Category Archives: Cults

The privilege of a white, Christian fundamentalist childhood

I often view my childhood through the lens of abuse. But recently, I’ve been challenged to examine it through the lens of privilege.

This is uncomfortable. It’s hard to to see the privilege when you’re being spanked everyday. Stockpiling for the Apocalypse. Pretty much living in terror.

But last week I also got to listen to a friend give a lecture on social theories, especially as they pertain to education. My friend is a professor at a local college. Twice she’s invited me to come speak to her classes about my book; specifically what it looks like when religious fundamentalism frames the whole of a person’s existence.

Before I gave my talk last week, I listened to her lecture.

And this was my epiphany: in many ways, my fundamentalist upbringing WAS privileged.

In order to staple down my ADD brain, I made a list explaining why:

  1. We Read Books (lots of them): on the radio in SoCal right now, there are PSA’s about the importance of reading to your child for 30 minutes a day. When I heard that, I laughed. THIRTY minutes? That’s IT? As a fundamentalist, it was more like 2-3 hours per day. I read SO MUCH as a child–and still do, as an adult. I never realized it–but the fact that I read so much (and had parents who reinforced the importance of that) afforded me a huge leap ahead of other children my age. My extensive childhood reading directly contributed to my ability to write well. THAT is privilege.
  2. Family Dinners: We ate meals together almost every night. Homecooked meals. With proper table settings, candles and cloth napkins. At the time, I resented having to “wash and dress” for dinner. But now I realize how those meals afforded me the privilege of learning proper table manners, the art of conversation, the ability to ask questions and disagree while remaining civil.
  3. Limited exposure to TV and commercial advertising: To this day I still don’t know the popular TV shows of the 80′s. But I can remember my favorite heroes and heroines from books. I remember long, quiet hours of sustained concentration while completing an art project. Instead of TV, my parents took me to classical music concerts and ballets. I developed an appreciation for art, music and dance. THAT is privilege.
  4. Slow Things Mattered: I absolutely hated the hours spent practicing the piano or learning proper penmanship. But looking back I realize that I can still read music (which counts as a second language). I have beautiful handwriting. I know how to sew. Even though I don’t like cooking, I can put together a well-balanced meal without really thinking about it. I can just DO these things, rather easily. THAT is privilege.
  5. Critical Thinking: As a child, I chafed under Scripture memorization, copying long passages into my journal, breaking down Scripture passages into “chapter summaries” and then writing reflections on what we’d read. But now I realize that these exercises helped develop my critical thinking skills: examining, investigating, processing and synthesizing what I’d read. Ironically, these skills helped me think my way out of fundamentalism and into Catholicism. The ability to think? THAT is privilege.
  6. Socialization & Conversing with Adults:  the average American kid is socialized with kids her own age. Not me. Our “one room schoolhouse” afforded us interaction with children of all ages. Additionally, there were lots of BIG families (4-10 kids per family) and this meant I was in constant contact with babies, toddlers and little ones. I knew how to expertly diaper, feed and care for little ones by the time I was 8. And because we had so many people living with us, I spent a lot of time talking with adults, hearing their life stories and engaging in discussion with them. All this interaction meant my world was actually BIGGER than most American kids my age. I also knew how to do my own laundry, cook, clean, care for babies and speak with adults. THAT is privilege.
  7. Travel: even though our travel was “for the sake of the Gospel,” I still got to visit almost every state in the nation. And also traveled to Canada, the UK and Mexico. I saw and talked with all different kinds of people. Hiked the Grand Canyon. Snorkeled in San Diego kelp beds. Kayaked among sea lions in Northern California. Spent a sweaty summer in Lincoln, Nebraska. Toured the old mansions in Newport, Rhode Island. Visited all the national monuments in Washington, DC. Even though most of my travel was limited to the United States, I still got to see and experience much more than the average kid my age. THAT is privilege.

I have childhood friends who say their view of my life was one of privilege. More than once I’ve been called an “Assembly Princess” because my family was the founding family, the “royalty” of our church. I used to be surprised (and rather offended!) when I heard this.

I mean, my life never felt privileged to me as a kid. It felt terrifying and abusive. I suffered every day.

But perhaps it was BOTH.

I never “felt” rich because we didn’t have the typical markers of wealth: owning homes, luxury vehicles or boats. We didn’t have stocks, retirement or savings accounts. But we did rent homes in nice neighborhoods and drive new cars (paid in full cash through “gifts” from Assm. members). I also had access to life experiences (travel, exposure to the arts, extensive reading, piano lessons) that are typically inaccessible to the poor.

Is it possible for a “princess” to live isolated and abused inside her ivory tower? Is it possible for someone to be both privileged AND deprived? Yes.

My privilege came at a high personal price: physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual abuse. I still struggle with the effects of a cult upbringing.

But I also have tools available to me that I wouldn’t have were I not privileged: the ability to read, write, express myself. I am white. I speak fluent, “privileged” English. I have good health. I have a college education. THAT is privilege.

What are some other areas of privilege within fundamentalism? Or American evangelicalism?

Do you think it’s possible to live a “privileged life” while also experiencing abuse?

Do we have a responsibility to examine our privilege and seek ways to broaden our viewpoint and develop empathy for those not as fortunate as ourselves? WHY?

