Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Why?

The similarity of mental process that I demonstrated both in my cult subservience and in my marriage lead me to believe that the psychology is one and the same. 

One important characteristic of cults, in order for them to continue and thrive, is isolationism - if not physical isolation (like Jonestown), then social isolation (like TFI, where we were taught that "you are in the world, but not of the world," and to "keep yourself unspotted from the world," as the Bible admonishes). Separation from outsiders, a "them and us" mentality, is a crucial part of the doctrine.  

This same condition applied to my nuclear family life. After leaving communal life, we remained in a country that, shall I say, is not particularly open to foreigners, nor is the language easy to pick up. We were looked on as "outsiders" by the community around us, which seemed to suit our mentality just fine, having been immersed in the isolation of cult life for all of my husband's and my adult lives. Isolation and "being separate" were second nature to us.

In this atmosphere of isolation, my loyalty to my family was strong, as had been my cult loyalty which fortunately, by this time, was beginning to wane. (This period coincided with the publication of remarkably bizarre new doctrines which the "Prophetess" had "received from the Lord," as I wrote about previously. See Finally.)

Both cults and abusive relationships rely on belief in delusions. The TFI has so many delusions that it has filled volumes, highlighted by the collective wish-fulfillment of being God's children with the promise of heaven. As for my marriage, my delusion was also a form of wish-fulfillment - believing that my husband was the good, loving husband and father of my internal narrative. As is the nature of beliefs, I wanted to believe them, and in so doing unwittingly suppressed the reality testing function of my brain.

Moreover, both cult-life and my married-life played on my human need for acceptance and belonging. I have a desire to be useful and needed, which is not uncommon among the human race and can be most particularly strong among mothers. Both situations played to that need as well.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Turning a Blind Eye

The coping technique I applied to my marriage was much the same as what I used with family problems, cult membership, and sometimes even my health: ignore the bad and it will go away. "Give no place to the devil," as Ephesians 4:27 admonishes, which I seemed to interpret as "brush any problems under the rug and move on to other things."

When my husband beat my son in anger or treated the other children harshly, I rationalized that he couldn't have meant to do that harm. Surely he was sorry. ("I wouldn't act like that, and if I had, I would certainly be sorry," assuming that he would think like I would.) If he was sorry, no one ever heard about it.

Although I did try, I could never talk to him about such things, as he would react with anger or simply leave the room. Years later he told me that because I seemed to "protect" my children and "side with them against him," he felt obligated to retaliate by treating them more harshly. 

Coincidentally (or not), this echoed the same sentiment pounded into me repeatedly by leadership in TFI, namely, that I "favored" my children. I needed to give them to others to discipline and care for, and of course, I spent my days caring for other people's children. If one of my own children happened to be in the group of children I was responsible for, I needed to be careful to treat them the same as, or even more pleasing in the eyes of cult leadership, more harshly than, the others. The one hour of nightly "Family Time" was more than enough for fulfilling the mothering needs of my children, so it was said.

Had I been able to wake up out of my delusions and shake off some of my strongly clung-to mental biases, I would have seen early on that our situation was intolerable not only for me, but even more so, my children.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Dysfunction

After my husband moved away, I missed him, and I missed our rare times of intimacy. How pathetic this was did not occur to me at the time. To miss having being with a man for whom touching me was revolting, well, that's just sad.

So why did I feel like that? Did I think so little of myself that the best I could do in life was to be with someone who used me for social acceptance while finding any physical contact with me repugnant?

Looking back, perhaps it wasn't that deep. With my inbuilt status quo bias, I preferred my existing arrangement just because it was what I was used to. It was the only marriage I knew. I "owned" it. Crappy as it was, it was mine, and it provided me with a (albeit fanciful) sense of security.

As well, I projected on him what I expected him to be and become. I saw the rosy image that I imagined and wanted him to be, rather than the person he really was. (I am sure that my expectations only compounded the stress and pressure he felt in trying to fulfill the role he believed was his duty to play.)

This whole situation must have been confusing for our children, who didn't see things through quite the same lens as I did and were the main ones who felt the brunt of his frustrations.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Loss and Guilt

I'm sure it's common among ex-cult members (as our brains gradually un-fog after leaving the group) to experience a feeling of loss at the lost years. The years of life, learning, and joy that could have been, but that were instead given to a cause of nonsense where we were merely used and abused with nothing to show for it. No savings for retirement. No education. Nothing.

Add to that negative the collateral damage heaped upon my children and the other children in the group. It's almost too horrible to face.

How important the decisions made in youth are, and how they set the trend for one's later years! Now, my later years are filled with the knowledge that my misguided decision to join the COG has not only robbed me of years of joy I could have had, but has marred the lives of my children - something I cannot undo. 

Yes, things could always have been worse, but that is little comfort in easing the guilt of my own bad decisions and the effect they have had on those I love.

So, I have learned to live with guilt, and in a way to make it my ally by taking comfort in the fact that my guilt at least shows that I am a kind-hearted person who cares for my children. I am not choosing to live in denial. And I am not psychopathic.

I've become aware of the need to be careful of the narrative I build for myself of my own image - am I really what I think I am?  As well, I want to take care about the images I form of other people. Is that person what I think they are - what I want them to be - or is it only a facade that they are presenting, or perhaps my projected idea is what I am seeing?  

My life's tendency has been to take a first impression of someone (and for me, this would generally be positive), or just as poignantly, a group, and then create my image of what that entity is like from my initial impression. Too often I have found out too late that I was incorrect. The person, or group, in question was not at all as I had conceived.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Adjustment

Now that we had left TFI, what next? Here we were, in a foreign land, without contact with any family to return home to, my parents long deceased, 6 of our 8 children still living at home, virtually no savings (having given a hefty 20% of our income to the cult each month), no retirement investments, and the challenge of building a new future.

My mind was a fog. I found it hard to concentrate. I wanted to do what would be best for our family. I was overwhelmed with regret and guilt.

I had already gotten one daughter settled in college in the US, although that was not without trauma and difficulty. I desperately wanted to make the path to college easier for my next children.

I heard about a scholarship program for those who graduated with good grades from high schools in a certain southern US state. I corresponded with the principal of the school, who assured me my daughter would be able to attend when we moved over from Japan. I doubt he realized how important that was to me, and that the purpose of our move was so that she could attend that high school and be able to take part in the scholarship program.

Sadly, when we went to the school after arrival, she was turned down. This was the beginning of a horrible 10 month stay in the US, where I was unable to find work and despondently watched our savings dwindle. At the end of that period, I returned to the foreign country that had become my home. Reuniting with the children I had left behind was a wonderful relief. Facing my failure to make it in the US, although humiliating, clarified that as long as money was to be made, in this foreign land I would have to stay.

