Dark Sevier works as a multimedia artist and dwells in Butte, America. Originally an Okie from Muskogee, Dark was raised in a right-wing, white supremacist, apocalyptic cult. Through improvised de-programming rituals and augmented neuro-chemical conditions, he escaped that reality bubble and has been popping in and out of other reality bubbles ever since.
MONTANA, USA — I was around four years old when my family joined the Worldwide Church of God. It coincided with the Nixon Presidency.
One of my earliest memories is watching a Nixon rally from my dad’s shoulders. The energy of the crowd was supercharged and left a series of posterized moments in my brain. My dad, Bill, was a traveling sales rep for Ralston Purina. He spent long hours on Oklahoma’s flats with a bombastic apocalyptic AM radio preacher as his company. Herbert W. Armstrong was a voice of White Male outrage and certainty, contrasting with uncertainty.
Our identity was racial. This cult is one of several that might be called “British Israelism.” Only the (White) descendants of the British Empire are God’s chosen people and can earn salvation. All other races are not in that club. Everybody else is going to Hell to suffer unimaginable torment.
Racism wasn’t about hate, as one living on the inside of this story as a brainwashed kid. It was just the sad facts of life. It was quite painful for me as a kid to think that my tight-assed, fearful fellow congregants and I were going to a better place while all these other sweet folks would have to suffer forever.
The story of our racial superiority did not land as glorious with me. It felt embarrassing and unreasonable. I was special, but no one could know. I couldn’t talk about my Christianity to anyone outside the cult because it would mean revealing that I was chosen and they were not. It was part of the cult-without-a-compound method to keep members isolated while walking through the secular world. Even though the cult was crumbling on the nightly news, the true believers’ reality continued unabated.
Identity, not a choice
I didn’t consider myself a church member so much. For as long as I can recall, I had nothing but disdain for the whole thing. The premise of the specific racial pedigree made it an identity, not a choice. There was what I knew, from school and church, and then there was everything else, which was irrelevant and likely wrong, if not evil.
I was in a suspended state. Thinking beyond the church invited hostility and the threat of physical violence. So, I was under the pall of the cult for years, dispassionately.
There was no questioning the church. It was autocratic by design. It was innovative in running a cult without a compound, using the power of television, print, and radio. [Armstrong] was one of the first mega-successful televangelists with his weekly program “The World Tomorrow.” He was syndicated on AM radio and had a print magazine, “The Plain Truth,” distributed globally by the cult members. I remember seeing them in the grocery store of every town in which we lived.
The cult functioned akin to the Hawai’ian “kapu” system: questioning the word or dictate of the prophet/king meant quick ex-communication from the cult, and communicating with the ex-communicated meant ex-communication for you, too.
Ex-communication meant more than losing your tribe and friend group, which can be devastating on its own. It meant losing the only path to everlasting life in Heaven for you and your family. No one wants to be that guy. The suicide rate for young men in our cult was far higher than the norm.
Sister ran away
My oldest sister ran away when I was seven; she was maybe 16. There were long gaps without contact, but she seemed to be sending little notes under the fence. She introduced reasonable doubt and let me sit with it.
Waiting to graduate from high school was like being in a mental prison, serving time until I could finally think for myself. It was a go-along-to-get-along survival strategy.
My family was ex-communicated when I was in junior high school, but I didn’t find that out until many years later. Our congregation pastor wrote a tell-all book called “Herbert Armstrong’s Tangled Web” when I was 11, and the church split into factions. My dad’s beliefs and loyalties were on the wrong side of the split, so we had to go.
Suddenly no more church on Saturday. No post-church dinners with that community. It shook my parents, but I was relieved to have my Saturdays to myself for once.
We only went to church on Saturdays, and it was in Tulsa—an hour away from where we lived. We stopped attending church suddenly when we got ex-communicated, but none of our other religious habits changed. As far as I knew, we were still “Christians,” and all the rules applied.
From relief to silence
The relief of not going to church settled into a long silence. The family never really addressed what had happened. The kids were happy not to talk about it anymore, and I assume the parents were delighted not to explain themselves.
Not going to church and not reading the Bible didn’t instantly change my worldview. I was still processing my world through a monolithic lens. Instead of God, I said “Universe” and just assigned my magical thinking another mask. Moving into secular society was like being a foreigner without an accent. I could rarely take for granted that what I was saying was the same as what people heard. The feeling of being other perpetuates beyond the cult. Being other was a way of being. I lived as a foreigner in my country of birth, careful not to blow my cover as an outsider.
By the time I graduated high school, I had been living with suicidal ideation for years. I was in a kind of theological finger trap, where the idea of considering getting out of the mind control cinched it tighter with a monolithic threat of “game over forever” for blasphemers. Inversely, I couldn’t end it myself through suicide because I might suffer eternal damnation. I settled on a solution of living as dangerously as possible to potentially stumble into an honorable discharge from life: You don’t go to Hell for accidental death.