Top 5 Reasons People Join Cults {hint: it’s not because they’re stupid}

People don’t join cults because they want to join cults. Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, “Hey, I’d love to join a cult today!” Another misconception is that people join cults because they’re stupid or uneducated. THIS IS NOT TRUE. (In The Assembly, we had plenty of highly educated folks). So, please. Check your condescension. If people KNEW what they were getting into, NOBODY would join a cult.

The reason cults exist is because NOBODY believes they’re in one!

Sure, having a good education (and especially exposure to lifestyles other than your own) might render you a little less susceptible to the glittery, sparkling promises of a cult. But pretty much, if you’re a human being–you can be seduced.

And that’s what cults are all about—seduction. Becoming enthralled.

People join cults because they fall in love with a beautiful dream.
They see something they desperately want or need.
They feel like they’ve found The Answer to life’s problems.

If you’re capable of falling in love, you’re capable of joining a cult.

Only later–much later (preferably after they’re married or otherwise “tied down”) do they begin to see it was false advertising.

Growing up in a cult, I learned one big rule: outsiders only see what we want them to see. New visitors saw well-behaved children, wholesome teenagers, intact families. What they DIDN’T see was that from a very young age, I was coached on how to “reach out” to visitors.

In the aftermath of my book being published, I’ve received dozens of emails from people who remember meeting me as a child. Invariably they comment on how “cheerful” and “outgoing” I was. They remember me hugging everyone enthusiastically. They remember me singing at the top of my lungs during church meetings. These sincere people are shocked that behind closed doors I was suffering near-constant abuse. B-b-but! You were such a HAPPY LITTLE GIRL!

I can only shake my head. Oh, yes. They were seeing EXACTLY what The Assembly wanted them to see.

I was TRAINED to be that way. I was SPANKED if I didn’t behave exactly the way my parents coached me. I had to behave like that because it was survival.

So, why do people join cults? Well, like a successful marketing campaign, cults know how to sell:

1. We Have What You’ve Been Looking For: Do you crave meaningful relationships? Are you tired of superficial pursuits? Do you long for abundance, happiness and wealth?

2. Sense of Urgency: TODAY is the day of salvation! What if you die tomorrow? Will you have ANY regrets???? [SIDEBAR: when I was "witnessing" to people, I would get super frustrated when they replied, "Well, if I die tomorrow then I'll be glad I lived a good life." I was like: Nooooooo! BE ANXIOUS! BE VERY AFRAID! Otherwise this whole formula doesn't WORRRK!"]

3. Sense of Purpose: Did you know God has a Great Plan for your life? Do you really want to miss out on that? Join our cause. God is REALLY MOVING in our generation. Together, we can change the world. [SIDEBAR: this whole phrase about "God IS MOVING in our generation!!" really annoys me. Newsflash, guys. God has moved in EVERY generation. God didn't suddenly start MOVING once evangelicals figured out how to build mega-churches. Or win political elections. When I was growing up we were all: yeah, Christianity existed and everything. But it didn't really START until like the 1500's when Martin Luther nailed a letter to a church door. I mean, THAT'S when God REALLY started moving!"]

4. Sense of Superiority: we are the TRUE believers. We are the PURE ones. We are reclaiming what’s been lost. We have uncovered hidden truths. You won’t find this anywhere else. You might be a nobody in this world, but in OUR group you’ll be special. [SIDEBAR: I often call this "The Special-Ness Syndrome." The more SPECIAL a church thinks it is, the faster I run away.]

5. INCENTIVES!!! Look at all these beautiful women following Jesus! Look at all these godly, spiritual men! You could have TRUE intimacy. No more broken hearts. You will find a wife who respects and serves you. You will find a husband who loves and provides for you. You will find a community of like-minded people who will help you and you will never be alone again!! [SIDEBAR: in cults--as in everywhere else--sex sells.]

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Further reading:
IS MY CHURCH A CULT? 
WHAT NOT TO SAY TO SOMEONE WHO HAS SUFFERED SPIRITUAL ABUSE
IS MARS HILL A CULT?
HOW TO HELP SOMEONE INSIDE A CULT

Top Ten Signs of a Potentially Abusive Church

One of the most frequent questions I’m asked is: what are some signs of a spiritually abusive church? My book, “Girl at The End of the World,” tells my story of growing up in an abusive church. But I thought it might be helpful if I shared a list of “red-flag” warning signs here on my site as well. Thank you, as always, for reading and sharing. EE.

