thought you migh be interested in this “clinical” interview of ReGAIN board member, and former LC/RC, Lennon, conducted by Dr. Michael Langone, executive director of International Cultic Studies Association. Dr. Langone helps us to understand the dynamics of recruiting, retention, and control of members in the LCRC in a serious, analytical and objective way.
Sit back, learn, enjoy
Hope it will be helpful to others who want to understand their personal experience, the experience of family, friends and loved ones, male and female in these and other potentially harmful groups.
ICSA E-Newsletters share articles or other information of interest or importance to ICSA members . Content of e-newsletters is not necessarily endorsed by ICSA, its directors, staff, volunteers, or members. ICSA provides information from many points of view in order to promote dialogue among interested parties. E-Newsletter Archive
Deception, Dependency, and Dread in the Conversion Process
Michael D. Langone, PhD
Farber, Harlow, & West (1957) coined the term “DDD syndrome” to describe the essence of Korean war thought reform with prisoners of war: debility, dependency, and dread. Lifton (1961), who also studied thought reform employed in Chinese universities, demonstrated that the process did not require physical debilitation. Contemporary cultic groups, which do not have the power of the state at their disposal, have more in common with this brand of thought reform than with the POW variety in that they rarely employ physical coercion. In order to control targets, they must rely on subterfuge and natural areas of overlap between themselves and prospects. As with all Korean era thought reform programs (those directed at civilians and at prisoners), however, contemporary cultic groups induce dependent states to gain control over recruits and employ psychological (sometimes physical) punishment (“dread”) to maintain control. The process, in my view, can be briefly described by a modified “DDD syndrome”: deception, dependency, and dread.
Although the process here described is complex and varied, the following appears to occur in the prototypical cult conversion:
A vulnerable prospect encounters a cultic group.
The group (leader[s]) deceptively presents itself as a benevolent authority that can improve the prospect’s well-being.
The prospect responds positively, experiencing an increase in self-esteem and security, at least some of which is in response to what could be considered “placebo” The prospect can now be considered a “recruit”.
Through the use of “sharing” exercises, “confessions,” and skillful individualized probing, the group [leader(s)] assesses the recruit’s strengths and weaknesses.
Through testimonies of group members, the denigration of the group’s “competitors” (e.g., other religious groups, other therapists), the tactful accentuation of the recruit’s shameful memories and other weaknesses, and the gradual indoctrination of the recruit into a closed, nonfalsifiable belief system, the group’s superiority is affirmed as a fundamental assumption.
Members’ testimonies, positive reinforcement of the recruit’s expressions of trust in the group, discrete reminders about the recruit’s weaknesses, and various forms of group pressure induce the recruit to acknowledge that his/her future well-being depends upon adherence to the group’s belief system, more specifically its “change program.”
These same influence techniques are joined by a subtle undermining of the recruit’s self-esteem (e.g., by exaggerating the “sinfulness” of experiences the recruit is encouraged to “confess”), the suppression or weakening of critical thinking through fatiguing activity, near-total control of the recruit’s time, trance-induction exercises (e.g., chanting), and the repetitive message that only disaster results from not following the group’s “change program.” These manipulations induce the recruit to declare allegiance to the group and to commit to change him/herself as directed by the group. He or she can now be considered a convert embarking on a path of “purification”, “enlightenment”, “self-actualization”, “higher consciousness,” or whatever. The recruit’s dependency on the group is established and implicitly, if not explicitly, acknowledged. Moreover, he/she has accepted the group’s authority in defining what is true and good, within the convert’s heart and mind as well as in the world.
The convert is next fully subjected to the unrealistically high expectations of the group. The recruit’s “potential” is “lovingly” affirmed, while members testify to the great heights they and “heroic” models have scaled. The group’s all-important mission, e.g., save the world, justifies its all-consuming expectations.
Because by definition the group is always right and “negative” thinking is unacceptable, the convert’s failures become totally his or her responsibility, while his or her doubts and criticisms are suppressed (often with the aid of trance-inducing exercises such as meditation, speaking in tongues, or chanting) or redefined as personal failures. The convert thus experiences increasing self-alienation. The “pre-cult self” is rejected; doubts about the group are pushed out of consciousness; the sense of failure generated by not measuring up to the group’s expectations is bottled up inside. The only possible adaptation is fragmentation and compartmentalization. It is not surprising, then, that many clinicians consider dissociation to lie at the heart of cult-related distress and dysfunction (Ash, 1985).
The convert’s self-alienation will tend to demand further psychological, if not physical, alienation from the non-group world (especially family), information from which can threaten to upset whatever dissociative equilibrium the convert establishes in an attempt to adjust to the consuming and conflicting demands of the group. This alienation accentuates the convert’s dependency on the group.
The group supports the convert’s dissociative equilibrium by actively encouraging escalating dependency, e.g., by exaggerating the convert’s past “sins” and conflicts with family, by denigrating outsiders, by positively reinforcing chanting or other “thought-stopping” activities, and by providing and positively reinforcing ways in which the convert can find a valued role within the group (e.g., work for a group-owned business, sell magazines on the street).
The group strengthens the convert’s growing dependency by threatening or inflicting punishment whenever the convert or an outside force (e.g., a visit by a family member) disturbs the dissociative equilibrium that enables him or her to function in a closed, nonfalsifiable system (the “dread” of DDD). Punishment may sometimes by physical. Usually, however, the punishment is psychological, sometimes even metaphysical. Certain fringe Christian groups, for example, can, at the command of the leadership, immediately begin shunning someone singled out as “factious” or possessed of a “rebellious spirit.” Many groups also threaten wavering converts with punishments in the hereafter, for example, being “doomed to Hell.” It should be remembered that these threats and punishments occur within a context of induced dependency and psychological alienation from the person’s former support network. This fact makes them much more potent than the garden-variety admonitions of traditional religious, such as “you will go to hell if you die with mortal sin.”
