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Jeruba's avatar

If you have ever belonged to a cult, how did you get out?

Asked by Jeruba (48719points) August 22nd, 2009

Here’s one definition of a destructive cult.

If you have ever been a member of an organization of this sort, what did it take to extract you? Did you come to your own understanding, or were you subjected to an intervention? Did you escape, or were you rescued? Are you still pursued? Are you afraid?

Looking back, do you see any good in it?

This question is a spinoff from this one.

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15 Answers

eponymoushipster's avatar

by some of the definitions in that link, Catholicism is a cult.

simone54's avatar

so is Fluther.

patg7590's avatar

@simone54 I was just going to say that lol

augustlan's avatar

MontyZuma has said that he was a member of Scientology for a period of time. Interesting question, Jeruba.

Jeruba's avatar

Yes, but derailed before a single real response was posted.

gailcalled's avatar

I had a young friend (in his twenties) whose family hired someone to kidnap and deprogram him. It was difficult for everyone but ultimately successful. This was 20 years ago, however.

wundayatta's avatar

Hmmm. Cult? Culture? Every group develops its norms and standards of proper behavior. Some try to isolate the members of the group from the rest of humanity. They take on more of an “us vs. them” approach.

I think that people who join cults are looking for a sense of belonging. They are often people who have big questions about the meaning of life and what they are supposed to do, and they are susceptible to groups that provide answers for these things.

I’ve never joined a cult, and I’ve never really known someone who has, so I’m not sure I’m on the right track here. However, my sense is that people tend to leave cults of their own will, when they get a stronger sense of self or the reasoning of the cult stops making sense. Sometimes it’s just because they’ve grown older, and start to see themselves as being taken advantage of. Eventually they figure out they don’t need the cult any more.

There are deprogrammers, but I don’t trust that sort of thing. I believe that you can’t force someone to think one way or another. Efforts to do that, I believe, come from a kind of righteousness that probably is related to why the person they want to “deprogram” went into the cult in the first place.

I would not want to dismiss cult experiences as a phase. I think they give people something they need—something they are looking for in a desperate way. Unfortunately, they also get taken advantage of. It’s life, though. We make mistakes. We learn. Each of us has a different path, and I really think it’s not up to any of us to tell others what they have to do. We can offer advice if asked. But we tell people they should do something at our own peril. Believe me. I’ve gotten myself in a lot of hot water with “shoulds” over the years. I still do.

bcstrummer's avatar

Just leave, if they harass you, call the authorities

Jeruba's avatar

It’s not all that easy to get up and walk out. A tremendous amount of pressure is applied to keep people inside and also to keep them separated from anyone who might help them get away. There’s a counterattack for every doubt and enormous psychological pressure to keep a person from questioning or going against the group. I am hoping that someone who’s done it will tell us whether there was an internal realization that dawned despite the brainwashing and led to their wanting to flee or they had to be brought to that point through some external agency.

I’ve read eight or ten books on this general subject, including Deborah Layton’s, which really showed vividly how easily a person can be drawn in and held fast by the techniques of control. It took her a long while to realize what Jim Jones’s organization really was about and a lot longer to make her escape. Some of his followers were true believers to the end; many more were victims. Combating Mind Control by former Moonie Stephen Hassan contains a lot of information about how well defended cult members are against assaults on their conviction and how to overcome them.

I had a friend who realized that she and her husband and two small children had joined the wroooong organization. They had thought they were going to work to make the world a better place. Instead it turned out to be one of those many organizations with a charismatic leader who exerted sexual power over members, required cutting off from outside family, etc. It took them a while to realize that they were part of a huge deception. She and her husband had to wait a long time for their opportunity, and when it came, they ran with the children, leaving everything, everything they owned, from money in the bank to an unfinished dinner on the table. Years later they were still looking over their shoulder because they knew the true loyal followers would come after them if they were told to.

If someone here has actually been completely immersed in one of those organizations, can you describe how the process of returning to the outside world began in you and how it was accomplished?

Zuma's avatar

@Jeruba No, it isn’t easy to just walk out, especially if you still believe any of it, which you almost can’t help doing because you are systematically cut off from all outside sources of information. I was in Scientology for 4.5 years in the late 60s.

It was a very regimented, totally enveloping life, where you are under the constant surveillance of your fellows and everyone feels honor bound to rat out any sign of backsliding, criticism or deviation. Scientology is particularly pernicious because it employs an e-meter which, in the hands of a skilled practitioner, allows them to probe your most hidden thoughts. In addition, your every waking moment is programmed with activities, and you are often sleep-deprived and undernourished, so you’re always off balance.