  1. Personality Centric: a pastor whose charming, charismatic, intense, persuasive and intelligent personality holds unquestioned sway over his/her congregation. He/she is treated like a celebrity. Not held accountable. Not held to same standard of morality as the rest of the congregation.
  2. Operates Independentlyno oversight, doesn’t answer to an established denomination, there is no way for grievances to be filed or addressed, even in cases of outright abuse the police or civil authorities are not called.
  3. Engulfment: “true members” of the church devote their WHOLE lives to the church, center all their activities around church activities, discouraged to have friends outside the church, family members who express concern about the church are cut off, leaving the church is the same as leaving God.
  4. Busyness: a plethora of required/mandatory-without-saying-it’s-mandatory activities that fill up the weekly schedule, giving time and energy for free to various hard labor projects (cleaning and cooking for pastor’s family, for example).
  5. Stalking: Big Brother-type monitoring is called “just keeping each other accountable.” Calling to “just check in” if a member misses church meeting. Approving clothing, daily decisions, watching online activity for “problematic” opinions and posts–all under the guise of “spiritual care” for the person’s soul.
  6. Coded Language: an ingrown church has developed a special, insider language/lingo that only those who have been there for a long time understand. Sometimes common, everyday words are given different definitions particular to that church; ie. “keep sweet” is a phrase used in some polygamist circles that means women should behave in a church-approved way.
  7. Unrealistic Promises: members of an unhealthy church are often seduced by big talk about all the wealth, blessings and riches God will give them if they just devote their lives to this church. Delivery on these promises is rare. Those who do not experience God’s blessings are told they have “weak faith.”
  8. Courting Rituals: a man must seek leadership approval (above parental approval) before seeking “to court” (or date) a woman, courting couples must follow a prescribed set of rules according to arbitrary traditions established by the church; ie. no kissing until the wedding day.
  9. Shunning: if someone leaves the church, church leadership requires all other members to ignore this person until they “repent.” New church members are told to shun family members who don’t support the church. Parents are told to shun “rebellious” teenagers. Husbands are to shun “unsubmissive” wives. The church comes first in all relationships.
  10. “The Ends Justify the Means:”  a spiritually abusive church justifies all kinds of oppressive behavior by saying they only desire to truly serve and love God. “We’re doing this for Jesus, so it’s OK!” ; ie. spanking children to “break the will” because the end result is a child who will love and serve God for his/her whole life. Be wary of a church that emphasizes “purity of doctrine” over the WAY it treats people. Methods and processes matter. The ends do NOT justify the means.

A tale of Mrs. Judge-y Pants and how she learned that being honest was better than trying to be good

stairsI read a phrase in some 12-step literature recently and it precisely captured the way I’ve been trying to live my life in the last few years: “We are working hard at being honest, not good.” Honest, not good. Oh, yes THIS.

Growing up in a cult, we were ALL about being holy but NOT so much about being honest. (You know you have a problem with dishonesty when you’re more concerned with looking holy vs. being holy). *Raises hand* *Fidgets uncomfortably*

Outward appearances, man. We had THAT whole deal down to a mother-bustin’ science. And I mean that literally: mothers busted their butts (and their mental health) making their families look all holy. I should know. I pretty much lost my own sanity trying to live up to all the Standards of Godliness.

It was a destructive way to live. But it also felt so….addictive. Control: that’s some powerful stuff, right? Having EVERYTHING all figured out. Being 110% certain about God and Christianity and how everyone ought to be living their lives. CONTROL. Control is as addictive as any drug. It’s like believing you’re in charge of when and how the wind blows.

tree

Ironically, those who worked the hardest at being good ended up as the biggest hypocrites. I’m pointing the finger at myself, here.

Since leaving the cult eleven years ago, I’ve abandoned a lot of Be Ye Holy baggage. Meaning: I stopped trying to be good a long time ago. I took up drinking and swearing. I quit God–for about a week. I bounced around from church-to-church. I went to therapy and went to rehab. You know, THE USUAL.

It’s been a long process of figuring out how to be a whole person.

It started by getting really honest with myself. Can I just say right now that being honest is WAY harder than trying to be good?

I mean, at some point I had to stop blaming the cult for every problem in my life. Note to self: taking responsibility for myself sucks. I would really prefer to sit on the couch eating cakes all day while God–that magical genie I’ve always imagined Him to be–fixes my problems.

But this is not how God works.

As I wrote in my book, Girl at The End of The WorldI heard this story somewhere that when you ask God to move a mountain He says “OK!” And then He hands you a shovel. In other words, you gotta do the work.

The hopeful part in all of this is that I’m learning to do the work differently. Instead of TRYING to be good, I’m working hard at being honest.

When I practice daily, radical honesty–goodness naturally follows.

: : :

sand

In the last two years I’ve been reading 12-step literature and attending 12-step meetings in the (desperate!) hope of rewiring my brain. It’s become really clear to me that even though I left the cult, the cult didn’t leave me.

I have issues.

Inside me there lives a hardline fundamentalist. I call her “Judge-y Pants.” When Judge-y Pants comes out to play, she’s..well, she’s judge-y. She’s harsh. She’s critical. She’s demanding.

Basically, she’s a biatch with a huge KJV under her arm.

For one thing, Judge-y Pants is always in a state of panic. She runs around yelling about the world ending, cashing in 401ks, fleeing to the hills and don’t forget the canned goods.

This is no way to live.

Point is, I got 99 problems and that biatch is one.

So, I go to therapy, pray every day and attend 12-step meetings to pin down my insane, chaotic, flighty brain. I’ve tried drinking and cussing and over-eating and Arguing On The Internet and well, NONE of that never gave me the long-term serenity I so desperately crave.

It DID make me 30 pounds overweight, though. So. Yay, cleavage?

But I want long-term serenity. I’m tired of intensity and freak-outs and meltdowns.

I’m doing things differently these days.

I’m making daily to-do lists, and following a simplified schedule and cutting out anything that triggers my need for action! adrenaline! CHAOS!

crochetBasically, I’m living like an 80 year old woman whose idea of fun is crocheting and watering her potted plants.

 

FYI: living like this? Being all calm and stuff? It’s hard work.
It feels completely ABNORMAL.

