As I was writing my last entry about the cult of CUT, I really began to think about what was going on inside the heads of the men who were harshly disciplined on Christmas Day 1989. Clearly, a part of it has to do with the psychological mechanism of the partial reinforcement at random intervals, as discussed.But what brought them to this place to begin with? As I grew up, everyone I knew had been attracted to my parents for some reason. Why?
Obviously, I have to take into account the zeitgeist: which coincided with the years of the largest growth of The Summit Lighthouse, from 1973 to the mid-80s. It was a bit of a delayed reaction from the “turn-on, tune-in, drop-out” psychedelic / new-age ride of the 60s. That train slammed headlong into reality in 1978 as 914 members of the Peoples Temple did away with themselves by drinking cyanide laced Kool-Aid. But before that, many hippies and ex-hippies were attracted to my parents organization. Up until the People’s Temple fiasco showed otherwise, communes seemed like a safe haven from the rough-and-tumble of finding one’s fortunes in the world at large.
The entire experiment had the same genesis: the desire to alter consciousness, the desire to perceive something beyond the veil, to deny the harsh realities of materialist life. During those years, even the popular culture was suffused with these dreams, as we saw John Lennon and Paul McCartney leading the charge, taking the Beatles into their brief flirtation with the guru culture in India. Later we had Shirley MacLaine. The further from reality they got, the more jarring was the rude awakening upon their return.
Gradually, everyone woke up and discovered that it really was about sex, drugs, rock ‘n roll and materialism, and we had the highflying 1980s, which some people called the ‘decade of greed.’ I’d refer to it more as the decade of return to reality. Of course the New Age is still prominent even today. Last week I heard a report on NPR about the latest traveling New Age carnival show of bogus health products and auric readings, that continues to make the rounds in the United States. One lady who was interviewed justified her position by saying that her products were only for those who believed, since they would be ineffective for anybody who didn’t believe. Now if that’s not a textbook definition of subjectivist flim-flam, I don’t know what is.
But there’s still something more than the desire to believe. People can fulfill that by attending their corner church on Sundays, or by reading their Bibles at home. They can study their Course in Miracles, or have their Conversations with God or read their Book of Urantia on their own. Why was it that people needed to actually rid themselves of their entire physical and emotional support systems? Why was it that they needed to turn over inheritances, shun their families, and plunge headlong into a situation that was virtually guaranteed to disappoint them in the long run? Was it some sort of bizarre ritual to prove that a person can survive giving up total control over their life? Didn’t they think ahead to the day when they might have children, need a home, get sick, want to retire? Was it a terminal lack of self-esteem?
It’s as if cognitive dissonance had reached down into the very structure of their survival instinct. The desire for heavenly answers had become so great that in one fell swoop of self-flagellation, they struck the ultimate bargain. They declared that their desire for heavenly truth was so strong that they would rather live destitute and without family, than acknowledge the painful reality of our materialist aloneness which I firmly believe they also knew.
Now, not everyone who came into Church Universal and Triumphant turned over their inheritance. Many came as young idealists with nothing but their clothing and maybe a sleeping bag. I remember several people who later became leaders of the church showing up in our driveway in their beat-up Volkswagens. Monroe Shearer was one of them. He and his friend Gary were originally hired by my parents to do some remodeling and painting.
My father soon took a liking to Monroe, who was about 19 at time, and began to talk about ordaining him a minister. There was one pesky problem: it looked like Monroe was going to be drafted. This was about 1970, with the Vietnam war in full swing. My father used his position as ‘bishop’ of his church, and traveled to Washington and Baltimore, appealing directly to the draft board or whatever government agency could grant a religious exemption. (My memory fails me, I was 6 or 7 at the time). Monroe was soon free of the draft, and well on his way to becoming a lifelong peddler of otherworldly messages. He learned the ropes and eventually became Vice President of the church. But he chafed at playing second fiddle to my mom while at CUT. Today, Monroe, along with his wife, Carolyn, runs the Temple of the Presence, a marginally successful organization modeled on a combination of the Ballard’s I AM movement, and Church Universal and Triumphant. So it’s clear fortunes could be made as well as lost in the New Age. Hope you’re enjoying yours, Monroe!
