That Time I Was In a Cult

June 10, 2015 — 83 Comments

cults

 

Underneath all this jaded New York cynicism beats the heart of a girl who wants to believe in magic.

I’m an easy target for a “get enlightened quick” fix. The years I lived in New York I was easily swept up into anything I thought would raise my consciousness.

I tried Reiki, yoga, meditation, acupuncture, chakra balancing, craniosacral therapy, kinesiology. I got Rolfed. I tried Neurofeedback and Ayurvedic medicine and grape therapy. I sage-smudged my house and worked with crystals. I got colonics. I joined a Lesbian Wiccan coven.

And I was an active member of a well known cult back in the 90’s. I didn’t KNOW it was a cult. You think it’s this really cool group of super-enlightened beings who are helping you achieve your highest goals. Until you end up brainwashed, broke, and dancing naked in the Poconos with several hundred similarly lost souls.

Yeah, I’ll get to the naked part. Calm your tits.

 

Not all cults are led by notorious quasi-religious fanatics who order hundreds of followers to commit suicide via cyaninde-lace Koolaid. Some cult leaders are dynamic, charismatic individuals who are brilliant enough to tap into your most profound needs.

 

An extremely talented actress friend of mine enrolled me in the Course.  She was the star of a critically acclaimed Off-Broadway one-woman show, and I yearned for her confidence and success.

These LGAT (Large Group Awareness Training) groups insist that they can’t explain the program; you can only understand it if you come to a group meeting. At the meeting you are hit with intense, unrelenting pressure to enroll.  All the participants rave about their breakthroughs and personal transformations.

All for just $500 and a weekend of your life. They didn’t mention stealing your soul.

I signed up.

The Course is designed to deconstruct your personality and rebuild it – based around continued participation in the organization.

You spend the weekend in a giant room, with a hundred other participants, plus staff member and graduates of the course who are assisting. The Leader conducts lectures and group exercises and “breaks.”

The “breaks” are anything but. You mill around and interact with the staff. They challenge your beliefs and force you to examine your childhood and close relationships. They frequently grow confrontational and belittle you. They press you to release pent-up emotions.

And they torment you to agree to enroll in more programs.

The room is locked. Bathroom breaks are sporadic. You are given only one meager meal a day. There are strict rules about talking. There is a LOT of screaming and yelling. The course starts very early, and continues into late at night, for three days.

You are experiencing sleep deprivation, hunger, and fear. It’s a potent mixture that leaves you ripe for brainwashing.

The Leader was a charismatic man who attracted followers for decades. He was a New Age charlatan with a knack for convincing people to spend endless hours volunteering to spread his teachings, getting people to pay to take the ever-mutating courses and services, and persuading countless women who had fallen under his spell to have sex with him.

Ew. No, this I did not do.

People attended the Course in droves. The majority of course participants really experienced the exultation of a strong emotional release, or even had a spiritual/mystical experience. And in a room packed full of people in search of the Promised Land, the energy of hope is contagious.

After I graduated The Course I embraced the organization with the fanaticism of a religious zealot. I enrolled everyone I was close to. I spent most of my free time at the local Center. I spoke in their jargon. At their urging, I minimized contact with people outside the group. I preferred the company of those who believed in the unlimitedness of the human experience.

And I turned a blind eye to the horrors within. The people “on staff” were made to work 70 hours a week with no pay – just room and board. They had to pay slavish detail to the minutiae of the Leader’s demands, including organizing his belongings using a ruler for precision.

They lived with very little food and sleep – so their defenses were always weakened and they were easily manipulated. It was a New Age work camp, with chores and activities to keep them occupied virtually every hour of the day. If anyone wanted to deviate outside the Course, or thought about leaving the program, they were attacked en masse, and bullied until they realized how foolish it was to think they could accomplish anything outside the group.

 

 

Over a two-year period, I participated in, and assisted at, many advanced courses and workshops.

Eventually, I did the behemoth of the organization – “The Intensive.”

Several hundred people travel to a deserted sleep away camp in the Poconos for a week of pure torture. It’s Outward Bound, liberally laced with psychological abuse.

They tell you it might be the most grueling experience you may ever endure. They claim it’s so they can prepare you for all life’s horrific events.

We had to wake up at 5 am. We were forced to take ice cold showers – and there were shower monitors standing just outside each shower stall making sure you were fully under that glacial spray.

