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TEAM ZOELLA JULY 26, 2021

“I Was In A Cult” – We Spoke To 2 People Who Have Left a Cult-Like Organisation

In this interview, we hear from the people who have experienced first-hand just how powerful cult mentality and indoctrination can be.

In modern parlance, the term ‘cult’ has become synonymous with trending beauty brands and loyal fandom communities but we’re not talking about Glossier cleansers and wholesome Swifties here.

Generally speaking, a ‘cult’ is a social group defined by its great devotion and shared commitment to an unorthodox religious, political, spiritual or philosophical ideology, isolated from the mainstream.

Typically, a cult uses coercion to exploit its followers financially, psychologically, emotionally and sometimes sexually. Through a system of mind control and thought-stopping techniques, members are led to believe they’re committing their life to something that will make them a better more enlightened version of themselves, often alienating them from non-followers family and friends in the process.

In this interview, we hear from the people who have experienced first-hand just how powerful cult mentality and indoctrination can be. We discuss how they go about recruiting members, what it’s really like to get caught up in one, common misconceptions and, most importantly, the ever-complicated business of what it takes to escape the clutches of one…

Emily – Seventh Day Adventist Church

What type of cult/organization were you part of and how did you get involved?

I was born into the Seventh-Day Adventist Church and before I was born there are at least 4 generations of followers.

What was life like day-to-day? What restrictions were imposed on you as a group?

Girls were expected to learn how to be subservient and boys were encouraged to be leaders. Emily

I was educated in the Adventist school system. So on top of our normal day to day educational curriculum, we would learn about Ellen G. White and her “visions” that led to the founding of the church. It was a very hierarchal school system, with pastors kids and church workers children being favoured by the teachers. Then kids from normal families came next, and at the bottom of the ladder were kids whose parents were divorced which is where my brother and I landed. The teachers didn’t promote bullying per se, but they did encourage what they called character building through hardship (a theme that’s really prevalent in the SDA dogma that basically states that if you go through hell in this life enough times you become more susceptible to gods “truth”). Girls were expected to learn how to be subservient and boys were encouraged to be leaders. Once I stood up for myself in the 4th grade my brother and I were “asked to leave” the school because we weren’t good role models for the immigrant children they were trying to lead to Jesus (we went to a farm school in the middle of nowhere for two years, it catered to Hispanic families who worked in the fields that made up the economy of my hometown). The levels of racism and misogyny were insane even in our very early education.

As for restrictions that were imposed on us, well I’ll make a list because it’s easier to explain that way:

  • At church girls and women were not allowed to be church leaders until very recently
  • Missions were mandatory after a certain age, if you didn’t participate you were not seen as a functional member of the churchNo working, chores, etc. from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown
  • Women until recently were “encouraged” to wear skirts and dresses (always below the knee)
  • Women clean the church
  • You should be baptized by 14 the first time, and a second time sometime in college

Day-to-Day Life

  • Men are the leaders women are the caretakers
  • No birth control
  • Being vegan or vegetarian was expected
  • Pray till your jeans wear out, this is something I heard so many times growing up, that having holes in the knees of your jeans was considered a badge of honour. It meant you spent hours upon hours on your knees communing with the father
  • We weren’t allowed to watch certain things on tv or read certain books (I read Harry Potter at 18 in secret at my SDA college because if they caught me I’d be expelled)
  • No piercings
  • No jewellery except for wedding bands and that was frowned upon in some places because it was considered self-adornment
  • Little to no makeup allowed until you are older than 16 and are of courting or dating age
  • “Modest is hottest” policy for women, so shorts and skirts go below the knees, shoulders and collar bones always covered up, encouraged to have kong hair but not mandatory. Depending on how conservative your church was some women weren’t even allowed to wear pants and shorts because Ellen White wrote about skirts specifically in her books and the length they should be.
  • Sex is only for creating babies and is not for pleasure. If you masturbate, watch porn, etc. inside of marriage you are considered to be cheating and if you engage in these and premarital sex you were basically considered a lost soul who was sadly damned.

