Growing Up In A Cult: An Interview
What is a Cult?
When people think of cults the Jim Jones incident of the 70s comes to mind. He laced Kool-Aid with cyanide and convinced his followers to commit a mass-suicide. But cults are a lot more common than that.
Cults usually have several defining characteristics. These are:
- Members display zealous and unquestioning loyalty to a central leader, whether alive or dead, and follow his beliefs and ideas religiously.
- Questioning, doubt, and other forms of dissent are discouraged and sometimes punished.
- Meditation, speaking in tongues, and other mind-altering practices are used to expel doubts about the group and its leaders.
- The leaders determine how members should think, act, and feel. This could be controlling which jobs or schools members should go to, who people should marry, and other personal life practices.
- The group is elitist.
- The group has an “us versus them” mentality and message.
- The leader isn’t accountable to authorities in society today.
- The group has a mentality of “the ends justify the means” that often results in lying to family members or collecting money for bogus charities and other ethically questionable behavior.
- Peer pressure and other methods are used to control members with feelings of shame or guilt.
- Members are often encouraged to cut ties with family or friends to make them dependent on the group for all of their social needs.
- Recruitment of new members is a top priority.
- Making money is also a top priority.
- Members are expected to focus the majority of their time on the activities the group holds, regardless of previous obligations.
- The most zealous members are completely dependent on the group and can’t imagine a life without it.
This list is paraphrased from this website.
Interview with Ripley
One of my friends, Ripley, allowed me to interview her about a religious cult she grew up in.
What was it like growing up in a cult? Specifically, before you noticed something was amiss?
It was nothing odd because it was all I knew. All my friends and their families did it so it was normal for me. I went to a small school within the church. All of my friends were a part of it. When I was young, I had church once every week. Then, in middle school, I had events several times per week. It was normal for me because of what I’d seen with others. It was really apparent something was off once I started opening my eyes, though.
When did you start to notice something was wrong? Was there a certain moment you realized?
Probably in the fourth grade. We were in Bible class at school and I started asking questions. The teacher shamed me, basically giving the impression to me and the other kids that asking questions wasn’t okay.
Another time, in middle school, my mother was struggling to pay tuition to keep me in the church’s private school. I almost had to go to public school, which I had been excited about. All of a sudden the money appeared. It turns out everyone had offered to help pay so I could stay. That struck me as odd.
Then, in high school, I had to go to public school. I was able to evangelize to my classmates at that point. They moved me from a middle school bible study group to a high school group early. It was almost like training me. In high school, we had even more meetings for the church. We had meetings three or four times per week.
What kinds of things did you notice were wrong with their teachings or attitudes?
It wasn’t very loving. It was very instructional. Religion shouldn’t be taught as if it has a handbook. It was like, “Here’s how to share your faith. Here’s how to share how God changed your life.”
They sent us to a retreat in the 8th grade to groom us on these things. They made us practice in groups that were pre-assigned based on what high school you were going to so you could work together for God or some crap like that.
They made us try and start a fire with one match and got pissed when I was able to. I was the only one who succeeded. It was supposed to be a lesson in grace about how God gives second chances. They had hidden matches and fire starters so we could start the fire. They always said, “If it’s not the plan, then you’re wrong. I know God better.” It was never a teaching opportunity. They used a lot of shame and anger and frustration. I honestly blocked so much.
How did you start rebelling against what you were being taught? How did everyone react?
I stopped taking notes in bible class and doodled. My classmates found it amusing, but the teachers hated it. I didn’t outright rebel until high school, though.
I stopped going to the big, public meetings and stayed home. I ended up being ratted out by one of the group leaders, who told my mom. I had to go after that. They had no tolerance for outside activities. My school plays weren’t a good reason to miss church.
I also went against their teachings and slept with my boyfriend. I went to the same group leader I mentioned before to tell her in confidence. She told all of the other group leaders and they told all of their underlings. Everyone knew. That group leader told my mother about this, too.
Are there any other anecdotes you want to share?
I once got publicly shamed for making a pun that apparently made girls not want to go to our middle school bible study group. They didn’t want to go because the teachings lasted for an hour and a half. Other groups’ teachings only lasted 25 minutes.
We were having a board game night. I said, “More like a bored game.” Other groups went to bouncy houses and haunted mazes and camping and Steak n’ Shake. We got a board game night.
The next meeting they called me out in front of everyone and blamed me, a twelve-year-old, for causing poor attendance.
When did you know you were ready to leave?
That moment, when I was twelve. But I couldn’t without fear of my mom until college. That’s why I rebelled; I was hoping to be kicked out. They kicked my sister out for sleeping around. Why not me? But they didn’t, because I was the last one in our family.
How did you feel when you got out?
Free. Like I could finally breathe. I got tattoos and piercings. I wore makeup. I made myself me, finally.
Did you have any residual shame or other negative things you had to work through? If so, what were they and how are you overcoming them?
I’m honestly still getting over a lot regarding the church. I’ve embraced my sexuality, and it’s wonderful, but it took forever to get over. It took talking to others who left and having a healthy sex life to realize it’s totally fine as long as you’re responsible.
I still feel guilt over other things. I feel shame about not praying.
Is there anything else you want to share about your life then or now?
I’m happy. I’m getting married. I’m healthier than I’ve ever been, which isn’t saying much because of depression, but I’m far better than I was then.
The church also tried to stop me from going to my choice college because I couldn’t live in a ministry house with other girls my age from the church. The group of leaders decided that a community college would be better. Like my future wasn’t my choice.
You were also expected to date and marry within the church. Preferably not even outside of your church group. Then, once you were married, you were expected to have kids as soon as possible and enroll them in the church schools.
Finally, what would you say to a person trapped in a cult?
Leave. I don’t care if your family are the ones keeping you trapped there. Family means nothing. If you can’t leave, leave as soon as you can. Leave and get help. And if you’re really trapped, call the police. The cult I was a part of was mild. It gets much worse.