By Chris Hedges
Noel Lyons, a member of the U.S. Ski Team from 1976 to 1981 and once one of the country’s top professional skiers, found herself in a Vail, Colo., hospital in the spring of 2010 after another round of binge drinking. “I had given up on myself,” she would say later. Her boyfriend and sister decided she needed rehabilitative help. Because their resources were limited, they turned to the free Total Freedom Program, a Florida ministry for women and men that identifies itself as Christian.
Cate Iannello, the wife of the leader of Total Freedom Program, “Pastor Guy,” met Lyons in July 2010 at the Orlando airport and drove her to what she called “the girls’ house,” a yellow ranch house in a nondescript neighborhood of nearby Ocoee. Lyons says she arrived “scared out of my mind” and holding a decorative pillow with the image of a buffalo on it. Because the pillow had “past associations” that could evoke demons, she was soon told to put it in the trash.
Lyons walked into the living room with the pastor’s wife. She met a woman there who introduced herself as Connie Prince, “the house mom”—a position Lyons herself would assume eventually. She was introduced to about five other “girls,” all white and ranging in age from the 20s into the 50s, who lived in the house.
The house mom rifled through Lyons’ bag of clothes. She pulled out particular garments and told her, “Well, you won’t be wearing that.” Prince confiscated the small amount of money Lyons had, her Ambien sleeping pills, cellphone and phone card.
“Later on I found out it was inappropriate or had accursed symbols,” Lyons said of the confiscated clothes when we met at the home of a friend outside Philadelphia where she was staying.
Lyons, now 50, toured the group house with a woman named Susan. Susan, in her early 20s, showed Lyons the bedroom the two women would share. It had bare walls and three beds with mismatched sheets, three dilapidated dressers and one closet. Lyons was then taken to the kitchen, where she sat with other women at a table for prayers and dinner. Afterward the women went into the living room for Lyons’ “praying in” ceremony. She was instructed to sit on the floor. The women sat in a circle around her.
“Then they make sure I had no tattoos, which are accursed items,” Lyons said. New arrivals with tattoos had to be specially anointed to excise the demons that the ministry claimed were embedded in tattoos.
The circle of women prayed over her, including in the gibberish of “tongues,” and anointed her with oil. The women walked through the house after the ceremony. They said more prayers in tongues to rid the house of demons. They dipped their fingers in oil and marked the doorjambs with the sign of the cross to drive out evil spirits. “It’s called the Housecleaning Prayer,” Lyons said. “And a lot of times they’ll put a cross over the beds where our heads rest.”
Lyons began to speak to me in a stream of nonsensical sounds to imitate praying in tongues. She instinctively crossed her arms over her chest. “It’s like in chanting,” she said. “I’m holding my heart because I believed that the enemy was trying to get my heart. So I’m always covering my heart.”
She was given a rules handbook and told she had to sign an “intake form” promising to obey the community’s edicts. She read in the handbook that she would be forbidden to contact anyone except her immediate family for nine months, which distressed her because of her relationship with her boyfriend in Vail. The form said she would forfeit the right to sue the ministry, which she found odd. She refused to sign the form without a lawyer. She went to her room distraught and frightened, unsure of what to do. She could not sleep. In the middle of the night she went outside and thought about hotwiring one of the cars in order to leave, but, she said, “I had nowhere to go, and I had no money. I had no contact with anyone.” At 5:30 a.m. she was told it was time for the ritual morning prayers.
“The house mom leads the prayers and everyone has to be in unison with the prayers.” She called these “the paper prayers” because they were printed out on sheets.
“You say your warfare prayer, your deliverance prayer, your third dimensional warrior prayer, it’ll make sense to you later on,” she explained. “It’s all warfare praying.”
Lyons was told to go to a designated spot in the house “where you’re supposed to communicate with God and have your ‘David cave time’ with him.” Before the start of her “David cave time,” Lyons, frustrated by being unable to do her normal physical workout, did sit-ups and push-ups in the living room. As she exercised, “people are just walking by, not talking to me,” she said.
Lyons was told she was allowed only one cup of coffee a day. She was told that she was permitted to speak by phone only with immediate family members and only when a person of the community monitored the conversation.
Every resident, she found, was expected to be an informant if she or he saw someone break the rules. Many of those at the ministry compound had recently come out of prison and were in the facility as a halfway house requirement.
The female residents “become a posse,” Lyons said. “Remember, a lot of these people came from prison. None of the people are qualified to do anything. A lot of these people are supposed to be in a house that transitions them to the real world.”
