It’s a dirty story of a dirty man–well, for the first hundred pages or so. Wade Fransson’s The People of the Sign is essentially a coming-of-age story set to Beatles song titles. That is, the chapters and the subheadings within each chapter of the book are titled after Beatles songs, most of which do a relatively good job of relating to the subsequent content. Some, though, require a bit of creative stretching (e.g., a recounting of Fransson’s ultimately less-than-fateful meeting with a prominent Swedish media personality comes under the heading of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”).
Born to a meat-and-p0tatoes Swedish immigrant father and an alcoholic mother who married too young, Wade Fransson’s early life was plagued by all the hallmarks of familial dysfunction, eventually culminating in divorce and custody disputes. At the tender age of nine he and his two sisters became the “victims” of the most common type of kidnapping: their father stopped by while their mother was out and said, “Come on, kids, let’s go to the mall!” But by “the mall”, he meant “Sweden”.
During his first year in Sweden, Fransson was introduced to culture shock, the cruelties of grade-school politics, and pornography. Within two years he had even acquired some life experience. Fransson brags that “in a little fort down the dirt road in the forest in back of where we lived, two thirteen-year-old neighborhood girls were experimenting with their feminine prowess, and I was a safe, somewhat exotic, and very willing boy.” (Frisky, young Swedish girls in a woodland fort, you say? Brb…)
But such sessions aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, an older and wiser Fransson insists:
Those least emotionally able to handle such situations are most susceptible to exploitation, and after two sessions the girls suddenly wanted nothing to do with me. But they had gotten under my skin and left greasy fingerprints on my imagination. My battered and bruised heart had been wounded in a new way.
We feel your pain, Wade.
The young Fransson’s bittersweet adolescent idyll in a foreign land was about to take a turn for the weird, though. His dear old kidnapper (now working back in the States, having left the kids with relatives in Sweden), had started listening to Garner Ted on the radio, and soon found himself in the grip of the self-aggrandizing process of conversion to Armstrongism. We all know what happens next, of course: childhood indoctrination!
It’s probably important to point out here that Fransson dedicates (by my estimation) some 15 percent of the book’s volume to explaining the doctrines of WCG, parceled out in basically manageable chunks. Most of that explanation is framed approvingly by the author and betrays certain assumptions your dear editors do not share (that the Bible is authoritative, for one thing). This is not to suggest that Fransson comes across here as an enthusiastic promoter of Armstrongist fundamentalism, although he still apparently believes much of the mythos.
Custody concerns soon brought Fransson’s father back to Sweden to be with his children in person, under official threat of losing them. The subsequent reunion gave the new convert an opportunity to inflict his delusions upon his defenseless offspring. This manifested first and foremost, as it so often does, in the application of divinely inspired “child rearing” techniques (an imposition the author at one point describes as “unbearable” and productive of something less than a “loving environment”.)
In the Fall of the same year, the family attended the Feast at Minehead, England. Fransson describes the intoxicating effect of this youthful initiation into cult madness thus:
There I had my first exposure to epic, ninety-minute sermons explaining how human beings were at the center of the spiritual struggle between right and wrong, good and evil. God was looking for a few good men (and women) to showcase the right way of living through complete and total submission and obedience to Him and His One True Church.
We were at a critical juncture in history, the prophesied “Time of the End” immediately prior to Jesus Christ’s return as “King of Kings and Lord of Lords.” We were called into an elite training program to assist Christ in bringing the world into alignment with God’s way of life. The planet would fight against Him, but His rod of iron would bring humanity into submission to a re-education program similar to the one we ourselves were undergoing at the Feast. My vivid memories of the Feast include a night sick with fever, dreaming about giants fighting a titanic battle to gain control of the planet. Those sermons were heady stuff for an impressionable eleven-year-old.
This should be intimately familiar to any of us who are second-generation cultists. So should the fact that our indoctrination was not all dependent on direct instruction. The more insidious side of this psychological pincer involved the holding out of an artificial family to take the place of the one the doctrines themselves were at least partly responsible for turning into an unbearable, unloving environment. Fransson continues:
But on two nights during our stay, the rides and games were opened, and WCG kids had the run of the camp. Then our new family consisted of everyone in the park. The Feast was unlike anything I had ever experienced–an emotional life raft to a child lost at sea.
