The building where the cult was housed became a second (and much nicer) home for Lisa. She told me that “the inside of the building was much nicer than my home or school. I was told that the founders had their own, cult-related feng shui which was why the building was so embracing and comfortable. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of the design and decor.
“When you walked into the entrance you immediately felt embraced. The walls were padded with some kind of sound-absorbing coating, like in a sound studio, but it looked like expensive leather. The lighting was low and glowing. Everyone, including the aging musicians and movie stars looked pretty good in that light.
“The novice classrooms were for the most part also gorgeous. The seating was designed not to be too comfortable, though. They looked like private movie theaters. The lecture hall [was] the same.
“But, as you went up the classrooms shifted to cubicles where you met one on one with a [mentor/interviewer]. They were well trained to keep you unbalanced and slightly confused. I know because I was trained to be one, eventually.”
Lisa went on to tell me that the penthouse where the leaders hung out had a gorgeous entrance way and one or two lush offices with great views, but the rest of the operation was really seedy looking. There were particle-board cubicles where the call-center was housed and the administrative staff that didn’t belong to the leaders’ were bare-bones. Money was spent only where people needed to be impressed or seduced into letting their guard down.
And once Lisa was hooked, Shire turned his sights on more interesting people.
“By that time it didn’t matter. I was very involved with the busy-work of the cult. Though classes were taught to give you “freedom,” “spiritual power,” and “spiritual wisdom,” after awhile I figured it all out. These classes were really about fundraising for the cult or learning how to bring in new members or both. I guess you could compare it to a posh pyramid scheme. And if at some point you had no more money left to give or you outlived your usefulness, well it didn’t really matter. By then you had brought probably a minimum of five people to [the cult].
“If they wanted to keep you around and you had no power or prestige outside the cult, in your career or community, they would give you low level jobs which either paid nothing or barely covered your room and board. I think because I was right from the beginning willing to spend all my free time at the cult (as a lot of teens were, I think), I was very useful.
“After I graduated from high school, I defied my parents by going to a community college and took out a federal loan for tuition. The cult was all for it! They actively sought members with degrees and even encouraged me to plan on grad school after college. My roommate was a friend from the cult. We shared a cheap apartment owned by the cult. I think we paid about a quarter of what the going rate was. Of course, I was able to pay my rent and everything because I worked weekends and some evenings at the cult.
“As I matured I lost some of my shyness and feelings of inferiority. I can say I was depressed and traumatized but I developed some [poise] and even some self-esteem. I felt like I was uncovering layer after layer of who I was. I kept thinking “Aha! This time I’ve found my real self! This particular thing is what I want my life to be devoted to. When you told me originally about using the Russian (matroyshka) dolls for the photos it felt a lot like my experience overall. After every new shift in my status at the cult, a new “me” emerged. But each one was as hollow as the next.
“I guess that is one way to tell the difference between an authentic religion or spiritual path and a cult. At least for me. If you don’t build on your former self but toss it completely away, if you feel so empty and unable to incorporate your faith and belief with a positive self-image, then maybe you are in a cult.
“Soon I was working as one of the leaders’ private hostesses. My job entailed working in the penthouse offices, greeting the celebs and big donors, attending private meetings and parties and making sure guests were comfortable, and stuff like that.
“I also helped one of the leaders’ relatives produce ads for the media. I guess you could say I was a low-level production assistant. I didn’t get paid for this job. I was told it was a privilege. This person was pretty verbally abusive, bossy, unpleasant to be around. However, their personality was totally different when in front of celebs and big donors.
“By now I was one of them. At least I thought I was. But the second I began to ask serious questions, my world was turned upside down.”
Lisa shares more of her experiences in an upcoming post.
Previous Posts on Lisa’s Cult Story: