Vol. 6, No.1
he inmate has covered the window of his infirmary cell with toilet paper. It's a warning sign that has Kristen Skedgell DeVoe '86 worried. When inmates block the windows to their cells, something bad is happening inside.
DeVoe is a clinical social worker in a Connecticut maximum-security prison. Her patients are mentally ill inmates; many are suicidal. "They feel that once they're in prison, that's the end of the road," DeVoe says. She understands the feeling. For 15 years, she languished in her own kind of prison—and she didn't even know it.
In 1970, 14-year-old Kristen Skedgell was swept up in the fervor of a Christian cult known as The Way International. In a moment immortalized in the 1971 Life magazine article "The Groovy Christians of Rye" (featuring a photograph of Skedgell, eyes bright with wonder), The Way's founder, "The Doctor" Victor Wierwille, rode into Skedgell's town on a motorcycle, bringing a message of enlightenment that ensnared the girl with wild hopes and false promises.
"People imagine cult members as wild-eyed maniacs," says Kristen Skedgell DeVoe. "But there are people like me who seek honest spiritual depth and get into these groups, not knowing they're being manipulated."
DeVoe recounts her first meeting with The Doctor and the devastating years that followed in her new book, Losing the Way (Bay Tree Publishing). The book spins a true-life tale of shattered convictions as DeVoe slowly breaks free of the cult's grasp, escaping abuse from The Doctor and her then-husband, a fellow Way member. DeVoe says she wrote the book as part of a healing process that lasted through several years of revising her manuscript.
"By putting things into words, I re-envisioned what happened. I didn't change the story, but I changed the way I looked at it," she says. She says she hopes the book conveys a true sense of what it's like to be overcome by a cult's influence and diffuses some stereotypes.
"People imagine cult members as wild-eyed maniacs," she says. "But there are people like me who seek honest spiritual depth and get into these groups, not knowing they're being manipulated."
DeVoe returned to Johns Hopkins in 1985 after having dropped out nearly 10 years earlier due to the demands of The Way. Classes at Hopkins helped her regain a sense of purpose.
"My mind was waking up again," she says.
She followed her Hopkins education with graduate work at Yale's divinity school and Columbia University's social work program, leading to her current occupation. Her natural impulse to help people was something that survived her time with The Way.
"Often a spark is lit in those you reach out to help. They find they have a reason to live," she says. "In a prison, that's a big thing."
Back in the infirmary cell, staff finally manage to calm the inmate. He had been thinking of hanging himself and was lashing out at anyone who came near. DeVoe knows this kind of despair. But she also knows that it's possible to come out on the other side, to find a reason to live again. She spends several hours speaking with the inmate, patiently waiting to see the spark of understanding in the man's eyes.