: : :

Growing up in a cult, you have this wonky sense of normalcy. Normal was frantic urgency. Normal was END OF THE WORLD-omg-we’re-all-going-to-Hell intensity. I was always living on the edge.

I’ve heard this is similar to kids growing up with alcoholic parents or in deep poverty. You always have to hustle and be hyper-alert because you never know when The End will come. You’re just running and panicking all the damn time.

Even after I left that environment, I didn’t know how NOT to live like that. I didn’t know HOW to live peacefully. Calm felt boring.

It’s taken a lot of therapy, but eventually I’ve realized that I’m addicted to intensity. Even though I hated The Crazy, at least The Crazy was comfortable. I understood it. I knew what to expect. And even though I could see how living on this razor-sharp edge would eventually kill me, I preferred The Crazy.

This is how you know you have a problem: you keep returning to The Crazy even though you know it will kill you. 

Hi, I’m Elizabeth and I’m addicted to chaos.

If you’re looking for me, I’ll be sitting by the pool crocheting.

pool

 

Apparently, sobbing into a pan of brownies waiting for God to fix my feelings DOESN’T WORK (p.s. this is SO unfair!)

Screen Shot 2014-04-29 at 10.57.26 AMOn Friday I received news that my grandfather–the one who founded my childhood cult (read the full story in my book)–had a stroke and fell. He is not recovering well. The doctors say he has 2-6 months to live. According to my mom who saw him in the hospital, he is not capable of coherent discussion due to increasing dementia. He is dying.

This is not how I hoped the story would end. I wanted a happy ending–or, at least, a happier one.

All these years later and he has not repented nor sought to make things right.

Even though I said my goodbyes eleven years ago when I left the cult and forgave them several years after that–today, I’m surprised by how sad I feel about all this.

To protect myself and my own children, I have kept the relationship with my grandparents closed. The sad truth is that my grandparents left a wide swath of destruction in their wake and cleaning up the wreckage is still a daily struggle for me. Quite honestly, the only way I would have wanted to hear from them was if they were ready to make amends.

They had ways of contacting me–should they ever have desired it. But they never did.

I knew the end would come inevitably, I just didn’t expect to feel so…deeply sad about it.

I also didn’t expect to feel so triggered, so anxious. On the verge of PTSD relapse. Whenever something yucky happens in my family, this sort of brain-scrambling thing happens to me. It’s like my brain fills up with static and I can’t think clearly.

I just cry. And have panic attacks. Or, you know, eat lots of food.

Upon hearing the news about my grandfather, my first inclination was to park my butt on the couch and eat cakes all afternoon. Because that’s totally how problems get solved, right? Here, God: how about I eat cakes while You Fix It, k??

And then I remembered: I’ve gained thirty pounds. Well, I remembered this AFTER I’d eaten half a pan of brownies but THAT IS BESIDE THE POINT, am I right? Point is: I remembered before I ate the whole thing. PROGRESS!

So, I decided to do something different.

There it is, my friends. The simple, little shift. If I could sum up my recovery in one phrase, that would be it: Doing Something Different.

And doing something different didn’t mean making some big, huge radical change. It was a small thing.

I went out and bought flowers.

photo 6

Then I swept my front porch and dusted cobwebs from the porch lights. Then I arranged the flower pots to create a welcoming entry. Then I went and bought pretty yellow seat cushions (on sale at Marshalls–woot!).

Once I got started, I was inspired. [NOTE TO SELF FOR FUTURE REFERENCE: it's the getting started that's the hardest! But once you're going, you wonder why you waited so long. Just get started already. Start somewhere, anywhere. Start with pots of flowers!]

Before long, a virtuous cycle had taken over. Instead of gorging myself on the rest of the brownies, I was now engaged in life-affirming contrary action: nesting, decorating and cleaning up my little corner of the world.

The twins swirled around me, helping me hose down the stone walkway and hang a St. Francis of Assisi garden flag.

Penelope The Rescue Pit Bull happily watched me while I worked and even agreed to pose for me when I was done. I seriously think she’s smiling in this picture. (p.s. pit bulls are precious and lovable and it’s such a shame they have a bad reputation because she is the sweetest thing ever).

Screen Shot 2014-04-29 at 1.39.11 PM

Speaking of pit bulls, redemption is a thing. I believe in it. 

I believe in it because it’s happening to me. I’m still thirty pounds overweight, my family is still effed up in thirty-thousand different ways BUT! I’ve built a new life for myself–a life that I’m very happy to live!–a life that I intend on continuing to live with love and service to others.

Just for today, I’m not sitting on the couch sobbing into a pan of brownies.

And that gives me hope.

Is @MarsHill church a cult? What IS a cult, anyway???

Unknown-1This past week, a 16-year, devoted member of Mars Hills Church (the group of churches founded by Mark Driscoll) wrote a blog post repenting of his complicity to and participation in spiritual abuse . He writes:

We were grieved by our own sins of complicity to systems and structures we could not in good conscience support anymore. The overall philosophical idea we could not support anymore was an “ends justifies the means” mentality.…I admit I would get passionate about these things thinking it was the Gospel. I then would manipulate more. I was so blind to this form of Spiritual abuse I would even get upset with people who disagreed…Everything became pragmatic tyranny. I truly believed that if this “Gospel” was moving forward I was justified in my actions. (emphasis mine)

I know a little something about cults. I grew up in one. What this former member so bravely exposes are the “systems and structures” that perpetuate spiritual abuse and create cultic groups.

