I Don’t Like Kimmy Schmidt (What It’s Really Like to Leave a Cult)

I Don’t Like Kimmy Schmidt (What It’s Really Like to Leave a Cult) November 10, 2015

There’s a show now created by Tina Fey (whose work I do like) called The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. And it’s doing quite well, which really surprises me. I watched the first few episodes and found it so absurdly unrealistic that I couldn’t continue. The premise is that Kimmy Schmidt was one of three young women in a doomsday cult kept underground in a bunker but that her spirit and hope was never broken and once she is liberated she uses that Pollyanna optimism to succeed in life.

The people who created this show have clearly never experienced a cult in any form and have no idea what draws people into cults and what the experience of being in a cult is like.

Yes, it might be expecting too much for a silly comedy show to have a believable depiction of being an ex-cult member but I find Kimmy’s character so unrealistic that I can’t watch.

Dedication to SES ceremony when I was 16
Dedication to SES ceremony when I was 16

Sometimes I question whether it’s fair to call the organization I grew up in a cult. But there is one thing that convinces me it’s true. I obsessively read the stories of people who have left all sorts of cults and again and again I find familiarity in them. There are some common experiences that just about everyone leaving a cult feels, whether it’s Amish, Quiverfull, Scientology, etc. I read books about it and watch shows about it. I’ll always watch anything about a cult. Because it gives me a feeling of not being alone in my experience. Recently I watched Amish Shunned and I’ve been reading Leah Remini’s book about Scientology, Troublemaker. I also enjoy reading No Longer Quivering here on Patheos. All of them resonate with me and I recognize so much in the experiences of other people who struggle with leaving what No Longer Quivering calls spiritual abuse.

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Sorry the quality is so low you can’t really see my face

Wouldn’t call the Amish a cult? Here is my definition of a cult…

  1. Claims exclusive access to the keys to life/salvation/eternity
  2. People lower in the organization cannot question people higher up. People at the top have zero accountability
  3. Members become severely isolated from the rest of the world and are strongly discouraged from gaining any outside knowledge
  4. The organization controls and has rules for all aspects of your life. Members are not trusted to make their own decisions or choices
  5. Anything that feels wrong to your conscience is your problem and an indication you need more help within the organization
  6. There is a person on top (living or dead) who is equal to God and can do no wrong

Many religious groups meet at least most of this definition. And yes, I think a lot of religions can easily fall into the realm of cult. Not all cults are Jonestown (which even there seems to have started with good intentions and broke down because power tends to corrupt cult leaders).

And once, like me, you see behind the curtain of your religion and see that the rules you  must adhere to don’t apply to people with more power than you, your heart breaks. Everything you were taught was a lie to keep you docile and in line. In Toublemaker Leah Remini’s young daughter tells her “You’ve left Scientology in your head but you have to leave in your heart.” And that part is so much harder.

People don’t join cults because they are stupid or gullible. Every kind of cult offers its followers something important. Usually deep and lasting happiness with a clear path on how to get there. Eternal salvation. A life with more meaning than your day-to-day grind. And I think the majority of cults start out with the best of intentions. Many do want to make a better world but eventually get bogged down by ego.

Long skirts and sneakers, a classic fundie wardrobe
Long skirts and sneakers, a classic fundie wardrobe

Cults don’t have to threaten you to get you to stay. Once you have the mentality of we are the special ones who have this important knowledge and you feel sorry for the people who aren’t in your organization then why would you ever give it up? How could you walk away from eternal salvation or the only tools that can bring lasting happiness? Why would you want to become the kind of person your family and friends look down on and feel sorry for (as you’ve seen done with people who have left)?

I find the idea that this woman, Kimmy Schmidt, could endure years of brainwashing and the cult leader as her only contact with reality and not be taken in by it insulting. I don’t think anyone comes out of a situation like that unscathed. The people creating the show act, as all people who have not experienced a cult do, like moving on is the easiest thing in the world. It was bad, so therefore getting away from it is good and it’s that simple. But for people like me whose whole concept of the world was built and created by the cult, leaving it is anything but simple.

It’s devastating. It tears apart everything you know. It may take years to recover or you may never recover. I feel as though the framework of my life crumbled and I don’t know which way is up anymore. I’ve been out for over ten years and it still effects me every day.

I have come to believe that people who have not experienced cults will never understand the way you can still want it and long for it even after you’ve left it behind. It will always have a mark on me. There is no cheerful and uncomplicated embracing of a new life. No learning to fully fit in with the “real world.” You can’t see it on me anymore. You can’t tell by looking or talking to me that I come from a cult background. But the mark of it is on my heart. Its legacy will always be part of me.

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  • A thought provoking and open hearted post. Thank you for sharing, Ambaa, this couldn’t have been easy to write.

    I hadn’t thought of that show in that way. Personally I find it silly and a bit dismissive of Kimmy’s supposed cult history, but my spouse enjoys it, most especially for Pinot Noir, so I have it in the background fairly regularly.

    You know your description, especially in the end, of how it colors you and your life going forward, how there’s no simple reintegration to society, strikes me as incredibly similar to drug addiction. This I know from personal experience. I have a cousin who says all the same as well of surviving childhood cancer, a reintegration she is still in the middle of struggling with…

    I do not intend to detract from your own experience and struggle, but just to offer some possible comfort that maybe our struggles were different, but the result and understanding is similar.

    • Ambaa

      That is really interesting to hear those comparisons. I never would have thought of that.