The result of this process, when carried to its consummation, is a person who proclaims great happiness but hides great suffering. I have talked to many former cultists who, when they left their groups and talked to other former members, were surprised to discover that many of their fellow members were also smilingly unhappy, all thinking they were the only ones who felt miserable inside.
Ash, S. (1985). Cult-induced psychopathology, part 1: Clinical picture. Cultic Studies Journal, 2(1), 31-91.
Farber, I. E., Harlow, H. F., & West, L. J. (1956). Brainwashing, conditioning, and DDD (debility, dependency, and dread). Sociometry, 20, 271-285.
Lifton, R. J. (1961). Thought reform and the psychology of totalism. New York: W. W. Norton.
First, I want to thank all those who had the idea to create this site (Opus Libros). Can you measure exactly the amount of good you do to so many souls out there?
I speak for myself, but I’m sure many people benefit from the content of Opus Livre (Opus Libros, Opus Books)
I also want to congratulate the authors of the book “Opus Dei, os Bastidores” (Opus Dei, behind the Scenes) for so much courage and lucidity. The relevance of this book is immense and, I believe, it helps bring peace to many people who have gone through Opus Dei, as in my case.
Until I had knowledge of the book and access to the site, which only happened two weeks ago, I lived for years of my life thinking that I was the only dissenting number, because I had never read anything so real about it. So, I just have to thank you, because I felt a great relief to see that I’m normal, contrary to what the people at Opus Dei wanted to make me to believe in their mean and harmful norms.
I’m going to spare names out of respect for people. I don’t know if they disappeared or not. Anyway, they deserve respect.
I was 15 years old and recently completed middle school, with very little life experience when I found the Jacamar University Center, (Sao Paulo, Brazil) still at Al. Joaquim Eugênio de Lima in the mid-1970s. I’m from an upper middle-class family, practicing Catholics, college educated parents. To top it off, at the height of my 15 years I was very cute, friendly, although shy, affable and, of course, docile and naïve regarding everything, besides having an immense desire to change the world, do good, be recognized, have friends.
A sister of mine, a year older than me, was the one who took me downtown, invited by a friend from our high school. But I didn’t know anything about Opus Dei, imagine… I arrived on a Sunday, I liked the place, everyone was cheerful and friendly. It was carnival, had a lively little party, I liked the weather. But on the first day some things caught my eye. First, that bunch of women (only women, of course, which I found strange) wearing skirts at a time that few wore … for me it was very weird. Then I noticed that they all had more or less the same manner, the same hair, the same way of expressing themselves. Now, what caused me the most strangeness (but not necessarily in a bad sense at that moment) was when a girl -I had never seen a fatter one in my life- took me aside and said that she really liked me (this about 2 hours after we met for the first time ), and that she wanted to be my friend. Only later did I understand that she was a Numerary (consecrated member) doing her apostolate(mission work) any way she could, as is the custom in The Work (Spanish, La Obra, as the members call it). Anyway, this girl was 5 years older than me, and I was very happy that she approached me and filled me with compliments. I thought it was great for her to want to know so much about me and to have been so interested in me (I almost had no friends, i was very shy and closeted at home). I remember we went out a few times to have coffee, eat sweets, talk. That was really cool. But then the spiritual practices began, which also sounded strange, exaggerated, even though I was used to going to mass, praying.
Anyway, 5 and a half months after having gone to Jacamar the first time, this same girl takes me aside, in one of those conversations, and asks me if I had never thought about becoming a part of The Work (she was already living in the center and told me that she had joined Opus Dei). She asked what I thought of it, I was kind of not sure what to say, but I thought it was weird. Faced with the question about my vocation, I faltered, I didn’t know what to answer, I had no idea what that meant, and, with no idea what to say, “I don’t know, I never thought much, but I also thought, I don’t know.” Then she insisted and said that she thought I had a vocation, that everyone at the center thought it, that I had to give my life to God, that I wouldn’t regret it. He said I should find it as great as I was 15 to know why I was born, that I was chosen by God. I was a little astonished, but I let myself be persuaded (I was really very silly) and said yes I had thought about what it was like to be “on the other side” like her.
Then, on the spot, I had the “great vision” about my vocation… I was very afraid to go ahead because I knew it meant I wouldn’t get married. I was distressed, but I didn’t discuss this with anyone. In conversations, they made me believe that this was a minor thing compared to my “divine” choice. Well, then all the rules and rules started, and I learned several things: first I had to wear skirts always (which for me was absolutely unnatural), that I could not go to the movies or the theater (something else that shocked me a lot), that for everything I had to ask permission of the center, which had to give me money if I needed it, wear the cilice (spiked garter around the thigh) and whip myself with the discipline (hard knotted whip) and do my apostolate (outreach work). I was very bad at trying to convince others, to this day I am, especially when I’m not quite convinced of what I want to sell; so, I was always pretty weak as regards convincing others, But they made it clear to me what kind of “friend” (recruit) the center was interested in: the well-settled and the family with money. And I thought we were going to be holy in the middle of the world, being a normal person, with normal friends… but changing the way I dressed, changing my habits, this was all unnatural to me. I drew a lot of attention at school, at home, everyone came to think I was weird. That was horrible!! I didn’t feel worldly. I was shocked to learn that The Work was all about that. After all, I had dreamed of being normal, wearing pants, going to the movies. Now I was crying because I had been “chosen”. I hated my destiny …
But what really shocked me in Opus Dei, this pseudo-work of God, was another story (neither the cilice and discipline were that hard!). My sister who put me in touch with the university the center (look at the irony) has a disease called neurofibromatosis. Those who suffer from the problem have skin full of fibromas. You can imagine that these people suffer prejudice and have low self-esteem. Because one day, I don’t even remember if I was already from The Work, one of the numeraries, using second-rate psychology, “washed her hands” on my sister’s case. She said that she was a very strange person, full of nervous tics and problems, who had probably gotten a lot from my father as a child and that she needed treatment. And, of course, unfortunately The Work could do nothing for her. Since that day – I never learned what happened exactly in the conversation between the numerary and my sister – my sister was left abandoned in the center, until eventually she stopped going. What’s more, she developed a huge, huge anger for the place, to the point of ridiculing me because I started dressing like the people there and fighting with me every time I went to Jacamar. On the other hand, another of my sisters, two years older than me, good-looking, “whistled”(joined) around the same time as me. It was really hard to hear that about my sister. It’s been 30 years since this happened, and to this day I remember details of what the numerary told me.
