turned out, in the end, to have been keeping a big, ugly secret from Chuckbernieandjim. They didn't find this out until after he was dead. They found out that he had been ... clipping obituaries. The fool! He had been saving mementos of friends who had died of AIDS. Said Chuckbernieandjim, "You can't imagine what something like that does to the cells of your body."

If you've done everything else right, your followers won't even blink.

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Jeanne Marie Laskas is a freelance writer.