(Part 2 in “The Cult” series) If you are just joining, please read this first: Sunshine When There Is No Storm.
Castigation (from the Latin castigatio) is the infliction of severe (moral or corporal) punishment.
It’s Thanksgiving Day 20 years ago. I’m 16 years old. My entire extended family is gathered for food and spending time together. I used to love family holidays. This particular Thanksgiving, however, produced the biggest fight I’ve ever seen my parents have in “public.” You see, The Patriot came out that day. It was rated R. My Uncles and Cousins were going to see it. My dad apparently made some kind of agreement that he would take us too and we would all go see it as an extended family. My mom strongly disagreed. You see, we weren’t allowed to watch R rated movies. We were very deeply in the cult in those years. We didn’t go see the movie. My parents didn’t speak for days. My Aunts and Uncles said nothing….I was alone. Again.
This particular blog subject has been ruminating in my mind the longest of all my cult thoughts. it’s also the most unfinished. I considered not writing it yet but I felt like I couldn’t write the rest without this messy bit. For five years I’ve been actively writing it over and over in my head and sometimes scribbles on paper when I wake up in the night after a PTSD nightmare. I haven’t written it because I know, no matter what I say, it will not be enough. It will not be finished. It will not say everything that needs to be said. So I start today hoping you will understand that this is a glimpse through a cracked door. I sincerely hope more will come, but it’s laborious and scary and sometimes I don’t know. Today, I will name some names and it will be hard and it will have repercussions. My intention is not to purposefully hurt or to be hurtful for the sake of being hurtful. I am simply telling my story. My Life. My truth. These things happened to me and I share them now in the hopes of maybe helping others.
Complicity is a funny thing. What exactly is it? When is it ok to call someone complicit and when is it simply blaming them for your own mess or mistakes? I’ve been asking therapists that question in various ways for over fifteen years. I have learned, through some amazing professionals, that my natural movement is to make excuses for those who are complicit and take all the blame on myself. My mind screams “pull yourself up by your bootstraps and suck it up.” My soul, however, wants to tell it’s story. What makes someone complicit? What exactly makes another party guilty of being involved in wrongdoing? How involved do they have to be? How much inaction do they have to produce? How much knowledge do they need to have? I don’t have these answers. I have thought about this carefully and long enough that I feel steady on my feet and calmness within myself to say what I need to say today. Today, I just want to dip my toe into the complicity of those on the outside looking into a cult members life. Or in my personal case: The adults.
I had a very close extended family. Lots of aunts and uncles and cousins. My Grandmother lived with us. We all saw each other regularly in a group certainly 5-6 times a year and often more frequently. My closest Aunt and Uncle lived 5 miles away. We saw them weekly and often daily. I know they moved close when I was very young, before the cult, and I don’t remember a time without them there.
I spent a lot of my childhood staring at the ceiling wondering why no one said anything. I’ve spent even more time staring at the ceiling as an adult – sometimes on my own, sometimes in a therapists office – asking the same question. Why did no one say anything?
You see, my family of 4 was the only part of my extended family who joined a Fundamental Christian Cult. While the rest of my family was religious and attended church every Sunday (several actually professionally in the ministry) they were just your typical devoutly Southern Christian. You know, “hate the sin, love the sinner” kinda thing. (which really should have it’s entire own entry… maybe one day).
So, that’s really why I spent so many hours over the years staring at ceilings wondering: why did no one say anything?
We were all together. We saw each other frequently. Unlike many of my cult survivor peers, my parents did not keep us away from our extended family. I was with them together, I was with them alone. There was opportunity. And yet… nothing.
I’m 36 years old. Still, to this day, none of the adults have ever said anything. Not a word.
So I’m left to ask: Why?
Before we get much further, I would like to say, I have actually asked. Not all of them, but one. I have actually asked “How could you leave me there and say nothing?” At a particularly low point in my life I set up an appointment to call this family member, we set a time about a week later where we could have some time to talk uninterrupted at my request. I cried and begged on the phone: “Why didn’t you tell me?” (meaning why didn’t they tell me the cult was a lie.) Later in the conversation, “I feel like an orphan, I don’t even understand what was real and what wasn’t, I don’t know who to trust.” This family member assured me they would answer all my questions and we would talk more and that they were my family and I could rely and trust in them. That conversation happened about 4 years ago and was the last time I spoke on the phone to that individual. This is the person who I believed to be my closest adult family member. The very last time. They never called or contacted me again for any personal reason. They do, however, sometimes ask for dog behavior advice. I stopped going to or participating in most of the extended family functions in the year that followed that conversation. I just couldn’t do it anymore. I just couldn’t listen to the silence of refusing to acknowledge any of it.
I did contact that same person again about 6 months ago when I decided to write this blog series. I asked to set up an email exchange. In fairness, they did agree. After speaking to my therapist at length, I decided not to email them because I felt it would be dishonest. I wasn’t really seeking resolution anymore. I was seeking an interview. At this point in my life, I’m much more interested in the reason why people are complicit in cults in general. I’m less interested in why my own individual family was complicit. I’m a much more content person no longer having expectations of them for relationship, closeness, or loyalty. So, with those things in mind, I did not ever send the email after the original contact telling them I had been working in therapy and wanted to talk with them openly and honestly via email. For what it’s worth, they also never emailed, called, or texted, and they never contacted me when I didn’t email.