But somewhere in between these two extremes, were the run-of-the-mill converts who simply wanted to be led. Along with the spiritual doctrine, The Summit Lighthouse, a.k.a. Church Universal and triumphant offered a reasonably well-run communal living situation. Initially, everyone lived in the house I grew up in, which had been a palace built for an unknown captain-of-industry in the 1930s. We always were told it had something to do with oil. My mom, as she was accustomed to doing (she renamed every property she ever owned), called the sprawling mansion La Tourelle.
To me it was just my house. I had my own large room and bathroom with walk-in closets in each. I had every toy a kid could want. I had the run of a house that was, conservatively, 15,000 square feet. It had three floors including a basement. It had a rotunda with curved marble staircases, the highest of which led up to a fourth floor turret my mom called “the tower.” She used this for her office. (Hence “La Tourelle”) There was an elevator. There was a “gate house” with room for five vehicles, which also had upstairs apartments (servant’s quarters). The house sat on five acres in Colorado Springs, and was surrounded by a stone wall with wrought iron gates.
This sounds like unbelievable luxury, and it would’ve been. But there was one difference: about 50 people lived there. They were crammed in the attic, stuffed in the basements, sleeping in tents on the grounds, shacked up in the boiler room. The basement of the main house was filled to the brim with equipment. There was a press room, mailroom, dark room, an entire publishing facility. I used to play in and around the shelves that held boxes of books and publications ready for shipment. There were so many of them, a boy could have a great game of hide and seek with his friends.
These 50 or so people were provided with their room and board, such as it was, and a stipend of $30 per month. They kept a rigorous monastic schedule, getting up as early as 5 a.m. for morning prayers, eating communal meals, and working all day in the various publishing operations, or on the grounds, or in the kitchen or laundry room keeping things running. There were noon prayers, and evening prayers, and as often as not, I would hear the adults in the community walking around muttering prayers under their breath. It was prayer, prayer, and more prayer. They prayed the rosary, they gave their “decrees”, they sang their songs. Mercifully, as a young child, I was not required to attend all the prayer services or dictations. I would roam the basement, or the grounds, or make paper airplanes, or read science books. It was a great childhood, until the later years when my mom tried to “convert” me. But that’s another story.
As I started writing this, I thought I had some ideas as to why people joined. I thought maybe it was the friendship, the camraderie, the ready-made spiritual answers, the not having to worry about success, paying bills, logistics. But now, after having taken myself back to that time, I remember many people seemed happy. They were very nice to me even though I lived in luxury while they retired to their cots. They were only too happy to be there, to endure cold attics or basements, or even sub-zero temperatures outside in a tent. They had successfully sublimated their need for earthly comfort—for a time. Could it all really be that simple? Just another foolish diversion of their wasted youth? Later I saw the hardship and heartache that ensued, as people in their 40s 50s and 60s reckoned with a lifetime of almost deliberate denial and lack of planning for their future. Apparently they expected god would provide.
For example, Walter Maunz, who lived at La Tourelle in the 60’s and 70’s, was a great mentor for me. He taught me much of what I knew as a child about science. In 1999, I talked to him. He was in his late 60s, with no money or place to go. He was not sure what he was going to do. I wished I could have offered some kind of help, but I was in no position to do so. (Walter, if you are reading, I hope you are well, and I thank you profoundly for the gifts you gave me as a child).
A few years earlier, I had seen a woman, Dorothy Angleton, who also cared for me as a child, then in her 60s, who was sent out by the church to get a job to pay for her own dental work (which was estimated to cost $10,000), after having served and lived in the church for over 20 years. (Until the mid-to-late 1990’s, the church provided absolutely no health coverage.) Thank you also, Dorothy, and I’m sorry.
This end should’ve been seen from the beginning. But it wasn’t. My parents did not consider people’s physical needs beyond the basic food and shelter needed to keep them working. They were fighting a cosmic and epic battle of light and darkness. These types of “petty” human concerns were not part of their battle plan.