What this former member is telling us is that Mars Hills Church OPERATES in a harmful manner; uses abusive METHODS and justifies it by saying the Gospel is moving forward.

This is terribly wrong and should raise huge red-flags to anyone involved with Mars Hills Churches.

Is Mars Hill Church a cult? Well, let’s talk about that.

In Chapter One of my book, “Girl at The End of the World,” I explain why I call MY childhood church a cult:

…when people ask me why I call The Assembly a cult, I say it’s because we operated like one. Cults aren’t so much about beliefs as they are about methods and behavior. According to cult researchers, it is the emotional seizing of people’s trust, thoughts and choices that identifies a cult. The Assembly wins on all counts. (p.9)

When talking about cults, Christians have often focused on theology. I don’t find this very helpful.

Identifying a cult based on What Beliefs Are Believed is far too subjective a standard of measurement. Beliefs vary widely–even among Christians who hold generally similar beliefs about foundational doctrines like the Bible, the Trinity, the Person of Christ, etc.

What is far more useful and easily identifiable is looking at the WAY a church operates. I mean, any two groups may disagree about whether Jesus IS God but if one group beats its children into submission while the other group doesn’t, I’m gonna say the violent group is a cult–even if its beliefs are considered orthodox.

Now, just a caveat, here: often, harmful beliefs DO lead to cult-like behavior. For example, my childhood church beat children so harshly because it BELIEVED children were inherently wicked sinners who NEEDED to be spanked in order to be saved from Hell. Obviously, I don’t believe that belief anymore. So, yes, sometimes beliefs feed the cultish behavior.

People have told me that I need to “be careful” about labeling churches as cults. I absolutely disagree. If a group ACTS like a cult and OPERATES like a cult and HURTS people like a cult–then let’s call it what is is: a cult.

There’s a huge reason for this: calling a cult a cult is empowering for the victims inside it. Yes, it was initially VERY difficult for me to call my childhood church a cult, if only because the cult was also my family. There was a lot of personal shame involved. But, in the end, I found it absolutely liberating to call my church what it was: a cult.

Naming the cult for what it was helped me UNDERSTAND my experience and place it into context. I was so grateful to know that cults exist outside The Assembly and that my story wasn’t so super-extreme-unique that nobody could understand what had happened to me.

In fact, it wasn’t UNTIL I started calling my childhood church a cult that outsiders understood what I was trying to tell them. When I said: “I grew up in a cult” they were like: “Oh, OK, I get it.” But if I said: “I grew up in a strict church” they were like: “Didn’t we all? Isn’t ‘strict’ the very definition of church?”

Um. Nope. After this happened a bunch of times I knew I needed a better descriptor. Yes, the word “cult” is heavy. But so is spiritual abuse. Maybe it’s time we started taking spiritual abuse seriously.

I understand why fellow Christians might feel confused or reticent about calling Mars Hill Church a cult, or even a “cultic” group. They’ll probably say something like: “But Mark Driscoll loves Jesus and is passionate about making disciples!” All I have to say to that is: the ends don’t justify the means. The noblest and holiest goals NEVER excuse abusive means.

Another excuse we might hear: “I attend a branch of Mars Hill Church and that stuff doesn’t happen here.” Well, if this were the first time we were hearing troubling news out of MHC, then this might be true. But the truth is that the stories have been slowly eking out over several years.

I think it’s time Christians took a serious look at what is happening inside Mars Hill Church; paying special attention to the SYSTEMS and STRUCTURES and METHODS of operation.

At the very least, the Gospel deserves THAT.

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A helpful resource for identifying cultic groups and relationships can be found in “Take Back Your Life: recovering from cults and abusive relationships.” In this book, the authors describe the Top 15 Characteristics of Cultic Groups. This list is BY FAR the best compilation of cultic characteristics I’ve ever seen. I’ll mention a few, here, as they pertain to faith-based cults, specifically:

  • The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology and practices as the Truth, as law.
  • Questioning, doubt and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
  • Mind-altering practices such as speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions or debilitating work routines are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader (s).
  • The leadership dictates–sometimes in great detail–how members should think, act and feel (ie. members must get permission to date, change jobs, or marry…leaders prescribe what to wear, where to live, whether to have children, how to discipline children…)
  • The leader is not accountable to any authorities
  • ..requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group
  • The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
  • The group is preoccupied with making money.
  • Members are required to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.

–from Appendix A, Take Back Your Life, pages 327 & 328

And to read about my real-life experience inside a Christian cult, here’s my book:

The Girl at the End of the World 

When God was my drug

Source: ADiamondFellFromTheSky; Flickr

Source: ADiamondFellFromTheSky; Flickr

i.

It’s 11:23pm and I’ve been driving the same freeway over and over–past the exit closest to my parents’ house, U-turn, back again. Earlier this evening, I was brave enough to take the exit. But I whipped into a parking lot and hunched down in my truck, chewing my nails. I watched shoppers go in and out of the TJMaxx. They all seemed so normal, happy even. Nobody–not one person!–was glancing over their shoulder convinced the Rapture was about to happen and maybe they’d get left behind. I stare across the street: a mattress store, Adams Music, a bank. All normal things. All absurd to me.

ii.

Text Messages:

Friend: You need to go home. Take your medication. It will be better in the morning, promise. 

