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Recovering From a Political Cult

Vol. 4, No. 2

Alexandra Stein


I spent the decade of the eighties trapped in a leftist political cult. The terrible irony of this experience was that, looking for a socialist utopia, I instead embraced a form of fascism. But one of the things I gained in those lost years was an understanding that penetrates my bones: a sure knowledge of power abuse, of what democracy isn't. I learned, from the inside out, what it was I'd always wanted to fight against. Talk about learning the hard way-this class in the School of Hard Knocks involved giving up my own human rights and participating in totalism, the very system I'd dedicated my life to destroying.

I have since written a book telling the story of my ill-fated entry into, and eventual escape from, this political cult. My escape was made possible by a long-awaited break in my isolation and made all the more urgent by a growing fear for my children's well being. In this brief essay, however, I want to share some thoughts on how I recovered from this experience.

At the age of 36 I walked away from the cult and found myself submerged by both practical problems and paranoia. Where would I live? Where would I work? How would I navigate my cult-arranged marriage-my husband still in and shunning me? How would I fight off his cult-ordered attempt to gain sole custody of our children? How would I sleep each night when I imagined every nighttime noise to be our cult leader coming after me with a shotgun? He had, I'd discovered as I left the cult, killed a man in one of the cult houses I'd lived in. How would I choose what clothes to wear, now that I no longer had to wear the dictated uniform of our group (a kind of Midwestern-housewife garb strangely unsuited to my radical past)? How would I get through the shame and terror that weighed on me so heavily? How the hell could I have been so stupid?

But luckily I came out with a small group of other cult members. We looked after each other, ate good meals together, assembled the scattered pieces of the puzzle (each of us holding only one isolated piece for all those years). We drank enough alcohol to relax and laugh after years of unremitting tension. I slept and I slept. Hours and hours of sleep to catch up on the years of too-short nights. I sat and did nothing. I watched  nature unfold as Minnesota thawed into spring. I was so glad I came out in spring! I communed with the lilac bush in my backyard, watching it unfurl as I unfurled.

With the help of Free Minds and Answers Inc., two local cult education groups, I found, first, books that described and explained my experience and then, people who had shared it and could understand the rebuilding of self and life that I now faced.

The more I learned the less shameful I felt. I realized I'd been psychologically raped, and why should I blame myself for that? Perhaps I'd been guilty of gullibility, of insecurity, of a romantic dedication. But did that mean I deserved to give up ten years of my life to my cult leader's desire for unlimited control and obeisance? I began to make the political connections. I, who had idealized Mao Zedong, began to see how much mind control (or thought reform) had been an integral part of the Chinese Revolution and the subsequent Cultural Revolution. Memoirs of that time were added to my reading list.

And I started to write. I needed to drag a fine toothcomb through the lost years; to fully understand what had happened to me and, as I discovered, to so many in the Left. My cult, the O. (as in, The Organization), an underground group that, improbably, came out of the Twin Cities food co-ops, was certainly not the only weird left group around. I researched the fragmentation of the Left that occurred in the seventies and read memoirs of that period. From Fred Newman of The New Alliance Party, to black nationalist groups like the African Peoples Socialist Party to the Democratic Workers Party led by a radical lesbian, there were many examples of cultic left groups. They each used the techniques of mind control including isolation, deception, physical and psychological exhaustion: the same methods used by the myriad cults-including right-wing militia and racist groups (cults thrive on any extremist ideology)-now growing towards the millennium. In my search to understand the dynamics of power abuse and mind control, I identified other points on the continuum: domestic violence, therapist and "professional" abuse, power problems in the workplace, gangs, even schoolyard bullies.

As I wrote I relived my cult experience and despite the painful nature of so doing, I am convinced that this was a critical part of my recovery: that I went back over all that ground where I had so little control and analyzed the moment to moment loss of power, and, equally, the moment to moment slow regaining of it as I began to think again, to break the isolation, to regain my self. My writing began to shape itself into a book, and completing each of its three drafts became both a structure and a core of meaning during those chaotic years of rebuilding.

I became active in the cult awareness movement. I helped others who were leaving cults. I shared my story and listened to theirs. I gave talks. I talked to anyone who would listen, ad nauseum sometimes. But it helped so much: to take this terrible experience and now use it to prevent, even just one other person, from going through anything similar. I did, however, take on some new perspectives. I gave up the idea that I could, or should, change the world. I took on, instead, the proverb: Each one teach one. That seemed manageable. When possible I chose to do only those things I wanted to do, and when I felt afraid or claustrophobic in groups I got up and left. I no longer fulfilled every commitment I made. I became almost cavalier. Cartoons about cults made me laugh. But I also cried when I watched Waco burn or read about the cult tragedies that sell newspapers and make people say, "That could never happen to me!"

Now I'm done with my book. It's not published yet*, but there's a line of people waiting to read it. I feel satisfied that I've turned those bitter years into something valuable. That is my recovery and my payback. I'm involved in political work for the first time in the seven years since I've been out. But now my politics are of an almost shapelessly broad kind. I'm working on building a community based alternative newspaper. Yes, I'm working in a group, and I sometimes refer to we, as in: "We don't know if it'll actually get off the ground yet, but our process has been fun, democratic and moderately competent. We don't think we have all the answers; we aim to be inclusive and complicated, not easily reduced to clich�s. Our discussions are open-ended and we don't particularly want to close off debate." This I can deal with.

Recovery takes time. Life comes back. You get to see how things feel to you (at least in those few moments when the practical crises of rebuilding life aren't too all-consuming) and you get to make personal decisions. My children now have two loving homes and parents who are free of the cult. Life has become complicated again, and reappearing beyond the black and white poles of absolutism is a gloriously messy paintbox of color.

*2002 published by Northstar Press, St. Cloud, MN: Inside Out: A Memoir of Entering and Breaking Out of a Minneapolis Political Cult (to be available through the AFF bookstore,




+ AFF News, 01.02: Giambalvo, Carol: "Post-Cult Problems: An Exit Counselor's Perspective"
+ AFF News, 02.01: Martin, Paul, Ph.D.: "Pitfalls To Recovery"
+ AFF News, 02.02: Ford, Wendy: "The Role of the Family"
+ AFF News, 02.05: Lifton, Robert J., M.D.: "Cult Formation"
+ AFF News, 02.06: Rosedale, Herb: "Annual Report From the President"
+ AFF News, 03.01: Lalich, Janja Ph.D.: "Crazy" Therapies: What are They? Do They Work? - The Therapeutic Relationship
+ AFF News, 03.03: Lalich, Janja Ph.D.: "We Own Her Now"
+ AFF News, 03.05: Rosedale, Herb: "Conference Report"
+ AFF News, 03.06: Rosedale, Herb: "Annual Report: Letter From the President"
+ AFF News, 04.02: Stein, Alexandra: "Recovering From a Political Cult"
+ AFF News, 04.03: Henry, Roseanne: "Why We Need To Become Spiritual Consumers"
Andron, Sandy, Ed.D.: "Problem Solving An Approach for the Cult-Impacted Family"
Lalich, Janja, Ph.D.: "Individual Differences Affecting Recovery"
√ Products - periodicals: AFF News

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