The Raincoat People: Confessions of a Cult Member
Lesley Elizabeth Smailes
2015, First Printing
Expand Your Mind Publishers (PTY) Ltd
30B Channel View Rd, Fynnland
Durban, KZN, 4052 South Africa
Paperback, 361 pages
An Impressively Intimate Memoir
Joe Szimhart, Nov 2015
By way of disclosure, my response to this impressively intimate memoir is informed by extensive experience with the history, controversy, and people affected by the “cult” or Jim Roberts Group (JRG) exposed in this book. I have interacted for decades with members, ex-members, and the families of both. I will save an elaboration on my disclosure for the end of this review.
The author, Lesley E. Smailes, was eighteen in 1983 when she ventured from her home in South Africa to the United States. Her mother cautioned her: “Don’t get married and don’t join a cult.” Lesley did both within a year after encountering members of the Jim Roberts Group, a quasi-nomadic, new Christian movement that fancies itself as fulfilling the primitive manner of the first followers of “Yeshua” or Jesus Christ. We can surmise from the book that the JRG has no formal name, no brochures, no Internet promotion, and yet it has created a palpable reputation among trackers of cults and new religions. Most academics call the JRG the Brethren, not to be confused with other cults by that name. We guess from its history that membership varied from several dozens to perhaps one hundred fifty over the decades. Smailes was involved when membership was over one hundred, is my estimate. The JRG was never a large movement with many recruits defecting, not able to sustain the rigid, sometimes fickle standards established by the leader. Many others were abandoned or sent on a mission and then left to themselves. The latter might be mentally ill, rebellious in some way, or overly enthusiastic making it hard for the brothers to manage them. Besides Jim Roberts Group, observers have called the JRG the Brethren, the Garbage Eaters, the Bicycle Christians, and the Raincoat People—thus the title of this book. As Smailes informs us, most of the food they ate came from stuff thrown out, but good stuff—they often ate very well without food-borne illnesses. The brothers wear a costume that includes a drab tunic-like over garment hung to the knees, thus the raincoat image. Women wear their hair long and retain a quasi-hippie, earth-mama look sans beads and vivid colors. Men grow long beards but keep hair cropped short to mimic what the Elder believes Jesus looked like. The sisters wear solid-color, drab, full length skirts or dresses often home-made with long sleeves, and no facial make-up. Smailes wandered the country in this fashion with the group for ten years, living an austere, mostly secretive lifestyle.
Since the early days of deprogramming in the mid-1970s, group members were cautioned not to let families know where they were, but Smailes was permitted to let her family members visit several times, revealing the locations of the camps only after a family member arrived. For some reason, Jim Roberts the Elder was not overly worried about Smailes defecting since she was inadvertently micromanaged by her husband Thomas and others whenever a family member visited her. I say inadvertently because she submitted to “the Standard” as set by Jim Roberts and that meant that wives must obey their husbands. The strict, unmarried elder brothers made sure that Thomas upheld the standard. On one visit by her mother toward the end of her sojourn, Roberts permitted Smailes to leave the three children and the group to enjoy an outing for a day, see a movie, and just hang out. Finally, after ten years and reaching a frustration point with leadership, she returned to South Africa in 1992 with her three children and husband Thomas who also defected. Thomas, however, retained more of the puritanical behavior. They would later divorce, noting huge differences in personality after losing the overriding standard of group life.
Overall, this self-published book is a testimony about one wounded and adventurous young woman who applied her innate human adaptability to function within an extraordinary and abusive social system driven by grandiose if paranoid spiritual visions. That last descriptive mouthful I wrote about the group included “grandiose and paranoid” which describes the personality flaws in the leader. A careful reading of this book reinforces what we know, that Roberts overvalues his visionary connection to the Creator of our universe and exhibits a near phobic avoidance of open dialog with other Christian leaders.
