Sunday, December 18, 2016

"American Heiress" and Brainwashing

American Heiress is Jeffrey Toobin's thorough recounting of Patricia Hearst's kidnapping by and involvement with the Symbionese Liberation Army - an "army" of six. Aside from the wealth and influence of her family and the powerful role that that played in her light sentencing and eventual Presidential pardons, the crux of her trial came down to whether or not she had been "brainwashed."

Did she wholeheartedly join the cause of the SLA, or was she coerced and just went along with them to keep from being killed? If the latter, as she claimed afterwards, then why did she not escape when given so many opportunities over the 19 months she was with them? She was left alone many many times. She had people that would take her in. She did not lack for money. She was not completely isolated from society. She had family that cared about her and were willing to help her.

It's hard not to conclude that she was enamored with their cause.  

After she was arrested she still held onto her revolutionary beliefs for a while, but her enthusiasm faded as the days away from the influence of the SLA grew, gradually replaced by the influence of former friends and family who were visiting her daily. With this came a change in how she viewed her past. Like the rest of humanity, she began to view her experience through the filter of her current mindset. 

Surely, she had been coerced. She had not had consensual sex with the man who had given her an obviously sentimental amulet necklace that was found in her purse when she was arrested, a year and 4 months after he had died. Sentimental? No, he had raped her - apparently, repeatedly.

Did she need to tell herself that story in order to preserve her sanity and to corroborate her claims of innocence? How could she, a "good girl" from a "good family," have committed such crimes in the name of the SLA? "Impossible," pronounced her new default narrative in protection of her ego.

Perhaps her situation echoes Stanley Milgram's conclusion. "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."

Could it be, that we are all more vulnerable than we think? Given the right set of circumstances, can we be certain how we would react

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Free Love and Guilt

I wonder if I had not been so wrapped up in the guilt I carried for being the supposed cause of all our relationship woes, I may have just seen the light of the cult's delusion earlier. And I wasn't the only one dealing with relationship issues, although mine may have been different from most.

Maybe there was something to all these internal issues taking time, and emotional and mental bandwidth.

The arbitrary and frequent splitting up of couples by leadership ("for the Lord's work"), as well as the doctrine of the Law of Love, no doubt, wreaked havoc in any and all relationships in the group. The indiscriminate "sharing" (cult euphemism for having sex) among members "as long as it was done in love," and the shaming of the jealous, made for much introspection, insecurity, and misery. Those who were jealous were "old bottles," "selfish," or "not yielding to God's will," etc., and in need of prayer, extra "word time," and deliverance. In extreme cases, exorcism.

Accordingly, we had a group of people who were so busy fighting personal battles with "sin and self," that no one had the energy or initiative to lift their heads above the clouds and look around and question.

Who can say what would have been? The techniques the cult used to keep its members were (and still are) many and powerful. But surely the distraction of the Law of Love, along with the myriad absurd requirements placed on the shoulders of cult members, was a strong force in keeping us unquestioning and in the fold.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Broken Pieces - Broken Lives

In the last month, I came in contact with a variety of ex-members. In spite of differences in age, race, and situations, we all share the commonality of trying to make a life out of the broken pieces that were left after leaving the cult. After years of being exploited and abused, we are now each doing our best to make our way in the world with little help, experience, or foundation. The following people are far from anomalies.

"A," whose parents joined the group when she was a child, is engaged in a daily fight with depression, constant financial struggles, and hopelessness. Anger flares against her parents, then turns inward. She puts on a brave face each day for her children, but on the inside there is black sadness. Putting one foot in front of the other is how she makes it through each day.

"B," born in the cult, has been pulling together his broken pieces and has struggled to teach himself the language that should have been his mother tongue, then he ambitiously took on a third language. Fighting feelings of insecurity, he's overcome and been successful in supporting himself in a job that uses his tri-lingual abilities. Quite impressive, considering he lives in a rigid, unforgiving country, and has never spent a day inside a school building.

"C," another who had the misfortune to be born in the cult, struggles with finances and a psychologically abusive spouse. She is stuck; her child held hostage to her marriage.

There are more, many sick with stress over the future; all coping the best they can.

Finally, "D" who joined at age 18 and had five children in the cult. Divorced, living alone in a foreign country, she has been struggling to reinvent and educate herself so she can get a secure job - and all this in her 50's. 

Her desire is to erase the past and only live in the present, otherwise guilt and sadness overwhelm her and pull her in a downward spiral of shame. She feels her children blame her for her bad decisions, and she blames herself for having brought those children into the world while in the cult. There are no happy thoughts of her children, no cheerful memories - all are colored by guilt - she only yearns to forget. A great divide of pain and bitterness lies between her and her children. 

This is deeply saddening. What a legacy of our years spent "serving the Lord." A travesty.

I am thankful that my children can laugh about the absurdity of their past. Needless to say, I sincerely wish it had been different.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Abuse seen as "a labor of love" - a new take on the Milgram experiments


I wrote about the Milgram experiments in reference to why people engaged in Flirty Fishing in the COG here.  

This speaker talks about revisiting those experiments and coming to a slightly different conclusion - one that is even more terrifying - people harm others when they believe they are doing it for love. Shades of the Manson Family killings.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Mother May I?

