The story of how Michael Dawson was seized from his father, the custodial parent, on the basis of wrong information from anti-cult agencies. He was kept from his father for years. This story appeared in "Communities — Journal of Cooperative Living", Fall 1995, pp. 36-38.
by Isaac Dawson
As I write, I await a decision from the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia to tell me whether or not, under the law, I kidnapped my own 12-year-old son, Michael. He has lived with me since he was three years old, and since 1986 I have lived in the Community at Myrtle Tree Farm in Waterville, Nova Scotia.
The press and others have repeatedly accused our communities of kidnapping children and separating families. When that flamboyant claim is made, no one seems to remember that family breakdown and custody disputes are routine nowadays in our broken culture and that parents living in our communities must make the same hard choices as anyone else — as do all parents who love their children.
Trying to follow my Christian faith and raise my son accordingly, I have experienced the painful double bind of two persistent lies: the one that blames the Community at Myrtle Tree Farm for the choices I make about my son, and the other that, simply because of my association with the community, discredits me and presumes me guilty. The persistent lies and inaccuracies reported in the press have nothing to do with me or with our beliefs as a community.
Almost a decade ago I left the life I had always known for the life I had always desired. My then four-year-old son loved his life in the Community at Myrtle Tree Farm. One sunny fall day in 1987 a sedan and a police cruiser drove up the long driveway to the farmhouse we shared with 25 other members. My son and I were in the yard feeding the chickens. Two women approached us. They informed me that they were investigating a complaint of child abuse. My son was his usual smiling bubbly self; I assumed that the women would quickly be able to discern that we were fine. They said, however, that they were going to take Michael to the hospital for a complete examination. I was stunned. In the more affluent neighborhood where I grew up this would never have happened.
I soon realized that my new beliefs and way of living had put me in a vulnerable position. The examination went well and the doctor gave my son a clean bill of health. Several days later, however, I was served with a notice to appear in the local Family Court. It turned out that the doctor had been given some newspaper articles about the community, and he had signed an affidavit written by a social worker reacting to those articles. The affidavit bore no relation to what the doctor had observed of my son or to the truth of our lives.
Working from the affidavit, the judge gave the local social services agency authority to investigate. The judge assured me that she just wanted "a window on our life" to make sure nothing was amiss. That "window" turned into a five-month ordeal that eventually took us to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia.
One evening during the course of the Family Court proceedings, five police cruisers and no fewer than 10 officers, accompanied by social workers, came to the farm to apprehend my then four-year-old son. Michael was helping with chores in the barn when they arrived. It was a scene I will never forget. Although I didn't resist the authorities, I could not consent to them taking my son either. The officers pleaded with me and tried to intimidate me. Michael was clinging to me with all his might. An intimate, but divided crowd — our household and some neighbors amidst social workers and Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers — hovered intensely in our small barn. Two officers literally pried my son's hands from around my neck, ripping him off me as he screamed, "No! No! No!"
They lowered Michael into the back seat of one of the cruisers and whisked him off into the night with lights flashing. When asked, one of the social workers ashamedly acknowledged with a nod of her head that what was happening to my son at that very moment was itself child abuse. The officers were clearly uncomfortable, but they were under orders — orders from the social workers. Our neighbors, a dentist and high school French teacher, in utter disbelief, watched helplessly.
Michael didn't see me or anybody he knew until a higher court returned him to me 44 days later. He had been taken to numerous psychologists and was extensively grilled about my beliefs and the philosophy of our community. His foster mother kept copious notes on everything he did and said. It was almost as if they had captured an alien from another planet and wanted to know what made him tick. Michael held his own, and they were amazed at his loyalty. They called him "brainwashed," yet gave totally favorable reports of his personality.
The social service personnel were indignant and bitter about the decision to let Michael go home and immediately appealed to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia. Meanwhile, as we continued in the lower court, the Family Court judge again ordered me to produce my son. I couldn't do it and didn't do it. I was jailed for contempt and ordered to stay in custody until I divulged his whereabouts. Twenty-six days later, after the appeal was heard, the Supreme Court released me and upheld the decision returning Michael to me. We were elated.
How is it then that here I am now, years later, still having to defend myself, my son, my chosen life, and the community of which we are a part? One reason is that media reports of charges of child abuse in the Island Pond Community in Vermont –charges which they had been cleared of years earlier– were spread by newspapers and TV in Nova Scotia. It has only been in the last year or so that our community has come to understand that a network of so-called "cult" experts are committed to destroying groups who choose to live outside of the mainstream. It has become abundantly clear that there is a deliberate plan at work that incites government agencies, police authorities, and courts into actions that are neither based on truth nor founded in law. Often the actions that we have been accused of are the very actions that have been used against us — kidnapping, brainwashing, separating families, and outright child abuse.
