What it's like to grow up in a cult

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2019/05/06/what-its-like-to-grow-up-in.html


I kinda know what it’s like. I live in a giant one where the members have been brainwashed into thinking they live in a benign democracy, instead of in a rapacious, kleptocratic empire.


I think I’m confused by this use of the word “libertarianism”. I can’t think of any meaning that applies. Cults manipulate people’s need for belonging. They are kind of the opposite of individualism; the subsumption of the individual into the leader(s). They are almost exactly the opposite of freedom.

Also, I don’t know of any version of libertarianism that isn’t libertarianism plus drugs.


One common characteristic of almost every cult leader I’ve read about is toxic masculinity to one degree or another. The other absusive behaviour springs from that naturally.

Whether we’re talking about $cientology or NXIVM or certain fundie or messianic sects of mainstream religions (indeed, sometimes the mainstream religions themselves), the mix of patriarchal attitude and sexism and machismo is always there. This Lyman creep was no different.


I grew up in the cult of New Jersey, I escaped in 1976 & never went back.


I wonder how much that is a feature of cults themselves and how much it is a feature of cults in our society of toxic masculinity. Anything we would call a cult is going to be dysfunctional and presumably be about someone who is inclined towards social dominance finding a way to dominate people. They will behave the way dysfunctional dominant person behave in the society they are from. In our society, that means toxic masculinity.

I’m not going to research this in depth right now, but I just googled a few articles about women who lead cults and the stories are often about women who have leadership roles in recruitment branches of cults that are ultimately served men; “co-leaders” with men; or otherwise still involve men in leadership.

Not all, though. Apparently a young black woman in the early 1900s got together a group of followers based around a voodoo church and killed a whole bunch of people with axes. A good reminder that no matter how rooted in gender or any other existing power structures cults may be, everything is a spectrum, and out there there are young women who can lead religious death cults with the best of them (I’m not going to include this in any “you can be whatever you want to be” speeches to children).


I think the idea is that sex-and-drugs hedonism, justified by small-l libertarian philosophy (and whatever woo defines the cult), is a selling point for those who see it as an easy escape from their troubles. Even recognising this is flawed logic, they’re damaged or lost enough to want to hear more.

Cults recruit a lot of current and recovering addicts, including those open to resuming their addictive behaviours under the supervision of a controlled and responsible guru. From what I’ve heard, these scumbags have made a practise of showing up at rehab meetings pretending to be addicts themselves in order to groom and recruit new members with “alternatives”.

I’m sure it’s deeply related to the overall culture, but a woman leading this sort of cult still seems to be the rare exception rather than the general rule.

The MLM grifter who created the NXIVM cult (who’s now on trial) basically formalised this process, intentionally making women his most prominent “co-leaders” (as well as members of his “harem”).


I read the story in The New Yorker last week. What has stayed in my mind the most about it is, in the author’s words:

Because I neither chose to be in the Lyman Family nor chose to leave it, I can describe my experience without being judged for it.

The author’s mother joined the cult while pregnant with the author, and although the author was raised apart from her mother within the cult and didn’t know her mother well, when her mother left the cult after eleven years, the author was made to leave the cult too and join her mother in the outside world.


Does the group leader get his/her power through sex and money? Boom. There you go.


I have a friend who grew up in a cult, and while he’s an odd character, he’s a pretty upstanding member of the community.

Clare Prophet is the one exception I can think of. Most of us will know her sect from the clip used by Negativland on Escape From Noise (“Michael Jackson, Prince, The Cars, Huey Lewis and the News, Madonna, Cyndi Looper…”)

It’s hard to say whether toxic masculinity is nature or nurture, probably some of both, but without a doubt power corrupts, and someone like Clare Prophet shows how even a woman can abuse power, aggrandize herself, and manipulate people in the service of some invented theology.


Guinevere Turner said the quote in her article about growing up in a commune, not Rob Beschizza.

“The government has no business trying to stop us from [hoarding guns/doing drugs/entering unconventional sexual relationships/raising our children as we see fit]. Also, we don’t like paying taxes.”


It’s how discourse works that if you use the quotation feature it puts the person whose post was quoted from at the top of the quotation. Sorry if there was any confusion about how I was quoting.

Yeah, I guess somehow my brain got confused and momentarily thought “libertarianism” was a belief in personal freedom - forgetting that non-academics seem to mostly use the word to describe a method of implementing authoritarianism in a democracy.


On paper, sure. In practice it’s kind of like how the Puritan colonists supposedly came to North America seeking “religious freedom.” The truth was that they were just fine and dandy with oppression as long as they were the ones doing the oppressing.


As individuals, how well are we positioned to say which systems of belief are right or wrong?

Adults raping children? hmmmm - I mean, if there was only some indication that a system could be morally wrong… It’s an unknowable mystery!

Snark aside, it is amazing how many isolated, compound-based communal cults end up abusing children. It’s why - as a someone who grew up homeschooled - I’m against homeschooling. It just breeds isolation and no mandatory reporting. I mean the vast majority of homeschoolers are not being abused, but it provides a safe-haven for those who are abusers.

Also - and this may be unfair to people exploring different living options that are more efficient - but if you find yourself living in anything that could be described as a compound - you owe it to yourself to stop and evaluate your life choices.


A “mainstream religion” is just a cult that didn’t implode but grew. In the 19th century, Mormonism was basically viewed like Scientology is today, and Tacitus and other Roman writers describe how weird and dangerous normal Roman society saw the early Christians.


The Felton piece became part of Mindfuckers (published by Rolling Stone’s Straight Arrow Press and long out of print). I’d recommend finding a copy, but Amazon sellers are asking north of $250 for copies.


Libertarianism so often seems to manifest in a belief that social restraints are invalid. Each person gets to decide for themselves what rules to follow. It’s true, but rather untenable when you live in society. “No one who is not alone can be free”.

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I was thinking of the Army of Mary, who were led by a woman. I’d define a cult as any group focused towards and influenced by a charismatic leader, but I think in the popular vision, only groups that cause trouble get named as cults. In theory there can be benevolent cults, but the process of a leader being elevated tends to lead to trouble.

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Yes, that was a very bad idea.