My life there and afterwards

Critical Thinking

I read another article in ICSA Today that got me thinking, so I will comment on it here. It is in Volume 6, No.2, 2015, pgs 8-11, by Millard J. Melnyk. All quotes are from this article. (Obviously I am reading back issues that I never got to earlier.)

A lot of the attraction to and attachment to high-demand groups (HDGs) is emotional. It is “imaginative, validation- and connection-seeking…” and as such does not require strict critical thinking. I don’t know of anyone who sat down and thought through joining as a logic exercise. It appealed to something inside of us, that something that looks for emotional fulfillment. There is not one of us who doesn’t have some lack, some childhood hurt, some sense of needing or looking for something more, and HDGs offer a solution to our longing.

It is important to remember this if you ever get into a situation where you can talk to a current member and want to convince them to leave. Logical arguments will probably create a defensive reaction, because their commitment is not based on logic. “To engage them, we need to think in cognitive terms…and to focus on how they feel about issues important to them as considered from their points of view.” In other words, if we have a question, ask for explanation, try to approach it from their viewpoint also, as something that you can both investigate without threatening. Questioning for clarification, not as an attack, is a good way to go. Any kind of questioning is good, as it plants seeds in their minds of things to clarify for themselves also. As a member, I would love to explain why the life was so good, I was quick to be defensive if I thought family were saying it wasn’t good, but also, I could not get their comments and questions out of my mind. Everything they said became food for thought, and it all worked to wake me up to reality.

That’s another point to make. Your logic probably won’t cause an “ah-ha” moment, but everything you say is heard, and can be thought about later. It takes time. After all, you are asking them to give up something they are clinging to because they think it has value and they have already invested an awful lot into it.

If you have family or friends in a HDG, don’t give up. I am so glad my kids did not cut off all ties with me. It must have been painful for them to see me still in the group, but they kept trying to talk with me. Yes, I got defensive, and said some things I wish I hadn’t, but it all helped, because I did love them and was not willing to cut all ties with them. If you can find ways to validate and encourage those still in the group (not encourage them in the groups’ lifestyle, but them as persons) they will want to maintain ties with you. After all, they are probably not getting any validation within the group.

It might sometimes feel like you are not getting anywhere, but “If we aren’t honestly willing to look, we have no right to advocate critical thinking…if feels like we’re encouraging them!” So just make the difference between honestly validating the person., and saying you accept the group’s teachings.  You don’t have to lie about not liking the group’s beliefs in order to support the person’s integrity, and to raise questions about things you don’t understand.

Contacts with those outside the group are important. “Friendships can eventually serve as options to group involvement or even lifelines out of the group environment if recruits come to feel entrapped.” If I had had more contacts outside of the group, I might have left earlier, but they had done a thorough and good job of isolating me from family and my former life. CJ was all I knew until I left.

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Thought Reform

What is thought reform, and how does it affect us? Is it really true that my thoughts can be reformed by another person? They are so personal, and so integral to who I am, how is this possible? Is this a real thing?

Well, look at non-threatening examples from your life. When was the last time you asked for advice from a trusted friend, doctor, teacher? You listened to what they had to say, and their input probably influenced your decision making, right? For example, maybe you hate to take pills, but your doctor says these pills will kill the virus you are suffering from, so you take them against your desire. They work, reinforcing the idea that following instructions from others can sometimes be very good.