We had to do cardiovascular exercise for one hour each day. We were served very healthy, but tiny portions, of almost exclusively raw foods. We had to complete workshops and group exercises and physical challenges. We were broken into groups and encouraged to challenge one another on our weaknesses and obstacles and negative thinking.

Along with the lectures and confrontations and lots of screaming were mandatory death-defying outdoor stunts. We had to climb treacherous mountains. Rappel down steep hills.

My personal nightmare was completing the Tyrolean Traverse across a rocky ravine. We were harnessed to a rope that was fastened between two mountainsides, and with our bodies horizontal, had to pull ourselves from one side to the other, hand over hand, over that yawning abyss.

I am afraid of heights. I won’t even go on a Ferris wheel. 

Despite the complex system of knots and pulleys that (supposedly) kept you from plunging to your death, I was convinced I would die. I froze right in the middle, and I as dangled in the air and listened to the roaring water below, I screamed,

“HOLY FUCKING SHIT MOTHERFUCKERS I HATE YOU

YOUR MOTHER SUCKS COCKS IN HELL

MOTHERFUCKERS GET ME THE FUCK DOWN FROM HEREEEEEE

FUCK

FUCK

FUUUUUUUUCK!!!!!!!”

I can still hear my profanities echoing through the mountains.

 

One night, while we were in our groups doing some bizarre personal transformation exercise, I noticed several assistants building fires in all the indoor fire pits. As the room gradually heated up, I thought to myself, “They’re gonna make us get naked.”

They did.

We all had to take off our clothes, and one a time, stand in front of our group. If there was a point to this exercise, it escapes me.

At this point, several people left. I remember one woman was doing the Intensive with her son, and she adamantly refused to stand naked in front of him.

 

Each night of the Intensive ended with a dance party. On that night, people began taking off their clothes. We had all seen each other naked, so it just…happened. Hundreds of people, dancing naked, whooping like wild Indians.

It was liberating yet scary, empowering yet vulnerable and totally, totally joyous.

 

One afternoon, back at the center, I saw something that disturbed me greatly.

I was working in the kitchen. The staff forgot I was there. In a room behind the kitchen, the Leader was furious at his staff and screaming at them.

And then he began to hit them. They were in a row in front of him, and you could see that they had been trained to take his blows without fighting back. He hit them savagely, punching them in the face and stomach. Men and women alike.

I fled from there. I was confused and sickened. I discussed it with my boyfriend. All the other doubts that I had pushed away, surfaced. It was time for me to leave.

They did not let me go without a fight. They called me over and over, for weeks. They wrote letters. They came to my apartment.

I contacted other people who had left the organization, and they confirmed all my worst suspicions. The leader was just another charismatic, greedy New Age imposter. Although he had facilitated many breakthroughs, he had done so accidentally while seeking his main objective – Power and Money.

 

I did not return to my prior life easily. I was constantly agitated, sad and disoriented. The world around me looked strange, almost as if I was on LSD.

I had to get deprogrammed.

That’s what it takes to reverse the brainwashing of a cult. I had to go to exit counseling – counseling with a therapist who specializes in helping to loosen the bonds of cult.

I saw my deprogrammer for about 2 months. About a month in, the hallucinatory after-effect of sleep deprivation, social fear, and reinforcement from all the groupthink wore off and I felt like “me” again.

 

I don’t announce to people, “Hi! I’m Samara and I was in a cult!” Because I didn’t recognize it as an established cult, like the Hare Krishnas, and ask, “Can I please join you and dance around airports?”

I was in pursuit of something higher, and I got lost along the way.

I’m still a little lost. I’m still finding my way.

But never again will I surrender all my power to a group, to find it.

 

 

Have you, or someone close to you, ever belonged to a cult?
What other crazy things have you done in the name of enlightenment?
Talk to me. I’m listening.

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83 responses to That Time I Was In a Cult

  1. 

    wow, that is intense. interesting to hear the inside story — but so disturbing. how many never escape??

  2. 

    wow that’s such an intense testimony and experience, lot of people should read it as unfortunately there are still lot of groups like this doing lot of damage to people.

    • 

      There sure are. And people think just because “famous” people are part of a cult, it validates its existence.
      It doesn’t.
      Thanks for reading.

  3. 

