The Inside-Out Woman
CHAPTER 11: DOUBTS
Secrets of Cult Religion Revealed
Billy watched the headline spell letter for letter across the windshield exactly as they were printed on the clipping. But the masthead hadn’t screamed Terre Haute Tribune Star or Evansville Courier and Press, or even Indianapolis Star. The clipping had been carefully cut from the Los Angeles Times.
California. Three thousand miles from New York State, as far as a woman could get away without leaving the country; yet, foreign, too, news from a world completely different than Sullivan, from a land not quite foreign, but certainly alien; a state with the climate and soil and, not freedom, but unconventionality; seed ground spawning and nurturing all varieties of bizarre counterculture. Staring at the windshield, at those splattered bugs he had to wipe off or they’d be a distracting obstruction tonight, at the letters laying over them, pulsing their message, he recounted many religions, cults, whatever a person wanted to call them, that had crept into his consciousness via the Terre Haute and Evansville papers, the radio, and television, like Manson and Jones, and the truly weird spacemen religion—is that right, religion? Can you call it a religion or even a cult, or was it terrifying science fiction with real bodies?—Applewhite, a man who looked like a grandfather, a slight, kindly fellow a child could knock over with one good blow.
Now, New York he could understand. If the clipping had come from the New York Times or her local newspaper, he could understand, at least understand the location. Iam said she grew up in upstate New York, in Dutchess County, in the country, on the Hudson, in a sensible place, like Indiana, where people behaved pretty much like Sullivan Hoosiers, not better, not worse, definitely not freakish. Normal was how he characterized it.
Los Angeles. She never made it to Los Angeles. He knew she left home when she was eighteen. She said, “The minute I could get out, I got.” She got to New York City, landed a job waiting tables—she waited part-time at home—in a coffee shop that opened at dawn and closed at two and left her time to sleep and sneak classes at CCNY. “Too young and no money,” she said, “but tons of chutzpah.” “I don’t just love you, Iam,” he said, “I admire you. I do. I could never have.” She didn’t respond and he attributed her silence to modesty; she was consistently modest about herself; contained was the better word, as if she stored something in herself, something she couldn’t, or wouldn’t, release. When he said, “You’re so smart,” because she was, smarter than the typical Sullivan women, she demurred, “I’m not very smart at all. Look at me. I’m here with a broken down car and a couple of boxes.” “And no plates,” he said. “Oh,” she said, chewing her lip, blinking, seemingly bewildered, “the paper blew away, I guess.” He laughed, dazzled at her nonchalance over something that would have him craning over his shoulder until he’d replaced the document. “You lost your registration.” “It’s stupid, isn’t it?” she said. “No,” he reassured, “accidents happen.” Now he wondered if it flew out the window on purpose.
Her story was a cliché. It wasn’t he who belittled what she’d endured; he couldn’t; she awed him; she did it herself. She lived with a guy—”Please, Billy, don’t think less of me”; and he didn’t—lived with him for no better reason than he was nice to her; having a nice guy that loved her and was tender with her, it was a change for her. “Johnnie was his name. Not John. Not Johnny ‘ny’ Johnny. He was an ‘ie’ Johnnieee,” she said, laughing in a harsh way that told him she was deprecating herself, really admitting to being a fool. Johnnie was a bum who transformed himself into an addict who grew increasingly desperate and who came to expect her to get out of the restaurant and onto the street and bring home some real money because, hell, they couldn’t live without real dough. “He was a baby,” she said, “sweet at first, but vicious and ugly at the end.” Joking at the pain, “He was Chuckie’s cousin.”
She ran away, again. She collected her stash of cash, lugged her boxes to Port Authority, bussed over to New Jersey, bought the cruddy car, and pointed it at California. “It looked warm, and it was far away, and it was different” she said. She broke down in Sullivan County and, she smiled, “An angel saved me.” He loved and hated that part about the angel. He squirmed each time she smiled, “You’re my guardian angel, Billy.” Before Sir Willy, an angel. He blushed and shucked, but only in public, in front of people, friends, and his parents. At home he hugged her, squeezed her, until she wriggled from his arms, exclaiming, “Are my stuffings anywhere, Billy?” And they married, they had Dominic and Dominica—”The names just came to me, Billy. Aren’t they beautiful?” when he asked after she suggested their daughter’s name. Yes, he agreed, beautiful and not very odd, not for the times—and they lived happily ever after.