Me: I don’t want to be this person, a person who needs medication to function. I feel ashamed!

Friend: I understand. But if you had diabetes, would you feel ashamed about needing insulin?

iii.

I jam the keys back in the ignition and roar off. Hours pass. I drive. I cry. Near midnight, I take my parents’ exit and cruise down their street. I slow to a stop in front of their home. Lights off. Silence. I try to imagine how I’d break the news. Hi, Pastor. Hi, Pastor’s Wife. I’m your daughter–the one with such weak faith she used PRESCRIPTION DRUGS instead of prayer to help her with anxiety. Yes, she was a bad example, your daughter. A very poor Christian witness. But wait, Mom and Dad. I have some good news! I wanted to be a strong Christian. I wanted to be pleasing to you and God. So, I quit the meds. I don’t need them anymore, see? God saved me, God delivered me from all my fears and now, look! I’m all better!

And then I laugh.

Because that was the kind of crazy I used to call normal. It’s the kind of madness I called ecstasy–a strange, religious high from my former life–back when God was my drug. Back then, I thought I could just “pray away” my anxiety. But I’m not living that life anymore. I’ve made a new life for myself. I just need to go home to it.

Dancer Gertrud Frith in Medea, Rolf Winquist 1957

Dancer Gertrud Frith in Medea, Rolf Winquist 1957

iv.

Text Message:

Elizabeth, are you home yet? Please go home. You are loved.
You are precious. You are whole. Text me when you get home. Then call me tomorrow morning.

v.

This is what surrender looks like: a glass of water and two white pills in the palm of my hand. I stare at them, these little pills that keep me sane. I’ve gone three days without them. My mind is a howling, jagged whirlwind. I slug down the pills and bang the cup down on the counter. I’m still upset about this–that I need these pills, that I can’t just CONTROL my anxiety myself. I wish–I wish to GOD–that I’d had a different past, hadn’t been raised in a cult, wasn’t such an anxiety freak all the time and—I hear the click of little nails on tile and my dog scampers into the kitchen, tail wagging. She loves me. Anxious, sensitive, often triggered soul that I am–to this dog, I am lovable and perfect. I scoop her up in my arms and carry her to bed with me.

vi.

Morning: the howling in my mind has quieted but my brain feels bruised and fragile, wobbly like half-set Jell-O. I pick up the phone and make the call–because I need help.

“Of course I can get the twins from school,” my Dad says, kindly. “You OK?”

“I–I was at your house last night,” I say, suddenly. “I–I drove away because I was ashamed. I just don’t want to disappoint you. I didn’t want to be…The Daughter With Emotional Problems, ya know?”

I cover my mouth, shocked. I’d spilled it all out.

Dad is quiet and then he chuckles. “Oh, Liz, I love ya. And thanks for bein’ honest with me! I want you to know I’ve learned a few things in the past few years. I’m not disappointed in you, I’m glad you’re getting the help you need.”

“Oh—. Thank you, Dad.”

“And you can come to our house anytime. Anytime, ya hear? All you gotta do is knock on the door. Sittin’ out in in the dark isn’t gonna do ya any good!”

He’s right. I’m tired of sitting in the dark. I have nothing to be ashamed of–I’m a survivor. Yes, I have scars. Deep ones. But I’m getting the help I need. And I love the person I’m becoming….

Source: a la gracie; tumblr

Source: a la gracie; tumblr

“I’m depressed and living hurts too much…”

The following is a “deleted scene” from my book (available March, 2014). It is the story of my two-week stay at a retreat center specializing in emotional healing and codependency issues. I am sharing this story in the hopes that those who have suffered similarly will know they are not alone and those in positions of religious authority will understand the devastating, long-term impact of spiritual abuse. Comments are open. Be kind.

I.

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I’ve been out of an abusive church for years but I’m still making the same mistake: I still don’t take care of myself. I keep burning out. I survive on caffeine and adrenaline.

By all measures my life is far better than it used to be. I should feel healed.

But my skin is on fire, elbows and feet flaring with psoriasis scales. I want to unzip my skin and crawl out of it. My hands shake, full of fear and trembling.

I’m going to a two week retreat center because I’m depressed as hell and living hurts too much. There. That’s the honest truth.

I grip my boarding pass tightly, so tightly my knuckles might start sweating blood. I stare at the bar-code as if I can somehow decipher the meaning behind the lines, trace the trajectory that led me here—trembling in an airport, blindsided by one glaring, uncomfortable truth: fundamentalism worked; it successfully broke me.

In the very core of who I am, I still believe I’m not good enough. No matter how successfully we’ve rebuilt our lives, no matter how recovered we look—deep down, I’m still a frightened little girl.

Something is missing.

I get in line to board my flight because I need help, because I am serious about my recovery. I now understand that there is no quick-fix that will permanently cure me. Extricating myself from what I experienced is like sorting the wheat from the chaff—the good is sown in with the bad.

I am going into treatment because I am determined to get better.

II.

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“We don’t break our horses, we invite them into a partnership with us,” Alyssa says, her bright eyes sparkling beneath the broad brim of her cowboy hat.

It’s my third day at the retreat center. We’ve been standing on this windswept hill for what seems like an eternity doing nothing but watch horses. Horses standing. Horses grazing. Horses doing absolutely nothing. Alyssa tells us that being still and simply watching horses is an exercise in developing our inner observer.

