Book Review - Prophet’s Daughter My Life with Elizabeth Clare Prophet Inside the Church Universal and Triumphant

Cultic Studies Review, 8, (3), 2009, 311-320

Prophet’s Daughter: My Life with Elizabeth Clare Prophet Inside the Church Universal and Triumphant

By Erin Prophet

Review by Joe Szimhart

Ten years ago, journalist Scott McMillion interviewed Erin Prophet for his article “Prophet’s Daughter Is Writing a Book” (Bozeman Chronicle, March 16, 1998). In that interview, the author projected that her book would be out in 1999. Prophet’s Daughter eventually saw publication in September of 2008. That delay might have been a good thing. The author’s life took many turns in the past decade, until she settled in the New England area. During that gestation period, she refined this memoir of an extraordinary journey through and beyond her mother’s cult.

I mean “cult” in the ordinary sense because no other word describes the reverence and ritual surrounding the “mantle” of Elizabeth Prophet as “Mother” and “Mother of the Universe.” If you read this account, you will appreciate the difficulty any author would have to “keep it real” while writing about a past that resembles a fantasy novel. Erin grew up believing she was Mahatma Gandhi reincarnated. Her siblings Moira, Sean, and Tatiana believed in past lives as John F. Kennedy, King Arthur, and Helena Roerich. They believed this because their mother and father told them it was so. Elizabeth Prophet 1939-2009) ceased her function as a guru due to the early onset of Alzheimer’s, diagnosed by 1998; but her mythic and symbolic status remains strong among Summit Lighthouse followers.

The author’s father Mark L. Prophet (1919-73) founded Summit Lighthouse (a.k.a. Church Universal and Triumphant) in 1958. Erin was the second of four children born to Mark and Elizabeth after they wed in 1961. Mark trained Elizabeth to be a spirit medium or “Messenger” for a host of nearly forty disembodied Ascended Masters who guide the affairs of humanity and the entire cosmos. Erin was in training to be the next Messenger until she gradually defected from the Teachings of her parents, starting in 1993.

True to its title, the book focuses on this unusual, exhilarating and difficult relationship between mother and daughter/guru and disciple. The book is also a privileged insider’s overview of life in the group as it faced social, legal, and political conflicts in its growth from nearly a thousand members when Mark died to well over ten thousand at its peak under Elizabeth (group members estimate more than twenty-five thousand members).

Erin Prophet opens her story with perhaps the most pivotal event of the group’s history. On March 14 of 1990, around two thousand church members went underground into survival shelters to avoid annihilation from a predicted nuclear strike. Unknown to the general membership, Erin, as junior messenger or “seer,” had an integral role in revealing the specific dates related to her mother’s prophecy of a “doom cycle” based on a form of astrology. We learn from Erin just how tenuous these predictions were; yet thousands of devotees moved everything from locations around the globe to be in Montana by the late 1980s. The church members spent millions of dollars and volunteered many man-hours to build several large underground shelters, including one that held more than 700 people. They stocked these shelters with provisions to last more than a year, all because Elizabeth through the “Masters” said they must to survive. After all, these “Keepers of the Flame” might be responsible for reconstituting a devastated planet with a culture based on Ascended Master teachings.

Although CUT leaders spun the nonevent of doomsday as merely a “drill,” most members saw it differently. Erin makes it clear that they fully expected to survive a nuclear hit that night. As they all emerged the next morning, they saw nothing on the surface had changed. It was a beautiful day. Inwardly, many hundreds of followers did change that day; and over the following few years, they would withdraw from participation, defect, or gradually drift away from the “Teachings.”

Splinter groups formed, led by former members who claimed to channel the “Masters.” Faith in Guru Ma or Mother as prophet was shattered except among the most devoted. Nevertheless, CUT reorganized as a less fear-laden New Age religion governed by committee by the late 1990s as Mother lost all ability to function as Messenger. Since then, CUT has enjoyed new membership more aligned with goals of personal ascension than fear of annihilation.

Erin reveals another theme regarding her mother’s medical condition that contributed to the guru’s odd religious obsessions and the direction the group took. Elizabeth suffered from petit mal seizures or blackouts from an early age. This disorder may have contributed to her profound visionary experiences throughout her life. The magical way Elizabeth perceived the illness also contributed to her various phobias of bad energy and psychic attack. Indeed, as Erin confirms throughout her story, Elizabeth and her followers used an elaborate book of “decrees” (chanted mantras, or a form of casting spells with words and swords) to “clear” just about any problem imaginable. With the decrees, Mark and Elizabeth Prophet combined elements of Theosophy, New Thought, and the older “I AM” movement to spiritualize everything real and imaginable.

