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Iowan tells cult experience

If you’re a member of a religious cult, you may like this column. A former cult member I visited says members like negative publicity because it makes them feel persecuted.

Suzann Ogland, a 21-year-old junior at the University of Northern Iowa, spent close to nine months in just such a group until her parents arranged for her to be deprogrammed.

While sitting in the living room of the Ogland family’s Indianola home, it seemed unreal to hear Suzann and her father, Erv, tell their sides of the young woman’s cult conversion and eventual return to “normal.” Across the street, children played on the same elementary school playground where Suzann played years back.

Several times during our visit, Erv stopped short of finishing, “If I could get my hands on those guys…” or “If I saw that guy I’d…,” while his daughter smiled patiently, now able to understand her father’s feelings. Yet however misguided she now thinks her former “sisters” and “brothers” may be, she’s not ready to say their intentions were malicious.

Still, she shudders as she remembers how brainwashed she had become and fervently wants to spread awareness of this phenomenon.

In September 1983, she participated as a national exchange student from UNI to Towson State University, a school in Maryland with a moderate enrollment. Shortly after arriving at Towson, she began looking for a Christian fellowship group similar to one she had known as an active member of a Presbyterian church in Indianola. She tried out the more mainstream religious campus groups, but didn’t find the one she was looking for.

“Then she found the New Life Christian students, whose dogmatic leader painted moral and political issues using just two brushes: black and white. She found she was showered with attention, a tactic she later learned is called “love bombing,” and became curious as to how these people could be so wrapped up in what they were doing. She thought she’d sit back and see how they went about their religious practice.

A young woman named Jenny immediately took an interest in Suzann, leaving pieces of candy and other small presents at her door. Jenny would continue to visit Suzann, either running into her on campus — when she’d take out her Bible for a scripture reading — or stopping off at Suzann’s dorm room. Jenny “discipled” Suzann, fulfilling the “multiplication process.”

“If I take one and win them over to Christ and implant my life in theirs, and next year I get another one, and the one I got the year before gets one, then in 32 years the entire world is reached for Christ,” explained Suzann. She was close to gaining another convert to the cult when her parents acted to have her deprogrammed.

It was time to come home for a visit, although her cult leader warned her that her parents might have her deprogrammed. He said they’d lock her in a closet and beat her into submission, and that her parents “were tools of Satan.”

By the time their daughter landed at the Des Moines airport, Erv and Sue Ogland had a different daughter. Suzann had always resented the zealots who passed out religious literature unsolicited, and yet she was doing just, that on her trip home.

“At first I wouldn’t do it,” she said. “But it was like selling Camp Fire Girl candy, and I believed these people needed Christ. I was very sincere.”

Suzann’s mother and brother, Ed, met her at the airport and told her they were going to their lake home near Tingley. This was in late May and she was pleasantly surprised they were going to take a family vacation.

But it wasn’t a vacation. Erv and two hired deprogrammers were waiting. The window in Suzann’s room was sealed, and her father had rigged filament lines that would trigger a loud noise if her daughter tried to escape. While this was taking place, he stayed up until 4:30 in the morning, making sure Suzann was asleep.

“I read in the Bible that first night to beware of false prophets,” recalled Suzann.” I didn’t know whether my group was the false prophet or the deprogrammers were.”

She thinks that if there was a turning point for her through the deprogramming process, it was when she had to answer the question: “Does Jesus need mind control to get people to believe in him?”

Erv isn’t shy about venting his anger. “It’s like a rape of the soul,” he said.

“Mind,” his daughter quickly corrected. “A rape of the mind.”

Des Moines Register, January 12th, 1985