In college, I spent a lot of time at house parties with the kitchen philosophy majors. I listened to the bewildering prospects of life beyond Good and Evil while playing Spades and pounding 3.2 beer with Anarchists.
I still checked “Christian” on questionnaires. I still voted for Bush because that was what “we” did.
Reasonable doubt was building. Living in the world and being exposed to other secular and theological points helped me understand that someone slipped me a bad God in my childhood, and I had a bad trip.
I dropped out of college and moved to Boulder, Colorado, the polar opposite of fundamentalist Christian culture. It was as though the Cultural Revolution of the ’60s was still cruising along in Boulder. This was a significant step towards growing beyond what I was programmed to be. I was confronted daily with completely foreign ways of being. Hot tea instead of coffee in the morning. Bicycle lanes and food co-ops. Social justice and cognitive liberty. Emotional intelligence. Connection to the natural world. I wasn’t in Oklahoma anymore.
In Boulder, I discovered that my education about drugs thus far was a part of an ideological, racial, and political propaganda campaign to criminalize the radical left and racial minorities. I had been lied to by my government, my educators, and my family.
Blue pill/Red pill
I defected to the other side of the drug war and became acquainted with LSD and marijuana myths. After several LSD sessions, the binary system began to break down. I needed more information than yes/no, right/wrong, good/bad. I immersed myself in pre-prohibition research and legal debates over the pros and cons of these drugs. I read about the effects of LSD in psychology as an addiction cure, trauma balm, and a truth serum of sorts. I also came to understand that the results were famously difficult to describe to those that had not done it. I made a conscious choice to risk being charged as a criminal to find out for myself.
Intentional uses of LSD helped me take the child-proofing off of the complexity of the human experience. I don’t think I knew how to think my own thoughts until then. I was just perpetually making prescribed binary choices of yes/no, joining a team, opposing a team.
I moved to Los Angeles next. Los Angeles put me in the living room with “them.” The gays, the blacks, the Mexicans, etc. I found meaningful connections with people that were only theoretical in my small Midwest town, people who I was told were my inferiors, lesser humans.
I was warned not to go to East L.A. as a white person. My beautiful Mexican coworker invited me to her multi-generational home in East L.A., and I was treated like family, more openly and warmly than my own blood family. This interaction happened over and over. I wanted no part of a God that would favor terrified white folks over these loving people. The contrast was so dissonant that I could no longer deny the dumb meanness of my programming. I was wrong. My people were wrong.
I headed to L.A. on a suicide run. I figured I would show up, be tall and funny, become famous, live dangerous, flame out, die young.
I stumbled into standup comedy, and through that, landed an agent and some acting gigs. I started emceeing open mics to squeeze more stage time out of an evening. It was the difference between waiting around for five hours to do a five-minute set or doing a few minutes between every act. It was in this role that I found a passion for facilitating events and building communities. I liked taking the random acts that came through the door and spinning them into a cohesive show.
I didn’t take acting seriously at all. Being a very tall person, I would audition for tall people parts. I played an Elvis/Frankenstein monster on a White Zombie video. I wore a Xenomorph suit and had my alien head explode for a theme park ride. I played a Viking King, Rasputin, and the Grim Reaper as the Olympic athletes’ nemesis in Nike commercials.
After four years of a full-time pursuit of fame and fortune, I burnt out. I had a man-behind-the-curtain moment and suffered a profound disillusionment crash and quit standup comedy.
I descended into a “Dark Night of the Soul.” Some might call it a psychotic split. The deep depression after an extended case of pneumonia and a complete unmooring from ambition took me to the bottom. I MacGyvered a patchwork of psycho-spiritual, mystical, and linguistic techniques and tried to capitalize on this ego death by opening up my higher neural circuits. It was in this effort that I finally confronted God. By that point, he had become a bitchy upstairs neighbor who habitually stomped on the floor and yelled at me to keep it down.
Trying to detangle and describe everything that happened during this period has already filled several versions of a book I have yet to publish, “It Seemed Funny at the Time.”
Out of madness, a daughter
Reconnecting with an ex-girlfriend at the height of my madness created my first daughter. I found myself enjoying and succeeding at being Mr. Mom while struggling through the fraught relationship with my girlfriend, and then everything fell apart over four years in the L.A. Family Court system. After years of fighting for joint custody, all my efforts to spend time with my daughter became so nightmarish that it seemed like the only merciful thing for us both was to let her mom have her.
After close to 10 years in L.A., I dumped everything and headed North with a backpack. I got stuck in Butte for three days in 1998 and fell in love with it — the people, the history. It was a kinder, gentler pace after the rat race of L.A. Twenty years and several lives later, I made it back to Butte for a job remodeling a Victorian. That was seven years ago.