I always felt that before I could do anything - anything at all - for myself, I needed to get permission. Was it so that I did not sin by selfishness? All I know is that I needed approval before I would act.

Therefore, seeing a doctor about a health issue was not something I did - not unless that issue was so serious that it could not be ignored. Buying clothes? No. Just make do. Eat in a restaurant by myself? Perish the thought! What an extravagance! Better to go hungry.

I think it's about time for me to realize that a grown woman does not need to get permission and validation before doing something for herself.

Baby steps.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Vicious Cycle of Outrage

Who bothers to fact-check? “The catchy, click-bait headline confirmed what I already thought of that other political party, I’ll share it,” subconsciously rationalize too many social network users, unwittingly embracing their own confirmation bias.

On it goes, spreading ill-will like a virus from person-to-person, fed by the cortisol being pumped out by those busy, indignation-activated adrenal glands.

So much negativity.

“Today’s world is such a horrible place, gun deaths, ISIS, terrorism,” the US has even been likened to “a war zone,” by some of the more alarmist types. But is it?

Clearly bad news makes news. Stories about good deeds and calm neighborhoods don’t sell.

But let's stop and take a breath.

Stephen Pinker clearly elucidated in his 2011 book, The Better Angels of our Nature, that the world today is much less violent than it has ever been, even the United States.


Likewise, who can deny that our moral evolution has made things repugnant today that were accepted as normal in the not so distant past:  slavery, public torture and executions, and the subjugation of women, to name just a few of the most obvious. Even animals rights is a thing now; not so when those of my generation were growing up in the 1960’s.

Perhaps even greater than the threat of violence today is the encroaching psychological danger that much of humanity is embracing with joy:  the ever-increasing availability of information and its ability to surreptitiously transform our mindsets. The mind-boggling numbers of television channels, the nearly ubiquitous internet connectivity, the countless radio shows and podcasts - even clothing and bags are emblazoned with brand names - all feeding us with information.

Having the wealth of man's knowledge at our fingertips is a marvelous thing, but the downside is that news outlets, both spurious and legitimate, have a tremendous influence on us via an availability cascade of stories and memes that give us a very distorted sense of reality, danger, and truth. Obviously, the most effective memes and the most attention-getting, share-worthy stories are those that arouse emotion. This incentivizes people to write articles and headlines using more and more emotion-laden terms, in an ever escalating battle of one-upmanship. From hyperbolic memes complete with spelling errors to actual news articles, the more emotion their creators can arouse in their readers, the more widely their piece is apt to be read and shared. Are we nearing a crescendo in this vicious cycle?

One of the daily challenges of the modern world is to be aware of the power of availability to influence us. We naturally deem things that are easily called to mind as being of more weight and importance, especially those that are emotion-laden, but being readily called to mind does not speak to their value. As Daniel Kahneman wrote in Thinking Fast and Slow, his groundbreaking book on behavioral economics, "A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth.”

Is it too much to wish that reporters today would take an evidence-based approach in their writing? Surely that would be a positive step towards bringing the world a bit closer to the safe haven of kindness and hope that the majority of humanity strives to embrace.

Written June 2016

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Polarization

Scrolling down facebook, I marvel with irritation at the pro-Trumpers who post astounding conspiracy theories. Why does this bother me? They are entitled to their opinion, of course.

It bothers me, not just because it's stupid, imho, but because it reeks of cult-like "inside information" that only the privileged elite are privy to. They, the select few, really know what's going on in the world. They are the special few who have access to this information that the rest of the world is in the dark about.

It's sickeningly familiar.

It's not just pro-Trump people, either.

Today we have polarization like I've never seen before (not having lived through WWII), fueled and fanned by people's confirmation biases. Any and all news feeds the flame of enthusiasm for the candidate of choice, no matter whether it's bad or good. Just like loyal cultists, the bad news is rationalized and explained away - perhaps as part of that "anti-my-candidate" conspiracy, inspiring a defensive reaction that strengthens loyalty - and the good news simply bolsters their devotion.

Our natural tendency as humans is to feed on information that confirms and reinforces our beliefs. It's mentally rewarding to find confirming evidence, and it easily turns into a continuous cycle that grows more and more, nourished by hyperbole and baseless claims.

How nice it would be if there were actually unbiased reporting of facts and critical thinking utilized by us all. But since that is a dream, at least being aware of this phenomenon and our own biases can help us to see through the noise.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Chillingly Similar: Berg's "Family" and Manson's "Family"

I recently finished reading the excellent account of the Manson Family and the gruesome Tate-LaBianca murders, Helter Skelter, written by the prosecutor in the case. The parallels were chilling. So chilling, in fact, that one may wonder if Berg actually borrowed some of his ideas from Charles Manson.

