How do you escape a cult?

Not everyone sticks it out in a cult. The really honest, smart ones leave! And when they do, they become public enemy number one. The mere thought of wanting to associate with these defectors on any level is enough to send a shiver of holy terror down a cult member’s spine. It’s an unwritten code: if you leave, you are a lost soul with a one-way ticket to the dark side. 

Most defectors of the cult of Alon fell into two categories:

Not cult material

Either they were simply not community material; meaning they didn’t have what it takes to live within the hallowed sanctum of Alon. And to be in close and holy proximity to like-minded servants of The Most High (i.e. God). When these people left the cult, they were sent packing. We’d give them a fond farewell and a blessing and the leaders heaved a sigh of relief as they waved them goodbye. 

Please leave

Basically, if you want to leave a cult then you should just not fit the mold. Don’t work hard, don’t be obedient, and don’t give the slightest hint that you may be a useful asset. Before you know it, you’ll simply be asked to leave. Cults don’t like sponges, cults like to be the sponges.

But it’s hard to go against the grain because deep down most of us aim to please and so we try our hardest and fit the mold. It’s a rare breed that’s completely at ease simply being the odd one out. Or at least that’s the case within a cult-like social structure.

Perfect cult material

Perhaps you were indeed community material. A person of many and lucrative talents. Someone with a dazzling smile and a knack for small talk. Most likely you’d have nimble fingers and a fast metabolism. In essence, you were a good-looking cult ambassador with high energy and the natural tendency to work like a dog.

Dangerous thoughts

So you fitted in well. You gave your life to Jesus and you prayed the most eloquent prayers. But then one day, something sets you off and you just can’t swallow the bullshit anymore and start speaking your mind.

The cult leaders would try to snuff this critical thinking out and at first, you might fall for their tactics. There would probably be a period of deep remorse and anguish on your part that you ever questioned your destiny as a member of this sacred group. You would be wracked with guilt for being a rebellious follower.

But then, your fuse would once more grow short and the whole painful process would start again until one day you would simply say, “Screw it.” and quit. Or, if you were really out of hand they might give you the boot. Either way, there’s pretty much no turning back. And good for you.

Good riddance

But you would know that as you walked away the entire community of brainwashed and spineless cult followers would be saying the most awful things about you. Tutting at the waste of talent and the inevitable misery that would now befall you all the remaining days of your godforsaken life. 

I’ve witnessed people leaving a cult

I have seen many people leave. Or at least, I’ve borne witness to the aftermath. Because some people literally ran away in the dead of night. Either on foot, making a brave dash through the forest or by car, if that was a possibility. Some people were there one day and gone the next. Vanished, as if into thin air. When this happened, you’d only speak about it in hushed tones.

Other cult defectors bravely left in broad daylight, moving trucks laden with all traces of their existence. We’d say goodbye pretending that everything was hunky dory. But they knew we thought they were failures and the terrible thing is, they probably believed it too – at least for a time.

In rare cases, these cult escapees would keep in touch with our cult leaders. Living in a sort of middle ground of uncertainty. They’d even come to visit Alon on occasion. As if they doubted their decision. Doubted their instincts. But in retrospect, our leaders would only encourage this kind of fuzzy middle ground if there was something to be gained from fostering a relationship. Usually, it had to do with business.

Some people make a clean break from cults and others slowly pull away. But neither method is easy or painless. Escaping a cult leaves you with a sense of deep loneliness. It’s confusing and jarring and you feel as though you have stepped onto a new and unfamiliar planet as you try to assimilate to “normal life” again.

Some cult escapees make it their life’s mission to set other cult members free

These people were the devil incarnate. Evil. Possessed by the spirit of Jezebel. Satan’s servants sent to destroy the precious work of God that was Alon. Persecutors. 

Their tactics were to reach out to members of Alon via SMS, email or phone calls. Any means necessary to help the blind sheep see the truth and walk away from our lives of subservience and captivity. Whatever it took to help their friends escape a cult.

Newspapers and magazines were tipped off. Articles and research journals were published. And we were on high alert. Members were told that under no uncertain terms should we entertain these lies. Stay off social media. Don’t read any articles. And don’t ever open any line of communication with these monsters.

At one point some of ‘these monsters’ were actively trying to expose the truth that Alon was an abusive religious group. A fanatical cult. ‘THEY’ got in touch with a young woman who had left Alon shortly after getting married. And together they tried to reach out to many of us in a last-ditch effort to save their friends. ‘SHE’ was a wayward woman and a Jezebel incarnate, according to our leaders. 

But actually, she was a young girl who knew her own mind and who had stood up for herself. And that’s a brave thing to do when you’ve been broken.

It was ‘HER’ sms that got me into a world of trouble.

