Penn - Take the Money and Run

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Editor's note: Originally posted on, 2004-08-22.

A Few Replies

By James Penn

Hi to everyone – Hope you don’t mind me posting here.

I’d like to comment about the issue of Ricky taking money from his mother, but before I do, there’s something else that I need to say.

To use an overworked metaphor, ex-members are (hopefully) on a journey of recovery from the effects of living in a highly abusive cult. My journey in the past few years, since I wrote my second article, has been characterized by two related epiphanies.

First of all, I’ve developed an understanding of the extent to which many of the second generation view the first generation as the enemy.

We are the ones who oppressed and abused you day in and day out. We are the ones who largely abdicated any sense of personal responsibility as we mindlessly followed the light. We are the ones who unquestioningly gave our time, energy, and money to build and maintain the system that oppressed and abused you. We are the ones who, because of our utterly insane life choices, effectively robbed many of you of your childhood and denied you so many opportunities in life. And we are the ones – not all of us, but many – who still refuse to admit the extent of our culpability, who are slow to validate your experiences, and who deny you the support you often need. No wonder many of you despise us. If I were you, I would too.

Secondly, and this is a result of regularly reading this site and dialoguing with a few people, I have become increasingly aware of the horrors that so many of you experienced in The Family. (Of course, even while in the group, I knew of quite a lot.) How can words even remotely do justice to the literal torture that we inflicted on so many of you? I read your stories and I am sickened. I can’t even imagine how you have survived and overcome so much. I say this knowing that many haven’t.

I used to think that somehow time would heal and that I could move away from all the horrors related to TF, but I can’t say that this has happened. If anything, as each year passes, I become more sensitized and consequently more appalled about The Family and the incredible harm and evil that I promoted for most of my adult life, especially during the 18 years that I was in World Services. I zealously defended and promoted the system that methodically terrorized your generation.

I can’t change the past, but I can acknowledge the atrocities many of you have endured and apologise to you for ever being a part of it. “Apologise” sounds so trite, so insufficient, so inadequate – and it is. I’m terribly terribly sorry for the part I played in inflicting harm on you. If there is one thing that I want members of your generation to know, it is how sorry I am for hurting you. I can never say this enough, and I can never express it as it should be expressed, but I hope you can understand, and I hope that in some infinitesimal way, it may have some sort of positive influence in some of your lives.

I’d like to change subjects now and comment about the issue of Ricky taking money from his mother when he left TF. From reading posts here, I gather it has been a bit of a controversy – some people censuring him for making that choice.

Zerby and Peter (Chris Smith) do pay off some people who leave the group, people who they perceive could do them harm if they started talking. I know a number of people who got paid off in one way or another. People like Ricky and people like me. People who they fear. Zerby and Smith don’t want this known, as it could become a precedent that would bleed the group dry. But they pay people when they have to.

When I finally decided to leave TF in 1998, I wrote an 18-page letter of resignation to Zerby and Smith explaining my reasons, all of which are outlined in my first article, No Regrets. In that letter I asked for and received severance pay, which amounted to about $17,000, paid out over the next year.

I asked for the money for several reasons. First of all, I needed it. I had worked for WS full-time for nearly 20 years. I knew that my transition into non-cult life was going to be long and painful. Second, I deserved it. I had given Zerby and Smith the best years of my life – serving them personally. They owed me severance pay. Third, I had seen what they did to other cast-offs – giving them $1,000 or so and sending them on their way with a self-righteous “God bless you.” I was angry and determined to break the mould. I was not going to go quietly into the night.

I did not see the money as belonging to tithers or missionaries. My reasoning was that once Zerby and Smith took possession of any money, it became cult money to be spent on whatever they wanted. I figured that if they gave me money, it might result in one or two less GNs – no big loss.

Of course, there was an unspoken condition for receiving this money – don’t speak out against them, and don’t reveal that I am receiving money from them. They were deathly afraid of word getting out that I was being paid off, so we struck a deal whereby I would be a TSer, continue to edit Mo Letters for general publication, and receive a monthly paycheck. That way they could say that I had not left the Family but that I had become a TSer and was continuing my pubs work. A notice to this effect about my friends (who were also leaving) and I appeared in a Family publication.

I didn’t really mind the silence condition, as I just wanted to relocate with my friends and detox and figure out what I was going to do with my life. I wasn’t ready to do any talking. I just wanted to be left alone. So I moved and spent the next year doing some part-time pubs work, taking (what else) writing courses, and receiving monthly checks from WS.

While TF may say that they were just paying me for services rendered, the money was nothing less than hush money -- a pay-off to keep my big mouth shut. Think about it. I had blasted them in my letter of resignation and they then pay me full monthly support for a year as a TSer to edit the Words of David? No way. They had read my resignation letter and were afraid of not only what I knew, but of what I was willing to say.

After a year, I realised that it was time to break off all ties, so I wrote them telling them to stop sending the checks, as it was time to move on. Even then they wrote back, saying that I was doing great work (I was hardly doing anything) and it was sad I was leaving. I imagine that if I wanted to, I could have continued the arrangement for a few more years But I wanted to be completely out of their control and have the freedom to speak. A few months later I started my first article.

I know that some people may resent that I entered into a deal to take money – and I think that is understandable. I accept that because of my position in TF, I had the opportunity to leverage a deal that others could not. But all things considered, I don’t have any regrets. I did what I felt I had to do.

But my choices are not really the issue here. My point in telling all this is to highlight three points.

  • Zerby and Smith do pay hush money to people they fear. The key word is fear. They’ve given big bucks to several people besides Ricky and I. But they’re very very concerned that Family members don’t find out about it. Of course, if it becomes public knowledge, as it did with Ricky, then Zerby does not hesitate to eat her young, as she did when she made the video demonizing him. She is a calculating, ruthless woman, utterly unscrupulous.
  • Obviously I don’t have a problem with Ricky taking money. When I heard about it, I thought “Good for him. He deserves a helluva lot more than whatever she’s giving him.” Even with the money, I’m sure he has not had it easy.
  • Everybody deserves money from the group. The more people that succeed in getting it, the more of a precedent it creates for others.

So my “take” on the money is to take it – take the money and run – and talk!

I admire so many of you for all you’ve accomplished, are accomplishing, and will yet accomplish. Your resiliency is amazing. I can only hope and pray for the best for each of you, because you sure deserve it.