Longform

Tortured Souls

Page 6 of 9

Tiller's family moved to Temple, where her father found work as a draftsman. They became closet worshipers--literally--setting up small statues of the deities in a walk-in closet in their apartment. Now 12, Tiller was ignorant about the outside world and immediately ostracized by her classmates in public school. "I decided I had been misled my whole life, and I really, really wanted to be a karmi. I wanted everyone to like me. I wanted to fit in."

Her first attempt at a hamburger went badly. She threw it up, unable to get the mental image of slaughterhouses out of her head. She began drinking and dating, running around with a fast crowd. One drunken evening, she says, two boys raped her; the next day her underwear was hanging from a locker at school.

After a halfhearted attempt at suicide, she convinced her parents to let her move to Belton and live with the family of a friend. They owned horses and she loved to ride, but every night she would have terrible nightmares. Her friend's father, who insisted she call him Daddy, would come into her bedroom with hot cocoa laced with a shot of Jack Daniel's. He would fondle her, she says, but she didn't care, blaming herself for tempting him.

"It just hit me that I didn't fit in anywhere," she recalls. "I didn't want to be in this body. I just wanted to die."

Instead, she moved with her parents to Irving, where she stayed high on pot and developed a penchant for throwing herself out of moving cars. She hated her father because he would sneak off to the temple, hated her mother because she would let him.

At 13, she met the boy she would marry when she turned 17. He was older and jealous, the first person she ever told about the abuse she endured at the gurukula. He insisted she tell her parents, who brushed it aside, seeing it as just another attempt to grab attention. Tiller was pregnant by 16, but her marriage didn't last. At 23, she found herself divorced with two children.

"It's uncanny," Tiller says. "Most of the gurukula girls ended up being teen-age or unwed mothers. Many of us are divorced from older men."

Bridgette Rittenour is the mother of six, twice divorced, the first time from a devotee 23 years her senior. Her mother arranged the marriage when she was 14, just like she arranged everything else. After her parents picked up Rittenour from the Dallas gurukula in 1976, they brought her to Los Angeles, but she never attended its temple's gurukula. "My parents had become upset with the politics of ISKCON, but they were still believers, and they didn't want me in school anywhere."

Her mother would leave her home alone with no TV or radio, just her fears that the world was coming to an end. "We had been taught that we were at the end of the age of Kali Yuga and Krishna would soon be coming to set fire to everything, riding his horse, swinging his sword and whacking everyone's heads off," Rittenour says. "I was too terrified to play because Krishna might come at any second and be upset with me."

At age 8 she can remember becoming despondent, sitting in a closet, crying for hours, nearly suicidal. Although she was illiterate, she desperately wanted to learn how to read and write. She begged her parents to send her to school, but they refused. So she decided to teach herself, copying page after page from the Bhagavad Gita (Hare Krishna bible) and slowly reading a Nancy Drew novel on loan from her mother's friend. Her father had a booth at a Los Angeles flea market, and on Sundays after temple, she would go to work with him. He taught her about business and selling, which she was surprisingly good at. The more fed up he grew with ISKCON, the less strict he grew with her. One day, he brought home a radio, which became her window to the outside world.

Her mother had always wanted to live on a Texas ranch, and in 1981 her father found her one outside San Marcos. Despite moving far from any Krishna community, they would still be devotees, still be vegetarians, and Rittenour still couldn't go to school. Her mother claimed that public school would force her to eat meat, but her father bought a TV and let her drink Coca-Cola, and at 12 she decided she no longer wanted to be a devotee.

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Mark Donald
Contact: Mark Donald