There were some things I was exposed to in Christian culture that were harmful. There are other things that I consider to be harmless and even helpful. The same is true of other religions and expressions of spirituality and metaphysics. Then we have the destructive cults. Destructive cults are dangerous and have hurt many. This topic matters and for personal reasons, it is scary to write about.
I have heard it said that the difference between a thief and a con artist is that a thief steals from the victim and the con artist convinces the person into giving them their possessions. Cults are more like con artists.
It is hard to define cults as there are many different definitions. I’ll source the definitions I am using briefly, tell my story, and then state why it matters.
The Difficult Matter of Defining Destructive Cults
Robert Jay Lifton, a psychiatrist, felt that cults had three characteristics:
a charismatic leader who increasingly becomes an object of worship as the general principles that may have originally sustained the group lose their power;
a process I call coercive persuasion or thought reform;
economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie.
The ICSA has another guideline for destructive cults that I feel is useful.
What is a Cult?
A cult is a group or movement exhibiting a great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing and employing unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control (e.g., isolation from former friends and family, debilitation, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressures, information management, suspension of individuality or critical judgment, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of leaving it, etc.) designed to advance the goals of the group’s leaders to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community. (West & Langone, 1986)
Characteristics of a Destructive Cult
- Authoritarian pyramid structure with authority at the top
- Charismatic or messianic leader(s) (Messianic meaning they either say they are God OR that they alone can interpret the scriptures the way God intended…..the leaders are self-appointed.
- Deception in recruitment and/or fund raising
- Isolation from society — not necessarily physical isolation like on some compound in Waco, but this can be psychological isolation — the rest of the world is not saved, not Christian, not transformed (whatever) — the only valid source of feedback and information is the group
- Use of mind control techniques (we use Dr. Robert Jay Lifton’s criteria from chapter 22 of his book Thought Reform & the Psychology of Totalism to compare whether the eight psychological and social methods he lists are present in the group at question)
- Mileu Control: Control of the environment and communication within the environment
- Mystical Manipulation: Seeks to promote specific patterns of behavior and emotion in such a way that it appears to have arisen spontaneously from within the environment, while it actually has been orchestrated totalist leaders claim to be agents chosen by God, history, or some supernatural force, to carry out the mystical imperative the “principles” (God-centered or otherwise) can be put forcibly and claimed exclusively, so that the cult and its beliefs become the only true path to salvation (or enlightenment)
- Demand for Purity: The world becomes sharply divided into the pure and the impure, the absolutely good (the group/ideology) and the absolutely evil (everything outside the group) one must continually change or conform to the group “norm”; tendencies towards guilt and shame are used as emotional levers for the group’s controlling and manipulative influences
- Confession: Cultic confession is carried beyond its ordinary religious, legal and therapeutic expressions to the point of becoming a cult in itself sessions in which one confesses to one’s sin are accompanied by patterns of criticism and self-criticism, generally transpiring within small groups with an active and dynamic thrust toward personal change
- Sacred Science: The totalist milieu maintains an aura of sacredness around its basic doctrine or ideology, holding it as an ultimate moral vision for the ordering of human existence questioning or criticizing those basic assumptions is prohibited a reverence is demanded for the ideology/doctrine, the originators of the ideology/doctrine, the present bearers of the ideology/doctrine offers considerable security to young people because it greatly simplifies the world and answers a contemporary need to combine a sacred set of dogmatic principles with a claim to a science embodying the truth about human behavior and human psychology
- Loading the Language: Words are given new meanings — the outside world does not use the words or phrases in the same way — it becomes a “group” word or phrase
- Doctrine Over Person: If one questions the beliefs of the group or the leaders of the group, one is made to feel that there is something inherently wrong with them to even question — it is always “turned around” on them and the questioner/criticizer is questioned rather than the questions answered directly the underlying assumption is that doctrine/ideology is ultimately more valid, true and real than any aspect of actual human character or human experience and one must subject one’s experience to that “truth” the experience of contradiction can be immediately associated with guilt one is made to feel that doubts are reflections of one’s own evil when doubt arises, conflicts become intense
- Dispensing of Existence: Since the group has an absolute or totalist vision of truth, those who are not in the group are bound up in evil, are not enlightened, are not saved, and do not have the right to exist; impediments to legitimate being must be pushed away or destroyed one outside the group may always receive their right of existence by joining the group; fear manipulation — if one leaves this group, one leaves God or loses their salvation/transformation, or something bad will happen to them; the group is the “elite”, outsiders are “of the world”, “evil”, “unenlightened”, etc.