Another shock: my mother, although Catholic, hated the center and Opus Dei. She’d do anything to get me out of there, telling me they manipulated me, that they were Francoists (Fascists). I fought a lot with her over The Work and, at the top of my 15 years, the more she contradicted me, the more I wanted to go to Jacamar. Well, because of that, I couldn’t afford to donate to the Work, which was charging me. My contribution was so little that one day I was advised to open my mother’s wallet and open it behind her back. God would understand, according to the director of the center. And so it was that in my teenage years I stole from my mother several times, just to please the directors.
Another shock was when I went to take the university entrance exam. Without asking, I registered for the journalism course at PUC and Liberal Arts at USP. With the registration already made, my directors said that Journalism was a course disapproved by The Work and PUC, so no way! That I should only study Liberal Arts. Actually, what I really wanted most was journalism. So, at the end of high school, I gave in and passed Liberal Arts. I told the people at the center that my directors had recommended I drop out of college. I went secretly to the university center for some (journalism) classes. I enjoyed it a lot; that’s what I wanted. I had passed without having to take the introductory course, but my superiors did not let me move on, despite my arguments. They said it was a very politicized subject, that it was not good for a daughter of God. Very depressed, I was forced to lie to my parents and myself, telling them I no longer wanted that course and that I would present Liberal Arts. My parents wouldn’t let me drop out of college, registered me for the course and paid a year of school for me – I did it unwillingly, not wanting to get into Liberal Arts; I was missing more times than I attended; I skipped…
By that time, my relationship with The Work and God had already gone up in smoke, but I tried to keep up appearances somehow. I was depressed. I had terrible headaches. I made my parents worry about me. They took me to doctors. I was in pain, I was confined to bed, sleeping a lot, not wanting to take the phone calls from the center staff. I didn’t tell anyone my anguish, much less to the numeraries, who should have been my sisters at this point!
Finally, I got involved with a boy… I was almost 19, but I was still attached to the center. One day I told the numerary who was taking care of me what was going on and she wanted to know in detail how far I had gone with the young man. And all the details! And as I was explaining to her, she was turning into a monster, muttering, almost drooling. She was very interested in the content of my story, and at the same time she seemed to feel very angry that I had experienced it and she, at least as far as I knew, had never experienced it. She was not satisfied with my answers. She backed me to the wall in a crazy conversation, which I never forgot, interrogating me. At the end of the conversation, she called me a whore, told me I dressed like a whore (just because on this day I had a blouse with a shorter sleeves) and even spit in my face, disgusted by me. Weakened, I cried a lot, I went to confess with a priest of Opus Dei (who also wanted to know all the details), I asked God’s forgiveness, I just cried. Obviously, I didn’t want to belong to The Work anymore, but I didn’t know how to leave. I was full of guilt; they told me of all the horrors that affect those who leave their vocation. My sister who had joined had already left well before me, without commenting on me. That was terrible too, in a conversation about it! At the center, I was told that she had no vocation, that this was happening. They insisted on me for a while, but gradually they gave up, too.
They didn’t want me there anymore, and I didn’t want them. I had with me material from The Work (books, pamphlets) and I was ready to return them if I were asked. A numerary agreed to meet with me in a church and gave me the message: “You no longer belong to The Work.” I felt a mixture of relief and guilt with the expulsion. She treated me with a certain pity, as if I were a poor thing, but she didn’t give me much satisfaction regarding the reasons for the expulsion. It was all very informal, actually. She said that at that moment what she and The Work could do for me would be to give me guidance so that I would not “fall away” too steeply; so that I could secure my salvation. She arranged for me to meet me the next week for a new conversation. And she said she’d give that assistance for a while. On the day arranged, I went to the agreed place and there I waited for the girl, who not only did not show up but never gave me an explanation – neither she nor anyone else from the Work. As I had sinned gravely in the eyes of Opus Dei (I had only exchanged a few caresses with the boyfriend, had not lost my virginity!) but now I was considered garbage, a fifth-rate human being, and they probably came to the conclusion that no one should waste time with me anymore. The friend who “discovered” my vocation I never saw again; she moved from the Opus house. This distancing for me also made me very bad, a broken link suddenly in such a complicated phase of my life. Since that day in 1979 I have never had any further contact with Opus Dei. (In fact, I always run away from the topic when someone touches on it. I’m so very afraid they’d learn about my past.)
Anyway, years have passed. I married; I have two children, many friends. I am a professional of respect in the area I chose. But Opus Dei is a rock in the middle of my path. I dreamed years of this Work. I still dream, and never, not even once have I been able to talk about my experience with someone – not with my best friends, not with my parents, nor with my sisters (not even with the one who, like me, joined one day), nor before the therapists I’ve seen, nor with my husband. I look at my kids, still children, and I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to talk to them about it either. It is very distressing to keep this secret. I have crises to this day with this and, in front of this picture, I imagine how much relief the site has given me. I see there are other people in the same boat. Deep down, I’d really like to be able to talk in person with a former member of The Work, someone with enough lucidity to exchange ideas with me about my anguish and help me erase this terrible ghost once and for all. Is that possible?
Thank you so much for your attention, from the bottom of my heart.
Pois então aí vai meu depoimento (loooonguíssimo!!):
Primeiro quero agradecer a todos os que tiveram a idéia de criar este site. Será que vocês têm a dimensão exata do bem que fazem a tantas almas por aí?