And just like that, the young Fransson was hooked. He had been drawn into the fold, a misfit sheep to the slaughter, by the alluring fable of exceptionalism and the glittering promise of a place to belong. His story is ours.
But Fransson’s story also includes a trip through the mid-level management of the cult, the details of which I will let the reader discover on their own. Suffice it to say that the author recounts run-ins with such luminaries as David Hulme, Greg Albrecht, Gerald Waterhouse, and…David Lee Roth? Yep.
When I first agreed to review this book, I assumed I would be getting nothing more than a feel-good personal interest story, instead of the apparent holy grail of the wider anti-Armstrongist blogosphere (dirt on ministers) or what I really wanted (profound insights about Armstrongism itself). What I got instead was something wholly unexpected and much more useful. Certainly, Fransson treats the reader to a healthy dose of reminiscence (which is fine for those who like such things), but in doing so he inadvertently instructs the anti-Armstrongist in a much-needed lesson. It’s something I’ve been trying to articulate for some time now in comments on this blog and others, and it is felicitous that this review gives me a handy soapbox from which to preach my message in earnest.
The negative stereotypes of CoG ministry many of us have been exposed to are fantastically unrealistic caricatures. In the internecine battleground of the splinters we have been led to believe that the other groups’ ministers are “Laodicean” turncoats, rebels, and faithless mercenaries. Meanwhile, out in the anti-Armstrongist blogosphere, CoG ministers are typically denigrated as liars, frauds, or even servants of Satan. Common to both perspectives is the imputation of duplicity on the part of these ministers–and a lurid eagerness to lay upon them the burden of guilt for all our cultic travails. But do we have any good reason for this? Is the charge accurate?
Fransson describes his ministerial journey as one of nagging doubt, self-discovery, and ideological breakthroughs in the throes of epic institutional conflict. As Armstrong himself often said, truth is stranger than fiction. It is also more complex. While it is easy to cast aspersions on ministers after the fact, the hard truth is that this is nothing more than scapegoating: the vast majority of the ministry are/were not duplicitous. They were just flawed apes trying to be little gods in embryo, just like the rest of us. Often they were just doing what they thought was right. Just like the lay member, the minister is deluded–often a victim of indoctrination from childhood.
From the book:
Many I respected in the WCG and with whom I had greater doctrinal affinity had left, while others I respected, such as the Tkachs…were encouraging me to stay. I was re-evaluating my theological framework, which still held that the WCG was God’s true church, along with the mandate to follow Mr. Tkach as the duly authorized leader. At the same time, I was increasingly uncomfortable staying, since my relationship with God and the benefit of the Sign of the Sabbath was at risk.
Further on, Fransson notes “the agony that Mr. Tkach surely felt, knowing that change was needed, and that no matter what he did, people would be terribly hurt.”
The take-home from the odyssey that is The People of the Sign is a poignant one. We who have come out of Armstrongism have been the victims not of predatory ministers, but of a delusional belief system. And if we all like sheep have been led astray, then so too have the shepherds, for they themselves have been drawn from the flock. In the face of ideological revolution, lay member and minister alike register internal conflict and uncertainty.
Fransson does a wonderful job expressing these feelings in the last few chapters of the book, but throughout his story we are treated to the account of a living, breathing human being who happened to have wound up in the ministry of a CoG. Anyone who reads it and cannot empathize or, indeed, identify with the author is carrying quite the chip on their shoulder. Fransson’s purpose in writing The People of the Sign was probably not to expose the humanity of the ministry to an audience of haters, but to my mind that is the book’s most valuable accomplishment. And it is for this reason that I recommend it without hesitation.
The sad affair of the cults has been one of the blind leading the blind–a comedy of errors, an unfortunate farce, the blame for which cannot reasonably be laid at any person’s feet. Can even the cult-leader be blamed for the existence of the cult? Consider that without cultists, there could be no cult leaders. No, the fault lies in our all-too-human tendency toward credulity and the simultaneously self-aggrandizing and dehumanizing urge to belong, say, to a called and chosen few, a peculiar people–the People of the Sign.