Recovering from cults and abusive relationships

Take Back Your Life is a fascinating book about recovering from cults and abusive relationships. There are moments when I’ve had to put the book down because I’m crying so hard. Other times I break out in a cold sweat. Yesterday, while reading the book I was flooded with an irresistible urge to RUNAWAY! and then I remembered: Oh, yeah, I left my cult ten years ago. I’m safe now.

Sometimes people ask me why I call my childhood church a cult. This book gave me the answer:

“A group or relationship earns the label ‘cult’ on the basis of its methods
and behaviors–not on the basis of its beliefs.”

This is such a huge and important distinction. For years I was leery about calling my church a cult because many of the beliefs matched up with other mainline Protestant churches (our doctrines were very similar to Baptists). But in the ten years since leaving that church, I’ve become increasingly aware that cults are everywhere. And it’s not the beliefs that define a cult, it’s the methods, behaviors and processes.

The defining factors of a cult are: “the repression and stripping away of individual freedoms…the exploitative manipulation of people’s faith and commitment and trust.” (pg.4)

In other words, it doesn’t matter what the beliefs are, it matters how the group is organized and how it functions. This is exactly WHY I kept freaking out after I left my childhood church and started attending other churches. No matter where I went, I started recognizing similar patterns of behavior and all my CULT! CULT! warning bells started clanging.

For a long time I kept thinking something was wrong with ME! I was like: what is MY problem? And other people fed this lie. They said things to me like: “Well, your negative experience is unfairly biasing you toward this situation.” Or they suggested that I was somehow damaged and unable to properly assess things ‘objectively.’

This book has finally helped me understand that what I was reacting to was the cult-like behavior and methods present in many, many churches. Which is to say, if the methods and practices are harmful it doesn’t really matter whether the beliefs are “right.”

I had always focused on RIGHT BELIEF to the exclusion of RIGHT PRACTICE. I’m now convinced that all the right beliefs in the world do not trump right practice.

Here’s an example: I couldn’t even join a moms support group without getting all freaked out by the CULTISH behavior going on. I had to back out of Little League baseball because so many parents engaged in harmful, cultish behavior. I saw the same dynamics at work in homeschool groups, book clubs, the PTA. I’ve only found a few cult-free zones: 1. A bunco group where we just show up to place dice and socialize, 2. My bootcamp where NOTHING MORE is required of me than simply getting fit.

Of course, a seriously harmful cult has many more elements than, say, a clique-ish homeschool group. Take Back Your Life provides a more detailed definition of a cult (as taken from the International Cultic Studies Association):

A cult is a group or movement exhibiting great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing, and employing unethical manipulative or coercive techniques of persuasion and control (e.g., isolation from former friends and family, debilitation, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressures, information management, suspension of individuality or critical judgment, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of leaving it) designed to advance the goals of the group’s leaders, to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community. (pg. 11)

When I read this definition, it was like reading a word-for-word description of my exact family and church. The truth in this book is so spot-on, it is almost blinding. I gotta be honest, I can only handle it in small doses. Even ten years later I still struggle mightily with issues of shame, guilt, suppression, depression and still carry in my body the physical trauma I experienced.

Not only did my immediate family behave in cultish, abusive ways–they also perpetuated that into the church.

My book (releasing this October!) tells the story about what it was like to grow up inside a church that had mainstream Protestant beliefs but horribly aberrant and abusive practices.

If you’ve ever wondered whether your church or relationship are abusive and cultish, I would highly recommend reading Take Back Your Life–even if you can only read it in small doses. :)

  • Rachel

    I really like the definitions in this book. I also agree that there is cultish behavior in a lot of places. I see it in businesses as well.

  • RoboPA

    Thanks for sharing this EE. Someone had recommended a book to me that is around similar topics called

    “The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power”, and when I look on Amazon at that book, the book you’re reading was a suggested additional reading. I had never heard of it before, now I see you’re reading it. Keep up the honesty you’re putting forth, it is helping a lot of people.

  • theresaEH

    This looks like a very interesting read. Let us know when we can preorder your book eh :D

  • VK

    E – I’m curious. Has anyone ever suggested to you that The Salvation Army is a cult? My hubs and I grew up in it and think that perhaps it is. What do you think?

    • Cathfisch3

      I was considering not posting and realized I could respond to your question. When I left a cultic church 30 yrs ago, those who helped me gave me a book like this and asked me what I thought. Quite a contrast from the church I was leaving (my opionion?!) and sure enough, it “lined right up” with the definition of a cult. Like EE, I had a hard time calling it a cult because of its mainstream evangelical beliefs, but the practices were definitely damaging. And I also spent years identifying similar practices in other settings.

