Cult is as Cult Does – post conference and third generation thoughts

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!

19 thoughts on “Cult is as Cult Does – post conference and third generation thoughts

  1. Fredda Damast

    Gina- This is an amazing piece-it is so well written and really explains your journey in a way that we ( not involved in cults or having cults in our history) can understand. It is such an important piece of you that I want to know and understand. I know it must be so divided for you to come to work and have your co-workers only know the
    Gina as you are at work and not this important part of your history – your psyche. I so much appreciate you sharing this.
    You are amazing – so strong with so much insight and wisdom into your past and your emotional and psychological self. I have so much respect for you.
    It is a privelege to understand you and cultish influences in this way. Thank you.
    I would love to follow your blogs and understand more – I have always been interested in this issue.
    I am glad that this conference is there for you and people like
    Susan are there for you to connect with. Years ago there would be no internet for this connection to happen. Living in 2010 does have some advantages.
    Gina – keep up this exploration. Such self growth and even though this is a struggle for your chidren – how lucky they are to have you there.
    You are an inspiration.
    I feel so lucky to know you Gina!!!!!!!!!

    xoxo Fredda

    1. ComingToLifeStories Post author

      Oh dear Fredda!
      You are always too kind! Your professionalism, brilliance and compassion stand as a lighthouse to many! You honor me by your friendship and by taking the time to comment here. I love working with you — too bad we both work so hard (as does everyone in this broken health system), that we have little or no time to chat.
      It’s not that difficult, really, to keep the past separate from work relationships. Although pretending the past didn’t happen creates a barrier to any intimacy. It’s really been easier these last few years since I began accepting invitation to speak about the past. No longer need to dodge those awkward questions “where did you grow up?” etc.
      See you at work, soon enough! xoxo, g 🙂

  2. Karina

    Great blog entry Gina!

    I too feel an emotional connection to the women in polygamy. Ironically, what brought me back to re-examining my own cult past, and then more involvement with TM-Free, was the much publicized seizure of the children in the polygamous cult in Texas. As the news emerged, I was unduly mentally wrapped up in that case …..and it wasn’t hard to realize why. The women steadfastly defended their lifestyle, even when it meant losing their children to child welfare authorities! It was horrifying to me, but so understandable after my TM experience. That’s when I knew I needed more help and got more active on the ex-TM boards. I realized I still had a lot of emotional charge around the issue.

    I’m sure your children don’t understand why that trip to NY was a “holiday” to you (a “holy-day”), but lots of your readers do. You were able to get in touch with your wholeness again. Keep it up! Tell us more…

    1. ComingToLifeStories Post author

      Thanks, Karina!
      Your keen legal mind, cult past and mamma-bear passion make for stimulating conversation! Interesting how polygamist children’s issues brought you to reevaluate your TM past. I think many walked away from the TM past without looking back, and a later event triggered the realization that more healing was needed. That’s what happened for me to, but not around the polygamist children troubles. Another life event spurred my realization that I needed to learn much more about human relations. A related chain of events triggered the realization that I have something to offer to the cult studies world. How bizarre! But it’s been a surprisingly enjoyable and rewarding endeavor. Maybe you’ll find the same for yourself one day? Thanks for your support always! g 🙂

  3. Karina

    Gina, Indeed you have so much to offer — I’m sad when you write that your adult kids don’t fully appreciate your involvement in anti-cult endeavors. Do you think it is due to not empathizing with the mission, or just wanting more of your time and/or attention?

    As far as that keen mind….well, I shall bask in that compliment for at least a week, especially the next time my 11-year-old daughter calls me a moron, which unfortunately is becoming increasingly more frequent as she edges towards puberty! Since I can’t seem to manage the demands of a paying legal job and a family, well it’s lovely to have friends, especially one like you.

    Your writing is great — the next best thing to being at ICSA myself. You are so right, I would love getting more involved in the cult studies world. Maybe one day…. but in the meantime, I’ll happily settle for your reports from the front line. Keep it up!!

    Hugs to you too — Karen

    1. ComingToLifeStories Post author

      Yes, your mind is keen! And all 11-year olds think their parents are morons, especially their mothers!

      Regarding the children of Susan and myself. They’ve been through a lot. It’s not that they are not supportive, but understandably want to leave the past behind and just conduct their young adult lives as “normal.” (whatever “normal’ is).

      It’s difficult for others to understand it. Even as their mothers, of course, we did not live their experience. Both Susan and I yanked our children from communities in which they felt safe and loved. In their formative years, we proceeded to dump them into mainstream life without extended family or friendships, while we struggled to survive with underpaying jobs and attending university while garnering debts.

      The “High Demand Life” of the cult was replaced by the “High Demand Life” of necessary post-cult survival and obtaining education, except that outside our respective cults the children lacked group bonding and family support. To their childhood eyes, the cult appeared more stable than living with working-student-isolated mothers.

