; Cwyn's Death By Tea: The Failed Endeavor of Charles Buell Anderson ;

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

The Failed Endeavor of Charles Buell Anderson

Charles Buell Anderson
Photo findagrave.com

This is one of those stories I have to get down. I am divesting myself of the shit that happens that you cannot make up. In this rather bewildering story, I managed to meet a worldwide cult leader and walked away mostly unawares. Wisconsin is full of cult-y people; actually the whole world is, and has ever been so since Adam said hello to the snake and decided to listen to it. I run into weirdos like this all the time, and the story is mostly the same.

Back around 1993 or so I had a part time job in social work, not full-time because my son was a toddler. I was awfully broke and needed money, and saw a job ad in the newspaper looking for a "Set Painter." You just don't see art jobs in the paper ever. I was volunteering in various theatres doing set painting for free but mainly for the cast party invites, which guaranteed free food and drink every week for at least a couple of months while a show was on. 

The Set Painter job posting required dropping off a vita and an example of one's work. At the time, I was doing my own art work of illuminated manuscripts in a gothic French Anjou style, something I picked up after growing disillusioned with abstract expressionism, an effort to start over my shit painting life and copy the art history I refused to do back in college. Now, I had most recently made a large manuscript for a friend, a secular piece of Henry II with some quote by him, because my friend had just acted that historical figure in the play “The Lion in Winter." So I brought in this manuscript as part of my application. 

The man looking to hire worked out of one of those early mid-century modern decaying offices with plywood paneling, where you will often see a pair of deer antlers hanging on the wall. I poked fun at these places with a drawing of the "Elk Motel" in my Sommelier story. I can't remember the business title at this office, something home-related, heating or inspections. The office sharing the building was an insurance agent. I left my art work and got a call about an hour later, asking if I could come back for an interview. I could. 

At the plywood office, I met a man in his late 30s wearing a white, long-sleeved dress shirt without a jacket. He told me that my art work was very impressive and wanted to show me the job. We left the 60s building and went to another building on the next block which more recently became a dance school for kids. It is a decent sized space that looks a bit black box theatre-like. 

The guy said he wanted some backdrops made for some furniture he planned to photograph and sell, nothing to do with his office business. I saw furniture in the space which resembled the kind of stuff the Bombay Company sold back then, British colonial fantasy. I said I could easily paint hanging backdrops, if he had rolls of canvas, or even bed sheets or wood. We went back to his office so I could retrieve my art work. He asked me a bit about my background. 

"Why don't you come and have dinner with my family, and we can talk some more?" he said. I wish I could remember his name. 

I said I had to pick up my son, that his dad was working a moonlight teaching job. 

"Oh, just bring him along." Well, okay. Seemed like I had the job, so why not? 

Picked up my kid and we drove back to the guy's office. 

"We will just go in my car, you can leave yours here. Parking is an issue." In a city it certainly is.

I had the impression he lived nearby, so I got into his black 4 x 4 vehicle, which was a little “extra” back then. So far this guy added up in my mind as a B-level striver, with the cheap office, no suit jacket, 1980’s Bombay fantasy furniture and tastefully hormonal car. 

But then he started driving on the freeway out of the city.

"Where are we going?" I was feeling a little apprehensive, though not too much. After all I worked with people with psychiatric illnesses all day long, the severe kind, people seriously dangerous. This guy didn't exactly add up to that, but still we were heading out of the city which is not a good a thing. 

"Oh, it's not too far, we will be there shortly. I called my wife and she knows you will be with us for dinner." 

We kept going and going, and nearly 40 nervous miles later he turned off the freeway and soon we were driving into forest, and then a gravel road. I could now understand the 4 x 4. 

"We are almost there. By the way, the house we are renting belonged to two Catholic priests before." 

Now that was certainly a strange thing to say. We literally were in the woods. Two priests renting a house in the middle of nowhere is dodgy. 

