I thought that these men that I referred to
As prophets of our time would never lie in verse
I can’t begin to tell you how it hurt
As time went on and some of them disguises burst…
– Brother Ali, Begin Here
The social dynamics and relationships of a cult are, for many, warmly close and frigidly isolating at the same time. This is because, to put it bluntly, they don’t want you. They want your conformity. They want you in a box. That box could be labeled new recruit, member, leader, or whatever. As long as it fits cleanly into the ideology and you don’t raise your head and knock the lid off your box. To the degree that you ingest the doctrine and adopt the jargon, the dress, the community, and the neuroses (“I’m so fallen and full of pride,” for example), you will be embraced. Being rich or famous or otherwise useable will often suffice, though, too.
But while you are member, this illusory intimacy and belonging is real and palpable. It is confirmation of everything you’ve been made to believe and be. It feels like the real deal, to the degree that you’ve successfully suffocated large parts of yourself as an individual.
I don’t know how to recover from that betrayal. I say betrayal not in an accusatory way; with the exception of the leader and one or two others, I don’t consider my former group members malicious or manipulative. Many of them I still have love for and still mourn the severing of our bonds that’s left me afloat out here. But at the same time, as I said, our connections were to a large degree illusory. Many if not most of us didn’t truly know each other. The betrayal is the realization that it was an illusion. I remember thinking years before I left the monastery how alone I felt. How aware I was at times that I was close to nobody anywhere on a real, human level. Sometimes we would discuss how so many of us would probably not have been friends outside of our shared ideology and commitment to the leader. That’s an example of how so often the bitter truth of the whole cult situation can be right under your nose and yet out of grasp, nostrils plugged with sweet cognitive dissonance.
But the camaraderie was real, subjectively. The bonding that occurs with others while you freeze your ass off picking up cow shit in the rain at the crack of dawn, or dig trenches in the sun, or live in a jungle in a tent, or just generally wage internal war on your own identities side by side, is a very real bonding. But now the lingering question becomes: if almost all of us meant well; joined with good intentions; wanted good for each other, and still the environment was in reality one of toxic psychological suicide, what environment is safe? What setting and relationships exist where you can safely, dare I say even beneficially, get close to another or a community of others? As it’s stated, the question is a little simplistic, and I have some answers, but I don’t believe them in that deep down way we hold our visceral beliefs. Deep down, hope and optimism are not my internal realities. I’m fucking jaded. I ignore it or mask it or whatever it well, but it feels like my truest outlook on relationships of all kinds these days. I often ponder if love is not just a glorified form of mutual brainwashing, wherein identities merge (or one subsumes the other) and objectivity disappears, just like in a cult.
One book on authoritarian groups and recovery opines that for many, the fundamental internal damage that an ex-member deals with is “crippled self-trust”. It also notes that without self-trust, trust of others and/or the external world can’t occur. For me, the mutations these issues take are endless, often volleying between avoiding emotional intimacy for fear of hurting others (lacking self-trust) or fear of being disappointed or hurt myself (lack of trust of others). But that’s just the surface. Just below the surface of those two clean categories lies a gigantic, seemingly endless, tangled root ball, binding and intertwining these two plants of doubt in a bed of cynicism.
There is so much more, though, too. Many cults, and certainly mine, go to immense philosophical lengths to instill a logic of futility, worthlessness, and subsequently disdain in regard to human relationships. The Hare Krishnas and its offshoots tend to be horribly disparaging of romance and family life over and above their dislike for other relationships. And when you believe all that stuff, realizing you’re alone as I did really isn’t such a bad thing, in theory. Hell, it’s actually a virtue to be some kind of atmarama, or “self-satisfied.” The problem is that’s all bull and we are fundamentally social beings who derive pleasure, meaning, perspective, and for better or worse, identity from others. And biologically speaking, we literally exist for the purpose of making babies. How cruel then, to everyone involved, to depict children and family as the deepest dark wells (their words, not mine) of bondage to the cycle of suffering (their words, again)? I previously wrote about some of the ways this and other doctrinal points play out as abuse of every variety within the family unit.
I and many I know share similar interpersonal struggles post-cult, and I think it is safe to say that for many of us those struggles are typified in romantic relationships. This is because they are the most intimate and therefore vulnerable. They require a trust that my former guru destroyed in me, at least for the time being. I used to think I had never been in love, but then I realized that’s not true. I did love him, non-romantically, but incredibly deeply.
I approached the guru-disciple relationship intent on deep vulnerability, and I bared my soul, only to have it enslaved and worked to near-death. Often after working all day on a handful of hours of sleep, I would ascend the hill to his little house in the early evening and make him a meal or massage his feet until he fell asleep and I could slip out of the room as quietly as possible. I woke him in the morning, did his laundry, shaved his head, cleaned his toilet, fed him, fetched hot water when the heater wasn’t working, kept the wood stove burning, and on, and on, and on. And we laughed and joked; it wasn’t all overt subjugation. I loved deeply, and have the baggage to show for it. I don’t miss him, but the entire facade that was my world rested on his shoulders and came tumbling down with my illusions of him.
As I’ve said elsewhere, being in a cult is like being in an abusive relationship with life itself. I don’t know how to recover from that betrayal.