Friday, January 18, 2019

Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty we are Free at Last...

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the greatest defenders of civil rights, freedom and integrity that this now beleaguered country of ours has ever seen.

He spoke many wise words. Here are some of my favorite quotes of his that I have a special fondness for and have taken into my heart because they speak directly to me about my own struggles:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.

So, it seems very fitting to me that on this weekend when we will celebrate the 90th anniversary of his birth (January 15, 1929), I can announce that the legal troubles that have plagued me for the last seven years, are finally over. I am obliged not to speak about them in any detail. I can, however, express my gratitude to my attorney, Peter Skolnik, who is an eloquent and valiant defender of human rights.

Some of his words on my behalf:
Cults do not like it when members leave.  They like it even less when an AWOL member publicly criticizes the practices that expose the cult’s psychic tyranny and that have prompted the escape. 
Bette Leahy escaped from the cult known variously to its members as, inter alia, “Odyssey Study Group, “school” and “the work.”  
Like others who had left, Leahy posted comments, opinions and statements of fact about the cult leader and various cult members in internet blogs.  Those postings led, in fairly rapid succession, to five separate lawsuits filed against Leahy by active cult members in five separate New York counties.  None of the plaintiffs was the cult leader, who followed the cult litigation playbook by remaining behind the curtain.  Four of the five suits have been dismissed.  Only this frivolous defamation action.... remains pending. 
These relevant facts should be considered:
·     Leahy was a member of the cult for over 18 years. 
·     Leahy gave approximately $246,000 to the cult during the years of her membership.  
·     The cult’s leader’s “authority is unquestioned and omnipotent,” and she issues orders     and instructions to her followers.  

·     Leahy was sued by five cult members.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

You are not a victim for sharing 
your story. 
You are a survivor setting the world on fire with your truth. 
And you never know who needs 
your light, 
your warmth and your 
raging courage.

-alex elle

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

 “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”

“Be yourself. Love yourself. Show others that you love them. And live your life to the fullest every single day.”
- Kim O’Neill

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love, belonging and joy - the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.

The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Free Speech

Originally published by:
International Cultic Studies Association                                                                                                               Free Speech and Cultic Litigation Interview With Attorney Peter Skolnik
By Esther Friedman
In 2011, I left a philosophy group. I started researching cults. Everything I read echoed my 
experiences to the letter, and I recognized that I had been recruited and indoctrinated. I 
decided to expose this deception in a blog ( and, of course, the cult 
tried to sue me. It didn’t work, but I was lucky. Typically when a cult sues a whistle-blower, 
years of stress and accumulating expense follow.

Today cults can leverage litigation to intimidate and muzzle whistle-blowers. Cults have 
money and can afford lawyers. Many cults have a template for frivolous legal filings. In 
contrast, there are no established protections, structures, or supports in place for 
defendants. Resources are few and far between. Most former members can’t afford 
counsel, and pro bono legal help is nearly impossible to find.

In 2014, ICSA conducted a free-speech survey of its membership (see the report in 
this issue). The purpose was to begin understanding the extent and impact of cultic 
litigation and start documenting it. Respondents provided snapshots of how cults 
suppressed their free speech through the court system, and the toll such litigation 
takes on those threatened and/or sued.

I interviewed nine of the respondents. They reported legal strategies that ranged from 
manipulation of divorce and custody battles to restraining orders, defamation accusations, 
accusations of violating religious freedom, multiple lawsuits filed against one defendant, 
and—in the most extreme cases—criminal charges and jail time. All reported multiple 
obstacles to finding legal counsel. Even those who could afford representation found 
most lawyers unwilling to take on cult cases. Those lawyers who did take on the cases 
were unprepared for the cultic legal strategies: intimidation tactics, intentional convolution 
of the facts, unnecessary complications, relentless discovery filings.

Attorney Peter Skolnik is the exception. I interviewed the New York-based lawyer, who 
started litigating against cults in 2000. He represented the Cult Education Institute when 
Landmark Education sued its founder, Rick Ross, for defamation. He has continued 
litigating against cults ever since. In an interview, he discussed his experiences, the legal 
strategies commonly employed in the majority of his cases, and effective responses.

