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Kristen Skedgell, a graduate of Yale Divinity School and Columbia University School of Social Work, is the author of “Losing the Way: A Memoir of Spiritual Longing, Manipulation, Abuse and Escape.”

I was once an extremist. Now I am not. I was a member of a fundamentalist Bible organization that was homophobic and misogynistic, denied the Holocaust and used psychological terror and manipulation to control its followers. The leader believed in eugenics. Now I am a retired grandmother living on a farm. How did this happen?

President Joe Biden wants to unite the country by encouraging us to stand in one another’s shoes. But standing in the shoes, more likely boots, of one whose views we consider abhorrent and immoral is no easy matter. The first step, if you’ll forgive the pun, is to acknowledge our views are equally abhorrent and immoral to them.

During my 15 years in the group, the only “outsider” who made a consistent effort to keep in touch with me was my mother. She wrote letter after letter though I rarely answered. She had been, after all, offended by the leader from the moment she heard him speak. “Sounds like the Third Reich to me,” she said. I didn’t understand what she meant. I was only 14.

Being the liberal-minded intellectual that she was, my mother, a secular Jew, never attempted to limit my explorations. She believed the First Amendment applied to everyone, irrespective of age. She learned this lesson at 6, when her progressive father sat her at Sunday dinner and engaged her in lively conversation with his guest, the political activist and socialist, Eugene V. Debs. (My grandfather, William Castleman, owned a press that published The Unionist, the largest labor newspaper in Chicago in 1920.)

My mother assumed my innate good sense would lead me out of the fantasy land of absolutism back onto a reasonable path. But she underestimated the seductive power of certainty, especially to an adolescent. Extremists know. I knew.

Eventually, I was sent to an elite New England boarding school. It was a ruse I wasn’t going to fall for. I brought the leader’s message to Phillips Exeter with both barrels blazing.

But I was still naive to the true agenda of the organization.

A prominent leader in the group visited me during the spring semester of my senior year. He revealed a plot by an elite group of multimillionaires to form a one-world government and challenge God’s natural order (which included the supremacy of white European races). Many of my classmates, he said, were children of this elite group and they must learn The Truth. He charged me to stir things up on campus.

Doubts arose. What did conspiracy theories have to do God? This was a moment when I might have let someone stand in my shoes. I was sure I was no longer in them myself and I was afraid.

But I didn’t know who or how to ask for help. So, I went ahead and attempted a stir, but the only one at all affected was the chaplain, who castigated me for being, among other things, an appalling disgrace to an intellectual community.

I can’t say as I disagree with him now, but had he been the one to step into my empty shoes, he might have spared me more than a decade of future grief — things such as paramilitary exercises, survivalist training, hostage exercises, target practice and all kinds of serious abuse at the hands of a deranged leader.

True, I might have been insufferable but over the years, I’ve fantasized another outcome.

In my dream, I see a nonjudgmental man, sitting down next to me, curious about me and my experience in the group. He doesn’t criticize or argue about my beliefs. He’s just interested in me. He listens.

And in my dream, the man wonders what I wished for as a child and what I hope for in the future. He asks about my dearest memory and darkest fear. And I tell him because there’s some kind of goodness and sincerity in him. Empathy, maybe.

Whatever it is, it brings me back to myself. To my damaged, vulnerable, heartbroken human self. And he tells me not to be afraid because there’s a whole country full of people like me and we’re all just trying to work it out together. United.

I wish that’s how it happened for me. Once I was stripped of the last remnants of my integrity, identity and independence, death seemed like the only alternative. But I had a toddler and a newborn to think of. And a mother waiting for us, willing to do anything, which included getting me professional help.

I didn’t start out as an extremist. It happened little by little, the way a frog boils to death as you slowly turn up the heat on a pot. It never feels the temperature rise until it’s too late. Healing takes time too. But it’s possible if we reach out and there’s somebody’s outstretched hand to grab.