Today, December 30, 2010, is the 11th anniversary of what was the beginning of the end for me in the cult I was involved with. Consequently, as I always am at this time of year, I am feeling a little bit reflective about that time in my life and what it was like for me to leave.
Leaving a cult is possibly the most courageous act a cult member will ever commit in his or her lifetime. I know that to those who have never been on the inside of a cult, that seems like a preposterous statement, but it is true. To the outside observer, the cult looks like a toxic, crazy, frightening, abusive, possibly dangerous place to be.
It should be an easy situation to leave.
It is not.
On the inside, when someone has devoted years of their life to believing the rhetoric their leader is selling, and has given up their home, their family, their job, and their life, essentially, to put that rhetoric into daily action and follow that leader wherever s/he goes on the crazy train, it actually seems like the safest place in the world. It is the place where the morality is completely black and white. (In the group – good. Outside the group – bad.) It is the place where everyone you know follows the same rules, speaks the same language, and believes in the same things. Uncertainty doesn’t exist. You are there to fulfill a clear and well-defined purpose (be it to save the world from evil or whatever). And you are surrounded by people who are on the same path; the only people in the world who you believe really understand you. (And, strange though it may sound, you never think the group is a cult. That word applies only to other groups.)
This is a powerful, powerful recipe and cult leaders have mastered its use for centuries, all over the world, in order to manipulate and control those who follow them.
When I think of those who continue to stay in the cult I left, I think of them with love, and not a little regret. Regret because when I left the group there was really nothing I could do to save them and take them with me. The skills needed to combat this mix of community, purpose and moral certainty were unknown to me at the time and will always be unavailable to me. Even the most seasoned cult interventionists cannot guarantee that they can get through to someone who is under the influence of a cult leader.
At the beginning of this year, 2010, I was elated because someone from the cult I was involved with had found the courage to leave the group. We reconnected and I was so happy for her. I knew she had a long road of healing ahead of her, but I was thrilled for her nonetheless. Though she might temporarily feel adrift, she was free.
Unfortunately, she returned to the cult mid-way through this year. I sometimes catch myself asking why, when she had so much going for her in her life outside the cult; she was running an extraordinarily successful business, she had friends and a boyfriend, she had her own apartment and had recovered her physical health, which had been damaged while she was in the cult. But in spite of all this, she went back. The siren song of the cult leader was just too much for her to resist.
Then I remember that I understand. I was a part of the cult myself, and for a decade experienced the magnetic attraction of the ideas the cult leader was espousing.
But I am still very sad for my friend. And for all those, everywhere, in every cult, who are just not able to permanently break free.
Take care, my friend. I miss you and love you. I will always be available if you, or anyone else in the group, needs help.
(image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono and FreeDigitalPhotos.net)