Every morning, Tim Twinam fires up the computers in the corner of his log cabin in Williston and searches for lost souls.
From a desktop in his Vermont country home, the bushy-haired Englishman scans his website for messages from religious captives — members of a reclusive and vindictive sect who are desperate to escape, and ex-members scarred from their experiences inside.
Most days, he’s simply moderating discussion boards where those who have left the religion swap stories and post messages looking for estranged family members they haven’t seen in years.
Every so often, though, someone pushes the site’s “emergency button.” When that happens, a message is beamed to Twinam’s cellphone and a sort of rescue operation goes into action. Within minutes, he can contact a network of 131 so-called “helpers” positioned in 11 countries who are prepared to offer shelter, money and legal assistance to any escapee.
For four years, Twinam has dared to expose the secrets of the Exclusive Brethren, a fundamentalist Christian sect with some 43,000 worldwide followers, on his website Peebs.net. Raised among the Brethren in 1960s England, Twinam today runs what has become an online sanctuary for traumatized ex-Brethren and a portal through which those trapped inside can get out.
Now, that sanctuary is imperiled by a lawsuit the Exclusive Brethren have brought against Twinam and his wife, Sallie — an action that could shut down Peebs.net and cut off a lifeline to distressed followers, Twinam says. The Brethren are suing the Twinams for copyright infringement in Vermont federal court, claiming that Peebs.net illegally obtained Brethren-owned sermons and letters with the intent of publishing them online.
The Twinams maintain they don’t have the documents. They are defending themselves using a relatively new Vermont law — an anti-SLAPP(“strategic lawsuit against public participation”) statute — that is meant to protect citizens from frivolous lawsuits whose sole purpose is to silence critics by drawing them into costly court battles.
Two attempts to settle the case have so far failed to produce a resolution. With a third settlement conference set for late November, the eyes of Brethren around the world are watching Vermont to see how the fate of the Twinams will influence their own lives.
The Exclusive Brethren practice the “doctrine of separation” to shield themselves from what they see as the “evils” of modern society. Brethren aren’t allowed to live, eat or socialize with nonbelievers, and university education is strictly forbidden.
The Internet is regarded as a “pipeline of filth,” and TV, radio and cellphones are viewed as instruments of the devil. Until very recently, the Brethren strictly banned followers from using any of these.
Brethren women are expected to wear their skirts and hair long and raise the children. When they do work, it’s mostly in secretarial positions at Brethren-owned companies. Men, who wear blue pants and open-collared shirts, work in light industry and other professions that minimize contact with the outside world.
“You ever see the film The Village?” asks Twinam. “It’s a very similar structure to that. You’re inside. If you go outside, it’s dangerous. There will be dragons.”
When someone leaves the Exclusive Brethren, either voluntarily or through excommunication, they are cut off from family and friends who remain inside, a process known as being “withdrawn from.” Ex-members are even prevented from learning about the birth, death or marriage of a loved one who remains in the community.
Twinam’s family was withdrawn from in 1970, when he was 15, and he’s spent his adult years battling the demons that linger from what he says was a strange and restrictive upbringing. A software developer by profession, he created Peebs.net to connect lost Brethren, educate the public about the sect and offer assistance to anyone in need of urgent help.
For three years, Twinam operated Peebs.net anonymously from his home. But the Brethren believed he was behind the site after somehow tracing an IP address associated with Peebs.net to Vermont, where they knew Twinam resided. The sect pursued him in Canadian court, bringing an unsuccessful legal action meant to out Twinam as the webmaster.
In 2007, the Exclusive Brethren finally caught up with him. Their publishing arm, Bible and Gospel Trust (BGT), sued Tim and Sallie Twinam in Vermont for copyright infringement. The Brethren have hired a powerful international law firm with offices in Washington, D.C., and are seeking monetary damages that the Twinams say could wipe them out.
Brethren lawyers claim their sole interest is in protecting copyrighted property and collecting whatever monetary damages the court deems fair — not snuffing out a network of defectors. The Twinams view the Brethren’s suit as a baseless attempt to silence a critic, disguised as a legitimate legal claim.
“We don’t wish the death of the Exclusive Brethren,” Tim Twinam says. “We’re not after that. We’re after the ability of families to talk.”
Tim and Sallie Twinam live in a log cabin surrounded by woods at the end of a long gravel driveway in Williston. A Union Jack flies on the flagpole in the yard, where Tim Twinam says he’s seen bobcats and other wildlife. Up the road are pastures dotted with hay bales and wooden barns sagging with age.