What kind of control methods did the leader/s or your parents use?

Guilt was one major one. Always asking “What would Jesus think if he saw this now?” “You know your angel is always watching right? They even know what you’re thinking so always keep your mind pure and good.”
The other thing was fear tactics, making public displays of disowning family and friends over stupid things and making a big show of welcoming new “brothers and sisters” into the church when they followed the rules.

When it’s your friends, family, and in some cases, your faith, it’s not always easy to separate yourself from it and see that what you’re partaking in is a ‘cult’, particularly as the leaders would never label it as such. Were you aware that you were part of a destructive group, or was it only once you had left that you could gain that distance and clarity?

I wasn’t allowed to go to birthday parties on Saturdays which made me even more of an outsider, and I began to realize that any faith that separated people like this wasn’t a good one.Emily

I started to realize the “church” I was in was different in 5th grade when I went to years previously and was now in a scouts group called pathfinders which were supposed to be preparing me for the “end of days”. Well, I proudly shared this info with my classmates and was quickly ostracized for being weird. I wasn’t allowed to go to birthday parties on Saturdays which made me even more of an outsider, and I began to realize that any faith that separated people like this wasn’t a good one. I wasn’t allowed to participate in martial arts competitions because they were on Saturdays so I quit that eventually, and I stopped going to church in 7th grade because a woman called me a slut for wearing dress pants to church.

In your experience, what are some of the red flags/characteristics associated with a cult and how does it differ from a safe and respectful community/religion or group?

My red flags are:

1) What do they take away from you? Every cult will strip away everything that makes you you so they can have more control

2) Control – what are they saying you can and cannot do in your church life? Personal life? They want total control over you and your life and will make sure you know that in the “nicest way possible”.

3) They punish you – whether it’s emotional, physical, financial, or spiritual they will find a way to punish you and make you bend to them. They use guilt, physical force, and tithing as ways to punish you for not following the dogma.

Was there a catalyst moment that made you decide to leave or was it a gradual realisation?

The final straw was at our annual gathering at a campground owned and operated cousins for 10 days straight, hike around without parental supervision, and just be free for two weeks a year. I wanted to share that with a friend of mine in high school and she came with us. Well on Saturday night of the first weekend we tried to leave the campground, something id never tried to do before, and we were told we weren’t allowed to leave the camp after dark unless it was an emergency. We tried to leave a few more times that trip in the evenings just to test it out and weren’t allowed to leave. I was done after that because that was my wake up moment that this was a cult.

How difficult was it to get out and leave?

It’s been almost 15 years and I still struggle with my identity sometimes because of it. The hard part is family. Half of my family is still active in the SDA church. Emily

To be honest it was easy and hard. Leaving was the easiest decision I made. I just stopped going to church, I made plans on Saturdays, I began to find myself and tried to start building a personality for myself. It’s been almost 15 years and I still struggle with my identity sometimes because of it. The hard part is family. Half of my family is still active in the SDA church. My mom eventually left once I was in college, and my younger brother just recently left as well. But all of my aunts, uncles, cousins, and my grandparents on that side of my family are all deeply ingrained in the church and for the most part, I don’t talk to them anymore. But since I was raised with that side of the family because my parents are divorced it’s been pretty lonely since I made it clear I was never going back to that church.

How did you find integrating back into society and ‘normal’ life once you’d left?

It’s like being reborn. I was raised in the SDA church so I never knew anything different. It’s been so long and I still struggle with my self-image, with doubts about faith and religion, with guilt over things like money and relationships. I’m in therapy now, but it’s a process of deprogramming things that were beaten into you since infancy.

What are the long-lasting psychological effects you have experienced?

