Files from The Family: The Psychotic and the Spy

The other day I had lunch with a Presbyterian minister who had some minor but firsthand experience with elitist theology of the Family, the avant-garde of American fundamentalism that I’ve written about in two books, The Family and C Street. The clergyman had read The Family and wondered, in the end, whether the Family’s abuses of power were the result of cynicism or naivete. That’s a good question; once, trying to be charitable, I suggested to a senior Family man that the group’s longtime leader, Doug Coe, was perhaps simply, monumentally, naive. The Family man took great offense. Ok, then, cynicism it is.

But the truth, as mushy-mouthed pundits like to say in all situations, lies somewhere in between. I was reminded of this today reading Louis Menand’s review in the New Yorker of a new biography of Wild Bill Donovan, the legendary founder of the O.S.S., the WWII-era intelligence service that would later become the C.I.A. Donovan, much like the Family, was an almost mystical elitist: if he liked you, then you were the right man for the job, no questions asked. He was not big on background checks, like his nemesis, J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover was a controller, a blackmailer; Donovan was a schemer, a very dangerous dreamer. Hoover liked purging; Donvan, his vision of American empire more expansive, was too busy looking outwards to notice that Hoover’s charges of communist infiltration were, sometimes, correct. Such, notes Menand, was the case with “Donovan’s own executive secretary, Duncan Lee, a lawyer he had brought in from his his Wall Street firm.”

Duncan Lee! Why, I remember that name from the notes I took on the Family’s nearly 600 boxes of documents stored at the Billy Graham Center Archives in Wheaton, Illinois. When I looked through my notes, I found a scrap of narrative I wrote but didn’t find a place for in The Family. It’s the story of a psychotic and a spy, two men on whose behalf Abraham Vereide — “AV” — used his Family connections to intervene with government officials. The spy, of course, is Duncan Lee — or, as the Soviets knew him, “Koch,” one of the U.S.S.R.’s most senior assets in the U.S. at the time.

Here’s the story. I should add that since I didn’t include this in the book, it’s only a draft, and thus may contain errors.


From time to time, concerned fathers called upon AV to intercede on behalf of wayward children. Such requests brought out the best in AV – he loved to help friends, and he loved to be a mentor to youth. It also brought out the worst – AV never hesitated to bring his influence to bear on behalf of a friend, even if he knew little of the situation. Which meant, sometimes, that a request for help from a friend brought out the foolish side of AV, as well. Take the case of Reg Parsons, the son of an insurance executive in Seattle. In this instance, it was Reg who first asked for AV’s aid; and out of loyalty to Reg’s father, AV readily granted it. In a letter from AV to Parsons, Sr., dated October 4, 1950, we learn that Reg called AV unexpectedly one day and asked for AV to come see him in Topeka, Kansas, where Reg was apparently under some kind of medical treatment. AV immediately flew to Kansas, picked up Reg, and took the boy with him on his rounds: Chicago, New York, Long Island, and finally Washington, where AV arranged for the young man a job on his own staff – and also, simultaneously, at the State Department. Young Reg, he wrote, would be making arrangements for international delegations visiting the U.S. at State’s invitation — and, of course, making arrangements for AV’s access to those delegations.

Two weeks later, AV wrote Parsons, Sr., with great news: Reg is a new man, functioning on behalf of International Christian Leadership, as the Family was then called, and the State Department with “clarity, release, and effectiveness,” working 12 hour days hosting foreign delegations. Reg operated “in two capacities,” AV assured Reg’s father, “as a representative of [ICL] and for the U.S. Government, with which we closely function.” How close? One of Reg’s duties was to bring “select individuals” from a West German delegation  to ICL’s headquarters for “further orientation,” above and beyond that supplied by the state department. AV assured Parsons, Sr., that Reg excelled in this position, so much so that he was already – two weeks into the job – making an impact on U.S. foreign relations. He proposed that Reg commit himself to this job for the long haul. State, AV believed, will pick up the tab; up to this point, Reg’s expenses had been covered by ICL, even as he worked as an official U.S. representative. He had been, literally, a paid undercover agent of a private sectarian fundamentalist organization within the U.S. State Department. R.R. Timmerman, a former executive assistant to the president who was by then a high level official at the ECA, the agency charged with running the Marshall Plan – and a “close associate in the program of the ICL” — had offered to take Reg into his home — that is, to subsidize Reg’s double duty to God–AV’s God, that is–and country.