So, what makes a close, even enmeshed, extended family say nothing when they watch two children falling down the rabbit hole of a cult with their parents? How did they just watch it happen for decade? How did they become so complicit?
The reason this blog has never been written in 5 years is because I don’t know. I have far more questions than answers. I can absolutely tell you that it is not a unique question. Many children raised in cults ask this question when they become adults. It is absolutely not isolated to my family of origin.
If you are reading this and you are an adult watching people you know fall down the rabbit hole and want to know what you SHOULD do, here is my advice:
- Provide a safe place to land. At some point, that person (whether child or adult) is going to begin to question and realize something is not quite right. It is your job as an adult to have done the work, built the relationship, and provided the safety to be a safe place to land whenever that time comes. Important note: sometimes it’s a really messy, angry, landing.
- Talk to the parents (when applicable), but be cautious. Many cult survivors had no relationship with adults outside the cult. One main reason for the isolation is how people outside the cult approach the cult member. This is hard and scary, but be careful here. Absolutely, if the opportunity presents itself, sew seeds of doubt about the cult: Do that!! Just be careful to not do it in such a way that they cut off access to the children. Those kids need you.
- Use your discretion on when and how to talk to the cult member. Often, cult members and especially cult children don’t know how to produce critical thinking because they’ve been strongly indoctrinated to spout rhetoric and to argue against everything challenging the cult thinking. The best way to handle this in many cases is to simply ask them questions about their belief. Challenge them, but gently. For instance: “The government is in a conspiracy to harvest children with the Hollywood elite.” Instead of saying, that’s ridiculous and your cult are crazy creeps that are ruining your life. Try asking, “Can you help me research that and find sources?” Then take your time, let them show you. Teach them about citations and scholarly and legitimate sources. Have them teach you about the cult and then just ask questions. Sew in your seeds of doubt by asking gentle questions. Leave them thinking.
- Check in often. I can’t stress this enough. Especially cult kids as they get older and start to doubt and/or leave are generally extremely traumatized. They are very, very unlikely to reach out to you. If they do, they are desperate. I’m talking desperately in danger desperate. Reach out to them just to check in regularly, ask them questions, ask them how they are sleeping, eating, emoting.
- Be patient. Leaving a cult is hard. It makes you angry, it makes you rudderless, it makes your pendulum swing HARD in the opposite direction. It will take years and years before that person finds solid footing. Being a safe place to land is not an excuse for them to mistreat you or take advantage of you in any way – so set solid boundaries – but be patient in those boundaries.
I don’t have any idea what it would have been like to come out of the cult and have had those 5 things from my family of origin, but I can absolutely tell you I had those 5 things from people who loved me. Two families of adults in particular were all those things for me. I would not be alive today if it weren’t for them. I am forever grateful for the soft place they gave me to land. For the quiet patience they had when I would spout off cult teachings – which I know many times were hurtful and painful. I am so grateful for the time they took to just let me talk and have no judgement. I’m so grateful for the random times they said they loved me and were proud of me with no strings attached. In fact, one of them just said that to me the other day and I really, really needed it. It gave me a moment of peace when I hadn’t been feeling any.
I guess all this to say, now, at 36, and having been out of the cult for 18 years – it’s the complicit adults that still hurt the most. It’s that one nagging piece that doesn’t always fall into place. It’s where my mind goes sometimes when it’s tired of fighting PTSD and tired of working with a therapist and tired of waking up at 4:16am to write blogs. Why? Why did they say nothing? Why do they still say nothing? Why could they sit, just two years ago, at a table signing legal documents that divorced myself from my father and still say nothing? Why could they spend days, weeks, years with me over my entire life and have so many opportunities and still say nothing? I don’t know.
Ultimately, I’ve learned that I do not need to know. I’ve learned (and am learning) that I really, honestly, truly, do not need to know. At this point, my need for the peace of not hearing excuses is far greater that my curiosity to understand their reasoning.
The gift of this is that I have learned (and am learning) how to be that soft space to land. My hope is to share my story as honestly as I can so that others can learn how to be that soft space to land. I’m not always great at it, sometimes I get sucked in the trap of trying to prove someone is wrong instead of asking them questions. I am, however, completely dedicated to never, not ever, being in a position to say nothing.
If you made it this far down, thanks. I know this blog was messy and rambling. It’s the piece I’m still shaping through. It’s the piece that’s still pretty rough around the edges. It’s the piece that’s most likely to give me a splinter on a hard day.
Perhaps next time I’ll write on something I have a better handle on. Something a little more redemptive. Sometimes that has a more complete ending.
To Beth, David, Randy, Johnnie, Britt — I am so thankful for what you did for me and how carefully you cultivated a soft place to land. I would not be anything I am today without you and I am truly grateful. I don’t think you will ever know how much you changed my life.