Then, things went from bad to worse, before eventually getting better. But that is a different story.

Thanks to the advice of my eldest son, I began listening to audio courses and books, which has now become an integral part of my life, restoring to me my former delight in learning. I sought answers to the many "whys" I had about my life and decisions, as well as how I could pull out of the guilt that had paralyzed me in so many ways. It's also helping to clear the mental fog I had lived in for years, reinvigorating my sluggish brain.

Hopefully I will continue to build new, strong synaptic connections, and forget the old, useless brain circuitry I reinforced for too many years.

There is so much to learn.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Finally

As the years passed living on our own, the cult publications began to lose some of their appeal. With the death of Berg, his mistress, Karen Zerby, took over the leadership of TFI, and the pubs became even stranger - if that could be possible.

Now we were encouraged to "make love to Jesus," pray to an ever-increasing number of "spirit helpers" and "spirit guides" (one for every flavor of prayer), and not least of all, pray using the power of the "keys of the Kingdom." This idea came from the verse, Matthew 16:19, "And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." And of course, who else for this promised super-power to be given to than to us, the chosen followers of "God's Endtime Prophet," now, "Prophetess."


Gradually, as Internet access became more widespread, Zerby's days of being able to live in complete secrecy were coming to an end. After photos of her came out on the web, coincidentally, "the Lord told her that it was his time for her" to appear in person on videos addressing her "children in the Lord."

As this was a big event in TFI, and the showings were only held in certain places, my husband and I drove several hours for the privilege of viewing these unprecedented videos at another cult home. To say these were disillusioning would be putting it mildly. The woman even looked crazy. Reality strongly clashed with my narrative of what I thought she was like.

Not long after this, my eldest son left the group and began living on his own, working in the capital city. He urged me to leave the cult, assuring me that we were indeed following a crazy woman. He sent me some links, one of which was particularly helpful, "The Judgement of Lord Justice Ward," which was the lengthy conclusion of a very thorough investigation of The Family International done as part of the trial of a child custody case in England.

Reading the results of that investigation was very eye-opening for me, validating the various doubts and misgivings I'd had over the years. I made the decision to leave immediately.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Keeping On

Living on our own removed the beneficial dilution provided when living in a cult commune with many other families. Our dysfunctional family's problems became magnified. Things did not get better. Nevertheless, I, continuing with eyes blinded to how truly bad our situation was, kept on doing my best to smooth over conflicts and keep the peace between father and children, and between husband and wife.

"Women who remain with abusive partners appear to employ cognitive strategies that help them perceive their relationship in a positive light."* This was obviously the case with me.

I was committed to my marriage, and I wouldn't give up. I clung to the narrative that my husband was what I imagined (or perhaps, wanted) him to be, rationalizing away and denying what was reality. I chose to disregard anything that didn't fit with my belief about him. I continued to hope for the best. I ignored the emotional abuse and neglect. I rationalized away his angry, petty outbursts and harshness towards our children. I preferred to tip-toe around him, ever-hopeful that I could receive some much-desired affection from him.

As Dr. Craig Malkin of Harvard Medical School wrote in a 2013 article, the "desperate, often palpable hope" of those in abusive relationships, both physical, psychological, and emotional, "is that the abuse will go away. And they tend to block out all evidence to the contrary. In point of fact, they stay for love. Many abuse survivors cling to the positive traits in their partners... In one study, more than half of the abuse survivors saw their partners as 'highly dependable.'"

Complicating the issue with me, was that I, like many others in abusive relationships, "are often cut off from friends and financial supports." Another pertinent point Dr. Malkin brings out is that "one of the most formidable and dangerous obstacles abuse victims face is their own searing guilt and shame; they're incredibly adept at blaming themselves for the abuse." I had years of hearing from TFI leadership that I was to blame for the problems in our marriage. I figured it was a given.


Succinctly summarizing my situation, he wrote of a female client of his, "She was a prisoner of her own hope."

*"Coping with an Abusive Relationship: I. How and Why Do Women Stay?" Tracy Bennett Herbert, Roxane Cohen Silver, and John H. Ellard.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

First Step towards Eventual Freedom

As time went on, one aspect of our ludicrous situation began to be too much to bear. 

Like typical TFI members, while doing our required "witnessing," (i.e. selling the cult's publications and products) we had been saying that we were "missionaries" to the country where we were living, yet we did no activities that could be considered "missionary." In TFI, the word "missionary" had a very loose definition. 

Homeschooling the children of the group was my brand of "missionary work," while other members spent their evenings singing in bars where they collected donations to support our little commune. Others spent their days on the phone to or visiting businesses that gave us food and household items - generally things that they would be unable to sell - to supplement our meager income. As close to "volunteer work" that I ever came in TFI was when we occasionally put on little performances at senior citizens' homes. 

Calling ourselves "missionaries" made my husband and I feel like frauds and liars. Most embarrassing, we could not communicate in the local language at all.

Coincidentally, around this time we were having difficulty getting along with another member of the group home where we lived. We took the opportunity to move out on our own to a little city remote from any other TFI members. Our hope was that we might learn the language and culture of the country of our residence, and actually become "missionaries" in a more traditional Christian sense of the word.

Although this step was a first step towards our eventual departure, it was a very difficult move for our children who left the only option for socialization that they had ever had. Now they were homeschooled with only me as their teacher. How much more isolated could a child be than being taught at home, in English, in a city where no one spoke English, with no one to play with but their siblings? 

Eventually, we put our children into the local schools where it was sink or swim with learning the language and customs, but this came too late for our older children who continued to study at home, and who, like me, were always outsiders to society at large.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Breakdowns

Although the term "nervous breakdown" has perhaps gone into disfavor, I can find no better words to describe a couple of specific periods during my time in the cult.

After leaving the first "leadership" couple to which I was emotionally attached, after having cared for their children for over 4 years, and even having had a child with the husband of the couple, I found myself in a new situation, one that I had dreaded, and in a state of mental shock and inability to function. 

I had left the comfort of the situation I shared with that small family to whom I felt I was needed and a part, and was thrust into an overcrowded group home where I shared a room with many children and a newly "married" couple. Their bed can be referred to as nothing if not the "centerpiece" of the room, with the children's and my beds arranged around the sides. This couple thought nothing of having sex daily during our mandatory "quiet time" (2 hours of rest after lunch), and I wanted nothing more than to escape the cringe-worthy awkwardness of the situation.

I would take my baby for walks around the neighborhood to get away from that place as much as I could manage, although unfortunately, not during those rest periods.

With that new situation came a new leadership couple, whose children I would be taking care of. Before getting involved with them full-time, my new leader asked me to do a simple sewing project for her children. I knew how to sew, but the project seemed overwhelming to me at the time, and I literally was incapable of doing it. In fact, I was in a daze for several weeks after that upsetting change.