For the purposes of this story, we will call the person I know and love “Gina”.
Gina’s life had not always been easy. She has experienced trauma as young lady that included abuse, emotional neglect and sexual assault. She also suffers from depression and anxiety and is considered a person with a disability. Spouses, partners and others shamed her for her inability to work full time. They have used who earns the money as a tool for control and for shame. Gina’s also LGBTQIA.
She was looking for reasons as to why she suffers as she does. She wanted to know that there was more to life. More than anything else, she wanted to be accepted and to be told she matters and is special. A school claiming to teach metaphysics offered all of that.
They told Gina that she had special spiritual gifts. She was also told that there were answers to her questions and reasons for why the universe was. Gina was told she could attend their school for a fee and learn the lessons. In short time she could be a teacher and pass on this spiritual wisdom. She could not believe her fortune. She was special and gifted and was welcomed. Finally, she would be given secret knowledge and given the charge and responsibility of helping others. After a lifetime of being an outsider everywhere she went, everything she wanted and needed was in front of her.
Often, she would get to go out to public places like the local mall and pass out information flyers on the school and raise funds for them. They were also encouraged to donate materials like printers and other things that the school could use. It did not matter that they never gave accurate records for the donation Gina turned in.
If her friends or family members would express concerns about the teachings of the group, she would be told that there is an us and them dynamic and she is part of the us and she should not be swayed by them. This us mentality was reinforced with frequent retreats to a ranch/farm deep in a rural setting away from the suburban life she knows.
Things started getting darker in the school. It was very time consuming. If she did not get the lessons done in a timely manner she was shamed and told she was not taking this seriously. She would be held back while others moved on. Her special nature was questioned and she would have to start jumping through hoop to re earn the unconditional acceptance promised her.
She needed this knowledge. They told her that she could go off her medication using these secrets and no longer be “weak” or need these “crutches”. If she asked questions that challenged the lessons, more shame. While this was going on, the veil of unconditional acceptance was changing. More specifically, she was being told to change. She was also being groomed by a teacher for his own sexual gain.
Her sexuality and gender identity and roles were being redefined by them. In the name of love and enlightenment she had to embrace a narrow view of what it was to be a woman. This also included how a woman was to think and behave secxually and in regard to gender identity and sexuality. Her view on diet, mental health treatment, medication and disabilities had become subject to their metaphysical rules which included cessation and reductions of critical treatments to her well being.
Now we get to the even darker side of the grooming. One teacher in the group, an older man, groomed her into a sexual relationship. She thought she was consenting. Without going into deep details, it was classic and textbook grooming techniques used by those who engage in human trafficking. He preyed on her vulnerabilities, her trust, and her reduced medicated state on a new diet. She also had an impulse to be the empathic healer and rescuer. Of course, she also wanted to belong and was promised the lessons denied her.
I am sure it will come as no surprise that she is not the only person this happened to in not only that groups local chapter, but others across the region and other states they operate in. While this was going on, she was also struggling with focus and was unable to meet the demand of the homework and criteria. The constant shaming put her in a defensive posture and that was what got the fight back in her.
She cut off the sexual relationship with the teacher. He shamed her for it and in very convenient timing the nature of her relationship with him was “revealed”. He faced no censure while she was shamed for being the seductress stepping outside of the metaphysical guidelines for what a woman is and is not supposed to be. Let me reiterate. She was groomed and manipulated. She was a victim of criminal seual abuse and she was made out to be the pariah.
