“Why did you leave the hotel?” Denise said.
Jenny didn’t answer, so Denise continued: “Maybe he never would have had the seizure if you hadn’t made him leave the hotel.”
John came home from the hospital a week later. The tests had come back negative. The seizure had apparently been a random occurrence. Still reeling from Denise’s phone call, Jenny told John she had to leave the church. He warned her that Paul and Denise were going to destroy her. She said she didn’t care.
At a meeting at a Starbucks, Jenny told Denise of her decision. She talked of how she’d been hurt by Paul and Denise after the death of John’s mother. She said Denise was wrong to blame her for John’s seizure.
Denise apologized and suggested Jenny take a month off with John to focus on their family and their relationship with God.
Denise then asked if Jenny had any hidden sin in her life. Even though she was committed to leaving the church, Jenny felt strangely compelled to answer. Perhaps, she told Denise, I’ve been watching too much television. Denise again suggested that she take a month off with John.
Jenny thought the meeting had gone well. Denise said she’d pray about the points Jenny had raised. The next day, Denise called to tell her about a staff meeting and birthday party. When Jenny showed up, Denise denounced her.
As Denise spoke, Jenny flipped through her Bible, trying to find a verse to convince her to stay in the church. But there was none. I don’t have to be here, she thought. She gathered her things and walked out.
In the parking lot, her tears flowed. One of the church elder’s wives chased after her and climbed into the car with her, trying to calm her. But Jenny exploded. For the first time she called the church a cult.
“I’m sick of the abuse!” she screamed. The elder’s wife asked Jenny to pray. Finally Jenny told her, “Get out of my car now.”
She was crying so hard that she could barely drive. Denise’s number flashed on her cell phone. She ignored it. John called.
“Denise is at the house,” he said. She had brought three of her disciples.
“Get them out of there,” Jenny said. “If you don’t get them out of my house, I’m going to move the kids to Virginia, divorce you, fall away from the church, and go to hell.”
When Jenny opened the door, Denise was still there. “You need to leave,” Jenny said, fuming. “What you did was wrong. It’s wrong.”
Jenny pushed Denise and the others out and slammed the door.
In the month that followed, church leaders tried to get Jenny to confess she’d been wrong. In the end, they promised her three months’ severance pay if she signed an agreement that she wouldn’t sue. Jenny signed without even reading the document.
Church leaders initially said John could work in the church when Jenny left. But they asked him to resign as well and to blame their departure on marital problems. At a service where their resignations were announced, the two stood before the church in tears. John read from a text filled with lies about how he’d failed his family. Jenny wanted to snatch the speech from him and tell everyone what had really happened. Instead she stared at the floor.
In May 2004, 11 years after Jenny joined the International Church of Christ, she and John moved from California to Charlotte, where John’s family lived. John landed a job as a mortgage officer at Bank of America, and Jenny took care of Bailey, who was now three, and 18-month-old Graham, their second child.
Ronald Reagan, the president during Jenny’s happy childhood, died in June, and as Jenny watched Nancy Reagan put her head on her husband’s casket, a flood of memories washed over her. She recalled the optimism of her youth. Her desire to succeed academically. Her dreams of love, her passion with Paco. She was 33 now but in many ways had no more experience than a 21-year-old.
Her marriage to John was never their own but had been run by Paul, who discipled John on how to be a husband. Every time Jenny looked at her husband, she was reminded of the cult’s control over her life.
Both she and John had changed to fit the mold the church wanted. Now each was searching for an identity. John felt like a stranger to her. Jenny called Colleen and told her friend she had left the church—and was considering leaving her husband.
When Jenny asked John to leave in October 2004, she cried herself to sleep for days. Her heart broke for the kids, but she reasoned that if she could find happiness, they would be happier, too.
She immersed herself into getting a real-estate license in Charlotte. But at night, alone in her bedroom, her past consumed her. At times, she knelt beside her bed and begged God to take her life. Other nights, she went out to clubs, determined to break all of the church’s rules. She danced with strangers and made out with them. She drank until she passed out. More than once, she wanted to videotape her escapades and send a copy to Paul and Denise as proof that they hadn’t extinguished her spirit.
Her anger at the church was coupled with grief over what she’d lost—her family, her friends, a mission in life. To find those again, she decided, she had to find a way back home.
One December day in 2005, after John picked up the kids for a visit, Jenny got in her car and headed for Washington. It was an impromptu decision, but once on the road, she couldn’t get there fast enough. On I-95, she got a ticket for going 100 miles an hour.
Her parents had done everything they could to support Jenny after she left the cult. When she and John separated, they bought her a house in Charlotte. But they also gave her space, not wanting to take the church’s place in running her life.
Now she told them she wanted to move back home. They bought her and the kids a condo in Arlington and a car. A friend from the Washington Golf and Country Club offered Jenny a job at a title company doing marketing and closings.
Mike and Jean had meals with Jenny and the children. They took them to movies and the country club. They kept Jenny’s kids when she went on dates. Jenny started to reconnect with Colleen. It wasn’t easy. Who could understand what she’d been through? Not even her mother knew the details. She told men she dated that she had been in a cult, and when they tried to make light of it or justify it, she ended the relationship.
Inside she still felt alone. Her reckless nights continued. Her language turned coarse. One day, she got angry on the phone with one of her kids’ teachers. Later, she called her mom and told her how she prayed every night for God to take her life.
In January 2006, a year after returning home, Jenny entered Wellspring, a cult-recovery center in Ohio. The first time she met with a counselor, she couldn’t get a word out through her sobs. But in time the tears gave way to confession and revelation. In her two weeks at Wellspring, she found people who understood what had happened to her.
One night she sat a restaurant and put her feelings on paper. “I was a cult member,” she wrote. “I was a cult leader. I am a cult survivor. I was victimized and hurt terribly in the group. I hurt others in the group in the same way. What was done to me was inhumane and wrong. What I did to others was inhumane and wrong. I will never forget the faces, the eyes of those I hurt.”
Her declaration ended in hope: “No, no, no, they did not win. . . . My freedom has been restored. . . . I escaped. Wounded but free.”
Jenny recently changed jobs, joining another title company. She has learned to love again and is dating a man she’s telling about her past little by little. He spent last Christmas with her family, and she thinks he could be the one she’ll spend her life with.
Her divorce from John became final in 2007. The two remain friends, bonded by their kids as well as their mutual regret and redemption. Jenny talks to John’s new wife often to help her understand what he is only now beginning to sort through. She has also started a nonprofit, the Alliance for Cult Recovery & Education, to inform college students about cults. She hopes that her message—“If it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody”—will resonate.