Love is Patient, Love is Kind and Cults are Clever

This is a reference post, intended to serve as a quick go-to when the story I am telling just doesn’t add up. Think of it as a cult/psych 101… except that I am not a psychologist!

Also, I am not a huge fan of labels and boxes and sometimes I feel like all these phycological labels get thrown around haphazardly and become… hazardous. But I recognise that it’s very comforting and helpful to know that some of the things we experience are shared experiences, that we are not alone and it is empowering when you have the vocabulary to describe your struggles, experiences and triumphs. Also, it’s great to have some apt terminology in your back pocket that you can whip out at any moment and say, “See, this is real, I’m not crazy and I’m not making this shit up.”

Cults are a little understood psychological phenomenon. It takes two to tango in this dance of power play and while there is plenty of research out there about ex cult members there is little to no material on cult leaders. I guess that’s not surprising because in order to get proper research you’ll need to find a cult leader who recognises that that is what they are. “Sure, I’ll do a psych evaluation for you. As a cult leader, I have to say that I am just so honoured to be part of this important work.” Yeah, that probably won’t happen, but nothing is impossible. Anyway, what we do know for now is based on ex-culties recollections and all the signs point towards narcissism being the driving force behind cult leaders.

So here are a couple of terms that may be helpful:

LOVE BOMING:

Although love bombing is usually referred to in the context of a romantic relationship, it is also a term that can often be found in explanations about the psychological dynamics in a cult. And considering that love bombing is a tactic associated with narcissists and that cult leaders are almost always narcissists, then, well, you know.

Essentially love bombing is a clever ploy of manipulation.

In a cult setting new recruits/potential members are lavished with love, attention, praise and acceptance. Even when they behave in a way that isn’t acceptable within the cult’s culture, their actions are met with tolerance, patience and humour.

So when you wonder to yourself how someone can find a cult so appealing, then this is a big part of the answer.

COGNITIVE DISSONANCE:

Cognitive dissonance is basically the way we rationalise things in an effort to convince ourselves that we are doing the right thing, even if what we do conflicts with our core values.

There are various settings where this can occur but within a cult, this dissonance is closely related to peer pressure. For instance, a new recruit may feel that they never get enough sleep and are deprived of free time, yet, when they look around them they see all the other cult members smiling and full of energy, they convince themselves that if they go along with the routine they too will be smiling and happy.

Or a new member may be confronted with actions that oppose their moral code such as seeing a child being spanked and scolded. But the new member will justify these actions because no one else seems bothered and because the people doing these things are the same people who have gained the new member’s trust by, you guessed it – LOVE BOMBING!

GASLIGHTING:

Gaslighting is a sly way of making you feel like you are doing/saying something wrong even when you know you are in the right. I found these checklists on HEALTHLINE and they pretty much sum up the way I felt most of my adult life at Alon.

Someone who’s gaslighting might:

  • insist you said or did things you know you didn’t do
  • deny or scoff at your recollection of events
  • call you “too sensitive” or “crazy” when you express your needs or concerns
  • express doubts to others about your feelings, behavior, and state of mind
  • twisting or retelling events to shift blame to you
  • insist they’re right and refuse to consider facts or your perspective
blurred portrait photo of woman

Signs and symptoms of gaslighting:

Experiencing gaslighting can leave you second-guessing yourself constantly, not to mention overwhelmed, confused, and uncertain about your ability to make decisions on your own.

Other key signs you’re experiencing gaslighting include:

  • an urge to apologize all the time
  • believing you can’t do anything right
  • frequent feelings of nervousness, anxiety, or worry
  • a loss of confidence
  • constantly wondering if you’re too sensitive
  • feeling disconnected from your sense of self, as if you’re losing your identity
  • believing you’re to blame when things go wrong

The pattern

So it goes like this: you’re new and skeptical, therefore in order to keep you from leaving, you’re showered with good vibes and friendliness until you eventually let your guard down. That’s LOVEBOMBING

Then, when you’re beginning to enter the inner circle of cult life and being included in meetings etc. that only members normally attend you may be confronted with confusing and conflicting situations but you reconcile what you are seeing or experiencing with yourself because all these other awesome people seem to be okay with it. That’s COGNITIVE DISSONANCE (or what most of us can relate to as peer pressure, just more subversive I guess).

Now that you appear to be serious about hanging around and showing some commitment, the tables start to turn and where you were once met with love and acceptance you are now met with judgment and admonishment. When you kick against this turn of events you’re made to believe it is because there is something wrong with you. That’s GASLIGHTING

And finally, if you are able to soldier through the gaslighting round then you emerge again at step one, and the lovebombing starts all over again. Then around and around you go, until you are so confused and craving so much to find mercy and acceptance that you will do and believe anything just to get that lovebomb again.

It’s really like a junkie, just scrambling to get their next fix and the dealers know they can ask whatever price they want… and they do.