It all started with a single board.
“I just started painting what was going on in my head [back then]I just wanted to capture images of brainwashing,” says Betsy Dovydenas, artist and author, as we discuss her book, “If You Want to Know How I Was Brainwashed,” in a window seat at Dottie’s Coffee Lounge in early July.
She sips her tea before leafing through the pages of her book on two other boards and pauses thoughtfully. “And then I painted them, because at the end, when I broke down, when I came out of them during the exit counseling, my brain felt really different. My brain felt like things had really moved in there. My brain still worked, but there were all these other things going on at the time: being dissociative, the abuse and the trauma. For me, [these paintings] captured how my brain felt.”
Dovydenas is a survivor. From 1984 to 1985, she was a member of The Bible Speaks, a ministry founded by Carl H. Stevens. Meanwhile, Dovydenas donated $6.5 million to The Bible Speaks and even changed her will, disinheriting her husband and children and leaving the rest of her inheritance to the ministry. Family intervention removed her from the so-called church, now labeled a cult by many experts. In 1986, her family sued Stevens and The Bible Speaks, seeking the return of the $6.5 million, citing Stevens “undue influence” over Betsy.
Stevens left Lenox and the sprawling campus of The Bible Speaks, now home to Shakespeare & Company, after it declared bankruptcy, he formed the Greater Grace Church in Baltimore, which at the time had more than 25 affiliated churches in the whole country, including one in Lee. Stevens’ ministry has been marked by controversy, with former members alleging the church practiced mind control, sexual misconduct, pedophilia, fraud and extortion, reported The Eagle and other media. Stevens died in 2005.
In 1987, a federal bankruptcy court ruled in favor of Dovydenas. The ruling by United States Bankruptcy Court Judge James Queenan found Stevens guilty of an “astonishing saga of deceit, greed and subjugation.” The award amount was reduced to $5.5 million on appeal.
But Dovydenas’ book is not about the trial. That’s only a small part of the story, she says. Instead, she wants others to understand how she was “deceived, sweetened, persuaded, manipulated, defrauded, coerced and exploited” by a fake church led by a fake pastor. Through 200 monotypes and a narrative text, Dovydenas explains how she was victimized by the church and its pastor.
“And this one, it’s about feeling weird,” she says, pointing to another image in the book, “because it’s such a hard thing for people to understand. [how I became involved with a cult] even though bigoted things are happening around us all the time.
“Our culture would like to influence us. It’s not the same thing, but we are subject to influences all the time. We have to be aware of it, think about it all the time. Thinking, ‘What am I? This person is telling me that’s the right way to think, but no, I don’t have to think like that. You have to be critical.”
While it’s easy to assume that people who join cults are weak-minded and have below-average intelligence, most cult experts will tell you that even though cults recruit people of any age or any level of intelligence, their ideal candidates are “young, of above-average intelligence, from an economically advantaged background, well-educated, idealistic, and often spiritually curious.”
Dovydenas fit this bill. She was in her late twenties, mother of two young children, and had moved to Lenox, away from her family in Minnesota. Her husband, Jonas, a photographer, was traveling for work. She was spiritually curious and began attending a nearby church. The church community was welcoming and she quickly befriended a member, a woman, who gave her attention and kept her company when Jonah was away.
“Cults are not on the outside what they are on the inside. They have a hidden agenda,” she says. “Some are more abusive. Some are more controlling. For me, I’m suggestible. Having done Transcendental Meditation, it was really a set up to meet a cult.”
Throughout the book, Dovydenas explains how, little by little, her friend “Nancy” and another woman, “Karin”, helped her change her belief systems. Dovydenas now read only the church-approved Bible; sold family jewels, her wedding dress; changed her way of dressing and wearing more makeup. She even removed her own paintings from the walls.
“But it’s good to learn these things about yourself,” she said. “I’m 70, so it’s interesting to know all that. Some people find it embarrassing to hear that. They say, ‘Oh, you take advantage of these things.’ But I think it’s really important. The Berkshires had a lot of cults and more cults will come. EnlightenNext was there. They were physically abusing their members.
But why write about his experience now, more than three decades after his family found a way to keep him away from the cult?
“After all these decades, I’ve just found a way to talk about it that works. I’m just very comfortable being who I am. Some people say it’s brave. I don’t know if it’s ‘is brave, I just feel like I’m doing what I want to do,’ she said. “I’m not someone who likes to influence or change the way people think. It’s more that I felt drawn to it. Once I started painting, I thought maybe I could -be charting my whole story. Once I did all the painting, the words came to me. I showed it to friends and I showed it to my sisters. I had such a positive response “I cared what my sisters thought. I cared what our kids thought. Everyone thought it was awesome. I thought why not post it?”
And since the publication of the book in September, Dovydenas has received many positive reactions from the public.
“I’ve heard therapists say they use it with clients. It makes me really happy that people who need to understand [what they have been through] use it,” she said.
The book, which includes a foreword written by Dr. Michael D. Langone, executive director of the International Cultic Studies Association, also includes a resource guide with information on professional organizations that offer support to those who have left cults. , as well as books. and other sources to aid recovery.
“I’m very lucky that my family did what they did for me because I understood [what had happened to me]. I hope people who need to figure out what happened to them find a way, that’s why I put the resources in the back. Because most people when they go out don’t know what to do,” she said.