Each year, Chadwicks had a Halloween parade, and families would line Oneida Street–except for the spot in front of the redbrick building. People from the church would chase them off the lawn. Though Oneida Street was a typical stream for trick-or-treaters, no one knocked on door 3354. The men in trench coats would hide in the bushes. Other men would pace the roof, patrolling, guarding their domain. It was the scariest thing on the block.
Like a scene out of a Halloween thriller, kids would ride their bikes past the secretive church screaming, “Don’t go inside! You’ll never come back out!”
How prophetic that would be.
Opening with this atmospheric setup describing the block where the World of Life Christian Church on Oneida Street stood, journalist Susan Ashline writes an account of the organization’s origins as a Pentecostal church and evolution into a cult, beginning with the leadership of Reverend Jerry Irwin and after his death, under his daughter Tiffanie Irwin.
In 2015, 19-year-old Lucas Leonard was taken to the hospital in Utica, New York. He wasn’t breathing, and was covered in so much blood that doctors thought he’d been shot. After unsuccessfully attempting to resuscitate him, he was declared dead. They would eventually realize he hadn’t been shot; rather, his extensive injuries were the result of a severe beating.
Lucas’s violent death marked the beginning of the end for the small World of Life Christian Church in the nearby upstate New York town of Chadwicks. He had been beaten to death by his fellow parishioners, his own parents among them, egged on by the manipulative Pastor Tiffanie.
So often, in stories like this detailing unimaginable abuse and/or insular groups, we’re left with an unanswered why even after a book-length examination. Not so here. Ashline had the confidence of Kristel Leonard, Lucas’s older sister who had once been a church member herself but was able to successfully extricate herself, and even more unusually, we see so much of the cultish indoctrination processes and brainwashing that occurred since heaps of the material here is directly influenced or drawn from recordings and writings made by members.
The Irwin family recorded everything, even down to their “casual dinner conversations,” which is what makes this such a unique book. You almost forget what exactly you’re reading, or even that you’re reading instead of watching it happen in real time. It’s entirely immersive: with so much dialogue it gives the impression of watching events unfold. It’s unsettling, but so well done that it’s hard to put down. Ashline’s detailed writing is excellent and her commentary and structure are carefully chosen, she knows when to let the cult members’ words and actions speak without unnecessary exposition.
“You know, I could be like Jim Jones and make a whole lotta money and deceive a whole lotta people,” Jerry once said during a church service. “We could start our own commune. I could have twenty wives. Like I’d want twenty wives. But, um–(laughs)– maybe twenty slaves. How’s that?”
The text is punctuated with these kind horrifying remarks, casually spoken by the Irwin family members to their congregants especially during sermons. Their instability and insecurity are on display, but it’s clear they weaponized these into fear and paranoia among their followers.
With so much actual dialogue and descriptions culled directly from the group’s firsthand materials, it’s massive in scope, but Ashline is precise and meticulous in how she parses the information and organizes it structurally. The result is a stunning narrative work. It’s disturbing, to be sure, to see the myriad abuses both physical and mental as they escalate, but it makes this feel more than a gawking story of a brutal beating and death; it’s a warning about the dangers of groupthink and blind acceptance of self-professed leaders, blown out of control in a cultish environment. We don’t often get voices and insider perspectives, including from those who’d left, to this extent, and it’s deeply revealing.
Perhaps especially in the case of Bruce Leonard, Lucas’s father. We see his realization of what transpired as he lives with the anguish of what happened — what he took part in. Looking back from after the trials and sentencing of the perpetrators, also detailed here, he has genuine remorse, and it’s heartbreaking to witness him emerge from the spell he seemed under and recall the terrible events of that night. Not easy reading but brilliantly done and worthwhile.
Without a Prayer:
The Death of Lucas Leonard and How One Church Became a Cult
by Susan Ashline
published August 6, 2019 by Pegasus (W.W. Norton)
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.