Reviews: ‘Undertow’ and ‘The Cult That Snapped’

undertow-300pxIn 1999, journalist Karl Kahler self-published The Cult that Snapped: A Journey into the Way International. It was riveting, both as a history of the Ohio-based cult and as a personal account of one man’s experience within it.

Kahler’s approach to the material was effective. He began by giving readers a seat at the turning point in the history of The Way – the reading of a document called “The Passing of a Patriarch.” The document was written by the Rev. Christopher C. Geer, head of the Way’s European arm. Geer had been personal bodyguard to Victor Paul Wierwille, founder of the Way, and in 1986 Geer recounted Wierwille’s last days before his death a year earlier.

More significantly, Geer accused The Way’s existing leadership of straying from its mission. No one was spared. Not the Way’s second president, L. Craig Martindale. Not the vice president, Wierwille’s oldest son Donald. Not the Way Corps, the energetic and fiercely loyal group of Way followers enrolled in a four-year program of education and indoctrination.

The Passing of a Patriarch would ultimately prove to be The Way’s undoing. The cult still exists today, but it is a shell of its former self.

By introducing readers to the story at this pivot point in The Way’s history, Kahler is able to introduce a multitude of characters and themes to the reader in a short burst of time. What is this group? Where did it come from? Why would anyone get involved?

And Kahler answers each of these questions expertly. He also avoids some of the pitfalls of other “cult warning” books, which are often written by evangelicals warning their brethren not to be fooled by impostors. If you’re a Bible-believing Christian who clutches your pearls at the sight or sound of profanity, this book might not be for you. Kahler is true to the history of The Way, no matter how ugly it gets. He’s an unbeliever, uninterested in spreading the gospel. He’s a journalist interested in telling a story, not a sociologist interested in padding his publish-or-perish credentials.

If you are a Christian picking this book up, you’re not going to find a defense of the gospel here. But you are going to find an unflinching look at an ugly cult and its fall from glory.

Charlene Edge’s 2016 memoir, Undertow: My Escape from the Fundamentalism and Cult Control of The Way International, takes a different approach to the material. While reading Undertow will give the reader a sense of The Way’s history, that is not the book’s purpose. Undertow exists to answer a different question: What kind of person gets suckered into a cult? How? Why don’t they see the warning signs the rest of us see?

Where Kahler opened his book with a proverbial stick of dynamite, Edge opens hers with a decidedly more personal anecdote. Edge sits in a college classroom, and the professor is talking about cults. It’s something she needs to hear. The material means something to her. The coming trauma is internal. She is near the point of escape.

The Cult That Snapped was about The Way, with Kahler’s personal journey added for color and context. Undertow is about the author, with The Way as a constant, overbearing, controlling influence – think Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (ever-present, though rarely on screen).

Undertow rises and falls on how much the reader cares about Charlene, and the author does a really good job of making the reader care. This is a book about her relationship with her dad, with her sister, with her friends, with her husband.

Wierwille is seen periodically, and the reader is more than 100 pages into the book (I failed, as a reviewer, to leave a marker at the exact spot – a credit to the author) before Wierwille does something so outrageous that only the most sycophantic apologist would dare defend it. To show how devilish the world is, Wierwille plays some of his most devoted followers a pornographic video featuring actresses and literal-totally-not-a-figure-of-speech dogs.

Because describing it would not have been effective enough.

It’s the kind of episode that would send a normal person running from any group that claimed to represent God’s will on earth. Charlene Edge didn’t run, and her readers do not question her failure to leave.

The author is well-educated and an effective communicator. Her greatest success is in evoking empathy to the point that the reader understands how horribly easy it is for a sincere searcher to be fooled by a smooth talking snake oil salesman.

Undertow is not as effective as The Cult That Snapped in telling the story of the rise and fall of The Way International, but that’s very much like saying The Wizard of Oz doesn’t tell you the history of the Wizard. It’s not why the book was written, as crucial as the theme may be.

There is one area concerning the inner workings of The Way where Undertow outperforms its predecessor, and that’s in its description of what it was really like in the so-called “research department” of The Way. The author was part of it, a firsthand witness, and her insight into how The Way would mold the Bible to fit its agenda (when a real Christian group would at least try to do the opposite) is invaluable.

Undertow is also not as casually offensive to Christians as The Cult That Snapped. The author is now a Buddhist, but she feels no need to discredit the Bible or explain how believers manufactured the experiences related to the “holy spirit.”  In fact, there’s a story of a miraculous healing that is relayed and referred to numerous times in the book, and at no point does Undertow call the story out as even a probable lie.

The effectiveness of Undertow is that the author doesn’t have to be explicit. By the time she escapes the cult’s grasp, the reader already knows the truth – the best thing about The Way is seeing it in the rearview mirror.

Both books are highly recommended for anyone who wants to understand how sinister, seductive and controlling cults can be.

[Two Cult Survivor is the online identity of a former follower of The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (Jehovah’s Witnesses) and The Way International. He has chosen to remain anonymous for the time being].

 

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