Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Progression of Control in Spiritual Abuse

How I Saw Spiritual Abuse Progress

In the experience I had with Heather Elyse, I was lured gently and inevitably down a path of giving up more and more control without ever realizing it, until I was behaving out of fear and uncertainty at every turn. Here is the pattern that it followed.

Earliest Stage: Give up trivial things 

The first stage of being swept into the net of control really didn't look like being controlled at all. In this stage, we were asked to give up things that we really didn't care one way or the other about, or things that were too insignificant to raise your hackles.

  • Photos. I was taking a lot of photos when I first arrived, but Heather immediately instructed me not to post them, telling me that Hague convention prohibits photos of children who are up for adoption. I had no clue that there even was such a thing as the Hague Convention, so I just accepted her word as true. 
  • Adoptive parents. I was told over and over that I was not to have any contact with the adoptive parents. I was not to make any attempt to get to know them, and I was to refuse to approve any of their friend requests on facebook. However, these people were all strangers that I didn't have a burning desire to get to know, so it didn't seem like a big deal. I also didn't have any context or background for what was involved in an adoption, so I didn't have a framework for what a "normal" adoption should look like. (The effort to obey this command, however, did prove to be detrimental, as I could never keep the adoptive parents straight or figure out who went with which children. Instead, "adoptive parents" morphed in my mind into a somewhat faceless collective group rather than individual people.)
  • Wesmin. At the beginning of my time in Haiti, I was explicitly told not to talk to Wesmin, not to get to know him, not to have any contact with him, and to avoid him. However, this was easy to do, because my daily routine didn't throw me into Wesmin's way very much. 

Hypocrisy on the rules about these same trivial things 

  • Photos. Heather retained the authority to make an "exception" for which photos could be posted, so one day I was allowed to post a picture of all my schoolchildren on my blog. At the time, I failed to notice the point that if it was ok to do it one one occasion, it was not true that it was really forbidden. Or if it was really forbidden, it was not ok to do it even once. Heather therefore subtly established herself as being "above the rules" in that department. 
  • Photos were also wielded as a control mechanism towards adoptive parents. Take photos only of the children when they're dressed in gorgeous clothes and hairbows. Don't take pictures of children with skin sores or snotty noses. Don't post photos. Don't allow adoptive parents to have any access to photos. Don't share photos with anyone. Share a regular photo update of the children, but withhold the photos of any kids who belong to parents who aren't "waiting well." (And because I had no contact with adoptive parents, I had no context or basis for how to evaluate what "waiting well" even meant, and had to take it at face value, too.)

Villainizing innocent parties

  • Creche staff - Even before I got to Haiti, Heather was bashing her Haitian staff to us. "The Haitian nannies don't nurture the children. They leave everything a mess. They have no clue how to make kids thrive the way Americans do. etc. etc. etc." 
  • Wesmin - Heather stated to us single ladies that Wesmin was not to be trusted, that he had a dirty mind, that he was not a godly man, that he was into pornography, and that we should stay as far away as possible from him. She created fear and distrust by her words without us ever getting to know Wesmin for his own sake. I still don't know the truth about Wesmin, but I suspect that he is one of the people that we ought to feel sorry for the most. Looking back, I wonder if Heather manipulated and used him more than almost anyone else.
  • Adoptive parents - Adoptive parents were constantly being labeled as "crazy," "making trouble," or "creating drama," and there was a seeming attempt to create a great deal of animosity and distrust against them. 
  • Birth parents - Every month on the 15th, the birth parents would come to visit their children. People would fill the creche yard, sitting with their children and visiting quietly with them. Perhaps they would bring a popsicle or a bag of chips to share with the child. But instead of being able to see the beauty of it, Heather cast a cloud of annoyance on this visit, considering it a nuisance and claiming that people trashed the place and created a huge waste of time on that day. Birth parents were also being constantly labeled as "crazy," which was one of Heather's favorite terms for anyone who was not currently in her good graces. 
  • IBESR - the Haitian government's child protective services division. IBESR was also "crazy" and was mentioned with an eye roll or a bad attitude.
  • The Haitian government - The government of Haiti was also met with contempt and disrespect, and while I know there are valid charges of corruption towards Haiti's government, there was seemingly no respect even for procedures that were relatively standardized and efficient.
  • Haitians in general - Haitians in general were villainized as being lazy, good for nothing, drug addicts, and voodoo worshipers. Again, there are some bad people in Haiti, but the population as a whole was given an unduly broad-brush negative stereotype.
  • Other adoption agencies and orphanages. Right next door to our creche, there was another orphanage run by a Christian woman, and yet we were told that she was "crazy" and that we shouldn't go over there or get to know her. The same held true for another organization that was just around the corner from our creche. Therefore, we were isolated right off the bat from other helpful Americans who could have served as an early warning signal for some of the things that they could tell weren't right. 
  • Local churches - When we arrived in Haiti, we were specifically instructed not to attend any of the local churches. We were told they were bad, off-base, and full of needless drama. I didn't get to attend a Haitian church until March 17, but when I did, I found it to be delightful. 