Say you just became a Christian, and are looking for advice on how to live a good life. You listen to the minister/spiritual teacher, and try to understand their instructions. Even if some of it crosses your comfort zone (say getting up and praying from midnight to one every night), you have learned in life that could work. “The purpose of indoctrination in cults is, in essence, to convince inductees that what they are gaining is far more important than what they are losing.” (Ron Burks, ICSA Today, Vol. 5 No. 3, 2014)

Where or when does input (teaching) from others cross the line and begin to intrude on your personal freedom? First you have to define for yourself what freedom is. “The sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word ‘liberty'” (Abraham Lincoln). While the sheep (cult member) may thank you for intervening and saving them from the control of a cult, the wolf (cult leader) will decry your interference of their grand, God-given mission to save the sheep from their sins. The wolf will never see it from the sheep’s viewpoint, because it is a wolf. It can only see its own goal, drive, desires. There is always a power differential in cults, and the leader will wield that power unconscionably because they feel they are called by God to do so. They are not concerned with society’s concerns about individual freedom. As CJ leaders loved to say, “Christianity is not a Democracy”.

The other saying that was used frequently was “…bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.” (2 Cor. 10:5). The catch was that the obedience had to be expressed to God by expressing it to the CJ leaders (or those they appointed from time to time), and the captivity was to the instructions of the leaders, not self-derived criteria. In word they said we could discern the will of God on our own, but in practice they expected complete obedience to every directive they pronounced. Being convinced by their persuasion that this ‘temporary’ servitude would bring forth the fruits of the Spirit, we persevered.

Persuasion happens all the time; advertising and political rants being two examples. Actual thought reform takes time and repetition, and a closed religious community is a perfect place to practice it. The other place it was so successful was the Korean prison-camps. Lifton’s 8 criteria explain in more detail how it happens. (Lifton, 1961, Thought reform and the psychology of totalism.)

This is why it is so necessary to teach critical thinking in school, High school ideally, at least in College. Once you have had your mind influenced by the intensity of thought reform, getting out is only the beginning of recovery. Getting away from the source of the pressure is the first step. Then you have to rediscovery your own thought processes. “Former members frequently avoid exercising their freedom because of the challenges freedom brings after a cult experience: anxiety, boredom, loss of a sense of purpose and meaning.” (Ron Burks, ICSA Today, Vol. 5 No. 3, 2014). That is the challenge.

I laud and applaud the courage of ex-members. We have a daunting task ahead of us, and we tackle it. We persevere. We ask the hard questions. We don’t take bs anymore, because we have had our full of that. And more often than not we face the anxiety, boredom, loss of purpose, and we dig deep and find our selves, our true desires, and true beliefs. Life is full of choices, and we make them. Step by step, small choice by small choice, we create a life for ourselves. Whether you believe in Divine guidance or not, it all comes down to the choices we make each day that bring us step by step to our healing. Perhaps there is a loving God guiding our choices, protecting us from harm, and perhaps it is our own inner spirit that guides our choices. Either way, it is our life, and we are living it.

 

The term “brainwashing”

Here is a link to an interesting and informative talk about what “brainwashing” is. I found this talk by Dr. Zablocki to be concise and helpful in understanding what it is, when it is, and how we get influenced by it.

I was especially struck that I was not brainwashed into the cult, but rather the process was used to convince me to stay. I joined because it seemed good at the time. It took convincing to make me stay once I began to object to the practices. Those objections were a threat and had to be suppressed, and that’s where the pressure came from the leadership and the others in the group.

 

Similarities

I was reading an article written by someone who had been recruited by ISKON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) and was struck by some similarities to what I had experienced at The Community of Jesus. The article was written by Nori Muster in the ICSA Today magazine, Vol. 5, No 1, 2014.

“The ISKON gurus wanted us to erase any non-ISKON parts of ourselves. They preached that we were dogs before we met them…As a compliant and emotionally needy young person, I obediently disowned more than two decades of memories and threw away…anything associated with my karmi (pre-ISKON) life. Erasing my precult self took away both my inner strength and my ability to think rationally.” (Muster, p. 7) This echoes my experience. The leaders at CJ preached that our lives before coming to the Community were completely sinful, and only by following the way that they provided, that they said we had been “called to”, could we be free from the hold that our sin had on us. They told me to cut any contact with my parents, which I reluctantly did. That was a painful time. My parents had done nothing to deserve the cut, and were hurt by it. It would be 13 years before I would write them again. The leaders at CJ taught us that nothing we had accomplished before coming to CJ was of any value. It was only the life of obedience within CJ that had value. Anything else was steeped in pride and was a hindrance. My husband and I had come from years as hippies, so I did not have a college degree or a career or many physical possessions, so it was not that drastic on a material level. It was with the family and friend connections that I felt the pain of separation. By demanding this kind of separation from any former identification, the Community was successful in taking away any critical thinking I had, or any ability to compare this new life with anything else.

