Some years later Charlie called to tell me that the International Cultic Studies Association was holding its annual conference in Philadelphia and wouldn't it be a great idea to produce the play there--as a form of entertainment? I immediately went into a cold panic. The play, I told him, was not really ready for an audience. And it certainly wasn't something we could produce in that kind of setting. But I would consider reworking it and doing a reading there to test out the story with a tough audience -- former members, their families, caregivers and families of current members.
Enough time had passed that I could look at the script again with an editor's eye. And I realized that the way back in was to write the story from a perspective that I understood intimately as someone who had lost a sister to a strange new church. In my case, she was gone only a few weeks one summer, but it was enough to terrify and traumatize my family, because she had handed over to them everything she had in the world--her beloved camera, her bicycle, her cash on hand--and signed on to 24/7 servitude to an ideology that none of us -- including her, it turned out -- really understood. Something very attractive had lured her in, but once she was there, it became clear her function was not to seek spiritual enlightment but to work wage-free in support of the Unification Church -- what we then called "The Moonies."
She likes to say now that she wasn't a very good cult member, since she was fond of taking long walks alone at night, in order to think things over. It was not a practice the group encouraged, but she was rebellious enough not to care. And that streak of independence saved her, along with a newspaper article sent to our house by a Boston reporter who had run into her while he was working on expose about the group's guru, the supposedly Reverend Mr. Moon.
The article revealed Moon to be a fraud -- to our Catholic ears, the idea that any man who was on his third marriage could be holy in any way was laughable -- and when my mother read the story to my sister during one of her rare calls home, my sister was stunned into action. She left the group and came home, but looking back it is clear that the experience took a lot out of her and left her confused, if not actually bereft, over the loss of something dear to her.
Controlling organizations don't thrive unless they offer their participants something of great value that they can't get anywhere else--that sense of belonging, of being loved, of making a difference in the world. In our material culture we seldom acknowledge the great spiritual thirst within each of us. It is a real and easily exploited need in young people -- and if you are raised in a culture of conformity and compliance, as we were, young girls growing up Catholic in the 1970s, you're a ripe target for that kind of manipulation.
Salvation Road is my attempt to explore the mystery of such controlling groups-- and where exactly you draw the line between a church and a cult. Some people have told me, not jokingly either, that the Roman Catholic Church is the biggest cult in the world. Not sure I agree. But it makes for an interesting late-night argument.
In these pages, I invite readers to share stories of their own experiences with controlling groups or individuals. We will also use this blog to provide updates on the progress of the production in this year's Capital Fringe as well as other interesting developments related to the project.
Thanks for reading.
D.W. Gregory, playwright