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 “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.

10 thoughts on “Cults in Our Midst Describes “School”

  1. Queen Lear says:

    What has struck me in the now nearly two years since leaving ‘school’ is its demand for secrecy. It is, in fact, more secretive than Scientology, the Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Moonies. All three of those organizations actually have Web sites. But ‘school’ is so terrified of discovery that eschews any contemporary method of proselytizing. That may be its undoing, Ideas that are so zealously protected, so hidden from the world can have little staying power.

  2. Hi Queen Lear, You know, I’ve never drawn that comparison. Yea, that’s really true. And it’s the first thing “school” tells its recruits: “it’s very important that you don’t tell anyone about this.” Didn’t we all hear that from our recruiters. It’s almost laughable now ( the arrogance of it) if it wasn’t so demented. The secrecy is its sickest aspect. It becomes a social virus that spreads from its “teachers” to it’s “students” and out into the world via affected families and friends.

    I have to say that one of the most healing things about creating this Blog was letting go of the big secret. When I let it go, I felt the weight of it roll off my shoulder. I felt free – truly free. Now I tell whoever I want. The more people who know about its secret “presentations” and secret grocery store conversations and secret Billerica lair etc. etc. etc … the better as far as I’m concerned.

  3. There and Back Again says:

    Your experience with Lisa squares closely with mine. In fact, if you ignore the fact that the locations of the meetings were different, the parallels are amazingly exact; she has evidently honed her recruitment process down to a perfect algorithm.

    Unlike many escapees, I was there only for a short time, and escaped without adversely affecting my personal and professional relationships. One thing that refuses to leave me, however, is irritation and anger at being duped, not out of money, but out of time and out of trust. The experience made me more discerning (more suspicious?) than I had been, knowing that people do not always have your best interests at heart – even though, at this point, it would be fair to say that Lisa, Robert, Carol and others are so helplessly invested in “school” that their minds are closed to objective, external reality.

    I tell myself that it is just a once-bitten-twice-shy thing, though if I’m honest with myself, I haven’t quite forgiven them yet. When all is said and done, however, the best recovery is to live well, and it makes me happy to see that escapees from the exodus of Jan 2012 have done very well 🙂 .

    • Hi There and Back Again –
      Thanks for your comments. I hope that what you’ve developed is a healthy skepticism — a well-honed radar for con jobs, and an ability to trust your gut instincts. It is too bad that such skepticism is necessary, but the more I read about cults in general, the more important I think it is to remember there are many hucksters out and about that — much like “school” — would be more than happy to usurp your time, your energy and your money.

      That said, I do see people like Lisa, Carol and yes, even Robert, as true believers, who somehow still see themselves as “working on themselves” and saving the world through their “efforts”. After so many years and so many efforts, I supposed you would have to believe. My limited experiences with Sharon tell me otherwise — she’s the queen and everyone else exists to prop her up. I didn’t get any sense from her of spirituality, or belief in anything. Everything about her made my skin crawl, even in the midst of my “school”-induced stupor. I don’t believe you were in “school” long enough to have the pleasure and I get the feeling that the Boston branch may have woken up enough to realize that Sharon’s visits were detrimental to the cause.

      Finally, I am glad that you’ve pointed out that the 2012 escapees are doing quite well, as far as I know. It’s so important to say that, so that those who are still “in” and questioning and possibly “breaking school rules” by reading this blog can see that the inference that people “regret leaving” is just another lie, told to keep the workforce intact and monthly “tuition” rolling in.

    • Cassandra says:

      There and Back Again,
      In my book, forgiving evil is unnecessary, but whatever turns you on. Also, I have a high level of drawing a line between who is evil and who is victim – to me, most of the people involved in the group are victims of S. A few of her top minions have committed so many really heinous acts over the years that they cannot be that blind and must accept responsibility, but most people, even teachers, are victims, even if I don’t personally like them.

      I noted in your post that your comment on Lisa’s recruiting seemed to reveal that you did not realize that Lisa was indeed honing a carefully crafted script. Perhaps you do know that and were just commenting that Lisa had gotten more ‘oscar-worthy’.

      But it does bear repeating, in case anyone is looking out there, that the recruitment process is carefully overseen, and has been developed over the years to screen you as a recruit, and also to entice people, particularly when they are most vulnerable in their lives.

      I have heard earlier versions of the recruitment process, where people were gathered (often in the Village in NY) and brought into a bar where they would encounter a bunch of other “potential boots”. They would meet an interesting someone, who would lay out suger plums and promises for the answer to the meaning of life and solutions to their problems as almost a side effect, and all they had to do was show they were serious by coming up with $200-$300 right there and then they would be brought to a meeting. This was in the eighties, and I’m sure people were recruited in other ways – people brought casually met friends, sometimes fiancees, but this was they way to get bulk customers. But this method allowed for almost no screening of potential students, so people who had no regular income were admitted, as well as people with connections to the press, to the military, and to other dangerous groups like the police and firefighters. People who had difficulties with mental illness or who were gay were generally discouraged, unless they were thought to have large amounts of money.
      By the late eighties the method had changed. People were recruited by one or two people and taken through a “five meeting” process. When I was later introduced to this process I was easily able to link it to my own recruitment. (I was recruited by someone I had known for years and those ‘meetings’ always felt strange, there was always an agenda I could feel waiting to emerge.) My meetings were less formal than what I was instructed to perform later – I only briefly met someone from school before I was taken to a class – so briefly that I have forgotten all about it. It may not even have happened except for a shadow memory of ‘Bob’, my friend from college, being with another friend as I showed up, but that person left soon after.

