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Building a Life after Leaving a High-Control Religion

Amber Scorah’s “Leaving The Witness”

A good writer can hook and hold you from start to finish with a well-told story, which is definitely how to describe Amber Scorah’s new book, Leaving The Witness. However, it is much more than that, too. Amber’s memoir is both a heart-wrenching recollection and a riveting educational experience about the workings of institutionalized undue influence and the crisis one faces in even thinking about breaking free from a high-control religious group. In her case, this was a group whose eight million members, her friends and family included, hold their beliefs with absolute and exclusive certainty.

Amber articulates her past with generous clarity, and Leaving The Witness offers a smorgasbord of goodies for anyone searching for personal truth. Just a few of the poignant snippets from her transformational experience read as follows:

“It’s not the kind of religion that lets you walk away, because the people in it think that by walking away, you have lost your mind and interventions will bring you to your senses.”

“I was afraid of the book, Crisis of Conscience. To me … an alive thing, that its pages would creep out of the cover and slice me up, then throw me out onto the street, worldly and alone.”

“I had performed mental contortionism to reconcile the irreconcilable so that I could feel comfortable. I had been ‘in the truth’ because I was afraid of the truth.”

“Curiosity is a bad quality for the preacher. You preach because you are sure. You preach to people who don’t need to hear it, because possibly you are the one who needs to be saved.”

Amber Scorah

Amber Scorah

Amber summarizes her successful search for personal autonomy in the last paragraph of her memoir, penning an epiphany that Mark Twain would have championed for its content and style. It is one of those gems you can look forward to reading again and again, a parting gift to readers as the culmination of what will be a cherished account for others who have left similar environments and those who care about them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leaving the Witness on Amazon

Faith-based Medical Neglect and Undue Influence

With more than 8,000,000 purported members, it is likely Jehovah’s Witnesses are the foremost example of faith-based medical neglect and undue influence. Although they have abandoned their anti-vaccination policy (1952), and their organ transplant policy (1980), they retain a complex and evolving policy on blood transfusions.

While the blood transfusion policy was originally based loosely in scripture, a complex set of organizational rules dictates which types of blood products may be used, and which are prohibited. Additionally, this list has been repeatedly altered, with most members confused about what is allowed, and what is not. Members are required to accept whatever the current policy might be at any given moment, and dissenters face severe sanction if they choose not to follow the policy.

Compliance with the policy is bolstered by misrepresentations from physicians, scientists, and historians such that the average Jehovah’s Witness will generally be convinced that using blood is bad medicine. The choice to reject medically necessary use of blood products has led to countless deaths over the decades, with estimates ranging from 36,000 to as high as 56,000. http://ajwrb.org/jehovahs-witnesses-and-blood-tens-of-thousands-dead-in-hidden-tragedy

Lee Elder, a former JW elder, and the managing director for AJWRB (Advocates for Jehovah’s Witness Reform on Blood) points to the particularly troubling aspect of how the policy has impacted children and adolescents. Jehovah’s Witness parents are expected to reject blood even when the life of their child is in jeopardy, and in fact, numerous children have died as the Watchtower Society (governing entity) has acknowledged.

In more enlightened countries, courts will overrule the parent’s decision, and order necessary treatment to try and save younger children. However, in many parts of the world, adolescents can be granted “mature minor” status, and make their own decision. Frequently, the doctor or the judge will speak directly with the JW adolescent to see if they understand the issues.

Knowing that such interactions may occur, the Watchtower has the parents put the child through drills from a very young age so they will be able to recite the correct answers to the doctor or judges questions about the blood policy, and be granted the legal right to martyr themselves if need be.

A decision to support the Jehovah’s Witness policy on blood is too complex for a young mind to grapple with. This is particularly the case when the child has been carefully programmed to fear blood (via implanted phobias). The child is also facing tremendous pressure to conform, and will be shunned by their Jehovah’s Witness friends and family members if they don’t obey the organization’s dictates.

The rational choice in these situations is to authorize the physicians involved to provide the best level of care available for the child, rather than a second or third best option offered by a doctor who has promised not to use blood under any circumstance.

When the child reaches the legal age, their mind will have further developed, and be less likely to be unduly influenced or coerced. Historically, the majority of Jehovah’s Witness children eventually leave the group as they move into early adulthood. Physicians and courts have a responsibility to try to keep them alive long enough that they can reach adulthood, and make informed autonomous choices.

 

 

This post is an excerpt from Jon’s new book, Opening Minds – A Primer on Undue Influence, scheduled for release in the fall of 2019. This blog was a collaborative effort between Lee Elder and Jon Atack

 

 

Hercules and the Monster

Hercules, travelling along in between his famous trials, came across a foul-looking creature the size of a small rat, blocking his path, snapping and spitting at all who passed by. The demigod raised his club and gave the creature a sharp crack upon its ugly, shriveled head. Instead of falling injured, the creature spat flame, shaking with rage and swelling up to the size of a large dog.

