NOTE: This is a woman’s account of growing up in the Russian Orthodox/St. Herman of Alaska/Old Calendar church. Since the late 90’s and early 2000’s, factions of this sect have been joining the canonical Orthodox Church under the Serbian Patriarchate, the OCA, and the Bulgarian Diocese.
When I was a little girl during the normal, happy times, my parents made life delightful, with nice promises about the future. I remember birthday parties, lots of friends, and people constantly in and out of our house, over for holidays or just dinner parties. There was music playing always in our home, either on the radio or record players and tapes. I dreamed of the day when I was celebrate my “sweet sixteen”, because my parents promised me a pretty vanity table, with an oval mirror and a lacy white cloth–you, know, like you see in old movies. I anticipated my first prom, my first date, and my first formal dress. I couldn’t wait to shop and wear makeup, like most girls. And I was told many, many times that if I graduated one day with good grades, that they would give me a trip to Europe! The days ahead seemed happier even than the ones in which I was living.
Just the opposite was what I ended up with.
I was put in three different high schools; first the little Catholic one, then a public school up in the mountains, then right back to the local public high school. After being told that the “Latin church” was going straight to hell, I was never allowed to even sing in the choir with my friends on Sundays. My mother arranged a carpool with two other families to drive up and down the mountain every day to the small public school there; this was to avoid the wicked and wordly influences of the local Alamogordo middle school. It became a very lonely year, as my best friend dropped out of the carpool, and the other family rented a cabin and stayed there the whole semester.
My parents picked fights with the school board, the principals, and the teachers over several different things, such as any phrase in a book which slightly resembled “humanism”, “Anti-Christianity”, or “liberalism”. They had the whole town in an uproar when the elementary schoolshowed a “sex-ed” film; just a regular, scientific, kid-friendly film. Mom proudly told everyone at home that the school board “shook in their boots” when they saw her coming.
I had to wear dresses a lot, eat only the lunches which she packed (often very meager, especially if there was fasting going on), and be on the “lookout” for evil and “anti-Christian” textbooks or teachers. I carried icons in my purse and wore a big cross.
As Br. B. and the other clergy invaded our lives, home became less of a refuge and more of the “new mission church”, where my parents constantly fought, my little brother locked himself in his room with incense and rage, and I experienced depression and isolation for the first time in my life.
I was not told by ANYONE that there was such as thing as a school counselor or even that I could talk to a school nurse about what on earth was happening to me with periods. (I had asked for help three years earlier from my mother, when I had difficulties and questions. Well, after three years, I was forced to see a VETERINARIAN in my dad’s hometown, because he had once in a blue moon treated the local farmers in special circumstances. Instead of going to a good, female gynecologist, I remember shamefully sitting on the same examination table which had held dogs, cats, and other animals, being stared at by an ugly little man.) You see, along with the fasting, this particular cult emphasized “natural rememdies”, which in and of themselves are great, except when one avoids ALL medical doctors as “Jewish” or “un-Christian.” I actually found a stern warning in a 100-year old Russian Orthodox prayer book, forbidding any member to see a Jewish doctor!!! That was absolutely nuts, but this cult keeps these beliefs going.
I had always been a very social kid, always a leader, always with friends; but when you are a young teen and suddenly told that all of your former life, YOUR FORMER SELF, was evil and that it was all worth nothing, you FEEL WORTHLESS. That is good; it encourages “humility”. I would like to quote a paragraph here from Steve Hassan’s “Combatting Mind Control”, under
“refreezing :”The first and most important task of the “new” person is to denigrate his previous self…….An individual’s memory becomes distorted, minimizing the good things in the past and maximizing the sins, the failings, the hurts, the guilt. Special talents, interests, hobbies, friends, and family must be abandoned…..” (p.71) Elizabeth Ann was evil; “Xenia” must be holy.
The next year at the local high school– down from the mountain–was a nightmare. All the other kids I had gone to school with had adjusted years ago, and my other friends were either home-schooled or sent to the private Protestant school. I longed to shop for some decent clothes which had not been picked out for me; I remember actually drooling with hunger as I watched the other kids eat big lunches, with milkshakes, for only $1.00, every day in the big lunchroom. I was not allowed to drive, even though I had passed a driver’s ed class. At one point, a Catholic friend offered me a job after school in her shop; I was thrilled. When I turned up for work the first day, she told me that unfortunately she had to hire someone else…that was my mother’s doing, as I should not be around the “Latins”. I therefore had no money to even buy a used car. Since I was pulled in and out so much from schools, I could not apply for scholarships, or talk to guidance counselors. I didn’t even bother trying for cheerleading or other school activities. I longed to be a part of normal, teenage life!! It was hard to be a “holy pilgrim on earth” with so much normalcy and fun going on, but I was not to be part of it.
