A Journey to Waco: Autobiography of a Branch Davidian, by Clive Doyle, with Catherine Wessinger and Matthew Wittmer

Seven stars

As I have said before, (auto)biographies of those involved in offshoot religious movements are perhaps some of the most baffling, yet interesting pieces that I have come across during this two-month project. To see those within the movement and how they think, as well as how the cohesiveness of the group is kept by a single leader, proves educational as well as somewhat entertaining. I have read a number of these during these forty-two days, though this is the first that speaks from within and does not dispute the group’s ways. Clive Doyle lived through the 1993 raid by agents of the US Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) and FBI on the Mount Carmel community (the Branch Davidians), best known for its location in Waco, Texas. Doyle offers the reader a brief, yet thorough, explanation of his life up to publication and the core values of the Branch Davidians, before exploring those fifty-one fateful days in 1993 that led to many casualties and numerous questions from both sides. Told honestly and succinctly, Doyle provides the curious reader with the other side of the argument, not widely publicised at that time or since. A must-read for those who want to better understand the inner workings of the group and its leader, David Koresh.

Doyle opens the book laying the groundwork that he will be speaking as a current member of the Branch Davidians, still holding firm to their beliefs and that 1993 was an indelible mark for which no clear answers have yet been provided. Thereafter, he begins the chronological story of how he arrived at that fateful day, April 19, 1993. Doyle tells of his youth growing up in Australia, where his family worshiped as Seventh Day Adventists. Seemingly evangelical in nature (Doyle expects that the reader understands this denomination), Doyle found himself spreading the Word to the far-reaches of the country when he was not attending the Adventist school. After a schism with the Adventist Church in 1955, Victor Houteff created the Davidians, a group that soon arrived in the area and convinced Doyle to join them. Brining his mother along after studying Houteff’s The Shepherd’s Rod, Doyle tried to convince other Adventists to join. Understandably, the Adventist community saw Davidians as a scourge and kept them from services, though Doyle recounts of how he was able to work around those restrictions. As Doyle grew and tried to spread the Word, he was enticed to head to California, where the core of the Davidians found themselves. Working and helping to spread the Davidian message, Doyle found himself involved in a splinter group, headed by Ben Roden; the Branch Davidians. Roden’s death led his wife, Lois, to become the new prophet and lead the group through the early part of the 1980s. Land long-ago purchased by the Rodens on the outskirts of Waco, Texas became one of the group’s bases, named Mount Carmel. Doyle speaks of the struggles within the Church, where he met his wife, Debbie, and they had two children. There were those who were not as committed to the cause and who left of their own free will. (It is worth noting that this is the sole group about which I have read where voluntary departure was not questioned, discouraged, or impeded!) Doyle recounts the horrendous struggle he had to secure his daughters, Karen and Shari, from his wife who refused to stay with the Church. With Doyle a strong member and dedicated to service, he moved around wherever he was needed to further the cause and make money for the group. Vernon Howell arrived on the scene by 1981 and proved a pillar of the Branch Davidians, soon changing his name to David Koresh. The ability to shepherd others was not lost on Doyle, who saw much promise in this man, someone who would eventually take over leadership of the Branch Davidians after a confrontation with the Rodens’ son, George. Mount Carmel became the central home of Branch Davidians, who engaged in long and thorough explorations of the Bible under Koresh’s guidance, until February 28, 1993.

Doyle takes an entire chapter to explore some of the theological beliefs of the Branch Davidians, perhaps to dispel some of the falsehoods espoused by media and those who had little interest in understanding. As best as I can ascertain, the crux relates to the Book of Revelations and the opening of the Seven Seals. While Koresh would have his followers understand the entire Bible, it was essential that everyone comprehend that Koresh saw himself as the Second Coming of the Lord, in human form, set to open the Seven Seals and prepare for the End Times. He openly admitted that there would be hardship and that evils surrounded them, pitting the United States and the United Nations as two of the great evils that had to be conquered. Interpretation of chapter and verse surely fuels any religious group, though Koresh seemed to be able to pull each comma from Revelations and apply it to current times. Doyle’s strong belief in Koresh and the message presented makes it harder for the reader to ascertain the full effect of what was being said, as there were no published tracts or recorded sermons quoted here. By the time ATF agents arrived on February 28th, 1993, the battle lines were drawn and Koresh had the ‘living version’ of his Gospel taking place, as the government agents surrounded Mount Carmel and prepared to act, apparently related to a number of gun possession queries, but were rebuffed by the Branch Davidians.

Doyle uses another single chapter to inform the reader about the fifty-one day standoff between ATF/FBI agents and the members of the Branch Davidians, though the narrative quickly turns generic and without a strong description of the day to day events. Doyle lists many of those who found themselves inside Mount Carmel, listing their nationalities and how they found themselves in Texas, as well as some loose memories of events during the stand-off. Koresh, who had been shot on Day 1, remained somewhat isolated and quiet, though he did call for Bible studies on a regular basis. By the time April 19th arrived, gas flew into the building and fires started, leading to the death of many members of the Branch Davidians. Only nine survived, Doyle being one, though is daughter (Shari) perished in the flames. Arrested and detained, Doyle was forced to sit through a trial for the deaths of government agents and guns found on the premises, before being exonerated. To this day, Doyle remains a follower of the Branch Davidians and remembers those who lived alongside him, as well as the strong religious beliefs they shared.

When I sought out a biography of David Koresh or a better understanding of the Branch Davidian Compound and events in Waco from 1993, I was not sure what I would find. After discovering Doyle’s piece, I expected it to be from the perspective of all other pieces I had read about religious splinter groups and their followers; trying to explain how they got pulled in and were eventually able to get out. Instead, Doyle presents a cogent piece on the Branch Davidians and why he felt they were in the right, while vilifying the decisions to raid Mount Carmel and the havoc caused during the stand-off before the fires that are etched onto my mind. Doyle’s opening chapters serve as a wonderful autobiography, explaining his beliefs and rationale. By the time things get to the Koresh theology and the fifty-one days, a generic sentiment seeps into the story and the reader loses the strength of the argument. Surely trauma and age-related mental acuity could have something to do with it, but there lacked a sense of struggle and thorough exploration of those events that led to the fires and the gassing. Perhaps because the author relies on his own accounts and not those pulled from other friends or documents, there lacks a degree of dramatic flair, though I got the gist. Koresh’s control and godliness was diluted in the narrative and I am left thinking of him only as a man with a belief in the End Times (contrasted greatly with the power of Jesus or even Jim Jones to sway their followers). I will openly admit that the book read in a very academic manner, full of footnotes and citations (which took away from the flow of a personal story) and the writing proved somewhat dense at times, though the message was not lost amongst all the information on offer. Doyle promised a personal perspective and for that we can be pleased. However, I would not call this the earth shattering piece that offers the detailed account of the other side, able to sway vast segments of the population.  

Kudos, Mr. Doyle for all you have done in this piece. I can see a little better through the fog of Branch Davidian struggles and the horrors that befell you in 1993. I trust you have found solace in the loss of your daughter and know that those who remain are there to support you. Thank you for this book!