The second time was after the birth of my 3rd child, while I was living in a relatively small apartment with 12 children packed in each of the bedrooms - two children in each bed of the narrow triple-bunk beds. I was given lengthy to-do lists each day, and I found myself unable to do anything. I would fall asleep on the floor in one of these busy rooms, and be effectively dead to the world. I could do nothing more than care for my baby.

Clearly, the stress of disrupted relationships, overcrowded conditions, strict standards of thought and behavior were exceedingly unhealthy. Were we "Family" members really "the happiest people on earth"?  

The delusion continued.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The (supposed) Strength of Weakness

This may seem like a strange phenomena to occur in my life, but indeed, I realize now that life in the COG caused me to behave more like an old person. 

This realization came to me when I was climbing a mountain a few years ago that I had climbed about 15 years previously, while still a faithful cult member. As we neared the summit, the terrain became rocky and somewhat dangerous. We needed to jump from boulder to boulder, use a rope to scale a steep rock face, etc. It was then that I remember having done climbed it before. (For some reason, I had blocked that memory until then.) 

When I had climbed it before as a cultist, I can remember being overly cautious at every turn. I insisted on being helped by my husband, holding his hand or arm while gingerly and ever-so-slowly navigating those rocky challenges. What a sharp contrast to my behavior that last time, where I jumped from rock to rock like any sane person would.

Why was this? What would have caused me to act in such an overly-cautious manner?

I have found a credible explanation in the concept of priming.

As I've mentioned, we were fed a constant mental diet of the writings of our elderly "prophet," who was our role model and "father in the Lord." His lifestyle was held up as the model for our ideal behavior, his food preferences were published, and of course his daily exercise regimen - a stroll before dinner. (Not exactly what a formerly very active competitive swimmer would want to do.) 

Any publications that touched on exercise or fitness levels espoused a very low standard. A great emphasis was placed on "the strength of weakness" and how when we are weak in body, we are closer to the Lord. "When I am weak, then am I strong," (2 Corinthians 12:10) was a fairly common theme. A daily 2 hour rest time after lunch was a universal part of home-life in the cult. This was, of course, for reading publications as well as for naps for those who were "weaker" or pregnant.

I now believe that this daily mental priming unconsciously affected me to behave in a more weak and elderly way. Psychologists have studied this, most notably John A. Bargh, Mark Chen, and Lara Burrows of New York University. In a simple experiment, they provided their study participants with a series of words relating to the elderly, such as bingo, Florida, wrinkles, etc., and then found that as their participants left the study room, they walked more slowly than they had upon arrival. People primed by polite words behaved more politely, etc. Of course, these reactions were done totally unconsciously. 

The psychological experiments that demonstrated these effects were rather brief. The priming I experienced was daily and for decades.

So, not only was I deceived, living under several false narratives, and led a crazy man, but I was acting old before my time. Could it get any worse?

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

For an explanation of this effect, I'll quote Professor Dunning from an article he wrote for the Pacific Standard, October 27, 2014.

"In 1999, in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, my then graduate student Justin Kruger and I published a paper that documented how, in many areas of life, incompetent people do not recognize—scratch that, cannot recognize—just how incompetent they are, a phenomenon that has come to be known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. Logic itself almost demands this lack of self-insight: For poor performers to recognize their ineptitude would require them to possess the very expertise they lack. To know how skilled or unskilled you are at using the rules of grammar, for instance, you must have a good working knowledge of those rules, an impossibility among the incompetent. Poor performers—and we are all poor performers at some things—fail to see the flaws in their thinking or the answers they lack.

"What’s curious is that, in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge."


Clearly, this was (and is) a problem among cult members. How could I know what I didn't know? This, of course, was exacerbated by the confirmation bias, as I accepted information that confirmed my beliefs, interpreted ambiguous information as confirming my beliefs, and rationalized away any information that might threaten my beliefs. This accumulation of false and misinterpreted information only served to strengthen my confidence in my faith.

Considering all this, it's a wonder anyone can leave such a group. Thankfully, I did, but that story is yet to come.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Follow the Leader - the Halo Effect

The Halo Effect is a mental bias where people assume that since a person has one outstanding good quality, then the rest of his character must also be good. Being "chosen of God" was certainly a special and good quality, therefore the natural mental inclination is to think that everything about that man must be good. This effect is extremely common in regard to cult leaders.

Because Berg was "God's Endtime Prophet," then whatever he said or did was worth emulating. This was carried to ridiculous degrees within the group, going so far as the creation of illustrated comic books for the children of members called "Life with Grandpa." ("Grandpa" being Berg.)

These comics supposedly depicted life in the utopian household of Berg. They chronicled little events in the lives of the children being raised there, each story generally ending with some sort of behavioral or moral lesson. The idea of these comics was to instill in the plebeian group members the ideal values and lifestyle of "Grandpa's house."

One leader gleaned all the "tips" that Grandpa or other minor authority figures at his house were quoted as saying in those books into a list of "rules" that she typed up and freely distributed so we could all have the laws governing "Grandpa's" household. Even for one so blinded as myself, that was too much.

The reality was that "Grandpa's house" was full of sexual, physical, and psychological abuse, all hidden under the guise of "God's love" and was justified because it was "done in God's loving ways." Who can argue with the authority of God?

After all, there's "no better place to raise children than in the Family*" and it only follows that there's no more ideal place for kids than in "the Prophet's" own loving household.

The travesty of delusion.

*The Family is one of the many names of what was formerly known as The Children of God, then The Family of Love, and finally, The Family International.

Friday, November 7, 2014

But How Could I?

Married to a gay man? How could you have not known?  How could you have been so clueless?

Of course, these are questions I asked myself. I think it doesn't necessarily come down to a lack of intelligence, although I am certain that I suffered from neural atrophy as a result of the obsequious nature that I developed in the cult, not to mention the lack of any mental stimulation.

I am in no position to defend myself, nor should I. But in the interest of understanding how such a bizarre situation could occur and continue, I will present the following.

As I mentioned before, just as the eyes are subject to visual illusions, so the rest of the brain can be easily deceived. A very strong mental illusion is the concept that we see what we are looking for ("seek and ye shall find"), and its reverse, we don't see what we are not looking for.

The former, seeing something we are looking for, is clearly portrayed by this story that occurred "in December 1978 when a red panda escaped from the zoo in Rotterdam, Holland. Red pandas are not indigenous to Holland. Besides being rare, they are distinctive in appearance and cannot be readily mistaken for any other sort of animal. To alert people in the area and aid in the panda’s return, the escape was reported by the zoo to the press. At the same time the newspapers came out with the missing red panda story, the panda was found dead near the zoo. Even though the panda was already dead, over 100 red-panda sightings were reported to the zoo from all over the Netherlands."*

What did the people see? They saw what they were looking for.

