Escape From A Cult

First Magazine
March 30, 1992

Life Story: Elishah

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My childhood was filled with fear and loneliness. I was the first child born into the Tony and Susan Alamo Christian Foundation in Alma, Arkansas. We were supposed to be a religious group, full of love. But it was really a prison.

I never went 10 birthday or slumber parties, never played with dolls. Because I couldn’t trust anyone, not even my own parents, I had no friends. The kids turned each other in all the time. We’d be beaten for almost anything. Once a boy talked to me—and I got beaten. My mother said she was beating the devil out of me. I was afraid every single day of my life.

Tony preached that he was God’s mouthpiece. He threatened that we would “burn in the eternal fires of Hell” if we didn’t obey him completely. When my parents joined the Foundation, they didn’t realize it would control every aspect of their lives.

We didn’t pay rent or bills— everything was taken care of by the Foundation. By the time I was 10 or 12, there were about 600 adults and 250 or 300 kids. We all ate together, sitting on long benches in a cafeteria. I felt so terribly lonely—all I wanted was a friend to giggle with and tell secrets to. We weren’t allowed to talk at meals or we’d be spanked. The best I could do was try to send signals with my eyes. Kids were beaten with a wooden paddle all the time—for welting their beds or failing a test. The Elders would tell us in the morning they were going to beat us that night, so we’d think about it all day long.

We kids were allowed out of the compound once a year, to take a trip to the zoo or the circus. I was always so excited. But I was nervous, too, because there was always a chance the treat would be taken away. I never felt worse than when I was 14. I had to watch the other kids chattering happily as they got on the bus to go to Nashville. My one privilege—when I could have seen the outside world and some stars—was gone. I never even knew what I’d done that made them keep me home.

My parents didn’t have any more freedom than I did, but they didn’t mind. Mom worked 12 hours a day designing clothes, and in a restaurant in Alma. Dad worked even more hours than Mom, planting trees. The Foundation also made elaborate sequined jackets that sold for thousands of dollars to celebrities like Brooke Shields and Dolly Parton—who certainly didn’t know that the people who made the jackets only earned $5 a week.

I don’t know exactly when or how I realized the way we lived wasn’t normal. I’d never seen another way. We were rarely allowed to watch TV, and could only listen to religious radio stations. But when you’re a kid you react with your heart. I knew it wasn’t right to beat kids, or for parents to be so cold. I don’t remember my dad ever telling me he loved me. My mom barely talked to me. I knew I shouldn’t hurt like I did, shouldn’t be so unhappy all the time.

But I kept my feelings inside— who could I tell?
Then Stephen joined the Foundation.
I remember the first time I saw him. Even though I was only 11 and he was 10 years older, I fell in love with him instantly. He was so kind, and he could see my misery. “I’ve never seen you smile,” he said.

For three years we were friends, then we started “dating”. That was a sin and we would have been severely punished if anyone found out. We met secretly at an abandoned clubhouse, for a few minutes at a time. It was scary, but it was exciting—I’d never kissed anyone before Stephen. What I remember most about that first kiss was our hearts pounding. Nothing else in the world mattered.

But we weren’t good at keeping our feelings secret. One of the other girls suspected I was meeting Stephen. She followed us and then eagerly reported it to the Elders. They banished me to a Foundation house in Nashville for two weeks. While I was there, they held a “rebuke service” for me in front of 100 members. I stood rigidly, trying not to cry, and listened as one adult after another told me I was an instrument of the Devil, destined for Hell. When they said they’d kicked Stephen out, I blacked out. I thought I was going to die. I had nothing to live for. I was 15 years old. A week later, they sent me back to Arkansas. Everyone there looked at me in disgust. No one would talk to me. I ate alone and sat alone in church. My father beat me with boards and a leather belt till I bled, and my mother beat me with a wooden paddle. They made me kneel down and pray that the Devil would leave me.

But Stephen didn’t forget me. He managed to smuggle letters to me with the help of a friend,” I love you more than ever,” he wrote. “You’re always on my mind, even in my dreams.”

Once I snuck into the Foundation office and found the address of Stephen’s mother. I called collect. He answered the phone. To hear his voice was incredible—I cried and cried.

At last the letter I’d been praying for arrived—he promised to come for me. We would stage a breakout! He said he’d figure out a way to pull it off.

It was tough. We lived on a rarely traveled dirt road across from the 265-acre Foundation compound, which was surrounded by fences and guards. They could see our house, so I didn’t feel any freer living “outside.” We were miles from any town, surrounded by acres of forest.

I was terrified someone would learn of our plan. I was being closely watched, so I pretended I’d forgotten Stephen. I threw myself into my studies. But every night I’d cry myself to sleep, thinking about him.

It took him seven months to earn enough money to come for me. The morning of the getaway, I walked my mom to work at the Foundation office, I said goodbye to her, then strolled away. When I was out of sight. I turned off the road and took a shortcut down a steep hillside. I raced to our house, falling in my panic. When I got home, my legs were scraped and bleeding but I didn’t slop to wash. I threw my clothes into a bag, and Stephen pulled up a moment later. He’d put plastic on the windows of the car—he could see out but no one could see in and recognize us. I grabbed my bag and jumped into the car and he screeched away in a cloud of red dust. We were so excited and scared that for a long time we didn’t say a word. I crouched on the floor of the car until we crossed the state line. You’d think I’d have felt safe at last, but it wasn’t that simple. I was sure the Foundation would track us down. That first night we stayed in a motel. When the pizza deliveryman knocked, I was so frightened I locked the bathroom door and jumped into the shower.

For a long time I was scared to go to a store by myself or walk down the street. Even today, safely married to Stephen and with a precious baby of my own, I sometimes have nightmares of being beaten, or that they’ll come and take my baby away.

But I have my own life. When I look at my son, I feel bad for the Foundation children who don’t know what it’s like to feel a mother’s love. Although I’m a mom, I feel like a kid, too—as though I was born when I escaped. With Stephen’s love and that of my little boy, at last I know what a family really is.
—by Elishah Frankiewicz as told to Donna Cornachio

Tony Alamo was a federal fugitive for three years, wanted on civil and criminal charges of tax evasion and unlawful flight to avoid prosecution, plus a California child-abuse charge. He was arrested in Florida last July; a trial is pending, His wife, Susan, died in I982. The property in Alma was confiscated by the government. Alamo followers still live in several groups around the country. Six months after Elisha escaped, her parents left, too.

In: Victim's Testimonies

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