Lourdes, Lifeboats and Bounded Choice: The Complicated Progress of Exiting Totalist Groups: Part 2

Lourdes, Lifeboats and Bounded Choice: The Complicated Progress of Exiting Totalist Groups: Part 2 July 22, 2014

by Cindy Kunsman cross posted from Spiritual Sounding Board

Read Part 1 first…


Cindy Kunsman explains how Doug Phillips relegated Vision Forum acolytes to bounded choice – a dynamic only intensified for Lourdes Torres-Manteufel by alleged sex abuse.


Note from Julie Anne:  This is Part 2 of Cindy Kunsman’s series on Bounded Choice.  In this series she is helping us to understand the process people go through when they have lived in a high-controlling religious system as was Lourdes Torres-Manteufel’s experience.  Lourdes’ and Cindy’s story can help shed light in our own experience or the experience of someone we know and love.  Having this understanding is pivotal in the recovery process.

Again, thank you, Cindy for sharing your experience and expertise with us at SSB!

By Cindy Kunsman, UnderMuchGrace.com

Defining Bounded Choice

What would a court document describing my sexual abuse as a child look like?

If I could have imagined any alternative other than the one I saw as a damaged nine-year old, what would my court petition look like?

I’d never thought about such things before – not in forty years. As much thinking as I’ve done about the matter, the only court I ever imagined concerning any of my own experience was that of my father being sentenced to death for killing my abuser. That’s what my dad thought would happen, should anyone ever do anything like that to me. Why could I comprehend nothing else?

Closed Systems: Discernment Stolen, Decision-Making Stopped

Because high-demand religion and spiritually abusive systems close people off from themselves and from the perspective of the broader world, that’s why. In a way, they become a personal example, a microcosm, of the system of the closed mind of the “closed group” — expendable drones in a high-demand religious hive.

Ironically, the followers of such a system become walled off from their own inner thoughts of doubt, a function of discernment and critical thinking. Leaders think for the followers, so those functions must also be handed over to one’s overseer – both to the group doctrine as well as to the all-knowing leaders who have a better connection or a direct pipeline to God and things divine. They are the essential and only pure mouthpiece of God.

Scientia potentia est. Knowledge is power. The closed group by nature limits power to a choice few. Knowledge and thought become proprietary, and the enlightened leader proprietors mediate truth for followers. This maintains the closed system wherein the follower must find their place of grace – the existence dispensed to them by the “truth.” Followers are who the system says they are, and they must adapt their thoughts, behavior, and emotions to find their personhood and identity within that system.

The true believer, out of love and duty, internalizes the desires of the leader in a spirit of true devotion and desires to gain the approval of their leader, parent, pastor, guru, abusive partner, etc. Through subtle social cues, reward for good behavior, punishment for bad behavior, and their attentiveness to the will of their leader(s), they train themselves to anticipate what is desired of them and then strive to attain favor. It’s all done in the name of sincerity and humility, but really, it is sadism and subjugation.

Some of these constraints are literal, and a good number of them are imagined as the follower morphs and conforms self to accommodate the leaders and the system. The follower anticipates the shifting needs and requirements to hold on to that favor and their own personhood – the reality that membership demands of them.

Life and Death in the Docks

Any choices they supposedly make have already been dictated by the group. They are bounded choices to ensure their survival, sometimes a literal choice between life or death. Failure to follow results in not only loss of one’s salvation and favor with God, but under systems like Gothard’s, Lindvall’s, and Phillips’, God will make it His business to punish the dissident for disobedience. In a terrible twist of faith, “grace” with Him must be earned, on top of earning the favor of parents (necessary for physical sustenance) and church (necessary to maintain their whole family’s standing with the group). To be excised from underneath the protective umbrella of either is to be outside the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, and then, surely also outside the reach of Heaven as you suffer the hailstorms of hell.

The legal world uses a different term for this pressure for survival: undue influence. The devotee still technically possesses free will, but their reality becomes so confined and scripted that they have no opportunity to exercise it. Their choices are bound by their confines, and considering alternatives becomes punishable sin to be avoided at all cost. Thoughts and needs must be subordinated to those of the group, the leader, or perhaps those of middle management. Free will and autonomy become an illusion in order to maintain one’s standing with the group and with God Himself.

There is, therefore, only one choice, dictated by surviving within the group. Exiting that group becomes tantamount to annihilation. This pressure intensifies for those who have no ability to support themselves apart from their group or their family, particularly if they are financially employed by the group. Undue influence, indeed …

What real choices did Lourdes Torres have? She had to serve her parents who commanded her to serve her enlightened visionary. Her reputation depended upon her family’s esteem for her. To bring honor to her parents, she was commanded to obey all that the Phillips’ family required of her. She wasn’t just obeying her parents in the sense that most of those outside the system think of it. She was obeying God Himself – at every level. Her authorities were placed above her as God’s divine mediating instruments through whom He would shape her character.

Remember that the group also taught thatslavery and servitude were Biblical, and Scripture demands that one submit patiently to both good and evil masters as part of God’s ideal plan.

Remember how grace is billed as something that one merits through submission, excessive humility (obsequiousness), and self-sacrifice within these systems. God opposes the proud and autonomous, and autonomy is a very dirty word in Calvinism. But God gives grace to the humble (and the humiliated) – and the authoritarian leaders who impose such systems and inevitable benefit from them.

But there is yet another layer of the bounded choice to which Ms. Torres was subjected. There is more to be said about bounded choice and more layers to the complicated conundrum that Lourdes braved as best she could in her own quest for survival of Phillips’ system.

Part III to follow concerns the difficulties faced by young people who were raised within the confines of a totalist institution.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *

Primary work cited and excellent reference RE: surviving totalist groups and manipulative relationships:

Take Back Your Life by Janja Lalich and Madeline Tobias.


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  • SAO

    I suspect that much of this is true for children not in cults. Maya Angelou describes being raped as a 9 year old by her mother’s boyfriend, in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and many of the elements were similar. It’s valuable to discuss these experiences because then we know what goes through the mind of a child and why they don’t react like adults would.

  • Evelyn

    It was such a help to me when I learned that “fight or flight” is for adults. For kids, it’s, “fight, flight, or FREEZE.” I could never explain to anyone who asked why I didn’t fight back or run away sooner. Now I know it was because I was stuck in the juvenile response mode, never having learned to grow past it.

  • gimpi1

    “Remember how grace is billed as something that one merits through submission, excessive humility (obsequiousness), and self-sacrifice within these systems. “

    Why does that never apply to the self-appointed leaders of these groups? Why are Mr. Gothard and Mr. Phillips exempt from rules about submission, humility and self-sacrifice? I mean, I get it. They grabbed the power, and their followers simply accepted their authority. But how do their followers justify that power grab?