Family Life In and Out of a Cult

ICSA Today, Volume 2, Number 3, 2011, 12-15

Family Life In and Out of a Cult

Elizabeth A. Introduction

My mother was a cult leader. When I was 20 years old, I saw her form a cult “ministry” that she then led for several decades. It was a Bible-based cult focused on home birth and faith healing (which meant no use of doctors or medicine), and “coming out of the world systems” (which meant isolation from most social institutions). She forcefully promoted her extreme, elitist beliefs with a potent mixture of charisma, propaganda, and manipulative techniques. Her aggressive methods of persuasion were effective and led some followers all the way to their deaths. As a result of all this, she and her ministry are listed by name on at least half a dozen anticult Web sites.

I could quote my mother’s teachings to you almost by rote, since I was forced to listen to her passionate rants daily for many years. Or I could tell you about her successful use of coercive persuasion, since I saw her gather new groups of followers around herself multiple times. I could even tell you about the damage and death she caused to many, although I didn’t learn about most of these heartbreaking events until a few years ago. But there isn’t time to cover everything, and I have to start at the beginning.

You see, I knew my mother before she became a cult leader, too. And some of the ways she led our family made it like a sort of protocult. She already had many of the traits that later characterized her as the head of her group. She was charming and charismatic, but also impulsive and dangerously reckless. She was a skillful speaker, and she had a powerful gift for creating an emotional climate with her words. She had a forceful desire for the people around her to agree with all her opinions and to feel the same emotional reactions to things that she felt. And underlying all these traits, she had a very, very strong will and a host of effective manipulative techniques to help her get her way.

These are some of the things I saw in her, both before she formed her group and during the years she led it. But it is her role as the leader of our family, as a mother and as a grandmother, that I want to tell you about now. This was my mother.

My Childhood—Before the Cult

Before I turned five, my mother had divorced my father, moved halfway across the country, and remarried. Although my new stepfather was promiscuous, a pathological liar, and a convicted felon, my mother positively declared to my siblings and me that he was now our “daddy” and that he loved us all very much. She cast a vision of us all as the “perfect” family, with herself as the most wonderful, amazing, and loving mother ever. The words she used were almost mythic, and I can still feel the golden glow they created, shining beautifully over those otherwise terrifying and squalid years. Then, as always, she spoke in terms of “absolute truth,” as though she really knew, and as though there was no possibility of even a different emphasis. But when I turn away from my mother’s powerful words to her behavior, I see instead her forceful demand that we all devote our lives to remaking ourselves into what she wanted us to be.

The ten years my mother and stepfather were married were chaotic, and our home life centered on the drama between the two of them. My stepfather was at times verbally, physically, and even sexually abusive to us children. He terrified us, and we would scream as we ran to get away from him. But our mother seemed almost indifferent to our panic, while her behavior toward him varied between charming, cajoling, insulting, and outright provoking.

My mother’s relationship with us children seemed to cycle between engulfing and neglecting us. At times she was charming and funny, clever and informative, or even warm and effusive; and at those times we would delightedly gather in a circle around her, basking in the light of her presence. But more often we were simply left alone, to resolve the confusions of our unhappy lives by ourselves, while she redefined her neglect of us as confidence that we were “mature and independent” children. I remember how important it was not ever to complain, or to “selfishly” ask for my mother’s help with anything.

In the years after my stepfather left, when my siblings and I ranged in age from 11 to 16, our mother seemed to have decided that we didn’t need any more raising. She treated us more as young followers, or even acolytes, than as children, automatically assuming that we were wholeheartedly devoted to supporting all her goals, and furious with us when we weren’t.

But beyond her one, hugely important requirement that we keep the house clean, there were no real rules for our behavior. I was never reminded to do my homework or encouraged to study for a test. I never had a curfew; I was never told that there were kids I shouldn’t play with or books I shouldn’t read or movies I shouldn’t watch. My siblings and I jokingly referred to our mother’s parental style as “laissez faire parenting,” since she so rarely “told us what to do.” At the same time, I don’t believe we clearly saw how forcefully she was trying to shape how we felt and even who we were.

My Children’s Childhoods—During the Cult

A few years later, shortly after we had “gotten saved,” our mother became arbitrarily authoritarian. She emphasized the “spiritual” importance of children “honoring their parents”; and she announced, with no preamble, that none of her daughters could leave her home until they were married.

This shift was one of the most dramatic of her occasional personality changes, but I believe the underlying motive hadn’t actually changed. In the days of our childhoods, there had always been the terror of our stepfather to keep us in line, while she played the indulgent “good” parent. Our stepfather was long gone now; but with her new authoritarian beliefs, our mother had found even more powerful ways to control us. Her demands were now imposed with what she claimed was the backing of God himself.

At first, I was baffled and almost bemused by her dramatic about-face. I was not only used to making all my own decisions, but I also had been counseling my mother on her life decisions for years.

However, perhaps I felt more pressure from her new rigid stance than I let myself realize because when the first guy I had ever dated asked me to marry him, although we’d known each other only for a couple of months, I agreed. My mother fought this decision and tried hard to get me to change my mind, but this was one of the rare cases in which I stayed stubbornly firm; and so I got married the week I turned 18.

