Cults in Our Midst Describes “School”

I keep telling myself, I’m going to focus on other things, but for better or worse, I have become fascinated with cults. I started reading this book on a recommendation and quickly went from reading to devouring when I found that Chapter 3, The Process of Brainwashing, Psychological Coercion and Thought Reform, illustrated my “school” experience to a T.

If some are still wondering whether “school” is really a cult, or just a misguided philosophy group, authors Margaret Thaler Singer and Janja Lalich will quickly and succinctly puts your wondering to rest. As disturbing as it is, I feel empowered by knowing the truth: “school” tactics are not the rituals of a wannabe esoteric mystery school, as claimed, but widely-used cult tools and tricks as modeled by Scientology, The Moonies and Jehovah’s Witnesses (to name a few of the more highly visible cults).

According to Singer and Lalich, successful thought reform “keeps the subjects unaware that they are being manipulated and controlled  … and unaware that they are being moved along a path of change that will lead them to serve interests that are to their disadvantage.”

Sound familiar?

They outline a “continuum of influence and persuasion” ranging from legitimate education (i.e. real schools) to thought reform. Let’s look at the thought reform bullets and see if anything else sounds familiar:

Point 1) Structure of Influence and Persuasion: takes authoritarian & hierarchical stance; no full awareness on part of the learner:

Who among us “students” didn’t feel intimidated by “teachers” — Robert in particular? Who didn’t lose his/her ability to challenge and question the “teachings” and “demands”? Who among us didn’t feel beholden to “school instructions” even if we didn’t understand the intention behind them; even if all the cells in our bodies were screaming NO? “Teachers” lorded over the classroom as more highly-evolved beings, who had been “doing the work longer”. We told ourselves, if we do “the work” we will someday understand what they understand. “Teachers” reinforced our perceptions telling us to “maintain a healthy skepticism with a nickel’s worth of trust.” “Teachers” also brushed skepticism aside and failed to reveal the interest rate on that nickel.

Point 2) Type of relationship: Group attempts to retain people forever:

This point really got to me; when my recruiter, Lisa, asked me if I’d like to meet other people who ponder life’s bigger questions, I distinctly remember her painting a casual picture: a bi-weekly discussion group that people wandered in and out of; a group of friends who gather informally to discuss ideas and tools for living. I’d grown to trust Lisa. What could it hurt to meet some like-minded folks, I asked myself? Over time I learned what it could hurt. “School” built up its demands a little at a time: rigid requirements for stellar bi-weekly attendance, Christmas-party planning participation, the ridiculous requirement that we schedule our personal vacations around “school’s vacations” (I must admit, most people never took this seriously) and eventually the required recruitment. Lisa had lied. I felt angry at her and I remember thinking bitterly, “I didn’t sign up for this.” But I also shoved that anger aside, justifying her manipulation, “I would never have joined ‘school’ had I known the extent of its demands. Then I would have missed out on all of its ‘help’ and my life would still be a frustrating circle of confusion and disappointment.”

One night Robert mentioned playing basketball with one of my fellow students ten years prior. “Holy shit,” my inner rebels said, briefly waking up. “A decade??? [INSERT NAME] has been attending ‘classes’ for ten years?” I should have stayed with the horror I was feeling, but I shoved that voice aside. On a separate occasion I did once say , “We’re not all going to be here forever.” Robert’s expression darkened, his displeasure apparent. I had stepped in a minefield in my audacity to question lifelong “school” tenures. He responded that some have left “school” with his “blessing”. I never saw evidence that “school” honors or blesses an individual’s choice to leave, but even if this were true, his response indicated that they had to ask for his permission. There’s no point at which someone could stand up and say, “I’ve decided to do some other things with my time” without questioning, pressure and push-back from the group. Once one is *in*, “school” offers no sanctioned *exit*. Eventually, anyone who leaves becomes a “disgruntled ex-student”, or an enemy. Persona non grata.