To illustrate the reverse, not seeing something right before our eyes, I will borrow an example from the book The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us. The authors relate the story that occurred on January 25, 1995 in Boston. Police were called to pursue a car full of suspects in a shooting. The suspects stopped their car in a cul-de-sac, got out, and each of them ran in different directions.

One officer on the scene, Michael Cox, a black, plain-clothes policeman in the antigang unit, chased a suspect who was climbing over a chain-link fence. As he was climbing, the officer's jacket got caught on the wire, and then he was hit on the head from behind by a blunt object, maybe a baton or a flashlight. He was then pulled from the fence and beaten; meanwhile the suspect escaped on the other side of the fence.

When the police who were beating Cox realized he was a cop, they stopped and ran away, leaving him unconscious and seriously injured. 

The case of the suspect was solved, but the issue of the beating remained open for years. No one admitted to beating the plain-clothes cop, and none of the 60 policemen who were on the scene even admitted to seeing the beating take place. When officers who passed by the scene in pursuit of the suspect were questioned about the beating, the best they could come up with was to say, "I think I would have seen that." The truth was that they were so focused on chasing the suspect that they genuinely didn't even notice. 

This case inspired the now-famous experiment that illustrates the illusion of attention, the invisible gorilla. The authors made a short film of 2 teams of players, one wearing white, one wearing black, who passed a basketball back and forth. Volunteers were to watch the film and count the number of times one of the teams passed the ball. Their answers were actually beside the point. In the middle of the film, a woman dressed in a gorilla suit walked to the center of the picture, beat her chest at the camera, and then walked off, staying in the film for a 9 seconds. The number of people who noticed her was less than half! Even more significant was the surprise shown by the participants when they were shown the gorilla on the film. How could they have missed it?

They only saw what they were looking for, and they had no idea that they could have overlooked something so blatantly obvious.

So it was with my marriage. I saw what I was looking for, and I was blind to what I was not looking for. And so it was in my life in the cult, as well. There were plenty of obvious things that I was not seeing.

*http://www.nsta.org/publications/news/story.aspx?id=53418

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Optimism bias

Of all the biases, this one I consider as virtually a personality characteristic of mine. I was the image of optimism and wishful thinking. In the cult, this could be mistaken for "faith."

For example, when we would hear of abuse of power, even child abuse, by other members of the COG (which by now had changed its name to The Family of Love, soon to be The Family International, by which name its remnants are known today), I would rationalize that the perpetrators were just bad people and not representative of any of the people I had ever met in the group. Bad things may be happening, but they weren't happening around me. People who were not true to the foundation of God's word were doing those things. The foundation was incontrovertibly good. (Oh, how loud the denial!)

I guess I was conveniently forgetting the verse, "Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them."

Besides, as I had framed in my internal narrative, I was smart enough to be sure that abuse wouldn't happen to my kids. I would stay true to God's word and will. By staying true, I would magically protect my children by being blessed by God. After all, it is a just world, and we only reap what we sow. 

Similarly, although my marriage was obviously flawed from day one, I wishfully thought that our situation would improve. My husband would come to love me. He would return to the romantic and kind man that I saw him (or imagined him) to be for the first few weeks we were together. I would make excuses for his angry behavior and harshness to the children. For years I did this, but eventually, even my constant giving the benefit of the doubt gave up. 

It took me ages to finally realize the truth about my marriage and the fantasy narrative that I had constructed for it and so desperately wanted to believe.  

How sad for my children.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Extending the Damage - Marriage

As James Neill wrote in his exhaustive study of what he coined, "the heterosexual myth," "Another class of victims of the heterosexual myth dominating modern society is the large number of spouses and their families of men or women with a significant homosexual component who marry in order to appear normal, for moral reasons, or because of family or social pressure." When this occurs, not only is the relationship "psychologically and emotionally difficult for both partners," but of course, "the parents' ability to provide the emotional nurturing and support that children require is seriously impaired." In short, everyone suffers. (The Origins and Role of Same-Sex Relations in Human Societies, pages 434-435)

Sad to say, this was the case in my life. My husband married me just for those very reasons: social pressure - most importantly as "Sodomy" was considered an "abomination to God," fear of his family and others finding out his true nature and its perceived resultant embarrassment, and to provide a handy cover, emotional protection, and the appearance of "normalcy."

My husband and I coped with this aberrant relationship through denial and by descending into passive/aggressive behaviors when conflicts arose. My insecurity led me to believe our problems were my fault, which attitude was promoted and encouraged by our leaders, whose opinions I held in highest regard. I also developed the unhealthy practice of walking on eggshells when around him, intending to forestall his quick temper and angry flareups, as well as to hopefully gain his approval and thus the ever-sought-after affection. It didn't work, but ever the wishful-thinker, that didn't stop me from trying.

Imagine the effects of such an unhealthy relationship on children. I hang my head in shame.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Simplicity

Humans desire simplicity. The simpler things are the more control we feel we have over them. So we tend to oversimplify, stereotype, and pigeonhole things, which for the most part is not a bad thing. It saves us time and is a quick reflex of our System 1 brain.

This was used to the extreme with the "you are either for me or against me" philosophy of the COG. The world became more black and white, good and bad, COG member and "Systemite." (A "systemite" was a member of the established social order, from which we had "dropped out." In effect, any cult outsider.)

When we feel we are not in control, our penchant for finding patterns and imagined causations is stronger. We have to bring back that feeling of "peace" to our minds, i.e. alleviate the cognitive dissonance. Finding perceived patterns of cause and effect, either spiritual or physical, gives us a way to make sense of things that happen and is comforting. We naturally conclude that things happened for a reason.

As the brilliant Nassim Taleb wrote in The Black Swan, "The human mind suffers from three ailments as it comes into contact with history, what I call the triplet of opacity. They are:

a. the illusion of understanding, or how everyone thinks he knows what is going on in a world that is more complicated (or random) than they realize;

b. the retrospective distortion, or how we can assess matters only after the fact, as if they were in a rearview mirror (history seems clearer and more organized in history books than in empirical reality); and

c. the overvaluation of factual information and the handicap of authoritative and learned people, particularly when they create categories - when they 'Platonify.'"

The first 2 points are most applicable to life in TFI. I doubt anyone had the presence of mind to "Platonify" anything, especially considering the dearth of factual information available within cult literature.

The illusion of understanding was strong, enhanced by the fundamental belief that "everything happens for a reason." We also had the “inside information” of the Mo Letters, since Berg had a hot-line to God. We felt we were the ones that were “in the know.”