Falo por mim, mas tenho certeza de que muitas pessoas se beneficiam do conteúdo do Opus Livre.
Quero também parabenizar os autores do livro “Opus Dei, Os Bastidores” por tanta coragem e lucidez. A pertinência deste livro é imensa e, creio eu, ajuda a trazer paz a muita gente que passou pelo Opus Dei – meu caso.
Até ter conhecimento do livro e acesso ao site, o que só aconteceu há duas semanas, vivi anos da minha vida achando que eu era a única numerária dissidente, pois eu nunca havia lido nada tão real sobre o assunto por aí. Então só tenho mesmo a agradecer, porque senti um alívio imenso de ver que sou normal, ao contrário do que as pessoas do Opus Dei quiseram me fazer acreditar com suas normas insanas e nefastas.
Vou poupar nomes em respeito às pessoas. Não sei se elas “desapitaram” ou não. De qualquer forma, merecem respeito.
Eu tinha 15 anos recém-completados e pouquíssima experiência de vida quando conheci o Centro Universitário Jacamar, ainda na Al. Joaquim Eugênio de Lima, em meados da década de 1970. Sou de uma família classe média alta, católicos praticantes, pais universitários. Para completar, no auge dos meus 15 anos era bem bonitinha, simpática, embora tímida, afável e, claro, dócil e ingênua de tudo, além de ter uma imensa vontade de mudar o mundo, fazer o bem, ser reconhecida, ter amigos.
Uma irmã, um ano mais velha do que eu, foi quem me levou ao centro, convidada por uma amiga do nosso colégio, já numerária. Mas eu nada sabia de Opus Dei, imagina… Eu cheguei num domingo, gostei do lugar, era todo mundo alegre e simpático. Era carnaval, tinha uma festinha animada, gostei do clima. Mas já no primeiro dia algumas coisas me chamaram a atenção. Primeiro, aquele bando de mulheres (só mulheres, claro, o que já achei estranho) usando saias numa época que poucas usavam… pra mim era muito esquisito. Depois reparei que todas tinham mais ou menos o mesmo jeito, o mesmo cabelo, o mesmo modo de se expressar. Agora, o que mais me causou estranhamento (mas não necessariamente para o mal naquele momento) foi quando uma moça que eu nunca havia visto mais gorda na vida me chamou para um canto e disse que havia gostado muito (isso com umas 2 horas de convívio apenas) de mim e que queria ser minha amiga. Só depois é que fui entender que se tratava de uma numerária fazendo apostolado de forma acintosa, como é de praxe na Obra. Enfim, essa moça era 5 anos mais velha do que eu e fiquei muito feliz por ela ter se aproximado de mim e me enchido de elogios. Achei o máximo ela querer saber tanto de mim e ter se interessado tanto por mim (eu quase não tinha amigas, era muito tímida e fechada em casa). Lembro que saímos algumas vezes para tomar café, comer doces, conversar. Aquilo era muito legal. Mas aí começaram as práticas espirituais, que também me soavam estranhas, exageradas, embora eu estivesse acostumada a ir à missa, a rezar. Enfim, 5 meses e meio depois de ter ido à primeira vez ao Jacamar, essa mesma moça que chama para um canto, numa daquelas nossas conversas, e me pergunta se eu nunca tinha pensado em ser da Obra (ela já estava morando no centro e me contou que havia entrado para o Opus Dei. Perguntou o que eu achava daquilo, fiquei meio sem saber o que dizer, mas achei esquisito). Diante da pergunta sobre minha vocação, vacilei, não sabia o que responder, não tinha a menor idéia do que aquilo significava e, sem ter idéia do que dizer disse “mais ou menos, sei lá, nunca pensei muito, mas também já pensei, não sei”. Aí ela insistiu e disse que achava que eu tinha vocação, que todo mundo no centro achava, que eu tinha de entregar minha vida a Deus, que eu não me arrependeria. Disse que eu deveria achar o máximo com apenas 15 anos saber por que motivo eu havia nascido, que eu era escolhida por Deus. Fiquei meio pasma, mas entrei no discurso dela (eu era realmente muito tonta) e disse que já tinha pensado sim em como era estar ‘do outro lado’, como ela. Aí, pronto, tive a “grande visão” a respeito da minha vocação… Tive muito medo de ir em frente, porque sabia que não podia casar, fiquei meio aflita, mas não comentei com ninguém. Nas conversas, fizeram-me acreditar que isso era uma coisa menor diante da escolha “divina”. Bem, aí começaram todas as normas e regras e tomei conhecimento de várias coisas: primeiro que tinha de usar saias sempre (o que pra mim era absolutamente antinatural), que não podia ir ao cinema nem ao teatro (outra coisa que me chocou muito), que para tudo tinha de pedir permissão ao centro, que tinha de dar dinheiro, usar o cilício e as disciplinas e fazer apostolado de qualquer jeito. Eu era muito ruim nisso de tentar convencer os outros, até hoje sou, especialmente quando não estou bem convencida do que quero vender, por isso sempre fui bem fraca de apostolado. Enfim, mas deixaram claro para mim que tipo de amiga interessava ao centro: as bem resolvidas e as de família com grana. E eu que achava que a gente ia ser santo no meio do mundo, sendo uma pessoa normal, com amigos normais… mudar o jeito de vestir, mudar meus hábitos, isso tudo era pra mim antinatural, eu chamava muita atenção na escola, em casa, todos passaram a me achar esquisita. Isso foi horrível!! Não me sentia do mundo, tive um choque ao saber que a Obra era isso. No final, sonhava em ser normal, usar calça, ir ao cinema, chorava porque eu havia sido “escolhida” , tinha ódio do meu destino…