“Writing key scenes from my pre-ISKON life helped me reconnect with my precult self and was therefore a major part of the therapeutic process.” (Muster, p. 7) I also have found this act of writing to be key in reclaiming my identity and life. When I left, I did not feel that I had a former life. I did not reconnect to who I was before I left, because I didn’t know who that was. At first I wrote about my years at CJ. Then I did begin to look further back, and remember and write about my childhood. That was very helpful in seeing how the difficult things about my family life had set me up to be manipulated by CJ. Later it also began to help me see some of the positive things about my childhood, and to remember the good parts of who I was back then. That was an awesome realization, to remember who I was before CJ life. That has helped me to feel more secure in my new life, because it is again based on who I am, not who CJ wanted me to be.

I wish all who have left a destructive High Demand Group (cult) the security, love, acceptance, time, and leisure to process and find the joy of a new life.

Happy Holidays!

Why cults are Harmful

I would like to share some excerpts from an article I read in the ICSA Today journal (ICSA Today, vol. 5, No. 1, 2014). This article was written by Doni Whitsett, and was helpful to me for understanding how the cult could so deeply affect me.

“Forty years ago, for example, battered women were often said to have an unconscious, masochistic motivation to be punished. Today, however, it is widely recognized that social-psychological factors in the current environment can better explain such puzzling toleration of pain” (Whitsett, p. 2). This speaks to the shame that we ex-members sometimes feel after we leave. I looked back at what I had endured, and wondered how I could have stood it for so long. I felt ashamed that I had not “woken up” sooner, not realizing that there were forces at play that were beyond my ability to see or to change.

“…neurobiological speculation is worthwhile because it reinforces the growing tendency among mental-health professionals to look toward biological explanations of the maladaptive behaviors associated with trauma, thereby reducing the tendency to blame traumatized clients…” (Whitsett, p. 2).  While in the cult I was taught that all my problems were because of my sin, thereby blocking any tendency to look at environment or group behaviors. The truth is, there was good reason to be upset with our life. Reasons that had their basis in how badly we treated each other, and in the unreasonable physical demands that we constantly lived under. One example is the lack of sleep that I was constantly affected by, making it difficult to think clearly.

“High-demand, cultic groups insist on linkages but prohibit differentiation” (Whitsett, p. 3). We were linked in our practices, disciplines, and projects that we worked on together. Our goal was to be “one in the Spirit”, but in our group that went beyond a harmonious unity, and there was no room for being an individual.

“Cult practices change the brain” (Whitsett, p. 3) There is a lot of science now behind this statement, including PET scans that show how the brain either activates or shuts down depending on environment and stimuli. These practices can change adult brains, and are particularly dangerous on the development of children’s brains.

“…from dissociation to remembering (lack of integration to integration)… (Whitsett, p. 5). I’ve learned a valuable lesson recently about remembering. I can find words to speak of what I remember happening while I lived in the cult. This is different than re-living the experiences. If I get triggered back into the vividness of the experience, that part of me is overwhelmed and cannot find the words to describe the incredible suffering I experienced. If I can stay grounded in the present, in my whole self who is living my new life, I can integrate that past part of me, stay in control if you will, and it becomes a memory that I can describe, without being overwhelmed. This is the wonderful job of and benefit of therapy that has helped me to integrate my past into my present.