Retrospective distortion was ever-present. We looked back at events and saw the supposed cause and effect that fit with our narrative of life and "God's plan" that we so presumed to be in on. That rearview mirror was also helpful in seeing the supposed fulfillment of prophecies. We even used it with Nostradamus's quatrains: “Oh, so THAT's what he was referring to.” Fulfillments of prophecy are easy to see in retrospect. They just don't work so well the other way around.  

This also was supported by the availability heuristic, as we remembered the prayers that we considered answered more readily than those that got God's supposed "no," and we remembered the supposed "fulfilled" prophecies and conveniently forgot those that were unfulfilled - leaving us with the happy notion that God was in control.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Clinging Tightly

Closely related to loss aversion is the endowment effect, where we highly value things we possess. In loss aversion, we cling to what we have, not wanting to part with it. With the endowment effect, things we posses gain value merely by virtue of possession. This also can be applied to belief.

Daniel Kahneman repeated Richard Thaler's classic experiment with coffee cups many times, always with the same results. It is a simple demonstration of the endowment effect.

"Mugs were distributed randomly to half the participants. The Sellers had their mug in front of them, and the Buyers were invited to look at their neighbor's mug; all indicated the price at which they would trade. The Buyers had to use their own money to acquire a mug. The results were dramatic: the average selling price [determined by the one possessing the mug] was about double the average buying price [the price a buyer deemed he would be willing to pay for that mug], and the estimated number of trades was less than half of the number predicted by standard theory."

More than a coffee mug, beliefs are things that we cling to. We don't want to part with them; it is like they are a part of us and who we are. We gave up our former lives and our families for those beliefs. They cost us a lot. We value more highly things that require more effort to attain.

COG members were required to "witness," i.e. try to convince others of the value of our beliefs. Like the techniques used in multi-level marketing, the more we worked to "sell" our religion to others, the more we treasured it ourselves.

What of disconfirming evidence? 

"It is extremely rare for someone to simply abandon a valued belief when confronted with disconfirming information. In fact, recent psychological research shows that when this happens, people tend to hold the erroneous belief even more strongly." Dr. Steven Novella

Your Deceptive Mind: A Scientific Guide to Critical Thinking Skills

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Commitment

For some reason, I had placed an unrealistic importance on commitment. "I've given my word and I can't go back on it." This idea had a very strong hold on my mind.

I wanted to believe that I had made "the right" choice for my life. I wanted my life to have purpose and meaning. So in times of doubt, I would look back to that initial commitment, to the initial purity I thought I had seen in the COG, and I would determine to continue to work to make the group as good as it could be, which for me was to provide a decent education to the children in my care.

This can partly be explained by the phenomenon of sunk cost. I had already invested my everything - my meager savings, personal possessions, emotional dependence, and many years - into the cult, how could I leave now? I'd paid such a high price, surely I should continue to give it my all.

In general, people become more convinced of a decision they make the harder it is to undo it. The greater the cost in embarrassment, money, time, whatever the case may be, the harder we cling, and the harder we strive for reasons to justify our decision as being right or the best thing.

I never actually considered leaving the group as an option. Aside from my mental state, the logistics were difficult. I had nowhere to go - in effect, no family to return "home" to. I was in a foreign country, far from what had been familiar to me in my youth. As the years passed, it would become harder and harder for me to support myself in mainstream society. I had nothing of worth to show on a resume.  

I stayed in the group, considering it my life's work. 

As the author of skeptic.com so succinctly put it:


"To continue to invest in a hopeless project is irrational. Such behavior may be a pathetic attempt to delay having to face the consequences of one's poor judgment. The irrationality is a way to save face, to appear to be knowledgeable, when in fact one is acting like an idiot." 

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Power of Anecdotes

In addition to the Mo Letters and Bible that provided our mental sustenance, we were regularly fed a side dish of anecdotes, which we called “testimonies.” Such stories were particularly helpful in reinforcing the idea of meaning behind all things. Stories are, by nature, easy to remember, so they can play a big role in feeding the availability heuristic.

In society at large, anecdotes are used everyday in advertising and all types of media. This is a two-edged sword because they are so memorable. Problems can arise because the first thing we tend to forget about information we hear is its source. Disturbingly, the second thing we forget is whether it is true or not.


"I remember something about apples and cyanide... What was it? Well, to be safe, I won't buy apples." 


The Family used testimonies to appeal to the emotions of its members and increase the feeling of team spirit. Although not necessarily well-written, and with an over-generous use of exclamation marks, these vivid accounts of "miracles" were published regularly and were a part of our required reading. 


This was a perfect platform for subjective validation, where these stories were perceived to be completely true because they spoke so meaningfully to our faith. We could see the spiritual workings behind the scenes in action – the cause and effect that fit perfectly with our beliefs. No doubt these testimonies were, perhaps even unwittingly, tailor-made to fit, conform to, and reinforce, our predetermined ideas.

They served as precedents for future expectations, built up the faith of group members to "expect miracles" themselves, provided a means of social norming, made members want to emulate the behavior of the ones in the stories, and even gave people a little claim-to-fame and social approval if they were fortunate enough to have one of their testimonies published for all.


These testimonies were not only in written form but were a regular part of group meetings, with members coming up with "inspiring" stories of events that happened during their days of proselytizing, told with excitement and animation, and raising the enthusiasm levels of the group to work harder for our cause.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Happiness

With the "power of prayer" at our disposal, of course we were "happy." In fact, we were constantly reminded in the letters from Berg that living for the Lord in the cult was enjoyable. We were experiencing God's blessings, we were playing the "glad game" (like in the movie, Pollyanna), and we were the happiest people on earth. After all, we were the "chosen ones."

In 1959, psychologists Leon Festinger and James Carlsmith conducted interesting experiments on 
cognitive dissonance, one portion being on people's attitudes toward the enjoyment of a very boring assignment, such as mindlessly turning knobs on a board.

When they were done with the tedious job given them, the participants remaining in the study were offered the job of explaining to the next participants how enjoyable the tasks were. Some people were paid $1 to do this; others were paid $20. Those who only got $1 felt they had to justify to themselves why they were telling the next participators how fun the very boring job was, so they convinced themselves that indeed the tasks were enjoyable. Those who got $20 were content to lie just for the money; no need for self-justification. ($1 obviously being considered not enough to pay someone to lie.)

The researchers concluded that when people are compelled to lie about, in this case, the supposed enjoyment of a boring task, in order to relieve the cognitive dissonance of the contradiction, they convince themselves that the lie is not really a lie but is actually true. Lying to themselves to justify lying to others.

In a curious admittance of the folly of our happiness delusion, although not seen as such, Berg wrote (among other things), "I'd rather be happy in madness, than only be sane and sad." So madness is better than sanity as long as one is happy.  