This pastoral place seems an unlikely spot from which to instigate a religious revolution. Sipping a martini on his screened-in porch on a drizzly autumn night, Twinam recalls his upbringing among the Exclusive Brethren and the events that put him in their crosshairs.
Twinam was 8 years old when he first tasted the bitterness of growing up Brethren. The sect’s world leader issued an edict that banned owning pets, and Twinam’s cat, Tippy — a skinny black feline with white socks — was immediately put to sleep.
The doctrine of separation isolated Twinam from his public-school classmates, not one of whom was Brethren.
“That was rough, because I wasn’t allowed to eat with them,” he says. “I wasn’t allowed to stay in class for sexual education. If a TV came out, I had to leave. I would eat with my grandparents — walk a mile to have lunch — and return to school.”
Radio and television were banned, so Twinam grew up one of the few English teenagers of the ’60s not swept up in Beatlemania. He broke the rules, though, secretly reading the music newspaper Melody Maker and learning everything he could about what became his favorite band, The Moody Blues, without ever hearing their music.
Excommunication was rampant in those days, Twinam remembers, and even the slightest hint of disloyalty was met with harsh punishment. Twinam’s family was caught in the fervor and withdrawn from when his father, Laurence, spoke too bluntly at a Brethren assembly meeting.
“Dad got up to give a word — that’s what they called it — a scripture reading,” says Twinam, who was 15 at the time. “He spoke about Peter walking on the water and what happened when he took his eyes away from Jesus and he sank. And he said, Brethren, who are we looking at?”
Laurence Twinam’s implication was not lost on the crowd: Worship earthly Brethren leaders instead of the Lord and you, too, will sink. The Twinams were shunned and ultimately excommunicated.
Tim Twinam pursued a career in computer programming and software development and quickly proved a natural. He met Sallie in 1995 as an Internet pen pal, and the two married the following year. They moved to Sallie’s native Vermont, bought a house, and rode the tech bubble to riches before it burst in 2000.
Twinam says he never thought much about his upbringing until, in 1998, he discovered a website, ExclusiveBrethren.net, devoted to reconnecting former followers. The stories Twinam read there — of broken families, shattered lives and people driven to despair — dredged up long-buried memories.
“Suddenly, I discovered why I am who I am,” Twinam says. “I’ve been diagnosed with [attention deficit disorder] stemming from post-traumatic stress. I started to understand about my life, why I’d been a little bit different.”
The website connected long-lost friends and relatives for seven years before, in 2004, it was shut down and hundreds of ex-Brethren who had met there were once again torn apart. The Exclusive Brethren brought a defamation lawsuit against the site’s owner, Dick Wyman, in Minnesota federal court. Wyman agreed to shut down the site and transfer ownership to the Brethren in exchange for $10,000 and a promise by sect leaders to help Wyman reconnect with his estranged mother.
Twinam had no intention of picking up where Wyman left off until he learned that California had just passed a law permitting anonymous registration of web domains.
So Twinam registered Peebs.net in Los Angeles and launched the site in 2004. (“Peeb” refers to Plymouth Brethren, or P.B., and is the nickname Exclusive Brethren give themselves.) He set up a public guestbook and members-only forums where former Brethren, vetted for authenticity, could connect.
Ex-Brethren flocked to the new website, filling it with heartbreaking confessionals, such as this one by Craig Hoyle of New Zealand:
I’m 20, and I was thrown out of the [Exclusive Brethren] at the beginning of May for being gay. My parents abruptly threw me out of their house a few days ago. I turned up on their doorstep to request items that had been left behind, and was refused access. My parents argued about whether I was allowed to say goodbye to my 9-year-old sister, and eventually my father grudgingly conceded. However, when I asked if I could hug her one last time, he refused point-blank and held her arms behind her back so that she couldn’t move — she was sobbing her heart out. Unspeakably cruel.
“This is the primary reason we do what we do — the personal stories,” says Sallie Twinam. “If you buck the system or choose to leave, you lose your family, your home, your business. If you’re a child, your parents will hold your bank account hostage. It’s the same story over and over again.”
The Twinams share the work of moderating Peebs.net, logging dozens of hours a week at the keyboard and on the phone when they’re not at their regular jobs. (Tim Twinam works days at Union Street Media, a Burlington web-design firm; Sallie Twinam is a Red Cross supervisor.)
