Once upon a time society forced left-handed children to use their right hands. Yep, left-handedness was considered a sign of evil. Sounds ridiculous, yes? Yet we know well that fear & rejection of those who are — God forbid — different. This drama plays out over and over and over and over, ad nauseam and beyond.
The usual suspects are the most blatant: racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, misogyny, and anti-semitism. I also see a range of grey; subtle versions of this flawed hard wiring. The more subtle rejections play out in daily interactions and an accompanying range of psychological suffering. The message: as you are, you are wrong.
In childhood an insidious version of rejection flattened my self-confidence. Thus as an adult, I was vulnerable to predatory groups with radar for such insecurity. Self-assured humans are not as malleable. People who generally have confidence, don’t seek external guidance to the extent that I did. Cults need struggling souls that they can shape into cogs to bolster profit-generating cult wheel.
I call that process Cultic Identity Theft.
About The Set Up
In August, 2011, I departed “school”. A week later, on a road trip to South Carolina, I stared out the car window reviewing my illustrious tenure. This was the first step in my recovery.
The more pavement between myself and “school”, the more perspective I gained. My mind pulled back like a camera lens, the aperture widening. My five-year tenure rolled out like a movie: my recruitment, indoctrination and acceptance of “school” doctrine.
Each passing mile inspired the thought “What the fuck have I been doing?”
I have spent the last five years attempting to answer that question. The cult hooked me at a point when a triad of lifelong insecurities collided: Mid-career change, my hopes for the new occupation to dissolve lifelong insecurities around work and money started dwindling; each opportunity seemed emptier than the last. My boyfriend, at the time, flipped out, the relationship shredded. The political climate –i.e. Bush years, Iraq War, tunnel-vision-ed and pummeling patriotism, empty talking heads blathering about “morals”– gave creed to that message: as you are, you are wrong.
Raw and fragile, I clearly remember wishing I had mentors, people who believed in me and could help guide my choices. I clearly remember feeling embarrassed that, at 41, I still longed for such guidance. I have always tended towards introverted, sensitive, right-brained, creative and artistic. I was an empathic kid — soaking up emotions like a sponge from any and all. I have always needed to withdraw from groups, recharge with a sketchpad, or guitar, or journal, or book. These tendencies have always been with me.
These tendencies — the need for solitude, reflection, the capacity for empathy and compassion — seemed to freak people out when I was young. Rather then affirmed, or supported, well-intended, and not-so-well-intended, said I was “too sensitive”. I “thought too much“. My creativity was a nice hobby, but not something to take seriously. In order to “make it in this world”, I needed to change: as I was, I was wrong.
The problem: try as I may, I couldn’t change. At 41, I had the exact same temperment and associated troubles. How was I going to make it in this world, as I was? This constant quandary, and its close cousin, failure, plagued me long into adulthood. “School’s” lost-soul radar honed in right when I was giving up: other people found fulfilling jobs, creative careers, money, spouses, homes. Not me. It was the perfect time to encounter a “new friend!” with a “casual discussion group” to offer. “We talk about ideas, tools for living. People come and go. We laugh a lot,” she said.
“Meant to be!”, I thought.
I was easy prey for Cultic Identity Theft.
Six-Step Cultic Identity Theft Implementation
- bait with offer of community, and promise of access to “secret knowledge”
“School” Baited me with a “free 5-week experiment!”. A “second education”! “School” scoffs at our “only-life” “first education”. Its first lesson: “Self Remembering!”, conveniently ambiguous. “Teachers” told members, “verify this idea for yourself through your own experiences!” Tasks such as “recording & reporting on self observations“ (i.e establishing confessions) and “setting and reporting on 5-Week AIMs!” followed.
2. encourage confession by offering “help” and “compassion”
“School” Encouragement: AIMS! and “self observations” whisper of blossoming potential. “School” “supports” its “students” and their elusive (nearly-impossible-to- attain) inner development. It provides “help!”. It teaches ideas! When “AIMs” hit an “interval”, or self-observations became difficult, we learned to ask for “help”.
3. cultivate (sorry, unintentional pun) strict hierarchy through deceptive presentation: the “more evolved” “HELP!” and “teach” the “less evolved”.
