We’ve all heard of Waco, Polygamist sects and cult-like religions. Some of them have ended in death and or have been exposed for rape and abuse. We all shake our heads and say, “how does that happen?” We wonder how the members of that particular cult are able to buy into the ideologies that make them do these crazy things. Why the mass suicides, why do women let their children be abused?
I’d like to talk about the not so obvious cult like groups, in an attempt to answer those questions. They all use the same tactics; charismatic leaders, buzzwords, indoctrinations, mob mentality, group pressure and exclusivity. It’s the mentality of, “I know best. Follow me and you will be one of the special ones.” But here’s the kicker… you have to BELIEVE it and in order to be trustworthy and stay in the group, you must share this GIFT with the world.
I was born and raised Catholic, baptized with Godparents and the whole shebang. We went to church on Easter and for midnight mass like a lot of good Catholics do. I believed in God but I didn’t know much about the Bible, just that I wanted to follow the rules and be a good person… whatever that meant.
So when I arrived in Ney York City as an 18-year-old freshman at NYU, I had no idea that I would be the prime target of a Christian cult. I knew one person close to my age in New York who happened to be a pretty famous pop-star at the time, so when they introduced me to a nice group of people at an ice-cream shop, I was grateful to have an almost instant group of friends. Shortly after that, one of the girls invited me to Bible Study. I had been too busy with work when I was little, to get my first communion, so I thought what the heck? Better late than never.
Bible Study consisted of reading Bible chapters with a small group of people at the coffee shop in St. Marks. I was fascinated. It was like reading a highly emotional history book. The first time I went to actual church with these new friends, I was a little bit wierded out by all the hand flapping and crying during worship but the performer in me kinda vibed with it. Why not be passionate about God? Soon, I was being invited to little parties and whatnot and I met the elders of the church, who now looking back were probably only in their early 30’s. They took a special liking to me and offered to continue my Bible studies at their house. At the time, I was living in a dorm room that felt more like a dingy jail , so brunch and Bible talk on the upper-west side sounded mighty fine to me.
During one of these Bible studies, the female elder casually dropped that I needed to be baptized. It was my gift, my graduation present for having completed all thirteen Bible studies. I promptly yet politely informed her that I was already baptized Catholic when I was a baby. She held my hand rather sweetly and told me that none of that counted. God only cares when you make the decision for yourself and Catholic Baptisms are more ceremonial than anything. This whole, “making your own decisions” really appealed to me at the time since I had just turned 18 and I was legally allowed to make my own decisions. “Alright. Put me in the tank, “ I said.
Thanksgiving Break was coming up and I hadn’t seen my family in months. The day before school got out, I was informed by the elders that I couldn’t go home at the break. (Wait, what?) I was to be baptized that day and it would be best if I stick around New York with the people of the church. I would be a “baby Christian” and easily influenced by Satan. WHOA. First of all, I already had my ticket booked and second of all, they had nothing to worry about. I was going to see my Aunt and Uncle who were two of the best Catholics I knew! That’s when it all came out…
- Catholics aren’t really Christians
- I was a part of a special church that’s in a passage of the Bible
- There are a finite number of people that are allowed into heaven and this church is the only church that God recognizes as his people
- Because of my notoriety as an actress, God has picked me to witness to the world and be an example
I want to tell you that I ran, that I said “Ya’ll are crazy” or had some great kind of come back. But really, I was disappointed. I felt manipulated and sad, that I was being used so this organization could say that “Robin from General Hospital” went to their church. I lied and told them I would think about it, then left and deleted all of their phone numbers. I escaped to LA the next day and when I came back, members of the church stalked me until I filed a campus police report. It was scary. They would show up outside my classes, call me until I would pick up and leave me notes at my dorm room saying “We are praying away Satan for you and we want you to come back to Jesus and to us.” Eventually they stopped when I wrote them back and said I was going to make a documentary about them. Don’t mess with a budding filmmaker!
A friend of mine recently had an encounter with sort of self-help group that left a bad taste in her mouth. Luckily my friend knew in her gut something was up and was able to get out. She was kind enough to chat with me about it…
Me: What was going on in your life when you decided to seek out this organization?
Friend: I wasn’t surfing as much, so every day felt like ground hog day to me. And a break up happened. But really, I felt like I didn’t have a purpose.
Me: Are you religious?
Friend: No… Spiritual.
Me: Would you describe yourself as a loner?
Friend: I don’t need to have a lot of friends, just a few close friends and I’m good.
Me: What other groups are you a part of?
Friend: Sports, Surfing, Lesbian community
Me: What were you looking for in this series of classes?
Friend: I went into it, knowing I needed to work on me, but when I got to the third level, I didn’t feel like I was aligned with it. I felt manipulated because, I had taken a class like this before and I didn’t like that there was such pressure to “enroll” my friends, so I asked at the beginning if that was going to be a part of the process and I was told no, “We are a selective group.”
Me: Were you aware in the first two levels that you were being indoctrinated?
Friend: No, because they tear you down and then you have a blank slate to work with. I felt it in my heart. It felt like… freedom. It touched me. I became aware of why I am the way I am.
Me: When did it change for you?
Friend: When I got to level three, they told me that in order to be a good leader, I needed to “enroll “my friends. They would call and check in and ask me how many people I had enrolled that week. They would say things like, “life is an enrollment game.” I had already told them in the beginning that I wasn’t interested in that sort of thing. I was even told that if I didn’t “enroll” my friends, that I wasn’t a good leader and that I couldn’t be trusted. Basically, they wanted us to sell their classes for them and I wasn’t comfortable doing that. That’s when I got out.
Me: What happened after that?
Friend: I was bombarded with texts, video messages, and emails, saying, “What’s your breakdown?” “How can I be of support for you?” They wanted to coach me through it. They would use my vulnerability against me. They would say, “That’s your ego fighting against you. It doesn’t want you to grow. You need to stretch.”
Me: That reminds me so much of what I heard from the church, like “you don’t have faith because you’re asking questions”. Or, “you must not be listening to God, because God is telling me something about you that’s completely different.”
Friend: Yup. Same thing.
Me: What was the scariest part?
Friend: Someone I know in the group sent me a group text that I wasn’t on talking about tactics to get me back in the organization. The instructor shared my address and asked someone to go my house and use the “evoking” method.
Me: Yeah, those videos you showed me of those girls saying they were “devastated” over and over again and crying cause you’re leaving….dang, that was like straight out of a movie. So crazy.
Friend: Right? They all drank the Kool-Aid.
My friend did say that she got something good out these classes, which is a shame that it had to turn all corporate and cult-y. At least she listened to her gut when it was said it was time to get out. Thank god I did the same back in the day.
These types of organizations are all around us, and I don’t believe they are all evil or all good for that matter. But I do think we are all equipped that special sense which it only ours that tells us when something isn’t right.
Listen to it.