Most cults use you up and spit you out. The first couple of years there is a kind of honeymoon where you are moving up in the organization and everything is opening up and you are gaining status in the group. People leave but you don’t know them very well, so you believe what they tell you about whatever dastardly thing they did against the group that requires them to be excommunicated. After a while, people you know will suddenly disappear, and it starts to dawn on you that they’ve been screwed over. By now you are trusted enough to become privy to executive level information and you begin to see a patterns of deliberate mismanagement, exploitation and deceit. It takes a while to figure out that these are no accident or local failing by local leaders; the rot really does come from the top.

In my case, I became privy to an order that Hubbard had given to reduce the level of services that people had already paid for, in effect, screwing them out of about half their cash. I had also gotten sick in North Africa with an intestinal parasite which remained undiagnosed, causing me to waste away until I got out and finally got proper medical attention.

Unlike a legit outfit, cults typically don’t go to much expense to take care of you when you get sick; they declare you a liability and start edging you out. In the Scientology belief system, anything bad that happens to you, you bring on yourself.

Even then it was difficult to make a break for it because I had no money and no place to run to and no way to get there. The isolation and privation were extreme. Like everyone else, I had signed a contract, which was a completely one-sided deal in which I pledged my all to them in exchange for being able to improve myself through membership in the group. I saw my opening when they offered an amnesty for anyone who wanted to leave without penalty before they instituted some new ethics codes that would have permitted group punishments. But this was a “let 100 flowers bloom” kind of ploy and I was declared a traitor to the group, which still hurt me very much.

I had enough for a plane ticket home and managed to get a church member to drive me to the airport. After I got away, they kept sending me harassing letters, telling me I owed them $35,000 for all the services I had received from them (a lot of which were staff training). It was preposterous, of course, they owed me far more for the fair market value of the labor I provided them. Still, it was like having a dagger twisted in my gut. I went back to school and kept a low profile for a good 10 years. I was pretty sick and depressed when I got out. The parasite was gotten rid of by $1.45 worth of red dye, andeventually I built a new life.

Things are much worse for the people in Scientology now. They have instituted these kind of disciplinary brigades, called the Deck Project Force, which is kind of like a cross between communist thought reform camp and a chain gang. The indoctrination, surveillance and mind control are unbelievably intense, as you can imagine they must be given all the dirt on them that circulates freely on the Internet.

Scientology are real motherfuckers. Shortly after I left it came to light that they had infiltrated, the IRS, the FBI, MI-6, and Interpol. So, the suggestion to “just leave and call the authorities if they bother you” is like telling a depressed person to “have a nice day.” Cults play for keeps and this one is one of the worst in that regard. They sue critics. And if you sue them, they drag it out for years. They have done things like break into people’s houses, steal their stationery and write threatening letters on it to the Secretary of State. Or they will put PCP or LSD in your toothpaste or toothbrush the day you are supposed to testify against them in court. They spend most of their vast fortune on just this sort of stuff.

If you think I am kidding, read L. Ron Hubbard: Madman or Messiah by Brent Corydon. I knew many of the people in that book, and I know from personal knowledge that what he says is true, at least the parts I was privy to.

I was on my own as far as deprogramming went. School was a great help, even if grad school was a bit like a cult in some respects.

Prison can become a cult for some. Young guys looking for a way to fit in get seduced into joining some race-based gang and get sucked into some white supremacist, La Raza, or Muslim mindfuck bullshit. They get orders to kill someone of another race and the crime binds them to the gang, which basically owns them from then on. There are no “deprogrammers” from that deal.

wundayatta's avatar

Ah, Monty. I’m glad you made it out. You say you saw your opening when they offered amnesty, but could you say more about your thinking/awakening process that made you ready to take that opening when it happened?

Also, how do they keep you isolated? Are you way out in the middle of nowhere or something?

I once went into a Scientology storefront when I was maybe 22. They gave me a Scientology book, which I never actually read. It was too boring for me, I guess. They did seem like nice people, but I think I was wary of them already, and just went in to see what they would be like.

Zuma's avatar

@daloon They are nice people, since they have given over everything for a higher purpose, namely to save the world. It’s the leadership and the organization that is corrupt.

Most staff members live in dorms or, if they are married, in an apartment house the church buys for the purpose. (They are often so overcrowded that you have to dismantle and hide your bed in case there is a public health inspection.) You eat your meals in a common mess. You work or study 16 hours or more a day 6 and a half days a week and you get paid what would now probably be about $25 a week, out of which you have to pay for your clothing, haircuts, laundry, snacks, cigarettes, and other incidentals.

