I Really Believed That This Way of Living Was Right

ICSA Today, Volume 2, Number 3, 2011, pages 24-26

“I Really Believed That This Way of Living Was Right”

Interview by Lydia van der Weide; translation by P. Breban, M.A.

The following is a transcript of an interview, conducted in March 2010, with Monique Goudsmit, in the Dutch magazine Vriendin[a] (No. 10, March 10, 2010).[1] Religious sects have often been in the news in recent years. After twenty-five years, Monique succeeded in breaking free from the strict Catholic movement, Focolare[b]. Monique published a book about her experiences: Bevrijd – Over Identiteitsverlies en de Lange Weg naar Heelwording (Liberated—About Losing Identity and the Long Road to Healing). (2009). ISBN 978-94-90075-10-1. schrijven@calbona.nl

A few years ago I felt a strong urge to write a book. I had gone through such a strong personal growth that I wanted to put those experiences on paper. But I also wanted to skip a certain period of my life—a time I didn’t want to think back upon. However, when I plunged into the work I discovered that those years were indispensable to my story because there lay the roots of my journey of self-discovery.

For twenty-five years I have tried to erase Monique. As a girl of ten I came in contact with the Focolare, a Catholic movement from Italy founded in 1943. My father, with whom I had a strong tie, had been to a gathering. I still recall the fire in his voice when he talked about it. It was as if he had found a great happiness there. What exactly, I didn’t understand, but I was very curious. Shortly thereafter he died, completely unexpectedly.

My father had been everything to me—my safe harbor, my warm nest. I missed him immensely. When, shortly after that, I went to a Focolare summer camp with my mother, my brothers, and my sister, like a sponge I absorbed everything I heard and saw there; the atmosphere, the songs and everything that was said. I had the feeling that through experiencing exactly what my father had experienced, he had come close to me again.

I never had a close bond with my mother. That is why, after our return to the Netherlands, I sought a new home in the Focolare community, close to where we lived. The people there were so kind to me, so warm. After school I went to do my homework in the community, often staying the night. My mother let me do so because she also often went to meetings of the Focolare together with the rest of my family. But I was the most involved and enthusiastic and grew convinced about my vocation to become a focolarina and give my whole life to God. I asked official consent from the Focolare world center in Rome and was allowed to enter when I turned nineteen.

I let go of my own family and, with a suitcase full of clothes, went to live indefinitely in a Focolare community. To let go of my own family was expected, and I had no problem with that. I was very happy with my “entering.” I belonged completely—indeed, Focolare had consumed my life.

But the price for that belonging was that I completely gave myself up. Focolare—which means fireplace—is based on unification. The sentence from the gospel, “Father, that they all may be one,” is what everything is about. That is, one’s own identity, one’s own feelings, thoughts, wishes, fears, and sorrows—each has to be completely wiped out in order to be absorbed into the group.

“Monique has to die” I was told. I was not allowed to exist as a personality, only as a part of “we,”[c] that one soul we were all a part of. It meant that I could decide nothing for myself. All was decided for me, all was thought of for me, [d]by Lella, the responsible [person] of the community in Amstelveen, where I lived. She, in turn, was in direct contact with Chiara Lubich, the founder of the Focolare.

I looked up to Lella enormously; I adored her. I followed her in everything. Actually, I would have liked to develop my ballet talent, but Lella didn’t find that suitable, [e]so I went to the academy of social studies instead. During the daytime I was a student and, later, a social worker; but I had no contact with my fellow students or colleagues. My life was Focolare. In the evenings, there were lectures or groups or preparations for bigger events. I travelled through the whole country in order to convince as many people as possible about our ideal of unity. Furthermore, meditation and daily prayer were also on the program.

In the twenty-five years that I lived in the community, not once had I sat in the center’s beautiful garden with a book of my own. It was not possible; there was no free time. It was assumed that we had no need for privacy. We also slept communally in the same room—it was a female community—and the door was kept open at all times.

I had no money of my own; my whole salary was for the Focolare. In retrospect, I know that from the start I had wrestled with an uncomfortable feeling. There was something not right, as if there were two Moniques: the one I was inside and the one I had to be on the outside. But that double feeling I didn’t dare to address. It was, after all, my calling to give my life for the unity. Wasn’t it?

So I pushed that unpleasant feeling aside. But some things hurt a lot. When my sister got married I was not allowed to go to the wedding. My biological family did not matter anymore; it was all merged into a greater unity. Secretly I thought it was terrible not to be able to attend the wedding. I found out later that my sister had also been deeply wounded by my absence.

It was even worse when my grandmother died. On her deathbed, she had specially asked for me. But Lella, who was to bring me there, delayed everything so long that, when we eventually reached the hospital, my grandmother had already passed away. Other family members had been there on time—only I was too late. I felt an intense anger and pain inside. But I immediately knew to put a smile on my face, because my feelings did not matter. I knew that, didn’t I?

I was completely jammed. Looking back I do not understand how I could keep this life up for so long. But I really believed that this way of living was the right way. I didn’t know any better. How I was then I now sometimes compare to a fish in a fishbowl. The fish also thinks that that is the world, that that is a normal environment. Still, my bad feeling about my situation started to grow. I started to do things secretly; small things like skipping a meal, for instance. That was not allowed, because that was vanity and trying to get attention. To do it anyway gave me a feeling of control—a feeling that I was in charge. And that was so very important in a life where even my diaries were read.

That I had chosen to be a focolarina meant I couldn’t marry. At the time, I didn’t mind. I was not active with men. But I did have sexual feelings that I sometimes didn’t know what to do with. I got stuck with that all those years. I tried to talk about it but only got answers that didn’t help me. I had to give all to Jesus. But how? That question remained unanswered, along with many others. “You don’t have to understand,” I was told, “as long as Chiara in Rome understands.”

