why I watch all these shows about cults

CW: cults, brief mentions of sexual and psychic and physical abuse

Cults are very popular right now – as fodder for the massive television industry that seems to require as much content as the Internet: 800 channels going 24/7, and not all of them can run Law and Order or Seventh Heaven all day every day. So Oxygen and Netflix and Sundance TV all have recently run series devoted to delving into the horror of particular cults, their leaders and followers, their practices. There's yet another movie coming out about Charles Manson. Several books came out recently revisiting Jonestown – including one by Jackie Spier, who was there in Guyana at the time of the massacre. American Horror Story had a season devoted to a cult. 

I'm curious about our cultural fascination with cults at this moment in history – what brought this up for us? What has us tuning in to learn the gristly details about Rulo, NE, or Jonestown, or the Manson girls? What has us reading about fundamentalists polygamous communities? What has us watching Leah Remini's round tables and exposés about Scientology? 

I know why I tune in. I want to read about other people who experienced something similar to what I did, and how they survive in the Real World (as opposed to the isolation of the cult world) after they managed to escape. I want to see how bad it might have gotten if we had not gone to the police (and been believed). I want to see that I am not crazy for feeling crazy so much of the time, even all these years later.

I read articles about cults on my Apple News feed – in Rulo, NE (just south of Falls City, where Brandon Teena was murdered), an account of men being required by an apocalyptic cult leader to torture their friend, a brother “believer,” for hours before killing him; stories about OneTaste and Nexivm; an article about a young woman who spent her twenties in a cult and now has a hard time making real friendships – it almost feels like I'm visiting my actual family when I spend time with these stories, particularly those written by survivors. It's a way to better understand my mother. It's a way to better understand myself.


If you read these books or consume these shows obsessively (as I do), you'll learn the characteristics of a cult: “love-bombing,” (apparently) unconditional acceptance, promises of fulfillment and belonging, and a sense of really being “seen” – followed by (or interwoven with) indoctrination, isolation, insistence on right-thinking, and brainwashing, which includes (according to Robert J. Lifton): 

  • attacks that shame you for who you are and how you think; 
  • convincing you are bad and that you need to be corrected;
  •  forcing you to betray yourself, your core beliefs, and anyone around you; 
  • and compelling confessions of wrong-thinking or wrong-acting.

After you are “broken down,” the person/leader/group will use these feelings of guilt and shame and confusion and vulnerability against you, in service of “re-education.” You (must) come to believe that what you were before, believed before, was wholly wrong. You must continue to interrogate yourself (as well as others in the group/community) for signs of the old ways of speaking, old ways of thinking, or old belief systems, so that you can root those out and prove that you're better/enlightened/deserving of love. You confess (or inform) in order to prove that you have changed, that you are now on the right path, and to say on the good side of those who have broken and re-trained you.


I wasn't technically in a cult, though. Or maybe you could say I was in a very small cult – that's how I think of it often. After leaving my father, my mother got involved with one of the professors in her MSW program at UNO. At first he was just the guy mom was dating. At first he was just a big, somewhat-gruff, Wilford-Brimly-ish guy who wasn't much used to dealing with kids and won our favor with MacDonald's breakfasts and the HBO and Atari he had at home. It seemed like he was rich. He made us laugh and told us he was just there to love us, he didn't want to replace our dad.

But he didn't stay on the sidelines for long. 

He wanted us to talk about our feelings when we were upset or angry. Not so strange, maybe. There were two therapists in the house, so we naturally gathered as a family to discuss any “acting out” so we could get to “what was really going on.” There was no room for hormonal teenage angst in that house – every act had an underlying emotional cause and he was determined to get to that underlying feeling, which usually meant that whoever was on the hot seat had to start crying and apologizing before anyone was allowed up off the couch and go to bed. 

He said he wanted us healthy. He said he wanted to help. He said he wanted to teach us how to move beyond our midwest, repressive upbringing and teach us to evolve. 

Sickness was seen as a symptom of repressed emotion as well – to this day, I almost never go to the doctor, sure that if I can just figure out what's “really going on with me,” the flu or cold or toothache or yeast infection or sprained ankle will just magically heal itself. I continue to believe this indoctrination in spite of thirty years of evidence to the contrary. That's how strong brainwashing is. 

And, of course, his sexual and physical abuse of us was all in service of our eventual “enlightenment.”

Living in my stepfather's house was similar to living in a cult compound. My stepfather articulated to me his vision of the “family” he wanted to grow, where my sister and I would bring our boyfriends, then husbands, to him, and he would have us all have sex with him, with each other. Then we would bring our children to him. He envisioned something that looked an awful lot like a cult. When I tried to leave, he held me up all night with a knife to me, threatening to rape then kill me and claim self-defense. I had to convince him that I 1) understood why I'd been wrong to ask for him to “end the sexual part of our relationship,” 2) understood I was making unenlightened choices out of fear in seeking to break away, and 3) promised to do better from then on. I was under his control then for another three years. I was eighteen years old. An adult college student.

I had to betray my mother. I had to betray my sister. I had to betray my father. I had to betray every single person I was in a relationship with. And, of course, every minute of “surviving” my stepfather's abuse meant having to betray myself.