“The third phase of Herman’s recovery model is from stigmatized isolation to social connection” (Whitsett p. 5). This is a process I am still working on. So much better than when I first left, a work in process, but an important work. I have found that isolation breeds depression, so I am making efforts to get out and do things. The default is to stay safe and to stay home, so it does take a bit of effort, but that effort pays off in making me feel connected and happy.

Sleep

SLEEP

Sleep is optional,

didn’t you know?

Our work’s for God,

so if you’re low

on energy,

it’s sin.

It became normal. I was always tired. I left, and I was still tired. Always.

Sleep was optional, even when I had the option, I couldn’t.

It was such a habit to not sleep.

Therapy. Neurofeedback. Expressing and dealing with all kinds of things.

Sleep started coming. In fits and starts. It was a cause for celebration on the rare times I got 8 hours. 5 was normal. 4 was do-able. 6 was good. 7 was excellent. 8 was celebratory.

Years.

Then, it started to shift.

But even then I would sabotage myself and stay up late, get up early to practice avoidance in the form of on-line gaming.

Avoidance. A coping habit. A protective strategy to survive. It worked well for me when I was in. Not so well now that I am out.

More therapy, talk, tears, release.

Now I’m on the other side of the fence. Still near it, though. Close enough that 8 hours is not normal yet, but 6 and 7 are. Smiley face. 8 is bliss.

Part of me doesn’t want to sleep. Waste of time. Those night hours are the only ones that are “mine”. (Cult-coping strategy)

Light-bulb moment. I feel good when I get enough rest. When I feel good, I can enjoy my day. I feel like doing things instead of just existing. Duh. But not “duh” when you have had to cope with trauma for so long.

Now most of me wants to sleep so I can feel good the next day and enjoy my life. YEAH!!!

I was asked how these “red flags” played out for me in my life at CJ. My response to each point is italicized.

So what constitutes a cult? Eichel listed several factors: (LaRosa, 2017)

