Escaping Cults: The Mind Enslaved, Part II
“Mom, how come that guy’s poster says God hates me?”
I unbuckle the toddlers for Mass while my oldest children jump from the van and stare at the neon-colored signs. Once a month the Westboro Baptist’s hate campaign targets our parish and I spend the last minutes of the Sunday-scramble assuring our toddlers that God loves them while my husband distracts the pre-teens from a woman wearing a shredded, filthy U.S. flag.
After Mass the signs are gone and the kids talk doughnuts, but it’s hard to forget the other children, those who spent their morning happily singing about our death. Unlike my son and the people of Topeka who find Westboro followers incomprehensible, I don’t need to ask, “Why do they do that?” I know. As a former member of a cultic organization, I inhabited the same Gnostic universe and remember exactly what it felt like to stand in opposition to society, thinking my group alone held the key to salvation, that we had the blueprint for Utopia and the mandate to transform the world. Different messages are scrawled on the signs, but all cult members share the same mental mechanism, a way of thinking that holds them in a true prison.
In part 1 of this series, "Cults: The Mind Enslaved," I defined the essence of cult membership as a replacement of normal thought processes with blind adherence to an irrational doctrine revealed through controlling leaders. Most cult analysis begins with a taxonomic classification based on exterior characteristics. Warning signs and red flags circumscribe the domain of manipulative organization. This approach is limited because invasive groups can be deemed safe if they appear normal or lack the stereotypical, pop-culture features usually associated with cults.
Organizations such as Scientology, Jim Jones’s People’s Temple, or fundamentalist Mormonism have rigid behavioral structures that render individuation practically impossible. Many true cults lack such a physical control over members. In more fluid cults, members might pick and choose which aspects of dogma or behavior they will actually implement, giving them a sense of complete freedom. To accurately evaluate the cultic nature of a group, we must see if the organization facilitates the development of the Gnostic mental process in members who actually implement the ideology.
"The Mind Enslaved" summarized that human beings gain knowledge through sensory information from which we derive general principles upon which we base meaning and behavior. We also learn from adults and peers who share their acquired wisdom. The cultic mind bypasses reliance upon the senses and logical analysis. Instead, members accept the worldview -- theology or philosophy -- and code of normative behavior presented by cult leaders, even when all these fly in the face of evidence and reason.
Nobody intends to enter a cult; people of every level of intellectual and emotional health become entangled in invasive groups because they are attracted by the appearance of some good or are trying to meet a normal human need. While it is hard to imagine what good lures people to the hatred of Westboro or radical Islamic jihad, the genesis of the cult mind is a thirst for some missing element in life. Once a manipulative or invasive group meets the needs of the newly initiated, defending the cult against external attacks and internal doubts becomes the new imperative. Early warning signs and caution voiced by loved ones are ignored and the new member begins to shut off the personal analysis of reality. New information is interpreted in light of the cult’s truth system.
This Gnostic filter is the real criterion for cultic activity and also provides us with the tools to help friends and loved ones drop their signs in the gutter and cross to a new life in reality.
Escaping a cult is a slow intellectual transformation that inactivates these three Gnostic reflexes:
- Blinding yourself to contradictions between sensory evidence and the Gnostic truth
- Following the teachings of leaders even when these contradict the voice of your own mind
- Meeting human needs with cult substitutes
There is something mysterious about the perfect internal storm that precipitates cult entry and the same can be said of cult abandonment. Usually a person begins to let go when the initial benefits that attracted them start to fade. A member may experience abuse. For others, disenchantment starts at the intellectual level with a conscience-piercing contradiction so offensive to objective human values that the member is unable to turn away any longer. For others, the leaders may speak or behave in a manner that provokes long-silenced critical thinking. At some point, one of the three cultic mental reflexes fails and, even if for only a moment, the individual is guided by the personal mind. With such an incident, the cult member realizes that he or she can rely upon their own perceptions and that reality differs from the picture painted by the cult.
In the organization to which I belonged, there were no formal rules against women going to college. Still, Richard Williamson, one of the group's four “bishops,” had published a pastoral letter stating:
Ideas are not for women. Since universities are about ideas, almost no woman should go to college. A woman can do a good imitation of handling ideas, but then she will not be thinking properly as a woman.
This teaching formed and is reflected in the general culture of the Society that is not favorable towards career-oriented higher education for women. After ten years in the cloister, I desperately wanted to go to college so badly, I finally told myself I would, but strictly for personal enrichment as preparation for the only true female vocation, motherhood. Eased in my conscience, I enrolled in the neuroscience and chemistry programs… for prenatal enrichment. Right. After a few months I still believed in God, hadn't joined NOW, and was not pregnant. It slowly dawned on me that paranoia and error, not authentic Catholicism, dictated the Society's social code concerning women.
The crucial importance of such initial “baby steps” is that the cult member starts not only to question the content of the cult's teaching, but also to act in light of personal reason instead. These acts strengthen atrophied independence. The newly disillusioned cult member faces many obstacles on the path to leaving. The greatest is fear; usually of damnation, or becoming whatever evil believers are told differentiates them from the wicked outside.
As certitude begins to disintegrate, the individual is in a precarious state of confusion and deep self-doubt. The mind lurches between once-secure Gnostic moorings to the terrifying complexity of the real world. Freedom consists in wrenching the mind from denial. Trusting one's ideas is the key to independent identity. But potential ex-members ask how they can trust their minds when they were so certain about the discredited cult. How can they look to the mind for guidance, when it was that same mind that led them into the cult in the first place?
Many cult members, though doubt-ridden, can't bring themselves to face the consequences of cult membership. They are overwhelmed with having to triage all their closest beliefs and decide what to keep and what is false. Others doubt their own condemnation of the group. “But if the group does so much good, how can I leave?” Others wonder about the good people they know in the cult. "Can the group be so bad if so many good people are members?
Eventually, if the member continues to listen to the voice of reason, there is a moment when the “spell is broken.” The liberated ex-member moves from predominantly acting in function of the cult mind to exercising personal assessment of reality. This is the true cult exodus. The journey is largely accomplished by the individual, since facts or persuasion cannot pierce the veil of Gnostic truth without the freely given consent of the cult member.
Even the most radically entrenched believer can return to reality; I know this from personal experience. Family, friends, and professionals can play a crucial role in the process by offering support and respect to cult-enmeshed loved ones. One of the primary reasons people join cults is because of the support systems they find within. Gently offering information or answers as they are asked by the member can help if accompanied by kindness. Providing an alternate guilt-free, safe space in which a member can test non-cult identity or process questions and fear without pressure to leave is the best way to support cult exodus. If members inching towards freedom are rushed or blamed by those outside, return to the cult is almost certain.
By extending a non-judgmental kindness and respect for the person, the fear of the “outside” is alleviated. Facts can be presented to the member, but acrimonious argumentation or insults drive cult members together and confirm their opinion that they are persecuted by the world for their “truth.”
Distrust and anger are the common responses of neighbors to the gruesome Phelps picket lines. Understanding how the minds holding the signs actually function can perhaps provoke a more constructive reflex, that of mercy and outreach. So many ex-cult members I know trace their departure to an act of kindness or a respectful conversation that provoked reflection. Across the street, behind the signs, stand fellow human beings who are prisoners of their own fears, trapped in an alien world they never intended to inhabit. The smallest action or word that enhances their self-respect or offers a personal, individual connection with a world by which they feel alienated can start a chain reaction leading to their delivery.
Visit PJ Lifestyle tomorrow morning for another look at cults with John Boot's review of P.T. Anderson's The Master.
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