Erin Martin loves reality television. And no…she doesn’t think it’s a stretch to cover that topic along with the subject of cults on a singular podcast.
“I find that people who are drawn to reality television are fascinated by true crime, the supernatural, as well as cults and the psychology and mentality behind them,” she says. “I’m inspired due to my own background since my parents left the Church of Bible Understanding (COBU) decades ago. Much of my fascination is from that personal connection, but I have found that reality TV viewers are also quite intrigued by cults.”
I’ve recently discovered that truth is truly stranger than fiction when it comes to both reality TV and cults (just peruse the recent articles in my Huffington Post archive). So I’m inclined to agree with Erin that the two subjects would interest the same audience.
Erin is a writer for the popular website Reality Tea which led to a regular gig dishing with Jenny McCarthy on the comedian’s Sirius XM show. Erin’s new podcast, Pink Shade with Erin Martin, is quickly gaining traction, attracting new listeners each week. In those podcast episodes, Erin not only delves into guilty pleasures such as Bravo’s Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and TLC’s 90 Day Fiance, but has explored the subject of ghosts and featured an interview with a former COBU member who wrote about his experience. “I’m looking forward to exploring other cults and subcultures,” she shares.
Below is more of my conversation with Erin. We discussed how escaping a cult shaped her life during her formative years, how it affected other children whose parents were COBU members, and its lasting impact on her life today.
Why Her Parents Joined the Church of Bible Understanding (COBU)
My dad was born in Fort Knox, Kentucky and my mom came from New England. They were both raised very far apart, in different states and in such different manners. My dad was raised by a series of relatives because his parents were not capable of taking care of him. He had a very bounced-around type of childhood and dropped out of school at 16. My mom grew up in a more ‘Mad Man style’, really tight-knit, solid family in Pennsylvania.
However, she always felt like an outcast in her own family, a flower child rejecting some of what she had grown up hearing. My parents were both searchers and they found themselves attracted to a group that was then called the Forever Family. This was in the early 1970s. My mom was looking for a sense of family, the like-minded people she didn’t have among friends and family. Neither of my parents were into the ‘free love’ and drugs. My dad was understandably seeking meaning in his life too. The group started in Allentown, PA and then branched out to other regions, including Baltimore, New York, New Jersey…
The Eccentric and Inexplicably Dynamic Leader Stewart Tanner Traill: “Get Smart, Get Saved”
My parents started going to meetings that went on for hours. It was like a church where all these young people in their 20s were riveted to what a man in his 40s was saying. This was the leader Stewart Traill who was about twice my parents’ age. It would be like you and I going around and telling high school students we have all the answers. Stewart struck while the iron was hot in the 1970s. He knew that people were giving up on the old way of life and searching for answers and meaning. Stewart encouraged communal living and giving up earthly possessions, citing the biblical passage about the disciples: ‘Give up your worldly goods and follow me.’ Though instead of ‘follow God’, Stewart was essentially saying: ‘Follow me, Stewart.’
Stewart looked very militaristic in the same uniform worn day after day. He idolized Albert Einstein and thought he was as smart as that. He therefore wanted to base the COBU on logic and reason, not the soft beliefs of ‘lazy Christians.’ This was a coup against the Christianity he grew up with as the son of a Baptist minister. He himself was probably rebelling against his family. Stewart was obsessed with the concept of color coding systems (a method of how to examine and interpret biblical verses) as well as public shaming and humiliation so he could exert control as leader.
He had people slave away in his carpet business. The show Seinfeld actually spoofed the COBU in an episode about the ‘Sunshine Carpet Business.’ George says ‘Am I not good enough for a cult?’ and it’s really humorous, but that’s based on reality!
Manhattan, a Mecca for Cult Members?
I was born in 1974 and my parents had married in ’73. They were in the COBU from ’72 to ’77 and my earliest memories are of us living in a Manhattan loft in the Bowery district. The COBU meeting space was on Bleecker Street. Today, as you know, it’s a very different downtown NYC that’s been totally gentrified. We actually lived two doors down from The Village Voice and they would dump buckets of water on the heads of COBU members who went to witness to them.