Until Dominic shared his find with him. “Daddy, I found a treasure.” He joked with Dominic. An arrowhead, a coin, a chicken bone mistaken for a dinosaur fossil?—treasures from his boyhood. Where did you dig it up? What was your memorable treasure? And, fatefully, “Can I see it?” “It’s secret treasure, Daddy.” “Too secret to show your own Daddy?” Unfortunately, it wasn’t that secret, not a misplaced minor fortune the boy wanted to protect at all costs. No, it was a box filled with questions. More, it was the box bursting with the mystery, with Los Angeles, the place she never got to.
Her boxes, maybe the box of mysteries, were in his parent’s house for a month, until she started, slinging she called it, at the Sullivan Coffee Shop and found a small place for herself above a store. He helped her cart a table, a bed, and a sofa from the local Goodwill store. The apartment was sparse and she adored it. “It’s mine,” she said, “all mine. And guess what, Billy, guess?” “What?” he laughed. “I can be by myself, alone, Billy, alone for the first time in my life.” That stung a bit and his hurt flashed across his face. “Except for you, angel.” Then the boxes disappeared. He stopped one day shortly after they’d furnished the place and the boxes and their contents were no more. “Gone?” he said. “Everything inside them gone, too?” “I’m wiping the slate clean, Billy. I’m cleansing my soul, Billy.” As if you could remove your humanness, your divinity, launder it like a T-shirt, and put it back on, fresh. “It’s a new me.” He hoped not an entirely new her; there were parts he’d hate to see go. “Except for the good parts, Billy, those I’m saving for you.”
All the boxes where gone, except as Dominic revealed, except the most mysterious box, the Los Angeles box. She saved that box. She hid that box. “It was buried, Daddy, buried in stuff in the basement, like a treasure chest, Daddy,” Dominic enthused, when he asked him where he’d discovered it. Nothing, however, remains … interned; yes, that’s the right word, interned like a corpse. Not even corpses remain interned forever. He was on the verge of asking her to explain the box, when the tornado tore through Knox. He wanted to know why she would save a clipping about mass murder, about a murderous cult, from a Los Angeles newspaper that to him, Los Angeles Times or not, seemed not very easy to lay hands on, not even in New York City, not even there, unless you were looking for it. Or, unless you weren’t in New York City, but in Los Angeles, where it would be very easy to lay hands on.
Why the fascination? What morbid reason, or pleasure, could she derive from saving the clipping? Unless she had known someone involved in the cult. Or, she’d had some connection to the cult and the events described by the team—so horrifying, so huge, it required a team of reporters to narrate it.
He asked Dominic if he could borrow the treasure for a little while. “It’s mine,” said his son. “For a few moments, only to read a little bit of it.” “Don’t mess it up,” warned Dominic, and he noticed every item was arranged neatly; everything in the box was organized by type: photos together, pink envelopes together, over the rose cup, saucer, and box, the clipping alone, on top everything, like a sheet over a body. Dominic’s work, a proclivity for an ordered room, toy box, bathroom shelf; a boy possessed of a regimented mind, an inheritance from Dad. “He’ll be an engineer some day,” Iam said. “Hey, what about an adjuster?” “Oh, sure,” she said, “you adjusters like everything in order.” “Correction,” he said, “we adjusters restore order to everything.” “Well, then, Mr. Billy Brick, restore Mrs. Billy Brick, because she feels mighty disordered.” How he adored making love to her; how well she loved him; it was sinful. Except they were married and it was sanctified. Pleasure sanctified by the Church. He smiled at the idea, even now, with the large black letters painted on the windshield, with each word indelibly etched his mind.
“Local police and the California Highway Patrol walked into a scene of terrifying portions, a scene of death beyond imagination, after crop pickers reported an odor emanating from a large, private farm on the outskirts of Raisin City, near Fresno. The farm, authorities said, belonged to The Church of the Universal One, an organization well known in Los Angeles for its work among the city’s Latino and African-American communities, and for its flamboyant, demonstrative, and charismatic leader, Jim Smith Miller, called Pater, or Father, by church members and himself, who even insisted, in notable public displays, that the mayor and other city officials address him by his church name. Pater Miller was among the dead, found next to a lawn chair on a platform consisting of four wood picnic tables drawn together, with a fatal bullet wound to the back of his head. On the platform, which authorities characterized as a stage overlooking the gruesome tableau, lay a female with a .357 magnum revolver still in her hand. Authorities identified her as Emily Jennings, and by her church name, Osma. They surmised she shot Pater Miller before turning the weapon on herself.”