      Here is the formulation as I was given it:
      Meeting number 1 – You ‘meet’ them
      Meeting 2 – They meet you
      Meeting 3 – They meet the Work – Through You
      Meeting 4 – They ‘invite’ themselves to school
      Meeting 5 – a teacher meets and invites them.
      It was later explained that each meeting was not necessariliy only one literal meeting – a second meeting could be several times together. Basically they wanted you to be so wonderful, to have your stuff together so well, so confident and yet slightly mysterious in a non-threatening way, bascially to intrigue and charm someone who needed to find themselves or needed something after a big change or shift in life. We were told that someone who was getting divorced, had recent loss,any circumstance to make them feel vulnerable or ready for change (not necessarily negative – in my own case I felt poised for a new great time in my life, which school seemed to confirm for a few years – yes! this was what I was waiting for!). But vulnerable. Then get in there and seduce, smile, and grab. The money thing makes people too hard to get in here? OK, they don’t have to pay for their “experiment” four weeks free! Then pay for years!

      During the five meetings we of course asked many many many questions, filling in pour check list – how much money they made, if their job or life intersected with any military etc groups, siblings? family? Exs? Before they ever walked in the door S and R had to know all about this person financially, psychologically, and personally – what pitfalls they might present, and what opportunities. Poor now? That’s OK – we know your mom is loaded and sick. Your ex-husband moved to Alaska and works as a reporter for the Bee, in the gardening section? Well, OK,, you can join, but we are going to watch you like a hawk, make sure you talk to that ex as little as possible. Think you might be Gay(this was the 80’s after all) Well, you aren’t. No, really. There is no such thing, it’s just people who are too passive to deal with their own sex, so get out there MIster (or Miss) and GET MARRIED NOW. Or don”t come, because in this world of school, there is no gay. What, you’re new and you wonder why everyone is smoking cigarettes and you are uncomfortable? but Gurdjieff and Sharon say tobacco isn’t bad for you, and Sharon wants to smoke so everyone can smoke so you should go. Oh, too many people leave because of the smoke? Smokers, outside. Why are there no Black people here? Oh well, they have another way. No asians? Well, there’s one over there, We also have a Latino and someone who is half polynesian. Yup, we are so diversified, but there are some people, races, really, and it just isn’t their Way. That’s why you are special, because you can come here – and it’s so exclusive, just for the right kind of people, people who can Hear. And are White. And have money enough to pay out an extra say $500 – $1000 a month. and have say about 20- 30 hours a week to work for us for free. We like you. You can come here and maybe we’ll let you sit at our table in the cafeteria.

      • Hi Cassandra,

        “Yup, we are so diversified, but there are some people, races, really, and it just isn’t their Way. That’s why you are special, because you can come here – and it’s so exclusive, just for the right kind of people, people who can Hear. And are White. And have money enough to pay out an extra say $500 – $1000 a month. and have say about 20- 30 hours a week to work for us for free. We like you. You can come here and maybe we’ll let you sit at our table in the cafeteria.”

        I just need to say again, you are hilarious! And incisive. I recall a fleeting moment in which some teacher, maybe it was Robert, made mention of trying to diversify the ranks. That lasted about 3 seconds and I never heard about it again. Of course Boston tends to be rather segregated — interesting considering it’s liberal/academic-ness (that’s another study for another day) — so recruiting black people would require visiting neighborhoods we weren’t accustomed to visiting and maybe not so affluent, so there went the attempt to bring some African Americans into the ranks. But that brief nod to integration somehow stayed in my memory, so I must have thought it noteworthy, or proof of some kind of enlightenment. We spent enough time talking about Martin Luther King and admiring his work and life for me to believe that “school” would welcome “black folks” into its hallowed halls; but I think I saw one black “student” pop in for a class and never return.

        As for forgiveness — well that’s a topic worthy of a book. At some point I will definitely write about forgiveness. At the moment, though, I am rather enjoying my snarky and sarcastic angry “I” who loves to point out the hypocrisy and ridiculousness of “school”. Someday, I swear, it will make a very entertaining and hilarious musical theater production, or maybe a sit-com … a sit-com about cult life has quite a bit of potential.