Ainsley and I met in summer 2017. I was in the midst of the “Zulu Summer” story, and she was in town project-managing another independent film. We were both in other relationships at the time. While working at the Covellite International Film Festival in Butte, Ainsley introduced me to her then-girlfriend. We all chatted about mental health and psychosis.
Ainsley and I picked up the dialogue that November and discovered that we each had been cult-indoctrinated as kids. With a 20-year age gap between us, I was a long-time veteran of the deprogramming process while she was beginning. We fell for each other on the spot. It was like finding a fellow ex-pat with a familiar language in a foreign land.
I was in the process of negotiating the end of a 14-year relationship and had already made plans to visit my new South African friends for six weeks. Ainsley had a film to finish, and I wanted to give the end of my previous relationship the respect it deserved. When I finally moved out on my own in Spring 2018, the gravity and connection between Ainsley and me quickly and powerfully brought us together.
A year and a half later, Ainsley produced the “Copacetic Conversations” radio show with Mokai Schux Malope and me as the hosts. When Mokai returned to South Africa in September 2019, Ainsley and I started “Post-Orthodoxy.”
That was Mokai’s first live radio experience. His association with Nongoma FM was mostly off-air.
Mokai came for cultural exchange and wanted to know who we are, Americans, beyond what he learned from South African perspectives. He also has a dry sense of humor in his role as a devil’s advocate. He managed to get folks to explain their views to an alien perspective.
Before the Zulus came to Butte, the news out of the United States was not inviting. Fires in Furgeson over racial strife, a new president that seemed to fuel divides on many fronts, mass shootings, political corruption, and the widening economic divide. Mokai was serving in more of an advisory position to the Prince, someone who could ask all the questions and provide friendly exchanges with locals without having to be beyond reproach.
Mokai had a hard time on the first trip finding people that would admit they had voted for Trump. On the next trip, I promised him that some folks had made a friendly atmosphere for some conversations. He could get along well with Republicans and Democrats because he didn’t have a horse in the race and was under no obligation to one tribe or the other.
I was the founding Music Director of KBMF for the first three years. I helped craft the voice and brand of the radio station. For a while, I was one of only two paid staff members, along with the station manager, but it was just a stipend of a few hundred bucks a month. After being denied after a year of asking for a raise to more appropriately compensate the hours I was working, I resigned from the position and switched to volunteer DJing.
Ainsley and I have been supporting ourselves as gig worker artists. Much of this town’s appeal is the low cost of living, which allows us to spend time on passion projects such as the radio station and our shows.
We covered a lot of the aspects of the pandemic narrative from the beginning. They called us anti-maskers because we analyzed the controversy around the politicization of a health concern. We questioned if meme-shaming people into compliance was an effective tack to use on a hyper-partisan society of individualists. We also did deep dives into the relationship between humans and viruses. We looked at changes in policies and the actual recent change to the definition of a pandemic that allows statisticians to beef up this virus’s data to match previous pandemics. We asked a lot of questions, challenging a growing orthodoxy. It is the show’s premise — not just sorting fact from fiction, but learning how to do so in a post-truth world.
We were trying to follow and understand the reality and the narrative of SARS-CoV-2, sharing what we had researched and crowdsourcing data from our live audience to be as timely as possible.
At some point, we shared CDC data that undermined other CDC data. They censored and gag-ordered us. Even though we complied with the unreasonable requests, we were then terminated and scrubbed from the station website within 24 hours.
Our new home studio has both good audio and video and the added ability to bring in remote guests, which vastly increases our range of material and expertise and audience participation.
This new iteration may have a new name even, but the program’s spirit remains the same. A new audience coming alongside those that have supported us through this shift will be a factor in what the show becomes.
We are launching our website this month with a subscription option for listeners to support the studio development and projects and access subscriber-only content and interviews.
The last time I checked, the most heinous aspects of the WWCG live on in “The Church of Philadelphia,” based in Oklahoma. I found videos on YouTube of public cries for help from kids in this cult. Some preachers promote pulling teeth over spending money on dentistry, as the End Times are near, and the church needs that money more than your dentist.
I know from growing up in the cult and experiencing the contrast between that and being out of it, the people there are not having a good time. There’s a lot of suffering that goes on when you’re living in that kind of fear. My experience there was so bad that I had to get out or kill myself.
Having it so bad was my salvation. With just a little less fear and a little more love from the environment, I don’t know if I could have gotten out.
On the other side, I can see how much my parents suffered throughout their lives. Being able to move from a fear-based reality, I was able to see them with love and compassion, as humans, instead of my parents. The difference was profound.
People who have never been in that kind of environment, who have never had their minds twisted by people they were supposed to trust—parents, preachers, politicians, and their media sources—can easily see these folks’ suffering as hate. While hate is a component in that experience, it’s a side effect of fear.
“Bad” people don’t do bad things for no reason. Those people who stormed the Capitol are afraid for themselves, their children, and the larger tribe of their country.
