The Allure of the Cult: A Facade of Safety

“I love you and I want to marry you,” he said, 6 weeks into our relationship. I was shocked. “My pastor [and his protégé] said we need to get married or break up.”

Sometimes I wonder how I bought into the idea of getting engaged and married so quickly. It never seemed quite right. Still, I had felt guilty about tempting a born-again Christian man, who’d ignored me for a week after we’d slept together so that he could take some time to think things through. When he came back with this proposal, explaining how his pastor worried “what it would do to me” if he just broke up with me, it seemed like marriage was the right idea. My boyfriend listened to his pastor and did what he wanted; I followed along, excited by the romance of it all and the fact that I was falling in love.

In a way, it makes a lot of sense. For most of my life, I’ve been searching for the ideal. I’ve been looking for the right formula that would lead me to comfort, safety, beauty, and freedom. I looked for this at home as a child, where I tried to complete all of my chores perfectly, organize all of my toys, and say the right things to my mom. I looked for this at school, when I tried to perfect my handwriting and correct the teacher’s mistakes. I tried to fit myself into an ideal physical form as a dancer through dieting and image management. The pursuits I embarked on never quite worked. They never led to comfort or freedom. When I met a man who thought he knew all the answers, I was easily persuaded. I was in love and at a vulnerable turning point in my life. My borderline mom had not prepared me for healthy relationships, marriage, or a healthy form of spirituality. For a moment I thought I had found all the answers with a good man and God.

Before I knew it, I was heavily immersed in a Christian cult with a narcissistic, authoritarian pastor. It started with a philosophy class. My now-husband has always been a smooth talker. After a few sweet dates he convinced me to take a philosophy course with him at school (a community college, where the confused often congregate). At first I thought it was a strange but interesting idea. Looking back, I realize it was an indoctrination. I enjoyed it at the time; we talked about the soul, the meaning of life, and some tough questions. I appreciated my boyfriend’s desire for truth and found his principled way of looking at things comforting. It seemed very different than both the chaotic environment in which I grew up and the fickle arts world of which I was a part.

I didn’t realize that I was about to join a cult while we were taking the philosophy class. I didn’t realize this pastor would not only tell us that we must marry, but that we shouldn’t leave the state because no other church is as faithful. I didn’t realize that the church members would follow what the pastor said about pretty much anything, including sexual specifics not mentioned in the Bible. I didn’t know at the time that the philosophy class was a prerequisite to attending the church, and that others weren’t welcome. I didn’t recognize that the pastor would bear strange resemblances to my narcissistic mother, and that instead of the comfort of God I would feel manipulated, controlled and shamed. (At one point, we were discouraged to speak or write to any other Christian leaders about questions because we were told that no one in the world was as knowledgeable and correct as our pastor.) It was a spiritual disaster.

Thankfully, I was able to recognize that things did not feel right. It might be one of the first times that I was truly able to “trust my gut,” before I ever really knew what that meant. I left the church alone and with much effort, I eventually convinced my husband to leave as well. He was told I was sinning, like Eve, and that he needed to be a man and rein me in. We left with spiritual scars that are still healing. My husband lost his closest friends. I lost my illusion of a fairy tale.

There were many times during my experience in a Christian cult, and in the aftermath of that experience, that I wonder how I got there. How did I buy into it all? How was I so easily manipulated? When you have a narcissistic, borderline mother, you learn to look outside of yourself for answers, even to private questions. It was natural for me to do this. In a way, I think that at the time I liked the consistency of it all: it seemed there would always be someone around to control me, whether it was my mom, my husband, or the church.

During my young adult life, I was often impressed by my religious acquaintances and their ability to weather the storms of life. They seemed to possess a self-confidence and sense of worth that I longed for. I remember asking a colleague, “how are they so confident?” and faith was the answer he gave. I sought out faith. I was the ultimate seeker. But seekers can be gullible.

Since my time in a Christian cult, I have kept the faith… at least a little. I question everything now, maybe more than I should. I wonder if I ever should have gotten married. Can you love someone you just met? Was it love, lust, or guilt that brought us together? The journey hasn’t been easy, and in many ways it has led me back to where I started, searching for comfort and peace.

