The Next Chapter

Marianne Boucher was a cult member back in the 1980s. Now she's telling her story in a comic book

The artist spoke with Shelagh Rogers about Talking to Strangers, which is about her experience with Sun Myung Moon's controversial Unification Church.
Talking to Strangers is a comic by Marianne Boucher. (Doubleday Canada)

For more than 30 years, Marianne Boucher has been a courtroom sketch artist for a Toronto-based television station. But it's her own harrowing experience that she sketches in her new autobiographical comic, Talking to Strangers

In 1980, Marianne was an 18-year-old figure skater when she went to Los Angeles to audition for the Ice Capades. Hours after she arrived, she was lured away from her original plans by members of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon's controversial Unification Church.

Talking to Strangers is an account of how that happened — and the steps that were taken to engineer Marianne's escape. 

At a crossroads

"I was at the crossroads of my career in ending a competitive skating career. I decided that I would go to L.A. and try out for the Ice Capades. I imagined a glamorous lifestyle. I wanted to get out of my suburban town and do something more exciting than what I saw around me. I had only a couple of days on my hands before skating started.

"I was approached by a number of people on the beach. This couple started talking to me and they were very engaging. They were smart and they were kind. It seemed very natural at the time. They sat with me and we ended up talking for hours. 

It was like going to African Lion Safari wearing a baloney suit. I was literally prey.

"They were very interested in me. We talked about a lot of things. They were very charming, older and were from different parts of the world. One thing led to another. We ended up not parting ways, but having dinner. 

"This was a process for them. I had no idea that people combed the beaches looking for people like me. I was very vulnerable being away from home. It was like going to African Lion Safari wearing a baloney suit. I was literally prey."

A moment in time

"There was a lot of pressure to keep the evening going on that night. Drawing myself on that one page, when I go with them, gives me chills. I had to put my hand on the page and tell myself that everything is OK. 

Drawing myself on that one page, when I go with them, gives me chills.

"When you see the illustration of that page, I'm not afraid. They've won my trust. I'm curious. This is why I'm going with them. I was in L.A. to rise above my mundane life, but I never expected that I could rise above that life doing something with a purpose.

"That's what they were talking about. They were feeding starving children and they had all these programs set up. I was curious — maybe I was destined to live a life with a higher purpose. That was the draw in the beginning. I was there for three months."

Cult deprogramming

"I had a very close relationship with my mother. People in cults don't know they're in a cult, so I'm phoning home and I'm saying, 'This is so much better than skating.' 

"I missed my audition. I checked out of my hotel. I eventually just vanished from her perspective. I was gone, but I did phone home eventually to tell her, 'I'm with these people. I haven't been murdered. We're doing good work. This is important to me.'

People in cults don't know they're in a cult, so I'm phoning home and I'm saying, 'This is so much better than skating.'

"The whole point is that you're meant to be isolated. In the book, the rotary phone becomes almost a character in itself because it becomes vital for communication between my parents. My mom was trying to figure out where I was — this was pre-internet — and was calling people and newspapers. Her search was very old school."

"I've read since about other experiences of people being deprogrammed. I think there's different ways of 'waking up.' Some of them are more dramatic, almost like a light bulb or a switch. But I think mine was more gradual."

Marianne Boucher's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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