Stairway to Heaven

Stairway to Heaven

Treating children in the crosshairs of trauma

By Bruce Perry and Maia Szalavitz

March/April 2007

Inside the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, children lived in a world of fear. Even babies were not immune: cult leader David Koresh believed that the wills of infants—some just eight months old—needed to be broken with strict physical discipline if they were to stay "in the light." Koresh was mercurial: one moment kind, attentive and nurturing, and the next, a prophet of rage. The Davidians, as the members of the Mount Carmel religious community were called, became exquisitely sensitive to his moods as they attempted to curry his favor and tried, often in vain, to stave off his vengeance.

With his volatile temper and fearsome anger, Koresh excelled at using irregular doses of extreme threat—alternating with kind, focused attention—to keep his followers off balance. He maintained an iron grip, controlling every aspect of life in the compound. He separated husband from wife, child from parent, friend from friend, undermining any relationship that could challenge his position as the most dominant, powerful force in each person's life. Koresh was the source of all insight, wisdom, love and power; he was the conduit to God, if not God himself on earth.

And he was a god who ruled by fear. Children (and sometimes even adults) were in constant fear of the physical attacks and public humiliation that could result from the tiniest error, like spilling milk. Punishment often involved being beaten bloody with a wooden paddle called "the helper." Davidian children…

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