Then something happened that suddenly opened my eyes. I had a new job as a social worker in a nursing home, and I was very happy there. I was seen and valued—me, Monique, for the one I was and for the things I did. It felt very special! Unfortunately, Lella saw that I had started to flourish and thought that that job removed me from the unity. That is why she arranged an abrupt transfer for me to Oslo, to another Focolare community.

I found it awful but, yes, what was decided for me I had to follow; there was no choice. My manager at my social work job was very upset when she found out that I was going to leave. But she respectfully said, “If this is what you want, then you have to do it.” Then she asked, “Are you actually happy, Monique?” That question hit me like a thunderbolt. I felt it from my top to my toe. Never, by anyone, had that question been put to me. Not even by myself. If I was happy or not didn’t matter, did it?

Suddenly I realized that I didn’t want to live this way anymore. I had to leave the Focolare as soon as possible. The women from my community tried to convince me to stay but I made a firm stand. I never spoke to my own family about this at that time because I was afraid they wouldn’t support me, since they were still connected to the Focolare.

There I was: 34 years old, eventually on my own. I found a house and kept doing my job, but now I could spend my own money. Now, I thought, I would be free. I never realized at that time that my true liberation would take many more years. This is when the struggle really began. Because I then had a life of my own but I didn’t know how to handle it. I was still a child, a big emotional, underdeveloped child that had never learned to think for herself.

I went into therapy. I had individual and group therapy. There I was asked, “and what do you think, Monique?” I shut down completely. Did I know what I thought, felt, or wanted? For a long time I thought someone else had to fill my emptiness and solve my problems. Regarding relationships, I was very dependent on others. I sought happiness outside myself, compulsively. I rolled, for instance, from one obsessive love story to another. I was addicted to fantasies about my “big love” that was really going to be the true one this time, but always turned out not to be.

First, I was attracted to women until I realized I was not at all lesbian but simply craving the love of a mother figure. After that there were men in my life. The difficulty was that I had absolutely no conception of my limits. Sometimes I let things happen that I actually did not want; for instance, in the sexual area. I also had problems at work, where I had too many tasks in the time I had. Everything was becoming too much to cope with, but I had never learned how to say “no.” It brought about so much personal anxiety that I became increasingly depressed. Around that time I worked in public relations, but nothing seemed to work for me anymore. I was a mess!

During that period I was often very angry at the Focolare. I thought all my problems were caused by the Focolare stage of my life. Now I understand that as a 10-year-old child and even as an adult, I wasn’t strong enough to make different choices. I can also see that the people of Focolare are caught in their own system; they also are not able to act differently. Understanding this, that anger is gone; I can look more mildly at things.

Eventually I came out stronger. I once read the sentence “I am insoluble as sand in water.” I find that beautifully said. Because that is the way it is; a grain of sand remains in existence, even between two millstones. That grain of sand is like your own force; it is there and it remains there whatever happens.

After a long road, littered with falling over and rising up again, I can now trust myself completely. Even though I surround myself with dear friends that I have met through the years and with whom I like to go to the movie or a concert, I now know I am responsible for my own life. At last I can stand on my own—proud of my growing independence.

My father has remained in my heart my whole life. Naturally, I will not know exactly how he looks at the things I have been through. But I have felt him very close to me these past years. Some time ago I dreamt I met him. And he said, “I can really see you are my daughter. I am happy with you.” This gave me peace. I know for sure I have a “guardian angel.” I, by the way, still believe in God. But that is a very personal connection. No one is in between.

Until I wrote my book, I seldom spoke about the Focolare period of my life. I felt too much shame and impotence. However, when preparing to write my book, I started major research on religious groups and sects. For me, my research clearly led me to the opinion that the Focolare was a sect. Indeed, the way that the Focolare was organized and the ways in which its members were conditioned to accept everything that the Focolare told them fit all the criteria of a sect.

I was not crazy! I had, on the contrary, felt that it was unhealthy when one’s personality was deleted. Through this I gained more self-confidence. Now I am 55 years old. I see it as my task to help others who have had similar experiences because they are here, also in the Netherlands.

I’d like to be of use to others. Therefore, based upon my own experiences, I now work as an expert on the subject of sects. My contacts grow nationally as well as internationally. Moreover, my book has brought about something else that brings me great happiness—I have contact again with my sister. Through the Focolare we had lost contact; now we approach and speak to each other regularly. Through my book, her eyes have been opened and she too has cut loose from the Focolare movement. She says, “It is our book; I am liberated too!”

I feel great satisfaction that my book has also helped someone else—someone very dear to me. It has certainly brought me a great deal of fulfillment. Through writing my book, I have been able to let go of the past. But my growth process hasn’t stopped. I am already into writing “a new book,” and my sense of personal liberation, self-worth, and freedom of expression continues to flourish.

About the Author

Monique Goudsmit, resides in Amsterdam, Holland. She has worked as a social worker for healthcare and rehabilitation for many years. She was a member of Focolare for 24 years before leaving the movement 22 years ago. In 2007 Monique started to research cult related topics and wrote a book (Holland 2009) about her cultic experience and the healing process: Bevrijd – Over Identiteitsverlies en de Lange Weg naar Heelwording (Liberated—About Losing Identity and the Long Road to Healing). Nowadays she spends a lot of her time assisting and supporting ex-members of cults in Holland and other countries.

[1] Reprinted with permission of the Dutch magazine, Vriendin, and the journalist, Lydia van der Weide. Minor editorial changes have been made to the translation by P. Breban, M.A..