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The Bermuda Triangles of our Lives

BY KAREN COLEMAN

SYG 2000 - Introduction to Sociology

Patti O'Regan, Professor

July 28, 1997


As I clung to the edge of the bed, I was filled with both emotion and apprehension as I viewed thevideo that I had just received in the mail. Familiar faces of people that I had never met and the familiar faces of those I knew from the past filled my heart with overwhelming joy and sadness simultaneously. Should I watch this video and how would it affect me?

These faces, with sincerity in their eyes and love in their smiles, had been my family for nearly eighteen years of my life. I kne w their smiles. I knew their dreams. I knew the goodness of their hearts. I knew, without ever saying a word to them, what their ideals were, their goals, and their beliefs. And now, twenty-five years later, I know their sorrows, their pain, their shatter ed lives, and their regrets. I truly know their broken hearts.

It has been seven years since I have lived in the cult, but only in the past six months have I been able to understand and accept what is the truth about a major part of my life. As one person put it, "It's one thing to get out of a cult. It is another thing to get the cult out of you (Letters)."

Recently, I read a little information regarding the lives of those lost and those nearly lost in the bizarre trappings of the Bermuda Triangle. Lt. C.C. Taylor was the pilot aboard Flight 19 whose desperate requests for help touched the hearts of all who heard them. Although he managed to return his plane to safety, and all the passengers were saved, his cries that "we seem to be lost" " everything is wrong" we can't be sure of any direction" will always be remembered ("Bermuda Triangle"). The unexplained losses of lives and sudden mysterious disappearances have generated both sympathy and apprehension from observers: sympathy towards those individuals and their loved ones who have been caught up in its web, and apprehension towards involvement with this strange and inexplicable phenomenon.

Similar to those who have been physically entangled for the rest of their lives with these unusual events are those who have been spiritually and mentally entangled with their own personal Bermuda Triangles. However, unlike the victims of the Bermuda Tria n gle, the victims of bizarre or solicitous cults do not generate much understanding and even less sympathy. The victims of cult abuse carry around devastating loss and great gaps in their lives for which there appears to be no logical explanation or reason . Because cult involvement carries a stigma in society, it is rarely openly talked about. Few individuals are aware of the impact it may have upon the families of cult members or the disastrous implications to those ex-members trying to piece together the missing and remaining portions of their lives.

Perhaps one of the most difficult things to face is having to answer questions about the time period in which one was involved with a cult. The "average length of membership" in a cult is about 6.79 years (Ch ambers et al 4). Marlene Jones-Skurtu, author of How To Keep Your Kids From Falling Into Cults, lived with a cult known as the Children of God or the Family for ten years. Speaking from her own experience, she suggests that the three most frequently asked questions to ex-cultists are why they joined, why and how they left the group, and why they stayed so long (Jones-Skurtu).

Since most individuals have little or no knowledge about cults, it is perhaps most difficult to understand why anyone would ever ch oose to join one in the first place and what kind of people would do so. In the past twenty years, it has been estimated that about "twenty million people have joined cults" in the United States alone and that at any given time, "two-and-a-half to three m illion Americans are active cult members (Singer and Lalich inside flap)."

Most people erroneously believe that "normal people don't get sucked into cults." Various statistics and research show that only a minority of cult members (about one-third) come fr om dysfunctional backgrounds and experience a small amount of psychological distress at the time of their recruitment. Only about 5 to 6 percent of this minority can be said to have had "major psychological difficulties prior to joining" the group (Singer and Lalich 17). Although early research indicates that the distress may have been ample enough for this sector of cult members to seek counseling, the majority of cult members only experience "normal developmental crises (Martin et al 239)." Unlike the mi sconceptions often foisted on them, cult members are usually well-educated (averaging 14.84 years of school), mentally adept, and socially and psychologically intact (Chambers et al 4).