Peebs.net also hosts “Memorial Pages” dedicated to Exclusive Brethren who were driven to suicide. One of the more shocking cases is that of David Beech, a closet smoker (which is forbidden) who was caught by his wife and reported to Brethren leaders. Beech was excommunicated — cut off from his wife and children — and descended into depression. Late one night in December 1983, Beech drove to the railroad line behind his home, laid his head on the tracks and waited for the train to come.
“He haunts me,” Sallie Twinam says of Beech, her voice lowering to a whisper. “He says to me: Sal, when you’re discouraged, when you feel like giving up, please remember me. Please remember what you’re doing is so important.”
Unlike the Church of Latter Day Saints, Scientology and other religions that make it hard for members to leave, the Exclusive Brethren remain virtually unknown to many in the United States.
The sect has established assemblies in Boston, Montréal, New York, Texas and North Dakota, though precisely how many members live in the U.S. is unclear. Twinam says he’s not aware of any Brethren in Vermont.
The movement was founded in 1827 by John Nelson Darby, an Anglican minister from Ireland who separated from the established church because he saw it as too enamored of worldly things. He founded a chapel in Plymouth, England, and drew followers who became known as Plymouth Brethren.
The Brethren’s history is marked by a series of bitter splits, power struggles and rigid sets of rules governing all aspects of work and family life. One of the first splits occurred in 1848 when followers divided into the Open Brethren, in which individual assemblies are autonomous, and Exclusive Brethren, in which assemblies answer to a strong, centralized leadership.
Michael Bachelard, an investigative reporter for the Australian newspaper The Age, wrote an eye-popping account of the sect’s strange and secretive practices in a 2008 book titled Behind the Exclusive Brethren.
Bachelard writes that, through “unfocused eyes,” the Brethren could look like the ideal human society. They possess a strong family ethic, guarantee cradle-to-grave welfare, run low-fee private schools, boast an unemployment rate of almost zero, and offer large sums of seed capital to fund entrepreneurial Brethren.
Even Tim Twinam admits that Brethren membership has its privileges. “You can travel anywhere in the world and find a Brethren family to welcome you in,” he says.
But in the end, Bachelard portrays Brethren leaders as paranoid and vindictive individuals who rail against the “filth” of the modern world while using its systems of commerce and government to earn billions for Brethren-run companies.
The Brethren no longer recruit new members from the outside world, but rather encourage families to have lots of children. So it’s easy to see why Peebs.net — which openly encourages disillusioned Brethren to leave the sect — would present a threat.
In a phone interview from Melbourne, Bachelard says he fully suspects Brethren leaders read Peebs.net and says the impact of the site cannot be overstated.
“He’s using a tool that is incredibly powerful,” Bachelard says. “I’ve heard many times the story that people come out and are separated from family and feel completely alone in the world, until they come across this website and feel community again.”
The Brethren have recently shown some signs of loosening their rules, allowing members to own cellphones and use email (but no web surfing) and digital cameras. But Bachelard says the most important, and most punishing, rules have not budged.
“The relaxing of restrictions is a positive step,” Bachelard says. “But to me the restriction on contact with your family is the most damaging.”
That rule shows no signs of relaxing.
The Twinams’ legal defense will test one of Vermont’s newest legal protections for citizens, the anti-SLAPP statute.
SLAPP is designed to intimidate and silence critics by saddling them with a costly legal defense. The goal of the lawsuit isn’t to win but to squeeze defendants financially until they abandon their criticism.
The Twinams say the Brethren’s lawsuit is a classic SLAPP case, and they have invoked Vermont’s 3-year-old anti-SLAPP statute in their defense.
Theirs is the first anti-SLAPP case to come before a Vermont court. If successful, it will be the first time anyone in the Second Circuit (covering federal courts in all of New York and New England) has won a case based on the law, which exists in various versions in 26 states.
“What they are really after is to try to shut Tim and Sallie up,” says the couple’s lawyer, Ron Shems of Burlington. “I see this as Shut down the site or we will bleed you dry.”
The Brethren’s lawsuit claims Peebs.net downloaded two copyrighted texts from ex-member Dick Wyman’s old site, ExclusiveBrethren.net, and in doing so violated the terms of Wyman’s settlement, an illegal act known as “tortious interference.”
The texts in question are an address from Exclusive Bretheren Bruce D. Hales, and a letter from a follower whose wife was caught in bed with a previous world leader, a scandal that caused the biggest split in the Exclusive Brethren’s history.
