Undertow: My Escape from the Fundamentalism and Cult Control of The Way International

by Charlene L. Edge

“A magnificently written life story that sheds light on the enticing ways of cult recruitment and indoctrination that engender conformity, obedience, and loss of self. Nevertheless, thankfully, the seed of doubt grows, as the author strives for acceptance through hard work and deep faith. Edge’s prose captures the essence of cult life and the personal devastation of having to acknowledge not only corruption and plagiarized teachings but also a ‘sex ring’ at the top levels of leadership. An important and must-read book—more gripping than a mystery. Undertow will sweep you away.” —Janja Lalich, PhD, Professor Emerita of Sociology at California State University, Chico, author of Bounded Choice: True Believers and Charismatic Cults

“Charlene Edge’s Undertow shows how intelligent, even strong people, from all walks of life, can be sucked into a dysfunctional or abusive religious group or church, and once in the fold, how difficult it is to get out. I know because I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian church and school. When I started a support system for people leaving fundamentalism, that got me on Oprah. Afterward, I debated Jerry Falwell on Today and Nightline and exposed television evangelists like Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart. I was amazed by the anguished, guilt-ridden, repressive, and tragic stories I became privy to. I wish everyone leaving fundamentalism could have the courage and the writing ability to bear witness against their religious bondage and testify as to how they broke free. The lure, the group dynamics, and The Fundamentalist Mindset are basically the same and are more important than the theological quirks of a particular group.” —Richard Yao, author of the forthcoming book Freedom from Bad Religion. Founder of Ex-Fundamentalists Anonymous and the new website http://exfundies.com.

“Edge has written a timely and compelling story about the power of words to seduce, to betray, and ultimately, in her case, to save. Avoiding tabloid cult tropes, Edge instead reveals, with maturity, honesty, and insight, the ways that fundamentalist groups twist the very words that honest seekers of truth believe. That she sought religious truth, worked in The Way’s Research Department to discover the truth, and ultimately became a writer to tell the truth, strikes me as perfectly poetic coincidence.”—Robyn Allers, author and journalist

“This thoughtful, beautifully written memoir is a window into the gradual but compelling pull cults have on unsuspecting and well-meaning people of faith. Edge’s writing conveys images that invite the reader to a particular moment in US History and the fascinating development of a community seeking to impact the world as they perceived it. Undertow is an honest and affecting look at the way evangelical movements perceive their world and their duty in it. One gets the impression Edge wants to run back in time and tell that young, intelligent girl to reconsider her worldview. What Edge has created here is a welcome voice of reason for those who would be tempted by similar visions of evangelism and the accompanying claim that an original version of Christianity existed and could ever be accessible or fully intelligible to Christians today. The narrative she pushes against is one that continues to lay claim to evangelicals in our world. It is a worldview in which every moment is interpretable as a reaffirmation of ‘us vs. world,’ rendering a perspective and promulgated purpose that is hard to fathom if one has never experienced it. Edge’s fascinating text gets us as close as one could hope to be. It is a worthwhile read, brimming with insight into a world many of us claim we could never understand. Edge lifts the veil on the power a community can have when discourse and ideology fuse.” —Todd French, PhD, Assistant Professor of Religion at Rollins College

“In Undertow, Charlene Edge manages to bring to life the inexorable, age-old struggle of light triumphing over darkness, of the search for truth in the misty range of a ‘false prophet’s’ deception which she encountered firsthand as a research assistant in The Way International. While she was promised liberty, she found herself a ‘servant of corruption’ (2 Peter 2:19). Ms. Edge’s heartfelt and earnest journey will leave you in awe of what the human spirit can conquer when it launches out in the search for truth. Well-written, compelling, and inspiring.” —Kristen Skedgell, author of Losing the Way

“Undertow is a gift to young people and their families who want to understand the inner workings of fundamentalist cults. Charlene Edge’s experience parallels much of my own twelve years as a follower of Victor Paul Wierwille’s ministry. Undertow sheds light on the decisions, questions, and longings that she encountered, and ultimately worked her way through. In the words of Canadian author Matshona Dhliwayo, ‘Books are kinder teachers than experience.’ May Undertow be a kinder teacher to you than Charlene’s seventeen years in The Way International were to her.” —Steve Muratore, publisher of award-winning political blog the Arizona Eagletarian

Undertow sensitively portrays Charlene Edge’s recruitment into a cult and her eventual escape. Her story is specific to her experience, but it is informative for all people who have been manipulated by a group, especially a fundamentalist one, and offers great insight on the difficulty of leaving. Her writing is magic, even exotic, making the reader identify with her and her struggle. The writing invites you into her life, and you are bound to come away better informed and a better person.” —Philip F. Deaver, PhD, Professor of English and Writer-in-Residence at Rollins College, author of the Flannery O’Connor Award-winning story collection How Men Pray