The act of openly questioning a tribal orthodoxy (the existence of a god, a generational political identity, sexual orientation) seriously threatens one’s ability to remain in the tribe. Being uncertain can easily be perceived as instability, as a threat to brokered peace and agreements among the orthodox.
The show is about changing our minds, but not prescriptive in the how of changing our minds. We actively explore the practice of acknowledging our biases and reasonably entertaining doubt.
In a politically correct world, you can apply the phrase “check your privilege” to class, race, sex, etc. On “Post-Orthodoxy,” we often invite people to check their privilege of cognition because there is a sizeable cognitive gap in American society. In the same way that it would be shameful for a mathematician to mock a seven-year-old for not knowing trigonometry, I feel it’s disgraceful and dangerous to judge people from the position of cognitive privilege. Tribal identities exploit binary thinking and use it to snare adherents.
I work from the premise that we can only be held responsible for what we know. My parents’ way of processing the world is very much an us-versus-them model. It’s strictly binary. There are no gray areas.
In my dad’s words, “you have to pick a lane. If you’re not on one side or the other, you’re going to get yourself killed or kill someone else.” (I imagine he formed that thought model decades ago when he lived in Oklahoma and the roads only had two lanes.) It’s the Axis or the Allies. Nothing else matters. There is nothing in between right and wrong. That’s his reality, based on his faith. From that perspective, there is no need to understand “them,” there is no need to understand people who have opposing views because they must be wrong if we are right.
I would ask people who consider themselves compassionate and empathetic people to look at how they view folks like my parents, people who process the world in black-and-white terms, and if they see them as “them,” and therefore “other.”
If you are someone who has the benefit of nuanced perspective, who can have their ideas challenged, without feeling like you are being attacked, you have the cognitive privilege. You have a power that binary thinkers do not know — and to judge them by your vantage point, in my opinion, is an abuse of that power.
I don’t frame things in terms of being right or wrong. Robert Anton Wilson said, “The border between the Real and the Unreal is not fixed, but just marks the last place where rival gangs of shamans fought each other to a standstill.”
One pitch for the 2019 Santa Barbara International Film Festival grabbed me like no other. The pitch was for a documentary called “Zulu Summer,” about His Royal Highness Prince Siboniso Tobo Zulu of South Africa “coming to America”—specifically Butte, Montana. I’d been to Butte in the summer of 2010.
From my Virginia home, I emailed the filmmakers back immediately: “I’m in.”
A week later, on the opposite coast, my fiancee Victoria and I sat in Santa Barbara’s packed Lobero Theater. “Zulu Summer” told the improbable story of how the prince and his friends used a community radio station in South Africa to “make friends” online with a DJ in Butte. The DJ was named Dark Sevier, and he became the group’s de facto Montana tour guide when they arrived in America.
I laughed at this real-life version of Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall’s fictional cultural exchange. I smiled watching Prince Zulu and his entourage welcomed time and again to homemade dinners among Butte’s overwhelmingly White populace. Dark, their new friend, was a fascinating character all his own.
“Zulu Summer” received a standing ovation for co-directors Joseph Litzinger and Eric Michael Schrader. Following audience Q&A, they invited me to lunch, where I asked more personalized questions about the film and Dark himself (the Zulus were unable to attend). As I wrote for Screen Comment at the time, Dark told me that “our national narrative of racism and division I don’t believe is as prevalent as we believe.”
Tall, bald, and imposing—and with a voice that seemed somehow conjured in a cosmic lab tailored for radio—Dark intrigued me. He was a former actor who had decamped to Butte when the Hollywood dreams fizzled out. I gave myself a mental note to look him up if and when I returned to Montana.
When I bid the film crew adieu, Dark took my extended right hand in both of his in a warm goodbye, and he smiled broadly. I immediately followed him on Twitter.
I planned a stop in Butte to take my fiancee to some of my drinking haunts from a decade earlier. For weeks I’d meant to message Dark to see if he might like to meet up at the Silver Dollar. Would he even remember me from our Santa Barbara interview in February?
With only 100 miles to Butte, I took a chance and messaged him through Facebook and Twitter. While he didn’t recall me per se—we journalists are sometimes forgettable—he agreed to meet us for after-dinner drinks at the Silver Dollar. He said his wife, Ainsley, had encouraged him to say yes to the universe.
When Victoria and I strolled into the Silver Dollar, there he was—unmistakable. In greeting, he again warmly took my hand in both of his, just as he had done seven months earlier. Ainsley sat to his right with Victoria on my left. Their gentle four-legged friend, Tulsa Dog, sniffed us, outsiders, in greeting.
Over local brews, Dark and I discussed “Zulu Summer.” He shared behind-the-scenes stories of making the film and its then-uncertain fate (it is now available on Amazon Prime and various other platforms). Having covered the film universe for years and produced small docs myself, stories like this were familiar. No matter how much time and effort goes into the product, getting picked up for distribution is a harsh matter of chance—turning a profit on a self-financed movie even slimmer.
