The evening sky was turning purple as Jenny Hunter tottered across Key Bridge toward Georgetown, a slight figure on the empty sidewalk above the roaring Potomac River. A hard December wind made her march feel like an uphill slog through thick sand. Her teeth chattered. Her eyes misted over. Everything was a blur.
A few years earlier, Jenny and her parents had packed her things at their Arlington home and moved her into a dorm at Georgetown University. On that late-summer day, the bridge had seemed a gateway to a bright future. By her senior year, Jenny was getting top marks and life brimmed with potential.
Now, home on a Christmas visit just months after her graduation, she was estranged from her family and all but enslaved by a religious group widely believed to be a cult. She had discovered the group during her senior year—it seemed to fill an emptiness in her high-achieving life. She was baptized, and the day after graduation, defying her parents, she joined the group’s cross-country trek to strengthen its California outpost.
Her time in California revealed a frightening side of the religious group. Its leaders worked her long hours and condemned her for sins real and imagined. She had to suffer, they told her, just as Christ did.
As she stood at the rail on Key Bridge, she looked down at whitecaps that mirrored the turmoil inside her. From the teachings of the church, she knew suicide was a one-way ticket to hell. She didn’t want to go to hell. But she was living in hell already.
In the Bible, when Elijah’s time had come, God carried him away on a whirlwind. On the bridge, in a tug-of-war between her past and future, Jenny prayed for God to take her away. “Or, if you want me to stay in the church,” she said, “please, God, make it clear.”
Getting into Georgetown University was one of the happiest moments of Jenny’s life. Holding the acceptance letter at the kitchen table one spring afternoon was like standing on a mountaintop looking back on her ascent.
As a child, Jenny had roamed her Arlington neighborhood playing hide and seek and twirling batons with Colleen, her best friend. Her parents divorced when she was in grade school, throwing her off-stride for a time. But laughter soon lit her blue eyes again. Her mother, Jean, fell in love with Mike Kelly, a lawyer, and moved with her two daughters, Jenny and Michelle, into his split-level in the North Arlington neighborhood of Country Club Hills. When Jenny was in seventh grade, Jean and Mike exchanged vows in the shaded backyard.
At nearby Yorktown High, Jenny made the drill team, leading the long line of girls who strutted out at halftime to perform. But she grew disillusioned and aimless. On weekends, she and her friends snuck to the banks of the Potomac to smoke pot and drink. Her grades slipped.
Eager for a fresh start, she went to St. Margaret’s, an all-girls boarding school on Virginia’s Rappahannock River, and repeated her junior year. There she found focus and discipline. By her senior year, after transferring to another private school in North Carolina, she was valedictorian.
At Georgetown, Jenny shone, making straight A’s. She took film classes, became interested in English literature, and majored in art history. She was enthralled by Dutch art from the 17th century, by the way Rembrandt captured darkness and striking light in the faces of his prophets and publicans. She pictured herself as an art professor lecturing in some sleepy college town. Or a lawyer, like her stepfather.
Jenny spent her free time waitressing at a restaurant on the Georgetown waterfront and running around with Paco, her high-school boyfriend from Arlington. They had gotten together when Jenny was still dating Paco’s best friend. In Paco, Jenny found a kindred soul. Both believed material wealth couldn’t satisfy their needs and wanted more in life than popularity and cars. On a trip to Chile, while they lay on the beach under the stars, Paco talked about his faith in God. Jenny’s heart burned. She hadn’t grown up going to church, but with Paco she caught her first intimations of a spiritual realm.
Their relationship was intense but rocky. They broke up once, only to get engaged and move in together. Eventually, Jenny ended it for good. Their connection, which had been almost spiritual before, seemed increasingly based on sex. She worried that they couldn’t communicate.
The restlessness Jenny had felt in high school returned. She began going to services at various churches and paid a Saturday visit to a synagogue. She went to a Catholic Mass and a nondenominational Christian church. But she didn’t feel she fit in any of them. She was looking for something more, something life-changing.
Jenny begins the story of her life in a cult on a day at the beginning of her senior year at Georgetown, in September 1992. It’s her story, though her family, friends, and cult experts help her tell it.
On that day, Jenny walked into a class called “Performing Arts and Contemporary Society” and took one of two open seats. “Hi, I’m Chloe,” the girl next to her said, sticking out her hand. “What’s your name?”
When the teacher divided the class into groups, Chloe said, “Oh, my gosh, Jenny, we have to be in a group together.”
Such an outgoing personality made Jenny tentative. She had never met anyone like Chloe. As they got to know each other, Chloe took an interest in Jenny in a way no one else had—and challenged her. Once when Jenny was gossiping to others, Chloe said, “Jenny, how would you feel if they were talking about you like that?”
One day in second semester, Chloe invited Jenny to an international dinner hosted on campus by her church, the International Church of Christ. When the day came, Chloe called to say how excited she was that Jenny was coming. She had told friends about Jenny and couldn’t wait to introduce her. Tired and running late, Jenny considered not going but decided she couldn’t let Chloe down.
After dinner, most of the international students left, and a group of nine from the church sat down for Bible study. Chloe hadn’t told Jenny about this part of the evening, but she stayed for the lesson, which was about the Tower of Babel and how confusion follows anytime people take the place of God.
The lesson struck a chord in Jenny, and she agreed to meet one of the girls the next day to talk about the Bible. Only one thing seemed odd. Midway through the study, Jenny glanced at a notebook in the lap of one of the leaders, a girl named Ericka. She was startled to see her own name written on an otherwise blank page.
Before her meeting the next day, Jenny went home and found the Bible that had been used in her sister’s wedding. She flipped through it as if cramming for a final exam in a class she had never attended. At the girl’s apartment, she was surprised to find a group there, including Ericka.
Ericka, she discovered, had joined the International Church of Christ at Duke University, where she’d been a cheerleader. She’d moved to Washington to intern with the church.
Ericka asked Jenny to pray, and she fumbled through a prayer asking God to bless the homeless and feed children in China. From the beginning, Jenny thought the study was directed toward her. She felt the girls’ eyes on her, saw them writing down what she said.
Jenny met the girls again the next day for a study of discipleship. Ericka drew from Bible verses to explain that the only way to be a Christian was to become a disciple. She asked Jenny if she wanted to become a disciple, and Jenny said yes.
Other studies followed about salvation through baptism, Jesus’s violent death on the cross, the false teachings of other churches, and the International Church of Christ as the only true church.