How Much Influence Can One Person Have?
The Story of a Young Mother, a Destructive Cult Leader, and a Dead Child
I have read thousands of court documents in my career, and this is the first time I’ve ever encountered a resurrection clause in a plea deal. In 2009, three years after Ria Ramkissoon’s 15-month-old son starved to death, Ria still believed he would come back to life if she prayed long and hard enough. She was so confident that Javon would eventually reappear that she insisted on a statement that prosecutors would rescind her guilty plea if he rose from the dead.
In 2005, 19-year-old Ria had a baby and a rocky relationship with her family, especially her stepfather, who was physically abusive and abused alcohol. He once tried to choke her when she was pregnant. Her child’s father was in prison. She was struggling financially, emotionally, and in every other way.
So, Ria thought she had found nirvana when a longtime high school friend of hers, who had a baby of her own, encouraged her to move in with a small religious group known as One Mind Ministries. Or at least a place that was financially stable and emotionally safe.
The head of the household was a woman who called herself Queen Antoinette; her real name was Toni Sloan. Her adult daughter and a handful of other followers also lived there. Like many destructive cult leaders, Queen Antoinette ruled through strict religious dogma, social isolation, and fear. She took away cellphones and identifying documents. No one went to the doctor. No visitors were allowed.
Over time, Ria came to believe that Queen Antoinette had a direct connection to God and that the rules and instructions she gave were spiritual commandments that, if not obeyed, would lead to eternal damnation.
“There’s Something Wrong With That Child”
Ria says that, from the beginning, Queen Antoinette seemed suspicious of her son. She’d heard her make negative comments about his “rebellious spirit” before. But, in late December 2006 or early 2007, Javon failed to say “amen” after a morning prayer before breakfast.
At 15 months, it is unclear whether he was even capable of saying that word, although Ria thought he had said it before.
To Queen Antoinette, Javon’s “disobedience” meant two things: a demon possessed him, and she needed to punish him. She decided she would exorcise that demon through fasting. She forbade any of the eight household members-including Ria-from giving him food or water. She would know all was well when Javon properly ended his prayer. It was all part of God’s plan.
For several days, Ria begged and pleaded with her son to say “amen.” She cried constantly. She was so distressed that Javon was eventually removed from her sight; after all, Ria disrupted the household with her carrying on.
But, Ria says, she did not save her son’s life. She did not grab him and run out of the house or try to escape. She could have. She was so terrified of what it would mean to disobey Queen Antoinette-certain eternal damnation-that a young mother who adored her son stood by while her son suffered, believing that what was happening was God’s will. By the time Antoinette relented, it was too late. Javon was dead.
After Javon died, Queen Antoinette assured her group followers that he would be resurrected. They spent hours praying; when nothing happened, Antoinette told Ria it was because she didn’t love her son enough. Ria sat with her son for several days, willing him to come back to her and refusing to believe that he was gone for good. The group eventually put him in a small suitcase and took him when they moved. Javon’s body was finally discovered in 2008 after a child welfare caseworker got a tip.
A New Reality
It has been 16 years since Javon Thompson died. Ria shared her story with me hoping that speaking out about her experience might help someone else.
It is part of her journey, which has included a prison stay, months in a faith-based residential treatment facility, and years of therapy. Ria continues to deal with the aftermath of what happened. Queen Antoinette was convicted of second-degree murder and is serving 50 years.
It is difficult to understand how this occurred; no one I talk to thinks they would ever get involved in a destructive religious group or allow themselves to be brainwashed out of their free will. Certainly, no one believes they would let their child die. Ria has faced considerable criticism and condemnation, although it pales to the judgment she heaps on herself.
I feel helpless when I hear stories of desperate family members whose loved ones are trapped inside this type of group; their grip is so tight. What should they do? Trying to convince them to leave (if there is any contact at all) tends to have a boomerang effect; savvy cults prepare their followers for just these kinds of arguments. It must be so hard to stay connected in love and without judgment when you hear a son or a daughter spouting bizarre dogma or appearing to be a shadow of her former self.
And what if your love and acceptance lead nowhere? How long can you stand by without trying to do something?
Ria knows how hard this is. After all, the only way she got out was in handcuffs. Even after her arrest, it took years before she began to see the manipulation and mind control for what it was.
The Bottom Line
When I asked Ria those questions, she didn’t have any easy answers.
But she did say something that stuck with me. She said that Queen Antoinette wasn’t the first person she went to for help. She had sought out social services. She had talked to her mother about the home situation. She had talked to friends.
By the time she met Queen Antoinette, she was desperate. Her back was up against the wall. So, while we don’t have a foolproof recipe for rescuing someone from a cult, perhaps we can work to make sure people who are going through hard times have good resources. So they aren’t as vulnerable to bad ones.
Originally published at https://www.psychologytoday.com.