Mas o que me chocou mesmo no Opus Dei, essa pseudo-obra de Deus, foi uma outra história (nem o cilício e a disciplina me doeram tanto!). A minha irmã que me fez conhecer o centro (vejam a ironia) tem uma doença chamada neurofibromatose. Quem sofre do problema tem a pele cheia de fibromas. Dá para imaginar que essas pessoas sofrem preconceito e têm baixa auto-estima. Pois um dia, nem me lembro mais se eu já era da Obra, uma das numerárias, se valendo de uma psicologia de quinta categoria, “lavou as mãos” sobre o caso da minha irmã. Disse que ela era uma pessoa muito esquisita, cheia de tiques nervosos e problemas, que provavelmente tinha apanhado muito do meu pai quando criança e que ela precisava se tratar. E, claro, que infelizmente a Obra não poderia fazer nada por ela. Desde esse dia – eu nunca soube o que aconteceu na conversa entre a numerária e a minha irmã – minha irmã ficou largada às traças no centro, até que deixou de ir. E mais: ficou com uma raiva enorme, imensa do lugar, a ponto de me ridicularizar porque eu passei a me vestir como as pessoas de lá e a brigar comigo toda vez que eu ia ao Jacamar. Em compensação, uma outra irmã, dois anos mais velha do que eu, de boa aparência, apitou mais ou menos na mesma época que eu. Foi muito duro ouvir aquilo sobre minha irmã. Faz 30 anos que isso aconteceu e até hoje me lembro detalhes do que a numerária me falou. Outro choque: minha mãe, apesar de católica, odiava o centro e o Opus Dei. Fazia de tudo para me tirar de lá, dizia que me manipulavam, que eram franquistas. Briguei muito com ela por causa da Obra e, no alto dos meus 15 anos, quanto mais ela me contrariava, mais eu queria ir ao Jacamar. Bem, por causa disso, não conseguia dinheiro para dar à Obra, que me cobrava. Minha contribuição era tão pouca que um dia me aconselharam a abrir a carteira da minha mãe e pegar sem ela perceber. Deus entenderia, segundo a diretora do centro. E assim foi que na minha adolescência furtei minha mãe várias vezes, apenas para agradar às diretoras.
Outro choque foi quando fui prestar vestibular. Sem perguntar nada, fiz inscrição para o curso de Jornalismo na PUC e de Letras na USP. Com a inscrição já feita, disseram que Jornalismo era um curso reprovado pela Obra e a PUC, então, nem pensar! Que eu só deveria prestar Letras. Na verdade, o que eu mais queria era Jornalismo mesmo. Então, ao acabar o colégio, prestei e passei. Contei ao pessoal do centro, elas me disseram para largar a faculdade. Cheguei a ir escondido do centro em algumas aulas, gostei muito, era o que eu queria, havia passado sem precisar fazer cursinho, mas não me deixaram seguir em frente, apesar dos meus argumentos. Diziam que era um curso muito politizado, que aquilo não era bom para uma filha de Deus. Muito deprimida, fui obrigada a mentir aos meus pais e a mim mesma, dizendo que não queria mais aquele curso e que iria prestar Letras. Meus pais não me deixaram largar a faculdade, trancaram o curso e pagaram um ano de cursinho para mim – fiz a contragosto, não querendo entrar na Letras, mais faltava do que ia, matava aula etc. Nessa altura, minha relação com a Obra e com Deus já tinha ido para o espaço, mas eu tentava manter as aparências de alguma forma. Tive depressão, sentia dores de cabeça terríveis, fiz meus pais se preocuparem comigo, me levarem em médicos, exagerava nas dores, vivia trancada na cama, dormindo, sem querer atender aos telefonemas do pessoal do centro. Não contava para ninguém minhas angústias, muito menos para as numerárias, que deveriam ser a essa altura minhas irmãs! Por fim, me envolvi com um rapaz… tinha quase 19 anos, mas ainda não havia me desligado do centro. Contei um dia à numerária que me atendia o que estava acontecendo e ela quis saber em detalhes até onde eu tinha chegado com o moço. Mas detalhes mesmo! E conforme eu ia contando ela ia se transformando num monstro, falando entre dentes, quase babando. Tinha enorme interesse naquilo que eu contava, e, ao mesmo tempo, parecia sentir muita raiva por eu ter experimentado aquilo e ela, ao menos até onde eu sabia, não ter passado por isso. Não se contentava com minhas respostas, me encostou na parede numa conversa alucinada, que nunca mais esqueci, dirigindo minhas respostas. Ao fim da conversa, me chamou de puta, disse que eu me vestia como uma puta (só porque neste dia estava com uma blusa com uma manguinha mais curta) e chegou a cuspir no meu rosto, com nojo de mim. Fragilizada, chorei muito, fui me confessar com um padre do Opus Dei (que também quis saber todos os detalhes), pedi perdão a Deus, me acabei de chorar. Óbvio que não queria mais ser da Obra, mas não sabia como, tinha muita culpa, me falavam de todos os horrores que acometem quem deixa a vocação. Minha irmã que havia apitado já tinha saído bem antes de mim, sem nada comentar comigo. Isso também foi terrível, numa conversamos sobre isso! No centro, me disseram que ela não tinha vocação, que isso acontecia. Insistiram um tempo comigo, mas aos poucos largaram mão também. Não me queriam mais lá, nem eu a eles. Eu tinha comigo um material da Obra (livros, folhetos) e me prontifiquei a devolvê-los, tal qual me solicitavam. Uma numerária marcou comigo numa igreja e me deu o recado: “Você não é mais da Obra”. Senti um misto de alívio e culpa com a expulsão. Ela me tratou com certa pena, como se eu fosse uma coitada, mas não me deu muita satisfação dos motivos da expulsão. Foi tudo muito informal, na verdade. Disse que naquele momento o que ela e a Obra poderiam fazer por mim seria me dar uma orientação para que eu não ‘caísse’ mais tão fundo, para que eu garantisse minha salvação. Então ela combinou comigo de me encontrar na semana seguinte, para nova conversa. E disse que daria essa assistência por um tempo. No dia, fui ao local marcado e lá fiquei a esperar a moça, que não só não apareceu como nunca me deu uma satisfação – nem ela nem ninguém da Obra. Como eu havia pecado gravemente ao olhos do Opus Dei (só havia trocado umas carícias com o namorado, não tinha nem deixado de ser virgem!) havia me tornado um lixo, um ser humano de quinta categoria, e provavelmente chegaram à conclusão de que ninguém deveria mais perder tempo comigo. A tal amiga que ‘descobriu’ minha vocação eu nunca mais vi, ela mudou de centro, essa distância para mim também me fez muito mal, foi um elo quebrado de repente numa fase tão complicada da minha vida. Desde esse dia, de 1979, nunca mais tive nenhum contato com o Opus Dei (aliás, sempre fujo do tema quando por acaso alguém toca nele, tenho muito medo que saibam do meu passado.)