You don’t always get the one half day off, but when you do, its very easy to sleep through. If the organization hasn’t made more money in the current week than it did the week before, then liberties are cancelled and you are stuck writing cold call letters to people in their central files, or stuffing envelopes for a mass mailing. They purposely don’t buy automated mailing equipment even though they rely heavily on bulk mail; but use what we used to call “coolie labor” instead. This keeps you too busy and tired to think about leaving. In a very short time, the boundaries of your life contract to a routine of work, study, eat and sleep. Its very intense.

They have a paramilitary organization called the Sea Org, and they live and train on ships. Its not so easy to run away when you are surrounded by water, or in a foreign country and they have your passport. So, yes, I was out in the middle of somewhere, once an island in the middle of the Atlantic. But the main constraints are social and psychological control. Everyone has what they call a “personal ruin” a thing about themselves that they desperately want to have fixed, or a thing that “explains” everything that is wrong with them. They string you along promising you that this will get taken care of somewhere along the line—on your next level for sure. Actually, they promise you godlike powers that will fix whatever ails you and more; so you stick around to see. In my case, my “personal ruin” was my homosexuality, which when I finally came to terms with it on my own, removed any psychological hold they had over me.

If you screw up, you can find yourself handcuffed to a pipe, or locked in a 6’x6’ room with five other people while come 6’6’ Lithuanian guy in an SS uniform demands that you write down all your life’s transgressions and an essay on who you are. This can go on for days and days while being fed on bread and water. I was once handcuffed to a pipe for leaving some confidential materials in a place where somebody could snatch them away from me. But I soon became pretty good at picking handcuffs and making roof-top escapes. It was like a James Bond movie with more villains and fewer guns. The amazing drama of it all also tends to keep you hooked.

In the course of your “auditing” you tell them all your secrets, so the potential for blackmail or retaliation is a consideration that holds some people in. I was only 19 when I joined, and such a Boy Scout, there wasn’t much to tell. I was like their 4th ranking person in North America by the time I was 22, so it wasn’t until I got sick that I had to face the prospect of moving down in the hierarchy.

But there were a series of scandals that started to get to me. One was their institution of an intensive “executive briefing” course to train their high level executives. The graduates from these 9-month courses would come back all fired up, believing that they could push their organization’s incomes up by sheer willpower alone. They got together and instituted a policy called “crush sell” which consisted of hauling in church members and keeping them in a room where they were verbally brow-beaten, cajoled, pressured, and subtly threatened until they signed over a substantial chunk of money for future services. They would dress like gangsters, smoke cigars and hold little old lady’s hands tightly until their wedding rings hurt—anything to get the income statistic up.

The problem was that they were simply gathering all the low-hanging fruit. They were collecting payment for services they were in no way prepared to deliver. Everyone was exuberant, these wunderkind were living proof that Scientology worked. They were being celebrated and promoted. Unfortunately, all they had done is create a huge debt, which would be very problematic to deliver since there would be no income stream when all these people who had paid in advance came in for services. Apparently, I was the only one to see this coming, and there was no secure channel for me to report that we needed to end crush sell before it destabilized all our organizations.

When it was my turn to take this course on Hubbard’s flagship in Morocco, I got to see what went on at the world headquarters. I found out certain disheartening things like all the internal intelligence I collected an analyzed in my reports were filed unread. The only thing they looked at was the Gross Income statistic. They had a sense of omniscience and total control, but in fact they had no idea what was going on. It was all posture, bluster and magical thinking. I was shocked.

I talked them into letting me stay on to do internships in all the top bureaus before I went back, and I finally got the ear of someone highly placed enough to make a difference and blew the whistle on the whole crush sell thing. Heads rolled. People were sent to the Scientological equivalent of Siberia (Boston); policy letters banning the practice were issued; I got a small bump up in my Sea Org rank, and I was shipped back to my old job in the States while I convalesced from my wasting sickness. But it soon became clear to me that I was just being sidelined to a place where people could keep an eye on me.

Then a telex came down from Hubbard himself ordering that a new schedule of services be put in effect that would raise the prices of the services that people had essentially already paid for, screwing them out of a third to a half of the value they paid for. By then, the income stream had dropped off and the local executives were being blamed for it. It was then that Hubbard revised Scientology’s “Ethics” codes to permit group punishments whenever Gross Income took a downturn. These would consist of multiple all-nighters and reductions in pay. So, in effect, staff members were being punished for the lingering effects of crush sell. I was thoroughly disgusted and disillusioned. When stuff like that happened before, it was usually laid off on one of Hubbard’s underlings. This, however, was a felony.