“School” hierarchy cultivation: those who “have been doing the work longer” (“older students”, “sustainers”, and “teachers”) have “refined their vibrations”. They float above coarser humanity and see all from above (cough). They are uniquely qualified (cough) to provide “HELP!” “School” rolls out a system of ideas — mysteriously-never-mentioning the source, arcane Russian philosopher, G.I. Gurdjieff:
- “humans are not unified beings, but multiplicities; we do not have one ‘I’, but many ‘Is'”
- “humans are unaware of their multiplicity”
- “humans are all asleep; we come to a ‘school’ to awaken!” to “remember ourselves!”
- “people lie, all the time; we don’t know that we are lying, because we are asleep to multiplicity”
- “sentences that begin with the word ‘I’, are all lies, because we are not unified beings.” (Wrap your brain around that one.)
Note how all ideas deconstruct fundamental belief and thought process. With such tools, a skilled practitioner can empty a willing participant of basic identity.
4. spotlight insecurities and take credit for strengths over time
“School” Weakness Amplification & Credit-Taking: Only those who “have been doing the work longer” can provide real “HELP!” They know “work ideas!” They “know you better than you know yourself.” Students who “ask for the most help” and “followed instruction” expedite evolution.
5. switch as higher ups hammer down on proletariat with reminders of weaknesses and failures
School Switch: the longer your tenure, the more license “more evolved” have to spotlight “weaknesses” in the name of “HELP!” As “older” cogs deconstruct, and empty, “younger” cogs, all cogs become more malleable, feeling increasingly insecure of their thoughts, emotions and perceptions, as well as positions within the cult. For some “essence friends” weaknesses morph into identity. Other essence friends are groomed and positioned to ascend the cult ladder. For the losers, once you are your weaknesses, you will always and forever need “help!”
(Oops, during recruitment, your “new friend”, neglected to mention that the “casual discussion group” expects lifelong membership. Kinda like the Hotel California … you can never leave! Well, you can; but expect to be demonized.)
6. “teach/preach” a prescriptive, soul-manufacturing process as the “only way” to “evolve”
“School’s” primary soul manufacturing requirement: the longer your tenure, the more you surrender. Personal attachments inconvenience and impede evolution! We climb the ladder to “enlightenment” (cough, profit-generation for Sharon) together! Those who abandon the struggle, endanger all (of Sharon’s retirement fund)! It will be difficult! (a.k.a. “necessary suffering”), but you are lucky! Your “magnetic center” drew you to a “school” (cough).
“School” indoctrinates insidiously, slowly. It “celebrates” Only-Life successes and offers “HELP!” for Only-Life difficulties. Never fear, over time the cult will credit itself for all-things-good and pin all misfortune on your “lack of effort”, “lack of valuation”, “coarse vibrations”, “not trying hard enough”. The cult couldn’t possibly be the problem! You need to work harder! You must surrender more!
Sleep deprived, isolated and increasingly unsure of thoughts, emotions and perceptions, each day more impressionable, malleable and easily shaped into cult cogness. Healthy self-protective components, like confidence and self advocacy, empty out. Indebtedness, insecurity, fearfulness and an incrementally increasing isolation due to the “school”-required secrecy replace those components. We cogs owe! We owe! So off to “school” we go, till death do we part, “paying for our arising” through, “THREE LINES OF WORK”:
- Work on the self – self-observations, setting aims, a type of confession called “being work”, completing assignments!
- Work for others – “HELPing!” fellow “essence friends”! I like to call second line the feeding frenzy — eventually the group tears into one poor cog. Everyone gets a turn to tear and be torn. Yippee.
- WORK FOR “SCHOOL”!!! Recruitment, Recruitment and Recruitment. More members = Greater Profits.
RECRUITMENT is the apex of your “school” tenure. Once a cog is willing to let it devour his/her life, s/he has arrived! Grocery stores, jobs, social events, concerts, commutes in trains and buses, coffee shops, bars, etc. etc. etc, blah, blah, blah, all become potential recruitment venues. The “Third-line of Work” nips at evolved heels, 24/7. It devours time, energy, talents, thoughts, emotions, unschooled” relationships for the “higher cause” ($$$$). With authentic self dismissed, the cult identity marches forth, poised to sniff out insecure “new friends” with “magnetic center”, and bank accounts, who are seeking “HELP!”