Billy never ceased to marvel at his special gift, and others, too, commented on it. His parents, teachers, his friends envious they had to struggle to memorize bits of information they’d never use; that would vaporize in their overheating brains the second they answered a test question, as if the information was consumed by the effort. He was able to read a passage, glance at a formula, run his eyes over a procedure, hear a conversation, and these would belong to him forever, would be at his fingertips whenever he needed them. “You should do something with it,” said everybody, except Iam, who said, “Great. You won’t forget anything at the supermarket.” What he wanted startled them. He knew what they thought: what a waste. He wanted to help people when they needed it most; to lead a quiet life in a sensible place among sensible people; to have a family; and to remember everything that was important to them, like birthdays, and anniversaries, and groceries. And he had it, as an insurance adjuster, with Iam as his wife, with their children, with the spread on County Road 25. Or so he assumed, until the box, until he ran his eyes—”Geez, Billy, they’re cameras, not eyes,” said hundreds of times by dozens of people—ran his cameras over the clipping in the mysterious box, not bearing to go too deeply into the box after ingesting the story, sinfully, grateful, maybe, for the disaster in Knox.
“Pater Miller died in the same manner as 144 of his followers, though authorities report finding packed suitcases in his quarters and suspect he did not intend perishing with his followers. Most of them died in execution style, said authorities. Many, including Pater Miller, wore headbands emblazoned with the symbol of winged figures in flight. They estimated somewhat over 100 were shot in the back of their heads, many through the headband. The positions of the bodies indicated they knelt with their backs to their executioners, submitting themselves to their own deaths. Some, however, appeared to have had a change of heart and attempted to flee or struggle with their killers, deduced authorities from the positions of their bodies and the locations of the bullet wounds in their backs and chests. One officer described the scene of mass death as ‘carnage, like in a war.’ Another said it was a ‘slaughter, pure and simple.'”
He cringed at the columns of black text that seemed to leak ink down upon each other in such profusion as to momentarily render the words indecipherable, each word, each letter like the other, lumped as one, stripped of their individuality and their meaning, just like the people in the photo accompanying the story, a giant mural of horror. The words, it seemed to him, were sufficient. The photo was needless; it was sensational, portraying an agglutination of death, stealing from these people their distinctiveness, their dignity, and their humanity; reduced to commodities for public titillation. He shuddered. What had these poor souls been to Iam? Something, or else why would she save the clipping? And if nothing, what did the clipping say about Iam? Either way was bad, because either way, he didn’t know Iam.
“You need help?” he said, the night he happened upon her stranded on the shoulder of County Road 25, what became their road, sitting on the hood of her wreck of a car, knees up, face cupped in her bare hands, shivering in the cold. She spread her hands and he felt like a dolt. Transferring her boxes to his car, he asked, “You in the habit of accepting help from strangers?” She shrugged, “Everybody’s a stranger here.” Driving, he asked, “What’s your name?” “Iam.” “Iam, what am?” “What are you, anyway?” she asked. “Me, right now a student.” “Oh,” she said. “Oh, what?” he said. “I thought with your talent maybe you were something else.” A second passed and he laughed, and she seduced him. “I’m Billy. William, actually, but Billy since I was a kid. Can’t seem to shake it.” “Maryam. Iam’s my own fault. I couldn’t pronounce Maryam until it was too late.” Later, she told him she usually introduced herself as Maryam, that only family called her Iam.
“She is my family,” he whispered to the weeping letters on the windshield. “I know her. I do,” he pleaded. And they keened otherwise.
“The executioners were The Church of the Universal One’s paramilitary guard, the Swords, notorious for encasing Pater Miller in a phalanx whenever he ventured from the Los Angeles temple, dressed either in their red or black uniforms, berets and T-shirts emblazoned with their distinctive sword symbol, fatigue pants, and combat boots. Asked why he needed protection akin to a praetorian guard, Pater Miller declined to answer, delegating the task to his spokespeople, all of whom went by Latinized names, as did most members of the church many labeled a cult. The most frequently seen of them was Osma, Emily Jennings, who apparently executed her leader. Her standard response to questions regarding the guard was, ‘Pater is the devil’s target in the form of numerous assassination attempts.’ These claims could never be substantiated, until Jennings apparently undertook the job herself.
“Guards did not spare themselves from execution. Most, wearing what authorities said surviving members in the Los Angeles temple called ceremonial robes, were executed by other guards. Some took their own lives. A skirmish seemed to have erupted among some guards, probably toward the end, who resisted efforts of others to execute them, authorities also reported. Police are searching for guards who fled.
“Authorities were in the process of finalizing their count of the dead, that might be higher than 144, and preparing a preliminary list of victims. They expected to issue both by the end of the week. They have sealed the Los Angeles temple and are sifting through church documents. They said it might require weeks to make sense of the records, as the church was a proliferate chronicler of its activities. They did divulge the church maintained files on members and stored these in a room in the basement of the Los Angeles temple. The cult church called it ‘The War Room.’