Not mentioned in the book is that Roberts was born in June of 1939 (one source says 1938)in Paducah, KY. He is yet alive though not healthy at this writing. The JRG rely on faith in God to heal them much as Christian Scientists or New Thought sectarians might—going to a doctor means you do not trust in God. Roberts was in the Marines from 1958 to 1961, raised by an unstable father who was a part-time Holiness preacher. His mother worked in a drugstore, providing the only stable income for the family. His mother aligned with a Pentecostal type church that was anti-Trinitarian. Likewise, Roberts preaches a form of Modalism: God is not three persons, rather God assumes three roles or “modes” of being. Roberts may have worked as a hairdresser or wig salesman. He emerged as a charismatic preacher among the early neo-Jesus movements of the 1970s. He formed a gnostic, us against the world mission with a military chain-of-command system. And he made himself chief commander. Ancient Gnostic Christians were radically dualistic and avoided things of this world.
Smailes was raised as a Seventh Day Adventist on a vegetarian diet. She writes about being raped twice in South Africa as a teen, once by a black man and again by a lesbian. After getting pregnant by a dear friend named Stewart, she had a forced abortion, being deemed unfit to be a mother by a psychiatrist. She tells us, “I felt more ‘married’ to him than I ever felt to Thomas.” Her mother sent her to an unhappy experience at a boarding school from which Smailes was expelled. At age sixteen she lost her intellectually gifted, anti-Apartheid, beloved if disturbed father who was depressed and died by self-inflicted gunshot after an argument with his ‘buxom” girlfriend. So, by age eighteen, our author lets us know how damaged, needy, and immature she was when she set foot in America. Her openness about early life trauma helps us understand why the spiritual cocoon of the JRG system felt so comforting to her at first.
Bob Dylan wrote that our lives and loves can take major turns caused by a Simple Twist of Fate (Blood on the Tracks album, 1974). That metaphor works here as young Lesley leaves for America on a flight from Johannesburg where she coincidentally meets a childhood friend Desmond, ten years her senior, the man who deflowered her teenage virginity at the commune where he lived at the time. Their plane was “The Heldelberg 209” and they were expelled from the same school in Somerset West, from Helderberg College. They sat together and smooched as old lovers might on that flight. Smailes calls this “synchronized serendipity” borrowing a concept that Carl Jung coined as synchronicity, that is, a meaningful coincidence that appears as if it were arranged by the hand of God or some mysterious will within the collective unconscious of human beings. All that woo aside, the author is primed to enthuse over a host of other synchronistic events in her freewheeling free loving cannabis-stoked journey across the USA and later in her more righteous path with the JRG. That romantic and magical attitude may be the key to why Smailes so readily accepted and continued to accept the JRG’s spin on life and religion after first meeting them in New York City within a year of leaving home. Smailes accepted what the universe or God seemed to hand her, and in this case she found a new and secure “father” image in Jim Roberts.
Early in the book, we learn that she has few regrets: “I had no idea as I sat there that I was talking to the man who would be the father of my children. Looking back, if I was to choose, I would do it all over again.” (25)
As her recruiters, two brothers and later a sister opened her eyes to the JRG gospel, Smailes writes, “I was starting to crave righteousness. I wanted to be clean inside. His words were making me feel jaded. Young, immature, dreadfully dirty and Jezebel-jaded.” On her second meeting with the JRG in New York City, Smailes met Sister “Shoshanna” (most names in the book are not actual) who arrived with a “dynamic looking older man.” The older man was Jim Roberts (the Elder or Brother Evangelist to insiders), but Smailes had no idea that he was the “alpha male” at the time. They invited Smailes to their “camp,” which was an old, three-story apartment building that the JRG occupied by some arrangement that did not require paying rent. The sisters “offered” her a long maroon skirt to help her comply with JRG modesty standards. A sister washed our author’s feet. There were seven or eight sisters and maybe a dozen or more brothers at that camp including the Elder.
Within that year, Smailes ran into immigration problems, so the Elder suggested a marriage between Smailes and a seasoned brother named Thomas, the same one that helped to recruit her. Any suggestion by Roberts would be taken practically as a command. Their marriage was legal and blessed by the group, but Smailes tells us she never had a passion for sex with Thomas though she respected his devotion and mister-fix-it skills. Many JRG members became skilled at bike mechanics, camping, home repairs, and tailoring garments. Roberts held the group in tension over sex by promoting a very puritanical attitude and admonition that marriage was not a good idea in the “end times.” Nevertheless, the Elder found it expedient to keep some people in the fold by allowing marriage. Several couples, some with children, joined together. Smailes notes that many followers would peel away and defect after they had children due to the harsh punishment codes—the men including Thomas did not spare the switch or striking children to discipline them. Jim Guerra, mentioned below, was never given permission to marry despite his requests over his ten years in the JRG. The Elder would only say that the brother needed to pray on it.