I've only included parts of this experiment that I felt pertained to my point of the idea that Family members considered themselves to be happy in spite of the circumstances. On the surface, that sounds like a wonderful positive outlook. In reality, it was mindless and crippling denial.

If you care to read a more thorough synopsis of the study, you can find it here.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Illusion of Control

Closely related to the idea of a "just world" is the need to feel that we have control over our lives and situations. Like the widespread beliefs and traditions of superstitions, we Family members had the ultimate power of the universe at our disposal - prayer.

Imagine, I had a God who was concerned about every aspect of my life, as if I were the only one on Earth. He was interested in my every petty worry or imagined need. What a nice, feel-good story! 

This all-powerful God was ever-waiting to listen to my every word. He was also keeping track of those words to judge me for them. ("Every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgement. For by thy words though shalt be justified, and by thy words, thou shalt be condemned. Matthew 12:36-37) Frightening. Clearly, he was focused on me.

He answered all my prayers, but I needed to always be praying ("Pray without ceasing." I Thessalonians 5:17). Fervent prayer was all important, too, as without wholehearted fervency, my prayers might not be heard. 

If I didn't get an answer, well, that was just God's "no" for his divine reasons that were beyond my feeble and limited understanding. After all, as our loving father, he wants what is best for us. If I were to get what I perceived as the answer to my prayer, then surely God answers prayer! Hallelujah!

So either way, God wins. And we win, too, because we could be content knowing that we had our own (albeit delusional) method of control - prayer.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Flirty Fishing Follows

As if the in-group promiscuous sex wasn't enough, potential converts were included in this practice.

In this thinly veiled prostitution, the women were encouraged to seek out men to "win to the lord" through having sex with them. How naive! It was easy to find men who were eager for some cheap sex with a young, healthy girl, even if they had to endure a bit of ridiculous religious preaching to get it.

So it was that I lost my virginity to a (fortunately for me) very kind man from Jordan just before my 21st birthday. 

This practice was called "Flirty Fishing," in reference to the Bible verse where Jesus said, "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men." Yet, I rejected the terminology the cult used for such men. I could not bring myself to think of these outside men that I had sex with as "fish" or "kings," but rather I preferred to think of them as "friends." (Perhaps that is one way I dealt with the cognitive dissonance I experienced with this new morality.)

Why did I do it? Perhaps here is a piece of an explanation.

In the early 1960's, Stanley Milgram conducted some rather controversial experiments on obedience to authority. He postulated that people will do what they are told, even to the degree of contravening their own sense of morality.

He set up his experiments using 3 different subjects: the Experimenter (authority figure), the Teacher, and the Student.

The Experimenter explained to the Teacher that he would be part of an experiment on operant conditioning (think B.F. Skinner). The Student would be “punished” for answering questions wrongly, so that the Experimenter could (ostensibly) learn how punishments affected learning. Unknown to the Teacher, the Student was a confederate of the Experimenter and only acting his part, and the experiment actually involved studying the Teacher's level of obedience.


The Teacher, believing the experiment was about negative reinforcement, was to help the Student answer questions correctly by administering slight electric shocks when he gave a wrong answer. These would gradually increase in strength as the Student answered incorrectly. The Teacher tested an initial 30 volt shock on himself and thought it wasn't so bad, so he had no problem delivering that same shock to the Student.

The machine used for these electric shocks (although not a real shock machine) was labelled with various switches, such as "mild shock," "moderate shock," "severe shock," and "XXX." Clearly, the shocks were to get dangerously strong as the experiment progressed.

When the Student gave an incorrect answer, the Teacher gave him an electric shock, just as the Experimenter told him. After each incorrect answer, the strength of the shock was increased by 15 volts, gradually building up to frightening levels as the experiment went on.

Although some of the Teachers grew visibly agitated, the majority carried on with the experiment, continuing to deliver shocks at the request of the Experimenter, in spite of the screams of the unseen Student in the next room. After 300 volts were administered, the Student became quiet, which the Experimenter deemed as an "incorrect answer" and ordered continuing shocks, which a disturbing number of participants delivered.

These results have been replicated by other psychologists. Milgram wrote, "Authority was pitted against the subjects' strongest moral imperatives...and...authority won more often than not."

He wrote further, "Often it is not so much the kind of person a man is as the kind of situation in which he finds himself that determines how he will act."


Perhaps the Teachers felt that they weren't responsible. It wasn't their fault if the Student was hurt. They were just doing what they were told.

The moral implications are alarming.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

"Free Love"

When I first joined the COG, what I saw was a group of young people dedicated to returning to the lifestyle and ways of early Christianity. As such, the group appeared to be chaste, with sex allowed only within the bonds of marriage. Little did I know...

Even at that time, Berg and his household were living with a completely different set of mores. Promiscuity, as long as it could be justified as being "done in love," was encouraged, since after all, "God is love" so then "love" must be "God." "As long as something is done in love, then it is completely lawful in God's eyes," or so said the "prophet." What a convenient and holy-sounding justification for his and others' licentiousness.

This gradually filtered down to the plebeian cult members through the letters Berg wrote. Finally, he felt it was "God's time" to share these new "strange truths" with "his children." It was 1977, and Berg instituted Flirty Fishing - sex with potential converts. Within months, we were officially given permission to have sex indiscriminately among ourselves, called "sharing."

Oh, how scared was this little former-Catholic virgin!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Social Control

An interesting theory of social control was developed by Travis Hirschi in 1969. Although referring to criminals and other social deviants, I found his ideas very applicable to the society within the COG.

He suggested that in order to discourage deviance - violation of accepted norms of the society, in my case, the cult - one needed to be bonded to the community in the following ways: attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief.

Attachment was easily provided through the hierarchy of Family leadership. Although friendships were often shattered, there was always a leader in my house, and always Berg as our ultimate "father" and his mistress, Zerby, as our ultimate "mother" figure. When one feels attached to a society through authority figures, such as pseudo-kinship or leadership structure, one naturally demonstrates respect and love for them by accepting their standards and values. When we disappoint those we feel attached to, we experience shame and guilt. Therefore, we are less inclined to deviate from what is deemed "normal behavior" in the group.

As far as commitment goes, one could not get much more committed than the burning of bridges required of a Family member. Hirschi advanced that there is a relation between the amount of commitment to a society and the disinclination towards social deviance. The greater the commitment, the more one has to lose by misbehavior.

The involvement required of Family members was complete. Every moment of every day was scheduled and regulated. All my time was filled with my so-called "work for the lord." Time for thought of other lifestyles was seriously limited, although the likelihood of thinking such damning thoughts grew slimmer with each passing day. Besides, "An idle mind is the devil's workshop."