Middle Stage: Shutting Down Information Sharing

Then it moved to information.

  • "Don't share that." 
  • "They weren't supposed to know that."
  • "You weren't supposed to say that." 
  • "You aren't allowed to share that."

To this day, I'm not "allowed" to be sharing what I'm sharing about the whole experience, but I have chosen to boldly disregard that order and thus throw off the remaining traces of authority that I was still granting Heather over me by me keeping silent.

When I was in the middle of the experience, I remember being disoriented and bewildered by the amount of information that was "not allowed to be shared." It was so unpredictable and so extensive, and "classified information" was often in so many innocent, innocuous categories. I was left thinking, "HOW could anyone ever predict that they weren't allowed to say that???" But the effect of long-term, repeated run-ins with getting in trouble for saying something "wrong" was that everyone quickly concluded that no one was ever allowed to share anything with anybody. And so communication quickly shut down.

Fear of invoking Heather's displeasure over telling something that wasn't supposed to be shared grew to such an extent that in July of 2013, two other girls and I were living in the US in the same house, and Heather was in Haiti, and yet we were all mutually afraid to tell each other if one of us had received an email from Heather, lest the other two were "not supposed to know about it." How she wielded this much fear from another country, over adult women, is still mind boggling to me.

Looking back on it now, though, it makes total sense that everything had to be kept a secret. There were so many lies flying around that Heather could only continue to operate by keeping people in the dark about what was going on. If people could communicate freely with each other, they would have a chance to see the lie, and she would be found out.

The genius of Heather's operation, though, was that she so carefully crafted each lie that she was the last person that any of us suspected to be the instigator of it all. Like a master ventriloquist, she successfully projected the blame onto other parties and hid behind such a believable facade of innocence that the outrage never landed on her. In situation A, she contrived to have the Haitian nannies be the enemy. In situation B, it was Jasmine who "ought to be fired." In situation C, it was Wesmin who was to be feared and distrusted. In situation D, it was the adoptive parents. In situation E, it was the Haitian government. And on and on it went. Dancing a dance like this must have been thrilling and terrifying all at the same time for Heather as she gambled to see how far she could push the envelope and still get away with it.

I will just take a moment to say to anyone reading this: If you ever find yourself in any organization where everyone is operating under a culture of fear, secrecy, and withholding of information, GET OUT. You are unequivocally in a dangerous environment of spiritual abuse. It will be costly to get out. It will take courage. You will have so many swirling clouds of conflicting information, you might not know which way is up. If this is the case for you, please get in touch with me so we can talk. But GET OUT without delay.

Late Stage: Abuse and control are essentially complete

  • The leader begins to demand unquestioning loyalty, and threatens (or performs) outright rejection of anyone whose loyalty is suspect
  • The abuser begins to aggressively expand their jurisdiction, claiming new areas where they have a "right" to give orders and be obeyed. They often do this by simply expanding the scope and dimension of the orders they are giving, and when they see obedience, they accept this tacit agreement that they have authority in that area, and there is no going back. 
  • The leader begins to give illogical orders, but they are accepted without question. For example: "No visitors are authorized to visit the creche any more." "The creche in Pierre Payen is a secret creche. Don't tell anyone of its existence under any circumstances." 
  • The followers begin to have to perform extreme mental gyrations in order to justify to themselves that there is a valid explanation for what is going on. For instance, during that time, I consoled myself by saying, "Well, the enemy even accuses God of lying, so if accusations of Heather lying are flying around, it's only consistent with the pattern of the enemy."
  • When the leader senses an impending departure of the followers due to how crazy things are getting, the leader uses blackmail as leverage to keep the followers in line. In the case of Heather, she used adoptive children as blackmail over the adoptive parents who loved them, threatening to cancel the adoption, taking away the children, hiding the children, or otherwise manipulating people through what she would do (or did do) with their children. 