Elizabeth kept her condition hidden from members as much as possible, especially after she began having “tonic-clonic” seizures, a.k.a. grand mal, that required hospitalizations. I recall in 1980, while I was still peripherally involved with CUT, strong rumors of Mother’s “epileptic” condition. Later, in a 1982 interview, the estranged parents of Betty Clare, as they called their only child, confirmed this. I understood Mother’s affliction then as petit mal events. Erin clears this up for us because she had access to the medical report and was witness to some of her mother’s worst seizures. Elizabeth used several medications to control her affliction; she also turned to a host of alternative diets and treatments, including high colonics, mustard plasters, chiropractors, and massages. She did not like the side effects of more effective seizure drugs such as Depakote, which can cause a sluggishness and weight gain.

Although Erin does not use the phrase in her book, her mother referred to some dark forces as “malicious animal magnetism,” a concept taken from the Christian Science of Mary Baker Eddy. Christian Science was Elizabeth’s religion when she met Mark Prophet around 1960. Keeping the dark forces at bay with constant chanting is a core activity of CUT. This feature, called decreeing, was carried over from CUT’s primary foundation group, the “I AM” Activity, founded by Guy and Edna Ballard in the 1930s.

The author describes a good example of Mother’s paranoid projections that occurred during the “Mull trial.” Erin spends considerable attention on CUT’s lawsuit against and countersuit by Gregory Mull, who was an architect on staff with CUT for six years. During a personal dispute over money and the guru’s behavior, Mother dismissed Mull from the group in 1980. Erin reveals that Mother Prophet wanted to retrieve approximately thirty thousand dollars “loaned” to Mull that he claimed was due him as wages by the group. Erin does not report that Mull also challenged Mother’s private ethics after he discovered that the guru kept a file of confession letters sent by group members. These letters should have been burned after the guru read them. Mull eventually won more than one million dollars awarded by a jury in 1986 for, among other things, “involuntary servitude.” An appellate court upheld the verdict in 1989.

On page 101, Erin reveals how this loss in court created a “catalyst” for the group to shut down most remaining church activity in the Los Angeles area and move the entire headquarters to Montana. Mother saw Mull, her ex-husband Randall, and anyone else involved in the litigation as aligned with “fallen ones” and “black magicians.” The doom themes that attended group beliefs from the early 1970s now came into sharper focus. Erin and CUT members decreed continually to stop the dark energies and to hurl the “karma” back upon the attackers. Erin muses over what would have happened if “mom” had merely settled with Gregory for what he initially asked. We learn how that was not possible because Mother was stubborn and entitled. The trial would have serious reverberations in more ways than a loss of money.

The trial enabled Elizabeth’s ex-husband Randall to testify under oath to crucial, damaging facts about group behavior and the guru’s character. He revealed, for example, that he had an affair with Elizabeth before Erin’s father died. At the time, Erin and all the Prophet children were incensed that Randall would “lie” under oath. Purity in sexual behavior was a fundamental teaching if not an obsession in CUT. As Erin reveals later in the book, when her mom knew she was losing her battle with dementia, Elizabeth confessed a host of personal failures to her family. One of the more significant was that she indeed had an affair that entailed “mutual masturbation” with Randall before Mark died. With the pile of other conflicts already stressing the Prophet children as they grew into adulthood, this was a last straw. Something emotionally unraveled after that for all of them. In Erin’s words, “She had just undermined so many of the decisions I had made in my life” (248).

For the most part, Erin Prophet fulfilled her task to write this book with a keen and at times raw honesty. As the short reviews (21 at this writing) on reveal, ex-members who were there before and during the “shelter” period found Erin’s testimony rich with insight and meaning. CUT sympathizers reacted with disgust as if Erin were a confused traitor, with one reviewer calling her book a “hall of mirrors.” Any reader, familiar or not with CUT, must appreciate the utter weirdness and difficulty of such self-exposure—after all, this is about her mother, her father, and her siblings. Add to that the complex if confusing, not to mention comical richness of, CUT teachings that borrow from and violate a host of religions and myths.

Erin easily left out hundreds of pages of story. What she included is enough to make her point clear. That point is that her mother might have exhibited a certain leadership charisma and an extraordinary talent for channeling, but the world of CUT Masters was essentially all in Elizabeth’s head. That world was primarily dependent on one woman’s stability in reason, ethics, and health. Perhaps as memes the same Masters continue to speak through hundreds of other channels today; but Elizabeth Prophet’s Masters are gone, if indeed they were ever there. Erin leaves little doubt that the Ascended Masters of CUT depended on the Prophets for their very existence. None of the Prophet children could get their heads into it to continue the legacy.