They say the difference between a cult and say, a religion, is what happens when you try to leave. And sure, there are religions that do not shame or guilt or shun a person who finds they no longer believe – but many christian sects insist that the no-longer-believer is going to burn in a pit of fire for eternity if they move away from the “true faith.” Scientologists who leave are cut off from everyone they love who is still a part of the cult, and they may be harassed and threatened if they speak out about their lives within Scientology. For my part, when I finally got the courage to begin breaking contact with my stepfather, he both threatened to have me killed andcalled me constantly (at work, primarily, of course, because it would have been ideal for him if I'd lost my job), trying to wheedle and love me back to him.


The other day I woke up with my heart pounding and for a moment I couldn't figure out why. Then I remembered the dream – someone in my life was dating my stepfather, maybe they had a child with him? I couldn't believe it. This friend wanted me to forgive and forget –he was different now. I felt wholly crazy, trying to convince my friend about who this man really was. He would be in my life again, I would have to see him and deal with him and somehow keep myself from killing him.

An abusive “relationship” is often simply a small cult. Batterers require obedience in thought and action, they isolate their partners, they want to define their partner's realities. What's the difference between a cult leader and a batterer? The batterer just doesn't have big enough goals.


What are others looking for when they watch these shows about cults? Is it just prurience? Is it seeking to distance yourself, prove to yourself that you would never be so foolish or stupid as to go and get yourself brainwashed – you are safe? Is it to isolate these folks into individual situations, pretend each is an isolated incident, refuse to see the larger patterns at work in a society that produces so many cults, trains girls and boys for their respective roles in cults from infancy? 

(I think we could easily make a case that mainstream (or socialized or so-called “toxic”) masculinity is a cult – but that's the topic for another whole piece.)

Maybe we're consuming all this cult-content because somewhere inside we're becoming concerned a out the turn our everyday lives have taken. 

Look at the Internet-induced bubbles we inhabit – many, many of us only speak with those who share our language and values. We police one another's speech. There's plenty of publicity shaming, demonizing, requirements of confession and public apology-- which may lead to as much humiliation and shaming as praise and love-bombing. And we expel anyone who does not conform or repent, insisting (when they leave or we've blocked them) that they've gone to the dark side, that they are broken and unforgivable, irredeemable. 

The common wisdom goes that cults prey on the weak and the vulnerable. But that's every one of us, potentially, at some point in our lives. None of us is never vulnerable – we are all, at various points in our lives, potentially susceptible to the pull of an “influencer” or teacher or program or religious leader or spiritual guide or life coach or therapist or an online communitythat shows us empathy and kindness, claims to see us for who we really are, offers us clear answers when everything around us is muddy or confusing or complicated or messy (or, you know, human) – and then insists that if we really want to grow or change or evolve or keep healing or prove our allegiance, we must change our thinking and our language,we must shun those who don't share our thinking and/or language, we maybe need to tithe or buy more expensive courses and classes and trainings, or give our services and labor for free (because we believe in the cause); we must share our deepest secrets, expose our tenderest places – preferably in public – because “we are only as sick as our secrets,” or “that which you resist, persists,” or “if you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth what will destroy you.”

Call-out culture. Us and them. The end times.

The fact is we are surrounded online by cultish trainings and behavior. The insistence within online communities upon right-thinking and right-speech —and the attendant shunning of anyone who questions a community's “gospel” — is frankly terrifying. And the more isolated we are, the more likely we are to get pulled in. Yet we've created a culture in which isolation is endemic.


This weekend there was a story in the New York Times about a young man who'd dropped out of college and felt a lack of direction in his life – he began describes what happened next as being drawn into a “decentralized cult.” No specific leader, no one person laying out doctrine or rules – and yet, somehow, folks in the community knows what the right way to think is, and that “party line” is distributed over social networks. And when there's a change in language or thinking, then come the call-outs, the attacks, the purges, the re-education – “I tell you this because I love you and I don't want you to be on the wrong side of history,” someone might say. And it goes on and on. 

We participate because we want to belong. This is a human desire. We want to feel seen and heard and understood. We want our grievances and injuries recognized – and attended to. We just want to be with our friends – the ones who can see us for who we really are. 

But if we find that who we really are is changing – must change– in order for our friends to allow us to be a part of our/their community, then we have to ask ourselves some difficult questions. 

Unconditional love means just that. It means we are welcome, flaws and all. It means we might disagree, even powerfully, but we can hold that between us – we can hold our differences and still love one another. 


I've had folks who love me ask why I spend so much time consuming this media about cults and the people who lead them and the people who’ve been drawn into them and the people raised in them – they wanted to know why I spend my time with such pain. But what I get from these watchings and readings is, weirdly, a sense of community – these are people who understand something about me that's beyond words, that I find it impossible to articulate. Who know what it means to go on living, to build a life and work long and hard to heal enough that you believe you deserve to be happy and you deserve love and you deserve acceptance, even after betraying everyone you love and everything you believe. Even after terrible, terrible acts. 

If this describes you, too, then I'm here with you, sitting on the other side of the table with a cup of tea, ready to listen to your story, ready to welcome you. I know we won't agree on everything. I know there are big differences between us. But that's ok. We still need each other. I still need you. I need the story of your struggle and your survival. And I share mine because I know you might need it, too.

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