      • The thing about drugs is they give a sense of bliss. A false bliss, to be sure, but it’s an easy one where the real thing must be worked for.
        And drug culture is a kind of community in its own right. Dysfunctional and at times downright abusive, but also non judgmental, largely accepting of most people in their own way. The community is almost as addicting as the drugs. It’s a big part of the reason that an addict usually has to change all of their surroundings, move away, and leave behind friends who are still a part of that culture. Otherwise you get dragged back in, not just by the drugs but by the ‘friends’ and ‘love of and for them’, in their own way…

  • Jacob de Vries

    Thanks for an interesting post. Having survived an abusive church (a cult, really), I can relate to much of what you said. I once read someone’s description of what it feels like to be divorced: you are missing an arm or a leg. You get used to it, but years later you still know it’s gone. Leaving a cult has a similar impact. You learn to deal with it, but you cannot erase the memories and some of the things you experienced continue to have an impact.

    One of the many ways in which the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) helps cult survivors is a website called Starting Out. It is a helpful reference for dealing with practical issues, such as employment and housing. It has proven especially useful to people who have been born or raised in high-demand groups (so-called Second Generation Adults). Many others who have been in cults have found it useful as well.

    Are you familiar with Margaret Singer’s article, “Coming out of the cults,” in which she describes what ex-members experience? http://www.cultfaq.org/coming-out-of-the-cults.html

    • Ambaa

      Thank you for this information! It is so nice to connect with someone who can relate to what I experienced!

  • Amar

    near my town in San Jose CA there was a case of Jaycee Dugard,
    I initially thought it too be an incident of cult, otherwise how can a person prison a teenager girl for 18 year?
    even after reading the whole story I have some grey areas.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kidnapping_of_Jaycee_Lee_Dugard

  • I binge watched the entire series Kimmy Schmidt, which is a situation comedy, often a dark comedy about a woman struggling to reenter society after many years in a doomsday cult cut off from the world in total isolation.

    As the series moves forward it details more and more of the dreadful details of life within the cult and its abuse and manipulation. In the end the former followers come to terms with their experience and are empowered by facing and exposing their one-time leader in court and helping to convict him.

    Generally though the series is written for entertainment purposes it raises awareness about cults and how they trick and trap people through deception, coercive persuasion, influence techniques and unreasonable fear. It’s inspiring how Kimmy ultimately embraces life and overcomes obstacles.

    The key to recovery from destructive cults is education. That is, understanding the deception involved, and unraveling the process of coercive persuasion used to gain undue influence to trap you. We are all vulnerable to persuasion and trickery. Understanding how cults can exploit our vulnerability is the best defense.

    The Cult Education Institute is a nonprofit online database library with a vast archive of information about controversial groups and movements, many that have been called “cults.” There are subsections about related topics such as recovery including helpful research see wwww.culteduation.com

    The book “Cults Inside Out: How People Get In and Can Get Out” can also be helpful and contains much research in chapters about “cult brainwashing,” defining a destructive cult and chapters about how families have helped rescue loved ones through carefully strategized interventions. The book also includes a modern history of cults and tells the personal stories of many people that have gone through horrible experiences, but how they managed to move on and recover. see cultsinsideoutl.com

    Thee are parallels between cult interventions and substance abuse interventions. And both cult involvement and addiction can become a a life threatening crisis and family dilemma.

    • Ambaa

      I appreciate the information.

      I’m still not convinced that this show handles reentry into the world in a realistic or helpful way. :-/

      • Watch the rest of it and let me know what you think. IMO the show builds and becomes much better regarding the cult issue as it moves along, but it is a sitcom not a documentary. Bottom line — it does raise awareness about cults and cultic manipulation. And I think the show can be empowering.

  • surya

    Wish you a happy DEEPAVALI Amba and all others

  • Don Gwinn

    Wow . . .
    So, first, if the show doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t work, and there’s no need for you to go watch this, but I wonder if it would make any difference to you to know that as the season goes on, Kimmy has to confront the fact that she did not come out unscathed and she was not immune to the reverend’s brainwashing.

    In particular, the scene that stands out to me is a flashback during the reverend’s trial (in Episode 12, “Kimmy Goes to Court.”) The reverend is Ken Hamm, and so when he shaves the beard and puts on a suit, everybody is ready to take his word for anything; and the court is absurd; Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden, from the OJ trial, have relocated to Durnsville in disgrace but have found love, so they’re a completely incompetent couple of prosecutors who talk like newlyweds.

    Anyway, the reverend complains that he really thought the world had ended or would soon, and that he therefore only mistakenly held the women in the bunker. He also argues that they chose to be there and only changed their minds later, which we know is a powerful argument whenever a woman says a man did something without her consent, at least in our times.

    It turns out that the Kimmy challenged the reverend about his story, but when he got tired of it, he called her bluff. He called her friend Cindy to the entrance and unlocked it, telling Kimmy that if she truly believed it was safe to leave, she could send Cindy out the airlock. Of course, after all his conditioning, after being cut off from the outside world, and with the added pressure of putting all the risk on her friend . . . Kimmy does break, and she does not send Cindy out.
    (Cindy never knew this had happened, so she feels deeply betrayed when she learns about it.)

    My question is . . . do things like that change your perspective on this show at all, or is that too little, too late?

    • Ambaa

      That is interesting. I assumed that they wouldn’t go there because of the title and the way the first episodes seemed to really emphasize that she was “unbreakable.”

  • HARRY

    Think of the positives, it gave you Sanatan dharma, without it, it may not have been possible. I would call it win win. NOW YOU CAN THINK OUTSIDE OF THE THE BOX.
    Shub kamna for Divali and prosperous new year. 🙂 HARRY

  • HARRY

    Have you ever considered speaking to any of those people who were with you in the photo, maybe to show them the right direction in the life and explain to them the real Hinduism and not the one they think it is. I think this might free you from your past and make you happy. just a thought.