  • VK

    . . . we have left The Salvation Army. Family members and friends nolonger contact us.

  • Catherine

    I just discovered your blog and I’m totally hooked! I love reading about you and your experiences- bravo bravo! Please keep writing :)

  • Mark Stanson

    it must be one of the hardest things to talk about .. but every word to a trusted ear can be quite cathartic. we often talk of abusive relationships and how we handle them on the newest community for the Christian faithful, – we would love to hear some of your input.

  • Elizabeth Erazo

    “I had always focused on RIGHT BELIEF to the exclusion of RIGHT PRACTICE. I’m now convinced that all the right beliefs in the world do not trump right practice.

    Amen, amen! I am blessed to have experienced this in another way — while I find myself disagreeing with a lot of my community church’s on-paper theological ideas (mostly on the sacraments and other such things), I haven’t been able to leave because the people there just love so well!

    Of course, ideally I’m sure everyone would love to have both right — but so often the Scripture and the Spirit speak more directly to doing than knowing.

    God bless — I cannot wait to read your book when it is released!

  • amie

    The interdenominational Christian school I worked at for six years met the criteria in these definitions. Not for students, but for teachers and staff. It took me at least ten years to recover from what I went through there.

  • Nenya

    The cult I grew up in had some bizarre theological beliefs, but I completely believe that it was the control that fucked us up, not what we thought about when and how Jesus would return. If I get this book it will definitely be a “read it in small doses” experience (even after fifteen years/half my life free)–but I’m so glad someone wrote it.

    Love to you. :)

  • ChristyK

    My husband and I recently decided to leave a small group and then church for cult-like factors. We almost didn’t leave, mainly because of that guilt factor you talked about. I still feel guilt over the way I left our cult/childhood church. I spent years locked in victim-type thought patterns and actions, which led me to question my very morality and put myself in some very depressing situations. Once past that time, I promised myself that I would never again allow myself to remain in a place of worship if I could see that it had those cult elements. So I made some rules, which this church broke. #1 was that when a minister spoke, it should be with a clear presentation of where his opinion and interpretations were just that. So many ministers love to use God’s word to point the finger, rough us up, and make blanket statements that just aren’t Biblical. One example that really turned my off at this recent church was when the minister talked about their music being mainly modern and loud, which I didn’t mind myself. He said people had asked him if they could incorporate some older hymns sometimes. They had also asked him about the music, which had gotten so loud that sometimes even my husband and I found ourselves plugging our ears. Here was the minister’s reasoning for not capitulating: He didn’t give a reference for it, but said that the Bible says, “Sing a new song unto the Lord.” Then he preceded to tell us that “the Lord doesn’t need our old songs, he wants new songs.” He said, “Don’t you think the Lord gets tired of hearing the same songs all the time?” And about the loudness he said, “I can’t cater to everyone. We have earplugs.”
    Basically, your opinions don’t matter and I’m going to totally use a passage in the Bible out of context and pretend that’s what its about.
    We didn’t leave after that incident, but that left an impression. I began to see many more of the same kind of references. The minister began to say the word “grace”, but began to preach less/none of it.
    We’re in a new small group and a new church. On the drive there for the first time, I gritted my teeth and nearly had a panic attack. Thankfully, it was like coming home, because everyone was totally honest about where they were at and the cult elements just weren’t there. I hope it stays this way.
    By the way, when we were going through all these church issues, your blog was what kept me sane. I kept thinking, no, I have to keep thinking and reasoning. I can’t just push it down and take it like a good little girl.

  • Kathy Harter

    Thank you for this post. I have been trying to wrap my brain around my experience at our former church. This noticing cult like behavior in other churches and groups has been difficult and Ihave often felt llike it MUST be me… that I am reading into things, etc… What you have wrtten gives me hope that I am not crazy. I will be ordering that book today…. thnks again

  • Caleigh Royer

    oh my gosh, this. I am definitely going to go buy that book right now so I can read it. that definition you quoted perfectly described my old church and I am so glad to be out of it now!

  • CindyK

    THRILLED that you’re recommending this book. Had I not found it in its previous incarnation, I don’t think I would have made it.

  • proofpositive11

    I just found your blog. It is excellent. I am am SGM survivor–if anyone here knows SGM. Since I am in the process of walking away from another “high-demand” group that trained me to be a life coach, I am chagrined to be going through some of the same anxieties and triggers I went through 15 years ago after SGM. And the thing I heard constantly when I complained about my new group’s group pressure tactics was that I was just “seeing cults everywhere” because if my past. Thanks for setting me straight! They ARE everywhere–manipulators and controllers are, that is. Thanks for the sanity check. Good thing to know since now my mission is to coach people who want to move on from abuse. This is one book I have not read on the subject. Sounds like a good one.