Breakfast was served at 6:30. And on her first morning in Ocoee she was taken to “morning intercession,” which would occur every day for the three months of Lyons’ initial indoctrination. It was held in a place called the “war room” in another house on the cul-de-sac where the group owns four or five houses. The war room was open and lined on two sides by single rows of folding chairs. The men sat on one side. The women sat on the other. Lyons was told when she entered the war room that she was not permitted to talk to or have eye contact with the men either there or outside. Segregation of the sexes was rigidly enforced. Courtship and relationships could be carried out within the community only if they were approved and mediated by the pastor. Relationships outside the community were forbidden.
All new arrivals during their first three months spent every morning and every afternoon in the war room “doing teachings,” which consisted of listening to recordings from Pastor Guy Iannello’s Eternal Library of 800 Teachings. They were required to take copious notes. Lyons showed me a stack of about a dozen white legal pads filled with her notes. After three months, if program approval was granted, a resident was permitted to get an outside job to help support the ministry. By that time, residents typically had severed ties with most friends and relatives.
The morning routine included recorded religious music followed by prayer. There were prayers for orphans, single mothers or fathers and those who had been abandoned. Then the group prayed in tongues. She wondered: “What does this have to do with helping me with my problem?”
At 8:30 a.m. on her first full day at the compound she was taken to the office to see “Mom,” the pastor’s mother-in-law. She was given a lengthy form and told to circle all her “sins,” such as sex before marriage, lesbianism, sodomy, masturbation, adultery, oral sex, abortion, vanity, self-pity, swearing or cursing. She circled the words that applied to her. It was only later, she said, that she was told that each of these sins was “identified as a demon.”
Lyons, who during our meeting had a box of literature, videos and other materials of the ministry, handed me a tattered red book titled “Prayers.” She opened the book to Page 36. I read the four pages known as the “Sin List.” It included hundreds of sins, among them “loving to curse,” “killing,” “Baal worship” and “sacrificing children to demons.”
Lyons complained to Mom that she could not speak in tongues, to which Mom replied: “Yabba dabba doo. Just start saying, ‘Yabba dabba doo,’ and the Holy Spirit will help you. Fake it until you make it.” Mom told Lyons she was “being rebellious” and that “rebellion is witchcraft.” “That was a huge thing that they played on,” Lyons said, “that whole rebellion thing.”
She still refused to sign the forms. She was ushered into the pastor’s office to see a video called “You Can’t Fight What You Can’t See.” All who were inducted into the community were required to watch it. She met with Iannello on the second day. He told her to sign the forms and give the program two weeks. She signed.
Because Lyons’ second night at the compound was a Tuesday, she was taken with the other members of the community to Way of Grace Church in Ocoee. The eight female residents of the Total Freedom Program community sat on one side of the church, and the 20 male residents sat on the other. About 15 outsiders joined them. Lyons listened to a sermon on obedience to God. Mom told her later that God had put the message in the preacher’s heart to address Lyons’ rebelliousness.
On Friday nights the group held services in the sanctuary of the Ocoee Oaks Church.
During the daily indoctrination Lyons sat in the war room from 8:30 to noon listening to recordings and taking notes. She went back after lunch to sit there from 1 to 4. During the rest of the day she was confined to her house.
“I was trying to do some [physical] exercise,” Lyons said. “They’re like, ‘You can’t do that. You have to put God first. If you get done with God, then you can exercise.’ ”
She repeated to me the core of the pastor’s message: “You came here thinking you had a problem with drugs and alcohol, but this is a Holy Spirit stickup and this is Holy Spirit boot camp. You’re going to find the Holy Spirit. You’re going to find your hope and your faith. You’re going to find God. You’re going to find that which you didn’t have. You’re going to be disciples of God.”
“The constant theme is a chain of command, of authority, God being the ultimate authority,” Lyons said, “and that he [God] assigned people to you to watch over you, your spiritual father.”
“It’s very much like boot camp in the Army,” she said. “Pastor Guy used to be in the [Navy]. He also used to be a big drug lord. Then he got saved, supposedly. So now he has this ministry on the cul-de-sac. A lot of the programming is to get you thinking there’s obedience and there’s rebellion—[and rebellion] is what caused your problems in the first place. They get you hooked into a different way of thinking that your problem is demons.”
“They made me get a food stamp card,” she said, handing me a copy of her application for food stamps. “Then when I got my food stamp card it went to the house mom. The house mom who bought the groceries used all of our food stamp cards.”
By the end of the three months Lyons was broken and obedient. She was permitted to look for an outside job. She wanted nothing to do with those who had been her friends before she went to Florida. She believed they were heathens and conduits of demons into her life.