Belief, of course, being aided and abetted by the availability heuristic and the confirmation bias, among many others, was reinforced daily. The required 2 hours of "word time" (reading publications from the group, and/or the King James bible), plus memorization, kept me busy during any time that would have otherwise been free. "Living in the word," i.e. constantly having the "word of God and/or Berg" in one's mind, was held as virtuous and an ideal for which to strive.

As well, I was getting quite interested in the stories of the bible, and I ended up making that a main focus of study and the form of mandatory "word time" that I enjoyed teaching the most to the children I worked with. Since it was only that or the words of Berg, it was an easy choice.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Neural Degeneration is No Joke

Years later, when I finally made the break from TFI (The Family International, which is the current name for any remnants of the COG), I found concentration very difficult. No longer under the thumb of the group I felt I could return to reading books, a source of pleasure in my youth, but I had a very difficult time reading. I was firstly plagued by feelings of guilt with recurring thoughts that "I shouldn't be wasting my precious time reading fiction when I could be studying the Bible." Secondly, my comprehension skills were shot. I had a really hard time following even the Sherlock Holmes stories I was trying to read through.

Thankfully, the brain is very plastic and can continue to form new cells and connections for our entire lives. Gradually I regained brain function and have been able to learn and study again, but it took time to pull out of the mental haze.

Now I am revisiting some of my favorite psychology courses that I listened to 8 years ago, and I've been surprised at how new they seem to me. Back when I first listened, I had trouble ingesting them. Finally, I have been able to experience the sheer joy of learning that I allowed myself to be robbed of during my years of cult dedication. May it never end.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Speaking of Stress

As my COG "family" replaced my biological family, I naturally formed attachments to people I loved and respected. For my first 12 years in the group, I found myself in the position of caring for leaders and their children for years at a time; much of the time, it was just myself and maybe someone else with the leadership couple and their children. Of course, I grew to love the children as my own and develop attachments to their parents as pseudo-parent figures for myself. The people I served in this capacity were considerably older than I was, making feelings of parental affection somewhat natural.

As well, my parents had died not long after I moved away from the US, so now they were completely absent from my life. I had minimal contact with my siblings.

True to the core beliefs of "The Family" (new name for the COG), these situations would come to sudden and abrupt ends, leaving me emotionally distraught.

Any friendships we may have made within the group never lasted, as we were strongly discouraged from keeping in touch with people once our paths had diverged.

It appears this (among other things) caused me some sort of psychological damage, as from time to time when something would strike me funny, I would laugh uncontrollably for about 20 minutes straight. Although I would try to stop, all I could do was put my head down and try to stifle it and the inevitable tears that would fall.

Oddly, this was not a "red flag" to my wise, older "shepherds in the lord."

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Neural Atrophy

These attack times, sometimes called "pushes," continued intermittently throughout my entire time in the group.

We never actually habituated to these times, as the attack periods would only last a number of weeks, followed by a break of several months. Then the next one would come upon us as suddenly as the last, throwing us into another high-tension mode of operation, and providing a strong distraction from thought, inflating our sense self-importance, and bringing in extra funds for the cult.

Living with the stress and anxiety of cult life had an effect on my brain. Prolonged stress produces neural atrophy and suppresses neurogenesis - the birth of new brain cells. Chronic subordination also causes a decrease in neurogenesis. Or, put more simply, being in a situation where one has to constantly submit to someone else causes one's brain to stop producing new cells as it should. As I continued in the cult, I was gradually getting dumber and dumber.

Meanwhile, my frontal lobe was still no where near completely developed. I was missing the integral feature that was needed to discern good and bad choices and foresee long-term consequences. 

Now that I was on the far-side of the globe, I continued to be absorbed deeper into the group and further from any friends or family who could possibly rescue me. Not that I would have listened.

Good-bye USA

The frequent search for some illusory correlation, i.e. looking for the reasons for random events, took a fair bit of time and introspection. We had to find out why a person, perhaps ourselves, "deserved" what they got. "Nothing happens by accident to one of God's children," or so said the "prophet." The concept of randomness did not fit into the parameters of a "just world" where everything happens for a reason.

Being busy was an important feature of the life of a cultist. This provided us with the illusion of importance, which of course fueled the idea of us being the "called out elite army of the lord." (In retrospect, the absurdity is baffling.)

To keep us even more busy and stressed, we had intermittent "attack times." These were periods of weeks when we were on "high alert" for some perceived threat or imminent disaster. (I wonder if Berg was consciously aware of the effect that a high-stress atmosphere had on people; if not, he must have had an innate sense that it would serve his purpose.)

These attack times would usually be in the form of long hours on the streets, passing out pamphlets and collecting donations. In later years, this would leave those at home who cared for the children busy 24/7 caring for large numbers of children who were divided roughly by age. A room full of 12 toddlers night and day can be quite a challenge.

It was during one such period of impending doom, just before July 4, 1976, that I, at the tender age of 19, moved to the opposite side of the world in my quest to "go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature." The farcical truth was that the "gospel" we were preaching was nothing more than the teachings of the cult - but we believed they were one and the same.

From time to time, deep down inside me there was a hint of embarrassment of the cult's beliefs and a desire to not let on to outsiders how really weird some things were. Not a strong enough hint to even consider leaving, though.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Just World

The just world bias was kept alive and well on a daily basis in a COG commune. Since we believed that "life is fair and God is good," i.e. the world is just, then when an accident or illness occurred, we were obligated to look for its cause so that we could learn "what God was trying to teach us." 

In fact, there is a part of us that wants things to happen for a reason. We want the world to be fair and just. It make things simpler and easier to understand, giving us a false sense of security. This naturally appeals to us.

With a combination of biases at play, we looked for the underlying pattern to name as the cause for, say, an accident. Since "life was fair," we assumed there was a causal connection that we must discover; we had sinned and were therefore "reaping what we sowed." Together with the negativity bias, giving more weight to negative information than to positive information, we "searched our hearts" to come up with something, some "lesson" we could learn, so we could be delivered, healed, or whatever.


If one looks hard enough for a pattern or causation, one will find it. Indeed, "seek and ye shall find." We find what we are looking for, and we ignore what we are not looking for.

Granted, there are real causes to such things as catching a cold, but to look for a deep spiritual transgression as the reason that precipitated a certain mishap is absurd, yet it was just a run-of-the-mill happening in the life of a COG member.


This was carried to extremes when disasters happened to cities or countries. "God is judging them for their sins," of course. 


Just as a basketball player's "hot hand is entirely in the eye of the beholders"* so the causation of sin being behind bad things happening is entirely in the eye of the believers. 


* Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman, page 117

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Filling in Blind Spots

Just as we have visual blind spots where our minds fill in the gaps according to expectation, so we have many mental biases that do the same to the information we take in, some of which I've mentioned already. 

