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Ministry of Evil: The Twisted Cult of Tony Alamo review – an astonishing tale of brainwashing
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Ministry of Evil: The Twisted Cult of Tony Alamo review – an astonishing tale of brainwashing

It’s coming to something when the hellfire-preaching, daughter-beating, cancer-faking, longtime con artist and self-styled prophetess turns out to have been the restraining force in a relationship. But such, in essence, is the story of the four-part documentary Ministry of Evil: The Twisted Cult of Tony Alamo. His wife Susan – their meet-cute was in a bar in the 60s, when they both tried to scam each other – was a talented preacher who used her skills first to cheat churches (she would testify to her success converting heathens all over the US and Mexico, when, as her daughter Christhiaon says in the film, they barely left town, and live off the subsequent donation money until the family coffers needed filling again).

Her faith, however perverted its expression, seems to have been in some sense genuine, and she spearheaded the establishment of the Alamo Christian Foundation, which recruited from the streets large numbers of the many hippies, drifters and vulnerable souls who were flocking to California in search of a different life. But it was Tony who, after her death from – ironically – cancer in 1982, took all the opportunities offered by the effective possession of hundreds upon hundreds of brainwashed people, and the children born into what was by then a fully-fledged cult – and really ran with them all.

Not that that he and Susan hadn’t been enjoying the fruits of their labours before that. Or rather, as cult leaders will, the fruits of others’ labours. The couple lived first comfortably then increasingly lavishly while their followers were crammed by the hundreds into an ordinary house. They donated all their worldly possessions and money to the foundation when they joined, and signed over the paychecks they got for any work thereafter. Otherwise, obviously, they would go to hell. “You could never work hard enough, never be good enough,” says former member Sue Balsley, who remembers being so tired she could not even hold her baby safely in her arms.

But when Susan died (and, despite the round-the-clock prayer shifts, failed to be resurrected as Tony insisted she would be), her husband stepped into the god-like role she had performed, terrorising his followers even more effectively than she had. He set up more and more business ventures using Foundation members as unpaid labour, and increased the number of bloody beatings of the children. And he married a woman who was the image of Susan (the theory is that he planned to use her to fake the glorious founder’s resurrection and for ever secure his position amongst the faithful). When she left him because he insisted on sex three times a day – and beat her up if she refused – he turned to the teenage girls under his control instead. And then to younger and younger girls. One of his “brides” was eight.

The authorities – particularly the Internal Revenue Service and the US Department of Labor (tax evasion rather than the violation of children or of human rights always being the best way to draw attention from the federal government) – had been trying to catch the Alamo Christian Foundation out since the 70s. Eventually, as more and more members saw the light and escaped from his increasingly extremist rule – and were willing to testify to the terrible things happening in the various compounds – Tony was arrested, charged and convicted in 2009 of enough sex offences to mandate life in prison. He died in 2017 at the age of 82. Maybe God was looking out for him. He certainly wasn’t looking out for anyone else.

It’s a tale that’s probably almost as old as time, and is beginning to feel so thanks to the number of documentary films and TV series being made about cults. History’s most notorious sects, such as the Branch Davidians at Waco, the Heaven’s Gate UFO cult and the Manson Family have all been subjects more than once. Then there are the profiles of those that flew under the media radar at the time, such as The Cult of the Family, which told the story of Anne Hamilton-Byrne, who adopted and abused 28 children whom she told she was Jesus Christ. And let’s not forget Nxivm, because the exploitation of human need and vulnerability is the gift that keeps on giving.

Ministry of Evil doesn’t do anything innovative. It sticks to the tradition of letting victims speak with as little interferences as possible, interspersing their accounts with contemporary footage of the perpetrators and letting them condemn themselves out of their own mouths whenever possible. It’s probably time for a more sophisticated film or series that focuses on what they all have in common, to analyse the dynamics and make the psychology of cults, their leaders and the led explicit, rather than adding to these essentially voyeuristic efforts. Until then, we can at least hope that they function as a kind of education or inoculation against possible indoctrination. Otherwise, what misery awaits.

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  • Ministry of Evil: The Twisted Cult of Tony Alamo aired on BBC Four and is available on BBC iPlayer

Source: theguardian.com