No matter. We four enjoyed hearty laughs, and Dark and Ainsley told me more about their radio show on Butte’s KBMF, called “Post-Orthodoxy,” a show about “changing our minds.” Mokai Schux Malope, one of the Zulus, had been a frequent guest in Butte. The South African asked questions of conservatives, liberals, libertarians, Antifa members, and many others in a surreal, intercontinental meeting of the minds.
It was getting late, and Victoria and I had an Airbnb reserved in Helena, 70 miles north along I-15. As the natural time for our leavetaking approached, Dark casually mentioned something to the effect of having been a member of a white supremacist organization in his youth.
Victoria tugged on my arm: Time to go. We all hugged goodbye and promised to stay in touch.
Then 2019 became 2020. When the pandemic canceled our big wedding, Victoria and I did the courthouse thing. George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, setting off a seeming worldwide moment of racial reckoning.
Over Facebook Messenger, I circled back with Dark, asking if, given our unique moment, he might be willing to expound on that one little sentence from the end of our last meeting in Butte.
Thankfully, he agreed.
During our conversations, Dark frequently expressed anxiety about my article. He said he’s tried for the better part of 30 years to tell his story, but few have listened—and specific aspects of it he hasn’t been comfortable sharing before now. He’s dealt with suicidal ideation in one form or another since he was a preteen. And he knows that his elderly parents back in Oklahoma will likely learn of this story and his views (finding his radio programs online would have been difficult for them, he said). Still, he saw an opportunity for the family to get some of these long-buried issues into the sun.
Dark’s sister, Jesse Ball, said that in the “before times,” the family had celebrated Christmas and Easter with extended family. Jesse described their mother, Charlene, as “like Snow White,” fond of “groovy dangle earrings,” go-go boots, and makeup. Bill had been a Navy reservist and a Mason.
Bill’s mother lived four hours away, and on those long drives, the family had to listen to Armstrong proselytizing “the end is nigh.”
“I, being a creative/artistic type, found ways to entertain myself by doodling and drawing, and played car games with the younger siblings,” Jesse recalls of those long drives to see Bill’s mother, who joined the church too.
Jesse described Dark as a joyous, friendly kid who “didn’t know a stranger.” With his blond hair and blue eyes, he looked Aryan, which Bill would brag about to his new friends.
“My father also became engrossed in discovering his family tree and roots,” Jesse said. “He was determined to prove that we were direct descendants of the Tribe of David. That was a huge deal to the church.”
Jesse describes the church environment unsentimentally as “fucked up.” Her mother, who previously had enjoyed dressing up, was now forbidden to wear makeup and told to “submit” to her husband’s every demand. Charlene was soon estranged from all of her relatives on the “outside.”
“I learned to bring notebooks and coloring pencils so I could draw and keep my mind off of the crazy people around me,” Jesse said.
Armstrong’s close reading of the Book of Leviticus led him to preach to his flock that they should observe Old Testament diets. And similar to certain Orthodox sects of Judaism, observing the Sabbath meant prayer and little else. If they told adults to fast for 24 to 48 hours, they expected their children to follow. Jesse recalls inducing bouts of headaches and vomiting.
Jesse was physically abused, like her At 14, she once refused to go to church, which made her father grab her by the neck. Though she says she “dared” Bill to do worse, he backed down. She soon opted to conform rather than risk more pain but left the church on her own not long after that. (Jesse says that Kimberly posed for Playboy after running away, partly to get back at their parents. She is now deceased, having suicidecommitted in 2009.)
She recalls her happy-go-lucky brother, whom she described as a genius, quietly falling apart. Gregarious before, he drew inwards as his father foisted expectations on his only son—including that he would eventually go to college and continue the family business, which was verboten for his sisters. Jesse saw her brother escaping seemingly the only way he knew how: with humor.
“He would do things to watch the reactions of others. The weirder, the better,” she said. “Dark and I had ‘eye signals.’ If he said something that I knew my parents would freak out about, I’d give him ‘the look’ and slowly shake my head.”
When Dark was still in junior high, the family stopped going to church in Tulsa—an hour car trip each way—but it wasn’t until years later he discovered they had been ex-communicated. He later learned the rift coincided with David Robinson’s tell-all book, “Herbert Armstrong’s Tangled Web,” which caused a schism within the church. Robinson had been the pastor of Dark’s family’s church, and because his family was part of Robinson’s flock, they got lumped in among the unwashed.
Robinson’s book painted Armstrong as a charlatan and narcissist, lining his own pockets with donations and caring almost nothing for his acolytes. It didn’t help that Armstrong’s son and heir-apparent, Garner Ted Armstrong, was accused of not only bucking from his father’s orthodoxies but of sexual adventures outside his marriage. One of Robinson’s most shocking accusations in his book is that Armstrong had a longstanding sexual relationship with his daughter.
