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48 Hours: Watching a friend succumb to abuse

Fall from Grace

Editor's Note: 27-year-old Bethany Deaton died mysteriously in Kansas City, Mo. on Oct. 30, 2012, after becoming involved in a religious group some have called a cult. Her death was initially ruled a suicide, but police have alleged it may have been a murder. The cause of death was later changed to undetermined.

Deaton's husband and the group's leader, Tyler Deaton, denied allegations that his group was a cult and also denied that he had anything to do with his wife's death.

Bethany's friend Teryn O'Brien, who was featured on Saturday's "48 Hours" investigation into the death, reflects on her friend and what she calls the abusive environment within "The Community."

Her opinions do not necessarily reflect those of "48 Hours" or CBS News.

Bethany and I met in high school. We bonded over our love of literature, writing, and our desire to live unconventional, adventurous lives. We were poets at heart. We danced in fairy rings, shared good stories, and exulted in the beauty of life. Beth truly radiated a generous, feisty light from within, and you can see it in old pictures.

Investigating the death of Bethany Deaton

In college, Beth fell deeply in love with a prayer group leader and helped start his spiritual community in Kansas City, giving up all other dreams. When I visited Beth in Kansas City in December 2011, the year before her death, I was shocked at the changes in her. Her smile had dwindled to a lingering shadow, and she seemed jumpy and insecure. The group hung out constantly together. I distinctly felt I was an outsider.

After Beth became engaged, she never called me from the home where the women in the group lived, only from work. She seemed disheartened, but couldn't give words to it. She always blamed herself entirely for her inner turmoil.

Still, at the wedding I felt sick to my stomach because I knew that something was truly wrong. My intuition was warning me, but I never put the pieces together until she died.

Bethany Deaton Carol Leidlein

The best way I can describe the signs of an abusive environment are in these terms: Beth was a flower, radiantly blooming in the sunshine. She was put in a dark room and wilted away. This is what any abusive environment will do to a person.

The things they used to love don't matter--only the significant other, cult leader, or group matters. Individuality is crushed into conformity. They often fall away from their own loving families and friends. Their smiles become hollow. They behave strangely and secretively when they were once open and free.

If you feel something is off and a friend might be involved in a similar situation--even when the abuser seems absolutely charming--trust your intuition.

Teryn O'Brien works in online marketing with various imprints of Penguin Random House. She's also a freelance writer, photographer, and social justice advocate. She's currently working on a series of novels in honor of Bethany Deaton. Follow her on Twitter at @TerynOBrien.

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