    Hmm your story was disturbing tbh. First I was thinking it’d been a healthy community.
    Well I’ve never done anything crazy like that, but I wish I could :))

  4. 

    What an ordeal for you, but one I can understand completely so I know the head games, confusion, and passion behind it all. My husband and I were in a cult. Not widely known, but they were world wide. Once we left we got involved with leaders that had left and started their own group. We became leaders and I was employed by them for four years. It may sound crazy, but there was a lot of good, but when it was bad it was horrible. We never got any exit counseling. Depression for both of us set in.The first 14 years of our life together (2 dating, 12 married) were caught up in this. We knew we shouldn’t bring kids into it. Once we left it all for good, sold everything and moved far away we started our family. The last 14 years have been spent starting over and growing.

    • 

      There IS a lot of good. One of my favorite events – I forgot to include this – was when they lead people into a room full of telephones and urge them to reconcile with estranged family and friends. It’s tremendously powerful, and almost always positive and life affirming.
      I’m glad you’re at the place you’re at, though. You got to experience that, and now you’re onto a different adventure. 🙂

      • 

        The adventure we’re on now has been the scariest of them all. We’re solid, even if the world crumbles around us. We just dig out of the rubble and rebuild.

  5. 

    Yeah, I was in the Boy Scouts as well.

    *Badum-tish*

    Good post.

  6. 

    Happy you got out and happy you shared. Essential reading for the vulnerable, and aren’t we all?

  7. 

    Crazy stuff here, Samara. Cults are everywhere and people don’t realize it. This is a great eye opener.

  8. 

    This was a great read. I am fascinated by the power and allure cults can have over people. Even people, like yourself, that are incredibly smart. But then that is the type of person who is most likely to seek answers and enlightenment. I’m glad you were able to break free of their clutches. For me, the dancing naked would have been the deal breaker. The naked part would be fine, it’s the dancing that would do me in. I’m just way too white for that.

  9. 

    I don’t know… it sounds like fun to me. Mountains, fire, dancing, routine psychological and physical abuse… what’s not to like?
    This made me think of my time raving… I went in looking for something, a connection, an enlightening experience, and then lost myself somewhere among the furious beats of strobe light illuminated dance floors. The drugs were the charismatic cult leaders, and the dj’s were the graduates from the program enforcing the rules and keeping everyone in line.
    Not quite the same, but…

    • 

      But VERY similar. I totally see the similarities.

      Some of us are just not content with life’s trivialities, and we are on a constant search for enlightenment. I hope I achieve a little of it, before I take that dirt nap. 🙂

  10. 

    Every story of all you’ve survived makes me more in awe of the strong, resilient, powerful woman you are. Even if you don’t know it.

    • 

      It’s funny that I don’t connect to being strong and powerful, but when I look over this blog, I think, “Holy SHIT I’ve been through stuff!”
      Thanks for reading, Donna. I love you, lady xoxox

  11. 

    Wow. I had heard of the LGATbut only of the weekend where lots of screaming and emotional whatever takes place. Didn’t know about all these rituals. Happy you got out of there. Thanks for sharing..

    • 

      I’m happy to BE out of there. I don’t think I’m the type of person who’s really destined for this sort of thing, long-term. Too rebellious. 🙂

  12. 

    Gripped by every word as usual girl.
    I have done MLM marketing twice. The first one was low key. 2nd one was in the fitness health indstry. Insanelt intense while claiming it was just the opposite of your” Intense day.job you hate so much”.NOTHING like this at all..BUT the ‘higher ups ‘definitely make you feel powerless over your own decision making in some bizarre reverse vulnerability psychological mumbo jumbo. Belittling your beliefs of moderation, & balance all while claiming full transparency and humility. encouraging you to transform you body into a lean mass of athletic prowess. .while saying “but love your body no matter what you do” but only if you eat and drink our products too.
    . basically talking double speak day in and day out. .mind confusion ..
    What you went through is insane crazy and I love what you said at the end about finding your power in realizing that you don’t need a group to take it away to fnd it (I’m paraphrasing a bit) much love

    • 

      Cults and brainwashing take place in all forms, and that definitely sounds cultish. Be lean and athletic, but love however you are, but eat our products…
      Who can make sense of all that?

      Thanks for taking the time to read, and comment. I appreciate you. xo

  13. 

    HOLY SHIT you’ve been through some stuff!

