A Word on Cults

A Word on Cults November 6, 2021

The other day, my friends and I were bantering about a ludicrous article published in LifeSite, about someone who claims she saw what my friend Mike calls a “sentient transhuman 5g nano-octopus” in a vaccine. We laughed. I even drew a very bad picture of a cyborg octopus for a joke. But in a way it wasn’t funny, because lots of people seemed to believe it. And I’ve seen several other equally silly vaccine conspiracy theories lately, which people believe religiously. They are scared not to. They think anyone who tries to reason with them about this is just trying to trick them into being in danger.

Just this week we had an election, and I saw more than one person ranting about “critical race theory” who, when asked, couldn’t even tell you what it was or why it was supposedly bad. They’d just been told they ought to be afraid about it by a political authority figure who promised to protect them, and they believed without question. We laughed again, but some of my friends were alarmed. They have friends and family members who have fallen prey to this kind of thinking. They can’t get through to their families by reasoning with them.

Later, I saw photos and a video of a well-attended rally of people in downtown Dallas. They were reportedly Q-Anon believers, obsessed with a complicated conspiracy theory, and they believed that JFK Junior, who died in 1999, was going to appear to them. It was hauntingly like the alleged Marian apparitions I’d been taken to see as a child.

And I didn’t laugh. I started to get a little nervous. Because I know the kind of thing that can make a group of people acts so irrationally. It reminded me of a lot of places I’ve been in my childhood. I recognized that those people were part of something like a cult. And then I realized that the people being misled by political conspiracy theories were also something akin to a cult. And that the people who believed nonsense about vaccines were also acting just like a cult. They were afraid, and in their fear they had been manipulated by others into believing nonsense as a kind of creed and adhering to that nonsense for safety. They were manipulated into thinking that the people outside their group behaving reasonably were the ones misled by a conspiracy and only they had the truth. They were holding on to their beliefs for dear life, even though it was isolating them from friends and family members. That’s how cults work.

I’ve had a few run-ins with cults myself.

I don’t know as much about cults as many other people. My experience was, in some ways, very mild.  I have friends who grew up in isolated intentional communities without electricity or running water, and I didn’t. I knew others who ended up in abusive communities like the Intercessors of the Lamb cult compound. I know people who were bundled off to abusive boarding schools by cults and barely saw their families for years.  I continued to live with my family in our own house for my entire childhood. But for a few years growing up, my family found ourselves in the Charismatic Renewal. We were members of a “community” that fortunately collapsed very quickly, and the “community” was manipulated by a religious sister who was emotionally and spiritually abusive. And that community functioned in practice as a cult, because it tried to slowly but surely cut us off from friends at the Catholic school by presenting them as not good enough Catholics. It functioned as a cult because it set up an ever-increasing set of rules we had to follow and things we couldn’t do with the promise of demonic possession if we didn’t comply, and that set of rules eventually devoured my entire life. We were told we would become possessed if we celebrated Halloween, or read the wrong book, or watched the wrong movie, or touched the wrong object or held hands with the wrong person, or if I forgot to use holy water or say my prayers before bed. A religious movement that seeks to control your every move with threats like that, and which cuts you off from other people until you’re completely isolated, is a cult.

After that community collapsed, I was forced to participate in ECYD,  the youth arm of the Legionaries of Christ which is also a cult, founded by the notorious pedophile Marcial Maciel. And again, I saw those same mechanics at play: the cutting people off from secular friends, even dividing families by encouraging them to send their children to year-round boarding schools. The promise of hell or demonic possession to any naughty teenager who didn’t come to weekly meetings, say all their prayers, and obey every order from a Legionary. The constant insistence that there wasn’t any salvation outside the Legionaries and other Catholics weren’t trying hard enough. Thankfully I wasn’t the Legionaries’ type, and my time in that group didn’t last long.