But Smailes did marry. Her descriptions of group life through reprinted letters to home and letters from her mother to her and others give the reader an intimate, even historical peek into the rugged if monastic life of this cult. We also grasp how the family struggled to be as respectful and loving as possible in their communications, all the while repressing their exasperations. The JRG eschewed normal medicine not wanting hospitals and doctors to interfere with their lives on the fringe of society and the law. The couple found that North Carolina had the most lenient marriage laws and did not require a blood test for a marriage license—the JRG does not believe in giving blood. So Smailes went there, met Brother Thomas and senior Sister “Daniella” who helped them with details. Over the years with JRG, Smailes delivered her three babies—boy, girl, boy—in old tribal fashion at “camp” houses with the help of group members that had varying degrees of competence in midwifery. Smailes offers a detailed description of how they handled these home births. Thomas learned from a rabbi how to perform the surgical removal of foreskin from their son—it was a painful event for all and the couple determined never to inflict circumcision on a boy again.
Despite their behavioral constrictions based on Roberts’ myopic reading of scripture, we learn that the JRG could lapse into gossip, private fun, and celebration. Holy music and song attended many gatherings. Some members had a talent for guitar. Smailes writes that one brother played well on a properly tuned home-made recorder.
Smailes had her first visit from her grandmother who helped with the first baby. The grandmother noted: I have a nice little room with a double bed. Thomas is very nice and I like him, but I feel these people waste MUCH time. But I LOVE Nedi. She is a WONDERFUL person.
Other visits were from her mother, the first when the group was in Kansas. Mother brought Smailes’ younger brother Bobs—it was the last time Smailes would see Bobs who died tragically after a motorcycle accident before she quit the group. While in Kansas, Smailes mother wrote to her friend Monica:
You would love communal slum living! ...When we got here there were 30 people living on three floors, so with us that meant 32! Four days later the landlord told poor Thomas that he needed the first floor in two days’ time, and the entire house in two weeks! So, two days later 5 of the unmarried sisters left and the brothers started work on a warehouse, making sort of a house in the middle of it! Next week they will all move there. Les is looking beautiful and there is no doubt of how she fits in or how happy she is.
That clip from a long letter offers some idea how this group has survived over the decades—whatever “God wills” they accept and move on with approval from the Elder. Roberts maintained routine phone contacts with trusted, elder male members. Public pay phones served as offices. If nothing else, the JRG experience proves the versatility in human adaptive potential under extreme social conditions.
Smailes reveals how strongly the transcendent gospel message overrode all feelings for family, yet those feelings never really died for her: I woke up yesterday morning with a big burden for you. Please understand why I can’t call you. She writes that two sisters defected and that Roberts wanted to protect the new house because it was a good location for “witnessing” or recruiting people. Roberts did not want any members to tip off the “fowls” which is JRG Bible-based jargon for enemies. Smailes goes on to write, It is not that I don’t love you or care, but I want to be faithful to what was asked of us and not let this location leak out. I prayed to Yahveh to please, please comfort you because you are probably long past the crying stage and I am worrying about you. I am feeling it (May 1988).
So, what is the JRG gospel? Smailes offers an intimate and often gritty view of how this gospel influenced her behavior and world view for better and for worse. Primarily, we learn that this group emphasizes immanent end times despite the instruction in Mark 13:32: But of that hour or day no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.