Undaunted, the famous hero swung his club again, only to find himself facing a monster twice his size, a giant hulk of twisted flesh and bone, spitting bile and making the surrounding countryside tremble with its deafening roars.

He raised his club again, preparing for an epic battle, when his sister Athena appeared at his side. “Lower your club, brother,” she told him gently.

Hercules lowered his weapon, watching in amazement as the creature grew smaller again.

“What is it?” he asked, his brow wrinkling.

The Goddess of Wisdom smiled gently. “It is Spite; the more you battle with it, the larger and stronger it grows. If we leave it behind, it will no longer trouble us.”

Spite is often used in abusive groups and relationships – and can even become their identifying feature. Inciting rage by provoking indignation at some perceived wrong can countermand all our critical thinking, leading us to act without engaging our intelligence.

Rage, however, is not limited to predatory people and groups: those of us who work to expose and end the systematic human rights violations caused by undue influence are often indignant – and rightly so – at the abuses we see around us. Too often, what we see is maddening, the stories we hear terrifying. Our indignation can even become a defining point when we ask ourselves why we have chosen this path.

Historically, righteous indignation has provided valuable fire to act against such injustices as slavery, intolerance, poverty, sexism and war. However, we must remember, while we are travelling along upon our Herculean task, not to allow our indignation to become poisoned by Spite, and let our anger turn us against each other, or, worse, those who need our help the most, the people still caught in the grasp of a high-control group or relationship.

While it is important to stand against predation and undue influence wherever we find it, we must not descend into attacking people, instead of opposing abuse. It is not only possible, but necessary, to expose and work to end injustice, without giving in to Spite, as those who invoke it or act on it rarely have anyone’s best interests in mind. If we fight just to fight, then no one can ever truly win.

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree?  Have you read Spike’s dystopian novel?Do you have a story about Spite that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!

 

Six Ways Undue Influence Erodes Family Love

Many people are shocked at how “easily” the natural bonds of family love can dissolve under the high-pressure undue influence of an abusive group or partner. They often ask: “How can a child shun their parents?” or, more poignantly: “Why would loving parents agree to cover up the abuse of their own child?”

One of the hallmarks of a high-control group is the way they tear families apart: married survivors of cultic groups talk about the group being “the third person in the marriage bed,” and those born and raised in such groups know that they came second to the leadership in their parents’ lives, abandoned emotionally, if not physically.

Worse, children in high-control groups who experience physical or sexual abuse at the hands of the leaders cannot expect the same love and support they would receive in a “worldly” family – their trauma is compounded as their parents cover up, deny, or, in extreme cases, encourage and even perpetrate the abuse, all in the name of the group, its reputation, and its goals. Open Minds Advisory Board member Alex Stein gives an excellent account of the disorganized attachment found in such relationships in her book Terror, Love and Brainwashing.

And yet, the members of high-control groups aren’t monsters; the “average” cult member is intelligent, well-adjusted, and capable of rational thought – about anything other than their group and its beliefs. Those who manage to escape are usually able to re-grow healthy family relationships with those outside the group.

So how can a daughter be swayed to ignore her mother? How can a father be convinced to keep silent about someone in his church sexually abusing his son? Here are six of the most prominent ways an abusive group erodes the natural bonds of family love and loyalty:

1. They position the group and its leadership as the Ultimate Authority.

For a person of faith, there is no authority higher than the Divine, and an abusive group will subvert that authority by teaching that they – and they alone – speak for God, Allah, Krishna, Mother Goddess, the Great Spirit, the Divine Principle, or Karl Marx or however their members have been taught to perceive Supreme Authority. Even in groups with no theology or political view, there will be an overriding principle or purpose to the group which members will view as all-encompassing and of ultimate importance; they are carefully groomed to believe that leaving the group is tantamount to betraying their principles, their cause, even the future of humanity. The group is equated with all that is good and worthwhile in the world; how could anyone turn their back on such lofty goals?

2. They equate obedience and loyalty with “goodness”.

In the closed system of an abusive group, obedience and loyalty are held up as the highest virtues, while independent thought and dissention are suppressed, even characterized as “evil”, “subversive”, “worldly” – a laundry-list of undesirable and questionable traits. Children in the group are taught to obey without question; adults are taught that questioning the leadership has serious consequences. Those who keep questioning the status quo are shunned, expelled, or, at the very least, lose status in the group, viewed as spiritually or intellectually “weak,” and to be kept at arms’ length – until they return to the fold.

3. They use fear and spiritual blackmail.

Those who consider speaking out against the group or partner face many indoctrinated phobias: they will lose their relationship with Divinity or their chance for Eternal Life, they will betray the world-saving goals of the group, and turn their backs on the Truth, with a capital “T.” They will be betraying the Revolution, or the People, or their partner. Although these are “false” consequences, there are often real consequences to rebelling:  those who speak out are often expelled, losing their families, their friends, and most, if not all, of their social support network. They are faced with the unhappy truth that those they have left behind now see them as apostate, evil, backsliders, or traitors.