People join cults for various reasons. Margaret Singer, a clinical ps ychologist who has worked extensively with both former and current cult members, and co-author Janja Lalich, point out in their book, Cults in Our Midst, that "cults offer instant, simplistic, and focused solutions to life's problems (17)." Living with a c ult provides an almost instantaneous family where as long as one is compliant with the group and obedient to the accepted norms of the group, he or she can find friendship, love, and direction in life, however misguided that direction might be. On the oth e r hand, some cults provide a more rigid, structured, and disciplined life for those who have little self-control or autonomy. Idealistic individuals and those wanting their lives to count for something worthwhile are often deceived by the charming, manipu l ative, and sometimes seductive characteristics of those seeking new members. Often they join without having been able to make a "fully informed" decision because they are not made aware of all aspects of belief or practices of the group. They are graduall y drawn step-by-step into making further commitments in a type of desensitizing process (116).

Once they have joined and at some point realize that the group is not living up to their expectations, what causes them to stay so long? Mind control has been sa id to play a major role in keeping individuals in a cult, although it may better be described as "exploitative persuasion (170)" or "coordinated programs of coercive influence and behavior control (qtd. in Singer and Addis 170)." This is done through unde r mining individuals' self-confidence and judgement, and by forcing them to look at themselves and all that makes them an individual in a negative context. They are alienated from familiar surroundings and discouraged from keeping contact with friends or fa mily whose attitudes do not match the agenda of the group. They become completely dependent socially, psychologically, and even economically upon the group.

Communication between group members is closely observed, and personal opinions and noncompliance are quickly squelched. Systems of reward and punishment for behavior are often intact, with punishments such as silence restriction, solitary confinement, public humiliation, loss of privileges, reclassification to lower status within the group, and sometime s physical punishment in the case of noncompliant children and adolescents. Psychological and spiritual manipulation causes the individual to comply rather than face rejection by the cult, possible divorce and loss of children to the cult, fear of spiritua l destitution, and fear of "physical or mental illness" as a result of leaving the cult (Singer and Addis 171-172).

Leaving a cult is a traumatic experience for most people who have lived with a cult. Some leave on their own when they have reached the limi t of what has become tolerable to them. These "walkaways" make up about sixty percent of those who leave (Chambers et al 4). "Castaways" are those who have been tossed out of the cult for any variety of reasons, often for having an "independent spirit" or because the stresses of cult life have caused physical or emotional breakdowns. Being a castaway serves two purposes - to remind those left behind of the consequence of a rebellious attitude and to further shame a noncompliant member who just cannot confo r m to the role expectations of the group (Singer and Lalich 279-280). Castaways have the most difficult recovery because they often live with excessive "guilt, shame, self-blaming attitudes, fear and paranoia, excessive doubts, and panic attacks (Singer an d Lalich 300)."

Exit-counseling has proven to be very instrumental in helping cult victims to successfully make a break with the cult. Several people, usually including other ex-cultists, share information concerning the cult with the member - information of which the member may not be aware. This panel of people explains the process of mind control and demonstrates various ways in which it has been used within the cult member's particular group. The member is allowed free choice to make an informed decisi on without peer pressure or the influence of the group's presence.

Regardless of the reasons for joining, the length of time in the cult, or the method by which the individual leaves the cult, grief becomes a necessary part of the recovery process. Ex-cult ists have lost "friends, time, career pursuits, idealism, and other aspirations" and are left with large gaping holes in their lives (Langone 244).

Losses of friendships occur when an individual joins a group and has to forsake all former acquaintances. T he same loss occurs upon leaving the group when the group no longer allows communication between members and ex-members to continue. Often an ex-cult member does not even know the name of those who have been his or her closest friends for years as many cu l t members do not use their legal names but are called by names known only within the group. Because of the use of these pseudonyms, ex-members can not even befriend each other outside of the group. In a research study of 353 ex-cultists, loneliness was ci ted by 68% of the ex-cultists as one of the main "lasting effects (Martin et al 220)."