The Manson Family:
  • Delusional, charismatic leader with his own theory of an apocalypse where blacks destroy the whites, then step aside to allow the reincarnation of Jesus himself, Charles Manson, to come out of his refuge in the desert and rule the world along with his loyal followers.
  • Using his female followers to flirt and entice men to join the group, with sex as their bait. Women's purpose was to take care of men.
  • So-called "freedom" with unashamed nudity and unbridled sex and orgies.
  • Delusional followers who would do whatever their leader told them, even brutally killing innocents to "set them free," while bringing "death to pigs." A bit of a conflicted message.
  • They called themselves "The Family," a united, "loving" brotherhood.
  • Jargon and anonymity - Members took new names, police were referred to as "Romans," outsiders were other-ized.
  • No shame or guilt for their crimes.
The Family of Love:
  • Delusional, charismatic leader who taught that the world was evil and would be destroyed in the apocalypse, before which God's children would be raptured to heaven and saved, soon to return to rule the world during the Millennium.
  • Using female followers to entice men to join and/or support the group financially. "FFing [Flirty Fishing] is going out witnessing the love of Jesus with the serious intent to use sex or sex appeal as the bait." (From FF Report Questions & Answers!) Women were taught that their role in life was to care for men, specifically, the men's "physical needs." 
  • Free sex - yes.
  • Delusional followers who were to obey unquestioningly. "You must obey implicitly, quickly and without question your officers in the Lord, without murmuring [complaining]..."  (From The Revolutionary Rules, 1972) The disciples' job was to set the "Systemites" free, while overall condemning them for following "mammon" [material goods, i.e. working for money].
  • The Family, a united brotherhood - yes.
  • Jargon and anonymity - Members took new names when joining and after "breakthroughs in their spiritual lives." Indeed, police were referred to as "Romans," as in praying, "Lord, hide us from the eyes of the Romans," before distributing literature on the street, etc. (Truly, that was a common prayer back in the day.) The othering of "them and us" was elemental.
  • No shame or guilt, absolutely. They do not feel their doctrines were wrong.
Berg, with his delusions and charisma set up a fool's paradise that became his followers' "normal," with a whole different set of mores from society at large. Most egregiously, he proclaimed that adult sex with kids was "godly." Bear with me through these loathsome quotes in which I have added bold type for emphasis:

"THE ONLY WAY TO GET FREE OF [Satan] AND HIS LIES AND HIS PROHIBITIONS AND GUILT COMPLEXES ABOUT SEX is to get rid of his lies and his lying propaganda, his anti-sex propaganda, and believe the Lord and His Word and His Creation and God's Love and His freedom! That there's nothing in the world at all wrong with sex as long as it's practiced in love, whatever it is or whoever it's with, no matter who or what age or what relative or what manner!

"I'M TALKING ABOUT NATURAL NORMAL GODLY LOVE AS MANIFESTED IN SEX, as far as I'm concerned for whomever! There are no relationship restrictions or age limitations in His law of love. But system laws make it all against the law, and if I'd tell you what I think, I'd probably break the law publishing it! Whew! Wow! The system really stinks! It is a pit of lies and deceit and fiendish propaganda against the laws of God and the love of God and the sex of God! It's almost totally against nature!" (From The Devil Hates Sex!—But God Loves It!, 5/20/1980)

What was satisfying about the Manson murder trials, was that the prosecution succeeded in convincing the jury that without Manson's role, influence, and philosophy, and of course, his orders, the murders would not have been committed. He was given the death penalty, which was changed to life imprisonment when California abolished capital punishment. At the time of this writing, he is still in prison, living at taxpayer expense, even making some money from the licensing of his songs and name. But, at least, a measure of justice was served.

Too few TFI members that followed through with Berg's advice that “unto the pure all things are pure,” including sex with kids, landed in jail. It is a shame that Berg and Zerby did not. Even though Charles Manson did not personally kill the victims of the Tate-LaBianca murders, he was judged to be the one that instigated his followers to do them, and because of that and other crimes, he has spent his life in prison. Berg and Zerby not only created the atmosphere where their followers thought such behavior was “of God,” they themselves set the standard for this child-abuse. If anyone should have been jailed, it was Berg, and the current leader of the TFI, Zerby. 

No justice has been served.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Dealing with Delusional Parents

In the last year, on separate occasions I came into contact with current TFI members, and frankly, I was floored to see the depth of their continued delusion. I had the horrifying thought, "Holy shit! Was I like that before?!" But mainly I stood in amazement, marveling at the sense of entitlement, the fantasy world they live in, the continuous denial of any past wrongdoings - "It's in the past," was their flippant response to my questions. (Yes, yes, I know. "Forget those things which are behind." That seems to be the stock formula for denial.)

If I, an ex-FGA, was bewildered by their behavior and mindset, what do their children, who have struggled against all kinds of odds and disadvantages to build a life for themselves out of the cult, think of their parents? I wonder how conflicted they are? I am sure a part of them must love them - it's only natural. But then, how do they handle dealing with such delusional parents?

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Jargon

As if there wasn't enough psychological isolation in the cult already with "keeping yourself unspotted from the world," being the "called-out elite," etc., there was another practice that helped to cement the "them" and "us" separation: jargon.

Plenty of ingroups have their own lingo that add to their own brand of coolness, but feeding the feeling of specialness and belonging, TFI's was one more brick in the wall in the manipulation of members' "normal," including how they talked and thought, to be anything but normal.

Mostly taken from publication quotes or titles, a plethora of terminology found its way into a member's vocabulary. "JJT" for cleanup ("Jesus Job Time," I kid you not), "selah" for secret, "Systemites" for outsiders, "the girl who wouldn't" for someone who refuses the sexual advances of another member, "backslider" or more colorfully, "God's vomit" or "the Vandari," for those who leave the group. Even normal greetings were replaced with the vacuous,"God bless you! I love you!" The list goes on and on.

