A recovery from cult membership.

manson1_1458950cOf all the stories of cultic activity, the one that has seared itself most into people’s memories, alongside Waco and Jim Jones, is the saga of the followers of Charles Manson. I do not propose to do more than mention the murders that he and those recruited into his cult committed, as the details are not for now important. I was, however, reminded of this cult which flourished for a short time in the early 1970s, when one of the women who had been convicted with Manson for murder spoke on television about her experiences in prison. After 40 years being locked up, she appeared to be in a reasonably good place. The prison had not brutalised her to all appearances, but it had allowed her to ‘grow up’ in certain important ways. I am sorry that I have not got the you tube reference as it was a quite moving piece of film.

The woman who had committed murder at the behest of Manson with the other women who were totally under his control, seemed to have a very clear understanding of what had happened to make her do these terrible things. She realised that, at the age of 19, she had allowed herself to become a puppet in the hands of the stronger personality of Manson. The language she used was interesting; she spoke about handing over her identity to Manson. In the years that had followed, even though in the context of imprisonment, she had learnt to reclaim the identity that she had given away so many years before. Her words on the video were ones which celebrated her recovery of what had been lost, even though she had not regained her freedom. One felt that the person who was speaking was not a convicted murderess but a highly articulate insightful woman.

The reason I bring up this interview on the blog is so that I can reflect on this idea of an individual handing over their identity to a stronger personality. I have made attempts to study the psychology of adolescence. It seems that it is a common situation for a young adult to lack the courage to claim the identity of adulthood because it is potentially the cause of much anxiety and pain. How much easier to find someone who you admire and live through them. This is a way of not having to bother with the struggle to be your own person. It is a bit like a caterpillar deciding that the struggle to become a butterfly is just too much and so it chooses remain in the chrysalis for ever. They are, in other words, caught between the dependence of childhood and the beauty of adult identity. One of my strong criticisms of Christian work among young people is that the individuals who are caught up in active churches are sometimes being encouraged to remain at the level and functioning of a chrysalis for long periods of time. Being adult, making decisions and having your own identity is all much too difficult. It is much easier to allow someone else to make those decisions just as your parents did when you were a child and this living the dependent life is a feature of Chritian fellowships as well as actual cults.

The former member of Manson’s group spoke of the way that she had handed over the most precious thing she possessed, her identity, to another person for the doubtful privilege of being made to feel that she fully belonged in the murderous dysfunctional group that surrounded Charles Manson. Somehow, over the years, out of the ashes of that terrible choice, a new woman had been born, one who had never been allowed to taste the freedom of a life in society. Her words, nevertheless are a warning to the rest of us, particularly those in churches where the cult of celebrity is practised and taught. Rarely, if ever, do Christian celebrities tell anyone to commit murder, but the same dynamics of surrender are still present in some situations. The admiration that borders on worship of the Christian gurus still stalks the platforms of great gatherings and conferences. It is very much a feature of our contemporary Christian scene. Little good can, it seems, come from this type of admiration and adoration. The more we worship another individual for being what we would like to be, the more our personalities are depleted in the process. A bible quotation comes to mind which I may be misquoting. ‘Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling’. It is certainly impossible to work out anything by following, aping and attaching enormous idealisations on to individuals who have been thrown up by the Christian celebrity culture. I have to confess that it is easier to say this from the perspective of being at the retirement end of life than it might have been in my teens and twenties. Nevertheless it is still worth contemplating the terrible wrongs perpetrated on the followers of Charles Manson who committed murders on his instruction. Ultimately, although their crimes were massively horrific, their motivations to be part of something bigger than themselves are recognizable to anyone who lives within the orbit of a celebrity culture, whether Christian or otherwise.

The fact that at least one of Charles Manson’s addicted followers has been allowed to ‘grow up’ in the unlikely setting of an American prison cell gives us grounds for hope. I end with the thought that many who have learnt the practice of idealising one Christian celebrity after another through exposure to large conferences and Christian broadcasting may in fact never achieve a recovery from this insidious and addictive quest. They are doomed always to remain in the shadowlands of looking at a shallow form of ‘greatness’ from afar and never discovering what they themselves are meant to be and to become. A quotation (not biblical) from a wise person ‘Be yourself so that God can be Himself through you’.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

13 thoughts on “A recovery from cult membership.

  1. The terrible thing that Christian celebrities do is to place themselves where Christ should be. I was taught that the role of the priest should be to open a curtain onto Christ, and themselves stand aside.

    We do all face difficulty in establishing an adult identity – look at the millions who abandon themselves to celebrity culture generally, or to sexual partners etc. We need role models because we can only learn and grow through imitation, which needs to become flexible and creative, not slavish. So God provided us with the ultimately life-giving model in Jesus, whose truth can set us free.

    I too like the work out your own salvation quote from Philipians 2, but in the context of the whole verse it seems more puzzlingly complex:
    12 Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling;
    Though the next context is in commenting on the hymn to Jesus’ humility and exaltation, which again puts Christ at the centre.

  2. I’m away till Monday. I would like to comment more on the exactly right words of Stephen, ‘The Shadowlands’ and the doomed survivors. My cognitive patterns will not allow healing. The reason I don’t know?


  3. Chris – you’re eloquent about your pain and it’s good you can express it and to some extent explore it here. Many of us find that healing is a long journey where we seem only able to take a few steps, while we don’t know what to do about many hidden hurts that persist and recur. But healing is not all or nothing, and hopefully you will find yourself continuing on the path and going a bit further than the brave steps you’ve already taken.

