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In memoir, daughter of CUT leader comes to grips with where church went wrong

Billings Gazette, Montana/October 28, 2008

By Susan Olp

Erin Prophet was 15 when she first set eyes on Montana in 1981, a passenger in a single-engine Cessna flying into Billings Logan International Airport.

Piloting the plane was her soon-to-be stepfather, Edward Francis. Sitting behind him was Prophet's mother, Elizabeth Clare Prophet, leader, spiritual mother and prophet to the thousands of members worldwide of the Church Universal and Triumphant.

The small group was in Montana that September to tour the newly purchased 12,500-acre ranch at Corwin Springs, in the Paradise Valley south of Livingston. The church known as CUT moved its headquarters there five years later.

Erin Prophet had no idea that not quite nine years after that plane ride, she and members of the by-then-infamous New Age sect would head into underground shelters they had built, believing the world was about to descend into nuclear chaos. Or that she would help set the date when that momentous action would take place.

Or that just two years after that, her mother would exhibit signs of dementia and eventually be diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.

Despite the fact that Elizabeth Clare Prophet's mind has deteriorated to the point where she can no longer care for herself, let alone lead the religious group she founded, CUT remains in existence, still based in Corwin Springs. The longtime leader now lives in a basement apartment in private care in Bozeman.

Erin Prophet, 42, is no longer part of CUT. She lives in a suburb of Boston and works as a project manager in the quality improvement department of a Boston hospital.

The Lyons Press has just released Prophet's memoir, "Prophet's Daughter: My Life with Elizabeth Clare Prophet Inside the Church Universal and Triumphant," which details her tumultuous life. The book provides an inside account of the life that she, her mother, brother and two sisters, her husband and the others lived first in Colorado and California, and then in Montana.

In the book's preface, Prophet writes that one reason she penned the account is to expose the flawed thinking that led to her mother's "apocalyptic prophecies" and the shelters built in their wake.

"Since then I have spent many sleepless nights asking myself why and how it happened and whether there was anything I could have done to change the outcome," she writes. "It was a mistake, a Napoleon-invading-Russia sort of blunder, which arose from a collection of ideas that obscured and tarnished my mother's life work."

She sees CUT's story "as a cautionary tale of what happens when such ideas are taken to an extreme."

Prophet doesn't believe that CUT, which she said "had a basic respect for secular authority," ever would have ended up at the same deadly place as the followers of David Koresh in Waco or the Jonestown murder-suicide victims. But she doesn't blame others for drawing the comparison between those extremist groups and CUT.

"Our actions were informed by the same sense of spiritual superiority that has led others to pace street corners with sandwich boards reading, THE END IS NEAR," she wrote. "And the reasoning behind it is more similar to that of the other groups than I have been comfortable admitting."

In a telephone interview, Prophet talked about her earlier years as part of CUT, which intimately shaped her life and affected the lives of others in the sect, as well as the land and its neighbors.

And though she has separated herself from CUT, she holds warm feelings toward her mother.

"I felt that she was a genuine spiritual teacher; she helped a lot of people," Prophet said. "People felt they were healed by her. She found fulfillment in her work."

And her mother was the one "who rubbed my chest with menthol, lit my birthday candles, prayed for me when I was sick, and made me learn my multiplication tables."

The problem, Prophet said, is that her mother couldn't resist the temptation to claim to be more than she was, to stray into prophecy and eventually lead her followers into spiritual and financial bankruptcy.

The Summit Lighthouse, started by Mark Prophet, was transformed by his second wife, Elizabeth Clare, into the Church Universal and Triumphant.

The group took ideas from Buddhism, Hinduism and Kabbalah, and blended them with the beliefs of a 1930s group known as the "I AM" Religious Activity that used chanted decrees.

There was the belief in "light," spiritual energy that could be invoked from above and manipulated in different ways, thrown, poured and directed. There were also specially chosen messengers who had exclusive links with "ascended masters," and shared gleaned wisdom with followers.

Elizabeth Clare Prophet assumed that responsibility at an early age, her daughter said.

"She took on the role of messenger at age 24, which is pretty young to making those kinds of decisions," Erin Prophet said. "And from that moment, she had to be able to project that image."

