Having just returned from 2010’s annual conference of the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) in New York, my friends at home inquire what I found the most impactful from this year’s conference. Naturally, my friends inquired about my audio – visual presentation of Maharishi’s influence on the Beatles. In reality, that presentation was a no-brainer, because I revealed what any Maharishi devotee or former devotee understands as Maharishi’s teachings within the Beatles songs. More about that another time.
The most rewarding aspect of these ICSA conferences – the Anti-Cult Cult (ACC), as my children say – are my conversations with those who study destructive cults and coercive persuasion around the world. Over the years, some of us developed warm friendships through sharing perspectives on our pasts, integrating eclectic history (to say the least) into current identities. Some attendees are researchers and writers on long-term effects of destructive cults, others are peripheral in the field (like me). Still others consult to governments and publish on the seduction methods of charismatic destructive groups. Not all attendees have direct cult experience; some are therapists, academicians, and attorneys who work with these issues professionally without ever having been directly involved. Their humility, knowledge and commitment are inspirational. There is comfortableness to be with a group that does not judge others because of an unusual history.
The majority of those who attend ICSA conferences are intelligent, humble, respectful, accomplished and committed to supporting personal freedoms. Through various languages and our multi-cult-ural exposure, attendees apply obscure background and studies to positively impact and protect others from devastating mindf**ks.
Over the years, a few attendees impressed upon ICSA and cult experts that those raised in cults have different issues than do former cultists who joined and left a group. After all, those raised in cults lack a “pre-cult identity” to which we can return after leaving a totalitarian ideology. Thanks to unrelenting efforts of Joyce and Michael Martella, ICSA’s recovery workshops offer special tracks for Second Generation Adults (SGAs).
Now – to my personal highlight of the conference – an in depth conversation with a woman I’ll call Susan.
Susan and I initially met a few years ago, over dinner at an ICSA conference. Once again, we found ourselves sitting together at dinner on July 4th, enjoying a fabulous multi-course meal, fireworks through a window-wall over New York City’s skyline, lights reflected in the nighttime river.
Cult is as cult does, beyond the façade. We know that. Yet, it was still surprising for both Susan and me to learn the many similarities in our current lives.
Susan was raised in a polygamist group in the midwest. Like me, she left the group with her children, obtained an education and career. Her children are now adults and conducting their lives. She remains single.
Susan was raised with small town support of large families. Everyone dressed simply and worked hard with an agricultural and manual labor based economy. At one point, her father took another wife who was 14 years old. A strict interpretation of Christian and Mormon scripture provided their overriding life guidance.
I was raised in global setting that eventually settled into small town Iowa, with a Hindu-esque flavor, devout women wore sarees, men had assigned colors for their suits. Celibacy was the highest calling for the spiritually devout. Other guidelines about diet, clothing, sleeping, architecture developed over time. Occult-esoteric spiritual beliefs guided life decisions. Many live outside the group, but remain governed by occult dictates of Maharishi and others. I also remain single.
Both groups support a spiritual hierarchy with peer pressure for certain practices. The economic basis of towns which surround our respective groups is dependent upon the cult’s contribution to the larger local economy. As Susan said “Local law enforcement and others won’t interfere with polygamist society, because the outsiders are economically dependent upon the contributions from polygamist groups. Many of the sheriffs attended school with the polygamist men. They are old friends and won’t interfere. There have been mixed marriages between those raised in polygamy and outsiders. No one will address the problems directly. The entire larger community is complicit with the polygamist lifestyle.”
I concurred, saying, “The same situation exists with Fairfield, Iowa. Even the current town mayor is a ‘Governor of the Age of the Enlightenment’ whose son was arrested with other TM kids in the largest illegal marijuana growing bust in Northern California. The TM mayor does a good job managing the town. Fairfield’s lagging economy was revived through the influx of Maharishi’s followers. There are long-standing friendships between locals and TMers, shared community projects, and some intermarriages. No one will publicly address the misrepresentations, damaged psyches, or financial deceptions inherent with the TM Movement’s programs.”
While the larger communities surrounding both our groups are well aware of various child neglect and repressed activities, economic dependency halts societal intervention.