      Both Susan and I subsequently made disastrous choices in men-relationships. We again dragged our vulnerable children through failed attempts at stability, while we did not fully understand our own psyches and vulnerabilities. Naturally we had chosen (and ended) relationships with those who target the vulnerable. More upheaval and loss for our children. ouch! Some of Susan’s many children went back and forth between extended family, the polygamist community, for a few years. Many TM kids likewise go back and forth. Both our families experienced a lot of drama-trauma.

      Yes, we are wiser and stable now. We have good relationships with the grown children. Fortunately all our adult children are working professionals, if not still in college. They are healthy, clean and sober. But their upbringings were full of painful upheaval and loss, for which we assume full responsibility.

      Now that Susan and I fully understand “what happened”, and our children are grown, we choose to participate peripherally though reading, speaking, online activism, and conferences, to educate the public about the many unseen destructive forces with such high-demand or “cult” groups. Of course, obvious extreme dangers are publicly recognized – various suicides, psychosis, various hidden child abuses and neglect, the rare but real mass suicides. We’ve both seen many ongoing trainwrecks of lives come through our homes, good people trying to stand on their own, full of needless fear and lacking social skills. If our background can be used to help others, then so be it.

      Karina, as an attorney knowledgeable in this field, you could contribute much – once your children are grown. Your mind and writing are clear and sharp,. Your compassion and TM background provide a foundation about damage than can ensue when people in crisis follow smooth talking charlatans and love-bombing high pressure groups.

      Susan quoted someone in the psychology field, “we can choose the pain of growth or the pain of stagnation.” Let’s rejoice with growth!

      Thanks again! g 🙂

  4. Karina

    Gina, Thanks for your deeper explanation regarding your kids. It’s so obvious when you explain it. I see now that the past family history is still a raw spot for them, but hopefully that won’t last forever.

    I do now understand more what your kids went through, and it’s similar to what other families with some sort of unusual history or family secret experience. (Just think about the kids who discovered a week ago that their parents are Russian spies!) Over the years various people have shared with me the pain of their different pasts, such as having a mother who committed suicide, or having a father who was imprisoned for murder, or growing up as an immigrant in the US, etc.. A different past does leave an indelible mark on a child. Although being part of the TMO was not shameful, nonetheless I can see why your kids would prefer to forget all about the family history. Thanks for elaborating more.

    I’m curious — how do you think an attorney could contribute to this field? Suing? Winning a civil tort suit is nearly a pipe dream these days! It would be David vs. Goliath — virtually an impossible task for a solo atty. And if an individual sues a “religion,” such as Scientology or Mormons, well there are many more constitutional protections for the cult based upon separation of church and state.

    In my limited experience, I don’t see any need at all for attorneys in cult recovery. I don’t believe civil courts can address these types of wrongs, but maybe you know something I don’t?

    What I do see is the need for the US Gov’t to learn more about the psychological attractions of cults to young people, so that the gov’t won’t be so surprised with their “homegrown terrorists.” I was really pleased when you blogged that some people from the government (FBI? Homeland Security?) were there at the ICSA conference. Tell us more!

    I also loved your “Susan” blog entry. No matter how long, your posts are never boring or tedious. Keep it up!


  5. Martha

    Your story unfolds. So little I knew of your journey and how hard it really was. Beautiful story of you and Susan.
    Also, your description of how it was, and is, with your children.

  6. ComingToLifeStories Post author

    Thank you, Martha and Karina for your supportive words.

    Exposing decades of impact from family cult involvement has been a surprisingly healthy process. It’s better than keeping the history under-wraps, living in fear of judgment from current contacts or repercussions from the group. Supportive friends and coworkers encourage, saying “You have to tell your stories; they are important.” So, deep breath, poco a poco (Italian for “little by little”).

    And how exciting to connect with someone as intelligent, humble, strong and articulate as Susan! She’s invited a visit to meet the polygamist midwife in her community. What an opportunity!

    Having given up trying to live inside any box, out-of-the-box history opens up opportunities to explore further. Those of you with similar histories may find valuable connections as you overcome anxiety of telling your stories.

    Karina – attorneys in this field are important! As you stated, government needs to be educated about the potential social dangers of charismatic charlatans. Scandinavian school curriculums include such information (after all, they lived with Hitler’s influence close by). Germany and France outlawed Large Group Awareness Trainings and are well aware of Scientology’s potential dangers.
    The USA tolerates much in the name of ‘free expression’ and ‘religious freedom.’ Freedom and capitalism should not include freedom to exploit.

    Articulate voice can help with social education. People like myself contribute only by sharing our personal stories. I lack Karina’s keen intellectual dissection skills.