Enfim, anos se passaram, casei, tenho dois filhos, muitos amigos, sou uma profissional de respeito na área que escolhi. Mas o Opus Dei é uma pedra no meio do meu caminho. Sonhei anos com essa Obra, ainda sonho, e nunca, mas nunca mesmo, consegui falar disso com alguém – nem com meus melhores amigos, nem com meus pais, nem com minhas irmãs (nem com a que apitou um dia), nem diante dos terapeutas que fui, nem com meu marido. Olho meus filhos, ainda crianças, e acho que nunca vou conseguir falar sobre isso com eles também. É muito angustiante ter esse segredo, tenho crises até hoje com isso e, diante desse quadro, imagino o quanto de alívio o site me proporcionou. Vejo que há outras pessoas no mesmo barco. No fundo, gostaria mesmo de poder conversar pessoalmente com um ex-membro da Obra, alguém com lucidez suficiente para trocar idéias comigo sobre minhas angústias e me ajudar a apagar de vez esse terrível fantasma. Será que isso é possível?
An Interview with Ex-Opus Dei Numerary Eileen Johnson – Part 1
The following interview with ex-Opus Dei numerary, Eileen Johnson, was conducted over a period of several months in 2020 and 2021. Eileen is a native of Yorkshire, England, where “a spade is called a spade, and not a bloody shovel.” And indeed, she obliges us with her extraordinary candor and honesty in response to my in-depth questions concerning her more than ten-years-experience as an early high-level member of Opus Dei in the United Kingdom (UK) in the 1960s.
– Randy Engel, Catholic investigative reporter and editor of ODWATCH
Engel: By way of introduction Eileen, would you give our readers some background on your family and education, and how Opus Dei entered your young life?
Johnson: Yes, of course. I was born in Yorkshire, England, in 1943, into a Catholic family on my mother’s side. My father was an agnostic. I have two older brothers. As the youngest and only girl, I attended a Catholic primary school and later a convent Grammar school, which I think your American readers would call a Catholic high school. I was a pious child with a lively spirit who loved to sing and dance. At the age of 15, I seriously considered a religious vocation.
It was about a year later, at age 16, when Opus Dei entered my life – surreptitiously, I might add.
I was an excellent student and class leader. French was my favorite subject. So, it was not surprising when our new young French teacher took a special interest in me and took me under her wing. I was flattered. She was aware of my regular lunchtime visits to the school chapel as she also frequently visited the chapel.
One day she invited me to join her at an international summer school for girls at the Rydalwood University hostel in Manchester where, she said, I could “teach English” and also practice my French. My parents, especially my father, encouraged me to take advantage of this opportunity. They trusted my teacher. I had just turned 17, and this was my first trip away from home on my own. Naturally, I was excited!
Engel: Was the venture successful?
Johnson: As it turned out, I was invited to Manchester under false pretenses.
First of all, I was unable to practice my French because there were no French students taking the course. I wasn’t qualified to teach English either. The invitation was, in fact, a ruse to introduce me to Opus Dei within a closely-controlled Opus environment apart from my family. But I was oblivious to the reality.
Engel: Wasn’t there a visible sign designating Rydalwood as an Opus Dei University hostel when you entered the building?
Johnson: No. The centres have secular names and are not openly identified as being run by Opus Dei. It wasn’t until my French teacher, herself an Opus numerary, started to explain to me what Opus Dei was, that I began to understand the real reason for the invitation. You see, neither I, nor my family or friends, had ever heard of Opus Dei. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Opus was just getting established in the UK. So, it was all quite new. After a few days, at Rydalwood my teacher told me I had a “vocation” to Opus Dei.
I resisted the pressure to join “the Work” at first. However, a few months later, after I had attended an Opus weekend retreat back in Manchester, I changed my mind.
Engel: What attracted you most to Opus Dei?
Johnson: Bear in mind that I was only 16 when Opus’s grooming and “love bombing” began. I came from a comfortable, happy home, but hadn’t been exposed to cosmopolitan ways. I was on the threshold of my newly-discovered independence and found the Opus members and the beautiful atmosphere at Rydalwood very appealing. I took my Catholic faith very seriously and had already been thinking of becoming a nun. I was attracted by the fact that the numeraries at Rydalwood were lay women fully dedicated to God.
Also, as a language student, I was immediately drawn to the Latin flavor of the centre and the gaiety and friendliness of the numeraries, most of whom were Spanish. They were well dressed, well groomed, well perfumed. And they made such a fuss over me – something I wasn’t used to as I was a lonely child and teenager.
Looking back, I remember the first time that my parents drove me to the Manchester campus and visited Rydalwood. As they were leaving my mother asked me, “Do you think you would like it so much if it wasn’t so attractive?” It was a rather prophetic question.
Engel: So, you initially joined Opus Dei as a supernumerary, not as a numerary, correct?
Johnson: Yes, in December 1960. At the time, I was still living at home, and studying for my A level exams. I planned to enter Manchester University in the fall. I remember fervently reading and studying The Way and other Opus publications. I even sold copies of the publications to my friends at school. I was obviously totally enthralled with Opus Dei.