Dark said his family at that point still called themselves Christians and continued to observe many of Armstrong’s proscriptions. But Dark dropped the label “God” in favor of “Universe.” He stopped reading the Bible and spent more time with friends outside the church.
“Moving into secular society was like being a foreigner without an accent,” he said. “I could rarely take for granted that what I was saying was the same as what people heard.
In Los Angeles, he still harbored that hope of “accidental” suicide. What better place than Tinseltown, which had made young martyrs of Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, River Phoenix, and so many others.
Like Freddie Prinze, who also died young, Dark tried his hand at standup comedy. His unique perspective and deadpan delivery did attract interest from agents. He even had a guest spot on “Saved by the Bell.” He found he was a natural in front of a crowd and felt a draw to bring people together.
One friend he made was Danny Simon, whom Dark employed both in farming and comedy activities. On long drives between Los Angeles proper and the farms, they’d share ideas and frequently disagree. But they both seemed to recognize a kindred soul.
“[Dark] explained who he was and what he’d experienced pretty quickly on our work drives,” Simon said, adding that he would sometimes play bass behind Dark’s MC stints. “Dark mined the darkness of his own life for material.”
During some time the two spent in Hawaii, Simon said that audiences at Dark’s spoken word events “connected to his lack of pretension, especially when he’d share the bill with so many ridiculous poseurs.”
Laszlo Gregor, an Eastern European immigrant who also hung out with Dark in Los Angeles at that time, told me that he and Dark would have long talks well into the night after Dark’s open mic shows wrapped up. Laszlo, who says his English at that time was limited, uniquely described their exchanges as “a classic process of social comparison for the benefit of growth on both sides.”
“It might be safe to say that Dark had never had to face questions about his world views and the structure of his views until he met with a strange man from a faraway land,” Laszlo said. “At least he did not have to explain his views to someone who was sincerely curious about it.
Laszlo said he listened to Dark’s stories and was careful not to judge him based on his past. Unlike Dark, Laszlo came from no religious tradition, which gave him a genuine curiosity about his curious new friend.
“As I recall it, he was not fully aware of the depth of his trauma and what he was running away from,” Laszlo said. “Or at least he did not verbalize it. He did talk about his father and how close-minded he was, but he did not mention religion much.
“The hardest thing for people who leave a cult, or religious environment, is to find a replacement for what they have left behind.”
After Los Angeles, Dark eventually moved to Butte, once known as the Richest Hill on Earth thanks to its ample copper deposits.
It was during the “Zulu Summer” of 2017, when Prince Siboniso Tobo Zulu and his entourage visited Butte from South Africa, that Dark met first Ainsley, a fellow artist who was in Butte helping out on an independent film. Incredibly, Ainsley had also been cult-indoctrinated in her youth.
“I envision our progression into ‘The Church’ like a staircase,” Ainsley told me. “I enjoyed all the church things that got added to our life, and the changes were so gradual that only looking back 25 years later.”
“I remember standing up in church and tearfully asking the congregation to pray for my grandma’s salvation,” she said. “It was settling into every part of my understanding that no matter how loving someone was, or how much I cared about them, if they hadn’t asked Jesus to save them and were baptized, they weren’t going to heaven. It meant that I would have to live without them for eternity.”
Ainsley realized that though she followed her church’s teachings if she didn’t specifically ask Jesus to come into her heart, she would not be saved. One day she burst into her parents’ bedroom, begging to be baptized.
Ainsley wanted desperately to please her family and the church, which got more complicated as she entered her teens and began to question some of its precepts.
“Here is how I perceive it now: The rules of the church my parents chose have no room for childhood individuation or personality differences, only obedience,” she said. “There is only one correct expression of human sexuality: Treat each other as brothers and sisters before marriage, and then, upon a good match with parental and church approval, lifelong monogamous heterosexual marriage, virgin to virgin, first kiss to first kiss.”
These rules clashed with Ainsley’s mother’s pregnancy outside of marriage, which Ainsley believes effectively poisoned their relationship from the getgo. Because of this “amoral conception,” Ainsley was always “wrong” in her mother’s eyes.
Like Dark’s childhood church, Ainsley’s was patriarchal. Women were there to support their husbands. Courtships within it were remarkably old-school and supervised. Daughters were sent to college, if at all, to study nursing or education—or to find a husband. The Earth in this paradigm is less than 10,000 years old, allowing ample bandwidth for such fantasies as dinosaurs sharing the planet with prehistoric peoples (and not only in Will Ferrell comedies).
“These kinds of belief systems don’t think they are belief systems. They are reality,” Ainsley told me.
“People who disagree with reality are either being led astray by some evil force, or they just haven’t heard the whole truth yet.
At 22, Ainsley, describing herself as an extroverted virgin, married a 23-year-old introverted virgin.
During her marriage, Ainsley met people in the LGBTQ community and says that several people she knew growing up in the church were in the closet.