Twinam claims he never downloaded that material and never knowingly interfered with the Wyman settlement. After Dick Wyman’s site was shut down, Twinam says, he discovered much of its contents were available at the Web Archive Project, a public site that searches for and copies material of interest from the Internet.
Twinam admits to copying the Wyman site’s guestbook and reposting it on Peebs.net, but says he completely rewrote its source code so as to render it a new web page. Besides, Twinam argues, the writings of ex-Brethren posted on the guestbook legally belong to those who wrote them, not the Brethren.
The Brethren don’t believe Twinam’s story. Lawyers note that he made numerous posts on Peebs.net saying he had the entire Wyman website and would make it available.
“We have ALL the material from the Wyman era and will be re-publishing it soon,” reads one such post. “You can’t keep Truth undercover too long. And it has a habit of resurfacing!”
The Brethren argue those posts amount to a confession, though Twinam says he was simply goading sect leaders with misleading statements. Meanwhile, the Brethren are using Twinam’s initial attempts to evade the lawsuit to attack his credibility, hoping a jury will dismiss any testimony he might give as not believable.
When the Brethren first sued Twinam, he denied being the owner of Peebs.net. Twinam told the judge he provided technical assistance to the site when called on but did not own the domain.
Twinam stuck to that story for a whole year while he fended off the lawsuit without the assistance of lawyers and ignored court-ordered discovery deadlines. When the judge finally compelled Twinam to answer the Brethren’s discovery questions, he was forced to come clean and admit he was, in fact, the site’s owner.
The Brethren pounced, and are now using Twinam’s fib as a lynchpin of their case. Because they cannot prove that Twinam in fact downloaded their texts (which never appeared on his site), painting him as a liar may be their best chance for victory.
Twinam now admits that, after he was served with the lawsuit, he switched the domain registration for Peebs.net to his wife’s name so he could honestly say he didn’t own it when questioned under oath. That’s why Sallie Twinam is being sued as well.
“He even considered putting the domain name in his cat’s name,” Brethren lawyers write in court papers. “Twinam used all of these lies and ‘ruses’ in an effort to get rid of BGT’s lawsuit.”
“He’s been completely lying to the court and to us,” says attorney Matthew Kirtland, a partner at the international firm Fulbright & Jaworski, which represents the Brethren. “Lying in a court proceeding is very serious, as lying generally is very serious morally. The judicial system does not work when people lie.”
Kirtland insists the Brethren aren’t trying to shut down Peebs.net, but won’t discuss what monetary damages the sect wants or how it has been financially harmed by the alleged copyright infringement.
He refers to his court filings, which say the Brethren’s claims have “nothing to do with chilling or curtailing any legitimate, protected speech of the Twinams.” Asked about the Brethren’s motives, the only thing Kirtland will add is, “[Bible and Gospel Trust’s] position is that it does not care what Tim Twinam does except to the extent that he violates his legal obligations, and that is why we have this current litigation.”
Twinam’s misrepresentations of his relationship to Peebs.net could prove a fatal weakness in his case, but his lawyer isn’t worried.
“I don’t think it hurts him,” Ron Shems says. “Unfortunately, it’s typical of a SLAPP suit, where you have someone who really can’t afford a lawyer who tries to do what they think a lawyer does. When you’re trying to do professional work you’re not trained for, you can’t be blamed for that.”
On the surface, Tim and Sallie Twinam don’t appear all that worried about the lawsuit, either. Tim cheerily calls the Brethren’s action “flimsy as a piece of paper,” based on copyright infringement that couldn’t possibly have happened because “nothing was ever published.”
But deeper down, the cracks start to show. The Twinams know what’s at stake. Not so much for themselves, they say — they’re content with life in their cabin by the woods, and years of psychotherapy have slain most of the demons of Tim’s childhood. But, the couple say, they’re concerned about the thousands of ex-Brethren searching for answers and lost loved ones every day on Peebs.net.
The Twinams know how devastating it would be to lose that repository of names, contacts and personal histories. What gives them hope is their belief that the floodgates are already open. The secret is out, and they believe any attempt to control the message in the Internet age is doomed to fail. Brethren are finding each other online, if not from home computers, then during furtive forays to Internet cafés.
“You can’t stop it,” Tim Twinam says. “It’s an avalanche, and my job is to ensure it keeps rolling down the mountainside.”