Engel: What’s the difference between an Opus Dei supernumerary and a numerary?
Johnson: The degree of commitment.
Male and female numeraries are lay celibates; they live in Opus centres; they hand over their total income to Opus Dei; and are closely monitored and controlled. Supernumeraries are married, or at least free to marry. They are also expected to make significant financial donations to Opus. They have Opus confessors and spiritual directors, and a Plan of Life. Both are fully committed to the recruitment of new members and spreading the message of Opus Dei through their families and their work.
I should mention that there are celibate members who live at home. They are called Associates.
Sometimes they have to care for aging or disabled parents.
Engel: Did you take vows of any kind like religious do?
Msgr. Josemaría Escrivá with Pope John XXIII, Ides of March, 1960
Johnson: When I joined Opus Dei in the early 1960s it was called a “Secular Institute.” Escrivá adamantly wanted to avoid any perceived connection between a “lay vocation” in Opus Dei with a “religious vocation.”
So, to answer your question, I took what were called, “private vows.” For me they were binding, even before I formally took them. From the day I “’whistled” (OD jargon for writing the letter to Rome to request admission), I lived as a committed member in every way. The understanding was that the commitment was for life. The Admission ceremony took place six months later in the Opus oratory in the presence of an Opus priest, my directress, and one other numerary.
After Opus Dei was awarded the unique status of “Personal Prelature” in 1982, the term “vow” was changed to “contract,” but the nature of the commitment remained basically the same.
Engel: Was your family present at the Admission ceremony?
Johnson: Hardly. They didn’t know I had joined Opus much less that I had made a lifelong commitment to the Work that included perpetual celibacy. Neither did any of my close friends. As a new recruit I was told not to tell my parents. From the start, it was explained to me that for our apostolate in Opus Dei to be effective it must “pass unnoticed.” Opus Dei deemed our dedication was to be a very private matter between us and God and our sisters in Opus Dei. What many see as “secrecy,” Opus calls “Holy Discretion.”
Engel: No matter what you call it, for a minor to engage in such deception and be instructed to keep such a life-changing association secret from his or her parents is a violation of the Fifth Commandment to honor one’s father and mother. Didn’t your obvious delicate conscience send up a red flag?
Johnson: If it did, I wasn’t paying attention. As I said earlier, I was just bowled over by this new and exciting version of a secular life so fully dedicated to the Church – the Work of God – yet, so upbeat, so vibrant, so warm, and so friendly.
Engel: We’ll be returning to the issue of secrecy as formal Opus policy later in this interview, but for now I’d like to ask you about your relationship with your boyfriend at this time. Was it serious? Did he know about your commitment to Opus?
Johnson: Yes, to both questions. We were serious. We even discussed the possibility of marriage after we graduated from the University. We also came to share a deep attraction to Opus Dei and we both became supernumeraries.
Like me, my boyfriend kept his membership in Opus a secret from his parents. He resided at an Opus Dei men’s University residence. We both were aware at the time that Opus was grooming both of us, but not for each other. Eventually, Opus was able to manipulate our total separation and he eventually joined as a celibate numerary. I found out that he had become a numerary when the directress told me to speak to the priest in the confessional. I was instructed not to contact him again.
Engel: Did he ever pursue the occupation he studied and trained for at the University after graduation?
Johnson: No, I don’t think so. He was a Physics graduate, but Opus needed him elsewhere for internal work. In his early 20s, he became the Director of a male Opus University Centre in London. Later, he was asked by his superiors to become a priest of Opus Dei. He was ordained in Rome at the age of 26. He later became the Counselor (later called Vicar) of Opus Dei for the UK.
Engel: And you?
Johnson: I was told before joining Opus Dei that I would be free to pursue my chosen studies and career in languages. That never happened. In February of 1962, at the age of 18, three months after I separated from my boyfriend, I also changed my supernumerary status to that of a numerary (lay celibates who live in Opus centres) so I could devote my entire life to Opus Dei. This meant I had to “whistle” again and write to the Father to ask to be admitted as a numerary. I never spoke to my boyfriend again.
I was also told by my directress that I would make a good journalist. That idea lodged in my mind and I began to perceive a journalistic career as part of my vocation to serve Opus Dei.
Engel: How did Opus Dei influence your academic and campus life?
Johnson: Well, during my three years at the University, I found myself focusing more on my “Plan of Life” and proselytism than on my studies. In my third year, I was appointed Assistant Directress of Rydalwood, which further detracted from my studies. At the age of 22, I was appointed a member of the Advisory in London. This came as a surprise, and I felt very flattered.
Although, theoretically, Opus places a high premium on excellence in academics as well as work, in my case dedication to the internal needs and tasks of Opus and its expansion in the UK took priority over my personal choices and priorities, and jeopardized my career.
Also, when I entered the University, I had hoped to join the Gilbert and Sullivan Society and the Scottish Country Dance Society, but these were nixed by Opus because they would expose me to the opposite sex. Going to the theater, cinemas and mixed social events were also prohibited.
Engel: At what point did you reveal your membership to Opus Dei to your parents?
Johnson: In June 1964, after I had graduated from the University, I told them that I had an interest in joining Opus now that I had turned 21, which was the age of majority in the UK back then. That was a lie, of course. I had already been a member for years, first as a supernumerary while I was still living at home, and then as a celibate numerary and as an Assistant Directress at Rydalwood.
Engel: So, your parents helped pay for your college costs for four years not knowing of your life-long commitment to Opus?
Johnson: Yes, my father paid a “parental contribution,” to supplement the grant from my local education authority.
Engel: And Opus, who would benefit from all your educational skills and talents after your graduation paid how much?
Engel: How convenient, I mean, for Opus.
Johnson: I should add a caveat here to say that during my undergraduate at the University, my father had become ill, so my parents were not as aware of my campus life as they might otherwise have been.
