From Survivor to Thriver
ICSA Today, Vol. 5, No. 3, 2014, 22-29
From Survivor to Thriver
Angela “Vennie” Kocsis
The Move of God, which is also known as The Move, was founded by a former Baptist preacher in the 1960s in Florida. During his ministry, Sam Fife was a charismatic leader. It was a time of unrest in the country, with seething racial tensions and an increasingly unpopular Vietnam War. Sam seemed able to offer a sense of security, a place to belong, for people across the United States and Canada, and eventually in other countries around the world.The basis of Sam Fife’s doctrine was that God had set some individuals inside the church system, first as apostles, then as prophets, and after that in a three-fold ministry. This configuration made up what Sam called the five-fold ministry that he taught would one day govern the world under God’s direction (Sam Fife’s sermon, God’s School of Divine Government, is available in its entirety at http://www.ima.cc/godsschool.php).
In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Sam began to gather his followers into the wilderness to prepare for this transition and end of the world. In a matter of just a few years, Fife’s followers had moved onto farms in Alaska, Canada, and South America. Sporting a large array of military equipment from Quonset huts to military cots, beds, and ham radios, Fife’s followers utilized his methods to build an empire. By 1974, the movement was boasting up to 40,000 followers from all walks of life.
When Sam Fife died in a plane crash in 1979, Move Elders, primarily led by C. E. Buddy Cobb, took over his ministry. Today, The Move of God exists in the form of nonprofit organizations and churches scattered across the world. They still have a strong following and still teach the same doctrines passed on by Sam Fife (see http://www.ima.cc/messages.php).
Although The Move still has supporters, several hundred people have participated in a Yahoo group in which they have written thousands of messages detailing their experiences (https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/sam_fife/info). Supporters relay positive experiences; many child survivors, along with some adults who left on their own, describe a more sinister scene.
I was only 3 years old, but my siblings, 7 and 9 at the time, and my father have clear memories of how my mother was drawn into The Move of God in the early 1970s, and how that led my parents’ marriage to dissolve. While my father was locked down at the military base near San Diego, California working, one of The Move of God’s religious recruiters was diligently flattering my mother, who was busy trying to raise three children while her husband was absent. The more my father had to be gone, the more The Move of God recruiters were able to get their clutches into my mother, even convincing her that my father was actually not working, but most likely spending time with other women. They filled my mother’s head with so much confusion and question in regard to her own marriage that soon she was giving my father the ultimatum of either joining The Move of God or getting a divorce. My father refused to join The Move, trying to get my mother to somehow see reason.
My mother put my father through a brutal divorce, taking what she could until she had depleted his financial ability to continue fighting her in court for custody or even visitation of my siblings and me. The Move of God funded all of my mother’s court costs, including flying in my uncle all the way from the South to be a character witness on behalf of my mother. My father never stood a chance to gain custody of us. It felt that, in the blink of an eye, my mother, funded by The Move, had packed our lives into a U-Haul headed to Ware, Massachusetts. We children would not have a relationship with our father until we all became adults. My mother convinced us throughout our young lives that he did not want us and was an evil man.
The compound at Ware was classified as a deliverance farm. Sam Fife taught that all negative behaviors, including pedophilia, were a product of possession by demons. Sam’s doctrine included the belief that medical conditions, such as seizures, were the body being possessed by demons. We were specifically sent to this farm because my mother was overweight, my older brother was considered to have behavioral problems, and I was loud. My sister tended to be more on the quiet side, both trying to protect me and to stay out of anyone’s attention. My loudness was the result of my being completely deaf in my right ear, something that would never be brought up while I was living in this cult. Instead, I would be punished often for being too loud. The act of sending us to a deliverance farm, according to Sam Fife’s doctrines, would allow our family to get the necessary treatment to rid my mother of the demons of gluttony that were making her fat. It would also help rid us children of our demons, whatever the ministry decided they were.
I spent my years from 1973 to 1977 at Ware, until I turned 7. Upon arrival at Ware, our family was split up and put into classification units. I was put with other children my age. Everything from our former life was sorted through, from the back of the U-Haul truck. Anything that could be used for the commune was put into a community clothing bank, and the rest of our belongings, including all of our baby photos and mementos of childhood, were burned in a bonfire. The ministry taught that this process served to rid us of our life before the cult, erasing all memories we might have of it. The process would allow our minds to be emptied of the demonology of the secular world outside and refilled with Sam Fife’s doctrines of purification for God.
My time at Ware was filled with torture and humiliation. I was subjected to demon-casting-out rituals while tied to chairs and beaten, and to severe discipline, which included but was not limited to hypothermia baths, sleep deprivation, beatings with belts and paddles, public humiliation, and withholding of food. I also experienced sexual abuse through grooming, petting, fondling, and eventually penetration.
In 1977, our family was brought together, and we were flown up to a compound in Alaska. In Alaska the sexual abuse continued, as The Move of God still created a safe haven for pedophiles, its leaders believing they could deliver the demon of pedophilia out of a person. I, along with other children, still experienced child labor, withholding of food as discipline, and severe mental and physical abuse. Although elders and their children seemed somewhat protected from the treatment I endured, I have learned from survivors that some elder’s children were not impervious to abuse within their family unit.