The leader of the local chapter even went so far as to verbally dress her down and shame her in front of all the other students telling her that she would never amount to anything. She stood up to the manipulation by his fellow teacher, she asked questions. She went from acceptance to being a problem that needs to be dealt with. Destroying her reputation in the manner he did was not only hurtful to her, is discredited Gina. This is a common tactic. When you can no longer control someone, you discredit them so no one will believe them. This is common in groups like these and relationships with narcissists.
With a broken heart and confused mind, she would leave their school never to return. Some in the group would still try to control her claiming they were not “on board” with the other leaders and invite her to privately study with her. They were always male and they always wanted to share more than just the secret lessons.
In time, and with a renewed commitment to therapy and a healthier support group of friends, she would do some heavy lifting and come to conclusions. Gina got stronger and wiser. Skeptical and critical thinking would free her from the grasp of codependency. With this new freedom she embraced her sexuality and gender identity. She also gained freedom from the gender roles and values assigned to her.
To be in therapy is no longer weakness and medication is simply that, medicine. Being a person with a disability does not mean she is broken and her earning potential is not a measure of her worth. From what I know of Gina, no one will ever abuse her or sexualize her or place expectations on her ever again. She is strong.
Justice and understanding still elude her, however. Some authorities have heard her story and the stories of others. They have done research. But there are delicate realities to how these groups behave that make prosecution difficult. This is the elusiveness of justice.
Understanding. Not everyone involved in a destructive cult will face the same levels of abuse. This is often used to convince other members that there’s no abuse going on. Then that is used to gaslight the victim. Even in the wake of the #metoo and #timesup movement, some of the female former students do not give Gina the benefit of the doubt that predators hurt her. Gina is told that inclusivity demands that all parties be invited to social events. They do not see how this position hurts, minimizes, and excludes Gina from their lives. These women have no idea what they have lost or the harm and complicity they have taken in the victimization of Gina.
Why This Matters In TransParent Expedition
Many LGBTQIA people face ostracization and exclusion in ways that cis her men like me will never be able to understand. With a higher rate of bullying and discrimination comes a higher rate of depression and anxiety. There is also the horrific idea that same sex attraction can be reversed. Even more dangerous is that being transgender is seen by some as a disorder. Combine a desire for acceptance and internalized transphobia or homophobia and there is a recipe for manipulation and abuse. The best antidote to cults is for people to belong, be accepted, and be treated as if they have worth and value. The truth is they do have worth and value and being accepted as they are is the right thing to do. Actually, accepted is not the right word. Affirmed and celebrated would be a much better antidote.
Bad Ideas Spread Like Cancer
I am not a religious scholar or theologian. But my undergrad was in theology and pastoral studies. I was a minister for 16 years. I did cross studies with an Imam, a Buddhist monk, and a Zen teacher for almost 2 years when I was still a Christian.
I have read some of the lessons and watched the videos of some of the “graduates” of the school (a school with no accreditation or oversight) attempting to be spiritual gurus. They have teachings about the biblical Jesus and teachings about Buddha (specifically Gautama). In reading and hearing the teachings, my inner curmudgeon Luke Skywalker has this assessment. “Amazing. Every word of what you just said was wrong.” I may be an atheist, but I find it reprehensible and insulting to people who have been to this school for a year or two consider themselves equal to those who have gone through the process of earning an Mdiv or gone through the years of training and discipline to be a Buddhist teacher. But I cannot blame them for their hubris. They are victims just like Gina.
Gina is a rare story of independant escape. It is a testament to her inner strength and resolve that she broke so many cycles of abuse and manipulation on her own. Later, there would be a return to healthy doses of medication and quality friends and support groups. Even with that, the heavy lifting of independence is on Gina’s shoulders. Every person that abused, neglected, judged and diminished Gina made it possible for a predatory group to take advantage. Predators know how to find prey. Predators rarely go after the fastest and strongest gazelle. The wounded prey is the easiest to catch and to devour.
Finally, I need to make it clear. Though I disagree with many of the tenant of religions and some philosophies, I do not believe the majority of them to be destructive cults. Most churches and groups practicing everything from zen to human potential that I have personally encountered are not destructive cults. The groups that do meet the criteria are dangerous.
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