Critical thinkers from both of our communities, who can no longer tolerate the larger dysfunction, usually relocate to create lives elsewhere – ourselves included. Both cult mentality and the surrounding mixed-cult mentality repress free expression and political activism. We suspect this must be common with communities adjacent to other sect groups.
Susan and I both gave birth at home with unlicensed birth attendants within our respective groups. We both lived with a generalized distrust of the medical profession. We were lucky in that our children and we were healthy! We both left with our children, the oldest child was ten years old when we left. We both raised our children largely outside of the group dictates and social support. We both went deeply into debt to obtain education and career while raising our children. We’ll probably never fully catch up financially. We both blundered while learning to function socially and professionally without background training. We both made it!
We both love many people from our cult-based pasts. Some loved ones from our past maintain contact, many reject us for leaving and even more so for publicly revealing the underbelly of our respective heritage.
We also discussed how many cult ‘experts’ don’t understand our mixed allegiances and ongoing effects upon our daily lives. We cannot completely leave the group-think in our past because our families carry multi generational effects. We cannot have healthy identity if we pretend that the first decades of our lives never happened. We both agree that it’s not worth denying our past to maintain a relationship. We’ve tried; it doesn’t work. And thus we remain single.
Susan said “I love the 14 year-old my father married. Not that I agree with that lifestyle, but she is part of my family. I recently ran into my ex mother-in-law (still living in polygamy), she said she misses me and still loves me. That must have been hard for her. We were happy to see one another.”
I explained my aging parents; my father died last year, still in fantasy-think. My father believed he must have been a terrible person in a past life, that his decades of crippling pain were punishment for past life transgressions, not due to his stubborn refusal to obtain proper medical care. He spent thousands of dollars on Maharishi’s various mystical treatments. As the next of kin, Susan and I try to keep our elders safe despite the challenges of fantasy-based conversations. Yet we simultaneously keep an emotional distance to protect our own sanity and careers.
Susan and I discussed what we called the third-generation effects in our respective families.
Our adult children are divided between influences from idealistic well-intentioned cult-think family members who accuse us : “You mother is blaming others. She’s not taking responsibility for her life.” We both find that our grown children direct their greatest frustrations and anger at us.
Both Susan and I were the only family members who explained the awkward past to our children, apologized for our contribution to continuing the legacies when we were still sorting our own heads. We absorb justifiable anger from our adult children. We are the ones who acknowledge the confusing mixed messages, our errors in judgement, and give as we can personally and professionally to prevent future such abuses. On some level, our activism keeps the wounds open for our adult children.
On a lighter note, coincidently Susan and I were both born in New York, before our parents’ involvement with extreme sects. The New York conference was a shared homecoming, to more innocent childhood times and exploring the city we love but had not properly learned to navigate!
We had similar conversations with others from around the world whose children were born within dogmatic groups, now adults in mainstream society, and living with cross cult-ural influences.
While ICSA and others in the cult studies field begin to study and publish about SGAs, time marches on. Many SGAs are middle-aged and older. We brainstorm among ourselves to support our third-generation adults, trying to provide a loving family with open communication, without denying the past. Many of our adult children feel we over-emphasize the past. Another woman raised in polygamy shared her grown son’s insight : “It will take several generations to get this out of our family, won’t it?”
So, my highlights of participating with ICSA or the ACC? It can be both rewarding and exhausting to connect with others with similar eclectic interests. Research and writings in this field continue to grow, documenting our realities, validating experiences and benefiting others. One friend said, “We are bonded by a shared pain.”
My children ask “How does involvement with an ICSA conference differ from attending Maharishi’s various advanced courses around the world?” I explain that ICSA is not a destructive group, there is no requirement on political nor religious beliefs, no lifestyle dictates, nor dictated sexual orientation, there is no charismatic unaccountable leadership, there are no secret inner teachings for which must earn the right to access, no mystical ceremonies (operating AV equipment was a mystical rite for me!). ICSA is a group, as any honest human group, with a common purpose. We rejoice in our shared common purpose, we don’t always agree, we share, discuss, agree-to-disagree, and then return to our private lives. We believe in using our past to advance the common good. For those of us who live with ongoing cross cult-ural influences – connecting and learning from one another is invaluable!