I’ve been blogging for three years now, but there’s an entire chapter of my life I’ve never really shared. When I was in college, I became part of a small close-knit group that veered in the direction of a cult. A friend and I clued in to what was happening and were able to shut the whole thing down before it went too far, but some rather frightening things happened in the meantime.
Frankly, I haven’t talked about what happened because it seems too weird. I wasn’t sure even I had a framework for understanding what happened that winter and spring my sophomore year of college. I do know that thinking about it is hard, because what happened was hard. But now, for the first time, I feel like I’ve been given a lifeline—both validation and tools for understanding what happened to us.
That lifeline is a letter in The Atlantic titled Seven Signs You’re in a Cult. In it, the author describes being part of a group in college so uncannily similar to the one I was in that I had to stop reading the article several times. This happened. It was real. I’m okay. I read it aloud to Sean and he asked me at one point whether someone in our group might have ghost-written it. I have never in my life read something this uncannily similar to my own experiences. I thought it was just our little group, and I kicked myself for falling for it. I mean I knew that similar things happen on some level, but what I experienced seemed just too out there.
Please go read the article before you read on. It’s necessary context, in a way, for the story I am about to tell, and it gives me confidence in telling my own story.
Our leader was named Sarah. She told us that God was going to launch a spiritual revolution on our campus—and that we would be at the center of it. She claimed she had some sort of a special gift. She could sense things. Sometimes she just knew. It was like she could look right through you. Sometimes when one of us was in a moment of need, she would sense it and pray for us from the other end of campus, unawares.
My freshman year of college was fairly normal, and I fell easily into a small, tightly-knit friend group consisting of Sarah, myself, and two other girls. Each of us had been raised evangelical, though I was the only one who was homeschooled. Sarah was a pastor’s daughter and had read all sorts of theology. We quickly appointed her our spiritual leader of sorts. Freshman year, that simply meant that when we had Bible studies together, she was the de facto leader.
There was one thing out of the ordinary that year that ought to have clued me in: Sarah told me that God had revealed to her who she was going to marry. It was a guy from her high school. He was not a Christian and he had never paid Sarah much attention, but she knew for a fact that she would marry him one day. She used to cry and tell me that she hoped he didn’t make too many mistakes before being saved. Sarah’s level of confidence combined with my belief in divine revelation meant that I didn’t question this, not even for a moment. I believed her fully and completely.
Sophomore year things began to change. We moved beyond simple Bible study and worship time. Sarah began telling us things. Big things were going to happen, she said. Huge things. We believed her.
Over the course of sophomore year, we added friends to our little group. In many cases it was people we’d known tangentially, people who’d been on the outskirts of our friendship in a sense. All of them were other students who lived in our dorm. We brought each in as to a family. It was an exciting and exhilarating time. There was much about the inner workings of our group that we did not share with outsiders. Later, acquaintances on the outside later told me they had sensed that something was going on, but they had no idea what. Once we brought someone into our group, though, there were no secrets. The only question, beforehand, was whether they were ready.
Sarah told us there were demons all around us, and the talk of “spiritual warfare” was strong. We had a mission, Sarah said, and Satan would do anything to stop us. We believed her.
One day Sarah recounted a conversation she had had with Satan himself the night before. This confirmed the importance of the revival we were to bring forth, because why else would Satan himself come to our midwestern campus to tempt our leader? We anointed the doors of our dorm rooms with holy water in an attempt to keep Satan and his demons from tormenting us while we slept. This is more Catholic than evangelical, but we had several Catholics in our group by this time, and there was a strong charismatic influence in play. We were under demonic attack, and we knew it.
Sometimes Sarah would tell us she could see demons, in our dorm or around campus. Sometimes we could see them too—or at least, we thought we could. Sarah said several of the guys in our group were specially gifted at fighting demons. One of them would literally engage in physical battle with demons. From the outside, it looked like shadowboxing, but we knew it was real. The world was one of good and evil, and we were a special force of good, equipped by God to push back the darkness.
It was not always quite that intense. Sometimes we simply gathered together, twelve of us or so, to pray and read the Bible. Sarah would give us a word from God, something to meditate on, something we needed to year.
We never tried to heal someone of a physical ailment, but we did have a healing project of sorts. Sarah told us that she had a problem, something left over from her childhood. She described it as a little girl inside trying to claw its way out, and we were never sure whether that little girl was good or evil, her true self or some sort of evil nature. But sometimes, as a result of this internal struggle, whatever exactly it was, Sarah would come under demonic attack, and she insisted that it was our job to step in and do battle for her when that happened.
I remember very clearly eating dinner together at one of the eateries on campus only to have Sarah suddenly freeze up. She was being attacked. We tried to pray out the demon and to talk Sarah down but it was no use. We had to take her out of the eatery before someone noticed. Once in the foyer, she began to flail and jerk. She couldn’t speak, and the look in her eyes was frightening. Some of the guys had to hold her arms to keep her from hurting herself—it took all of their strength.
Somehow, I don’t remember how, we got her back to our dorm. We took her to the study room on her floor, which was empty. She fled to the darkest corner and lay there jerking and freezing up, moaning and growling. We prayed over her, we rebuked the demons, we held her arms so that she wouldn’t hurt herself. This went on for hours. The demonic attack eventually came to an end, and we put Sarah to bed, exhausted from her fight. Sarah told us we just had to keep fighting, and eventually, through prayer and spiritual warfare, we would beat it.As these sorts of extended meetings grew more common, our grades began to suffer. Sarah said that our time together and the revival we would eventually bring to campus was more important than our grades. Anyone who did not immediately drop everything for spontaneous group meetings or demon-fighting sessions was given the cold shoulder, and several in our group gradually drifted away. I didn’t. I was one of the core members, and these were my closest friends. Besides, I still believed everything Sarah told me.