“I think that, for me, it’s always been a function of finding that my clients were intelligent, 
sympathetic folks who really needed protection from onerous, overbearing litigation,” 
Mr. Skolnik said. “I have never had the slightest iota of respect for any of the groups that 
have brought these litigations … to some large degree, I’ve always viewed this all 
as a mitzvah.”1 

Indeed, Mr. Skolnik has provided 15 years of pro bono counsel for the Cult Education 
Institute, and also has taken on other cult cases. Most of the time the cult in question 
follows the Scientology model—the objective is to wear down the defendant financially 
and psychologically; winning, losing, truth, and justice are all inconsequential in such 
cases. As L. Ron Hubbard is known to have stated within Scientology policy documentation: 

The purpose of the suit is to harass and discourage rather than to win. The law can be used 
very easily to harass, and enough harassment on somebody who is simply on the thin edge 
anyway, well knowing that he is not authorized, will generally be sufficient to cause his 
professional decease. If possible, of course, ruin him utterly. (1955, p. 157)

Sadly, Hubbard’s statement proves true. When I was seeking legal help, many who had 
seen, or experienced, cult cases discouraged me. I was told that the more tangled the web, 
the more expense accumulates—both financial and emotional. Many defendants are sued 
into bankruptcy; many settle cases simply to end the stress and move on with their lives; 
many plaintiffs are thus empowered to impose gag orders on those who could be exposing 
deceptive and predatory groups.

I am not a lawyer. I am an expressive-arts therapist. As a mental health professional I would 
argue that these gag orders are damaging, both to the individual and democracy as a whole. 
But, as noted, no protections exist against frivolous litigation, and cults don’t like to be called 
cults. It’s bad for business. People join religious groups, Bible studies, yoga classes, 
self-help programs, philosophy classes, theater groups, management trainings, and so on. 
People don’t join cults. Cults must brand and market themselves as something else.

It stands to reason that when a cult is called out, a lawsuit may follow. In the interview, 
Mr. Skolnik said,

The word has a very ugly connotation … there are other kinds of cults that are more 
innocuous, more fan-based than anything else. But the leaders of these cults, who rely on 
adherence, typically for money, sometimes for power, or for their own sense of power … 
they don’t like to be called cults.

The label might get members questioning: “I never wanted to join a cult! Why aren’t you 
doing something about this?”

Additionally, Mr. Skolnik said that cult leaders typically believe, “…they are really on the 
side of the angels and that there’s nothing inappropriate with what they’re doing.” This 
belief is necessary to proliferate an ideology that relies on a contrived social hierarchy—
one in which societal laws, rules, and norms don’t apply to those in the cult, especially 
the leadership. The narrative of an “us” — those in the group—verses a “them”—those 
not in the group—is one of the hallmarks of culthood and, ironically, one of the hallmarks 
that could be exposed if whistle blowers were protected legally.

But when groups believe themselves superior beings on altruistic missions, it is also easy 
to buy into another belief: The end justifies the means. Justice and truth seeking can 
drop out of the picture.

“The strategy is to wear you down, I think, in most cases,” Skolnik said. “A lot of them 
[cults] litigate a lot and are used to having lawyers on the other side who haven’t done this 
before, who don’t want to be involved in these cases and who are easy to push around.”

In his experience, Mr. Skolnik has typically seen the following strategies: The opposing 
counsel buries the defendant in unnecessary, never-ending, overarching discovery. 
Independent law offices don’t have the resources to manage the relentless document 
demands. They also commonly intimidate through depositions—subpoenaing the 
defendant’s friends, family, and close associates. Legal fees, and stress, accumulate. 

When asked why the court system allows such frivolous litigation, Mr. Skolnik explained 
that when a complaint is filed, courts are obligated to respond, regardless of the merit of 
the complaint. If the defendant doesn’t respond, the court has to do something.

“One way or another, the wheels of the court system have to begin,” he said.

How long they grind on is one of those issues that circle back to how intelligently the 
lawyer who represents the defendant is able to start pushing the right buttons. 
But is it an abuse of the court system? I think it absolutely is.

There is no established infrastructure to weed out frivolous suits. Mr. Skolnik said that 
one of his cases has been grinding on since 2006; the cult in question files continuous 
lawsuits against detractors.

Mr. Skolnik said,
If you leave that group, you’re likely to be sued on some trumped-up charges that will 
cost you so much to defend that you are forced into bankruptcy. When you are forced 
into bankruptcy, they will litigate that you should not be allowed a discharge in the 

They have done this to 10 people whose names I can give you. They litigate and litigate 
and litigate; they have destroyed lives. They have harassed almost to the grave. 
It is simply their strategy. It is simply their way of saying, “You mess with us, 
you’re going to be very sorry.”

