I wish I could say that my thirteen years in a religious cult were just a bad experience, or that I’ve been out for so long now that they’re a distant memory. For my everyday life this is true, but when I reflect on my inner life I am faced with the fact that I have distanced myself from almost every form of spirituality because of those thirteen years.
I rarely share my experiences of this time in my life because inevitably there are comments from people that are either ignorant “How could you be so gullible” to arrogant “I would never fall prey to anything so extreme”.
If it were only that simple no one would ever join, but cult recruiting and the subsequent group assimilation is complex and most often misunderstood.
During those years, when life was black and white, I felt confident and righteous. Life was very easy and compartmentalized-there was right and wrong and it was dictated by the word of God, period. Of course the interpretation of the word of God was filtered through a warped and craven ego-driven philosophy of bible-believing cult leaders. There was a clearly defined “us” and “them” that was cultivated by culling us from our families and friends and slowly building a sense of “community”.
There was also a repugnant sense of elitism instilled with a hatred of anyone who was not “us.” The current political climate has reminded me of how easy it is to hold firm to ideology that appeals to a sense of being right, even if at the core you fear it isn’t. The fervor at rallies often builds a sense of belonging, and affirms one’s sense of truth with others that believe the same.
One of the distinctive constructs of any cult is that they keep you busy serving others and keep your mind occupied with the tenants of the common beliefs. Our days and nights were full and we were committed to constant meetings, prayer times and work. We were constantly told to remain free from the world and to refrain from engaging with others or participating in anything that smacked of popular culture.
Anyone who might meet me today would never suspect that I was ever a cult member, or that I was obedient to a code of conduct that the Amish might find restrictive, but I was. Every small decision in my life, I gave over to the higher authorities who, I was told, knew better. This of course never turns out well and after years of struggle I left the cult having given many years of total commitment to the group, and almost none to myself.
I had to find out who I was again, who I had come to be.
Now, all these years later I realize that my spiritual life then was like a bright colored helium balloon. So full, so buoyant and light. Full of lies, but easy to carry. When I left the cult it was like someone took a pin and popped that balloon hard. In an instant my life went whirling, crashing and spinning until I stopped. It felt good to stop, and it also felt empty.
If all those things I learned were lies, and I knew they were, then what was true?
Over the years I have looked high and low for the truth about God, about life and about me. I still have no solid ground to stand on. I know more about what I don’t believe and less about what I do. I cannot give myself to any church, can no longer read the bible without bile seeping up my throat and have been unable to say I have any solid space to call my spiritual home.
Here is my philosophy, born out of tattered scraps of soul searching- I believe there is something more, something hidden, something larger than us, unseen and ever present. I hope that this true, but I don’t know for sure. As I get older I don’t have to have all the answers anymore.
I just continue to hold to the truth – that my past is just a shadow and there is still more light ahead.
About the Author: Therese Wood
Therese Wood is an essayist and has written most extensively on the topic of death and dying. She enjoys reading and writing poetry, collects sacred kitsch, practices Tai Chi and dabbles in art just for pleasure.