One problem: “a certain young lady” in Seattle. Before Reg committed himself to a career with ICL and the State Department, he was determined to drive out West to have “a talk with the lady out there.” Along the way, he planned to visit his doctor in Topeka.

The next letter in the file is to AV, is from that doctor, Murray Bowen, on the occasion of Reg’s visit. What kind of doctor was Bowen? A psychiatrist. In what capacity had he treated Reg Parsons, budding ICL mole in the State Department? As an inpatient at the Menninger Foundation for Psychiatric Treatment, into which Reg had been committed following an “acute psychotic episode” sparked by that “certain young lady” – “Miss Noall.”

Dr. Bowen was very impressed with the progress Reg had made since AV flew to Topeka and pulled strings to get the boy released into his care. After all, he wrote, Reg “is a very sick fellow,” with a “very chronic illness.” Reg was, in fact, psychotic. But after a month with AV, wrote Bowen, Reg was a “good” psychotic. His insanity was unchanged, his aggression still present, his delusional thinking with regard to Miss Noall of Seattle still strong. “It was with some reluctance,” wrote Dr. Bowen, “that we gave approval for his plan” to go see her in Seattle, where Reg believes that his new religiosity as a soldier in what AV had described as “World War III” — American Christianity vs. the world — would win her hand in marriage so that he could take her back to Washington. But with AV’s blessing, Dr. Bowen ws confident all will go well. And, of course, Bowen added “he can always be re-hospitalized if this does not work out.” So, too, one supposes, could Miss Noall.

AV’s interest in this letter, as indicated by his margin notes, came in response to the final paragraph. Dr. Bowen conceded that Parsons, Sr.’s admonitions to him to “give enough importance to religion” have proved prophetic. In fact, Dr. Bowen now believed his whole staff should meet AV – as he was sure they would, given the liklihood that Reg will wind up back their sooner or later. Bowen’s ultimate pessimism didn’t perturb AV. Rather, he was intrigued by the opportunity to make inroads into psychiatry. With a wavy line, he blocked off that promising last paragraph, and notes, “What an opportunity!”

Reg Parsons did not go on to a distinguished career in government. But another case in which AV took an active hand had greater reverberations. This one began with a letter to AV from Edmund J. Lee, of Shepherdstown, West Virginia — purportedly a descendent of Robert E. Lee — dated August 8, 1954. Lee’s son, Duncan Lee, he wrote, had been unjustly accused of treason by a former communist named Elizabeth Bently nine years previous. Duncan, a former top aide to General William “Wild Bill” Donovan, founder of the O.S.S. – predecessor to the C.I.A. — had fully rebutted the charges and moved on with his career, until an unknown source in the American government had informed the government of Bermuda, where Duncan and his family now lived, that Duncan was a security risk. Duncan had since been separated from his family for five months and deprived of his passport. Would AV help?

He would. AV paid a visit to Ruth B. Shipley, head of the state department’s passport division. AV’s word was gold; Shipley, he reported, merely asked him to put his support for Duncan in writing, which AV did in a letter to Shipley dated August 19, 1954.

Case closed.

Until, that is, the end of the Cold War, when historians sifting through now declassified former Soviet files discover that one of the Soviet Union’s highest ranking spies in the U.S was none other than Duncan Lee.

AV’s interventions on behalf of Parson and Lee reveal his practical influence in Washington and his inclination to wield it on behalf of wealthy men. But these two rehabilitations – a psychotic and a traitor, both cleared for work in U.S. government – reveal also naivete at the heart of the Family…

[FILE: AV interventions]

Jeff Sharlet is a founding editor of Killing the Buddha, coauthor with Peter Manseau of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible (2004) and co-editor of Believer, Beware (2009). Sharlet is also the author of Sweet Heaven When I Die, (2011), C Street, (2010), and the New York Times bestseller The Family (2008).