“I cannot fathom the suffering they experienced, constantly knowing that everything about you is wrong,” she said. “Your only choices are secrecy or celibacy.”
At Ainsley’s second college—which she attended out of a feeling of excessive loneliness at home—she made a gay friend who listened as she wept over the precariousness of his soul in the next life. She says her friend didn’t attack her for saying he was going to Hell no matter what, nor did he call her a homophobe.
“He saw how deeply the indoctrination went, and he didn’t chew me out for my beliefs,” she said. “He listened, asked questions, and told me that he loved me anyway. I know that must have taken so much strength and kindness.”
Ainsley said she and her husband weren’t connecting sexually, which she now believes was partly due to her depression over being trapped in an unsatisfying union.
“My experience is that my parents were so ready to believe that I was the bad child that as soon as they found out I’d asked my husband for a separation, I was out of the family,” she said. (She refers to her ex as the “wusband.”)
“My mom was making the point that my husband had done nothing to deserve me breaking up with him. Therefore it was all me and my sin and selfishness.”
She stopped going to church, which further estranged her from her mother.
Ainsley says she took care in raising her six siblings despite the hurt, even though they often saw her as a backslider who had betrayed the church. Ainsley says her parents will not even speak to her youngest sister on the phone.
To this day, Ainsley’s parents and four youngest siblings remain ensconced in the denomination. Some are more observant than others, and, correspondingly, her relationships with her siblings fall along a not-always predictable continuum of amity.
When she met Dark, she was drawn to his “salty vibe.”
“He seemed tired and deflated, and I remember thinking that this was a person who had a great capacity for joy and should somehow be helped to be happy enough to experience and express joy,” she said.
During their conversations, it came out that Ainsley’s ex-husband was an alumnus of the Worldwide Church of God. It was a scary coincidence, perhaps even a cosmic one: Their respective experiences didn’t require explanation.
However, she still had a pause.
“My wusband had so much trauma from his childhood, he couldn’t love or receive love healthfully, and I instantly worried if maybe Dark had the same blockages,” she said. “Thankfully, it had been 30 years for Dark of shedding the Worldwide Church of God, and he seemed much healthier and mature and open than my wusband.”
“With a 20-year age gap between us, I was a long-time veteran of the deprogramming process while she was just beginning,” Dark says of his now-wife. “It was like finding a fellow ex-pat with a familiar language in a foreign land.”
After the Zulus came to Butte, Dark went over to South Africa, where he assisted in a sustainable farm setup in combination with Prince Siboniso Tobo Zulu and Mokai Schux Malope, both of whom had come to Montana. (They mothballed the project due to covid-19.)
At KMBF, Dark and Ainsley started hosting shows together, with names such as “Copacetic Conversations.” The show featured Mokai and Dark chatting with libertarians, conservatives, and others, with Mokai as the outsider attempting to make inroads with the guests.
“For Dark and I, the show was not about debating wrong or right. It was understanding why people believe what they believe,” Mokai messaged me from South Africa. “I was interested in knowing people with different political views and why they had them.”
They had many conversations about Dark’s past, and Mokai says he believed his new friend was fearless to share this information with a relative stranger—whom he now describes as a brother.
“I used to ask him how his family would react to our friendship. I was [also] curious how he untaught himself racism given he was taught to be racist,” Mokai said. “I now feel more pity for racist people than anger,” he said, adding that, when feasible, he and Dark will share the airwaves again.
Regarding Dark and Ainsley’s expulsion from KMBF, they told me that the station ordered them to parrot the CDC’s guidance on COVID-19 to the letter after their controversial stance. Though KMBF did not respond to my repeated requests seeking comment, I couldn’t help but wonder if, in keeping with their mantra to entertain “reasonable doubt,” Dark and Ainsley were stirring up the pot, just as they have for years.
Since their dismissal from KMBF, Dark and Ainsley are raising money to launch another iteration of the show from their home, perhaps under a new name. (Full disclosure: I donated a few bucks last fall.) Though they did their best to broadcast content live on social media at KMBF, they say their home-based studio will have far more capability to bring in guests from around the world.
Dark says he’s long since forgiven his parents for dragging the entire family into the Worldwide Church of God but that Bill and Charlene haven’t done the mental work that he has undergone over the years to move on to a more meaningful life. He said he hopes to continue to help other people struggling with their beliefs and identity to come to terms with their sense of self, just as his friends were so patient with him over the years. Regardless, he still loves his parents. And part of his growth has been learning to have compassion not just for them but also for himself.
He feels great sympathy for his father Bill, the former Navy man, who found a haven in White identity politics at a crucial time in his life to give him a tribe as Oklahoma was changing in the ’60s and ’70s.
Dark says he doesn’t expect his parents to have a great revelation in their final years, as doing so would effectively jeopardize the worldview they have held since joining the church decades ago. He says this jibes with all he has seen and learned of cognitive dissonance, wherein you can either see your worldview as fatally flawed or double down.
