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.” (pg.4)
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.