  • “Beware of any kind of pressure. That’s probably the single most important advice I can give anyone. Any kind of pressure to make a quick decision about becoming involved in any intensive kind of activity or organization.”
  • Pressure was put on me from the very beginning. I speak some about this in my blog posting of March 2014 entitled “Thumbnail History and Teachings”. In our first meeting with Cay and Judy, Judy yelled at us, expressed a great amount of anger, and made sure we knew that we were to be obedient to the letter of the word, and that we were not to take any independent action. The teaching centered on exposing daily, continuous sin and a lot of pressure was put on us daily in the households to tell each other where we were wrong in everything we did. The new people (us) did not get to speak to others, but were the recipients of this “wisdom and love”. I was pressured to take vows, not overtly, but peer pressure, the desire to be seen as dedicated and spiritual, and knowing what the leaders wanted all contributed to me making a quick decision about vows. If the leaders said they thought I should be in a group (Band, Choir, Art, an office, etc.)I felt great pressure to acquiesce right away. There was no opportunity to go away and think about it. If I said ‘no’ I was considered to have a rebellious spirit.
  • “Be wary of any leader who proclaims him or herself as having special powers or special insight. And, of course, divinity.”
  • Cay and Judy pretended to be humble. According to them, they were just 2 housewives who read the Bible and tried to apply it to everyday life. In word they said they were not special. But they also said that they heard God speak to them directly. Betty P. once said to me that when she prayed she heard God’s voice audibly. C&J taught as if they had the truth, the whole truth. They taught absolute obedience, and came down hard on anyone who questioned or doubted their teachings. By this negative reinforcement they showed that they believed they were always right. Betty said that because God had put her into the role of leadership, that He guided her, and what she heard in prayer was always His will. I dared to semi-question her once when we were talking about how to handle a problematic sister, and she shut me up abruptly and severely. A few weeks later she said I had resisted her and “fought” her. Hardly. I was meek and was just trying to give my viewpoint about that sister, which happened to differ slightly from her viewpoint. I didn’t think she was as bad as Betty and the other sister were saying she was.
  • “The group is closed, so in other words, although there may be outside followers, there’s usually an inner circle that follows the leader without question, and that maintains a tremendous amount of secrecy.”
  • We were very closed from the outside world. We even went through a year of discipline/training where we were not allowed to watch TV or read newspapers or magazines. I also behaved very differently when strangers were around. I was always smiling and saying how blessed and happy my life was, even when I was crying inside. New members were treated well at first, especially if they had money to donate. But even they, after years of commitment, were subjected to humiliating treatment, ostensibly to deal with their sin. The vowed members had meetings that the non-vowed people could not come to. In those meetings we talked about the ‘deeper life’, that life we were supposed to get to through “the daily cross of dying to our sin”. Even for vowed members, there was an inner circle. Cay and Judy, and then Betty would pick those people who were the most compliant to be close to them and help with the running of the organization. They were called the Council, and on paper were supposed to be advisors, and a check and balance for the leadership. I knew that was in word only and that Cay and Judy, and then Betty, held sway and gave all directions. Their word was law, and more important than God’s. I did not compare what she said to the Bible to see if it was in line with God’s word. I accepted her edicts as the word of God.
  • “The group uses deceptive means, typically, to recruit new members, and then once recruited will subject its members to an organized program of thought reform, or what most people refer to as brainwashing.”
  • I wish I had the transcripts of the early teachings. They would show the progression of mind control that we went through. We are all lovey-dovey to the outside world, proclaiming how wonderful our life is, and how happy we all are. And yet in the Convent and in the homes I saw every day how miserable, unhappy, stressed and anxious everyone was. Once someone becomes a member, they are put in a household, and the head of that household is their ‘counselor’. That counselor makes sure they learn obedience. “God Blesses Obedience” is a clarion call of CJ. It might be true in some cases, but it is used at CJ to make you give up your own thinking. The mind control is insidious because it is cloaked in Christianity, and scripture is used in a warped way to make you think God wants this of you.
  • “Typically cults also exploit their members…. mostly financially. Within the group, they’ll exploit members financially, psychologically, emotionally and, all too often, sexually.”
  • My husband and I were exploited financially in that we could never save any money for our own future or our children’s future. We were pressured all the time to give money to CJ. We could never get ahead, even when he had a good paying job. Those who came with lots of money gave most of it to CJ. I have heard rumors of sexual abuse, but have no proof. The emotional and psychological abuse/exploitation was extreme. I suffered greatly because of it. It would take a book to go into all the ways this happened, and I am trying to write that book. A few of the ways: constant humiliation, constant fear of having my inner life exposed (sin-hunting), having my children taken away from me and raised by others, never having my talents recognized, never receiving any help for my emotional turmoil – being told I should just ‘give it up’, etc.
  • “A very important aspect of cult is the idea that if you leave the cult, horrible things will happen to you. This is important, and it’s important to realize. That people outside of a cult are potential members, so they’re not looked upon as negatively as people inside the cult who then leave the cult.”
  • The leaders taught, often, that if you left your ‘call’ you would be out from under the protection of God, and all manner of bad things would happen to you, your life would spin out of control, you would end up on the streets, homeless, a junkie, a whore, etc. When someone did leave we were told to not think of them, not contact them, refuse to answer any contact from them. They were dead to us. And yet someone kept track because we would hear of any bad things that happened, and it would be said that proved how God would not protect those who left. An even greater pressure was the teaching that if you left, you would be breaking your promise to God, that you would be a Judas, an unforgivable sin. You would be turning your back on God if you left. That is why it took me so long to leave, and I was afraid God would strike me down. I took my vows seriously. Cay and Judy said they may be Christians out there somewhere that were living a committed life, but they had not met them. Betty P. said that everyone outside of CJ was “dead” (meaning spiritually). We were the special group with the special call.