Along with projecting that image came the expectation of others, Prophet said, that a messenger ought to be able to provide precise information about the future.

Prophet thinks her mother wasn't always comfortable in that role, and at certain points she invited others to share that responsibility with her. In 1985, she asked Erin to start training as a messenger, to be a seer and channel the "ascended masters."

Elizabeth Clare Prophet's first prediction of a nuclear first strike came in 1987, saying the United States had two years to develop the capacity to turn back warheads launched by the Soviet Union. To protect itself from that, CUT turned its energies to building blast-proof bomb shelters

Erin Prophet, in her budding work as a messenger, directed where and what size the shelters should be. A large shelter was built at the ranch itself, and individuals who lived at Glastonbury, a subdivision CUT built 20 miles away, near Emigrant, also constructed dozens of private shelters.

When it was apparent the main shelter couldn't be finished by the October date, she received a new date for the cataclysmic event - March 1990. The "ascended master" could hold back the karma a bit longer.

The predictions, the building of the shelters, the environmental protests - all of it provided fodder for articles that appeared in Montana news outlets in the late 1980s and early '90s. The national press jumped on the story when Francis and CUT member Vernon Hamilton were arrested for using false identification to buy an arsenal of weapons.

Though at the time both claimed that Elizabeth Clare Prophet knew nothing of the transaction, Erin Prophet, in her book, said her mother was aware of the purchase from its conception through the attempted deed.

When March 14, the predicted date for the nuclear strike came, members of CUT filed into the shelters - just a drill, they told law enforcement and the media. They took part in a second such drill on March 26.

When nothing happened by the evening of that day, Prophet said, her mother called staff together to call down judgment on the United States.

After it became clear that no catastrophe was in the offing, members emerged from the shelters - some of them disillusioned - and planned their exit from the sect. That group included Erin Prophet, her husband and two sons. She and her husband divorced not long after.

Some CUT members spent their life savings and had little left. Elizabeth Clare Prophet didn't seem to comprehend their losses, her daughter said, which added anger to their pain.

By this time, area residents had begun to loudly protest CUT's actions. A diesel-fuel spill at the site of the shelters provoked additional angry reactions and cost CUT nearly $1 million to clean up.

In 1994, at age 55, Elizabeth Clare Prophet and Edward Francis gave birth to a son, Seth, the oldest live birth recorded in Montana. She divorced Edward Francis in 1996, and he eventually wound up with full custody of the boy, remarried and later left CUT.

In November 1998, at age 59, Elizabeth Clare Prophet was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. Erin Prophet eventually was appointed one of her guardians.

Others gradually assumed leadership of the church. Erin Prophet began her own long journey of reflection on all that had happened, interviewing more than 50 people in her research for the memoir.

Looking back, Prophet shares her thoughts on prophecy, on how CUT survived and on what she calls the take-away message.

About prophecy, she says, "The lesson I learned is it's not helpful to try to see in the future in a precise way. There may be clairvoyant people, but I haven't seen evidence myself."

As to how the sect continued even after the failed prophesy, Prophet turns to sociology for an explanation.

Failed prophecy, she learned, may provoke a crisis of faith, but it doesn't necessarily destroy a group. Many factors play into whether it will survive, including how it deals with the failure.

If the group spiritualizes the prediction - by saying it was a spiritual test that the group passed because of its faith - it can actually strengthen a group, she said.

"If you have to believe that someone or something is always right, then you simply transform the way you were right," Prophet said. "If someone can't fail, you have to reinterpret what was supposed to have happened."

Prophet said she wants people to understand the mindset of a sect such as CUT. Such a group turns its attention inward, remains insulated from the world and sees itself as having a unique place among people.

"You get the idea that somehow you're preferred or special," she said. "There are all kinds of religious texts you can apply to yourself in those situations."

Perception becomes reality, and the reality of the outside world fades away.

"It limits your participation and your desire to improve the world in small ways," she said. "Although I think it's a good idea to store food and water and be prepared for calamities, it's also important to preserve an optimistic view about the future."

About her mother's leadership of CUT, Prophet said she believes the same insulation the group experienced kept many from contradicting the direction that Elizabeth Clare Prophet took the Church Universal and Triumphant.

"There were very few people who could tell her no - and only sometimes."

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