After my family stopped attending Legionaries meetings, we formed a close-knit community with a lot of other Catholic homeschoolers whom I regarded as my family; we went to Mass together and pooled our resources for a tutoring co-op and a theater group, among other things. I do share a bad experience from that group in my most recent book, but  I loved almost everything else about that group and I miss it. I’m mentioning this because it’s important to remember that not all close-knit movements of likeminded people are cults. It’s only a cult if it involves fear and repression, control and forcing belief with the threat of punishment,  and cutting people off from others.

My experiences with cults were brief and not nearly as bad as many others’ have been. But those several years of my life definitely had a lasting impact on me. I’ve suffered from scrupulosity and anxiety ever since I was a little girl in that Charismatic community. It’s taken me a very long time to deconstruct all the scary and abusive things I was taught in the Charismatic Community and in ECYD and to sort out what I really believe. I’m still nervous around certain devotions to the Virgin Mary, for instance, and I often have panic attacks at Mass.

When I look at those people standing there at the rally expecting to see Kennedy back from the dead, and when I look at people who are scared stiff over the specter of “critical race theory” or any other buzz word without knowing what it is, just because a leader told them it was present and dangerous, I see people who are in a cult of a different kind. When I see the people earnestly spreading ludicrous conspiracy theories about vaccines containing nonsense ingredients that resemble a bad sci fi story, I laugh. But I’m also sorry for them, because they have been manipulated by fear. That fear is cutting them off from the truth and taking them down a rabbit hole.  They’ve become a sort of cult.

And I’m sorry to say, there’s not really a quick way to get somebody out of a cult.

There isn’t a shortcut to cure someone of that type of thinking. You can’t reason with them, because cults don’t work by reason. They work by fear and threats. They present a person who is acting reasonably as a dangerous person trying to trick the cultists into doing someone that will hurt them.  A person acting reasonably appears, to a cultist, as someone terrifying. I remember how my mother freaked out when my siblings and I played a harmless game of pretending to go trick-or-treating. That’s how someone who has been manipulated by a cult feels about someone acting reasonably in front of them.  And you can’t present counter-evidence to the cult’s party line, because the cult has primed that person to believe that the evidence you’re presenting is lies, all part of an elaborate conspiracy. People trapped in a cult believe only the cult has the truth, and everything else is just propaganda. I remember how deeply I believed in “the gay agenda” and “the liberal media” and “our Satanic pagan culture” for so much of my upbringing. I was a senior in college before I accepted that AIDS wasn’t a Divine punishment, and much older when I finally accepted that climate change was real. This wasn’t because I was stupid. It was because I was brainwashed by the Charismatic Renewal to think everyone outside of a small group was trying to trick me.

There is one way that I know of to help someone who’s being manipulated by a cult, and that’s to be nice to them.

I know this isn’t easy, because people in cults are extremely frustrating. And this isn’t an instant fix either. It typically takes a long time. But it worked on me, and it worked on many of the other people I know who escaped cults and deconstructed their cultlike thinking. If you want someone to leave a cult, you have to be kind to them. And you have to persist in being kind even when the cultist is being incredibly frustrating. I know that’s not fair, but it’s the only chance I know of to get through to them.

It was the relentless kindness of people around me that helped me break free from the things I used to believe. It was the kindness of my LGBTQ friends who didn’t stop being nice even though I was so awkward and horrible around them, that made me realize how wrong and hateful I’d been. It was the kindness and the extreme patience of my friends who believed in science which led me to realize I had my eyes closed to so much of the world around me. It was the kindness of other Christians who didn’t believe the kind of nonsense that Charismatics believe about the devil, that showed me that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Love and not an angry set of rules. Their kindness showed me that I didn’t have to be afraid to think for myself. It was possible to reconcile my experience of and sincere belief in a loving Christ with all the new things I was learning. There really was Christianity outside of the cults I’d experienced. I can be a Christian and use my own mind instead of submitting to a cult.

And I know that I have a long way to go. But I am on my way now, thanks to kind people.

It’s alarming to see so many, many people in America today acting like they’ve joined a cult.

I hope that through kindness, we can work our way out of this.

It’s the only thing I know that might help.




Image via Pixabay 

Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.
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