Unfortunately, my marriage was troubled from the beginning and came to an end after only a few years. I was left with three very young children, and my greatest fear was what our failed marriage would mean to them. I had desperately wanted a better life for my children than the one I’d had. And so I vowed to “do a better job than my mother did.” However, as soon as I told myself this, a great wave of guilt washed over me for daring to think critically of my mother. It was terribly hard to fight this overwhelming guilt, but I held onto my determination to do whatever I could to take better care of my children. Sadly, all my highest goals and best efforts for them were undercut by my continuing relationship with my mother.

By this point my mother had been leading her “ministry” for several years, gradually developing her elitist, isolationist teachings, increasing her self-declared reputation as a “leader in the faith” and expanding the scope of her insidious influence. But up to this point she also had still needed to work at a regular job, which she hated.

So my mother played on all my fears for my children to get me to agree to move in together while I prepared to attend a local college. She warned me over and over again about the terrible dangers of public daycare and how important it was that children be raised “by a family member who loves them.” Although at first I was somewhat cautious and resistant, in the end I agreed. We formed a new, joint household: my three young children and me, and my cult-leader mother.

For the next eight years we lived together. I went to school or work, and she cared for my children while I was out of the house. I grieved over not being able to be their primary caregiver, and I spent as much quality time with them as I could. Every day, as soon as I came home, I went looking for each child, to check in, see how each was doing, and to give each of them a hug and say “I love you.” I always loved them, and I never quit thinking of them as my first and greatest responsibility. I wanted to raise them to be good, responsible adults, capable of living happy, loving lives.

I was able to admit to myself (without blaming my mother) that my own childhood had often been frighteningly unpredictable, as well as too full of emotional drama. So I aimed for far more peace in our home and I tried to avoid emotional extremes; although that wasn’t really possible as long as my mother lived with us.

Another way I tried to be different from my own mother (while still not allowing myself to admit that she had done anything wrong) was that I tried to actively give my children the sense that there were many people they could turn to in life for knowledge or support. When they would ask me about something I didn’t know much about, I would often say, “Let’s ask so-and-so; she knows a lot about that,” or “I bet he could help.”

But, like any hardworking cult member, many of my efforts were misguided, ineffectual, or even harmful. I was ignorant of appropriate ways to keep my children safe from harm outside our home (as well as of the harm coming to them within our home), and there were many times they were put at risk because of this. I was also hugely confused about how to influence them without manipulating them, and so I made both kinds of mistakes. Furthermore, I wanted to respect their privacy, but this sometimes meant that when upsetting things happened to them I wasn’t active in helping them talk about these things; and so I failed to give them the support they needed from me. These were some of the areas where I lacked knowledge or skills as a parent, and there were times when my children were hurt because of it.

Beyond these areas of ignorance, I was also being continuously exposed to my mother’s many-times-a-day rants on “how children should be raised.” For example, she complained about one of my children, “I already told him how to do it once, and he hasn’t learned it yet. That means he must be in rebellion, and now he needs to be punished.” I wanted to believe, even then, that children need to be trained over time, not simply taught something once; and that their training should be age appropriate, gentle, and loving. But my mother believed that if the children weren’t following her unrealistic, demanding standards, then they “need to have their wills broken.”

She continued to play on all my fears for my children, “catastrophizing” their small, ordinary, human failures as horribly dangerous acts that would cause disastrous consequences in their adult lives if they weren’t “properly disciplined.”

In these ways, she changed some of my beliefs, and thus some of my behaviors. Sometimes I was harsher or more despairing with my children than I should have been, or than I wanted to be, and I regret that with all my heart.

But I believe the greatest harm to my children came from my mother’s direct influence on them, especially her “care” of them during the many hours I was away. Despite her claims of vast love for them, she showed indifference to their emotional needs and carelessness for their safety. She used excessive physical punishment capriciously and with unmasked anger or even hatred.

She held perfectionist standards for them, ranging from demanding rules about how clean their bedrooms needed to be, to vaguer, although even more demanding, requirements for such things as “being spiritual enough,” “having enough faith,” and simply “being good enough.” She also had rigid rules about the “right” emotions that they should have in any situation. This often meant that they were required to express compliant cheerfulness or gratitude towards her, but it could also mean that they should echo whatever emotion she was feeling at the time.

With all of these extreme demands, she implanted in them deep fears of looming disasters if they failed to succeed. Most of all, she cloaked all her selfish wants and bizarre opinions in terms of essential, fundamental, moral requirements, confusing them about themselves and the nature of good in the world.

Our Family Life—After the Cult

I see my departure from my mother’s cult as a drift-away, rather than the more active steps of a walk-away, because for a long time I didn’t intend to leave the belief system. I had simply reached the point at which I knew I didn’t want to live with my mother anymore. By this time, all my children were in school, so I didn’t have the essential need for child-care support anymore, although it took all my courage to tell my mother this.

I found a new job out of state, and my children and I moved away. Over time, for me and my children, simply no longer being exposed to my mother’s daily indoctrination meant that many of her teachings faded in importance. In addition, I was now much freer to learn and do new things, including new and healthier approaches to family relationships and communication. These changes made all of our lives better.

Unfortunately, our ongoing personal relationship with my mother, along with our lack of recognition that we had been in a cult, continued to nurture some unhealthy tendencies in all our lives, perhaps especially hidden attitudes of perfectionism and religious legalism, and the resulting fears and shame.

It took another 20 years to realize that we’d been in a cult and to begin to face directly what that had meant to our beliefs about life, God, ourselves, and the rest of the world. Uncovering the truth has been painful at times, but it has been very, very worth it.