Remember when you were a kid and someone suggested a game of “follow the leader”? The person who was selected to be the leader would do something, anything—dance, sing, run—and the others playing the game would have to do whatever he or she did, exactly the same way or they would be out. What’s fine for kids doesn’t always translate so well to the adult world.
Last Writes, the latest in my Forensic Handwriting Mystery series, is the story of a three-year-old who goes missing inside a religious cult called the Temple of Brighter Light (“TBL”). I like to think of it as my revenge story. It’s not that Last Writes is based in truth or anywhere near it, but much of the cult’s behavior and beliefs in the book grew from my own experiences over twenty-seven years in a religious organization that I now view as a cult.
A direct quote from that organization, which defines the theme of the book is, “We wouldn’t want to engage in independent thinking.” To me, this begs the question, then what type of thinking do we want to engage in? The chilling answer is that those who follow that particular leader are expected to hand over their power of independent thought to the organization. What the governing board of the group says is considered to be messages directly given by God, and to question those messages is heresy.
Sometimes, though, the group in which I was raised made mistakes and their prophecies of worldwide death and destruction failed to materialize at the time they had predicted. When that happened, they would extend the date of the cataclysm, excusing themselves by stating that new information had arisen and, “the light is always getting brighter.” So that’s why I called my fictional cult the Temple of Brighter Light.
In Last Writes, the TBL teaches that anyone who thinks outside the box is to be feared and shunned. What does that mean, exactly? It means that if your friend or close relative questions their teachings, you are forbidden to speak to that person anymore, even if that person is your child or your parent, your sister or brother. If you do have contact, you, too, are in danger of being shunned.
For the shunned person, it’s rather like suddenly becoming a leper. I learned from personal experience how this felt when I was excommunicated from the group on my 35th birthday and told that I was clearly a danger to the congregation. My sin? Dating a non-group member and confessing it to the elders.
An organization such as this does not allow members to socialize with anyone on the outside; the members are your close-knit family. One who becomes excommunicated is cast outside, adrift in a society they have believe is soon to be destroyed by God. Their support system is totally ripped away, and they are alone—a very scary place to be, until you discover that people on the outside are not all godless sinners as you have been taught to think of them, and you begin to make new friends and build a new support system.
Being kicked out of the organization turned out to be a lucky day for me, but it took fifteen years to fully wash away those deeply-ingrained beliefs. Follow the leader no longer works for me, and I’m proud of being an independent thinker who has learned to question every new idea before adopting it.
What I wrote in Last Writes is an example of what can happen when an entire group of people stops thinking for themselves and turns into lemmings, willing to (metaphorically speaking) follow their leader off a cliff. The charismatic leader, Harold Stedman, has convinced his members that little Kylie Powers has been chosen for a high calling, to be trained as a priestess in a special program called Jephthah’s Daughters. Handwriting expert Claudia Rose and Kylie’s aunt Kelly infiltrate the Temple of Brighter Light in an effort to rescue the child before the unthinkable happens. Read the first chapter at www.claudiaroseseries.com