Point 3) Deceptiveness: is deceptive

See points 1 and 2; suffice to say that “school” provides endless examples of deceptions custom-made to retain “students”. Those readers who were *in* “school” can compile the lies told to bait them, reel them in and keep them hooked. I’m confident that their experiences will closely echo mine.  I will simply add this phrase — well worn in the hallowed halls: clever insincerity.

Point 4) Breadth of Learning: Individualized target; hidden agenda (you will be changed one step at a time to become deployable to serve leaders)

Almost every emancipated ex-“student” I’ve spoken with since leaving the ranks likens their “school” experience to this commonly told cautionary tale: a frog is placed in a pot of cool water.  A burner is turned on beneath the pot. The water heats slowly, imperceptively. When the water boils, it’s too late. The longer your tenure the more susceptible you become and more easily deployed to “serve school”, i.e. recruit more students who will pay tuition and eventually be deployed to recruit more students when deemed ready by the authorities. Eventually, “school’s” demands will super cede all of their “only life things”: marriages, children, jobs, family, personal finances, interests and passions, friends, emotional and physical health all secondary.

Point 5) Methods:
Improper and unethical techniques:

Again, see “clever Insincerity”. I realized while still in “school” that “clever insincerity” isn’t simply a “teaching”, it is policy. “School” lies and omits information conveniently; it then instructs its plebs to do the same. I justified this practice believing that, even though “clever insincerity” felt wrong, I didn’t understand the process of “evolution”. “School” lulled me into seeing it as a benign and necessary practice to “protect” the secret “esoteric” ideas. It shored up the illusion of “school” as “invisible”, as though friend and family didn’t take note of our bi-weekly disappearing acts and changing personalities. “Clever insincerity” claimed these secret esoteric ideas came from an “oral tradition”, neglecting to mentioning the source, Russian philosopher, G. Gurdjieff and his myriad of published books, easily accessible on Amazon.com. “Clever Insincerity” inferred that, without “school”, these sacred ideas would disappear forever.

Initially after leaving, I still justified “school’s” unethical techniques, believing them necessary for “school’s” survival; still believing that each “student” made a personal choice about staying or going. But let’s name “clever insincerity” rightly: lies, deception, coercion and manipulation.

If the decision you make is based on lies, it is not a personal choice. It isn’t possible to make an informed choice about continuing your study in an esoteric school when, in truth, the “school” is a mind-control cult with a hidden agenda.

“School’s” “Help”: The Unholy Trinity

Recently, I was conversing with fellow exiles and the topic turned to “school’s” “help”. One of my co-horts described it as The Unholy Trinity and I had to share.

"school & help"

The Unholy Trinity

“School” claims that its “help” is informed from “above”, i.e. “teachers” who have been “doing the work longer” and are therefore existing on a higher plane. Other options for help, such as therapy for example, come from the “level of life” – or those who aren’t in “school” and are still asleep. Therefore, “school” holds the patent on real “help”.

The Unholy Trinity works on the three-step model of receiving help, expressing gratitude and owing “school”. Let’s take a look at how this works, shall we?

Step 1) Receive “Help”
Let’s say I need more money. I state a “five-week aim” to get a job. With “sustainer” guidance, I crank out resumes, applications, cold calls and in-person visits to offices where I hand out resumes to people I’ve never met, fueled by the “school principle” of as long as you are working any job will do. Some times I run out of steam and ask for “help” in “class” and “teachers” suggest alternative approaches. By the end of the five weeks I have a job. After two years I hate the job, so I’m fucking it up and in addition, it never payed enough to cover my expenses to begin with, so I’m always stressed financially. I rinse and repeat the same employment-seeking formula and eventually, with “help”, I get a job that pays me more than I’ve ever earned. Suddenly I am financially independent. I still wind up hating this job — but more importantly — I’m making a lot more money.

Step 2) Express Gratitude:
I acknowledge in “class” that I couldn’t have found these jobs without “the work” and steady guidance from my “sustainer” and “teachers.” This job with its middle-class salary becomes the measure of my worth as an adult. I’ve become a “woman who can pay for her own arising”. I realize that I am more capable than I believe I am. I thank “school” for introducing me to “the work” and for the “help”. I look forward to having more money and being able to put my attention on other passions, most notably, music.