Anxiety, depression, long term untreated ADHD and all of the fun things that come along with that. It’s hard to make friends and even harder to trust people enough to become close with them. I dissociate for long periods of time and try to build new versions of myself that I think will be happier than the person I actually am.

What support is needed for victims of cult manipulation and how can friends and families express their concerns sensitively if they’re worried for someone they know?

Therapy, a safe place, and unconditional love and support. I’m a pretty blunt person and I told my mom straight up that the SDA church is a cult the day I read that chapter in my secular university’s religion course. The SDA church fits the definition to a T and I showed her and just said get out. Probably not the best way to go about it but it worked – other people like my brother need time and self-realization. But I think just overall providing a safe space and a place to be heard is the most important.

What is the biggest misconception about cults and /or the cult experience itself?

That everyone is a psychopath for their cults dogma and will do anything to protect it like a mindless zombie. There are so many different types of people in cults, and a lot of them are really kind and loving people, but they are just confused and lonely and are looking for connection within these cults.

One piece of advice for someone who thinks they might be in a cult and wants to leave….

Do it! Don’t think and just jump, because if you think too much you’ll regret it forever. It’s so scary at first, but life is so much more beautiful once you’re free.

How has your experience shaped you and how is your life and your mental health doing now you’ve made it through the other side?

My mental health is up and down, but honestly, I am in such a better place than I was.Emily

After years of counselling and many many tragic events, I have to say I’m stronger and prone to researching claims before believing them. But it also shaped me to be empathetic and think about others before myself because you never know who is having a harder time than you. My mental health is up and down, but honestly, I am in such a better place than I was.

What would you like to say to the leader of the cult you were in right now…

Well, she’s very very dead but I would just tell her to stop and think about what she is writing and how it affects others. She may have been a pastors wife who had “visions” after being kicked in the head by a cow (yup that’s the origin story of the SDA church) but she had influence over people and she didn’t use it well.

Julia – Scientology

What type of cult/organization were you part of and how did you get involved?

I was part of Scientology. I grew up with it since my mother became a member when I was around 6 years old. I went to their private school and when I finished my mandatory school years I started working for them. I was 13 when I started working for them. I left when I was 18.

What was life like day-to-day? What restrictions were imposed on you as a group?

As a pupil in their school I didn’t experience too many restrictions but when I started working for them it was very much like being in the military. I had to work over 50 hours a week (without pay since it was “voluntary work”), wasn’t allowed to have any friends outside of it, had to always be open about everything I did and privacy didn’t exist.

What kind of control methods did the leader/s or your parents use?

I didn’t think it was so bad but looking back at it now as an adult it was mostly psychological manipulation.Julia

Scientology is more of a system that makes you dependent on them in the aspect that everyone you know is a member, so all of your friends and people you like are a part of it. Since all your actions get supervised you don’t have much wiggle room to express yourself and if you do something that they didn’t like you were punished. Back then I didn’t think it was so bad but looking back at it now as an adult it was mostly psychological manipulation. For example, telling me that I couldn’t see my mom anymore if I mess up or lose all my friends.

When it’s your friends, family, and in some cases, your faith, it’s not always easy to separate yourself from it and see that what you’re partaking in is a ‘cult’, particularly as the leaders would never label it as such. Were you aware that you were part of a destructive group, or was it only once you had left that you could gain that distance and clarity?

If I’m being honest it’s still hard for me to label them as a destructive group since I know that not everything they’re trying to do comes from a bad place. It’s mostly the way that it’s practised if that makes sense. When I was a member I knew that their beliefs (or guidelines) didn’t match with mine, but since all my friends were part of it and also my mom (who was the only other member being part of it from my family) I was too scared to just leave since I always had it in the back of my mind that I’d lose everything which of course looking back at it now is ridiculous! Now that I’m older though I can see how much damage it did to me and how warped my mind was.

In your experience, what are some of the red flags/characteristics associated with a cult and how does it differ from a safe and respectful community/religion or group?

