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'IF YOU WANT TO KNOW HOW I GOT BRAINWASHED'

Artist Betsy Dovydenas joined a bogus church led by a bogus priest. In a new book, she shares how she was brainwashed and how she got out

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"If You Want To Know How I Got Brainwashed" includes over 200 monoprints by artist and author Betsy Dovydenas.

It began with a single painting. 

"I just started painting what was going on in my head [back then], I just wanted to capture images of brainwashing," says Betsy Dovydenas, artist and author, as we chat about her book, "If You Want To Know How I Got Brainwashed," in a window seat at Dottie's Coffee Lounge at the beginning of July.

She sips her tea before flipping the pages of her book to two more paintings and pauses, thoughtfully. "And then I painted these, because at the end, when I snapped, when I came out of it during the exit counseling, my brain really felt different. My brain felt as if things had really moved around in there. My brain always functioned, but there were all these other things going on at the time: being dissociative, the abuse and trauma. For me, [these paintings] captured how my brain felt." 

Dovydenas is a survivor. From 1984 to 1985, she was a member of The Bible Speaks, a ministry founded by Carl H. Stevens. During that time, Dovydenas donated $6.5 million to The Bible Speaks and even changed her will, disinheriting her husband and children and leaving the rest of her inheritance to the ministry. A family intervention pulled her out of the so-called church, now referred to as a cult by many experts. In 1986, her family sued Stevens and The Bible Speaks, seeking the return of the $6.5 million, citing Stevens "undue influence" over Betsy. 

Stevens left Lenox and The Bible Speaks’ sprawling campus, now home of Shakespeare & Company, following his declaration of bankruptcy, he formed Greater Grace Church in Baltimore, which at the time had more than 25 affiliated churches nationwide, including one in Lee. Stevens’ ministry was marked by controversy, with former members alleging that the church practiced mind control, sexual misconduct, child molestation, fraud and extortion, The Eagle and other news media reported. Stevens died in 2005. 

In 1987, a federal bankruptcy court ruled in Dovydenas' favor.  U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge James Queenan’s ruling found Stevens guilty of “an astonishing saga of deceit, avarice and subjugation.” The amount of the award was reduced to $5.5 million on appeal.

But Dovydenas' book isn't about the lawsuit. That's just a small part of the story, she says. Instead, she wants others to understand how she was "tricked, sweet-talked, coaxed, manipulated, conned, coerced and exploited" by a bogus church run by a bogus pastor. Through 200 monoprints and narrative text, Dovydenas explains how she fell victim to the church and its pastor. 

"And this one, it's about feeling weird," she says, pointing to another image in the book, "because it's such a hard thing for people to understand [how I became involved with a cult] even though cultic things happen around us all of the time.

"Our culture would like to influence us. It's not the same thing, but we are subjected to influence all of the time. We have to be aware of it, be thinking about it all the time. Be thinking, 'What do I really think? This person is telling me this is the right way to think, but no, I don't have to think like that.' You have to use critical thinking."

While it's easy to assume that people who join cults are weak minded and below average intelligence, most cult experts will tell you that while cults will recruit people of any age or any intelligence level, their ideal candidates are "young, of above average intelligence, from an economically advantaged background, well educated, idealistic and often spiritually curious."

Dovydenas fit that bill. She was in her late 20s, a mother of two young children, and had moved to Lenox, far away from her family in Minnesota. Her husband, Jonas, a photographer, was traveling for work. She was spiritually curious and began attending a nearby church. The church community was welcoming and she became fast friends with a member, a woman, who paid attention to her and kept her company when Jonas was away.

"Cults are not on the outside what they are on the inside. They have a hidden agenda," she says. "Some are more abusive. Some are more controlling. For me, I'm suggestable. Having done transcendental meditation, that was really a set up for encountering a cult."

Throughout the book, Dovydenas explains how, little by little, her friend, "Nancy" and another woman, "Karin," helped change her belief systems. Dovydenas no longer read anything but the church's approved Bible; sold family jewelry, her wedding dress; changed how she dressed and wore more makeup. She even took her own paintings off the walls. 

"But it's a good thing to learn these things about oneself," she said. "I'm turning 70, so it's interesting to know all this stuff. Some people find it embarrassing, hearing about this. They say, 'Oh, you're making a profit off these things.' But I think it's really important. The Berkshires has had a lot of cults and more cults will come. EnlightenNext was here. They were physically abusive to their members."

But why write about her experience now, more than three decades after her family found a way to pull her away from the cult? 

"After all those decades, I just found a way to talk about it that works. I'm just very comfortable being who I am. Some people say it's brave. I don't know if it's brave, I just feel that I'm doing what I want to do," she said. "I'm not one who likes to influence or change the way people think. It's more that I felt drawn to do this. Once I started painting, I thought maybe I'd map out my whole story. Once I had done all the painting, the words came to me. I showed it to friends and I showed it to my sisters. I got such a positive response. I cared what my sisters thought. I cared what our kids thought. Everybody thought it was great. So I thought why not publish it?"

And since publishing the book in September, Dovydenas received many positive reactions from the public.

"I've heard from therapists that they are using it with clients. That makes me really happy, that people who need to understand [what they have been through] are using it," she said. 

The book, which includes a foreword written by Dr. Michael D. Langone, executive director of the The International Cultic Studies Association, also includes a resource guide with information on professional organizations that provide support for those who have left cults, as well as books and other sources to help with recovery. 

"I'm very fortunate that my family did what they did for me because I got a jump on understanding [what had happened to me]. I hope that people who need to understand what happened to them find a way, that's why I put the resources in the back. Because most people, when they get out, haven't a clue what to do," she said. 

Jennifer Huberdeau can be reached at jhuberdeau@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6229. On Twitter: @BE_DigitalJen

Features Editor

Jennifer Huberdeau is The Eagle's features editor. Prior to The Eagle, she worked at The North Adams Transcript. She is a 2021 Rabkin Award Winner, 2020 New England First Amendment Institute Fellow and a 2010 BCBS Health Care Fellow.

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