As a recovering cult member, I’ve noticed cults are everywhere in popular culture this year. With rising interest in shows like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, The Path, Handmaiden’s Tale, and the upcoming American Horror Story season, it’s apparent religious cults are the next horrifying object of fantasy to receive a sexy, pop makeover. Vampires and serial killers are so 2014.
Interestingly enough, I’m not mad about it. Although I spent the first 20 years of my life sacrificing my freedom, personal power, and most of my finances to Rev. Dr. Sun Myung Moon of the Unification Church, I’m glad there are now popular images I can reference today to begin to describe what I’ve been through. Before now, people like me had no idea how even to start that discussion.
In celebration controlling religious sects becoming less and less taboo, I thought I’d take a moment to explain some aspects of being in a cult based on my own first-hand experience. It’s been years since I’ve considered myself attached to any religion, but the memories of being a faithful 2nd Gen Moonie are still fresh in my mind. Here’s a small taste of what being in a cult really feels like:
Your membership in the group is your entire identity
The town you live in, your career, your nation of origin, even your place in your own biological family don’t matter anymore. Your membership in the cult is consistently emphasized as being the single most important aspect of your life. Most cults require new members to quickly cut all communication with outside friends and family. Soon, your organization and the directions you’ve gotten from it are the only topics you bother talking about— so even if you haven’t deliberately cut ties with everyone outside the church, it starts to become very difficult to hold a conversation about anything other than your new community. In my case, I was born into a cult. So I was simply prohibited from spending unsupervised time with non-cult members and never formed outside-relationships in the first place.
For many people, a concrete sense of identity, however flawed and problematic, feels better than the prospect of not having a place to belong at all. This is what makes cults feel so safe and welcoming for some, and so impossible to leave for most.
You have no concept of personal boundaries
I’m still in a recovery phase after deliberately ending most relationships I had with people in the church. I remember my own befuddlement the first time a therapist began describing this strange word “boundaries” to me. In my very devout childhood home, my parents blatantly listened in on all of my phone calls, read everything I read on our computer screen, and dug through my possessions on a regular basis in the name of keeping sin out of our home. Church members knew everything about everyone, and no question was too inappropriate to ask.
“Oh, congratulations! Was your son just matched and Blessed? Have him, and his new wife lost their virginity yet?”
“Hey! Oh my gosh! I haven’t seen you at church in forever! You look reeeallly skinny. Did you develop an eating disorder while you were at college? That’s exactly why we talk about not trusting liberal teachers pushing their satanic agenda. Here, have some curry. You need it.”
Boundaries are my new favorite thing (besides sex and rap, obviously). I know now that not everyone is automatically entitled to know everything about me. I have the right to remain silent. I have the right to ask someone to change the topic or stay in their lane when they try to give me unwarranted advice, influence my decisions, or wheedle their way into my personal life. Believe it or not, the occasional heathen will also attempt to do these things. You don’t have to worship Korean Jesus to be nosey and controlling.
Your decisions— both trivial and enormously important — are made for you
I distinctly recall standing over my sock drawer in middle school, one pair of socks in each hand, frozen with indecision; I had repeatedly been told by then that every single move I make in this life, including whether or not I step on an ant or the way I button my shirt, is either a step towards God or a step towards Satan, and it was making getting dressed for school a life or death ordeal. I was also told from birth that I would meet my soulmate when Rev. Moon introduced us to each other and Blessed us along side several thousand other people. All I had to do was never date, kiss, hold hands, flirt, or watch any sex scenes in rated R movies until marriage. Literally. Marriage first, introductions and hand holding later.
To be honest, I don’t miss my church lifestyle, but I do miss the clarity when it comes to major decisions. Now I’m left out here struggling to make sense of the purpose of life with all the regular folk. Not having to think for yourself takes a lot less energy. These days I find comfort in a sort of cheerful nihilism I’ve learned thanks to episodes of Rick & Morty.
Your specific identity is not important to the people in charge… Until you become a problem
For the longest time, I didn’t really have a name in the church other than being a white girl to look out for. In a community of Asians that worship a South Korean second coming of Jesus Christ, Angelo Saxon features stand out a lot and don’t exactly give a great first impression. But my name did start getting thrown around when I tried to get a job at our church headquarters and was promptly fired for being too independent. Once you rubbed the people at headquarters the wrong way, you were noticed immediately when you entered the room. You were talked about behind closed doors. You stood out from the rest of the flock. Cult organizations only work if every single person is flawlessly loyal. To keep the pack airtight, it is encouraged to live in fear, tattling on and demonizing anyone who shows a “lack of faith.”
I don’t really know how to end this synopsis. All I know is none of us choose our own beginnings, but we might as well take control of our future or watch good TV. I just hope that as your watching gorgeous paid actors pretend to be cult members, you think about the fact that it’s not just a show for some people.
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