November 5th, 2019

Tree Dreaming

"My enemies are all too familiar. They're the ones who used to call me friend." - LJ Idol Week 5

I've spent a long time trying to figure out the best way to write about the time I spent in a cult.

Would it help people to hear my story? Which parts of it would help?

I feel like I should talk about it but I don't know what to say.

So I asked people. I asked my Facebook friends and the workroom what questions they had.

I don't have time in one LJ Idol entry to write about all of it. In fact, this topic has shown me that I really do have a lot to say, and should probably spend some non-idol time working on it. But Gary extended the deadline, and so I'll try one more time to do a condensed Idol version.

It won't be satisfying. It'll be very Cult 101. But it'll be an entry.

I should start by saying that a lot of the questions I got assumed my cult was religious. Most well-known cults are. You hear "cult" and you think about people lying dead in their white Nikes, or people lying dead in Jonestown, or Tom Cruise.

But my cult wasn't like that. We were more like the Manson family. Just without the murders. Probably.

They were just people. That's the insidious part, and that's what I need to write about - what I need people to understand.

Cults don't announce that they're cults. Cults can just be people. They can be one house. And they can consume you.

For a long time I didn't call it a cult. I called it a "cult-like environment." I felt because of the lack of notoriety, it didn't really count. But reading through the BITE model, aka the gold standard for determining cult status, the alarms in my head scream at full blast.

Behavior Control

-Promote dependence and obedience - check.
-Dictate where and with whom you live - half check.
-Restrict or control sexuality - triple check.
-Deprive you of seven to nine hours of sleep - holy shit, check.
-Exploit you financially - check.
-Restrict leisure time and activities - check.
-Require you to seek permission for major decisions - check.

Information Control

-Deliberately withhold and distort information - check.
-Forbid you from speaking with ex-members and critics - check.
-Divide information into Insider vs. Outsider doctrine - check, though again, "doctrine" is used loosely as there wasn't any written doctrine or propaganda - just the stuff we made up verbally as a group.
-Use information gained in confession sessions against you - check.
-Gaslight to make you doubt your own memory - oh hell to the check.
-Require you to report thoughts, feelings, & activities to superiors - Yup. Yup. Yup.
-Encourage you to spy and report on others’ “misconduct” - check.

Thought Control

-Instill Black vs. White, Us vs. Them, & Good vs. Evil thinking - check.
-Change your identity, possibly even your name - Somewhat.
-Use loaded language and cliches to stop complex thought - "It's only awkward if you make it awkward."
-Induce hypnotic or trance states to indoctrinate - Parties, parties, parties.
-Reject rational analysis, critical thinking, & doubt - check.

Emotional Control

-Instill irrational fears (phobias) of questioning or leaving the group - Check with a capital "C".
-Promote feelings of guilt, shame, & unworthiness - check.
-Shower you with praise and attention (“love bombing”) - check.
-Shun you if you disobey or disbelieve - check.
-Teach that there is no happiness or peace outside the group - essentially.

There are several aspects I didn't list here. They happened not exactly as described by the BITE model but in a clunky, more home-brewed way. While some cult leaders practice this stuff intentionally, I don't know that the people in my particular cult realized what they were doing. I think it was the only way they knew how to live. And I think if they HAD been more intentional, I might have stayed longer.

Again, I don't have time for the full story here. But I do want to at least answer a handful of the most asked questions. So here they are, along with my brief answers:

1) Why did you join*?

I got in because I felt loved. I felt seen. I felt cared for and cherished. I felt special. Unique. WE had it all figured out. WE knew how to live life the right way. We felt sorry for saps out there who felt like they had to go through the motions of cultural expectations.

I felt part of something important. I felt like I had a chosen family that had my back and would carry me through anything I came up against in life.

This, I have learned, is called "love bombing". It doesn't last. But it's such as strong feeling that you spend the rest of your time with your cult trying to get it back.

And it's because of the strength of those feelings that I'm now extremely wary of anyone who tries to make me feel special when they don't know me that well. Who are you? What do you want from me?

2) Why did you leave?

I left because I started to see the cracks. I looked at one particular fellow member. When I'd first joined, he was so full of life, vibrant, beautiful, a person everybody radiated toward. I remember looking at him one day toward the end** and having this stark recognition of how different he was now, how broken. And I realized in that moment if I stayed, that would be me. Maybe it already was.

It still took me several months after that realization to fully get out. Leaving was brutal. They were unforgiving.

3) When did you realize it was a cult?

I never considered it a cult while I was in. As I mentioned earlier, it's only recently I've started to let myself call it a cult. I don't think anyone wants to admit they're the sort of person who could get sucked into a cult, but here's the deal: Unless you are highly, highly aware of the techniques they use, and unless you are highly, highly critical of everything going on around you while they are flooding your brain with dopamine and making you feel cherished in a way you've never felt before, it could happen to you just as easily as it happened to me.

Learn about cults. Watch out for them. And don't think you're safe from them if you steer clear of organized groups.

4) Did anyone's advice from the outside world help you get out?

The thing about being in a cult is no one can really talk you out of it. You feel like you've found this incredible group of people who understands you in a way no one else ever has before. If people had told me I needed to get out, it would have made zero difference.

However, sometimes when I talked to other people about things that happened on the inside and felt normal to me, they would give me confused looks, or say it seemed weird. Hmmm...six grown adults and three children living in a four bedroom house? Three people who directly deposit some or all of their paychecks into one guy's bank account - and that guy doesn't have a job? That's a little strange.

The first time you hear it, you laugh it off - oh, that's just how we are! You don't get it because we've figured out a way to buck the system and you're still IN the system, so you wouldn't understand.

But hearing it from enough people - people whose opinions I respected - eventually, I started to wonder if I was the misled one.

I don't know if it would work for other people. Some might dig their heels in more. But considering that there might be truth in their concerns played a big part in my getting out.

....Thank you for coming to my TED talk.

*I should mention there was no specific moment when I "joined". They didn't initiate me, there wasn't a ritual or anything official, it just sort of happened. I did move in with them eventually, but by that point I was already deep in it.

**I think I was in it for about three years.