Whispering in the Daylight
The Children of Tony Alamo Christian Ministries and Their Journey to Freedom
- ISBN: 9781621903864
- Published By: University of Tennessee Press
- Published: April 2018
Whispering in the Daylight is an account of the rise and fall of Tony Alamo Christian Ministries, the brainchild of Tony and Susan Alamo (originally Bernie Lazar Hoffman and Edith Opal Horn, born in Missouri and Arkansas respectively). Tony and Susan met in Los Angeles in the mid-1960s where they were both seeking, rather unsuccessfully, fame and fortune. Together they opened up a church in Hollywood and a compound in Saugus, California and quickly built a very successful evangelical Christian ministry. Those who joined—and many did—were invited to reorganize their lives around the compound, to give all their money to Jesus (in the form of donations to the Tony and Susan Alamo Foundation), and to live in separate sex dorms prior to marriage. By the 1970s, the Alamos began acquiring property in other locations, including in Fouke, Arkansas, not far from where Susan Alamo was born.
Susan Alamo, by common consensus, was the true preacher and the brains of the operation. Just prior to her death in 1982 she is reported to have told Tony, “When I die, disband the church. You’ll wreck it all” (77). But Tony did not disband the church. And eventually, he pretty much wrecked it. In 2009, after decades of run-ins with the law and FBI raids of his compounds, Tony was sentenced to 175 years in prison without possibility of parole for transporting minors across state lines for sex (just one outgrowth of his belief that polygamy was biblical, and that once girls began menstruating, they were ready to marry him). According to author Debby Schriver, Tony continued to run his ministry from prison until his death in 2017, with some of Tony’s followers continuing to live as they have for years, trying to preserve the rules that Tony laid down for them.
Schriver’s intent in writing this book is clear from the subtitle: she wants to champion the children who never knew a life apart from Tony Alamo’s compounds—the children who were given numerous and often changing rules from God (as discerned by Tony Alamo), who were beaten for minor infractions, and whose parents had been encouraged to report their children’s sins for public punishment and send them to work in the ministry’s various business enterprises by the age of seven. Though Schriver provides history and context for the Alamo ministry, helpfully accompanied with numerous timelines and pictures, her principal aim is to tell the story of the children who ran away from the compounds in which they grew up, or who were taken from their parents by the FBI and moved into foster homes. Schriver’s heroes are the FBI agents, the foster parents, the resilient children who transitioned to “life outside,” and groups like the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) which Schriver says provide “a wealth of information on cults, cultic groups, psychological manipulation, psychological abuse, spiritual abuse, brainwashing, mind control, thought reform, abusive churches, high-demand groups, group dynamics, exit counseling, recovery, and practical suggestions for those affected by or interested in these subjects” (329).
Schriver’s approach is not what one would expect from a scholar of new religious movements, and indeed she makes no pretense to any such role. She has obviously researched widely and interviewed many people involved in different aspects of Tony Alamo’s ministry, but we are not told what people said to her, or where they were when they said these things. Instead we are given a narrative in an omniscient authorial voice that tells us what people were thinking, feeling, and doing at various stages of their enmeshment in and later separation from Tony Alamo’s absolute authority. There is every reason to trust that Schriver knows what she’s talking about. She’s clearly done her homework and opened her heart to her informants. But nevertheless it must be noted that this is not a scholarly book, but rather part of a small but significant genre of de-conversion narratives that aim to unveil the abuses taking place in religious “cults.”
As a result, Whispering in the Daylight is, in an odd way, not really about religion at all. Schriver spends little time exploring Tony’s motivations or beliefs or the content of his teachings. From the outset, Schriver portrays Tony and his wife Susan as grifters who self-consciously began their ministry to enjoy the money and fame they could gain through it. Yet later passages in the book seem to suggest that at some point both Tony and Susan drank the kool-aid (in this case, their own kool-aid) and came to believe that they were God’s prophets. This passes without mention, however. As Schriver sums it up in an afterword, “The story of Tony Alamo is one of greed, corruption, and sociopathy” (288).
According to Shriver, Tony’s actions were undertaken “in the name of religion” (261), but were not themselves religious. What Schriver doesregard as religious is the Christianity of the foster parents and others who helped children as they transitioned away from life in the Alamo compounds. Though Schriver never says this explicitly, the underlying assumption seems to be that religion is in and of itself good and life-affirming; when it’s not, then it’s not really religion: it’s a “cult” or a “false religion.”
I must confess that I find the lines harder to draw than Schriver does. I can unambivalently condemn the taking of nine-year-old girls as wives and beating children bloody with boards for infractions such as making a “disrespectful remark” (103). But I am less certain that a religion that includes such behaviors is “false” in some way that other religions which don’t behave that way (or at least not currently) are authentic. These are questions that have long troubled scholars of new religious movements. On the one hand, all religions were new at some point; who are we to say which religions are valid and which are not? On the other hand, some new religious movements, like that of the Alamos, engage in some very disturbing behavior. How are we—as scholars and as citizens—to champion the right to religious freedom, especially for newer and more marginalized religious groups, while also ensuring that no one gets hurt (at least not badly, and certainly not without their consent)?
Schriver’s book provokes these questions rather than answering them. What she gives us is a clearly-written account of one new religious movement with a complicated history of FBI raids, prison sentences, and lots of ex-members with PTSD.
Cynthia Eller is Editor-in-Chief of Reading Religion and Professor of Religion at Claremont Graduate University.Cynthia EllerDate Of Review:June 23, 2018