    While it is difficult to sue for psychological damages from undue influence (e.g. victims of pedophile priests and Hare Krishna schools ), there IS a need for attorneys in family law to navigate difficult divorces and child custody cases with cult influences, also business splits under cult influences. Many leave cults or cult based marriages without knowing their legal rights for child protection and financial compensation. Perhaps you could find an important niche for yourself. Who knows?

    Best to all! g 🙂

  7. Karina

    Gina — Thanks for your ideas, and your lavish compliments. (I’ll have to be carefull that I don’t suddenly grow out of my bike helmet due to a swollen head!)

    Here’s my thoughts on the helpful attorney issue: Unfortunately, family law (child custody fights — ugh!) is quite distasteful to me. I’ve had experience, as that’s where I started my work in law years before entering law school. The cult angle is interesting, however family law is usually very local. You have to know all the local who’s whos in order to be truly helpful to a client. (Judges, mediators, custody evaluators, other attorneys, accountants, etc.)

    Maybe in Fairfield it would be possible to make a specialty out of that — but not where I live Fortunately, there are no big cult centers here in SD.

    However, I DO very much like your idea of educating in schools against cults. It is a blend of psychology, adolescent development, history and, a pinch of law. Hmmmm….I actually have thought of the need to educate US HS kids against cults as part of the War on Terror campaign. That’s where the money is too….

    Do you have any AC curriculum in this regard? Perhaps you have a contact to get hold of the Swedish curriculum? Now that is something I could do from home, and really, really enjoy doing. Thanks for the idea!

    I also know a married couple from our church who write textbooks on marriage and family life for a major educational publisher. Perhaps they would have some insights on this.

    Again — Thanks so much for your response. I’m almost 60, but still trying to “find myself!”

  8. ComingToLifeStories Post author

    Good thinking! Keep at it!
    You’ll be able to find resources, if that’s what interests you. You’re already brainstorming connections that you didn’t even realize you had only a few days ago!
    Yes – we’re all still finding ourselves, “Coming to life”
    Looking forward to see how this evolves for you!
    g 🙂

    1. ComingToLifeStories Post author

      Thanks, Jessica, your comments on the writing style mean a lot.
      Learning to write has been another journey unto itself (as YOU well know!). Peeling off the layers to just bare the soul.
      Am looking forward to your book release and writing a review here!
      g 🙂

  9. Colleen

    Dear Gina….As others have written, I, too, am so impressed and appreciative of your clarity, knowledge, resiliency, and wisdom in integrating experiences from the cult into your current life and going steps further by helping yourself and others in the cult recovery and education field. Those of us who are former cult members and working in this field can always be aware of “undue influence” in any group, organization, or relationship and find our voice and feet to do whatever is in our best interest. Warm Regards.

  10. Alexandra Amor

    Hi Gina,

    I too was at the July ICSA conference in NY (my first one). I enjoyed reading your post about the conference and the importance of your connection with others there who share a similar past. That type of connection was one of the most valuable elements of the conference for me. That and finally getting to meet some of the great folks from ICSA who have helped me during my recovery – Joe Szimhart, Rosanne Henry etc.

    I really appreciate reading about your challenges as a second-generation adult. I was so impressed with Joyce Martella and would actually like to read her thesis about SGAs when it’s done. From your post it sounds like our understanding of the impact that cults have on SGAs and now TGAs (can we coin that term?) is still evolving. I congratulate you for your strength, courage and willingness to explore these themes.

    Take care.

  11. ComingToLifeStories Post author

    Hello Alexandra,
    Thanks for visiting! Your linked website looks interesting. Guess we’ve a common heritage.
    Joyce’s thesis is done, I bought a copy from her a year or two ago. She’s working on PhD dissertation now, I believe, gathering research data.
    Best of luck to you!
    g 🙂

  12. Frankly

    Gina, you and I had such a different experience of the TMO/Fairfield. Probably because of your parents you never knew or interacted with the “normal” side of the TM community. These were “Governors” who did their program in the dome and then lived a normal life outside of the TMO. Being born to hardcore Ru parents would be very difficult. This would be growing-up in a cult.

    1. ComingToLifeStories Post author

      Thanks for your words. My parents were what you term “normal” in TM. My father held down an engineering job. They became involved in the 1960’s w/ the Olsens. Walter Koch, the Olsens and Charlie Lutes were like family. I was the first ‘ru out of Fairfield High School (before Maharishi high school began).

      Do you think attending the dome twice daily for 4-8 hours with mystical techniques and security badges is “normal”?

      Do you think it is normal to credit any uncomfortable sensation, such as anxiety, depression, nervousness, sadness, the full gamut of human emotion, to “unstressing.”? Do you think that “unstressing” is “purification”?
      That all such experiences mean “Something good is happening?”
      Do you believe Maharishi Mahesh Yogi brought the/an ultimate path to enlightenment to this world?
      Have you ever spoken your mantra aloud to anyone?

      g 🙂


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