Euphemisms also abounded, "sharing" for having sex; "witnessing" for selling literature and cringe-worthy Family produced audio-visual tapes, CDs, and DVDs; and "provisioning" for begging.

There were even local varieties that seem to have originated from non-native English speakers, such as using "toilet" as a verb. "I need to go toilet." smh

And let me not neglect the acronyms, a TFI favorite, for everything from leadership titles (DAS, GAS, NAS), to places (WS, HCS, MWM), to practices (FFing, going DTD, BAR - burn after reading, DTR - discipleship training revolution designed to further indoctrinate the second generation), literature classifications (DO for disciples only, GP for general public); they are way too numerous to list.

All that worked to encourage camaraderie, the feeling of brotherhood and select membership in the secret, privileged club where all spoke the same bizarre language.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

More on Abuse

There has been attention drawn to the most egregious of abuses of minors in TFI: the sexual abuse, the depriving of education, the child labor, etc. But what of other abuses?

How do children handle being raised with no prospect of personal space? How could they develop a sense of personal control when it was virtually impossible to exert control over their environments and behavior, their lives being fully scheduled and controlled by outside sources - the arbitrary whims of their Shepherds and even more nebulously and frighteningly, almighty God?

Landmark studies conducted in the late 1970s to early 1980s by Ellen Langer and Judith Rodin on perceived control in nursing home residents showed that giving elderly people even the simplest autonomy, such as the freedom to rearrange their furniture, care for a plant in their room, etc., served to enhance their health and well-being significantly.

But isn't that a given? Did this really need to be the subject of studies?

The freedom to control our own environment to an age-appropriate degree is obviously necessary for mental, and even physical, health. Even very young children blossom when given the respect of allowing them a measure of personal control.

As well, how powerless were cult-raised children made to feel when cases of abuse that were reported went nowhere?

One case was of a prone-to-anger step-father who used to beat his son. When local Shepherds remained in denial about it, the concerned mother wrote to the leader of the country. That leader wrote back to the abuser, asking for his side of the story. He did nothing. When the mother confronted him with the letter from the big leader, his only response was to say, "Ha!"

And that was the end of Shepherd intervention. There was no follow-up at all. The abuse continued and escalated.

That was emblematic of how abuse in TFI was handled.

How could it have been otherwise? To step in and do something would have been hypocritical.

As an illustrative example: The "mate" of another country-wide leader was notorious for sneaking into the teen girls' room at night to "say goodnight" to his step-daughters. Kneeling down beside them, he would quietly demand, "Show me your breasts." Yet another big leader impregnated a 14-year-old. Too many cult-born girls were raised with such disregard for their personal boundaries.

What recourse was given to these girls? What personal control did they have? How could they not think that giving in to the whims of men was what "God" required of them?

Were they forced to seek their own, private, methods of control, resulting in anorexia or anxiety disorders, and having left the cult, eventual substance abuse?

It is a tribute to the resilience of the SGA's (Second Generation Adults) that they have grown into self-sufficient adults, with the intelligence and finesse to navigate a world in which they had little contact as children, and that, only from a twisted, paranoid viewpoint. Hats off to them.

Maltreatment in childhood is associated with a significantly increased likelihood of psychiatric disorder that endures across the lifespan. If disorders emerge they tend to be more severe and less responsive to treatment.*

*"The theory of latent vulnerability: Reconceptualizing the link between childhood maltreatment and psychiatric disorder," by Eamon J. McCrory and Essi Viding, University College London

Monday, June 27, 2016

"The way to be happy is to make others happy." Just no.

I just wanna make everyone happy.
I don't wanna make anyone sad.
Because I love all day,
And I wanna make everyone glad.

Seriously?

Too many years of such a mantra left me a very easy-to-take-advantage-of, and frankly, sickeningly obsequious, person.

Just now, a man representing my former landlord who is short-changing me for more than $400 came by to explain the finances. I have been waiting for this issue to be resolved for two months. Today, I overly politely mentioned that there was a still discrepancy. On and on went my self-effacement, "I'm not good at math, so I could be wrong, but how is 14 and 25 equal? I cannot understand."

Finally, the guy said he would check again with the landlord. Again, out came the wanting to please and make things easier for others, without a single thought for myself. "Oh, you can just send me an email about it."

Afterwards that stupid song I wrote above came to mind and I came to my senses. What was I thinking?! It would be so much better for me if he were to come here and I could talk to him face-to-face. He probably concluded that I preferred email. Why wouldn't he? Sane people hint at what they want themselves, not what they presume others would prefer.

I do this sort of thing all the time. Giving things that I really like away to people that I think would like them, then later realizing they didn't care at all.

Knee-jerk reaction, wanting to "make everyone happy." Thirteen years out of the cult, but I'm still finding gooey remnants of their twisted unreality clinging to my psyche like hidden leeches.

That one has got to go.

P.S.  Don't get me wrong, I'm all for treating others with kindness, gentleness, and respect. To quote Jean Jacques Rousseau, "What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness?"

Monday, May 23, 2016

Learned Helplessness

I wonder if the “learning submission to the will of God” that was extolled in The Family was akin to the learned helplessness of Martin Seligman's hopeless, shocked dogs? 

In 1965, back in the days when scientific experiments on animals were not considered as morally reprehensible as they are today, Dr. Seligman conditioned dogs by putting them in a cage, ringing a bell, and then sending an electric current through the floor. Randomly. Again and again.