The other night, I told my husband that I’m not sure I ever really felt comfortable with him— & that I definitely didn’t feel totally comfortable right before we got married. He asked me if I ever feel truly comfortable in relationships. It was a fair question, & a good question for me to ponder. There are many times I feel comfortable with friends, but if I’m totally honest I do often feel uncomfortable in romantic relationships. The fear of enmeshment, the fear of commitment, the fear of not being good enough… it’s a lot. These aren’t fears that go away because an institution is ordained by God or even if you are with a person who is a good fit. I wonder if I was even in touch with these fears prior to marriage. Looking back, I really wish we’d had more time to know each other before marriage. I believe we could have cared for one another better and avoided some of the heartache we experienced. The pastor who rushed us wasn’t truly looking out for our best interest (in my opinion). He was looking for people who’d submit to his authority.

While my husband and I were dating, we watched a film by M. Night Shayamalan called “The Village,” in which a community escapes their past by moving into the woods to create a sort of utopia apart from others. It was somewhat ironic that we watched that movie while we were also trying to escape our broken pasts by becoming members of this “elite,” cultic church. The escaping didn’t work in the movie or for us. It only created a web of issues for us to untangle.

When you are raised in an unstable environment, it is hard to obtain or maintain a general sense of emotional comfort and safety in life. For the first time, I’m looking for comfort from within. Boundaries give me comfort. Self-expression brings me comfort. My personal relationship with God gives me comfort. I don’t need to grasp for comfort from others or expect to find it there. A formula is much less useful than my own ability to check in with myself in a radically honest way. I’m starting to believe that maybe it’s possible to feel safe and comfortable, right where i am.

Have you ever found yourself in a sea of organized chaos, wondering how you got there? Have you given church leaders too much power? Please respond or message me if you have any thoughts you’d like to share.

In light & love,

p.s. This book is extremely helpful if you worry you might be caught up in a cultic environment. It explains how cults often use specific verbiage (essentially creating a new language for the members) and the psychologically manipulative tactics used.

Calling It What It Is: Mental Illness

I remember the first time I told someone my mom was mentally ill. I was trying not to overexpose myself and didn’t want to go into detail about my life or dominate the conversation, so I simply stated that things have been difficult because my mom is mentally ill and had been going through an episode. Finally! One sentence explained it all. I didn’t need to explain the complicated scenario and back story, nor did I minimize it all by labeling her as “difficult” (as I imagine many children say about their parents). It was a freeing and illuminating moment, as I typed the words. Why hadn’t I thought of doing or saying that before?

It’s complicated. As children, it’s impossible at first to know that your parent is not typical. It takes an even longer time to recognize that certain behaviors are a symptom of mental illness, and not just a quirk. In my case, friends of mine and friends of my mother’s pointed these things out to me. I was unaware that her behavior wasn’t normal. I was used to reacting to her provocations and blaming myself for not being able to make things right. As an adult, it’s difficult to express that your parent is mentally ill when they themselves adamantly deny it (as denial is part of their coping mechanism). Most persons with personality disorders (especially NPD) do not believe they are mentally ill. In fact, they likely believe that you — and everyone else — are the real problem.

I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter what your parent believes, or what others think they know to be true about them. It doesn’t matter what your parent tells their therapist, their friend, the family, or their colleagues. What does matter is that you recognize the true issue: your parent has a specific mental illness that has very little potential to change.

Call it what it is, and act accordingly. Some say no contact is the only way to peace… perhaps this is true. But no contact hurts when you love someone. Others recommend a myriad of ways to become a sort of Jedi-master of deflection, redirection, validation, and non-reactivity. This is more difficult to do than no-contact, and it is especially difficult for children of personality-disordered parents; we were trained to react, always. To not react is an affront to the parent, an abandoning of sorts, and it is uncomfortable as well. Not only is it uncomfortable, it is not well-received by the PD parent. For me, it is my forever challenge. I will continue to try to have a civil relationship in which I diffuse situations and decide to ignore & disengage when things get unbearable. I’ve noticed that the sooner I choose to do this, the greater likelihood I have of preventing long periods of no contact. Having the self-discipline to know my own limits helps me to re-engage without fear of being completely engulfed. (Making a limit such as one text conversation a day, and/or one phone call a week, can provide some structure within a toxic relationship.)

There is no perfect game plan, and there is no solution. There is, however, a peace that comes from truly accepting that the term “mental illness” explains a lot. Rather than promoting a stigma, owning the fact that a family member is mentally ill can lead to radically accepting them as they are.