I recall my directress telling me that I needed to “get a balance.” “Since your parents don’t know about your vocation, you can’t stop going home for the holidays,” she advised me. I was reminded of The Way, 644: “Be silent! Don’t forget that your ideal is like a newly lit flame. A single breath might be enough to put it out in your heart.”
On the few occasions that I actually spent at home, my mother did express concern about my social isolation and tried to introduce me to a young man, but that was out of bounds for me as a celibate numerary.
Engel: What about your family relations after your graduation in 1964?
Johnson: After graduation I continued to live at Rydalwood. I rarely saw my parents. Not even at Christmas. As for my brothers, I had almost no contact with them or my sisters-in-laws or their children. Opus did permit me to be a godmother to two of my nephews, but that was before I had informed my family that I had joined Opus Dei.
Overall, Opus discouraged members’ attendance at family events like weddings and funerals. When my cousin, who had been my longtime playmate was married, I went to stay at my parents’ home, but on the morning of the wedding, I feigned illness so as not to attend. I felt no remorse. Rather, I was pleased with myself that I had found a way to “obey.” When my aunt, my mother’s only sister died I didn’t go to the funeral. Mum was very hurt. On this occasion I did feel bad as I had started to question my membership in Opus Dei.
Visits with old friends were discouraged unless the motive was to recruit them.
Genuine friendships disappeared. Over my many years as a numerary, I had no real friends. I had fallen prey to the Opus way of using “friendship” as a tactic, in a very manipulative way. By the time I left Opus I was friendless.
Gradually I became more and more emotionally distant from my “blood family” and my old friends. I couldn’t wait to get back “home” to my new “supernatural family” – Opus Dei.
Engel: I’m a little more than curious to learn more about your life as a numerary in Opus Dei. Maybe you can start by describing your early formation or orientation to what is called “the Spirit of Opus Dei,” especially since ex-members are generally hesitant about revealing this type of information to “outsiders.”
Johnson: The so-called “Spirit of Opus Dei” is gradually conveyed to new numeraries in a variety of ways. There was the weekly “Circle” and “Fraternal Chat.” There were meditations given by an Opus priest at the monthly Days of Recollection, and also an annual five-day retreat. At the three-week Annual Course held at an Opus women’s centre, more experienced numeraries gave talks on the “Spirit of the Work” (Discretion, Obedience, Poverty, Divine Filiation, Apostolate, the Norms, and Mortification) and we had regular guided meditations from an Opus Dei priest, who also gave classes on the teachings of Saint Thomas Aquinas.
Engel: Speaking of mortification did you wear the cilice [a sharp spiked ring worn on the upper leg used to suppress desire]?
Johnson: Yes, I wore the cilice on my upper thigh for two hours a day in the afternoon, and used the discipline [a small whip of knotted cords applied to one’s buttocks] for five minutes on Saturday. These were an obligatory part of my life as a numerary. I should add that these practices were only revealed to us after we became members.
Engel: Let me get this straight, Eileen. These programs of formation and mortification you described were in addition to…
Johnson: … In addition to the other norms and requirements for a numerary that included two half hours – one in the morning and one in the evening – of mental prayer daily; Mass; the Rosary; the Angelus; the Preces; Opus Dei prayers and the examination of conscience. Major Silence was kept from bedtime until after Mass the next day, and Minor Silence during the afternoon.
Engel: And what about your internal work as Assistant Directress of Rydalwood and your part time job teaching English to immigrant children at a local school? And later, your appointment to the Opus Advisory as Secretary of Saint Raphael’s Work, which must have required a great deal of time and energy? Frankly, this doesn’t seem to be in the realm of an “ordinary” or “normal” life for a non-religious. When did you have time to breathe or think your own thoughts?
Johnson: What can I say? I was hooked. My real self was being overshadowed by my newly acquired cultic personality, but not entirely, thank God. At times, I was exhausted. I remember particularly the time when the Advisory worked through several nights, preparing the annual report and contribution for Rome. I had to go to bed (well, to lie on the floor) because I couldn’t work any longer.
In theory, we were supposed to take breaks, in the form of a “weekly walk,” and a “monthly excursion,” but with our work ethic, these down times were often overlooked.
(To be continued)
[Part 2 will be published on Wednesday, March 3]
 OD WATCH was first published in November 2017 by Catholic writer Randy Engel, a long-time critic of the Prelature and its organizational tentacles of numeraries, supernumeraries, associates, and cooperators. It is a free electronic mailing based on background information, news, and commentaries on Opus Dei from around the world. To subscribe, contact Randy Engel at email@example.com.
 Rydalwood was the first Manchester centre of the OD women’s section. It was a University hostel with accommodations for about 35 students.
 Josemaría Escrivá, The Way: The Essential Classic of Opus Dei’s Founder, containing Scriptural passages and personal anecdotes drawn from Escrivá’s life and work. The booklet presented Escrivá’s 999 points for meditation.
 The Plan of Life comprises the daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly commitments of members.
 The Advisory oversee the activities of all the Opus Dei centres of the Women’s Section in the UK, and acts as a go-between or facilitator between local centres and Rome, constantly transmitting instructions. The Advisory is presided over by the Counsellor (or Vicar).
 In 1969, the age of majority was reduced from 21 to 18 in the UK.
 Escrivá claimed the Work is a true family, not metaphorically. And that the bonds in the Work are stronger than those of blood. See “Pastoral Letter of the Prelate,” Msgr. Fernando Ocáriz, October 11, 2020, on the restructuring of the Prelature.
 St. Raphael’s Work [Circles] of formation, meditations, recollections, and retreats is directed at young people. Initially, ‘cultural activities’ are organized as a means of attracting young people to the centres. They are then invited to participate in the spiritual activities. Escrivá stated that visits to the poor are one of the traditional means of St. Raphael’s work, although he himself as the founder of Opus Dei was rarely seen among the poor.