His experiences paint a grim picture. However, he offered some “right buttons” to push 
when taking on cultic litigation. The lawyers must begin, he said, by educating the judge 
about the group, exposing patterns of cultic practices that include frivolous litigation and 
other such maneuvers against detractors. He said,

Some judges get it pretty quickly and they know what they are dealing with; others either 
don’t get it, or, for one reason or another, are unwilling to clamp their fist[s] down on 
overreaching, onerous, harassing litigation tactics by the cults. Between lawyers who don’t 
really know what they are getting themselves in for and judges who don’t become sufficiently 
and quickly enough educated to know what they are dealing with, that can cause problems 
all around.

Additionally, he calls defamation claims “the horse that draws the cart,” the central claim 
in most cases; other charges may be tagged on, but typically these suits rely primarily 
on defamation. Federal defamation laws have become more sympathetic to defendants 
over the past 30 years. Federal First Amendment constitutional principles that protect the 
defendant must be applied by state courts. For example, defendants previously had to 
prove that their statements were true; now the burden is on the plaintiff to prove that the 
allegedly defamatory statements are not true.

“One tip I would have for a lawyer who is taking on one of these cases, and has very little 
experience, is to learn the law of defamation,” Mr. Skolnik said.

There is very likely to be far more protection for your client, because one of the rules in a 
defamation claim is that the plaintiff has to say exactly what it is that your client said that 
the plaintiff thinks is defamatory.

Additionally, the defamatory statement must be factual—statements of opinion are not 
actionable. Therefore, plaintiffs must provide a specific statement and cannot modify the 
filing unless the court grants permission.

“Defamation cases are always about what freedom of expression really means, what you 
are allowed to say and what you are not allowed to say,” he said. “Defamation law is also, 
by definition, state law. There are federal constitutional principles, but the specifics of 
defamation law are a state-by-state matter.”

However, when that plaintiff is a public figure, the First Amendment has an additional 
requirement: The plaintiff must prove that the defendant knew he was lying when the 
statement was made.

Mr. Skolnik said,

They essentially have to really prove that “the defendant is really just doing this to bug me. 
He or she knows that it’s a lie, or that it’s likely a lie, but is just hoping to get away with it.”

Additionally, he reported, “Cults do not like discovery aimed at their finances.” Oftentimes, 
when facing a court-upheld document request for financial papers, a cult will withdraw its case.

When asked how important it is for lawyers to understand the psychological impact of cultic 
practices on their client, Mr. Skolnik said that it is important to understand the degree to which 
a cult has impacted her decisions and actions:

Sometimes there are ways to bring that to the litigation and to the judge’s attention in ways 
that are useful because, again, it’s part of that education of the judge. If you can show a 
court that, while my client was involved in this cult, she was forced to disinherit her children 
and leave her husband, judges are going to pay some attention to that. So sometimes it will 
have a direct impact on the way you litigate the case.

But primarily understanding the psychology helps the lawyer also understand the overall 
gestalt, the environment of the group and the pressures applied on members. Mr. Skolnik 
likened it to a theater director understanding an actor’s creative process. It might not shape 
the litigation strategy, but it might, and it is always useful in a lawyer’s relationship with the 
client. In some cases, the group’s psychological profile informs the type of discovery that 
would be most impactful.

I have read through a number of Mr. Skolnik’s legal filings in connection with one particular 
cult case, and have noted that these papers illustrate the tips he outlined for this article. 
He makes a point of telling the judge, repeatedly, that the plaintiff is involved in a cult. 
He blares spotlights on misleading, convoluted, or avoidant litigation strategies at every 
opportunity. He does not hesitate to call out the opposing counsel for misusing and 
manipulating the court. When the opposing counsel convolutes a legal filing; omits facts; 
drags on the action unnecessarily, letting court-mandated deadlines slip past; and other 
such distracting or evasive tactics, he immediately calls it to the judge’s attention. Clearly his 
intention is to educate the judge and expose the group.

But even given his knowledge, and his track record, he expresses a cautious pessimism. 
Mr. Skolnik said,

The First Amendment is probably the most important piece of legislation in this country, 
but there’s a cost for defending it. And very often the poor man or woman who gets on 
the wrong side of these cases has to ask, “What is ultimately in my best interest: pay the 
lawyers, or fold?”

Everything circles back to the inequity of the judicial system. At the end of the day, the 
reality is that cults have a steady stream of income and resources at their fingertips, 
while the former members and critics typically do not.

