Back in March 1990, 23-year-old Erin Prophet was helping her mother in the family business. Her mother was Elizabeth Clare Prophet, matriarch of the Church Universal and Triumphant. The family business, for the moment, was preparing church members for Armageddon, which they believed would come in the form of a nuclear war, set to begin on or about April 23 of that year.
Church Universal and Triumphant, or CUT, was a New Age religion that didn’t do things halfway. Begun in the late 1950s by Mark Prophet, Erin’s father and Elizabeth Clare’s first husband, CUT espoused the belief that certain messengers could receive communications from “ascended masters”—like Jesus. In the late 1980s, Elizabeth Clare Prophet began receiving messages about imminent nuclear war and, thus, directed her followers to build massive fallout shelters beneath the ground of the church’s headquarters at the northern border of Yellowstone National Park, near Livingston. The shelters, which ultimately would cost more than $20 million to build, were stocked with seven years’ worth of food and supplies, and bunking spaces for several hundred church members. Additionally, CUT built a massive 25-foot-long tank filled with semiautomatic rifles, more than $5 million in gold and silver (not to mention $25,000 in pennies, meant to help establish a currency after the end of the world), and a special trailer carrying Isuzu pickup trucks. Any church member who wanted to reserve a space in the shelters had to submit an application in which they listed their monetary assets, all of which had to be surrendered to the church. When nuclear war failed to occur, Elizabeth Clare Prophet proclaimed that the church’s prayers had averted the end of the world. Though they had evaded apocalyptic crisis, most church members found themselves, at best, in severe debt or, in many cases, bankrupt.
Mother—or Ma Guru, as she was sometimes called—most certainly, in this case, did not know best.
In her memoir, Erin Prophet writes: “It would be easy to say later that none of us believed anything would happen, and most of us did later issue some form of denial. But few people in the history of the world have gone as far as we did to prepare for divine retribution. If that does not demonstrate belief, I don’t know what would.”
In Prophet’s Daughter: My Life with Elizabeth Clare Prophet inside the Church Universal and Triumphant, Erin Prophet seeks to uncover just how her mother’s church, one that espoused vegetarianism, Eastern rituals and a non-fundamentalist reading of the Bible, came to such a radical series of beliefs. It’s a memoir in which Prophet also seeks to forgive herself: As her mother’s aide, it was Erin Prophet who communicated—through the church’s ascended masters—both the date of the nuclear war her mother foresaw and the need to prepare seven years’ worth of provisions.
However, those looking for a showy Mommie Dearest-esque kind of memoir (Elizabeth Clare Prophet as a the New Age version of Joan Crawford) should really look elsewhere. With disarming honesty and no small amount of compassion, Erin Prophet uncovers not only her mother’s abuses of power (and there were many), but also the specifics behind the downward spiral of the church in which Erin and her siblings had grown up more or less happily. Finally, Erin explores the seemingly inexplicable power of her mother’s leadership. She asks, “Could we have continued to enjoy the ecstasy that we experienced during my mother’s religious services without having to also hand over our common sense to her?”
Family-oriented memoirs often take the opportunity to enact long-wished-for vengeance on abusive, absent or otherwise ill-intentioned relatives (see: Burroughs, Augusten). However, the best of these memoirs seek not so much to punish as they do to understand. Erin Prophet’s is one such memoir. Though Elizabeth Clare Prophet dictated the sexual practices of her disciples—best for procreation only, no more than twice a week and only for 30 minutes or less at a time—she also espoused college education and Eastern practices, like yoga and meditation. As a mother, she was alternately encouraging and bullying: Erin was both the reincarnation of Ghandi, as well as the reincarnation of one of the murderers of the Egyptian Queen Nefertiti (Elizabeth Prophet herself claimed to have been the murdered Nefertiti). Despite the harsh contradictions, Erin Prophet points out that “the same woman who made the failed prophecies is also the woman who rubbed my chest with menthol, lit my birthday candles, and prayed for me when I was sick.”
Ironically and not a little sadly, Elizabeth Clare Prophet, the same guru who prophesied doom and despair, now lives in a Bozeman nursing home with advanced Alzheimer’s. While the church of Elizabeth Clare Prophet still exists and still celebrates her name, Ma Guru no longer remembers it. Nor does Ma Guru remember Erin, the daughter who is now her legal guardian, the daughter who wrote this intensely readable and deeply insightful memoir, one that both celebrates and—unflinchingly—indicts.