By this time the world was transitioning from winter to spring. It had been a long, intense winter, and during early spring things changed again. Our group meetings became less common but individual meetings became more so. Sarah would see one of us in the hall and beckon us into her room. During this period Sarah went downhill. She stopped bathing regularly and began eating very unhealthily. Her room was always dark, and a huge cluttered mess. The energy in the room was very negative. Once in her room, she would close the door and a long, emotional conversation would ensue, sometimes lasting into the early hours of the morning.
First, Sarah would beret us for our shortcomings and our secret sins. She would castigate us for not spending enough time with her, and for valuing other things above our mission. She would tell us that the mission was faltering, and that it was our fault. She would ask us what we’d talked about with the others, and who we’d told what. Then she would say critical things about other group members, but tell her not to repeat anything she had said to the other group members.
Looking back, I can see this as an attempt to separate us from each other and make us more dependent on her and her alone. At the time, I knew something felt off but I accepted it because she was Sarah. I started using the other stairwell so as to avoid Sarah’s door. I still believed her, but I dreaded those interrogation sessions.
Then came the Easter holiday, and Sarah left for the weekend. It felt like a burden had lifted and like I was truly free, not a care in the world, for the first time in months. It was like I was sitting in warm sunlight after a long winter.
After Sarah left, I went to our dorm workout room to exercise and found Emily there. Freshman year, Emily had been my closest friend after Sarah, and she had been one of the core group members from the beginning. She and I just stared at each other for a moment, and then it all came pouring out. The isolation, the fear, the interrogations. And as we basked in our freedom and in the light of day, we both suddenly realized that come Sunday, Sarah would be back.
And then came the dreadful question of what to do next.
We spoke to the few remaining members of our group, and everyone felt relief. We had all started to feel that something was wrong, but none of us had been able to articulate it. Things had been clouded, in a way, with Sarah still there. After much talk and deliberation, we went to our residence hall director because we were afraid for Sarah’s safety. I don’t remember what all we told her—certainly not everything. Then we decided that we needed to cut off all contact with Sarah. We had determined that she needed help, and that we could not be the ones to get her help, and that if we remained friends with her she would continue to mess with our heads and pull us down with guilt and manipulation.
At this point, Emily and I and the remaining member of the core of our group didn’t feel like we were in a position where we could confront Sarah about any of this. Everything hurt too much. It was too raw, and we felt too betrayed. It was like we were still trying to figure out which way was up and which way was down. So when Sarah returned at the end of the weekend, several of the other group members confronted her about it. She became defensive, and then angry, and then belligerent.
I spent the rest of the semester taking the other stairwell to avoid walking past Sarah’s room. I avoided her completely, and I looked the other way any time I saw her. It was like I was afraid of being pulled back under her spell. After that semester Sarah was pulled out of school by her parents. I heard she ended up on medication for mental health problems, though I’m not sure for what exactly. She returned to school after a semester at home, but she lived in a different dorm and I studiously avoided eye contact any time I passed her on campus. I have not spoken to Sarah since Easter weekend my sophomore year of college.
It was this experience, more than anything else, that shook my faith. Learning that young earth creationism is not in any sense scientifically feasible sent me on a journey searching for a faith that was less literal, but this experience planted a nagging doubt in my mind—a nagging worry that it was all a lie. How could I believe so strongly that I was hearing from God and yet be wrong? I suppose some would claim that I listened to Sarah rather than God, but that’s not true. Throughout this entire experience I kept up my personal relationship with Jesus, and I never felt the slightest nagging doubt until the end.
Why didn’t Jesus tell me that something was wrong? Why didn’t he tell me that this was not his will? Why would he let this happen when I was trying so hard to follow him? This experience taught me that the Holy Spirit could mislead me. After all, the entire thing was spirit-filled and on fire for God. I felt indwelled by the Holy Spirit like never before. I felt so close to God. And yet, it was all a lie.
For a time, I pushed these doubts aside and explored various faith traditions. For a time, I became a fairly traditional Catholic. Then I became a fairly liberal Catholic. Then I became a universalist. But those nagging doubts never went away. I tried not to think about what had happened, about Sarah and all the rest, but I could not erase my own experiences. In the end, I stopped trying.
I’ve often asked myself how I could fall for something like this. But this isn’t a hard question to answer. Evangelicalism made me primed and ready to believe Sarah and everything she told me. Demons? Check. Satan? Check. Divine revelation? Check. Revival? Check. All she did was build on the foundation evangelicalism had already given me. Evangelical made me extremely susceptible to falling prey to cult-like group constructions—and fall prey I did.
We were lucky, in a way. We were able to step back far enough to see what was happening and make it stop. If Sarah hadn’t left for Easter weekend, the spell would probably have broken over the summer as we scattered to our respective parents’ homes. And perhaps that was Sarah’s mistake—maintaining control often requires maintaining a physical presence. Cult-like groups often isolate their members in a very literal way, but we were living in a college dorm surrounded by other people. Had our living been more communal—had we not had a very literal respite from her presence—things might have been different. Or perhaps it takes being more adept at manipulation to maintain control of such a group. Either way, we were able to end it before things escalated too far.
Since reading the story in The Atlantic and thinking over my own story once again, I’ve been wondering to myself just how common experiences like mine are. At least, I suppose, I now know it wasn’t just me.