The Path Not Taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
My recent post mentioned that I no longer ruminated about MCM since all that has happened in my life (most good, some bad) hinged on the decision to join MCM. However, the messages to the blog’s Editors (and from there to me) have been fast and furious and I can summarize them as, “Bully for you Tikie, but it has not worked out so well for me post cult (or MCM).”
The Path Not Taken: A Social Construct
My eyes would glaze over upon seeing the phrase social construct . But it actually describes a pretty simple concept. Our lives, even for the most introverted of us, are defined by our relationships and interactions with other humans. Even the term introversion is a comparative term contrasting differences in human behavior (standing in contrast to another human behavior: extraversion). Thus the term social construct means that the differing roles we play in our lives are defined by the interactions we have with other people.
For example, being a good father is role I play in in my daughter’s life. That role flows from the social construct that the two of us, our family, and our friends have agreed upon. This construct is based on lil Sissy’s and my interaction with each other and how we and others view those interactions. However, if my daughter and I were walking on a crowded sidewalk in New York City this social construct would not be agreed upon by the strangers we passed and, thus, our relationship as father and daughter, and, my role as a “good father” would not exist for these people. A quick story will illustrate this point. I have been a member of a health club for about five years and know the front desk staff from my brief interactions with them. My daughter, home from college (a 5’9” raven haired dark-eyed beauty by the way), went with me to the club one afternoon last December. When I went to sign her up for a day pass, the owner (a woman of about my age) gave me a strange look and said (icily), “Your FRIEND will need to fill out this form and sign it.”
I burst out laughing at this, because It was clear that the social construct of Lil Sissy and me as father- daughter, with me playing the role of a “good father” to her, was not shared by the club owner. Rather, the owner was building a social construct with me as a dirty old man with a twenty something girl-friend and Lil Sissy as a gold digger!
Most social scientists (including Janja Lalich) write that our self, then, is a social construction that arises out of our relationships and interactions with others. My pre-cult self (the “Old Tikie” in my blog story) flowed from my relationship and interactions with my friends, parents, professors, pastors, counselors, and coaches. Don’t misunderstand me, my genes and upbringing certainly played a part in building the “old Tikie”, but the influence and agreement of others also played a critical part in building this pre-cult self and the role I played; that of student leader, outstanding student , and fundamental evangelical born again Christian.
Of course, soon after joining the group that old Tikie started being deconstructed (or in my case banished to a closet) by MCM with a “New Tikie” replacing my old self. This New Tikie was built in conformance to MCM’s specifications and my own need to belong to a true first century church. You may recall my friend Sheila saying, “It is like they are erasing you,” (or something like that) while this deconstruction/construction of my pre-cult self was happening.
My pre-cult self (in my case the old Tikie) was of no use to MCM’s agenda, except as a biographical footnote of how MCM attracted, recruited, and used student leaders or sharps. The new self (in my case the new Tikie) had to internalize a new MCM self, think using the MCM role model, and act the part of a selfless first century Christian, or at least what MCM defined as a first century Christian. If a member did not do this they risked demotion, a hootah session, or expulsion.
Of course all this was a play I was acting in (along with many others) directed and written by Bob Nolte, Joe Smith, and Bob Weiner. MCM put on this performance to ensnare others for use in achieving Bob’s vision, and to satisfy the ego and greed of both Bob and other members of top leadership.
Any sign that the old man had, “Come back from the grave,” (an actual teaching of MCM) brought forth accusations of demon possession, selfishness, and/or having a spirit of rebellion by the leadership. Thus to stay in good stead with MCM I learned to keep the old Tik (my pre-cult self) bound, gagged, and locked in a metaphorical closet in a far recess of my mind. Of course I could not stop his occasional interjection into my brain of some rational thinking. Meanwhile I started wearing a mask with the face of the new Tikie. Soon found I could not take the mask off. For my mask was no longer just a mask but a way of life, the role I played, defined by MCM’s social construct for me. The new MCM Tkie had become my real self, or at least it seemed so for a long time.
So I gained membership in the group by exchanging the old Tikie for a new Tikie constructed by, and in the image of, MCM. This bargain, made in the hope of changing the world, turned into a terrible Faustian one for me.