One issue I have with this book is personal, so I very well might be the only one interested in what I say next. Like me, I imagine that the vast majority of people who bought this book soon after its release have a personal connection to the CUT experience. Among the buyers will be a handful of scholars who continue to study the movement. Erin Prophet leaves out some significant aspects of CUT teaching and facts about her family that attracted me to the group in 1978 and subsequently drew me into it as a devotee for nearly two years. I want to make it clear that I was never a core member, but I did go to three conferences and I pursued CUT’s Keeper of the Flame fraternity for one year. My deeper interest at the time was with Agni Yoga (AY), a Theosophy movement started by Nicholas Roerich and Helena Roerich in the early 1920s. In 1978, when friends of mine in CUT revealed that Helena Roerich reincarnated as Elizabeth Prophet’s youngest daughter Tatiana, I was curious to meet this auspicious little girl. The closest I got was seeing her from afar at CUT conferences in 1979.

Erin hardly mentions connections to the Roerichs and Agni Yoga. On page 149, she does report reading the Morya-related writings of the Roerichs. Agni Yoga is never mentioned. For me, it was significant not only that El Morya, the ascended “sponsor” of the Prophets, was integral to the Agni Yoga foundation myth but also that “he” dictated that the Prophets would fulfill both the “I AM” teachings of the Ballards and the Agni Yoga of the Roerichs. I was very familiar with both movements prior to my intro to CUT, so this seemed like a natural, or should I say supernatural, progression for the book to take for me.

The general reader should understand that this Agni Yoga aspect of CUT is controversial at best. In 1980 (two years before I rejected the Roerich teachings), the director of AY, then in New York at the Roerich Museum, explicitly denied to me in person that AY approved of anything the Prophets were doing. Sina Fosdick told me that Mark and Elizabeth approached her with their newer “Morya” message many years before, but she declined to align with them. Nevertheless, the Prophets continued to use images of Nicholas Roerich paintings to illustrate their book covers and teachings. The museum had not given CUT permission to do so. This is one example of just how self-entitled the Prophets were as they patched anything they could get away with from any source into their private religion. Since 1990, Agni Yoga has enjoyed a revival, mainly in Russia, where it has catapulted to three million adherents today.[1] This is extraordinary because both the “I AM” and CUT groups have splintered and faltered despite a mild revival, with members running only in the thousands. And what of Helena Roerich reincarnated as Tatiana? Erin writes, “Tatiana rejects all church teaching and ritual, and thinks it would have been better if Mom had done something more constructive with her life—nothing good came out of the church” (p. 270).

My final personal item regards Erin’s choice of scholars of religion in sociology and a related attitude toward the so-called anti-cult movement and deprogrammers. Erin mentions two cases of failed “forced” deprogramming by families of CUT members. One young woman, “Tara,” was quite wealthy, with a large inheritance already targeted by Mother and her staff. Erin reports that Tara was “kidnapped and deprogrammed in 1987” (p. 160), but Tara ran away and called police. Apparently, no charges were filed. This sounds suspiciously like one case in 1987 that included me. I will not go into the drama, but no one was kidnapped or held against her will in my case (believe me, I know the difference between being merely pressured and illegally forced), even though the cult member’s mother tricked her into coming to a remote cabin. That “Tara” could have walked away at any time, and she did take walks alone at times (there were occupied cabins within half a mile). For some inexplicable reason, she thought she had to run away. All involved spoke with the police afterward to clear up the confusion. Erin reports that CUT targeted $1 million, but I recall the inheritance was more like $5 million, most of which might have gone to CUT projects.

The other deprogramming case mentioned on pages 201–202 involved Erin’s sister Moira. I was not on that case, but two colleagues of mine were. Months later, one of them showed me some video footage of Moira talking with the CUT member at the family’s home. As Erin tells it, Moira was disenfranchised and very critical of the group at the time. “She was adding her voice to those of the ex-members and anti-cult experts who had been interviewed [regarding the arrests of CUT’s security chief and Elizabeth’s fourth husband for illegal weapons purchase and transport in 1989].” Again, Erin writes that “one of our members was kidnapped and held against her will. The deprogramming didn’t even work … but Moira accepted $2000 in payment.” I double-checked with the woman who handled that entire intervention. She insists there was no kidnapping because Moira would not have been there under illegal circumstances. One has to be careful here because just as ex-members will sometimes exaggerate what happened to them in a cult, so the “heroes” who return from a failed deprogramming might recall or report things quite differently than what actually occurred.