She was assigned to work in the group’s office promoting ministry events. She called merchants and asked them to donate items or services for silent auctions. She worked in the office for two months. She then took a job at a Dillard’s Department store. She would work there for more than two years. The ministry took rent, her tithe—10 percent of her income—and utility costs from her pay. She also had to pay the ministry $5 a day to be driven to Dillard’s, four miles away. “They [were] nickel-and-diming me to death,” Lyons said.
Lyons said that those who did not work at outside jobs worked for the ministry as “slave labor” and never could save “enough money to leave.”
During her time in Total Freedom Program she saw herself as a part of the ministry. She dutifully confessed all urges, defined as sins, to her prayer group. She was given greater responsibilities within the ministry, including being a house mom. She was filled with self-loathing for “everything that was natural in me.”
“Anything that comes before God is an idol,” she said. “Exercise, my whole past experience, friends. I started to feel like I had this Job experience, this lose-everything experience.”
Lyons had been turned. She was terrified of demons, which other church members said they could see around her in the form of lizards. She fervently recited the litany of required prayers. She dutifully attended the meetings and services. She imposed the rules on others. At night, during her required “Bedtime Warfare Prayer,” she would repeat to herself:
Father, I come to you in the name of Jesus and repent every thought, spoken word, deed, that was displeasing to You and any uncompleted vow that I committed to.
I break every curse that was placed on me either self-imposed or put by any demonic source and anything spoken over me that was not from You.
I curse every corruptible seed that was implanted in me and I command them to wither and die and I loose myself from every spirit associated with those seeds. Allow your righteous seeds to grow and bear fruit for Your glory.
I apply the blood of Jesus over my house upon the roof, walls and floors, upon all members, possessions, automobiles, and my spirit, soul body and dreams in Jesus Name.
I bind up any spirits of terror, fear, nightmares, or torment, every mind-binding, evil, foul, lying and unclean spirit that may try to come and torment me in any way tonight and I muzzle the voice of the stranger. Satan, you and any evil spirit in your kingdom that could be in or around our properties, I bind you and drive you out in the Name of Jesus. Any astral projections or soul travel spirits that could be in or around our property, I command you, in the Name of Jesus, to go back where you came from.
Father, please send Your warring angels to watch over me and to hold back the forces of Satan and his kingdom while I sleep. Send your ministering angels to come and minister to me as I sleep. Holy Spirit please come and flow though me, giving me dreams, visions, health, supernatural rest and let me wake up refreshed. I pray all this in Jesus name.
Patrice, a woman who had left the community, began to talk to Lyons outside the compound. She urged Lyons to get out of the group because it was “unhealthy.” Lyons during a visit from her sister managed to pack her belongings and flee the compound. The group, unable now to hold her, told her she could leave but would fail in the outside world.
After she moved out, Lyons’ job went sour because she failed to make sales quotas. She had few friends at work because her indoctrination had made her “a freak,” she said. She did not engage in what the ministry called “secular talk.”
She gravitated to Christian megachurches that she now calls “sub-cults.” The trauma, emotional abuse and manipulation Lyons suffered at the hands of Total Freedom Program were familiar to me because of the two years I spent investigating the Christian right for my book “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America.” In the closed world of the Christian right, pastors, “disciplers” and “prayer partners” define all doubt, questioning or “backsliding” as a sin and the work of Satan. Submission to authority becomes the only proper way to serve God. Critical judgment is abolished. Religious clichés shut down independent thought. All other ways of living become a compact with the demonic. A persecution mentality is pounded into adherents, making them deeply distrustful of outsiders. It is an ideology of fear and abject obedience to authority. And all those who walk away are condemned and branded as apostates. Lyons’ story is the story of millions of Americans who live or have lived inside these hermetically sealed systems of “Christian” indoctrination.
Eventually, Lyons recovered enough of herself to leave Florida. Before she departed she packed documentation of her stay at the Iannello complex, hoping some reporter would tell her story as a warning to others. Through friends she contacted me.
When Lyons drove out of the Ocoee area last week—in her 1991 Honda Civic, with some 236,000 miles on it and duct tape holding up the dashboard—it was emotionally wrenching for her. She repeated over and over to herself in the car: “I’ve got to keep going, I’ve got to keep going. I gotta get out of here now. I gotta get out of here now.”
She continues to be haunted by the indoctrination. She is struggling to shake off a belief system that defined as evil her natural instincts, her thoughts, and her desires for personal happiness and independence. Her speech remains infected with the jargon of the ministry. She says her fight now is to become whole.
The experience with the program “sucker-punched me,” she said. “They took away my self-respect and my self-esteem. They eviscerated me. They took the life out of me. Any natural instinct I had was condemned. I’m doing better [now], but I maintain a certain numbness because of the damage. I never fought so hard, once I realized my predicament, to get myself back.”
Illustration by Mr. Fish