CULT: quasi-religious group, often living in a colony, with a charismatic leader who indoctrinates members with unorthodox or extremist views, practices or beliefs. — Webster’s New World Dictionary.
I would rather you commit suicide than have you leave Love In Action wanting to return to the gay lifestyle. In a physical death you could still have a spiritual resurrection; whereas, returning to homosexuality you are yielding yourself to a spiritual death from which there is no recovery. — The Final Indoctrination from John Smid, Director, Love In Action (LIA), San Rafael’s “ex-gay” clan.
“That’s exactly how he put it,” states Tom Ottosen, 24, an expressive, articulate two year ex-LIA group member.
Ottosen says he clearly recalls that experience. He says it occurred in October of last year during his last one-on-one conference with John Smid, LIA’s Executive Director, who claims to be able to change gay men into straight men through a live-in rigidly controlled indoctrination program Smid calls “reparative therapy.”
Ottosen says Smid clearly and emphatically warned him, “It would be better if I were to commit suicide than go back into the world and become a homosexual again. He felt that a physical death–with my soul intact–was much preferable to a spiritual death, which would happen if I were to leave the group and go back to being gay.” claims Ottosen.
Ottosen further states that Smid said this at a time when Smid clearly was aware he had strong suicidal feelings and was going through periods of extreme depression, guilt and loneliness.
Ottosen recalls his depression had been building for several months during his second year at LIA, primarily because of a warm and emotional relationship he was experiencing with another group member. “It wasn’t sexual at all, but it was strictly forbidden and I was kept from even talking to him for several months.”
Also, earlier in July, “Another house member, who was in his fourth year with the group and in a position of authority, became depressed and attempted suicide” and was sent away for observation. “He was taken from his position of leadership and then he just kind of disappeared.” Ottosen admits that he too, within a few months was at point where he had never been before. “I couldn’t work. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t do anything.”
He says he was so depressed and stressed that he knew he had to do something different if he was going to survive. “When I found myself calling the suicide hot line, I knew it was time to get out.” If it weren’t for Lea Brown, a staff member from Spectrum, Marin County’s pro-gay and lesbian counseling and information center, Ottosen says he doubts he would have survived.
Smid responds that Ottosen’s specific reference that he recommended suicide is “totally untrue,” however Smid does not deny that a private meeting took place between he and Ottosen in October and confirms other details of Ottosen’s account.
It has been reported that former cult members who have been under the intense intimidation of guilt-centered religious indoctrination, such as those who escaped the mass-suicide poisoning at Jim Jones “Jonestown” and the firestorm of self-destruction at the Waco Branch Davidian compound, often spend years in intensive therapy trying to overcome the psychological damage which a cult’s rigid and uncompromising brainwashing can cause.
The same kind of psychological damage can happen in the case of sexual orientation indoctrination, agrees Brown, Spectrum’s programs manager. “In this case, the heavy doses of deception and dishonesty which are necessary to try to purge strong feelings of love and compassion from a person’s natural affection needs can cause serious problems. What groups like LIA try to do is force people to choose between serving God and living their lives. That’s not a choice that anyone should have to make.”
On the other hand, Psychotherapist Robert Norton, also Sonoma County’s Project 10 co-director who provides professional counseling to clients such as Tom Ottosen, strongly condemns Smid’s tactics. Norton says he was “shocked and horrified” when he learned of this charge. One wonders “how many other clients [Smid] has told to commit suicide?” Norton sternly blasts these “cult-like organizations,” and reminds them that telling a client to commit suicide is clearly “a breach of ethical law.”
Easing off slightly, Norton says, “The religious right wants people to believe that homosexuality is only a behavior and therefore can be changed. However, it is not just a behavior, it is also a psychosexual and emotional development which is at the core of an individual’s self; and just like heterosexual development it can not be altered or changed.”
Ottosen now understands this, and recalls during his last year at LIA at least 75 percent of the original participants had either left the program because it wasn’t working for them or reported many “sexual falls” (homosexual experiences including fantasies and masturbation). Many were “forced from the group” when they began having serious doubts about the program’s effectiveness in their life. “They tell them they must leave because the doubters become a threat to the other members. But then on the outside, most ostracized members still feel intense loyalty to LIA, and feel like they are betraying the group if they say anything to anyone about their experience.” Ottosen says he was lucky because when he was told to leave, he immediately started seeing a licensed counselor on a regular basis, “…but most are having a very difficult time on their own.”
Ottosen reveals that like most cults, the indoctrination program at LIA is very effective at fostering feelings of intense loyalty because all group members are isolated within the group homes and all contacts outside the group are extremely limited. “Due the fact that members are not allowed to question anything the hierarchy says, most members who were forced out or who have left on their own end up extremely guilt-ridden, very confused, dogged by the religious dogma given them by the groups, and most end up worse than ever before,” Ottosen said.