The Art of Deprogramming: Dismantling My Cult Mindset

by Christopher Evans

Grace Bible Church sits on an old stretch of Route 9 tucked into a little nook carved out of the Colonie Landfill. It’s an old converted blue barn with a gravel driveway that was permeated by the smell of methane caused by the mountains decomposing waste. It was a meeting place for homeschoolers to congregate on Thursdays, as a sort of half-assed attempt at socialization indoctrination for homeschooled children.

We would play “sports” which in fact was either touch football on nice days and overly aggressive dodgeball when it was raining. There was “drama” where we would read the scripts of Patch the Pirate a radio program of a Christian pirate who lost his eye to cancer. There was also “art” which was watching instructional videos teaching to copy portraits of dead presidents using a grid system. And then there was the real reason we were there: the sermon. We would sit quietly in the basement sanctuary of the church in fear while the pastor angrily shouted his message. If a poor, bored soul dared to drift off and daydream, the angry pastor would call them out in front of everyone—effectively shaming a child for being a child.

I wrote this so you can see where I and others like me came from. We were radicalized underground and emerged to the earth like trolls. There are more like me. Millions more who were taught to shun culture, reject knowledge, and fear art.

Christopher Evans

It was there that I have my most distinct early memories, those foundational memories, the ones that you carry through life forever, even if you can’t recall them. I was seven, or maybe eight at the time of this particular memory:

The angry pastor was talking about sexual purity, one of his favorite topics, which in retrospect is a strange obsession for a grown man to convey to sheltered and pre-pubescent children. He told us an anecdote and I will paraphrase it through the lens of a child’s memory.

“A young man was looking at pornography but wanted to stop. Try and try as he could, he couldn’t stop looking at pornography. So, according to the angry pastor, this young man took a spoon from the kitchen and went out to his car.”

Matthew chapter five verse twenty-eight reads:

And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.

The angry pastor told this last part with the ultimate reverence in his voice. “The young man took the spoon and dug it into his eye sockets, scooping out his eyeballs into his lap.”

'I don't think I should be here, maybe I can leave with no-one noticing' by Christopher Evans (Oil on canvas 46 x 55 cm)

This was a foundational memory planted in my mind and one of the first I had about sex, and not just sex, just the thought of sex. From that point on, thoughts of sex were an abomination thanks to the right dosage of rhetoric and trauma. At that stage of my life, there was only one truth and I was protected from all other points of view. Where there are absolute truths and no doubt, a person can just implant an entire belief structure into the mind of a susceptible and malleable young brain, especially a brain that was never taught to think critically.

This leads me to ask myself: “Is there any part of me that is actually me, or am I a collection of sequential events programmed to respond in certain ways to certain stimuli? Am I destined to always be a product of the conditioning I went through?”

I used to think my experiences were universal, but at that time, my universe was small. It was my family, church, and homeschool group. It was the Bible, Christian literature, Christian radio, Christian music, Christian movies. Up until my twenties, I believed in absolute truth and divine right. I was sheltered from opposing views. Was I brainwashed?

It was later in life that I realized that people shelter themselves from opposing views because they know their own beliefs will crumble when subjected to scrutiny. The light that does sneak in is met with the utmost hostility. For me, art was that light that seeped in the cracks of all the defenses my indoctrination instilled in me.

'I was the worst kind of poser' by Christopher Evans (Oil on canvas, 112 x 152 cm)

When I was a child I would draw monsters, for no other reason than they were fun to draw. My mother would get upset and call them demons. Then I would draw aliens. My mother would get upset and call them demons. Then superheroes. “Where did they get their powers from?” That was a rhetorical question. The answer was: the Devil.

When I was older I was allowed to stay at the library on my own. It was a cherished moment of autonomy. I would run to the rows with comics and comic books, and read Batman and Spiderman comics in the furthest corners of the library. I would bring my notebooks in and copy my favorite pages. I would take these pages home with me and hide them in a desk drawer, to re-read and re-draw later. They were mostly recreations of the climatic full-page action sequences.

I thought I was being clever, but one day I opened my drawer and the drawings were gone. Instead, there was a note: “I wish you would use your talents for the glory of God”. I internalized that and it comes out in my work today. Not the actual note, but instead the violation I felt. Also, the heart-wrenching feeling of not getting any creative validation.

These white man crocodile tears are not befitting of the Zeitgeist.

I do not want you to feel sorry for me.

I did not write this so you should feel sorry for me.

'Poot' by Christopher Evans (Oil on canvas, 61 x 76 cm)

I wrote this so you can see where I and others like me came from. We were radicalized underground and emerged to the earth like trolls. There are more like me. Millions more who were taught to shun culture, reject knowledge, and fear art. I was a lucky one. I made it out. The inquisitive part of my brain was led step-by-step closer to a point of intellectual and emotional honesty. It was hard. It felt worst than peeling off scabs or pulling out stitches. It was as odious and laborious a task as cutting out a tumor from my own body. To this day I still feel that old self, the angry, entitled man with righteous anger for God’s sulfurous justice. It bubbles underneath my skin like festering cystic acne. At times when I am alone, I feel it in my pores and I try to scratch and squeeze it out.

I do not want you to think I overcame anything.

I do not write this so you will think I overcame anything.

I wrote this as a warning and a map. Those like me are not lost and should not be written off. Many of us are pawns in an unwitting movement of misinformation and confirmation bias. We cannot be argued with, there is no point. Arguments will do nothing but incite violence. We are quick to act in indignant righteousness mandated by the Lord our God. There is no going head to head without mutually assured self-destruction.

Instead, you must be the comic book in the library. Be that clear spot in a dirty window where the light gets through. The spot that draws a person in. The spot that opens up the viewer to a bright new world on the other side of that shitty pane of glass. Art did that for me. Normal, run of the mill dog eared comics in the library planted a seed in the adolescent brain that waited underneath the soil for a decade before the first sprout cracked the dry surface of a cemented brain.

There are a lot of assholes out there. And they are angry and they yell and they get in your face but they are afraid. They are afraid of art. One thing I was taught as a child was that true ideas were infectious. Once the doubt creeps in, the whole house of cards starts to fall apart.

Art is that subversive idea that conservatism fears. You can trace that fear back to the iconoclastic era. You can trace it back to when Michelangelo had the Pope’s army hunting him down to finish a piece of propaganda. I think we as artists and patrons, forget the power at our fingertips. Ideas are powerful and art instills new ideas. This makes art powerful, even in its most kitsch forms.

I was not changed by the Sistine Chapel, I was changed by a comic book.

'Wet, Hot, American day' by Christopher Evans (Oil, acrylic and spraypaint on canvas 183 x 122 cm)

Explore Christopher’s art on his Artzine Gallery Space.