I don’t know what I’m supposed to be observing, here, other than my raging boredom.

Being still is damn uncomfortable.

“You’re on horse-time now,” Alyssa says. “For those of us accustomed to rushing around, being on horse-time is really difficult. When I first started working with horses I couldn’t sit still for more than five minutes.

I shift my weight from foot to foot, ball my hands into fists and push them into the pockets of my windbreaker. I don’t understand how you’re supposed to control a horse without breaking her and I certainly don’t understand how being on horse-time will improve my relationship with myself and with God.

Still, there is something about Alyssa’s way of being that intrigues me. She is loose and easeful. She walks gently, slowly and intentionally. She talks casually and easily to her horses as if they’re native English speakers. I have no idea how this is working but it’s obvious the horses understand her because they gently respond.

I am utterly baffled. This is a language I don’t understand. I am not accustomed to gentleness, partnership and relationships between equals. I am accustomed to harshness, black-and-white hierarchies and mutually destructive relationships. The language Alyssa shares with her horses is utterly foreign but I can clearly see the results: mutual respect and implicit trust. This is love.

Quite unexpectedly, I see the connection to my own life and it takes my breath away.

I learned to relate to God through punishment.

My first experience of God happened beneath a paddle. I was spanked until my will was broken.

I was spanked until the deepest belief I held was that love is punishment.

 III.IMG_5795

In the treatment center, I have homework.

My program director has instructed me to create a timeline of my life, listing all major events and relationships in chronological order. “The point of this exercise,” she tells me, “is to discover your own, unique relational pattern.”

It takes me a several pages to complete the time line. Then, working from a list of signs and characteristics, I color-code each relationship with my most common behaviors.

When I’m done, an obvious pattern has emerged.

It is uncomfortably, devastatingly true: I have unrealistic expectations of others in relationships, I seek to avoid rejection and abandonment at any cost, I mistake intensity for intimacy and most of all, I feel a deep sense of worthlessness and therefore use relationships to relieve emotional pain.

I’ve attached to friendships, correspondences, Facebook “friends,” blogging “friends,” attended conferences in hopes of finding that Perfect Best Friend, bounced around churches hoping to find The Perfect Church, emailed bloggers I adored, texted, weaseled and grasped for relationships to fill, fill, fill—fill what? A bottomless chasm of aching need.

I don’t have a drinking problem. I don’t have a substance abuse problem. I am hooked on relationships.

I stare at my timeline and I see the source of my relational pattern: lack of nurturing and attention while young triggered feelings of shame and inherent worthlessness. If I am ever to fully recover, I will need daily connection with a higher power Who loves me unconditionally. The key to my emotional healing and my spiritual future is letting God love me.

And there it is, the missing piece: I don’t know how to receive God’s love. I don’t know how to receive grace. The core of my spiritual struggle is with self-loathing.

IV.

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This is what I understand: there will never be one, final cure for my religiously wounded heart. I will always bear the scars. And there will even be times when I feel the pain anew. But each day, I can choose to take care of myself. I can choose to let God love me.

This is what I know: I can’t save the world from fundamentalism, but I can save myself. There are things I cannot change, but I ask God for the courage to help me change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.

This is my story: God has given me a future and a hope.

This is my song: I am not afraid.

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How to help someone inside a cult/abusive church {hint: interventions don’t work}

EE @ 36, EE @ 5.

I get quite a few emails from parents or concerned friends asking how to help their children get out of cultish churches or abusive relationships. They ask things like: “Should we stage an intervention?” Or: “How can we convince her that she’s gotten involved with a harmful group?” My answer is simple and sad. You can’t do much of anything.

Until a person is READY to leave, nothing will work. The person inside the group is experiencing a positive payoff. There is a probably a very strong sense of belonging and community. There is a higher purpose to life. Their lives have MEANING. Unless there is greater benefit to leaving than staying, most people will stay.

People will sacrifice their own personal rights and freedoms to receive the emotional and spiritual “high” of the cult experience. Frankly, a parent’s concern can’t hold a candle to the kind of emotional fireworks their child is experiencing inside the group.

In fact, I would suggest that interventions often have the opposite desired effect causing resentment and loss of trust on the part of the child and frustration for the parents.

All a parent or concerned friend can do is provide a NON-JUDGMENTAL PRESENCE and be READY TO HELP when the child is ready to leave.

Once things start going badly inside the cult (and they always do), the child will remember their non-judgmental friends and family who love them no matter what. If parents and friends can maintain a steady, non-judgmental presence, then their child will have somewhere to go when he/she finally decides to leave.

I would also like to caution that sometimes people need to leave over and over and over again. I tried to escape my fundamentalist cult at least five different times. I always went back. But it’s the TRYING to leave that’s important and is what outside friends and family should support. Don’t berate your child for returning and don’t cut off the friendship just because the cult-member isn’t ready to leave yet. Just keep providing support.

The point is, don’t lose hope if your child or friend leaves and goes back several times. Everyone has a different exit process and you must respect their unique journey. I was always looking for someone who would respect ME as an individual person (because in the cult all individual choice and freedom is completely eroded) and wouldn’t just say something like: DUH. Just LEAVE your church already, isn’t it obvious you’re in a cult?????