The house surprisingly was a modern loft style house, a rather suburban professional look, better than his office, but again that B-level striver, or so I told myself. I don't mean to judge people but sheesh, it's not a moral thing so much as hoping the guy driving me and my kid into the dark forest isn't a serial killer. I also didn’t particularly understand B-level strivers, only because I worked entirely in non-profit service.

I met the wife, who seemed like a normal person and they had a 10 year old son who was watching Wheel of Fortune or something on the TV. The meal was ready to go, and the man said a prayer at the table which was not a formal one, but a spontaneous one. Okay, maybe Pentecostal or Evangelical, I thought to myself. We were only a few years post-Reagan back then, so it didn’t seem too weird.

Over dinner I tried to discuss ideas I had for his backdrops. I was thinking instead of the big canvas maybe more like a shoji screen, this would be cheaper and go with the furniture better than tacky canvas theatre drops. He just said "hm" to all that, and suddenly did not seem so interested in the project I was expecting to do. 

I was asked more about my background etc., and he wanted to talk about the importance of his faith. He had already given away where he was with religion, and I tailor my responses to people asking. Most people like to ask about the nun stuff, but they usually want a very simple and easy to understand answer about it all. Too much and people literally glaze over in the eyeballs. So, depending on who asks I will answer in different ways. 

This is not exactly a religious snobbery thing, it's actually the opposite. Mostly people are mildly curious, yet I could say some things about religious and clerical life that can seriously disturb them. (Just for starters, they had not clearly thought their house in the deep woods rented by priests to be the dark flag I thought it was.) It's like trying to explain your puerh hobby to people who say they have a tea collection too, and upon inquiry they have boxes of tea bags. It's not a puerh snobbery to avoid the details, it's that people glaze over and then feel like they don't know something about tea that they should know, and who needs that discomfort? They don't want it. It's just polite not to overdo.

I continued to try and engage this guy on the art work as he loaded the dishwasher after dinner. He said I could go into their formal living room, that two people were coming over to meet me. 

The couple who then arrived were an older couple, looking around 70-ish. This was the man I later recognized as Charles Buell Anderson. I didn't know til later he had recently opened a church school in the Dells nearby called Endeavor Academy which is supposed to to teach the The Course on Miracles, a 1970s New Age-y book I considered trendy, the way theosophy was back in the 1930s. But Charles also allegedly thought he was Jesus in the flesh, and claimed to have already resurrected before actually dying. 

They sat down and said how happy they were to meet with me, and how fortunate I am because a great opportunity awaited me. They seemed very vague. I was struck by how this man and, I supposed his wife, were sitting. They sat on the sofa like my mother's parents from Chicago did, this very 1950s city way of sitting with knees tight together at the edge of the cushion, leaning forward to chat. A social posture that has mostly gone. My generation on down you see local men sit more spread open and leaning back with a confident and nonchalant machismo. My mother actually sat the same way on furniture as these people. I got the impression they were retired urban business people who were decently well off. I thought they must have gone to a lot of clubs and cocktail lounges in the old days, business socializing. That was the vibe.

Overall, these people were definitely better off than I at that point. I didn't have a dishwasher or a loft house. My Corolla car would never have made it on that dirt road. But apart from that, they seemed rather simple business people, at least in terms of religion mixing with business. By "simple" religion, I mean they probably didn’t have troves of lawyers fighting thousands of cases of child abuse while pretending it never happened and raking in millions in donations to support mansions in Italy. They asked me more about the religion stuff and I just kept up with very basic responses with my eye on my young son playing with the 10 year old who wanted to lend us a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles VHS tape. These people probably didn't have any interest in the details of a woman like me once attending diocesan deanery meetings. 

I just couldn't figure out what these two older people really wanted. They said they were in business with this guy I met, and looked forward to working with me. They didn't exactly say right out what this meant. I assumed the younger man was their protege' maybe from a mutual church, and they were investing in the younger man’s business, or doing stock buys together, or maybe a pyramid scheme. 

It was time to go back to the city and the older couple decided to ride along. We were told my son could borrow the Turtles tape. 

On the way to the city, I sat in the back with the older couple. The job seemed like it was evaporating quickly, and I tried to check that. 