“And our sense of self is something that we as individuals establish and affirm as we make our way through life – hopefully, without too much undue influence from others, but certainly not without influential factors. Finding the right balance between those “external” factors and our “internal” self is a lot of what life is about. Now in your case, you’ve had a phase in your life overwhelmed with intrusion and undue influence – of the most negative and harmful kind. Your journey was unexpectedly and brutally interrupted and/or disrupted by forces outside yourself, by a force that claimed to have your best interests in mind, but proved itself otherwise.” From a seminar entitled “Cult Recovery: How to Recognize & Resolve Aftereffects” by Janya Lalich [copyright Cult Research & Information Center]
So suddenly the ex-member faces the task of reconstructing their new life and a new post group self. Of course the pre-cult self, as it was in my case, is usually not recoverable. My nineteen-year old self would not have existed by the time I turned twenty-four and left MCM, regardless. And, as my blog recounts, even though I left MCM physically I was not free of the closed-minded system that had bounded my choices. As terrible as being in MCM became (especially during the last few years) my leaving was almost as agonizing and certainly a lot more frightening than staying put in MCM. Except for my immediate family I was bereft of any relationships. This meant I almost had to start over in constructing a new self and new life.
Later I heard Janja Lalich say, “As a former member person, attending this conference, you have tried to make sense of what that [cult membership] was all about. What was going on in the setting you were in. How did it affect you? How does it continue to affect you? What would your life be had you not joined [the Cult]?”
She had the right of this, for these were the very reasons I attended that conference. I believe that her words also apply to many who may read this post; for they are trying to make sense of what happened to them, and piece together how the experience is still affecting them.
Membership in a group like MCM requires high compliance and any failure to comply with the group’s norms result in immediate chastisement; this chastisement not only creating fear of punishment within the group setting but also creating a fear of the world outside of the group.
Dr. Lalich went onto state that the longer a member remains in a group the more likely they are to have engaged in behaviors that both their old self and their post cult self would find unacceptable.Not only that but many times these activities (think of the insidious “hootah” sessions inflicted on me and by me while in MCM) would be considered abhorrent by the outside world. Participating in these activities (both as victim and victimizer) not only creates loyalty to the group; it also incredibly, makes life outside the group seem unpalatable. This is because the member many times feels shame or remorse for participating in these activities and this, in turn, increases their fear of the world. Thus my reaction to Tikie Two begging me to let him drop out of school, hock his car and give the money to the ministry, and go full-time. I admit I considered briefly saying yes to that request. For this one time my guilt from my pre-cult self overruled the programmed MCM action I should have taken. For within MCM this would have been seen as a victory for the Kingdom. That is because the leadership prized new workers/members, especially sharps, and the money they could bring into the group, far above any suffering that these recruits would experience (assuming that they even knew or cared about this suffering).
For most of my time within MCM it was not my conscience ruling (or more succinctly the conscience of the old Tikie ruling) my actions but rather a conscience that belonged to the new Tikie. That MCM conscience,constructed by the leadership, reflected the needs and norms of the leadership. The leadership, supposedly anointed by God, were the sole arbiters of what was right and wrong and what could and could not be done in the name of building God’s Kingdom.
Eventually the members become so entangled in the group that they are completely at the mercy of the group, the group’s norms, and the decisions of leader, no matter how arbitrarythey may seem. I certainly experienced this when Nick, on orders from Bob, descended into my new church planting. The very thing I did not want to do I found myself forced to do; for in my mind I had nowhere to go, no other place I could go, other than MCM. If you read my blog you will know that I experienced cognitive dissonance early on, first with, “The scriptures don’t seem to mean what MCM says they do, but since they my shepherd is so committed that I will let it go”; to, “Everyone else is holding Hootah sessions and abusing their sheep, so I had better do so as well to keep those pesky demons in check.” Finally even though I knew harassing my new flock at my church plant for more and more money was wrong, I did it anyway because of the direct and indirect threats from MCM. This is not an excuse for me bilking these poor college kids out of money intended for school, but it is an explanation of why I did it.
Lalich went on to state that, “All this time, you [the member] had access to fewer and fewer outside sources of information, and, therefore, little capacity for any reality checks outside the bounds of the system.”Thus the norms of the group, and the leadership, become the norms of the member, even if the member’s conscience is in rebellion on occasion. And the fact that the old self’s conscience is still intact creates cognitive dissonance, guilt, and fear in the mind of the member and actually contributes to the mind fog so necessary to keep the member from realizing the situation they are actually in.
Jay Lifton makes this point in his book “Thought Reform and Totalism”:
“Here, the individual encounters a profound threat to his personal autonomy. He is deprived of the combination of external information and inner reflection which anyone requires to test the realities of his environment and to maintain a measure of identity separate from it. Instead, he is called upon to make an absolute polarization of the real (the prevailing ideology) and the unreal (everything else).”