    Still, you’ve LIVED. And HOW!!!

    So glad you got out, though, and that you were able to get back to you. I’m not sure I believe in enlightenment. I think I just believe in love.

  14. 
    erickeyswriter June 10, 2015 at 3:18 pm

    This is an awesome post. I know how easy it is to get lost when looking for something higher. You probably already have seen indications of that in my blog. I’m glad you’re free.

    • 

      Yes, that’s a great way of putting. Getting lost when you’re looking for something higher. It would be so good if we were just satisfied with the mundane, wouldn’t it?
      Thanks for stopping by. xo

      • 
        erickeyswriter June 11, 2015 at 9:42 am

        It’s probably harder to be satisfied with the mundane than to put up with all the garbage involved in seeking. But maybe I’m wrong.

      • 

        For me? The mundane is torture. That’s why I spent all those wild years in New York.
        But I’m learning to embrace it. I’m raising a kid in the suburbs. I either find ways to celebrate it, or I suffer. I look for joy in the little things, ya know?

      • 
        erickeyswriter June 11, 2015 at 10:51 am

        Yeah. I got two kids. It’s tough. That’s why I write. It keeps me sane.

  15. 

    Sometime I really think I lost you at birth.
    I too was in a “cult” of sorts with my first ex-husband 🙂 it was not nearly as “brain washy” as the one you were a part of (no dancing, no nakedness….sigh) but we were taught “stand back from those who didn’t’ accept who we “were”.
    I left first then him. A year later I left him too as he decided he was “godlike” (pre-Kanye).
    I feel like that when I look back “wow that was totally my fucked up life”!

  16. 

    What about tai chi? Did you try that? I went through a tai chi phase. I used to swing nunchakus, too.

    Do I know this actress? Ping me off line and tell me who it is. Was it Penny Arcade?

    Cults. Religions. Fraternities and Sororities call it hazing. The military calls it boot camp. They all work the same way. They break you down and make you feel empty and then they build you back up so that you actually feel GRATEFUL towards the very people who tormented to you for making you feel whole again. It’s the oldest trick in the book.

    You can tell a dude invented that cult. Anytime nudity is involved, a dude invented it. A dude invented “friends with benefits” too. Where was “friends with benefits” when I was dating? All I remember is a lot of expensive dinners and begging.

    • 

      You always talk about begging, but I’ve seen your picture! Somehow, I don’t think you really had to beg.

      I’m not sure if women were behind ANY cults. I’m going to have to research that. Is that true, anything with nudity was invented by a guy? hahahaha

      Tai chi might have been the only thing I didn’t try. Nunchucks? Seriously?

    • 

      Like you, I’ve kind of pulled it all together. It took a long time. Believe me, if you had known me then, you would’ve told me to take my fairly decent face and keep on walking.

  17. 

    Oh, Jesus. Creepies, Samara. I had to laugh with the string of cuss words whilst hanging over the yawning abyss. I almost got religious with a boyfriend once. It felt like a cult and it didn’t feel like me at all! Nothing like your experience. Whew. So glad you escaped!

    • 

      It’s pretty damn funny when I look back on it too, Amy! There’s nothing like hanging upside down over a freakin canyon to get the cuss words going! xo

  18. 

    This was scary and sad. All along I was trying to guess the cult. This creates suspicion and doubt even for the true cults.

  19. 

    I’ve had 2 cultish experiences (is “cultish” even a word??? Oh well, I used it, therefore it IS).

    First, I went for a while to a “young adults” bible study group when I was about 15. The 26 year old “leader” decided that I was his girlfriend. A couple weeks later, he turned into an octopus with his tentacles all over me in the back of the church; I fought that off, and he claimed that “we must pray, as the devil tried to take (him) over…and (he) wanted to preserve (my) virginity for marriage.” Bought it. (I was supremely gullible and naive–I’m so embarrassed for sophomore “me.”) I went to a summer “business week” camp. In the less than 2 weeks since that incident, and during the ONE WEEK I was gone, he married a 40 yr old divorcee (financially loaded–God spoke his will to him to marry her). God apparently likes cash more than pure, untouched vaginas.