When a dog got used to that, he put it in a cage with a little fence dividing the two halves. He rang the bell and then shocked the half of the floor where the dog sat; it just sat there, sad eyed, tragic. It didn't even try to jump to the other side where, unbeknownst to the dog, there was no possibility of a shock. 

Had it learned “to submit”?

In the cult, we were taught, repetition ad nauseam, to yield our wills to God, to submit to the will of God in our lives and to our leaders, to not trust in ourselves. "Don't lean to your own understanding." 

Our only hope was to give up control.  

What happens when a person finally gives up control to God? They learn that they are not "the master of their fate, the captain of their soul," but merely a tool in God's hands, "a grain of dust floating on God's air," to quote Berg.

In a word: helpless. 

Engendering submission is one more of the barrage of tactics used to make mindless followers out of ordinary people.

After years of this, it takes concerted effort and time to take control, to feel that we are not "sinful" for doing something for ourselves, to realize that we indeed can be, and must be, the captain of our souls. 

Monday, May 16, 2016

The Ragman Fallacy

Throwing things away has been hard for me for years. I felt I almost had a moral imperative to keep things that were still in a usable condition, whether I needed them or not. I was not a hoarder - I didn't have that much stuff - but the consumer mentality was very far from my mind.

"Waste not, want not." "Be a good 'Ragman,'" Berg admonished in his Letter of that name. In it, he went so far as to say, "God will hold you accountable not only for every word and deed wasted, but everything you wasted and threw away which you could have saved or given to somebody else who needed it!"

Is that where this idea came from? More dregs of cult teachings rising to the surface?

Only this past month have I realized how ingrained that attitude of scarcity was. I was downsizing, and I needed to get rid of years of accumulated things.  

First, I wanted to sell or give things away. That worked for a while. Then, when I had no more takers, I started to think... I live in a wealthy country where if someone needs something, they usually just go to the store and buy it. Not so much me. I rummage about and make do with what I have: a daughter's left behind clothes, a son's old track suit, 20-year-old kitchen utensils, etc.  

Finally, the light dawned. If I don't need it, if I'm not going to use it, throw it away. I made numerous trips to the dump, where I witnessed other people throwing things away as if it was completely normal. Something no longer needed? No need to keep it.

Such a basic concept. But not a basic concept for one coming out of years of cult-imposed poverty and scarcity.

This is not to cast aside all frugality. In the cult, we had very few personal belongings. I lived out of a suitcase, and I learned to improvise. Economizing, saving, and avoiding unnecessary waste are still worthy qualities. But no more unwittingly clinging to over-the-top parsimony and being weighed down with unneeded stuff.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Why Education?

Why does someone who leaves a cult or high-demand religious group need education?  

1) To make up for lost time.

For me, it was 30 years of starving my brain for input, only feeding it cult publications and the King James Bible - my poor neglected brain! There is so much in this world to learn, and I learned nothing of much use for those 30 years. 

2) To stimulate brain growth and restructuring.

The need to constantly submit to the will of "God" and your leaders, the arbitrary corrections and public humiliations, the ever-present financial struggle, the virtually non-stop work because of "the shortness of time," the utter lack of space to call your own, and the countless other stresses of cult life all compounded to rob the brain of its ability to produce new cells.  

To undo this damage, the brain needs stimulation and exercise. And not just any stimulation, but serious concentration and study. New pathways need to be forged, and that requires focused mental effort.

3) To "unlearn" cult intuitions and reactions.

Living in a delusional bubble develops intuitive thoughts and natural reactions that are simply wrong. These need to be "erased" and replaced by more common-sense reactions.

What cult intuitions? For example:
  • I brushed off conflicts with a "Let's pray," telling myself that "God will work it out," instead of learning to negotiate and deal with disagreements and disputes. 
  • I dismissed any encouragement, "If anything good comes of me, it's only Jesus. I am bad." The brain already has a negativity bias, so this one slides by easily without question and can develop into self-loathing.
  • I was besieged by guilt if I were to do anything outside of the prescribed behavior of a cultist; that proclivity towards guilt needed to be shed.
Being aware of the multitudinous unnatural, knee-jerk reactions developed during cult years is the first step to laying them aside.

To actually "unlearn" these intuitions, a complete rewiring of the brain is needed. Because neural-plasticity is competitive, we need to put forth effort to learn in order for new connections to be built. In so doing, the old pathways will gradually fade and the space they had taken in the brain will be rechanneled by the new, fresh brain maps. That conscious focus on learning stimulates new cell growth in the particular area of study, as well as vitalizes the entire brain.

4) To understand.

"The unexamined life is not worth living." (Socrates)

I made bad decisions in my life. It is deeply painful to realize yet must be faced. How did this happen? Why did this happen? What can I learn from this experience?

To deny the reality of years wasted is to continue to live in a bubble of delusion.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Know Thyself

When I first broke ties with TFI, it was as if my head was filled with mist. Of course, I didn't realize it at the time. As I wrote in Adjustment, my mind was dominated by the slow realization that I had wasted years of my life, and worse, given my children a godawful childhood. The overwhelming guilt of these actions was growing by the day. On top of that, mental confusion.