Erin goes on to say, “Deprogramming was, in my opinion, an ultimate violation of freedom of religion.” I agree with her to the extent that no law should condone forcible deprogramming. Even noncoercive intervention by surprise is troublesome, although the “new religious movement” member can leave and/or refuse to talk at any time. Ninety percent of my five hundred-plus, noncoercive intervention cases began by a surprise meeting. By far, most of them worked out just fine. But there is a larger issue here that speaks to Erin Prophet’s values regarding why she broke away from her mother’s cult. Her book serves as evidence of what I am about to say.

Erin provides eye-witness information that challenges the belief foundation of both current CUT members and anyone looking to join the movement from this day forward. In effect, in sorting out the truth, she has gone through a self-deprogram or exit-counsel process. In that process, she turned to other sources to find more appropriate plausibility structures for her awakening from CUT and for delusions or misperceptions about Mother. She turned to psychology and sociology for some of that structure (pp. 232-33). She especially found insight from Lorne L. Dawson’s review of thirteen apocalyptic groups. Erin, like so many ex-cult members, had to reapply the overwrought aphorism “know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” That saying from the Gospel of John 8:32, “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free,” works to keep as many people in controversial groups as it does to help them out!

After the 1987 failed deprogramming event mentioned by Erin, I went on with my career with more preparation and insight. In the following two years, I conducted interventions that involved more than a dozen groups other than CUT. Through the end of 1989, I encountered at least fourteen more CUT members in mostly surprise interventions arranged by their family members. All fourteen either already had moved to Montana to prepare for doomsday or were about to move there—in other words, members very committed to the cause. I met with all of these folks at the family homes. All fourteen of them left CUT during our talks. Only one of those cases began coercively as a “house arrest,” but even that ended within four hours of my meeting the CUT member. I ended the security and we had an open, productive discussion for the next three days.

Is it possible that these “victims” of intervention freely chose to leave CUT based on new facts, structures, and insights that my colleagues and I provided through deprogramming (a.k.a. exit counseling) sessions? Was that a violation of their freedom of religion? Or was it a way to heal them from a sick, self-sealing plausibility structure that could have “infected” and contained their choices and lives for years to come? In those cases, I took nothing away—what I did was assist the group member to heal from an illness of sorts. All they “lost” was a social straightjacket and a constricted thought process. After a successful intervention, clients have a clearer idea how to avoid the “illness” in the future, no matter what group they join.

Erin’s choice of scholars (she mentions Lorne Dawson, Lowell Streiker, and J. Gordon Melton) who seem (to me) to form her opinions offer their own forms of constriction. When it comes to perceptions of what deprogrammers and the so-called anti-cult network (ACM) does, I see as much stereotyping among that clique of scholars as they accuse the ACM of doing to new religious movements. I have studied the books and been to many conferences where I delivered papers on both sides of this fence. Both sides are guilty of some stereotyping over this hot-button problem. The split as I see it comes as much from academic and territorial jealousy as it does from point of view. One has only to sit in a courtroom to witness this split as “experts” pontificate under oath! The nonmonolithic, highly diversified ACM is primarily driven by a desire to fix a problem and to help victims heal. Most academics in sociology of religions are trained to sustain a liberal, comparative understanding of religious movements and cults by any other name. They prefer to observe the evolution of these groups while avoiding conflict with them—unless, of course, it is the ACM!

I have mined gold and diamonds from both sides to carry on my work with ex-members. Erin has yet to find value in the more expanded and dynamic views of what she calls the ACM. One barrier is language. As long as one continues to form concepts about a group based on a pejorative notion, new values, thoughts, and ideas can remain blocked from awareness. (As I see it, psychological and social constriction is what people commonly mean by brainwashing). Sociologists of religion who tend to tolerate “new religious movements” have been railing about the pejorative use of “cult” for decades. They are entirely correct; but what some scholars do not always see is how that sharp insight cuts both ways.

From 1986 through 1992 I worked at times with security arranged by families. Some of these cases involved “kidnapping” or coercive detention. Since 1992, I refuse to assist any case that involves coercive detention at any stage.

[1] Theosophy and Culture: Nicholas Roerich, by Anita Stasulane (2005). Publisher: Interreligious and Intercultural Investigations Series, Volume 8, 20.