As a part of this agenda, in March 1992, another attempt was made to take Michael from me. Down the same driveway came a police car driven by an officer whom we all knew and liked. He handed me a stack of court documents; once again my son was on the line. Before I could even gather my thoughts, another car sped up the driveway. Michael's mother got out. She had traveled over a thousand miles and hadn't told us she was coming.
Who had put her up to this? She was always welcome to visit or stay anytime she wanted. Something was wrong. It turned out that a hearing had been held in the same Family Court earlier that week-without my being there. The court had issued an order for Michael's mother to have weekend access to him without my being informed about it.
After consulting with my friends at the Myrtle Tree Farm and talking to my lawyer friend in Vermont, a fellow disciple, I agreed to allow supervised access but not to let Michael out of my custody until I had the opportunity to be heard. Michael's mother refused the supervised access. Given everything that Michael had been through at the hands of the Family Court, I couldn't see putting him through the whole thing again, and acquiesced.
Michael's mother had abduction charges laid against me. On February 4, 1994, I was arrested by the FBI in California, where we had been living for some time. Again, without notice or hearing, the authorities took my son. After two months in jail, I was released on bail. In September, 1994, I was tried for abduction and found innocent. The judge said I had lawful custody and possession of my son the whole time. I was so happy and so relieved!
But within a few weeks time, again I was served papers. The Province of Nova Scotia had appealed my acquittal! Because I am confined to the province as I await the decision of the Nova Scotia Court of Appeals, I find myself without my community, my son, or my freedom.
The times we live in are not easy. At the appeal of my acquittal, my lawyer told the court, "If Isaac Dawson were not a member of the Myrtle Tree Farm Community, I do not believe he would even be charged." I believe that to be the truth.
At this time in history, it seems to me that with the future of humankind in such question, there might be some room for individuals to seek the truth.
"From one man He made every nation of man, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek Him and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us." (Acts 17:26-27)
I am thankful for the new life I have come to know and glad to be part of a community that is committed to one another in love. It has cost me everything to follow my God, even my son. One day Michael will be free to choose what he will do with his life. I believe that, regardless of the lies and other activities of the anti?cult movement, he will join me in the community — and that he will choose the truth.
The "Cult" Scare is Nothing New
Otherwise intelligent people just "know" certain groups are bad. They've probably never met a member, visited a temple, or read a word of the movement's publications. It's a cult; case closed.
It's interesting to note, in a community context, that there's nothing new about this kind of stereotyping. Some of the groups most beloved to students of historic communal societies were the targets of savage antagonism and stereotyping in years past. The passage of time has oddly changed our perspective; believers who once were dangerous cultists are now warm and cuddly.
The Harmony Society, the community of Pietist Christians whose life spanned the nineteenth century, survived and prospered despite experiencing some of the most demeaning stereotypes and outright attacks. Although it was a family movement in its early years, the Harmony Society eventually turned to celibacy and was duly attacked for denying its members sexual expression. The society was wealthy, so wealthy, in fact, that once it guaranteed a loan for a strapped federal government. That led, naturally, to accusations that community leaders were enriching themselves at the expense of the obedient grunts who did all the work. And on and on: the stereotypes were all there. The Harmonists even had to endure lawsuits full of outlandish allegations.
Even more did the Shakers endure hassles brought on by vicious stereotyping. People were jealous of their prosperity (the product of good minds and hard work) and skeptical of their decidedly unusual religion. People often seemed not to mind dumping their unwanted children on the generous Shakers, but their attempts to redress perceived grievances sometimes led to violence, up to and including murder of Shakers who were really guilty of nothing more than unconventional beliefs and behavior. The atrocity tales that ex-"cult" members tell today had their Shaker counterpart; former members (or relatives or friends of former members) could often make good money on the lecture circuit telling lurid tales about these people who dared to live in conditions of community and celibacy.
The Mormons, whose United Order was one of the most substantial experiments in intentional community during the nineteenth century, were perhaps the most reviled religious group in America for most of that century. Their founder, Joseph Smith, was at various times tarred and feathered, threatened with castration, and finally murdered by hostile mobs. Nineteenth-century propaganda against Mormons was some of vilest literature to see print in its time, making the Mormons out to be violent fanatics, horse thieves, sexual outlaws, and statutory rapists. Why did the Mormons end up in Utah? Because they were being terminally harassed everywhere they went, and they finally found a place that was so unpopulated that they were finally left alone.
What these groups had in common, apart from a commitment to intentional community, was that they were victims of stereotyping. They were "different," and therefore obviously evil.
Sadly, this kind of stereotyping that leads to prejudice and even to violence is alive and well today. Literature put out by the ream by major anti-cult groups today does to contemporary religious and communal movements what their earlier counterparts did to the Harmonists, Shakers, Mormons, and others. The anti-diversity lobby has been alive and well for centuries, committed to the principle that different equals evil and that those in error have no rights. Many of the major anti-cult groups keep files on communal groups today, including a fair number with whom readers of this magazine are familiar. Friends of community would do well to be very careful about believing — much less supporting — what these folks have to say.
~ Tim Miller