ICSA Today, 13.1, 2022, 2-7
If You Want To Know How I Got Brainwashed
An Appreciation by Nori Muster
The colorful cover and illustrations on nearly every page of this 224-page book give a first impression of a light and joyful story. However, it’s a serious and painful story. Right from the start, Betsy Dovydenas tells the reader, “Even now, trying to describe how my mind was squeezed and rearranged, it doesn’t seem possible” (p. 5).
The book alternates between past and present tense, as if we are in the author’s mind as she recalls and tries now to sort through what happened. “I don’t even know if I can tell you how they got control over my life, but I will tell you how I felt when it was over, how I got my mind back” (p. 7).
She shares her favorite memories growing up in a loving family in the Midwest and then she turns to how she became deeply immersed in a coercive church. The leader of the group, whom she calls Pastor, along with two women she calls Nancy and Karin, lured her in and acted as mentors to influence her behavior. At first, they encouraged Dovydenas to persuade her husband to join, but he was not interested.
Dovydenas goes in on her own and begins to believe the group’s superstitions, including that devils attack them and give them migraine headaches. She takes on the members’ guilt and through her prayers and monetary donations tries hard to help them.
This little book with the colorful illustrations turns into a monster in your hands as you watch the church engulf this woman’s life. She says, “I am gullible. My brain is not working” (p. 59).
Soon, Dovydenas is lost, as she explains,
I have always loved reading, but now I read the Amplified Bible, the only translation approved by Pastor. I learn, and accept that reading for pleasure is bad. Loving animals is bad, loving nature is bad. Drinking wine with dinner is bad. Dancing is bad. The church I grew up in is bad. Being an artist is bad. Hiking is bad. Eating peanut butter is bad because Pastor hates peanut butter. It is a lot to give up. (p. 73)
Once the group has her fully in their clutches, they try to put a wedge between her and her family. They especially want to destroy her marriage and get her to change her will. Pastor takes her into his office one day and tells her that her husband is “defrauding” her and she should divorce him. This is a common gambit in a cult. If they can get someone to cut ties with everybody from their previous life, they can more successfully control that person’s mind and assets.
Karin convinces Dovydenas to give up her casual look and wear the hussy-like clothing and heavy makeup the other women in the church wear. Dovydenas stops taking walks with her children. She stops cleaning her house and spends her time praying for the group.
Reading the story reminds me of the time I rode on a tire-propelled, launch roller coaster that traveled at 67 miles per hour. The ride was so intense I couldn’t even scream until the car rolled onto the platform at the end. This story races ahead like that. It takes only about an hour to read, so it’s impossible to put it down. By the time you realize the enormity of the experience, there are only a few pages to go.
Dovydenas becomes so enmeshed she throws away a priceless antiquity the cult deems to be evil, sells her wedding dress, gives the group precious heirloom jewelry, and rewrites her will to cut out her children and give all her money to the church. She loses 25 pounds and is even persuaded to strike her children, which, she says, is her worst regret.
Her family notices the changes in her and plans an intervention, inviting her to a supposed birthday party for her father. The cult leaders warn her to stay away from her family, but she goes anyway. At first, she thinks it will be a chance to preach to her family, but over the next 6 days, with the help of her courageous and determined family and two skilled and caring cult interventionists, Dovydenas gradually gets in contact with her real self. Finally, although tired, she begins to think. The next time she tries to leave the house, her husband offers to go on a walk with her. In the freezing weather outside, she begins to thaw and remember her previous self. The spell is broken. She spends the night awake in bed talking to her husband "the way we used to talk." (p. 187)
The author, who suffered such gross abuse, feels empathy for others bilked in the cult, who leave with nothing. She says, "I had my marriage, my kids, and I knew what they had done to me. And I had the money to sue the bastards." The judge called it "an astonishing saga of clerical deceit, avarice, and subjugation" (p. 194). Dovydenas says the lawsuit was "tough and uncomfortable for all of us" because "lawyers and media made life miserable" (p. 207). To others with a similar cult experience, the lawsuit makes her a hero.
Dovydenas is a lifelong artist who studied at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine. At the beginning of the book, she comments on the process of telling her story through words and art. She writes,
People ask me if painting my story, writing my story, is a cathartic experience. The answer is no. In the 35 years since this happened to me, I have not purged the experience. It’s not that I haven’t recovered or accepted the massive mistake into my life. It’s that the memory of trauma is still traumatic. (p. 4)
Many cult victims may feel the same. No matter what we do, we know we cannot erase the experience and forget what happened. However, we can try to accept our past, as Dovydenas has, and look for ways to live with it. Part of her recovery is that, after putting away her paintings as she sank deeper into the group, once out, “I started painting again. I painted the dreams and nightmares of the crazy world I endured for nearly three years” (p. 203).
The illustrations help bring out the story and the honesty of Dovydenas’s written narrative, which comes through like lightening. She explains,
I thought about how this happened. I wanted to find a church. I didn’t want to be bored. I didn’t want to be judgmental. I was willing to tolerate strange ideas because other parts were fun. I learned to pray the way I meditate. These people were so good at what they did to me. In the end it was my own fault. But not entirely. (p. 204)
Many of us who joined cults as adults can identify. We had our vulnerabilities, so in that sense it was our own fault we joined. However, most often, the people who brought us in were polished cult recruiters who were good at what they do. That was the case for me when I joined the Hare Krishna organization my last year of college. I felt drawn to Krishna, but the people I met at the preaching center zeroed in on me. If not for their attention and persuasion, I never would have joined. Former members will find the honesty and simplicity of this book comforting. Listening to the author’s story reminds us that this can happen to anyone.
Part of healing is to use our experiences to help others, and this book may help some people leave their cults, or even avoid joining a cult. However, the real power of this book is captured in its title: If You Want To Know How I Got Brainwashed which, shows readers how cult indoctrination works. If someone has lost a relative or friend to a cult, this book will help explain how their loved one saw only the rosy veneer of a dangerous group and got pulled in before they even realized what was happening.
I found this to be a harrowing but fulfilling read. Now, paging through this beautiful book, I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude to Dovydenas for telling her story. She speaks with compassion for her younger self and explains her love for her relatives who stood by her throughout the ordeal and helped her get out:
I recall my father’s words when I did something wrong: “Betsy, what have you learned?” I would tell him I am grateful to know more about myself. I know how many people it took to save me. I found out the hard way what matters to me. Wouldn’t it be pathetic if I didn’t? (page 205)
The book includes a Foreword by Dr. Michael Langone, Executive Director of the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA). There’s also a Resources section at the end with a list of organizations and books that helped Dovydenas come to terms with her experience.
City Point Press (2020, 2021). $19.79, paperback; $13.99, Kindle (Amazon.com). 224 pages.
Nori Muster is Arts Editor of ICSA Today.