Getting isolated from everyone who doesn’t share their beliefs. While my mom and I were part of it we hardly had any contact with other members of our family and they always emphasized how bad it was to still be in contact with our family since our family was “suppressing us”. They’ll always want to know where you are and what you’re doing and won’t let you have secrets or privacy.

Was there a catalyst moment that made you decide to leave or was it a gradual realisation?

When I was eighteen I met a guy who wasn’t part of Scientology. They actively tried to stop me from seeing him…Julia

When I was eighteen I met a guy who wasn’t part of Scientology. They didn’t like that. The last year also was very hard for me and I think they realized that I was starting to despise it there. So they actively tried to stop me from seeing him which of course made me want to do it more. There was a situation which I’m not comfortable speaking about but at the end of it they humiliated me in front of the whole organization and I decided to leave. I just left without saying anything and never came back. My mom also left after this happened.

How difficult was it to get out and leave?

For me, it was easier since my mom left with me but it truly broke my heart since everyone I’ve ever known was there. They tried to get us back with false promises but I was too angry and too hurt to even consider it. They’re still sending me letters from all around the world and always manage to find out where I live even though I’ve moved 3 times since I left.

How did you find integrating back into society and ‘normal’ life once you’d left?

It wasn’t easy. Since I spent all my teenage years there I didn’t manage to get a proper education and had no idea about life outside of Scientology. But what I can say is that I also learned a lot in Scientology that helped me after I left.

What are the long-lasting psychological effects you have experienced?

I always feel like I have to please everyone so that I can avoid being punished which is ridiculousJulia

I personally never feel good enough. Never. No matter what I do. No matter what anyone says. I always feel like I have to please everyone so that I can avoid being punished which is ridiculous since I’m a grown-up and I know I’m very much in control of my life now, but this feeling never goes away. I also am someone who cannot say no to anything. Because that wasn’t allowed, so to this day I can’t do it.

What support is needed for victims of cult manipulation and how can friends and families express their concerns sensitively if they’re worried for someone they know?

I honestly don’t know. My family tried for years to get me and my mom out but we never listened. I needed to get so mentally hurt to finally take the step to leave. I sometimes think what would have helped me realize it sooner is distance. Being away from them for a long period of time let me see how the world really works. I was there every week for so many hours that I had no idea what life could be like. If someone told me today that they are 14 years old and work over 50 hours a week FOR FREE I’d be speechless! So maybe if someone would have pointed that out to me and asked me more questions about it I might have realized sooner how really fucked up it was. Also making sure victims know that they’re not alone and it isn’t the end of the world to leave. Just the beginning of something new where hopefully they can choose what they wanna do.

What is the biggest misconception about cults and /or the cult experience itself?

there’s always a difference between working for them and just being a “consumer”. When you’re a consumer you don’t even see what goes on behind the scenes.Julia

People always say “why didn’t you just leave?” That’s always so easy to say. But especially when you’re young, you’re so impressionable and it’s so easy to get sucked in a lie about friendship and saving the world and just wanting to do and be someone better. I think a lot of people know that this isn’t the right place for them but have too much to lose if they leave. Maybe some are actually happy there. Also, there’s always a difference between working for them and just being a “consumer”. When you’re a consumer you don’t even see what goes on behind the scenes. I know a lot of them loved it there and it was more of a social club for them but when you actually work for them it is totally different.

One piece of advice for someone who thinks they might be in a cult and wants to leave….

Leave. If you’re scared go to the police. I don’t know how other cults work. I only have my experience to go from but if I’d gone to the police when I was younger a lot would have been different and I might have been able to leave sooner.

How has your experience shaped you and how is your life and your mental health doing now you’ve made it through the other side?

As I said before I still have a lot of mental scars and I feel as long as I live I’ll have them. As I grow older I realize more and more all the things that were wrong.

What would you like to say to the leader of the cult you were in right now…

Nothing. I’m glad I left and never want to have anything to do with them again.

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