Family Cult, Part 2

Fearful for Their Family

"Michael is a complete fraud. He is power hungry. Michael calls himself the Messiah," says Bambi.

 

She speaks with disdain about Michael Travesser, leader of the Lord Our Righteousness Church, and the horrors she says she witnessed. "In Michael's group, men have come to accept that Michael has every right to take their wives," she says. "Mothers have accepted that he can take their daughters. He's had sex with his son's wife. He calls it consummation, but to me, it's no different than being raped."

[AD]Her sister, Lorraine, left the group 13 years ago, and she says she fears for the mother and two sisters still living at the compound. "Michael has manipulated his people to believe that his own lusts, and his own perversions, are of God," she says. "Taking a man's wife, and saying that it's of God and it's holy " in the world in which we live, that's called adultery. Lying with an underage girl "  in our world, that is being a child molester. He has manipulated their minds so that they can't even discern what is true and what isn't. I remember thinking, this is how the Nazis did what they did in World War II, exactly the same kind of mind control. It takes a long time to heal from something like that."

Bambi shares her fears as she stands in the airport en route to New Mexico. "I'm terrified. Even though I have left the cult, the hardest thing is wishing that I could rescue my family from the really sick mind control they're under," she says. "The last time I saw them was on a documentary. I still have scars from the church, and what they've done to my family is just absolutely despicable " dehumanized them. They've completely ruined their lives."

"I was a part of the group for about six years. I left because I realized that you couldn't have your own thoughts," Lorraine says. "You had to totally conform. That's a type of brainwashing."

[AD]The sisters meet at the airport and share a hug. They discuss their plan for liberating their loved ones. "We know that they're indoctrinated in this. None of them have eaten for 22 days," Bambi says.

"Our goal is to get them out of there," Lorraine adds.

On the drive to the Lord Our Righteousness Church, also known as Strong City, Lorraine grows nervous. "I'm really concerned to find out what we're going to find there, whether they're going to receive us, if we're going to be able to see them, if we can even get in the gates there," she says. "Neither of us have been to the land, so we're really going into territory that we know nothing about."

"We're permitted to go on the land to go to my mom's residence," Bambi says. Dr. Phil cameras follow the women on their journey but have to remain at a respectable distance.

After meeting with her relatives, Lorraine reflects on the visit. "They are living a life of deprivation. They were fasting. They were going without water," she laments. "Obviously, they look very thin. My sister was very frail, and you can feel the bones in her back when you hug her. I would love to take them from here. That's really my heart's desire, but they believe this man is their Messiah."

[AD]"They seem lost and deluded," Bambi adds. "This fast is over, but I know this church. It's a plan that will come back with a different face, and a different name and a different reason. It's not over."

Although Bambi and Lorraine's relatives remain in Strong City, the sisters' nightmare is partly over. On December 30, 2008, Michael Travesser was sentenced to 10 years in prison for sexual misconduct with minors.

Back in his studio, Dr. Phil debriefs the women. "How did they receive you when you saw them " your sisters and your mom?" he asks.

"Esther, she came to the gate first, and there was no emotion. Eileen, my stepmother, Bambi's mother, she did cry. Francis, who's also known as Noelle, she didn't cry either," Lorraine says. 

Bambi says she was shocked by her loved ones' appearance. "Their eyes were so dead. There was just nobody home," she tells Dr. Phil. "They were so skinny, and they looked so frail."

"When you were there, you were scared about the outside world. They told you horrible things " if you were to leave " would happen, right?" Dr. Phil asks Lorraine.

[AD]"What you're told is if you leave, then you have the spirit of Satan, and you're eternally lost," she replies.

"What pushed you out?"

"People were giving up their homes, giving up their jobs," she responds. "Once I saw that the group was isolating, that was very disturbing to me, and that was when I began to say, ‘This isn't right.'"

Dr. Phil confers with Rick Ross, a cult interventionist who has been researching extreme religious groups for 26 years. "What's going on with this group?" Dr. Phil asks.

"It's a personality-driven group. The focus of power is with Wayne Bent, and he's the leader," Rick answers. "I would say the people feel that he is God incarnate in the sense that if they disobey him, or speak against him or criticize him in any way, they're not only turning against him, they're turning against God. What we also see is a group that is very extreme. The more the group has extreme demands, typically, the more isolated it becomes." 

Rick praises the sisters for reaching out to their relatives. "You're establishing a line of communication again," he says. "What's important is not to criticize Bent, not to criticize the group, but to make that connection with your family."

Dr. Phil underscores Rick's last point. "If at that point they say, ‘Wow, we have loving people out there who reached out to us,' it can be the courage they need, it can be that paved road that they need, to move away from that and back to somebody that they had a good experience with," he says.

[AD]"It was really important for us to go out and not say anything judgmental about anybody. We just wanted to go and make sure that they got that we loved them a lot, and we were going to be there for them," Bambi says. "I know we both have resentment issues from being there, but we didn't let those show."

"A lot of the time that we spent together, I shared with them why I left," Lorraine adds. "I said to my stepmother, ‘What do you see when you look in the mirror? What do you see when you look in the faces of these people?' She said, ‘God. I see God. What do you see?' I said, 'I see empty people.'"

Dr. Phil turns to Dr. Frank Lawlis, the chairman of the Dr. Phil Advisory Board, who has studied the dynamics of cult behavior and transitioning back into society. "If, as Rick says, this group implodes and it starts to fragment and people leave, what do they face when they make that re-entry?" Dr. Phil asks.

"As Rick said, their attitude has to do with rejecting everything and basically going with the flow of the group," Dr. Lawlis answers. "This affects the brain, especially the frontal lobe. The frontal lobe has to do with executive function, and making judgments and those kinds of issues. That part of the brain is basically dead " not dead, but sleeping."

"What causes that part of the brain to shut down?" Dr. Phil probes. "Obviously, they're described as very flat and almost zombie-like."


[AD]"It has to do with training the brain to not think," Dr. Lawlis replies, "creating this doubt about their own ability to process information intelligently."

Dr. Phil tells Lorraine and Bambi to keep him apprised of their relatives' plight. "Let's hope that they do walk out that gate. If and when they do, please let us know, and we'll get Rick and Dr. Lawlis involved. We'll do anything and everything we can to make that transition stick," he says. 

Inside a Cult, which documents Michael Travesser's religious group and his followers, airs on the National Geographic Channel on January 18 at 10 p.m.