"So, it looks like I will be doing this job, do you think?" 

The woman just looked out the window with that vague expression again, and replied, "absolutely, he will take very good care of you," and something about the opportunity I had at hand. I can't tell you how many times in my life people have said things like this and it turns into nothing, like college professors saying they will write letters for me, or maybe that restaurant people think is the best ever and we should really go there. Nothing that people promise you like this ends up happening.

Back to my car, serial killers averted. In the coming days I waited for a phone call as to when I would start the new job, and of course I hear nothing but crickets. So I phoned the number in the newspaper ad and asked.

"Hi, I was just calling to follow up about the painting job. Also, shall I return the videotape to you?"

"Oh, don't worry about the videotape, I will call you back."

Never heard from him again. Drove by that office a few times over the years, and the building changed hands and then got torn down at some point and condos put up instead. 

Clearly I had done or said something wrong. For awhile I thought that maybe the videotape had been some kind of test, because I never returned it. Were they testing me to see if I stole, or something? 

Oh god, and then years later I see the photo of Charles Buell Anderson on the internet. He died in 2005, apparently not having resurrected beforehand. New Jesus died in his chair while watching television.

Did a lot of reading about the Endeavor cult. I found a photo of the cultists on the internet, one guy looks like the guy who interviewed me and invited me to dinner, but without a name in the picture. The Endeavor people all wear white shirts. Charles/Jesus reportedly screamed and hit his followers and reached down the shirts of the females. They were supposed to recognize him as God, and without this recognition he said they were lacking in their ability to see. 

Charles Buell Anderson was a real estate broker in Chicago, a recovered alcoholic who attended AA meetings. Indeed, his church still offers a space for local AA meetings today. I guess I wasn't that far off with the similarity to my grandparents, as my grandfather in Chicago was in sales too. My grandparents were into theosophy, faith healings, psychic stuff, the Christian Science Monitor, trendy spiritual things. Like this cult does. 

The Endeavor School offers classes in art, theatre and music. At one point they tried to start up business giving talks at religious conventions along with performing a theatrical play and live music, all to recruit or ask for donations. I am guessing they took a look at me and thought religious person combined with art and theatre. Maybe Charles expected or hoped a former nun would recognize him as Jesus and I disappointed. 

People sell everything they have for Endeavor. They leave their families to live with and be in this cult. I read online that they donate their furniture directly to the cult when they join, which would explain the "job" in the paper, and the building where it was all stored. I think this guy with the office was preparing to sell the furniture and then join the cult too. The whole scam was the reason they didn't reveal anything, and why I probably didn't get called back to work on selling the furniture. 

I am definitely not amenable to cults or ecstatic religious groups. I was thoroughly worked over in such a way by the nuns, I cannot undo it even if I want to at this point. Whatever Charles is or was certainly went past me in a fog. They all wanted to talk religion and I just didn't oblige enough, or I didn't show the sort of enthusiasm that could withstand the scrutiny once I figured out what they were up to. Or I just blew it, the best opportunity ever! 

If you are in the Endeavor church, or any group that asks you to donate your finances and leave your family, call someone, anyone, to pick you up. Let me offer some hope. You can start over no matter what you have done for that religion. I had to give my furniture back to the nuns when I left, and I slept on the floor for a long time. Eventually you can afford better tea. 





2 comments:

  1. Oh, wow. What a story! In a similar vein, my brother became enmeshed in est for several years back in the 1980s. At his urging, I went to one of their seminars. They were very good at enticement. But I think they could see how crazy I was at the time and they left me alone. Later, my brother started meditating with S.N. Goenka (the real deal, not a conman). It turns out that Werner Ernhardt, inventor of est and chief profiteer, was a very early student of Goenka and had just about completely ripped off his courses. Then turned around and ripped off his own students. I was happy to see my brother escape his greedy little talons. Cheers!

    ReplyDelete
  2. What a great read! I've loved your tea writing for a long time but now I'm waiting for an entire book! More please.

    ReplyDelete