I cried on prom night. I never actually had a graduation, because my parents had quietly gone to the principal and “made a deal” with him, that if I brought back straight A’s from a college, then I would get my diploma by mail. This was to “save” me from further EVIL public schools. I had no idea they had done this, until it was time for us to move again.
Dad took a transfer. I have to be very brief here, because even recounting these years causes me nightmares.
I was sent to a large university at age 16; made to “feel special” because of it, but was violently ill on the first day I went to sign up for classes. My older brother came with us initially to look over the university, but said, “I would NEVER go to a place like that, ” so he went back to his friends and sunshine.
My parents bought a house that was so far back from the street, that it almost looked hidden. There was a long, long driveway and great separations from the two neighbors. I was not allowed to go places alone for the next three years, except for a bike ride; I was to be driven everywhere, and every minute was to be accounted for. Once, at 17, I begged to take the bus downtown, because the bus stop was on the corner of the street. There was a huge fight, and I was “protected” another three years from “rapists” and “accidents.” Unable to shop for myself, I attended the university without a bra, without feminine napkins or cramp medicine, and without a friend. (I was once invited to a few parties, even with Campus Crusade, but those were evil and “ecumenical”, and since I had no freedom, I just never even tried.)
I took a heavy class load and brought home straight A’s, and was the youngest person to be admitted to the nursing program. The night I graduated was a cold and dark, and my diploma dropped onto the floor through the mailslot. That was it. No congratulations, no trip to Europe, no gift or card. Just “now put that away somewhere safe.” I still can’t believe it when I see a young person graduate, have invitations sent out, and be celebrated by their folks. This was never done for either me or my brothers. I was given the highest standards to follow, but with no reward.
From the moment we moved to this isolated house, with my dad working aver 60 miles away at the AFB, home life was nothing but violence and fighting about the cult and the fasting and the services. My dad was moved into the basement right away, and has slept in a separate bedroom from my mom since then –25 years plus! (Actually since the lecture by Br. B. about marriage vs. monasticism.) He would spend three to four days sometimes at the base, unable (or unwilling) to come home. Because every day, beginning at breakfast but especially at night, there would be violent fights, usually lasting until way past midnight. It was all about how to “run the Mission,” which priest to have for a visit, which days were for fasting, how to “keep the old calendar holidays,” and other things.
My brother and I were physically abused; sometimes he was beaten for hours. I would sometimes put my thin body in between his and the blows from my parents; when I saw my mom start on his head, I felt hopeless, not knowing where to turn. I was often grabbed on my arms and when my mom saw the black and purple bruises and hand-marks, she told me to “pull down your sleeves before we leave for school”, and I obeyed, terrified. My brother was not growing properly, refusing to eat; and being refused good, solid food. He was bathed by my mom until he was almost 15 years old, often after stripping for a beating, and then waiting in the bathroom. (I am about to throw up here.) This “discipline” and “obedience to parents” was encouraged by every priest and every strictly cultic publication which entered the house.
I would often escape down to the basement when my efforts to stop the violence were ended with more violence and the doors were locked. I would pace and pace and put my fingers in my ears, or go out into the snow. Babysitting next door was a wonderful relief, but these neighbors heard my brother’s screams from outside his window (which faced their house.) I didn’t know whom to tell; I was afraid. I was told if I tried to “take the bus” that my parents “would go to the police and tell them I was a runaway” (I quote.) The kind neighbors invited me to be their live-in nanny once, for a long ski-trip and beyond, but I had to decline to finish my studies at the university. Looking back, I know this was their way to get me out of the obvious hell in which I was living.
Why didn’t anyone ask about my brother? He was sent to a small, fanatical Bible-based school, and my mom immediately made friends with the concerned principal, whom she convinced that my brother needed “a dad”, because my dad was not involved in our lives. Then she tried to make friends with the neighbors for whom I babysat. She could be very two-faced.
My parents kept the fasting so rigid, that I would come back from the college (being driven by my mom), starving in the cold winter, only to find an electric skillet full of boullion with “greens” floating in it and some rice. Meat was rationed to me. I tried to fill my empty stomach with sugar and peanut butter, always readily available. In consequence, my brother and I lost weight and were subject to constant colds and flus. I had no money to buy lunch for awhile, and when I did, I ate ravenously at lunch time–anything I could get my hands on, especially junk food.