As I look back now, I shake my head at my naivety and foolish efforts. I realize though, that we only know what we know at the time. We cannot know what we don't know. And I surely didn't.

What do people need, then, after they leave a high-demand cult (or "New Religious Movement" as TFI likes to call itself)? Education. Concerted efforts at concentration and learning. The strength to face up to the reality of the bad decisions made. 

Recently, I've spoken with a few still-loyal cult members. How do they view their pasts and the abusive history of the group? "It was in the past!" alluding to the verse, "Forgetting those things that are behind..." (Philippians 3:13)

Even many ex-First Generation Members (called in cult lingo, FGA's) use that same tactic of denial, which is simply the refusal to face reality. I can see why ex- and current cultists would not want to stop and examine their lives. The horror of a life wasted is too much for the psyche. Their self-narrative of being a "good person," a "sacrificial missionary," won't hold up. So we tend to hear excuses from the ex-FGA's, such as this all-too-common justification, "My heart was in the right place. God looks at the heart." As if intention is all that matters.

But it isn't.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Play-doh Brains

Our brains are physically formed in childhood by our input and environment. Like play-doh dented and squeezed with each new experience, our thoughts literally change the material structure of our brains. As neuron connections develop and brain maps form, our perception of the world and the mental software of our culture are installed. 

Lenin was (almost) right when he said, "Give me a child for the first 5 years of his life and he will be mine forever." Ideas reinforced in the early years gradually become self-sustaining. We accept what agrees and reject what doesn't.

As we age and plasticity naturally declines, the Confirmation Bias holds even more sway, and we navigate towards people who think like we do, and ignore or explain away views that are not comfortable to us, ie. information that does not match our beliefs. (No wonder the children of immigrants have a much easier time adapting to their new culture than do their parents. Old habits die hard.)

TFI (and other cults) use brain plasticity to their advantage, inculcating doctrine into their little ones through manipulation of their environment, making sure they have constant feeding of Family publications through devotions, school time, and evening "story time." The kids' "normal" becomes the insular world of the cult.

This same process works on adults as long as their environment is controlled, which is exactly what happens when a new disciple joins the cult. Told they must relearn all their values to "become a new creature in Christ" they submit to hours of reading and memorization of the Bible and Family literature, effectively rewiring their brains. With enough repetition, they actually "unlearn" former ideas. This is possible only because of the brain's plasticity.

The happy news is that the brain plasticity that allows for such manipulation can also be used to our advantage. According to Dr. Michael Merzenich, PhD, "Everything that you can see happen in a young brain can happen in an older brain." It just takes focused concentration. 

Plasticity is competitive, so if we want to undo past learning, we need to focus on building new mental pathways. The memories are still there, but become grown over as new pathways form and gradually rewire our brains. (See It's Only Jesus.)

Just learning one new thing that requires disciplined study and focus is so invigorating for the brain that not only are new connections built that facilitate that new knowledge, but the whole brain is sharpened. This applies to not just mental learning, such as studying a new language, but to physical learning as well, such as learning a new dance or sport.

While there's life - and a determination to learn - there's hope.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Donating to The Family International

Maybe you've recently re-connected with an old school buddy on facebook. You remember something about that friend being a Jesus Freak, lost touch for many years, but now images of Mother Theresa dance before your eyes when you learn about the work she is doing in an impoverished developing country. When presented with the "opportunity" to give to support her work, you think, "Why not?"

Admittedly, The Family International has cleaned up its act. Looking at their benign website, we see they are a Christian group "committed to sharing the message of God's love with others."

As a member, I gave heavily. (See Tithing and Financial Fleecing.) Even after leaving, I saw no harm in giving to an old friend who worked with orphans in a developing country. But as the mist gradually cleared from my head, I found I could no longer support her. 

Why not?

No matter what any TFI member may tell you, a basic tenet of the group is proselytizing. And not just the "Jesus loves you" somewhat harmless (although possibly annoying) doctrine of mainstream Christians, but their own brand of bizarre beliefs. I know that any donations given to anyone in that group, although overtly used to "help the needy," also come along with the given that those "needy" will be fed a "spiritual meal" of the TFI version of Christianity.  

These include such choice concepts as:

  • Praying to a plethora of departed saints and "spirit helpers" and receiving from them "prophecies" for daily guidance and help.
  • Imaging you are having sex with Jesus during sex or while masturbating. It's okay if you're a guy - just pretend you're a woman and then it's not spiritual "Sodomy." Don't forget to say "love words" to Jesus while you do it.
  • Using the secret weapon - given only to TFI members (after all, they are the elite Christians of today) - of the "keys of the kingdom." Unlike mainstream Christians who pray "in Jesus' name," TFI members can claim the "keys of the kingdom" to magically release special powers from God.
  • The most important TFI doctrine is "The Law of Love." This all-encompassing rule that "whatever is done in love is lawful in God's eyes" gave license to all manner of abuse - psychological, physical, and most especially, sexual. 
OK, you think, maybe they do have some weird doctrines, but look at the work they are doing for the disadvantaged! Maybe they are doing some good. But what if those people want to join - that is one of the goals, right? "Make disciples of all nations" - another TFI foundational belief. If they join, they will gradually be indoctrinated into all that weirdness and more - a complete rewiring of their sense of normalcy. (See The Stanford Prison Study and More on the Stanford Prison Study.)

