C.R. writes: Lisa’s long journey from cult-member to authentic, autonomous self wasn’t easy. She explains that leaving the cult (she knew she had no other choice for the survival of her psyche), felt like a painful divorce.
“There was tons of real stuff I had to deal with. The cult wasn’t only my social and spiritual life, but my job and home too. My roommates were cult members so I was for all intents and purposes, homeless. But in order to get to this point where I was ready to make the external changes I needed to do, I had to accept that [the leader’s] behavior towards me was abusive. That took a while.
“During one special event a celebrity member, one of our most visible ones, who gave tons of money to the cult and promoted it wherever she went, was visiting the headquarters with her kids and her nanny. She had visited many times before.
“For some reason this time I watched the way she treated the nanny, ordering her around, giving her tight, quick smiles when she thought people were looking and glaring at her when she thought no one could see. It really bothered me. She was so entitled and arrogant and abusive. She treated the nanny like a slave or robot, not a person. I don’t know why it really got to me that day since I had actually seen her do this before.
“That evening when I was walking home, something went off in my head. I realized that [the leader] treated me the same as [the celebrity] treated her nanny. I actually remember asking myself a question out loud, something like: Am I a robot? My answer was: I feel like a robot who has no feelings. What I mean is, I felt like I was being treated like a robot and expected to have no feelings.
(Lisa and I share an e-mailed chuckle—how does one “feel” like a robot?)
“When I got home I mentioned this to one of my roommates, the whole nanny-robot thing. She looked pretty uncomfortable and the said that perhaps it was my spiritual fate to serve [the leader] to make up for bad stuff I did in another incarnation. I had been taught to believe that the leaders were all very evolved and knew what was best for each recruit but this time the whole thing sounded really false, really untrue. It was fake and phony and manipulative and I recognized this. It was like the old light-bulb going on in my head.”
Next, Lisa touched base with a study partner from college who wasn’t in the cult and in fact, didn’t know Lisa was in it. Lisa asked her if she could get together with her and talk. They ended up meeting for dinner a few days later and talked until early morning.
Lisa told her life story beginning with much of her childhood. Except for Shire, Lisa had never really told anyone of the abuse that went on in her family. She also told her all about the cult. Her friend listened and then recommended that she see a therapist. She even helped Lisa find one who had experience with working with ex-cult members.
“Perhaps one of the most interesting things I learned about my particular vulnerability to joining a cult was that emotionally, I was no different than the big celeb with her millions of dollars and tons of babysitters and husbands and ex-husbands. We looked different on the outside, but inside, we sought love and approval from outside.”
Of course, not everyone responds to emotional neediness or the need for validation from others by joining a cult! But many cults are in the unique position of supplying answers to people who are actually searching for self.
Cult members might believe that what draws them to a cult is the sense of seeking (and finding) the “truth.” They are willing to overlook that the truth involves taking all the money, massaging their egos (or controlling them through abuse), and other not-so-appetizing tactics. Lisa agrees.
“For example, [the cult] broke up tons of marriages. The leaders and other members said that the marriage partners weren’t at the “level” of the cult member and weren’t their true soulmate. The real reason was that the spouse didn’t want their life savings going to the cult.
“Also, it had a hierarchy, not only of leader and member, but different levels of members. So, if you were a narcissist, the cult wooed you with food for narcissism, praise, special treatment, all that kind of thing. And if you were like me, with a poor self image and depressed, then it wooed you with the mixture of love and humiliation you were used to.”
The tactics are incredibly effective and range from the most sophisticated to the seemingly ridiculous, but when you’re caught up in it, you are willing to suspend disbelief. From a personal perspective (not a professional one) I tried to think of times where I was willing to suspend disbelief and afterwards, found out that I had been misled or manipulated. There definitely have been a few times, and I imagine it’s the same for most people. Perhaps not to the extent of cult involvement. I think if you have ever been the victim of a scam or have been “ripped-off,” that might feel somewhat in the short-term what a cult is like in the long term.
Next, Lisa describes therapy and her struggle with depression and PTSD.