My mom ended up running one of the COBU houses which women were in charge of while the men worked 17 hours a day – for about 10 dollars per week or so. They would witness to people and then attend meetings at night for hours.
A Cult Leader’s Tactics
Stewart would speak and the men got yelled at if they fell asleep. Stewart would then sleep during the day. At those meetings, he would rant on about how the followers had to understand things: ‘Come let us reason together and understand what this is about.’ There was an emphasis on Sin and Condemnation. His belief system was that everyone is bad and nobody deserves to be saved – unless they give up their possessions and live in this manner to be godly.
There was a stress on being super-humble even though he himself was not. It was all essentially a scheme for everybody to give Stewart their money.
He would say that this money was being put towards missions in Haiti, but a lot of that money went into his own pocket and he used it for flying lessons and private planes.
The Mission to Haiti
My mom went on the second mission (that Stewart arranged). Although Stewart had grand plans for a mission to the Soviet Union and said he hoped to stop communism, Haiti was the most lax at that time in terms of rules and regulations, so he settled on Haiti.
Around the time my mother was completing that mission, my parents both saw the light about the COBU cult. In ’77, there was a mass exodus. Original members and many of the people I grew up knowing left the cult at that time. The COBU was fine with people getting married and having kids back then, but later on Stewart would actually discourage members from getting married and having a family since they’d be more likely to leave.
Exodus and Embarassment
Although, my family was part of this COBU mass exodus, no one talked to anybody about leaving beforehand. You just left on your own. There was a great deal of shame because you had your own family – for instance, my mom’s parents – already questioning the decision to belong to the COBU. So you’re not telling your family everything that’s going on because it starts to sound unbelievable.
My dad had the luxury of not having family and said ‘we’ve got to get out of this.’ Once he had a real family – my mom, me and my mom’s supportive parents – he felt confident about leaving.
That Time Stewart Traill Mocked a Minster: A Turning Point for Erin’s Mom
The real turning point for my mom was when she saw how Stewart interacted with a local Haitian minister and how terribly controlling Stewart was. My mom loved the missionary work itself and helping children out, but her eyes were opened one day when they were all sitting at a dinner table. The local Haitian minister came over and asked about a collaboration with Stewart and the COBU members…to help the poor in his community. Stewart humiliated him at the dinner table and told him he was a false prophet.
Stewart had a certain maniacal behavior and would make people feel like they weren’t real Christians. When my mom saw how he humiliated this minister was and how Stewart’s behavior had made everyone uncomfortable, she thought ‘I’m done.’
The Women of COBU Vs. The Men of COBU in the 1970s
While my mom was in Haiti, my dad stayed with my mom’s parents and left me in the care of the COBU women. I only have good memories. The women were very young, sweet and really into kids. On the other hand, from what I’ve come to understand, many of the men were lost, broken and somewhat weird.
My mom was in Haiti for a month and my dad said to my grandparents ‘When she gets back, we’re leaving.’ My parents didn’t own a pan, pot or anything. In recent years, my mom didn’t fully understand – when I had my own baby – the concept of not having a community around to help. She had 50 women around her to help her out. That is a lot easier in some ways!
With the support of the other women and the general sense of community, there are advantages to being in a cult and is the main reason why people stay. Also, when you’re in a cult, you’re not calling it a ‘cult.’
Where it goes wrong is when the leader is domineering and expects his adherents to follow him to the ends of the earth. My parents did not enter into the COBU with this idea in mind. They joined because there was a structure that seemed appealing.
My dad came to pick me up from the COBU women who were caring for me while my mom was in Haiti and he let them know my mom would soon be returning…They wouldn’t give me to him! Perhaps it was because they knew he was thinking of leaving the COBU, though I can’t say for sure. I have no memory of this, but do know they had no legal right to do this. My grandparents were freaking out. As soon as my mom returned, she picked me up from the women’s care. After that, she and my dad got out of the COBU pretty fast!
The hard part of transitioning out of any cult is that you are constantly looking to find your place, group, community, church, neighborhood…
I think with a secular cult like NXIVM (which was the subject of a recent 20/20 episode), it’s not necessarily easier to transition out, but you’re not leaving a religious group and you don’t feel that sense of defying a religion. You’re not feeling a specific religious loss. Transitioning out of the COBU doesn’t mean transitioning out of being Christian and my parents wanted to remain Christian after leaving, but they needed to find new meaning within the religion and ways to interpret it.
“Searchers For Life”
My mom says the hardest part for them was grappling with the question of ‘what is the truth? ’They had studied the bible word for word, but as a family, we moved constantly growing up because my parents were always searching for something. We went to many different churches and I was in many different Christian schools because my parents were sort of always searching. Searchers for life.
Other Ex COBU Members
I grew up with many of the children whose parents had also left the COBU. Some of their parents had stopped going to church altogether, but some went to a regular Presbyterian church after. Most carried a sense of mistrust when it came to religion.
The kids I grew up knowing are not particularly religious today. I’m personally not a big fan of organized anything. There are hangovers from whatever one’s family story is.
Long Skirts and The Novelty of Grocery Shopping
Life after the COBU exodus was interesting. I was wearing the skirt that covered my knees because we were in that construct for a while. Since my parents were so young when they were part of the cult, they had to learn so many things as adults. My dad had to get his GED so he could go to work. My mom started learning simple things such as how to go to the grocery store herself. Basically, she had come from her parents’ house to the cult. My mom was all of a sudden this ‘stay at home mom’ all by herself.
She also had to look for a church but didn’t want to tell people. There was that residual sense of embarrassment surrounding where she had come from. My mom eventually eased into more situations than my dad did. He was more disenchanted with all belief systems and with God.
They eventually divorced while I was in college.
My mom never goes to church anymore. When I went to college and they got divorced, nobody showed up at a church again. I ended up in a public high school towards the end of my teen years, and thank God for that! It was a positive experience and led to my becoming a public teacher.
Today, my mom really believes in a higher power and she still does believe in Christianity. I myself believe in a higher power, but I’m not sure about the Christian stuff. It feels like a very private decision. My husband doesn’t have a sense of God because his family went through the motions and did things by rote…so he’s very separated from spirituality. My daughter is almost 8 and has never even been in a church. I’m very leery of belonging to any type of organized group
Thoughts on Cults Overall
You recently covered NXIVM for Huffington Post and wrote about the idea of powerful leaders, the charisma they have, and hold over people. In the case of NXIVM, the leader is Keith Raniere. Reportedly, the amount of reverence the women have for him has led to some becoming his sexual slaves. This is in accordance with his demands and how the DOS division of the NXIVM cult was established.
I think you can somewhat equate the hold Raniere has to the way people listen to the Pope dictate reproductive rights. When you think a man is standing between you and your salvation, they become godlike to you. You’ll do anything for them. They represent something you are looking for. There’s something broken in people and so they end up deifying these men.
This happened with Stewart too in later years. Stewart was on his second wife and fooled around with many younger women as he got older. He even built a secret door in his house to go to their chambers since he had his second wife Gayle’s helpers living with them. This was like something straight out of The Handmaid’s Tale. He ended up divorcing his wife and got custody of their kids through his manipulations and insane allegations. He also arranged for these men to go beat up his son with a board…just overall, he was a really nasty, nasty man! Despite how awful he was though, he managed to get these young women to sleep with him time and again.
Stewart Traill is in His 80s, Living in a Sprawling Mansion in Southern Florida
Stewart Traill is still alive and lives in a compound in Southern Florida.
When Gayle married him, she was incredibly young and there’s a big age difference between them. As time went on, his eye began to wander to younger and younger women.
Years ago, he was reportedly driving on the wrong side of the road and he and Gayle were in a serious car accident. She became a vegetable for life. Although he was the one driving improperly, Stuart never admitted that the accident was his fault. There is a COBU member who dedicated her life to being her caretaker after that. Stewart declared himself divorced in God’s eyes because she could no longer perform her ‘wifely duties’.
Today, there are about 40 or 50 people living on Stewart’s compound, a skeletal crew, but they are the COBU members still hanging on.
To hear more of Erin Marin’s stories and to listen to her podcast, go to https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/pink-shade-with-erin-martin/id1318549651?mt=2 .