We entered the Advanced Training Institute (ATI) homeschool program when I was fifteen, and not much about my life changed. Our family attended functions here and there and added the Wisdom Booklets to our home school curriculum, but the more unique ATI teachings did not have much effect on us.
Before we joined ATI we were already involved with helping Russian immigrants to the U.S, and I was working as a Russian language interpreter when the ATI newsletters started arriving, filled with glowing reports of great ministry happenings. By this time I had been to Russia three times on mission trips with other organizations, and these newsletter stories spoke right to me. This was what I wanted to be doing — using my skills to bless the Russian people and to serve God. When I finally (after my second application) received the coveted invitation to go to Russia with the Institute, I was so excited to be off on this great adventure at what felt like a very grown up 17 years of age.
Eighteen years later, I have a hard time facing all of the memories from the year that I spent at the Moscow Training Center (MTC). Many of these memories are permanently blocked, and mercifully so. My spiritual life took years to recover. Emotionally, even though I have healed, there is an indelible mark from what I experienced, and I am still living with chronic illness as a result of the constant stresses that were a part of life at an ATI training center.
Near the end of my year at the MTC my parents began to worry about me, but I had no idea how to tell them what was happening. I did not have words to express the culture of fear and oppression that surrounded me. On some level I was worried that if I were not at the training center, I would not be pleasing God anymore, but I did not know how to begin to express this feeling to them either.
Not only did I have no idea how to tell my parents what was happening, but also much of my communication with them was monitored. Regular mail came and went through ATI/IBLP Headquarters and was all opened. Faxes and e-mails were to be given to someone else to send. However, since I worked in the office, I found ways to send faxes to my parents at night. A person known to monitor and report the contents of calls would always just happen to be the phone room while I was making a call. So I started skipping dinner to be able to call home without an audience. Even though I managed to talk to my parents without being listened to, I still could not put into words what was so wrong. Fortunately, they knew me well enough to know that things were not okay. Because of my parents’ growing concerns, they decided to come visit me at the MTC.
My parents have told me that they certainly would have believed me if I had told them about the MTC, but they never would have truly comprehended it without the personal experience. The following is an interview with my parents about their time at the MTC, and what they saw.
Diana: How did you first get involved with IBLP and ATI?
Mom: Friends who were involved in Campus Crusade went to this seminar [The Basic Seminar], and they raved about how wonderful and life changing it was. So the next time it came to town, we went. This was in 1969. We loved it so much that I got involved in registering, Dad ushered, and we were thrilled that people’s lives were being changed. At least the promise of change was there.
Dad traveled to a men’s seminar where Bill [Gothard] asked people if he were to begin a home school program, would people be interested. There was a rousing response by those attending. For various reasons, most of which we can’t remember, we didn’t apply for and enter this program until 1992.
Diana: What led you to visit the MTC?
Mom: You had been living there, and we started to notice that things were not quite right. We thought maybe you were under stress and it was getting to you, but your responses were always fake positive.
Dad: Then we had a slight indication that you were under stress when you would call home just to cry on the phone.
Mom: Something else that tipped me off was when I started raving about the wonderful story in the [ATI] newsletter I had just received, and you tersely responded that this was not at all what had happened. This was because you had been there and knew that the newsletter account was an exaggeration to the point of being unrecognizable. We decided to come visit after we got five phone calls in one week with you crying on the phone, and it was $40 a phone call!
Dad (Looking at Mom): I said, “You get a ticket to get over there right now.”
Mom: I had never been apart from Dad in 23 years of marriage.
Dad: I couldn’t go yet, and I wanted her to get over there and see what was happening.
Mom: As I look back, there were things that should have tipped me off. For one, they [IBLP/ATI Headquarters staff] didn’t want to let me purchase my own ticket, because they wanted the frequent flyer miles. They didn’t know they were dealing the original Mrs. Scrooge, and I insisted, and I ended up purchasing my own ticket. They also wanted to limit the length of my stay. They informed me that “most parents stayed only…” for a short amount of time. I ended up staying for six weeks in spite of their “encouragement” otherwise. In order to fit in, I got a perm so I would have curls.
Diana: You say you already had an indication that something was wrong at the MTC. What started to open your eyes to just how extensive the problems really were?
Mom: My greeting at the MTC was being pulled aside by a very “concerned” staff mother who informed me, “Mrs. Hall, I can tell that Diana came from a good home, but she’s fallen in with the wrong crowd.” I thanked her for warning me and was very worried, watching carefully to see who these young people were. I started meeting very nice girls and wondered if these were decoy friends to hide the real rebellious crowd my daughter was running with.
Diana: When did it dawn on you that there was no “bad crowd”?
Mom: I got to know these kids, and one day finally told you about what I had been told upon my arrival. You clarified that these were, indeed, your friends. Girls began to spend more and more time in our room. They would be affectionate with me and want to be with our family, and I was invited to do things with the girls as one of them. These girls would beg me to wait to do our Bible reading until they could be there in the evening.
Then girls, and even one orphanage mother, began to knock on the door late at night and pour out their hearts to me. They told me stories of things they had been through there, and I would look at them and ask them if they had told their parents. Many of them would say, “Well, things are really worse at home,” and this would just break my heart. The orphanage mother who would come would confide in me about her abusive husband, and even while we would be visiting, he would send his children to come and check on her very frequently.