I know this might sound weird but I actually NEEDED some kind of control and ownership over how and when I left.  I needed freedom to choose how and when I exited the church. I had no freewill in the cult so making the choice to leave needed to be MY choice. It needed to be about me taking back some personal dignity and sense of self for MYSELF.

I didn’t need th gawking and super-curious questions of people on the outside. I just needed somewhere to go.I needed people who were non-judgmental. I’d experienced so much judgment and condemnation inside the cult that I was very sensitive to it—even from well-meaning people who were trying to help me.

I didn’t WANT allies who were just a leeeetle too eager to “rescue” me, who would make a big scene, embarrass me or ask all kinds of questions and try to get the juicy details.

Lastly, when a cult-member finally DOES leave for good, they will probably experience quite a bit of withdrawal and shame. They will wonder how and why they got involved in such a harmful group. They will need quiet and anonymity. They will probably need help with basic things like housing, a job and maybe even driver’s Ed. Depending on how strict and reclusive their cult was, a newly escaped member will need at least two years of ongoing support.

It’s never ever easy to leave a cult or abusive relationship but with when there is outside support, it is POSSIBLE.

Not all wire hangers are misogynists. Apparently.

A few months ago, I had an embarrassing incident with some wire hangers in my closet. I had set out to organize! cleanse! make all things new!

But the wire hangers, they were acting all privileged. Hogging too much room. Patriarchal, really. Wire hangers, as we all know, are EFFING MISOGYNISTS, AM I RIGHT????

Ahem. Forgive me, this will all make sense momentarily.

The Wire Hanger Meltdown was followed by The Pool Chair Incident. Because, obviously, Pool Chair is just another way of saying Cult Leader–especially when it refuses to properly recline and instead crashes down, landing your ass on the cement pool deck.

“Mommy, why are you crying?”

“BECAUSE THE EFFING CULT LEADER THREW ME ON THE GROUND!”

“You mean the pool chair?”

“No. I mean THE CULT LEADER.”

And that is what we call “My Rock Bottom Moment.” Clearly, I needed help. Probably this came as no surprise to anyone but myself.

: :

I’d been getting emails. Messages. Tweets.

I don’t like your tone, Elizabeth. You sound different. You sound angry. Not all churches are cults, Elizabeth. Not all men are cult leaders. You’re being unfair, unkind, preposterous. Sometimes you have good things to say, Elizabeth, but your tone is so harsh. Why are you so bitter? Why can’t you just move on? Stop being such a victim, Elizabeth. Maybe you should write a disclaimer before you share your experiences because your abuse is not the norm. –Signed, A Caring Reader.

I mean, enough people tell you the same thing and you finally gotta check yourself before you wreck yourself.

Which I did. I checked myself right into an Online Timeout. I’ve been quiet lately.

: :

Back to the story. I was angry. Very angry. Mostly, at God. And pastors. And churches. And apparently, pool chairs. Little League. Citibank. Wire hangers. Cult leaders. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let’s start with the anger.

Anger is exhausting. I think I read that in the book of Revelation. Which is to say, when you’re angry, you view all of life through an angry filter. It was like I put on my angry glasses each morning and went hunting for Bad Pastors, Bad Churches and Bad Theology.

This is an exhausting way to live.

I don’t know whether my rock bottom was burnout, anxiety or generalized hysteria but I’m pretty sure it was a combination of all three. The Interwebz can you make you batshit cray, this we know.

Point is, I put my ass in timeout—oh, wait. I’ve already said this. This, you see, is what happens when you’re angry: you forget you’ve already said things and then you start repeating yourself over and over until people are like: yeah, yeah, we GET IT. YOU WERE ABUUUUSED.

: :

I’ve been working a 12 step program. This is uncomfortable. Mainly, because at some point you have to stop talking about All The Ways You’ve Been Hurt and start taking responsibility for the ways you hurt others.

This is annoying. Also, profoundly difficult. I would really rather skip this part.

But I won’t. I’m gonna work it.

: :

I’ve been wrestling with questions:

At what point does the victim become the abuser?

At what point does my anger no longer serve me?

: :

I read this article about survivors of the Holocaust. The researcher was trying to find out why certain survivors went on to live meaningful, productive lives after all they’d endured? I can’t remember the details, but basically, it was that the survivors who lived long, meaningful lives maintained a deep faith and an optimistic spirit. They didn’t just define themselves by their awful experience, they proactively sought ways to make the world a better place for others–even if it was just their families.

: :

A whole person cannot be solely defined by what she stands against. A whole person must stand for something, too.

: :

I have lashed out, criticized, deconstructed, questioned and chided the religious powers that be. This was an important part of my journey and I honor it. But I made mistakes along the way and despite my good intentions, I have hurt people. I hurt myself.

I set out to organize! set right! cleanse! make all things new!

But I got entangled somehow. The weapons that were used against me I used against others.

The problem was not so-and-so-pastor or so-and-so-church. My mistake was playing whack-a-mole with every suspicious church or pastor that came across my radar. Sure, I can react, react, react all day. But then what?

In other words, what am I doing to build up the Church? What am I doing to edify and create new, healthy culture within the Church?

Criticism is necessary but it’s not enough.
I can’t build a culture of love and peace using weapons of hate and warfare. 

: :

I don’t have all the answers, here. But I want you to know I’m taking time to examine myself, to check my motives and sincerely seek to understand how I can use my words to effect positive change. Thank you for being patient with me…..