The member’s old self is deconstructed and a new self replaces it using the group’s social construct. The new self is a mirror image of the leadership’s needs and professed values. And it is almost certain that the member has acted against the conscience of, or against the common sense values of, their old self causing distress that actually works, counterintuitively, to bind them further to the group. “For where,” the member may ask reflexively, “can I go after I have acted this way. Who would have me other than the group?”
So what can be done?
So what is the answer to those who are still (some many years out) experiencing the effects of their membership in a sociological cult (and perhaps cults)?
One book that I think is particularly interesting for ex-members is Janja Lalich’s “Take Back Your Life”. Lalich writes in this book that dealing with emotions is the biggest area of concern for an ex-member. I know that I experienced ongoing feeling of sadness, anger, anxiety, and loss after leaving MCM even though, objectively, I had just broken free of a constricting and controlling group. Yet I was not happy after leaving MCM, but very unhappy and most probably clinically depressed!
Lalich states that many people are first entrapped in a sociological group at a time in life when most people are just experiencing the challenges of young adulthood. This is a time, she writes when, “Most people are learning to sort through the challenges of life and learn the skills required to cope with such”. Yet many cult members, she writes, “At the very time they should be learning these skills, are immersed in an environment (like MCM’s) where their entire life, including their emotions and life views are controlled and directed. Thus upon leaving the group they not only face the task of developing their lives (putting the social construct of their post cult life together) but without many of the requisite skills to do so.” And this observation gets at the heart of why many ex-group members wind up right back in another sociological cult (or the same one); the task of reintegrating themselves into society and of developing their post-cult self seems incredibly daunting.
Many of the books listed on the resource site of this blog (including almost any written by Dr. Lalich) may help an ex-member interpret their reactions (including regret, guilt, and self-recrimination) and any emotional responses that flow from these. I know from my own experience that I could not sort one emotion from another (fear, anger, sadness, anxiety, and loneliness) nor figure out my own responses to these emotions (for goodness sakes I came close to actually burning my Bible!).
My notes, taken from a lecture delivered by Dr. Lalich, make this very point:
“Can you tell the difference (between) anger and fear? Sadness vs. loneliness? How do you react when you are anxious or lonely? Keep a journal and learn to tell the difference between these… and what is causing them. This will [help you] make sense of what you are feeling. And identifying these emotions, rationally, is the first step in dealing with the issue… of what is causing them [emotions and reactions].”
Cult experts say that it is not unusual for ex-members to experience flashbacks and panic attacks (I know I certainly did).Dr. Lalich states that if we can understand why and when these occur, or what starts an ex-member ruminating on the “what ifs” of their lives, that is a very good first step in stopping the cascade of emotions and responses that follow. I also think that finding a trusted friend or colleague, especially an ex-group member to talk about these issues is a good one…. but with note of caution. That caution is to never to compare your life with the other person’s, nor to take any one person’s advice as the only way to deal with the aftermath of membership in a cult. Each person is different, each group is different, even within the same group the experience/environment, and these affects differ. In short, each person’s struggle and journey is different, none are easy, at least I don’t think they are, no matter if it seems so on the surface.
Lalich suggests that by charting out our current beliefs, our pre-group beliefs, and laying out these reasons of how, and why,the member ensnared themselves can also be very helpful. I filled notebooks with my musings on how I got into MCM, why I ensnared myself, how MCM operated, plus reams of notes from books, and lectures I attended, about sociological cults. One of the side benefits that flowed my original blog was that it allowed, and forced me, to organize my thoughts into a coherent story of my time in MCM. As I wrote the original draft (and poorly I might add) I gained clarity of insight as to what had happened to me, why it had happened and what I did to shake loose from MCM. My original draft was written in 1998, and it was not until the birth of the blogosphere in 2006 that I dared make it public. I think this act of codifying my notes and putting the experience in writing, as a story helped me greatly.
I am cautious about being over prescriptive here, but not to the point of failing to pass along practical steps that might be taken. Janja Lalich, an atheist professor a former member of a Maoist sociological cult provided terrific help to me. The group to which she belonged seems so different from the right-wing religious group I was a member of. But her description of the group’s tactics, and her experience in it, so mirrored my own that it became clear that the pattern of cultic behavior and abuse was based on a generic a script, if you will, that could be used on the unwary. Reading her account was so important to an understanding of what had happened to me and why.
In summary my advice is to read, write, and talk about your experience. Learning not only about how sociological cults work, but about the whys and hows of your own experience in one, can be of terrific help. The more we learn about our cult selves, the cult, and our ex cult selves the more likely we are to be liberated, at least as much as one can be, from such a life altering experience.
For the path to discovery is also the path to recovery.