Sound familiar? Some must recognize various cults within this description. All cults employ the 6 steps. Indoctrination paces and vocabulary ( i.e. loaded language) vary from vulture to vulture; the marketing spin may target different demographics (bible study, yoga class, self help seminar, esoteric mystery “school”, etc.) but the nuts and bolts are the same.
All cults perpetrate Cultic Identity Theft; it is a psychological violence. That is what cults do. (right, Robert?)
The Result: My “Evolution” (cough)
Needless to say, the longer my tenure, the more my functioning dwindled. In 2010, I was fired, (again). A constant –and constantly failing—“school”-fueled job search ensued. Between the Great Recession, and my non-existent self worth, job interviews … not auspicious. (Someday, for a laugh, I’ll share my more memorable job-search moments). Dependence increased, autonomy dwindled. My flattering cult-cog identity solidified: “woman who can’t hold down a job.”
Ah, “school!” you so inspire!
More painful, though, my writing voice disappeared. I started writing as soon as I could put sentences together. My “evolution” into an empty shell, with a dwindling bank account and no voice was nearing completion. Ironically, though, my cult loser tag became my ticket out. Angry inner rebels, did not allow the coma to take full effect. They said, “Fuck this! With such ‘essence friends’, who needs enemies?” My husband, witnessing “evolution”, one day, had enough of it. He confronted me. I departed the ranks. I was lucky.
This August will mark my true five-years cult free milestone; my time out now equals my tenure. Our trip to South Carolina, freed my writing voice. She returned with a healthy vengeance, culminating in a number of related public service projects, including this blog (more on those later). And, btw, ALL of my employment problems vanished with my exit.
The silver lining — I am finally able to embrace and fiercely protect the Gentle Soul inside that felt so rejected along the way. Essential components that shaped my identity and make me who I am today. NEWS FLASH! I am exponentially happier, have a well-honed radar for bullshit and no tolerance for cons, parasites and vultures. Thanks, “school”! Guess you did teach me something. Of course, I had to leave to really understand the lesson.
Cultic Identity Theft touches on a huge problem, though: the societal rejection of innate and unchangeable identity. The human suffering it inflicts ranges from busted confidence, to vulnerability to predatory cults, like “school”, to heinous violence.
We witnessed the worst last weekend, one man gunning down over 100 innocent people — 49 dead, 53 injured. His target — a gay nightclub, celebrating Latin night — attacks on two fronts of identity: sexual orientation and Latin heritage. The perpetrator’s personal grasp on identity appears tenuous, at best. Amidst the carnage, he pledged his allegiance to ISIS. But reportedly he had in the past pledged allegiance to other extremist groups, including Hezbollah, a sworn ISIS enemy. The FBI investigation, thus far, has not produced evidence of said allegiance to ISIS. Lots of evidence, though, pointed to his 10 years of frequenting of gay night clubs and accompanying use of “gay dating apps to make contact with men”.
Was he keeping his identity as a gay Muslim man secret? Was he living a lie? Did he inflict his self-hatred on 100 plus other people? We will never know his true motivation. But this is clear: rejecting identity is a type of psychological violence that culminates into physical violence. The danger it poses large scale plays out again and again and over the last decade appears to be growing. What is ISIS, after all, but one group’s rejection of all things it fears, or deigns as evil. Things it doesn’t want others, to do, or be.
Cultic Identity Theft is simply one insidious facet of a huge and unchecked human flaw.
This topic, honestly, is to vast for a blog post. Perhaps it will become a book. For today, I end on this thought: the world would be a vastly different place, if humans practiced acceptance of ourselves and of others. If we focused primarily on becoming the best versions of ourselves we can become, in the short time that we have on this beautiful, albeit flawed, planet. If we weeded out prejudices, rather than acting them out, I wonder what kind of potential the human race would have.
On that lofty note, thank you, for reading this diatribe!