I would have left without the amnesty, but since I was head of the Executive Bureau for North America, and in charge of Scientology’s “Ethics” system at that level, I felt I had an obligation to set a good example and do things by the book. But following policy is not their strong suit, plus they really have no experience with amicable partings.

Jeruba's avatar

@MontyZuma, this is exactly what I was looking for, and I am amazed and grateful to you for writing it. I think more people need to understand that these things aren’t eccentric little fellowships that you can just walk away from.

Now I am also worried on your account. Haven’t you effectively identified yourself to people within the organization, especially in that last paragraph? Have you put yourself in any danger?

I hardly dare ask any more of you, but I wonder if you have thoughts on these remaining parts of my question:

— Are you still pursued? Are you afraid?
— Looking back, do you see any good in it?

I might add that Jim Jones’s organization kept people isolated right in the middle of the city of San Francisco, long before they got to the remote jungle settlement in Guyana. No one was ever allowed to be alone until they had become part of the trusted inner circle, and people went about in groups that watched one another and ratted on one another. Confessions (including false confessions) were part of the culture, and so were public punishments and humiliations. If you are surrounded constantly by enslaved believers, worked until you drop, and subjected to intense propaganda and proof-of-loyalty sessions at all hours of the day and night, having a single thought of your own is almost more than you can manage.

Even in the relatively innocuous context of a marriage or personal partnership, a family, or a friendship, with physical freedom and plenty of exposure to the rest of the world, it is possible for one person to psychologically dominate another to the point that the victim doubts his or her own sense of reality and gives over control of his or her will. In an environment that is explicitly constructed to have that effect many times over, which of us has the power to withstand it? In more than thirty years of reading on this subject, I have never thought I did, and I do not easily believe anything.

Zuma's avatar

@Jeruba No, this was 30 years ago. They have bigger fish to fry.

One of the things that maybe I haven’t stressed enough is the intensity of mutual surveillance you are under. If one person doesn’t rat you out for something you said or did or didn’t do, someone else will, and they will rat out the person who should have reported you but didn’t.

For a couple of months I was an “Ethics Officer,” which is kind of like a being a Gestapo agent. Everyone has a dossier, and everybody is writing little back-biting “chits” on everybody else, and these all get filed in their dossiers. Then, whenever there is trouble (say, cash missing from the petty cash drawer), you round up the most likely subjects and give them a security check. This is done with an e-meter and it is very effective; at least, I could never conceal anything from them. Every once in a while an Executive will take a dislike to someone and order a Committee of Evidence, which is like a kangaroo court composed of your very scared peers, who pretty much always find you guilty of something, just to show how loyal they are. This can lead to anything from excommunication, to being chained to a water heater, to scrubbing floors all night.

Its very difficult to find anyone who will openly agree with you that something in the organization is bullshit. “Nattering” is a reportable offense, and is considered prima facia evidence that the person has committed transgressions against the group (which is always a safe bet because anything that is not forbidden is compulsory). So, its very difficult to get the kind of reality checking that friends normally provide. Sometimes your eyes meet with someone else and you know they’re thinking “This is bullshit.” but even if you do quietly acknowledge it to yourself, you feel obligated to give the organization the benefit of the doubt. That is why it can take years for somebody to accumulate enough evidence to be clear and convincing enough to take action on.

wundayatta's avatar

These are very interesting stories to me. It’s fascinating to see how people can be turned into snitches, and how no one can trust anyone else. It reminds me of Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China and Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and for all I know, Myanmar and the Congo (with their child armies), and on and on.

It sheds light on how people can be made to take leave of their senses. Give them a lofty goal (and they don’t come more lofty than saving the world), a belief in the omnipotence of their leaders, and the institution of a burning desire to curry favor with the leaders, and voila: brain washing.

I assume this same mentality extended up to the highest ranks. Those in the circle around Hubbard. Did you ever meet him? From all the stories about him, it seems like he must have been such a cynical man. Or perhaps a sociopath of some kind. He found he could manipulate people and gain power, and nothing stopped him from doing it, once he figured out he could. Certainly not his own conscience.

Do you have any views on his death? Did he die? Was it an accident? Murder?

What I also find amazing is that the organization still—- well, “thrives” is probably the wrong term for something so sickly and perverted as this—but lives on without seeming to be endangered by anything. What’s worse, is that it is a product of the supposed cradle of freedom. Unfortunately, these kinds of organizations must be useful in some specific environments, or they wouldn’t keep persisting. It’s so sad, though. I’m glad you were able to get out, and this places some of your subsequent history in a quite different light.

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