Updated: August 29, 2013 7:30PM
Ruth Zandstra insists she is not lying. Nor is she crazy.
The 62-year-old Highland woman has been insisting this for decades, even though at times it felt as if she was making up such unimaginable acts of abuse during her childhood. And similar acts of domestic and churchly terror against her sister, too.
Cruelty. Incest. Intimidation. Sexual abuse. Psychological torture. Animal sacrifice. Bloodletting. And allegations of satanic ritual abuse at the hands of her father and grandfather under the guise of strict Christian doctrine, a controversial claim she still stands behind to this day.
“I know how all this sounds, but it’s true, sadly true,” she told me at the Portage Riverwalk, an oddly picturesque setting to discuss such ugly subject matter.
Zandstra, who can be shy as a shadow, chronicled all this and more in her 2010 self-published book, “Am I Alive?,” which is available on Amazon. It’s a sad, disturbing yet intriguing book about her tormented yet outwardly idyllic childhood while being raised in Highland. She tells it through a series of chronologically arranged recollections.
She recalls being driven by her father to a clearing in the woods during the middle of the night to take part in sadistic rituals and other unfathomable atrocities. They took place under the stars involving respected, robe-wearing elders from her Dutch Reform Christian Church, she claims.
“The men are eating something and drinking from the silver cup, one by one, and I just hope that since us kids aren’t standing in a circle with them, we won’t have to eat and drink the sacrifice with them,” she writes in the 295-page book. “I hate how the little bite of heart is all tough and rubbery and hard to chew and I hate how the blood tastes.”
She recalls being forced to kill her pet kitten when she was 6 years old, and repeated visits to her home from the FBI, investigating claims of the cult and its late-night activities in the woods.
In another chapter, she writes: “I see the toes of his shoes against my toes, and look up just enough to see both his open hands in front of my face. In one hand there are small, bloody eyes in the palm of his hand. I know that I have to swallow them, so that Satan can see inside me and know what I’m thinking.”
Impossible to digest? Hard to believe? A kneejerk reaction of far-fetched exaggerations, flat-out lies, or a form of false memory syndrome? That’s understandable. Zandstra knows this, too.
“But maybe the right person will read my book and realize they’re not alone,” she says.
Her book was written in part by the 100 or so personalities she created in her head as a kid to cope with the abuse. Clinically it’s called dissociative identity disorder or multiple personality disorder. Zandstra simply calls them “the others,” and each one had a name, such as Luke her big brother protector, Martha the grandmotherly nurturer, and Thaddeus, who kept mental notes on everything.
She’s been in therapy for nearly 30 years, mostly with Norm LeClercq, a clinical supervisor with New Leaf Resources in Lansing. Their first meeting was April 3, 1987, and they’ve met for hundreds of hours ever since.
“I totally believe Ruth and what she’s gone through as a child,” LeClercq told me. “She suffered obvious trauma showing me early on that something horrendous happened to her. Ruth doesn’t lie. She’s not crazy. And she’s honest to a fault.”
Her book, he confirms, is not some kind of vendetta against her father, family or former church. But a tangible way to possibly help others while telling her own amazing story.
“I wished many times that what she told me was a figment of her imagination. But it’s not,” he said. “I thought I understood evil before I started in this field. I had no idea.”
Zandstra’s father died in 1979, and her grandfather died before then. She has since married many years ago, and she has four adult daughters.
“One of them has read the book, the others have chosen not to,” Zandstra said.
She also has three brothers, two who live in the region and one who lives in Michigan.
“Two of them want nothing to do with me,” she said.
She received a negative backlash from most of her family, her community, and the Dutch Reform church after the book was released.
“I was repeatedly told that nobody needs to know about this,” Zandstra said.
But then she started receiving letters and emails from readers who had similar experiences involving sexual abuse, ritual abuse and other childhood abuse. It convinced her that writing the book was all worth it.
It’s been a long process of psychological integration within her own mind involving all those personalities she created as a kid to cope with her abuse. Each one has eventually left her psyche.
“It feels a bit lonely to not have them inside me any longer,” sighed Zandstra, who still sometimes refers to herself as “we” instead of “me.” “It’s still a struggle.”
It was only after her mother’s death in 2000 when Zandstra and her sister, who lives in Wisconsin, found something in their parent’s belongings that confirmed decades of torment, suspicion, and repressed memories. They unearthed a thick and heavy gold chain with an intricately-carved goat’s head satanic emblem.
“I’m not crazy! I’m not lying!” she writes at the end of her book.
“It’s the same chain that my father used during those nights in the woods,” she told me. “My sister believes that my mom left it there on purpose, knowing we would find it and find out the truth.”
The “truth” is tricky business in any scenario, but especially with these claims, memories and allegations, especially regarding demonic cults, whose very existence are arguably debatable. Zandstra knows her truth. Her therapist believes her truth. And it’s now up to you to either believe or disbelieve such truth.
I spoke to two other church members from that time period, and both say there are too many strange coincidences in Zandstra’s book to call her allegations flat-out lies or a form of false memory syndrome.
More importantly to Zandstra, she has found peace with her parents and their actions.
“I don’t blame my parents, even my dad. He was sick, mentally ill, and trapped by doing what he did, I believe,” Zandstra said. “He was two different people. Gentle yet mean. A respected church elder yet a sick cult leader.”
These days, Zandstra helps run a greenhouse in town while her husband works at a farm in Hebron, she says. She simply wants to live a simple life, smile at small wonders, and enjoy her three grandchildren.
“I am finally realizing that, yes, I am alive,” she said with a gentle smile.
To hear more details from Zandstra, watch my video posted at www.post-trib.com or on my Facebook page. You can also listen to my on-air interview with her on my latest Casual Fridays radio show, posted online at http://lakeshorepublicmedia.org/am-i-alive/. Or contact Zandstra via her website, www.ruthzandstra.com.