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Child Development

Mother Anna Young and the House of Prayer

Childhood memories of a destructive cult leader

used with permission from inclipart
Source: used with permission from inclipart

I’ve always been interested in cults, perhaps because reading about Charles Manson and his followers at age 14 is what first sparked my interest in forensic psychology. I’ve researched them, and I’ve written about them. I’ve talked to people who’ve brushed up against them: a friend whose roommate was seduced by one, another friend whose niece married into one. However, I’d never talked to a child who grew up in one until I talked to Joy Fluker and John Neal about the murder of 3-year-old Emon “Moses” Harper inside Mother Anna Young’s House of Prayer for All People.

Joy Fluker and John Neal were both children when Joy’s parents, Jonah and Anna Elizabeth Young, started their religious ministry in Waldo, Florida. It was 1983. John came there when he was 6, after Mother Anna offered to watch him and his younger sister while his mother worked. When the community moved to a farmhouse in Micanopy, a small north-central Florida town situated between Ocala and Gainesville, in 1985, his mother moved in, too. By that time, John didn’t really care; he rarely saw his mother, nor did he miss her. Mother Anna was who mattered. “I would make her these little presents, and she would make such a big deal about them,” John said. “She could make you feel like the best thing in the world; she could also make you feel like the worst.”

Everyone said it was good at the beginning. Mother Anna was warm, charming, charismatic, and wise. She took in people with mental illness, struggling with substance abuse, just out of prison. She made them a promise; she would nurture her troubled flock and provide spiritual and economic security. Mother Anna used a routine of hard work, thrice-daily prayer, and frequent Bible teachings as the foundation of her religious boarding school.

Over time, though, things changed. Both John and Joy describe Mother Anna as increasingly egocentric, unpredictable, punitive, and remorseless, adjectives eerily similar to research findings on the personalities of many destructive cult leaders. Mother Anna distorted the tenets of her Pentecostal faith, which promotes the experience of God through exorcism, prophecy, speaking in tongues, and healing — to punish and control her followers. Adults who “sinned” were beaten; children who were "possessed by a demon" were tortured and starved.

As in most destructive religious cults, things got worse over time. John remembers Mother standing in the middle of a circle of followers, talking, talking, talking: “She would just berate people, tell them they were worthless, the women were whores, and how they needed to repent and have faith. There was just a constant stream of negativity.”

Joy remembers the beatings that John and the other children got. She remembers a girl named Sharon, thrown into a dog pen, all of her hair cut off, kneeling on the floor for hours. She remembers the screams of 12-year-old Nikki Nickelson after Mother Anna put her in a scalding bath with bleach and corrosive chemicals to teach her a lesson for not bathing properly. And she remembers the torture and starvation Moses suffered, the child Anna Elizabeth Young is now charged with murdering 30-something years ago.

John Neal also remembers what happened to Moses. But what really haunts John when he thinks about the years he spent at the House of Prayer — even more than the scars that still cover his back — are the memories of his baby sister Kaytonya, whom he now calls “Kay:”

Mother Anna believed Kay had a demon inside her. I don’t know why; maybe it was because my mom wasn’t married when she had her. She would make Kay stand inside the circle and run over and over again. Kay would have to chant 'Jesus, Jesus, Jesus' for hours. She was beaten and starved. Anna would tell Joy [Fluker] and me to make Kay run and run and to hit her with a stick if she stopped. We treated it like some kind of game.

I believed everything Mother Anna said; she had complete control over me. I thought Kay had a demon in her. I beat my own little sister. I had no sympathy for her; I had no sympathy for any of the kids. All I thought when one of them got beat was "better them than me."

Although Anna Young has not been charged, Joy and John both believe she is responsible for her death, that it was the abuse Kay suffered that led to the massive seizure that killed Kay. Today, John grieves not only for the loss of her life, but also for the loss of his love for her before she died.

Unlike John, Joy escaped the physical torture her House of Prayer peers received. But she also suffers from the memories of what she saw and who she was while living there: “I didn’t love Moses. I didn’t care about John or his sister. I didn’t care about any of those kids. All I cared about was getting in my mother’s good graces. Mother used to give me a quarter every time I told on one of those kids, so I told on them. I mistreated them. And when they got beat by someone else, I didn’t feel anything.”

John and Joy both played a pivotal role in Anna Young’s arrest. They will testify against her. They want closure and justice. Joy hopes to encourage other witnesses to a crime to speak out. She also loves her mom and wants her mom to get help: “I also have good memories with my mom. She could love you just as passionately as she abused people.”

In listening to John and Joy’s stories, I am struck by their painfully stark accounts of how the House of Prayer environment shaped how they felt and what they did while living there. Joy and John are not psychopaths, and yet, for the years they lived with Mother Anna, they felt like it. And they acted like it. As someone who works with violent offenders, this is a good reminder that in our ongoing debate of whether psychopaths are born or made, there are extreme conditions that can extinguish empathy in just about anyone. It’s called survival.

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