It’s disheartening to hear this summation from a counselor who has been successfully 
litigating against cults for more than a decade. But certainly cults are not the only 
institutions to abuse the courts intending to silence critics. It would be interesting to know 
how extensive this misuse is and what kind of ripple effects such abuse sends out into the 
social fabric of our country. It would be useful to know how much wear and tear it inflicts on 
free speech, one of the pillars of American democracy. Does it threaten our democracy? 
How invested are we, as a country, in protecting free speech, our tax dollars, and our court 
system? And is it possible to build a coordinated political/legal infrastructure to counter 
such abuse and misuse of the courts?

At the most superficial level, nonmeritorious lawsuits are a blatant misuse of tax dollars. 
The extent of the damage inflicted by cultic abuse of the courts is hard to fathom. As a 
nonlawyer, I’m out of my league when it comes to answers. But the fact that it does cause 
damage is undeniable, and I’d like to believe that something could be done to protect our 
free speech and our tax dollars from the ironic misuse and abuse of our courts.
[1] A mitzvah is “a commandment of the Jewish law” or “a meritorious or charitable act” 
Hubbard, L. Ron. (1955). A manual on the dissemination of material. In L. Ron Hubbard, 
The technical bulletins of Dianetics and Scientology, Volume II, 195 –1956 (p. 157). 
Available online at:

About the Author:
Esther Ruth Friedman is a Boston-based expressive-arts therapist with a master’s 
degree from Lesley University, and a performing songwriter and recording artist. In 2006 
a friend invited her to meet a “group of friends who got together on Tuesday and Thursday 
nights to discuss ideas.” In 2011 she left the group, began researching the group's origins, 
and discovered she had been recruited into what she now views as a secret cult called 
School. In the 1970s, a man named Alex Horn employed the teachings and ideas of 
Russian philosopher G.I. Gurdjieff and created The Theater of All Possibilities in San 
Francisco. Investigative news reporters exposed the Theater after the 1978 Jonestown 
tragedy. The group left San Francisco to reemerge in New York City and Boston, where it 
continues to operate as a secret, esoteric, mystery school. After discovering that School 
was not all that it claimed to be, Esther started researching high-demand groups and 
employed writing and songwriting as recovery tools. She posted her experience online 
in a blog called Cult Confessions. In 2014, the group filed legal papers in New York in a 
failed attempt to establish jurisdiction over her. These experiences have set Esther on a 
new path to build a therapeutic healing-arts practice for former members and abuse 
survivors, and to expose and address how cultic groups manipulate the 
court system to silence criticism.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Valentines Day 2017

Yesterday we had a major blizzard and this morning the sun was so bright and the glare was very intense from all of the sunshine on the accumulation of snow and ice. As I drove to work, it made my eyes tear even with sunglasses.

Cyndi Lauper’s song Time afterTime was running through my mind:

If you're lost you can look and you will find me
Time after time
If you fall I will catch you, I will be waiting
Time after time

I thought about the period of my life right after my first husband left me. It was 1990 and it would be almost ten years until I met my present husband. It was a long dry season and I was intensely lonely, isolated from family and friends, holding onto my sanity by a thin thread. There was no solace to be found from school which was the only thing in my life that I thought had meaning. The one place in the universe (I believed at the time) that would ever give me any hope of a meaningful life. I tried very hard to find a footing in the “work” but I think I was pretending most of the time. Solace from the people who told me “you are born alone and you die alone” did not really exist.

I felt an intense flashback from that period of my life and I started to cry in the car in the midst of all that bright lively sunshine, my heart felt black and dark and I wondered how I ever survived that period of time. Especially with my ex-husband and his new wife sitting there as she grew fat with the babies I would never have. I felt like the wind was knocked out of me. It's been a while since I have been so intensely "triggered" by something having to do with "school".

Of course, school was supposed to be the alpha and omega to all of my existence – it wasn’t supposed to matter how I felt. I had all those essence friends so why should I be lonely? I had the “work” so why should my life feel flat and empty and devoid of meaning? I tried desperately to find hope somewhere in the work but the moments were few and far between. I lived with a fickle “God” who changed her mind frequently, especially in relation to loyalties, interests, and affections.

Sharon was capricious, changeable, variable, volatile, mercurial, inconstant, undependable, unsteady, unreliable, faithless, flighty, giddy and skittish. She was a fair weather friend and the storms moved in on her with regularity. She professed a deep love for all of us. Well, that's what she said in public but in private she would badmouth even her most devoted followers.

This was not love, not even close.

