For My Sister in Waco


May 26, 1993|By CATHERINE WALD

MOHEGNA LAKE, NEW YORK. — The woman is running as if she, too, is on fire. She sucks in the stinking, smoke-clogged air. Compared with where she just came from, it smells fresh.

Then she sees them: the persecutors of her God. In her mind, she is confused about many things. She couldn't tell you when she ate last, what she ate, the names of her parents, whether she slept last night. But one thing is clear: She has to choose, now, between good and evil, death and life.

The woman runs toward the fire. The agents of the devil grab her and wrestle her to the ground. They have saved her life, but she curses them.

Mohegan Lake, New York. -- Those wackos in Waco. That's what I liked to call them, before the big fire anyway. Before the news that children had died wiped the smugness out of my head. Before I read in the paper a line or two about this woman.

I guess I'm as bad as a former alcoholic who makes snide remarks about some lousy drunk. I was a wacko, too, once. I know all about the thirst for godliness, the taste of transcendence, the nice warm feeling you get in your chest when you swallow an ideology in one gulp.

We all pick our poisons. In Waco, they chose a guitar-picking, gun-toting, Bible-quoting quasi-Christian with long wavy hair. In Jamaica, Queens, I chose a dhoti-draped, incense-burning, Veda-quoting pseudo-Hindu with large eyes that fluttered when he meditated. That's where the differences end. Strip the skin off any savior and they all have the same skeleton underneath. They all use the same techniques for luring and keeping their followers.

It's not hard to join a cult. You just have to be idealistic enough to want perfection, and naive enough to believe that someone else can tell you how to get there. Then all you have to do is follow the instructions.

After you sign up, you won't notice a difference right away. But one morning a few years later you're sure to wake up with a bad case of amnesia. You wonder if you should try to get back to where you once belonged, but you have this nagging feeling that you can't. Maybe it's because you gave away all your money and you've forgotten how to earn a living. Maybe it's because you've lost contact with all your friends and family. Or maybe it's simply because if you leave, you know you'll go to hell, which is supposedly worse than where you are now.

When I was a devotee, my leader was constantly trying to shame me into dropping out of college. In his book, there was something wrong with using your mind too much. Somehow, I stuck it out and got my degree -- only to be told that my chosen career was no good: I had to become a secretary.

Around this time, I had a dream: My leader had commanded all his followers to jump off a cliff. I stood at the edge, frozen with fear. This was the ultimate test, and I knew what the right answer was. Then, before I could make my choice, I woke up. Badly shaken, I went and applied for a secretarial job.

Sometimes I wonder how far I could have been pushed. Once the chain that links your brain to your heart has snapped, what's to stop you from doing all sorts of unnameable things? I remember being told to lie to my teachers, my parents, my employers, even my fellow devotees. In each case, I performed on cue, like a trained monkey. No one ever asked me to shoot FBI agents or to allow children to be beaten. But if I were to say, ''Oh no, I'm sure it would never go that far,'' I'd be lying. The truth is, I just don't know.

Most of the Waco flock has perished, along with their shepherd. While some people mourn, others sift through the rubble, looking for evidence that will lead to more finger pointing and accusations.

As for me, I'm worried about this woman, whom I think of as a sister. Probably a lot of people out there are thinking this woman should be grateful she's not dead. But I know she's not grateful, and I know why. She was used to these toxins that were coursing through her spirit, and now her supplier is dead.

She probably feels as if the whole thing is her fault. Cult leaders are great at inducing guilt, even when they're not around. And so, she'll seriously consider killing herself. Failing that, her depression and self-loathing will be intense. Who will save her from that? A new David Koresh? Another cult?

I know about all this woman's pain and temptations. Taking the trip from life with God to what we call the real world is very much like re-entering the earth's gravitational field without the help of a space capsule: You get badly burned on the way down.

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