I just reread the article by Tara Livesay on their side of the perspective on what happened when they came into the creche with the Cox's. I was taken aback by the vision of myself as a fearful, unsure person who was under the sway of so much control. Yet when I was in the midst of the situation, I didn't know I was exhibiting fear. I remember how I felt that day that I saw the Livesays at Club Indigo, and I would have rejected a "fear" label as preposterous. Me, afraid? I would have scoffed at the idea. I remember the next time I saw the Livesays when they came in to the creche with the Cox's to look for their son. Again, I remember how I felt, and I would have never though of myself as fearful. Nay, I was bold and nonchalant to walk out of the house and go over and stand by Tara and talk to her. "Me, afraid? Never."

How strange! How can a person feel unafraid while at the same time manifesting fear? If I wasn't the person who lived through it, I would say it wasn't possible. But looking back, it's clear to me that I was exhibiting fear that day, I was under the sway of undue control, and whether I felt it or not, I was.

I make this point to emphasize the fact that people who have gotten sucked into spiritual abuse without realizing it are very often blind to the fact. They can't see the obvious. I couldn't. In February and March of 2013, I was still passionately defending Heather. It would be many months before my eyes would be opened, and that only after seeing a mountain of damning evidence. Being in a situation of spiritual abuse feels confusing and chaotic. You are under the influence of a master manipulator, a spin-doctor who can easily and deftly come up with the most compelling reasons in the world why black is white and white is black. As counter intuitive as it seems, it feels impossible that the detractors have any logic, so you dismiss their side of the story.

If someone you love has gotten caught in the vortex of spiritual abuse, don't be surprised if they can't see the truth. You will be frustrated with them for not being able to see the obvious, but don't let that frustration build a rift between you. When your loved one finally does emerge, they will need their "before-abuse" relationships to be intact and a safe place to recover.


There's so much more. Tracing the progression of control in spiritual abuse is tracing only one layer of a multifaceted experience that didn't come with labels attached to cut-and-dried categories. You live life in a story, but you retell it after the fact piece by piece in categories. There are other layers yet to peel back. Stay tuned. 


  1. "she used adoptive children as blackmail over the adoptive parents who loved them, threatening to cancel the adoption, taking away the children, hiding the children, or otherwise manipulating people through what she would do (or did do) with their children."

    This pierced my heart. I lived this! I was nothing but loving and loyal to Heather and she betrayed me in the worst possible way. She is still living a lie. This is the best post yet! Keep them coming.

    1. I am so sorry for all the heartache you experienced! I witnessed so many people get hurt so deeply, and I ache with you over it. May the Lord bring comfort and balm into these deep wounds.

  2. Thanks for sharing. Be prepared that when Heather finds out about this post she will either text you or send you an email threatening a lawsuit if you don't take it down. Most of us adoptive families have received multiple threats. Please know that you can just ignore ignore ignore. She doesn't follow through. Don't let it freak you out.

    1. Dear Anonymous, thank you for your advice. I have already been contacted, so @all please know that Heather is most definitely aware that I am posting these blogs.

  3. Here is the official term for what Heather Matranga did to all of us who adopted through her or worked for her. It is called gaslighting:

    1. That is a very good description. I was unfamiliar with this term until just about a week ago when someone used that label in a conversation with me. Thank you for sharing the article.

  4. I understand that this is all still very painful. Heather is not the first time we have seen this in Haiti. I think because Haiti lacks systems to protect the vulnerable, it tends to draw this personality type. It allows the person to come be a big hero and cast themselves as "savior" and have power they wouldn't have automatically in their own culture. I am sorry that this all happened and I can tell you that even after so many years of living here and seeing a TON of whacky stuff, Heather is still at the top of the list and I used to wake up at night afraid of her crazy-ways --- so I can only imagine how much more difficult it would be for you as a younger single gal new to this country. (Haiti).

    1. What a true and insightful observation about Haiti lacking cultural structures to protect the vulnerable (and therefore attracting an undue proportion of those who would exploit the vulnerable). Tara, you don't know how greatly I longed to call you after the second time we met. You gave me your phone number and told me to call, and I yearned to know the other side of the story, but I let myself be intimidated out of doing it.


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