I thought about our society’s dictum that we shouldn’t “take things for granted” but isn’t something like the unconditional love that a parent has for a child something that a child takes for granted? Isn't it every child's right to take their parents for granted and to feel their unconditional love?  Maybe it's not a bad thing to take something for granted in the right way. Yes, we grow up and strive to pay our parents back or to "pay it forward" but don't we deserve to have someone we can rely on? A safe harbor in a storm. We all deserve to be loved with a love that does not waver or cease. We all deserve to have someone who will catch us when we fall. We all deserve to be safe and secure. Someone we can count on when we are lost…

Sobbing, I called my husband and at first I couldn’t talk and he thought that something had happened, that I was hurt or had been in an accident. I couldn’t talk for a moment, I could only cry. I just wanted to tell him how much I love him and how much I appreciate his unfailing love and support for me. I wanted to wish him a Happy Valentine’s Day.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

“When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it--always.”

Saturday, June 4, 2016

My Apologies

For all of the years that I was in school, I never brought (recruited) another student. I knew somewhere in myself that I could never bring someone into a group that I had so many doubts and questions about myself. I was never comfortable trying to talk to someone about school or why I believed they should join because I didn’t believe they should join. I got a lot of flack over the years for not bringing people as it was my “responsibility’ to do so. It was a mark of your advanced “standing” in school to be assigned to this “line of work”.  I was involved in this for many years but never brought anyone. I just couldn’t do it and now I am glad that I didn’t.

The closest I ever came was convincing my ex-husband’s new wife to stay in school. I was completely devastated by our divorce which he had been instructed to do by school. I later learned that he met “someone else” two weeks after he moved out. Time passed and I had to sit in class and listen to him talking about her, which was sheer torture. One day he stood up and said that she was pregnant and they were getting married. I was devastated again by the loss of my husband and by my inability to get pregnant. I felt humiliated and ashamed.

One day awhile later, as I was going to class, I saw my ex-husband enter the building in front of me with a woman I did not know. I hung back. When I got to the door (there was always a “guard” posted at the door to prevent anyone unwanted from entering) I asked the guy on the door who she was. He was a friend on my ex-husband’s and said that he had been to the wedding and it was his new wife. I was stunned. After everything else, I was going to have to sit in class with both of them twice a week: double torture. I said I wasn’t going upstairs and asked if there was a teacher upstairs who I could talk to. Eventually, M came downstairs and told me to “buck up” and get on with my life. She suggested that I “pretend” for the rest of the evening that everything was alright. Fake it until you make it. I went upstairs. I had a couple of drinks.

I decided to basically sit in the corner and say nothing. Unfortunately, another student (a wealthy cosmetics heiress) kept calling me by name across the room. I tried to tell her to stop talking to me but the damage was done. I knew that the new wife probably knew my name and was putting two and two together. Sharon came into the room. The new wife stood up and declared that she had been brought there with out having been told the whole truth. She didn’t know that her husband’s ex-wife (me) was going to be there and this was not acceptable to her and she was going to have to leave.

I am not sure what came over me at that moment. This was the most demonstrable I was ever to be about school. I stood up and told her that she was making a terrible mistake and that whether I was there or not, it had nothing to do with the incredible opportunity that she had to be a part of this amazing school. In short, I was convincing enough that she stayed (long past when I left.) Of course, that was a “shining moment” for me. I got a lot of kudos from Sharon and from the other students for my little speech but I am still not sure whether I did her a favor that day or not. After much turmoil and many years, we eventually became friends. One of my memories of her is the two of us standing in the kitchen in Pawling after having walked out of the room where Sharon was berating another student. We looked at each other: neither of us had the stomach anymore to sit and listen to her humiliate someone again.

For humiliate, you can substitute any of these words: castigate, chide, criticize, condemn, rebuke, reproach, revile, scold, upbraid, blister, chew out, censure, reprove, scorch, vituperate, bawl out, call down, cuss out, give one hell, give what for, jump all over, rail at, rake over the coals, tell off, tongue lash, condemn, reprimand, flay, call on the carpet, give a hard time, find fault with, give a going over, admonish, disparage, denigrate, denounce, tear apart or chastise. Or you might use the one word that sums it all up: abuse. The one thing that Sharon is very very good at.

Often, people would walk into a room and say something to the effect of: The vibration in here is terrible. You should all be ashamed of yourself. You need to "come up in yourselves" and raise the vibrations before our teachers come in. The way you advanced in school was to learn how to become a "mini me" of Sharon. If you learned how to abuse others in the way that you had been abused, you rose up the ranks. I tried not to do this. I tried not to do unto others what had been done to me. I am sure that my memory is faulty and that at some point I did disparage other students. 

I apologize to anyone I may have harmed during those years and ask for your forgiveness.