“A fascinating insider’s account of day-to-day life inside a cult, which with its endless sacrifices, compromises, and increasingly convoluted doublethink, is not so unlike what an ambitious middle manager in any other large corporate enterprise experiences. With a novelist’s eye for the telling detail, Charlene Edge describes the vulnerabilities that led her to join The Way International as a confused and emotionally needy college dropout in the early 1970s—and the growing disillusionment that led her back out into the world more than a decade later.” —Arthur Goldwag, author of Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies

“Charlene Edge has created a deeply human story of her conversion, commitment, disillusion, and disaffiliation from an evangelical Christian cult movement, The Way International. With balance and grace, she gives the reader a compelling portrait of the group’s leader and his fraught relationship with his followers that stands as a warning beacon to all those drawn to charismatic prophets and their high-demand communities.” —Phillip Charles Lucas, PhD, Professor of Religious Studies at Stetson University, author of The Odyssey of a New Religion: The Holy Order of MANS from New Age to Orthodoxy, and co-editor with Thomas Robbins of New Religious Movements in the Twenty-First Century: Legal, Political, and Social Challenges in Global Perspective

“The Way International was once one of the largest cults in America and had a worldwide membership of close to 40,000. One of those members was Charlene Edge and she writes of her seventeen years in the sect in her riveting book, Undertow. In fascinating and disturbing detail, she reveals how she was recruited into The Way while in college during a vulnerable time of her life. Her first-person accounts of meetings with cult leader Victor Paul Wierwille and later, the revelations of his psychological manipulation of members and sexual abuse of hundreds of women, are revealed against the background of her own growing doubts about the group and her commitment to it. A very well-written and compelling tale of delusion and the long path back to reality.” —Jeff C. Stevenson, author of Fortney Road: Life, Death, and Deception in a Christian Cult

“Charlene Edge’s personal story, Undertow, is a wake-up call to moderate Christians (and everyone else) about the dangers of the respectable-looking kind of fundamentalism that conducts Bible study but in reality twists Scripture to produce self-serving doctrines, demands obedience to a cult-of-personality leader, warps believers’ personal identities, and potentially damages members’ long-term welfare. With nonprofit status, such cults are here to stay. Read Undertow and be warned.” —Julia Scheeres, author of Jesus Land

“Well written and compelling, Charlene Edge provides a cautionary tale about the dangers of absolute religious truth. She courageously tells the story of her journey into the depths of religious fundamentalism, and reveals the intellectual strength that ultimately led her to reason her way out.” —Yudit Kornberg Greenberg, PhD, George and Harriet Cornell Endowed Professor of Religion and Director, Jewish Studies Program at Rollins College

Undertow could be called ‘The Great Mystery of The Way Revealed: How the Research Department Really Worked.’ Every sentence rings true. In telling her story in Undertow, Charlene has also told mine. Holding degrees from the University of Toronto, having studied Hebrew, Aramaic, and Syriac, I taught and conducted biblical research for The Way International, albeit in a minor role, from 1976 to 1978. With remarkable clarity, Charlene tells her journey of recruitment, service, eventual disenchantment, and escape, which mirrors much of my own. I heartily recommend and endorse this well-written, captivating, engagingly told tale.” —Marty McRae, former Eighth Way Corps member and former faculty member, Way College of Emporia

Undertow is a cautionary tale for all young people, especially those who are preparing to leave their familiar surroundings to go to college, join the Armed Forces, or move to start a new job. However, the same warning applies to anyone at any age who is going through any life change, such as the loss of a job, a divorce, or the death of a loved one. The names of high-control groups like The Way will be different, their teachings will vary, but the basic techniques of recruiting and mind control are the same. The extreme difficulty in leaving these organizations is evident in Charlene Edge’s story.” —Marjorie Patton, parent of a former Way Corps member who received successful exit counseling before Way Corps graduation

“This is a very personal and eye-opening exposé of the hidden world of life in a destructive group. It took great personal courage and strength for Charlene to break away and build a new life for herself and her daughter. A must read!” —Patrick Ryan, graduate of Maharishi International University, cult intervention specialist since 1984 at Intervention101.com, and contributor to Recovery from Cults: Help for Victims of Psychological and Spiritual Abuse, edited by Michael D. Langone, PhD

“This well-written exposé of life in a Christian fundamentalist cult reads like a novel and portrays, in lucid detail, how the author was seduced into joining the cult. Through her vivid prose, she helps us understand how she lived with the founder’s fantasies for seventeen years of her life. The story of how she got out is as illuminating as how she got in. It is a must read.” —Rita Bornstein, PhD, President Emerita of Rollins College, author of Legitimacy in the Academic Presidency: From Entrance to Exit