  4. Chris we met on the pier do you remember I was with my friend Ross.

    I was very badly hurt through a pastor called Richard Bolt who was a leader who set up a church in Orange St in London is there anyone else who was there. It has taken me a long time to recover from what he did to me.

    1. Welcome Norma. Chris is away till next week. I hope you will find resources both human and intellectual to help you in your journey of recovery. I have to say that we do not seem to have many survivors on this blog as far as I can tell. Some may be put off by my own desire to challenge the intellectual pretentiousness, especially the doubtful use of the Bible, that pervades many cultic churches. I for one cannot go along with the language of inerrancy. You will see my position more clearly if you go back over the months. I hope you will stay with us for the journey.

    2. Hi Norma. Try clicking on the conversation under “Use and abuse of scripture” on this blog. We were a bit off topic! but you may find it helpful to see that others have had a similar experience. This is a very easy site to use. (Thanks Stephen)

  5. Most Christian leaders don’t command their followers to kill. But remember the gay priests fuss and the Jeffrey John business? Bishop Graham Dow made a lot of statements about being gay, and gay sex that must have led some people to think queer bashing was ok. He would have been horrified to think that anyone could be hurt because of what he said, but intolerant statements can appear to give succour to those who behave violently.

  6. Coming out of The Community of Jesus, in Orleans, Massachusetts, USA, I have asked myself many times – why did I stay there? Why didn’t I see the truth sooner? Why did I join? I have done a lot of talking, reading and studying in the 4 years I have been out. First, I did not join a cult. As a brand new Christian, aged 22, I joined what I thought was a vibrant Christian community that was learning how to bring the gospel into everyday living. It was 1970, and these 2 women seemed to have a wholesome and exciting ministry. I had not been raised a Christian, or even known many Christians, so I did not have a framework to compare their teachings to. They taught out of the Bible, and before I realized it, I had been trained to accept them as prophets of God, and to believe that they had a connection through the Holy Spirit that the rest of us didn’t have. Yes, there were elements in my family life that pre-disposed me to being vulnerable to control, and I was at a vulnerable time of change in my life when I came under their influence. I was also taken advantage of and mislead. The Stanford Prison experiment shows how we can be influenced without realizing it. The Milgram experiment shows how strong peer pressure is. Robert Jay Lifton’s book “Thought Reform” is excellent in showing how this happens. We adapt in order to survive, and sometimes the adaptation is harmful. Writing has been a way that I have processed my recovery, and you can read about my story at http://www.mylifecoj.wordpress.com. Thank you for this blog, and for speaking out about this issue. This is a growing problem in America, and education about this is sorely needed.

    1. I can think of at least two reasons why people stay, though neither may apply to you. Firstly there’s the huge investment people may already have made in the life of the community. For example, the Moonies get you out on the street fund raising for them straight away, and they teach people to lie. So by the time you’ve lied to get money for them, you’re very disinclined to say to yourself, “I’ve been had!” And second, actually, most people tell the truth most of the time. The world kind of depends on it. When you go back to the shop with something faulty, you expect to be believed. So, naturally, if someone tells you something, you believe it. It’s not stupid, it’s normal. And of course in this case, the individuals concerned may very well believe it all very sincerely anyway.

      1. Very true. And recently I came across the phrase “The beliefs are not necessarily wrong, it is the behaviors that make a place a cult”. That rang true to me. A lot of what was preached was good and desirable. A lot also did get too extreme, and the practices were definitely mind control. I am currently writing about how the practices at CJ meet the standards of Lifton’s Thought Reform book. I stayed because I had a vision, and kept trying to make it happen. Of course, I also lied to myself, and the teaching about thought suppression was very effective, so I was manipulated and betrayed as well as having my own unrealistic hopes. Thank God I’m out.

  7. Welcome to the blog Carrie. I hope that you will find plenty of material in the back pages helpful to you when you have time to peruse them. You might like to read about my personal background, as from my study of other blogs it seems to be different from many others that are in this field. Most people who write about cults or high-demand Christian groups (to use the jargon) come at it from what I think of as a conservative religious position. In other words they use the Bible and texts from it to seek to undermine the teachings of whatever group is under scrutiny. My approach is not that at all., I am cheerfully liberal in my use of the Bible, backed up, I have to say, by some years of studying it. I managed to clock up eight years of full time study of theology in my younger days, though not all of it on the Bible. So my treatment of scripture is I hope, informed and balanced and little of the conservative ideas of inerrancy will creep in. So our blog will be of help to you if you are able to let go of some of the power of appeals to scripture, as though they have the last word. I don’t work like that and my blog posts will often mine history and psychology for clues to a deeper understanding of the issues. Incidentally I was present at the International Cultic Studies Ass. meeting in Washington last month and I gave a paper considering the importance of Stanford Prison experiment. The slides of my talk should be available at some point on their web-site. I hope after this introduction you will want to remain on the blog; you are certainly very welcome. I have a lot to comment on the things you have shared already over the months ahead. I look forward to looking at your own story in detail.

    1. I appreciate your liberal approach. I have had to start from scratch on my faith journey, and do consider myself a Christian, but I am not joined to any church at the present. I am educating myself from whatever source these days, not ruling religion out, but absorbing all knowledge. I am going back to college, as well as working full-time, and my field is – you would guess – Psychology. I was at the ICSA conference also and almost came to your presentation. Now I wish I had. Watching the video of the Stanford Prison experiment was extremely helpful to me. I identified with the “model prisoner”. I will definitely keep in touch with this blog. Thanks

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