  4. Cassandra says:

    Queen Lear’s comparison is very interesting. I think the difference lies in the fact that the groups that she mentions are also promoting their own dogma. Scientology has Hubbard, and no one else is using Hubbard as a ‘religion’. the Jehovah’s Witnesses use their own interpretation of the bible, which has no copyright and there are SO MANY interpretations and religions thereof that legitimacy is not a question in that the voice of the pure is lost in the crowd. The Moonies had (until recently) a living leader who thrived on publicity and Business! (Their holdings may surprise you – do you eat Entenmann’s, Haagen Daas, or ever read the Washington Times?). But S’s group has purloined a philosophy that none of them can claim to have studied with anyone who has credentials from the originators of the G-I System (Personally I don’t think much of the System as a system. It’s a bunch of ideas cobbled together from other philosophies, sciences and religions which simply doesn’t hold up under logical scrutiny. It supports neither science nor faith and all of its founders repudiated it before dying) However, anyone is free to believe what helps them.

    There is a real Gurdieff Foundation founded by people who studied the ideas with the students of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. Books written by these people about classes and conversations had with them by people who were with S and R reveal that all of the artifices of 5 week aims, observations, rules, no talking, no fraternization, recruitment, etc, etc, etc were in no way ever any part of the structure of G and O’s work (I just hate typing the names because they are so hard to spell). So the real ‘heirs’ repudiate you, what do you do? You hide in the shadows and say it’s because school is secret. You say everyone is waiting to ‘kill’ school and ‘attack’ these ideas. You take any criticism of you or your methods and turn it to tell your students that “these people are hasnamuss – we don’t discuss that’ (because we have no idea what it means). “They are evil, here to destroy school” “They are part of the process of crime” “They are the negative magnetic matrix which school attracts and which is created because school exists” “they are angry, violent,, lost, misguided, misled – they are being influenced by other evil people who left. They have been overcome by life. They have lost their souls.”
    Cults in Our MIdst was one of the most helpful and valuable books I read when I left, both for my understanding of my own victimhood, and of their means and aims. Ave Margaret Singer! She is the most important researcher in Cultic Studies today and filled with compassion and good sense.

    • Hi Cassandra,

      Thanks for your comment! Amen to Margaret Singer. I’ll write a more lengthy reply later, but wanted to ask you if you know where the “Three-Story House” came from — I don’t think it was a G idea … and it was used to justify an awful lot of manipulation.

  5. Cassandra says:

    Dear GSR,

    No, I don’t know where that came from, and I don’t recall coming across it in my studies of the early work, although those readings are now quite a few years ago and if the idea was presented, I probably paid no attention.

    If you ask me it sounds like a metaphor someone made up and then passed off as part of the “oral teaching”, which was so easy to do. I think that because I think it’s a poor metaphor, or rather, it’s an OK metaphor, but glib and shallow and falls apart as an esoteric idea as soon as you honestly examine it.

    For example, your “work and money” is the first story – why? why isn’t it the foundation? Why is work the foundation for a life? Why in heaven’s name is MONEY a first primacy? shouldn’t one’s soul be more foundational?

    Your “Sex and family” is your second story. Again, why? What is the meaning of a second story? In places in the world, second stories are lofts or attics. few houses have multiple stories except in cities, making this metaphor one solely for the intelligentsia like O.

    Again, what does it mean to have a second story? In this country, they often have bedrooms. Is that why we accept it as “sex and family”? But what other symbolic meaning does it bring? None, except the fallacy of the metaphor, which is that it is really about primacy – all the dumb thing means is that they want you to believe that you have to work on getting ‘strong’ in your “work and money” FIRST (so you can pay them and have a decent job so they don’t worry about getting paid), then you can ‘work’ on having and supporting a home (after school is taken care of, and maybe school will help you with that, keep all of that hard-established work and money in the family ha ha ha ha ha ), and THEN, well, THEN we might start talking to you as a grown up ready for spiritual stuff, but as long as you have problems in your life, forget about it.

    Again – a bad metaphor – the “third” story – well, it’s the highest one physically, so it must correspond to the highest one spiritually and psychologically.

    So I think S or more likely her deceased ‘writer’ husband came up with this really poor metaphor, which MORPHED into an idea. particularly as it resembled three centers and helped everyone keep track of what was important to S – first things first!

  6. Hi C –
    “Again – a bad metaphor – the “third” story – well, it’s the highest one physically, so it must correspond to the highest one spiritually and psychologically.”

    What I recall about the 3rd story, is this: when we “rightly-order” our lives, our “efforts” towards that which is spiritual should come first — i.e. “school” as God, should supersede work and money, sex and family. With our “AIM as our GOD” — i.e. “school” — the rest of the puzzle pieces should fall into place. Of course, if we weren’t “working hard enough”, if our “valuation for ‘school'” wasn’t sufficient other things would suffer, too.

    I still haven’t found the right word to describe how cults turn everything inside out — but I think the picture paints an irony, an ideology custom-made to fuck up every part of a participants “only life”. You can never “try hard enough”. The harder you try, the more neglect un-schooled relationships, passions, jobs. The more neglected, the more those things fall apart, the more you feel at fault for not “working hard enough” and you try to “work harder”. This vicious cycle continues until you either leave, or your reference for life becomes “school” and you are a devoted “school” slave until you are too old to do the necessary “work.”

    It’s kind of a diabolical genius. I’ll take my lowly “only life” thanks!

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