Grieving the loss of time is another issue, especially for those who have spent major portions of their lives within a cult. Recently I experienced a type of grief relat ed to time when I was asked to take part in a group discussion of world and national events that happened within a specific time frame of years when I was living in the cult. As I sat in a circle with my peers, I realized I had little to no input to offer that could be of any use. When I first joined the cult, there were very tight restrictions on the amount of information or news we were allowed to view. On the occasions when we were allowed to watch the news or read the newspaper, it was never alone or w ithout the interpretation of those who were in leadership positions over us. As years progressed, viewing the news became more lenient, but there was so much involvement with the activities of the cult that there was no longer any time left to view the news . When I was brought face-to-face with having to contribute to my peer group without anything concrete to offer, I become very overwhelmed with sadness and emotion at yet another way in which my previous life decisions had negatively impacted another area of my life.

Starting over in life is never an easy task. Joined by a troubling background, an interrupted education, lack of employment skills, and a scrambled belief system, it becomes very difficult. Decision-making processes have been altered or, at th e least, put on hold for sometimes years. Even the smallest decisions about when to go to bed, what to wear, what to eat, etc., seem monumental to ex-cultists who are not accustomed to making those decisions. Many individuals experience difficulties in co ncentration and short-term memory, which although alarming at the time, generally are short-lasting until the ex-cultist becomes more cognitively efficient (Singer and Lalich 313).

Michael Langone, a psychologist affiliated with the American Family Founda tion, a non-profit organization that counsels people who have been involved with cults, suggests that the type of psychological abuse foisted on cult members violates "the honoring of the mind, autonomy, identity, and dignity" of the individual (Langone 2 0 6). He states that "when cultists leave their group, the flood gates open up and they suffer. But they don't generally return to the cult because the suffering they experience after leaving the cult is more genuine than the 'happiness' they experienced wh ile in it. (qtd. in Martin et al 240)."

There is good news. Most of those who do leave cults manage to pick up the pieces and continue on with their lives. Dr. Singer suggests that "cult members seem to have a stamina almost beyond human comprehension." She attributes their successful comeback t o having a "boundless spirit and unbeatable will to heal themselves, reclaim their independence, and come out on the positive side (Singer and Lalich 6)." Dr. Langone encourages ex-cultists not to "continue to blame themselves inappropriately for distress " that results because of cult involvement and to examine both "the positive as well as the negative influences of the cult"; to make use of the good and to forget the bad (Langone Online). When we reach the place where we can do this, we can go on to repl ace the Bermuda Triangles in our lives with something that is tangible and built with the freedom of our own minds.

 

Works Consulted

"Bermuda Triangle." Microsoft Encarta 96 Encyclopedia. Online. Alta Vista. 28 June, 1997.

Chambers, William V., Michael D. Langone, and Peter Malinoski. "The Group Psychological Abuse Scale." American

Psychological Association Annual Meeting. Toronto: American Psychological Assoc., 12 Aug., 1996.

Jones-Skurtu ( This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it ). (Re: Thanks!). Coleman ( This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it ). 23 June, 1997.

Langone, Michael D. "Clinical Update on Cults." Online. Alta Vista. 28 July, 1997.

Langone, Michael D. "Psychological Abuse." Cultic Studies Journal 9.2 (1992): 206-218.

"Letters & Links." Broken Shackles, Inc. Online. Alta Vista. 28 July, 1997.

par Martin, Paul R., Michael D. Langone, Arthur A. Dole, and Jeffrey Wiltrout. "Post-Cult Symptoms As Measured by the MCMI Before and After Residential Treatment." Cultic Studies Journal 9.2 (1992): 219-250.

Singer, Margaret Thaler, and Marsha Emmer Addis. "Cults, Coercion, and Contumely." Cultic Studies Journal 9.2 (1992): 63-189.

Singer, Margaret Thaler, and Janja Lalich. Cults in Our Midst. San Francisco: Jossey-bass: 1995.

Copyright 1997 by Karen Coleman