“And this may explain why Pater Miller and members engaged in the largest mass killing in California, and among the largest on U.S. soil. The Universal One church promoted a doctrine of impending apocalypse, and Pater Miller was reportedly agitated and increasingly paranoid in recent weeks.”
“Really, Billy, you belong on a poster. Here is the typical Bible-ignorant Catholic.” “I’ve read it,” he protested. Under her skeptical glare, he backpedaled. “Okay, Genesis. Parts of Genesis. The first couple of chapters. Maybe just some of the good parts from the movie.” “I find the Bible comforting, Billy.” But what could be comforting about Revelation. “Don’t you believe the second coming is comforting?” Whatever, was his attitude; he’d get his Bible in small doses, from the pulpit on Sundays. Now, though, against the backdrop of the shrouded windshield, her interest meant something, explained something, something that chilled him.
“The Church of Universal One is a great promoter of its beliefs. They utilize a variety of methods to spread their message, from pamphlets and an Internet site to nationwide bus caravan crusades and recorded material. Recordings are predominately of Pater Miller’s sermons. They range from what most would consider typical homily material, to immortalized faith healing sessions, to fiery warnings of the impending end times. It appears Pater Miller and his followers considered every word he preached worthy of preservation. This, authorities said, probably explains why they found a two-hour recording covering the period leading up to the mass slaughter, including the death of Pater Miller and Emily Jennings and the confusion that followed. Authorities have listened to the recording but aren’t prepared to release it in its entirety until they have identified all the dead and notified families. Sources close to the investigation report that the tape already has been transcribed and they shared excerpts with the Times.
“Pater Miller can be heard frequently warning people of an impending attack punctuated by gunfire. The source said authorities don’t believe this initial gunfire harmed anyone. That begins during the middle of the recording when screams drown out the frantic urgings of Pater Miller to accept swift, painless entry into heaven.
“As the recording starts, Pater Miller speaks to the special quality of church members over the farm PA system. Authorities said speakers were positioned throughout the grounds. ‘We are the Special People. We are the Anointed Ones. We are led by the Chosen Delegate of God. He is the one who hears God. He is your Pater and God requires you to obey your Pater.’
“The source said there is much background chanting, often drowning out the words of Pater Miller. At the outset, the chants are repetitions of Pater Miller’s phrases. Later, they are what the source described as ‘frenzied screams.’ ‘God summons us.’ ‘Swords, conduct us to heaven.’ ‘Life is death. Death is life.’
“‘Repetitive chanting, hyperventilation brought on by fear or excitement, fatigue, and ritual movement that might include overhead clapping, side-to-side swaying, and similar activities, which Universal One members are known to have practiced during services, can cause people to lose touch with reality, to enter into a new, and in this case, dangerous reality,’ commented Professor Ann Culton Morris, a psychiatrist at UCLA, who studies cults, has written extensively on the subject and consulted with the Los Angeles Police Department’s investigation of various such groups. ‘Together, with a susceptible audience, these can be as potent as a drug cocktail,’ she said.
“When asked if behaviors heard on the tape could lead people to voluntarily submit to their own murders, she said, ‘Yes, it is possible. It has happened before. Though whether that is the case here remains to be seen.’
“‘Danger! Danger! The enemy is here. Gather round, Anointed Ones. Gather quickly.’ can be heard frequently, even at the very end. This, said the source, had led authorities to believe some tried to flee, when they realized their fate, and succeeded. They are using church records to seek out these survivors, some already identified and interviewed, and gain a clearer understanding of the events at the farm.”
“Enough,” Billy groaned. The letters rushed on and on with the ranting of the Pater, the screams of the deceived believers like debris in a stream swollen to rage and fury: distribution of headbands bearing the symbol of the ascending members; the Sword insignia etched into the grips of handguns and on the stocks of rifles; a last meal, a festival supper, shared before the chaotic end; a disciplined apocalypse. The details were endlessly horrifying.
He swiped at the windshield, scattered the letters, and saw before him once again the neighborhood perfect in everyway, as if he’d been transported somewhere else, away from the destruction he was here to ameliorate with assurances, and with his tablet and its estimated payments.
But for the insects, he looked out a clear windshield. He could see his way to his next appointment, and the one after, and then to his last sad family, and, finally, home to Iam and an explanation.
COMING NEXT WEEK, MONDAY, May 4, 2015: CHAPTER 12: TRAITORS