Knowing that today's TFI members, in order to retain their group membership, must proselytize is what put the brakes on my giving. I cannot, in good conscience, support a group of perhaps well-intentioned, but definitely delusional, members. The good image they present is only the polished top layer hiding the harmful doctrines within.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Denial

A widespread denial technique used within the ranks of the COG was the "No True Scotsman" fallacy. That argument is said to be drawn from the image of a Scotsman reading the newspaper, "English sex maniac terrorizes rural town." With a self-righteous harumph, the Scotsman declares, "No Scotsman would ever do such a thing." 

Come the next morning, he reads, "Glasgow troubled by series of sex crimes." With another harumph from the Scotsman, he asserts, "No true Scotsman would do such a thing."

So went the thinking: "Maybe, just maybe, somewhere in a COG Home, there were abuses. Maybe, I mean, we can't deny that it could be possible. But no true COG member would do such a thing." 

I told myself the same thing. Maybe there were abuses, but unlike those "sinners," I was a true COG member - true to the Bible and the basic Mo Letters.

Certainly, the founder and prophet, Berg, would never do such anything abusive

Sadly and tragically, history has proven just the opposite to be true. He not only horrifically abused those within his household, he created an environment within the cult where abuse of all kinds - psychological, physical, sexual, and deprivational - was not considered abusive. The ingroup "normal" was manipulated to be completely delusional and perverse. 

Berg's own step-son, raised with the "best care in the world" to be his heir, met a very tragic end. How the cult side-stepped and justified that horrendous crime - the fruit of years of abuse - by blaming the victim, only adds insult to the memory of his name.

Rest in peace, Ricky Rodriguez

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Isolation

Last week I finished Amanda Lindhout's compelling memoir, A House in the Sky, recounting her 15 months as a hostage in Somalia. Aside from being food for nightmares, what impressed me deeply was the community she had back home that was working to save her. Although isolated and alone in her dark room, separated from her fellow-captive, there were many many people in Canada that worked tirelessly to obtain her release.

Then I listened to a talk by Steve Hassan, who, according to Wikipedia, "is an American licensed mental health counselor who has written extensively on the subject of cults." He joined the Moonies when he was 19 and was in for a couple years when a traffic accident landed him in the hospital. His sister visited and convinced him to go home with her to meet her son who had been born after Steve joined the cult. He agreed, but asked that she not tell his parents because they didn't like him being in the Moonies. Fortunately, she did tell his parents, and they arranged an intervention in the form of a deprogramming, and after five days of this, he came to his senses. He went on to study cult recruitment methods, write Combatting Cultic Mind Controland become an expert on cults.

I wonder if people take their families and friends for granted? I know it's easy to take our "normal" for granted. Both of those people's salvations were made possible by others. What if they had had no friends and family? Or what if their parents were dead and their friends and families were so caught up in their own lives that they had no time to think about them? The endings may not have been so happy.

So much of the power of cults to keep its members comes from their burning of bridges - cutting off contact with their friends and families and keeping them isolated. Orphans are even easier to keep. Where can they go?

Monday, February 8, 2016

Are people who join cults stupid?

Someone wisely said, "If you can fall in love, you can join a cult."

Nevertheless, our inborn self-serving bias and illusion of superiority tells us that we would never be so stupid as to join a cult. "Other people would, but I would never! Other people would, but I'm too smart to fall for such a stupid thing."

Oh?

Let's take a look at brain chemistry, and what goes on when we meet a person or a group that we feel attracted to.

Just like using cocaine, being "in love" gives us a high, and it does this by lowering the threshold for dopamine release in our brains. Dopamine is the neural transmitter that is associated with the anticipation of pleasure. Lowered dopamine threshold = more things are fun.

Maybe you've heard people say how it's important to “make learning fun.” Well, there is actually scientific backup for that because dopamine is what solidifies the changes made in our neural connections when we learn new things.

So now we've met people and been inundated with feelings of love, dopamine thresholds are lowered, all that pleasurable anticipation brings on a flood of dopamine, and the things we learn in that lovey-dovey, happy state become set in our brains.

But that's not all.

Our feelings of love release oxytocin. Oxytocin is a neuromodulator - like an overseer of neural connections. It has the power to erase connections - erasing memories and thought patterns.

So what we have coming along with that "in love" high is oxytocin melting away the former neural connections which prepares the way for new connections, then dopamine stepping in and strengthening the pathways of those new ideas. Old ideas out - new ideas in.

Could this play a part in people being "born again," "new creatures"? "Forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth to those things which are before..." (Philippians 3:13)

Oxytocin helps people to "forget" and the surge of dopamine solidifies their new learning. Another side of this "forgetting" and "unlearning" feature of falling in love/joining a cult is that once-strong, self-confident individuals can transform into “new” people that lose all sense of self and become plagued by self-doubt. Without the confidence to trust themselves, they look to their "lover."

For more on the amazing workings of our brains, read this: The Brain that Changes Itself, by Norman Doidge

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Toppling Pedestals

First impressions are important, we all know that. In my experience, they have not just been important, but crucial and very long-lasting. Starry-eyed believer that I was (and still tend to be, due to the habits I have built up over the years) my first impressions of leaders in the cult, or even of other members, were almost exclusively favorable. They were the "samples" I was to emulate.  