He sees an analog in the recent QAnon movement, which is just another iteration of a cultural backlash taking place against changing demographics and social mores that have happened cyclically during the presidencies of Nixon, both Bushes and then Donald Trump.
“Trump was the same story, just more extreme than before. QAnon people feel left behind, forsaken by people in charge and would rather see the whole thing burn,” Dark said of the movement that, stoked by the recently exited president, stormed the Capitol last month.
But even for adherents of the demonstrably false QAnon conspiracy theories, Dark feels sympathy. “Being imprinted with ‘magical thinking’ and a sense of the other allows things to occur” that previously seemed unthinkable when people believe they are living in apocalyptic times, he said.
He feels the same types of macrosocial forces help explain how his father was drawn into Armstrong’s cult—and why he has never quite had a reckoning with doing so.
Dark said that, in a way, every day is an “apocalypse,” which comes from the Greek word meaning revelation. We talked about how people going through breakups often call it “the end of the world.” But apocalypse in its most literal sense means the destruction of an illusion. Ergo, we are always in apocalyptic times in some way, shape, or form.
Dark described his current belief system to me today as “multimodal agnostic,” and that he has examined Eastern, Native American, and various other faith traditions in his quest to synthesize an explanation for the inexplicable.
“I use all of these traditions and find common ground with those [belief systems] to best understand the terrain I’m in,” he told me. “I look through their lens ‘agnostically’ to understand it.”
Danny Simon, Dark’s friend from Los Angeles who used to play bass at Dark’s open mic nights in Hollywood, says that he often disagrees with some of Dark’s beliefs, some of which he labels as conspiracy theories that “seem particularly easy to disprove.” However, at least his friend Dark “has a good sense of humor” about it all.
“I speak with Dark about three times a year. I think if we spoke much more, we’d probably venture into arguing about divisive issues, and I’d like to remain civil with him,” Danny told me. “I don’t have a lot to say that I think is novel, which is the opposite of Dark, who thinks what he has to say is novel and worthy of attention.”
Unlike his friend, Danny doesn’t see much use reaching across the political divide, whether to learn or to challenge those on the opposing side’s long-held beliefs.
“I’ve just spent four years watching Trump, and his people fuck us all around, and so I’m not feeling generous or willing [to] reach across the cultural divide,” he said.
Laszlo Gregor, Dark’s other Angeleno-era chum, told me that he admires Dark’s artistic endeavors and ambitions. However, he finds it unfortunate that Dark has two daughters with whom he doesn’t have much of a relationship. Partly this could be the result of PTSD, Gregor says, as Dark perhaps grapples with his childhood experiences at home.
“Both [Dark’s] girls grew up without him. As a father, I find that sad,” Laszlo said. “Dark seems to be a crusader. Perhaps he is still fighting his demons. Whenever I try to talk to him, he is often in a battle with some issues. He is continually looking for allies, listeners, or supporters for his causes.
“He has a lot to offer to humanity,” Laszlo said. “I hope he will find a successful way to channel his gifts to a wide audience.”
Mokai Schux Malope, Dark’s friend from South Africa who joined his radio show in Butte for several months, says that despite Dark’s “commanding voice” and considerable presence, he wants to bring people together in conversation rather than dominate the dais as a polemicist.
“When he challenges his worldviews, it has helped me challenge my own,” Mokai said. “He puts his head on the chopping block so that other people can have a platform to express their thoughts easily. On the radio, he creates an equal platform, and he does the same among friends.”
Ainsley, Dark’s wife and partner in radioland, says that despite her own experiences growing up in a religious cult, she uses the hashtag #NotAllChristians to deflect online anger anyone who happens to be a believer.
“Many versions of Christianity are loving, inclusive, kind, humble, expansive, and inquisitive,” she told me. She added that even the congregation of her youth, the Confederation of Reformed Evangelicals—which she left—thinks of itself as loving even while it preaches that homosexuality is immoral.
“Equating the right with racism and hate gives the left license to hate them. From my perspective, this trend has legitimized victim-blaming.”
In this way, he feels that some on the left get stuck inside their echo chamber and won’t hear any opposing views. Similar, perhaps, to a cult?
“Cults paint the outsider reality as ‘other,’ dangerous, deceptive, and unmoored from morality and reality,” Dark said. “They prey on one of the most primal fears humans have, which is an exile from the safety of the tribe, to fend for yourself in the chaos of the wilderness.”
Translations provided by Orato World Media are intended to result in the end translated document being understandable in the end language. Although every effort is made to ensure our translations are accurate we cannot guarantee the translation will be without errors.
Eric Althoff is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Virginia with his wife Victoria. His work has been published in the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Napa Valley Register, Screen Comment, Hustler, and elsewhere. He also co-produced the Emmy-winning short documentary, The Town That Disappeared Overnight.