    Next cultish experience involved a relatively non-denominational-seeming church that had a pastor who within a month of my attendance had started seeing visions of a white tent where a “revival of fire” would happen–and he told of this prophesy while speaking with a different voice, frothing at the mouth, with his eyes rolled back into his head (don’t know what this “prophesy” was supposed to mean, but it made my sphincter pucker–trying not to crap myself in fear). They had a 10 minute howdy-doody meet/greet break in the middle as usual. I started slowly making my way outside for fresh air. Then someone pulled out a ram’s horn and started to play it ominously. I was so quickly the fuck outta there!

    Hmmm…I’d been at both places a month, then shit got weird. Maybe I’m to blame?! Meh…who cares? I’m agnostic now. Not my problem! Haha!

    • 

      Cultish IS a word and those two experiences sure sound it!
      Is that guy still married to the same woman? What a douche!
      That rams horn would have been the deal breaker for me, too. That, and the eye rolling and mouth frothing – maybe he was having an epileptic seizure?

      So glad you read and commented! Thank you.

      • 

        I’m certain the douche has spent the poor lady’s money and probably “spread his seed” elsewhere by now!

        Yep. Anytime I hear anything resembling the sound of that Rams horn, I get the shivers.

        I worked for the Catholic Church as a school teacher on more than one occasion (as their token heathen–they knew I wasn’t religious), and their rituals were actually kind of normal and almost soothing in comparison.

        Glad you’re ok with the novel writing. Brevity is not one of gifts…

        Have a great day!

  20. 

    Sorry I wrote a novel. Whoops! ❤ Charla

  21. 

    Wow! So scary…. This is an intense thing to have gone through but I’m so glad you escaped from it. Beautifully written, as always.

  22. 

    Wow that was super intense. I never heard anyone open up about what inside a cult is really like. Thank you for sharing

  23. 

    Wow. I’m not sure if “holy shit” sums it up, but that’s the first thing that came to mind. I’m very VERY glad that you could get away from such a toxic thing, even though it seems to have helped some people (?).
    It’s a crazy world, and the crazy makes it hard by wearing a disguise sometimes.

    • 

      SO true.

      Actually, I’M a little crazy, and I have to disguise myself as normal. But crazy in the best possible way. (I like to think) 🙂

  24. 

    Would you write your memoir already? Damn, Samara…

  25. 

    How terrifying! Glad you got the hell out of there. Group behavior scares me. The things we as humans are capable of doing under the influence of group mentality and influence, is baffling. It happens all the time with crowds and riots. We are all vulnerable.

  26. 

    This is intense! I definitely understand why cults are so enticing but they’re also SO scary. Glad you could escape.

  27. 

    Well, I’ve seen you comment and be mentioned in other blogs but hadn’t jumped to look at you until Ned posted this on his Facebook. That’s an interesting tale. What an experience to have in your repertoire. To have that in your arsenal of stories to tell the grand-kids is pretty impressive.

    Glad you didn’t succumb completely and still have the brainpower to talk about it.

    • 

      Oh, wow! I’ve seen you around as well, and I’m all excited to have you here!

      WOO HOO! Do you drink? Have a shot of tequila! It’s Thursday night – practically the weekend!

      I’m glad I pulled myself out, too. I know there are still people involved with the same group, all these years later. It’s too bad.

      Ima check our your blog, too. So glad you read and commented. xoxox

  28. 

    verwijdereb die rotzooi

  29. 

    Whoa…I had no idea groups (or cults) like this still existed. I joined a couple such groups way back in the days. But I had no truly negative (or false) experience…although from what I’ve read since, others did. And, I must admit, I simply did not allow myself to be totally absorbed. I’m weird that way, untrusting. But I went through similar episodes of learning about myself. If you can take the good stuff, and allow the bad to drift away…that might help move on? Especially since we all know what the bottom line for most people is these days.

  30. 

    you might find this interesting. I can read your post on my Reader, but your site is blocked in UAE…I can’t get to it directly. Have I made your day?

    • 

      Hi! What is UAE?

      My site is blocked due to “pornography” at many people’s office. I think, if the system detects certain words, you’re labeled at NSFW. Oh, well!
      Thanks for reading!!

      • 

        Oh, so then no surprise. And didn’t make your day! UAE is a country, which blocks some sites. Apparently, yours is on their radar. I didn’t get to your porn, so was unaware!

  31. 

    It is writing like this that puts me in awe of your talent. I almost cannot believe this was you but a semi-lost soul like me can totally understand the appeal. Wow.

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