In my view, Jim Roberts has, since 1971 when he founded this group that orbits him as if he were the Maypole of God, preached with inside information about how close we are to “that hour.” Roberts and group members rely heavily on cherry-picked scriptures as well as symbolic dreams which Roberts believes contain explicit messages from God. We learn from the memoir that Roberts, as the Elder, has the final say as to what anybody’s dreams mean when it comes to marriage or anything significant in a follower’s life and movements. But the caution in the next few passages from the Gospel of Mark has the JRG on edge at all times in a state of hypervigilance: Be watchful! Be alert. You do not know when the time will come. It is like a man travelling abroad. He leaves home and leaves his servants in charge, each with his work, and orders the gatekeeper to be on the watch…May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to all: Watch! (Mark 13:33-37)
More disclosure: I first encountered an ex-member of the Jim Roberts Group in 1986 at a large cult awareness conference where I met Jim Guerra who had just left the cult after ten years—he was recruited in 1976. Guerra later published a memoir of his experiences in 2000 titled From Dean’s List to Dumpsters: Why I left Harvard to Join a Cult. Prior to Guerra’s book I also read Escape written by ex-member Rachel Martin Dugger with Bonnie Palmer Young (1980) and an unpublished manuscript The Free Lunch by Jim Robinson who willingly “joined” the JRG knowing it was a “cult” from 1985 to 1986. In 1996 I offered my support for the newly formed The Roberts Group Parents Network. We, as many as forty or more people, would meet annually through 2013. TRGPN has had several goals that include mutual support for grieving parents and siblings, sharing information about where secretive JRG members were living or travelling, making efforts to reconnect members and families, and helping ex-members in their recovery and adjustment. I witnessed some of the production of God Willing: What Would You Do If Faith Took Your Child Away? This 2010 film was produced by Evangeline Griego whose nephew was caught up in the JRG for many years. I also read the self-published manuscript Love at a Distance: Our Daughter’s Journey with a Religious Cult by Jack Nolan (2008) whose daughter “Hilary” was with the JRG over twenty years, joining in 1976. Nolan’s daughter was never permitted to marry while in the group. Significantly, I was involved in several non-coercive interventions to help parents engage their JRG family member with information that would hopefully help that follower to defect. During two of those interventions, the JRG member chose to leave the group. During two separate occasions, I engaged male JRG members who were on bicycles on the road, one time with a parent. I spent hours in conversation on both occasions but to no avail. The JRG member would not continue, no doubt applying one of the scriptures controlling his behavior that states to wipe the dust off your feet and leave if someone rejects “the Gospel.” I also consulted with Prime Time that produced a significant expose on the JRG that aired on a major TV network in 1997 and aired many times thereafter on cable stations.
The show was remarkable because it gained footage of a rare, serendipitous encounter and short interview on camera with Jim Roberts on the streets of Richmond, CA while he was waiting for a bus. He boarded the bus after making a few defensive remarks. His reaction confirmed my impression that he has a schizoid personality. Schizoid: “Of, relating to, or having a personality marked by extreme shyness, elusiveness, and an inability to form close friendships or social relationships” (Stedman’s Medical Dictionary, 2002). Schizoid traits may also include a rich fantasy life. In Robert’s case, his fantasy life is informed by an egocentric need to be at the core of the Gospel tradition while not showing due respect for peers in Christian leadership. Simply put, Roberts has been a shy, elitist preacher whose shyness often bled into paranoid behavior.
In sum, this book adds valuable information about the nature of the JRG and how it operated day to day. What is lacking is a clear idea of Jim Roberts’ history and personality. Smailes found some things disturbing about the way Roberts manipulated a secretive cult, but she applauds his devotion and saintly demeanor that could lead to acts of compassion. For example, we learn that sisters often hitched rides with brothers until one sister was raped by a trucker that forced the brother out of the truck’s cab before the assault. Subsequently, Roberts made a rule that sisters would only travel by drive-away cars and vehicles driven by brothers. “Although I felt letdown by Brother Evangelist, I still esteem him.” Smailes ambivalence toward the cult and the leader is not uncommon to ex-members, just as many ex-wives might recall good qualities in their abusive ex-husbands. Holding on to what appeared and perhaps was good allows any ex-spouse or ex-cult member to feel less betrayed by the entire experience.
Today Smailes lives in South Africa and works as a Reflexologist and Meridian Therapist, apparently yet retaining an “alternative” worldview, only this time with a healer’s vocation. By her account, her three children all did well, however her dear son Reuben recently died of an illness while living in Thailand. And that story, she indicates, could be the topic of another book.