Even though there was a great little (normal) Greek Orthodox church downtown, with a wonderful (divorced) priest who became a family friend, it was deemed to be “not a TRUE CHURCH”–it did not teach the cultic teachings of the Russian Abroad/St. Herman of Alaska church; it did not follow the Old Calendar; the men and women “wore fancy clothes and jewelry and makeup”; and they often had big potlucks and parties. So services were either held in our living room, and every night, or in another home of a former Russian “priest”. It was disgusting; this family was in constant turmoil, as well, with the two parents about to break up.
So weird priest after weird priest came to stay at our house; where they all came from , I will never know. Br. B. himself was driven up once, with a young guy who was being completely taken in by the cult. (According to Br. B., who was now a priest himself, with dubious ordination under Fr. Herman Podmoshensky –defrocked, please see POKROV.org for articles–a priest could NEVER drive anywhere in case he got in an accident and killed a person.) Some of these men were filthy, just because of their personal hygiene. Some made passes at me.
My brother once had a crisis of pain and rectal bleeding. He was taken (for once) to a doctor, at a local “walk-in” clinic, where they did a quick exam but found no answer. It was dismissed. Life continued as before. He was not taken to any more doctors.
We were allowed to watch some TV, mostly old movies and sitcoms like “Jack Benny.” I was not allowed to drive myself to a movie theater. I learned to withdraw into myself. Once night, about midnight, when the violence in my brother’s room was terrible, and my dad was home, I was hit and ran into the TV room and fell on the floor. I started to shake in the dark, uncontrollably. I heard my mom yell to my dad, “Better get her an ambulance and get her to the hospital.” It was sarcasm. Nevertheless, I saw my dad creep into the hallway, look at me, and leave. He is still a coward to this day. I continued to shake in classes after that, and tried to hide in the library until I finally had to quit my studies.
I began to experience panic attacks, both on the street and in classes. One day I fainted. It was after a noon-day violent prayer service and meager lunch. It was after I had been accepted into the nursing school, and had to get up before 5 AM for clinical, and then classes, and then studies till 11:00 p.m. With the home life and lack of food, I had to quit the program. My dean asked if anything was wrong at home, and I didn’t know I could tell someone like that. I was too ashamed. So I left. I knew there was no way that I could have started a more agreeable and less demanding study; I loved art, but the galleries were full of “evil, satanic” pictures. Mostly those at the university. I was diagnosed with PAT, heart pains and paroxysmal atrial tachycardia, as well as stress-induced thyroiditis. I developed claustrophobia at this time, only being allowed out in the yard or to babysit, with nowhere to run from the nightmare of home. Icons were everywhere, prayer books, incense, and Russian Abroad publications. I could not escape, I didn’t know where to turn.
When my older brother came for a visit with his new wife and baby, my parents arranged to have the baby (my nephew) baptized “secretly” in the “proper church” by some guy they had met somewhere, who was supposedly a priest “escaping” persecution in Czechoslovakia. This 60 + year old man came over often with his young “daughter”, who turned out not to be his daughter at all. My brother and sister-in-law went out somewhere, and while they were gone, the baby was dunked underwater in a baby bathtub on the kitchen table: candles, oils, incense, and all. I don’t know if they ever knew; I didn’t know they had no idea what was happening until years later, when I recalled the event.
My health declined. My father was pushed, either by my mom or the cult, to retire at the age of 51. He did, and his hair turned white overnight. He never worked again, and for the past 25 years, has talked about “how old” he is, and how death (which is to be anticipated, because it is “freedom of the soul from the foul body”) was around the corner. It was absolutely pitiful to watch.
Under the guise of “helping” my brother raise his son (he and his wife were fine), we returned to NM. It was really for Br. B. and his gang, to help them build a new church and a “seminary”.
These were the darkest days of my entire life. I am angry that no teacher, doctor, neighbor, or friend who even SUSPECTED child abuse, EVER, EVER (to my knowledge) tried to stop it, and at least get me out of there and to a relative or in a foster home. I thank God for those who are conscientious enough to do so today, even if a child or teen does not say anything; because from personal experience, kids like us are afraid of the consequences, and we are so isolated and controlled, even by physical illness, that we have no idea where to turn, to anyone outside the cult.
In the last two posts I will finish this memoir.
Til next time.