On Monday, I began telling you about my charismatic/evangelical upbringing. Part I of this story painted a fairly rosy picture of my early years, concluding it by telling you that rosy childhood ended in 1971 when my father met and became friends with Leon Williford. So, let’s pick up the story there.
Leon Williford was a natural leader. Unfortunately, he was also a manipulator and a con man. Professionally, he was an insurance salesman, a field these particular traits allowed him some measure of success. In addition to being a con artist and manipulator, he was also a huge control freak. Everything the man did was about control. Whether he just enjoyed it or it was a survival skill for him, I couldn’t say. He was a recovering alcoholic and, later, I learned that control issues are common to people who struggle with addiction. I suppose he had such little control over his own life that he tried to exert control over everyone in his vicinity. Or maybe he felt he had to control his environment in order to control his addiction. Or, and this is my personal favorite, and, out of pure meanness and spite, he wanted to make everyone around him just as miserable as he was. I don’t know the man’s pathology and, to be honest, I don’t really care. I just know he was a grade A son-of-a-bitch and…, well, we’ll let it go at that.
Williford’s need for control meant that he had an overwhelming desire to be in charge of anything he was involved in. He tried that at Rehobeth UMC, but the pastor wasn’t having it. Once he saw the writing on the wall, he departed with his followers in tow. Of course, those followers included my family. In the years since, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure why my father got involved in such a group. The best I can come up with is that he was searching for some kind of meaning in his life. The problem was, he didn’t seem to know what that meaning looked like. I guess he thought he’s know it when he found it. His pursuit took him many places, Christianity and New Age Spirituality most notably. It wasn’t until he and Mama moved to a small community in the Virginia mountains that he began to find some peace. He told me once that, growing up, he often felt like an outsider in his own family (his mother told she didn’t worry about him because he could take care of himself). In Vesta, he finally found a place he belonged. Whether he knew that or not, I couldn’t say.
Unfortunately, my father’s quest meant he was fertile ground for all sorts of bullshit. Williford, being a con artist extraordinaire, realized that and pulled him in. The BS Williford peddled was based in Charismatic Christianity. Really, his “theology” was his own version of Pentecostalism tweaked to help him suck in and control followers. And, it worked. Immediately after we left Rehobeth, there were about 15 of us and we met in Williford’s home. Williford coined a name for his little flock, calling “The Body”, as in “the body of Christ”. But, it wasn’t long before “The Body’s” numbers swelled (at its largest numbering between 40 and 50 people every Sunday) and we find a new place to meet. We bounced around for a while before settling in a community center in Pleasant Garden. But, that growth was short-lived. Most people saw through his con and within a year, we were back to the inner circle and meeting in Williford’s home again.
Early on, things weren’t that bad. There was even some fun to be had. Williford and his family had a vacation home on High Rock Lake, near Lexington NC and I learned to swim, ski, handle a boat and lots of other cool stuff. But, it wasn’t long before things started to turn ugly.
I don’t remember when the beatings started, but I do know that almost from the beginning, I did very little that was good or right in Williford’s eyes. I could never do “enough” to satisfy him, whether it was work, school, recreation or anything else. And, while he threatened to often enough, he never laid a hand on me. I think he smart enough to know that was a line he couldn’t cross; even if my father wouldn’t have stopped him, he still had to contend with my mother. And, believe me, you don’t want to contend with my mother on that kind of thing.
But, the abuse was only part of those years. There was also some really weird theology and more than a few raucous Full Gospel Business Men’s Association meetings. And, that’s not even talking about the fact that “The Body” was a cult. According to Wikipedia, a cult “is a religious or other social group with deviant and novel beliefs and practices. Were our beliefs “novel”? Well, there was the one about the End Times, where Williford said we’d be raptured, but not the way people thought. His idea was that when Jesus came back, we wouldn’t be taken away to “spend seven years eating dinner”. No, we’d be lifted up a few feet in the air for a moment and set back down. Then, we’d go through the Tribulation with the all the sinners. So, there’s that. Were our beliefs deviant? Considering that every beating I got ever was “God-ordained”, I’d say yes they were. Beyond that description, check out practices this article about cults and leaders. It’s a pretty good description of how we operated.
Eventually, “The Body” petered out as a religious entity and became a conduit for one of Williford’s “get-rich-quick” plans. He became a distributor for a national
pyramid scheme multi-level marketing business selling vitamins, supplements and cleaning products. Of course, the suckers who stuck around had to sell this crap while Williford took his cut of the profits. This was all part of a “back to nature” nutritional model (which wasn’t all that natural or nutritious) he claimed to have found because his wife had been sick for years. The truth was, she wasn’t sick; he’d turned her into a hypochondriac to keep her under control.
This was the beginning of the end for Williford and my family’s association with him. Shortly after abandoning his religious pretenses, Williford began drinking again. Of course, when he drank, all the other adults had to also. The downhill slide accelerated after that. A couple of years later, his wife took her own life. One night, she got into bed with a .38 caliber revolver Williford bought “for protection” and blew her brains out. Since she didn’t leave a note, I don’t know why she did it. I think she finally woke up to the fact that her life was a shambles and saw no other way out. Within the year, Williford had deteriorated to the point that my father, one of the most loyal people I’ve ever known, cut ties with him. We were the last family to do so.
You might think things immediately got better after that. Maybe they did, I don’t know. I do know I spent the next 25 years or so wandering in the wilderness. But, that’s a story for another day.
To be continued.