For example, take the father of my first child. A married man, smart, witty, and full of Bible and Mo Letter knowledge, I felt he could do no wrong. I was enamored with him, expecting to spend my life with him and his wife after our son was born. (Deluded much?) When they suddenly moved away to work with Berg, I was shattered. Still, I "knew" he was a wonderful man. It was I that was just not worthy.  

Next came my husband - was he the perfect man? He was gentle, romantic, polite, and handsome. As the years passed, I explained away his angry outbursts and violence, and his lack of desire for me was "all my fault." I was like one of Skinner's pigeons, conditioned to hope and persevere. 

Vital to taking off those rosy glasses to see others more clearly was pulling out of the negative view of myself. I am not as "bad" as I have believed, and others are not as "good" as I have believed. People are people with all kinds of inherent weaknesses and mistaken perceptions.

The biggest pedestal to crash down were those on which Berg and Zerby stood. The confirmation bias that ruled my mind protected their image during my years in the cult. When anything negative about either of these wonderful "prophets" came to light, the cognitive dissonance that it caused had to be dealt with quickly. Dissonance is so uncomfortable; we called it "doubt." Rationalizations and explanations came to the rescue. All great men have weaknesses - but they were still God's anointed. Look at King David in the Bible - he even had Uriah killed to steal his wife, but God called him "a man after mine own heart." We COG members were very good at rationalizing. Seriously good, with plenty of help from Berg, who wrote, If God can use a sinner like me, he can surely use you!  

Of course, Berg and Zerby are most definitely not the "End-time Prophets" and sacrificial servants of God they claimed to be. Crashing right along with that delusion came my faith in the cult and all its beliefs. And that brings me back to the start of my journey to understand the whys.

Friday, January 8, 2016

"Others"

After reading what I wrote in "My Life in the Cult...," a psychologist friend commented, 

"I was struck by how much your life was centered on self-sacrifice. You were always giving to others and not to yourself. I imagine that you must have struggled with the sense of betrayal when you finally were able to see reality of the situation. Moving to [the tropics] must have been so disorienting that you would have been less able to see the sham. I am so glad that you came back and are patiently navigating yourself back into the Western world."


"Always giving to others and not to yourself." No kidding! My life, 24/7 for 30 years, was dedicated to doing things for others.

But isn't that the idea? Isn't that how true Christians are to strive to live? Isn't it sinful to do things to please yourself? "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily," right?  (Luke 9:23)

Among the thousands of Bible verses and Mo Letter quotes that I committed to memory over the years, my friend's words dredged up this poem that I must have memorized while still in my teens.
“Others”
By Charles D. Meigs

Lord help me live from day to day
In such a self-forgetful way
That even when I kneel to pray 
My prayer shall be for – Others.

Help me in all the work I do
To ever be sincere and true
And know that all I do for you
Must needs be done for – Others.

Let “Self” be crucified and slain
And buried deep; and all in vain
May efforts be to rise again
Unless to live for – Others.

And when my work on earth is done
And my new work in heaven’s begun
May I forget the crown I’ve won
While thinking still of – Others.

Others, Lord, yes others
Let this my motto be
Help me to live for others
That I may live like Thee.

(found at: http://blindbeggar.org/?p=1088)

This attitude became a part of me and naturally carried on after leaving the cult - even more so then, because I was facing the horrible reality of having given my children a crap childhood. The guilt. The burning desire to make things right. I wanted to do my utmost to help them, although I was clearly spread too thin. I'm afraid it was too little, too late for the older ones; the jury is still out on how the younger ones will fare.

This "normal" behavior for me is further COG residue that I have only just now become aware of.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Stunted Maturation

Joining a cult, or making any serious life-decisions, at age 16 is a bad idea. Age sixteen is just at the end of the pruning stage of the brain, where “ineffective or weak brain connections are pruned in much the same way a gardener would prune a tree or bush.”* This is done in order to prepare the brain for adult maturity and growth, but this development will not be completed for another 5-9 years. So a 16-year-old possesses a brain that is stuck in the middle world of no longer a child/not yet an adult.

During this misfit time, emotions and hormones rage. Mood swings and irresponsible actions wreak havoc. 

Take this immature psyche, paint on a smile, add a touch of sparkle to the eyes, and finally paste on an overall fa├žade of COG characteristics: zeal, "happiness," "faith," "love for the lost," lack of concern for the future on earth, only concern for "heavenly rewards" - all the pious catch-phrases that were the staple of the cult members' days.  

Fill that life with busyness from morning till night, driven by the self-important urgency of the cause and kept on by dread of the guilt felt when not "giving one's all." Bounce that life around from "serving" under one leader to another. Give constant reminders that she must be "like a child" to serve the Lord in the COG. "You gotta be a baby to go to heaven..." (as their theme-song went.)

When hardships came, depending on the severity, solace was found in prayer, in "looking for the good," or in escape by moving to another country or city. ("God never closes a door without opening a window.") No need to deal with harsh realities, just smooth them over and "keep on keeping on."

Then, add year upon year upon year. 

The result? An adult, who, in spite of living on this earth more than 50 years, is utterly lacking in real-world maturity, normal mental and psychological growth having been stunted for those years of deluded life in the bubble of the cult. 

That would be me.

* Alison Gopnik, Professor of Child Development at UC Berkeley.