Our minds easily recognize and concoct patterns, whether it be a face in the clouds, a ghost in the shadows, or a snake on the path. This is an obvious help in dangerous situations, as we all would rather make the mistake of thinking a stick is a snake rather than assuming the reverse is true and suffering for it. (This concept has been given the name "apophenia" by Klaus Conrad, and then built on and renamed "patternicity" by Michael Shermer.)

With the help of this and other natural mental short-cuts, our minds fit together pieces of the patterns and information that we take in to form an image or idea consistent with our personal expectations and our own sense of reality.

This innate tendency was exploited to a great degree by the COG, with conspiracies lurking behind any small event. There were reasons for events, and there was meaning in everything. "Everything happens for a reason," and behind everything was the great God of the universe pulling the strings. And thank God, we were the chosen few who really knew what was going on. His invisible hand was working in all our lives. All these thoughts continually reinforcing the notions of being chosen, called out, separate, and pulling us further into the group.

The daily bombardment of reading and memorization of cult materials made it so much easier to perceive the patterns in the world around us and give them meaning. We deemed those who had this ability as being more "spiritual" and "in-tune with God." They were strong in "faith." Well yes, because "believing" truly "is seeing." We see what we believe we see.

From the Illuminati, to the CIA killing Kennedy, we were steeped in conspiracy theories through the group's publications. Daily delusion spinning, serving to further pull me into the web of deceit and lies that were the foundation of the COG.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Dancing Pigeons

B.F. Skinner did a now-famous experiment on pigeons and their reactions to randomness. He deprived pigeons of food for a while, then placed them in cages with a system where a food pellet would be delivered at regular intervals. There was nothing the pigeon could do to control the food supply.

As time went on, the pigeons seemed to remember what they had done just before the food was delivered. Being hungry, they wanted to speed up the process, so they would repeat what they had done just before they got food. Next time a pellet dropped, they would again try to replicate what they had done just before it arrived.  

Before long, pigeons were turning in circles, stepping from foot to foot, tossing or bobbing their heads - all the while perceiving that their actions "caused" the food to drop. Is it as if the pigeons' prayers had caused the answers they desired to come to pass? 

Just like a pigeon, I wanted the illusion of control in my life. Prayer provided just such an illusion. "Prayer is the hand of faith" that moves the heart of God. Oh, what power I had! How important my petty problems were that the God of the universe would take time to listen to me! How good that made me feel! I was important. I had value. I was God's child. 

I was as deluded as those pigeons.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Dissonance

The majority of people have been shown to judge themselves above average in intelligence, driving ability, and other attributes. This illusion of superiority causes us to have difficulty in admitting failure and leads us to blaming others and/or rationalizing about circumstances. "Surely there were extenuating reasons why I failed, it couldn't have been my fault, after all, I'm smart." Failures and mistakes do not correspond with our self-image.

(Conversely, if you are among the minority who think themselves below average, you reinforce that negative mental image by explaining away successes, "It was just a fluke." "Before you know it people will find out how truly stupid I really am.") 

Now that I am aware of this inherent tendency, I try to alter my perception of myself and try not to give in to thinking of myself as smart, but rather try to think of myself as one who desires to learn and persevere. This has its own set of accompanying biases, but I prefer those to the ones I'd held for too many years.

To admit that I had wasted years - yea, even decades - in a fruitless, nonsensical delusion, and worse yet, subjected the people I love the most (my children) to the same delusion, was a deeply wrenching experience, to put it mildly. As I wrote in my introduction, this is what prompted my search to understand how such a dreadful and far-reaching mistake could have been made in my life.

I wasn't the "good person" I thought I was, and I certainly wasn't very smart.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Paradoxical Effects of Unfulfilled Prophecy

Inevitably in following a self-proclaimed "prophet" there will be prophecies that will not be fulfilled. One would think that an obvious unfulfilled prophecy would enlighten the followers that something was amiss. Not exactly.

Initially, yes. Something unexpected occurred. The predicted event didn't happen. This didn't fit our concept of what should happen. The inconsistency of it strikes our mind with discomfort. Imagine the mental dissonance that is clamoring to be resolved! Enter rationalization - usually in the form of another letter from our founder explaining how the Lord had changed his mind, due to our prayers, or whatever self-serving reason he came up with.

Since we'd all already "burned our bridges" (a requirement for members which equalled cutting ties with former friends and family), we were deeply committed to the cause. We were true believers, and as such, we unconsciously wanted to believe.  And as we know, we see what we believe. (The confirmation bias is ever with us.)

The COG is just one among many cults and religious groups that have dealt with unfulfilled prophecies in this way. Reasons given for why the prophecy didn't come true can really be any ridiculous explanation, such as, "It did happen, but it was a spiritual occurrence invisible to us." Or, "It didn't happen because God saw your faithfulness and decided to reward your prayers by bestowing mercy on the world," fitting right in with the illusion of group importance.


Then, in order to further decrease the discomfort of the dissonance that we had earlier experienced, a new proselytizing campaign would begin, spreading the word of God's mercy to mankind in sparing them from whatever catastrophe didn't occur. 

So paradoxically, what would seem like a wake up call to reality actually serves to galvanize the faith of the true believers in the prophet and the group.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Delusion

As I have written, once a decision is made, the information we get afterwards tends to only confirm it in our minds.

This is even sadly true when it comes to judicial decisions. Ever since DNA testing freed the first wrongly imprisoned innocent man, groups like Project Innocence have been fighting a hard battle. Why is it so hard? Isn't the judicial system seeking truth and justice? Well, yes and no. Even more important than justice is the mind's internal, and nearly uncontrollable, desire for consistency and self-justification. "I'm an honest judge, and I would never punish the innocent." There is a natural resistance to changing one's mind on a verdict, even when presented with definitive evidence.

In my case, I was I was the honest, truth-seeking judge who made the decision to join the COG. I would not change my mind. Ironically, I was also the prisoner of that decision, kept in a mental prison, not seeing past the bars. 

This delusion I shared with the other COG members as the "called-out, elite soldiers of Christ." If it had only been me, perhaps I would have been deemed mentally ill. Surrounded with so many like-minded people, it was a group delusion.

Our minds have a reality testing feature that is very handy. This is turned off while we dream, which explains why we can believe dreams when we experience them, and then afterwards wonder at how bizarre they were. Much like a dream, being part of a group delusion hampers reality testing.

Of crucial importance to cult members was the concept of "surrender." I was oft-corrected for being willful - clearly a serious sin - and chided to "surrender my will to the Lord" (aka the whims of the leaders). Turning off my will equaled turning off critical thinking. It took me years of trying my best to attain that level of "dedication."