Armed men monitored the compound 24 hours a day, and we were held to strict rules. For example, females were allowed to wear only skirts, and members needed elders’ permission to work certain jobs or marry. We were put through execution training because The Move taught that the Communists would eventually take over the United States and kill the Christians.
My mother, sister, and I were excommunicated from the cult when I was 14. My sister was a teenager who was seduced by a man in his early 40s. She was made to stand in front of the entire congregation and say that she was the one who seduced him. The elders made the decision that our family must be required to leave the cult, citing as their reason that my sister was an “untreatable harlot” and a threat to the sanctity of the other teenagers there. We moved to Martin, Tennessee, where my grandmother lived. The compound we left still exists today, miles off of the highway, near Delta Junction, Alaska. Some call it Dry Creek, the Land or Living Word Ministries.
Life in society outside The Move of God was severe culture shock for me. My mother kept on living as though none of what we experienced had ever happened. Instead, we moved through life wearing a mask of functionality over severe dysfunction such as alcoholism, drug use, and intrafamily hatred and lashing out. Not only was I unfamiliar with the culture of my peers, but I also faced severe poverty because The Move sent us away with nothing but the clothes on our back and very few belongings.
I was a chameleon, watching and learning as I moved through my high-school years. Struggling to fit in socially, I joined a band in an attempt to feel part of a group and ended up turning to drug use and partying, trying to numb a pain that I didn’t yet have the skill to identify. I simply knew it existed inside of me like a dark hole.
When I turned 20, I became pregnant. Becoming a mother changed my focus considerably, and I began to study fine arts at the local university. But then I entered a relationship in college and migrated to the Pacific Northwest, where I gave birth to my second child. Still, I ended up wandering. My relationship failed, my family fell apart, and I found myself a single mother. I poured my attention into my children as much as possible, avoiding the inevitable collapse from the trauma I was carrying. My weight ballooned. I became physically ill. I shut down outwardly and became hardened.
Through these years I could not critically think through any of my experiences. Still, I spent much of my time writing poetry and trying to figure out the excruciating emotional and physical pain I was carrying.
After my mother passed away in 2007, I decided that I was going to write about my life in the form of a novel. I had been trying to understand myself for years. I felt that using a character outside of myself would allow me the perspective to tell my story. So I began to write Cult Child through the eyes of a little girl named Sila Caprin.
I naively believed that I would fly through this story, tell it, and be done, and I set a deadline of a year to finish the novel. Instead, it would be 7 long years of traveling into me, and I could not have predicted what would emerge. I suffered from deep night terrors, dreams that I could not speak of for days, and I was unable even to turn on the light in a room. I lost my job. I started to understand that I was going to have to travel deeply back into the trauma in order to write the book. It was not going to be an easy ride. I avoided. I wept. I wrote an album of songs and lullabies for Sila as we travelled together into the dark recesses of the torture I had experienced.
Poetry, art, writing, and music have been my savior. As a child I was disallowed a voice, an identity, or any forms of authenticity because artistic endeavors were stifled. In adulthood, creativity became my rite of passage. I began to embrace my gifts and flourish artistically. Through my creativity I was able to take my pain and create a blueprint through which I could study the intricate details of my traumatic experiences.
A major change came when I discovered the power of my gratitude. When I was able to remember the things in my life I could be thankful for, the pain didn’t hurt as badly. I wasn’t sure exactly how to utilize this tool in my life, so I created a sensory system by which I could explore gratitude using my five senses. I later used this system to create and publish an interactive journal, Becoming Gratitude.
Most of my recovery from cult thinking I have accomplished on my own, knowing that there is much more for me to learn and understand about my experiences. The Internet allowed me to find more information about how my experiences had resulted in certain behaviors. I eventually found a counselor who helped me define my experiences, giving me a language by which I could communicate what was happening in my head, the way I viewed the world, and why.
The journey from being a cult survivor to thriving and being joyful was long and required active work on my part. I filled my living space with kind sayings toward myself, written on sticky notes in multiple colors, and reminding me that my past experiences did not have to define who I am today. Now I let the pain out, feel, accept my own vulnerability, and tell my story without shame. I believe creative therapy can reunite us with our authentic uniqueness and purpose. As a second-generation cult survivor, I find deep joy in sharing creative outlets with others who have experienced trauma.
About the Author
Angela “Vennie” Kocsis is an author, poet, painter, and songwriter residing in the Pacific Northwest. She is the author of Dusted Shelves: memoir of a cult child, a collection of poetic expressions of her cult experiences and their aftermath. This book is available in paperback, ebook, and audio-book formats. She is also the author of Becoming Gratitude, an interactive daily journaling system designed to explore gratitude using the senses. Her debut novel, Cult Child, recounts her life growing up in Sam Fife’s Move of God. She is currently working on the sequel to Cult Child and also recording a music CD. Vennie continues to create art and support survivors of cult trauma. Her art and poetry were represented in the 2014 Phoenix Project art exhibit and literary reading at ICSA’s 2014 Annual Conference in Washington, DC. Her work can be explored in depth at http://venniekocsis.com