Step 3) Owe With Interest:

Over time, I realize that — like a credit card — “school’s” “help” comes with an undisclosed ever-expanding interest rate and hidden fees. At first “help” is part of the free introductory five-week experiment. Then “school” wraps it into the monthly “tuition”. At a certain point “school” directs its “students” into the “third line of work”, or new student recruitment. Those who wish to evolve, can’t do so without “giving back to school”, because evolution requires “3 lines of work”, work on yourself, helping others and working for “school”. Most “students” hate recruitment. But “school” will remind them that any good thing in their lives is due to the highly evolved “help” only available from “school”.

The longer you are in “school”, the more the exponentially-expanding “school” demands devour your time. My “only life things” and passions and pursuits were increasingly relegated into corners and spaces not being devoured by “school”. These corners and spaces shrunk in concert with my growing tenure.

Something else began to happen; an emptiness began to fill my heart as my psyche became more fragmented over time. This phenomenon is difficult to describe; I can only say the more demands “school” put on me — top secret orders that I could not reveal to friends or family — the more carved up and pulled apart my psychology felt. My desire to play music and write songs haunted me, but my ability to focus was more and more compromised, as was my ability to connect to my voice and express it in the written word. For the first time since I could pen words on paper, I found myself almost unable to write.

At the same time, and what made this process confusing,  “school” offered “help” that helped. When my father became very ill and passed away, a “teacher” called me daily, offering support and prayers and helping me navigate my grief, as well as the family dysfunction that percolated up as we  faced his death. I imagine that every student has a similar story of extraordinary and real help given by a “teacher”, or “sustainer”.

Other help, though, didn’t feel the same.  We stood in class and revealed our innermost wishes, our deepest scars and our most powerful fears.  Like an abusive relationship, “school” initially offered understanding and validation, but slowly, insidiously its “help” mutated into something humiliating, painful, and confusing with a focus on “your chief weakness”.  The seeds of doubt about who you think you are took root and started growing.

We justified that the “teachers” must know something we don’t: after all s/he has been doing “the work” longer/is more evolved/is a “teacher”, etc. Teachers regularly emphasized that this special and “real” teaching ” says  I don’t know myself; I am a “multiplicity” — I don’t have control over my thoughts, my feelings, or my actions. I am a woman who “cannot do”. I need “help” to become the evolved woman I wish to be.

The more faith we lost in ourselves, the more we needed guidance from “above”. The more guidance we needed, the more we owed. This bottomless debt structure is how “school” coerces some “students” into a life-long tenure, til death do they part.

Looking back on my cult experience, I’m amazed by the diabolical brilliance of “school’s” indoctrination. While *in* the cult, I was acutely aware of the brilliance, but most of the time I was unable to see the sinister coercion and when I did, I didn’t trust my perceptions; everything appeared to be so divinely orchestrated that when I received “help” that felt deliberately humiliating (for example being called out as a “princess” for deciding to quit a coffee shop job that I sucked at and only paid $9/hour) or witnessed another “student” receiving a verbal whipping, I dismissed the myriad of emotions and screaming inner voices that said, step away from the cult, ma’am. “I must not understand something that my more highly-evolved ‘teachers’ do,” I remember thinking. I now know that these “teachers” are simply holding true to The Unholy Trinity, playing out their roles in the three-step process of receive help, express gratitude and owe “school” with interest. You owe, you owe, so off to “school” you go.

Steven Hassan – Cult Mind Control Exit-Counseling and the SIA

In my last post, I mentioned Steven Hassan’s book, Freedom of Mind and his Strategic Interaction Approach to transitioning people out of cults. A couple of our California-based friends, whose experiences are rooted in the Alex Horn “school”-days of yore, pointed out this video recently. In it Hassan talks about this approach. What struck me is that he uses those very things that cults take away — respectful, transparent and open communication between the cult attendee and friends, family members and anyone else who participates.

This video does take commitment; about 1 hour and 23 minutes. It’s not a sound bite. However, my time was very well spent.