Beyond Black and White: Recovering From a Political Cult
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
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) - no 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 by 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 group 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 on 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 board
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
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 paint box of color.
This article was first published in AFF News, Vol. 4, No. 2, 1998.