It took about a week before I called my husband and said, “I’m scared here and we’re coming home.” He responded, “No, you’re not; you’re staying there. I need to see with my own eyes.”
Dad: Well, the first thing was when Mom called and announced she was coming home because of the atmosphere of fear around there. I had to see it for myself to understand that. At that point I couldn’t fathom how an organization that was founded on such “basic, non-optional, unchangeable” principles could have gotten to that point.
Diana: (Dad arrived two weeks after mom and stayed for four weeks.)
Diana with her mom in Moscow
Dad: Not long after I arrived, I saw the actual fear and trepidation for the first time. We had been out in the city all day and did not have time to get back to the MTC to change into the required blue and white for the weekly outreach meeting at Flotskaya. You and Mom were in a panic that you couldn’t go because the long, baggy denim dresses you were wearing were unapproved and would get us in trouble. We had to sit in the back with our long winter coats covering the fact that we were not in uniform. I understood then the pressure of being in total conformity, and I started to see that much more was put on outward appearance than on the condition of the heart.
Diana: How would you describe the overall atmosphere at the training center?
Mom: Totally controlling, everyone living in fear, super amount of kissing up. Then Bill Gothard showed up traveling with a young lady he would walk around alone with, and I thought, “This is highly inappropriate!” Then I began to notice that her clothes and makeup were not held to the same strict standard as the rest of the girls.
Diana: I remember her looking sad, the few times I passed her. She looked so unhappy. How did you see students being treated while living and working at the training center?
Mom: Inconsistently. Compare the young man forced to repeatedly sweep a not-really-dirty sidewalk to keep him down and break his spirit, to the young privileged leader who was obviously in love with his future wife, flirting in front of everyone, — and when I asked him about it point blank, he lied about it. Compare the case of a girl who was treated as “almost an LIT” [Leader in Training] having to get up to clean toilets at 4 a.m. as punishment for one candy wrapper someone else threw in her garbage can between the time she cleaned and the time of room check, to a girl whom I worked with in the sewing room, who had to go into the MTC leaders’ apartment to measure for curtains and informed me that it was the hugest mess that she had ever seen. Totally inconsistent standards, depending on how high up and important you were — or weren’t.
Diana: You both worked in areas of the MTC in which you had ample previous experience. Dad, you worked in construction, and Mom, in sewing and cooking. Tell me a little bit about this experience.
Mom: There were a lot of nice young people who respected our knowledge and experience. There were also those who were very young to be in such responsible positions and were not at all respectful of our age or what we knew about the particular subject. We also saw examples of waste and inefficiency because of inexperience and youth being given so much authority.
Diana: Is there anything you can point to as the final straw that made you realize that this problem went all the way to the top?
Dad: The way kids were treated, especially those who were targeted.
Mom: The kids needed love, reinforcement, and appreciation, and instead they just got kicked and kicked and kicked.
One of the final blows was a situation that happened while we were visiting St. Petersburg. One of the students did something that was against the rules. It was not a horrible or evil thing, but it was against the rules. This student’s parents were about to come visit, as already arranged, and in spite of their begging to be allowed to arrive before he made a final decision, Bill sent the student home immediately. He then proceeded to lie about the student’s past in front of a general meeting at the training center, and defamed this student’s character. Any respect we might have still had for Bill at this point was totally gone.
[Editor’s note: This account was received secondhand by the Halls when they returned from St. Petersburg to Moscow, but has been verified by other staff members who were present at that meeting. The student’s parents later confirmed to Mr. and Mrs. Hall via phone that much of the information Gothard publicly gave in the meeting about the student was fabricated.]
Diana: Tell me about the meeting you got to attend with Mr. Gothard.
Dad: We had been asked to stay with some of the Russian orphans while their staff family went to the States for Christmas, so when Mr. Gothard visited and had a meeting with all the orphanage families, we were invited to attend.
Mom: I remember there was something that Bill said, and one of the staff moms asked him to clarify; it seemed like she disagreed. I can’t remember the exchange that brought him to this point, but the quote we will never forget was when he said, “Christians can’t handle freedom.” He was also strongly implying that he was there to impose the much-needed order.
Diana: Mom, before we left, someone asked you for your take on the MTC. What did you say to her?
Mom: The night before we left, one of the orphanage moms came to our apartment and asked me what had been my observation of the time there. I said, “Well, the orphans seem to be loved and taken care of,” but without even thinking about it I also said, “This organization has no love and no grace.” She just sat there looking stunned and horrified.
On my flight back from London to the U.S. I was leaning my head on the plane window and the words “cult, cult, cult” kept ringing in my head. I knew about Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the like — but I didn’t think I was part of a cult! When I got home I called my friend Kathy, who had been part of the Two By Twos. We got together and I told her everything I could remember about it and she said, “Marie, that’s a cult — get out!”
Diana: What about the letter you wrote to Bill Gothard, Dad?
Dad: Not long after we returned from the MTC, I remember writing a letter and making sure that he got it. I hand-delivered it when he was in town for a pastors’ seminar. The gist of my letter was that I felt that there wasn’t grace in the training center and that the kids were living in fear. The point of writing this was so that Bill could not say that he had not been told of the true condition of a training center.
This January marks 17 years since the day I rode to the Moscow airport hiding jeans under my large navy skirt. I changed in the airport bathroom and never looked back. That was the beginning of a long process of leaving behind the bad things about that experience and truly finding God’s grace again in my life.