4. They teach that “Earthly” life is worthless, and our bodies expendable.

How can seven to nine decades on a sin-filled world compare with an eternity in Paradise? Belief systems with an afterlife can dangle the carrot of eternal joy walking alongside the Creator to manipulate their members into almost anything – this concept of “jam tomorrow” teaches that the present is only a period of waiting, and the abuses and indignities of life in the group are tests of character at best, and meaningless illusion at worst. The faithful don’t have to worry about “Earthly” troubles, injustice or abuse: in the hereafter, all wrongs will be righted, loyalty will be rewarded, and those who died will live again.  An abusive group relying on an afterlife to keep members in line teaches that we only have to have patience, now, in this imperfect world: eternity is “just around the corner.” In political groups, an earthly paradise for future generations is offered.

5. They restrict reasoning into black-or-white, all-or-nothing thinking.

In the world of the abusive group member, there is no room for uncertainty: a member is either fully committed, or they are “backsliding” and in danger of damnation. A relative is either a member of the group, or a member of the “outside” unilluminated world. There is no in-between, no compromise, and no negotiation: you are either with us, or against us, and doubt is never an option. The dynamics of a healthy family cannot exist in such a moral “flatland”: the give-and-take, unconditional love, and all-encompassing acceptance most of us should expect from our family is warped and flattened into conditional, rule-enforcing domination, when focused through the lens of an abusive group or partner’s monochromatic worldview.

6. They keep members too busy – and too tired – to think properly.

This is perhaps the strongest – and definitely the simplest – of controlling factors. Caught up in the urgency of the group (and abusive cults are always in “crisis” mode), committed to punitive work routines, deprived of sleep and on a low-protein diet (or even fasting), the members of a high-pressure group exist in a never-ending whirlwind of activity and stress, barely keeping themselves together long enough for the next Bible study, the next course, the next fundraiser. There is no time to reflect, regroup, or recover – certainly no time to think things over, and definitely no time to question orders.

In conclusion, there is no excuse for shunning friendly family members or allowing the abuse of children to continue, but a working knowledge of the principles of manipulation go a long way toward understanding how otherwise healthy families can have their bonds of loyalty to each other eroded and co-opted by abusive groups or partners. Happily, with new knowledge of how healthy human interaction works, more families are choosing to leave abusive groups behind – and reclaim their loving relationships with each other.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about eroded family loyalty that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

The Donkey and the Idol

Once there was a Donkey who belonged to a man living next to a temple. Every year, the temple had a festival, where the statue of the local god was carried around the town square by a beautiful stallion. However, eventually the stallion became too sick and old to bear the weight of the idol, and the monks, not having enough money to purchase a new horse, asked their neighbor for the loan of his Donkey.

The Donkey had never paid attention to the festival, so had no idea what all the fuss was about when, laden with the stone god, he trotted out into the town square and found himself the center of attention. Everyone cheered and clapped, bowing and throwing gifts of flowers to the idol. The Donkey, thinking the people were cheering him, held his head up high and proudly carried the idol around the town square before returning to his stable.

Frowning at his humble surroundings, the Donkey became angry and said to the other animals: “Look at this dingy old stall! I am a revered and important person and deserve better than to be cooped up with you ordinary animals! And look at this filthy manger! Certainly, such a holy Donkey like me deserves better food than oats and hay!”

He went on for some time in this manner, until an old Crow spoke wisely: “You were carrying the image of a god, a symbol of a divinity: the people were cheering at the idea of the god, not at you, or even the idol itself. Just because you carried a statue on your back does not make you any more holy than you were yesterday. You are a Donkey, no more, no less; now stop putting on airs and be content.”

There are many who think that, because they somehow represent their idea of god, that they are holy themselves, and better than “ordinary” people, but nothing could be further from the truth. The same is true for those who think that wealth or status entitles them to better treatment.

Healthy skepticism shows us that it is the idea of something higher than us which brings people of faith together, that we are all entitled to fair treatment, and most importantly, that there is a big difference between a divinity and the one carrying the idol on their back.

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Spike’s dystopian novelDo you have a story about misplaced reverence that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

 

Australian Royal Commission Report: Clericalism Protects and Enables Pedophiles

The Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has released its final report; these landmark hearings on the institutional responses to reports of pedophilia have uncovered some shocking insights. One of the most important findings of the Commission has been the existence of clericalism – the belief that clergy are more trustworthy than “ordinary” lay people.

Clericalism is an unfortunate byproduct of religious life, deeply woven into the structure of most religious and spiritual groups. Even in groups claiming to have no clergy, the de facto leaders are automatically trusted above rank-and-file members, their “higher” spiritual status marking them as morally superior. This false perception can lead to the dangerous belief that a member of the clergy would not be capable of abusing a child. The Commission reported:

In devout religious families, parents often had such high regard for people in religious ministry that they naturally trusted them to supervise their children. People in religious ministry were considered to be representatives of God. Many parents were unable to believe they could be capable of sexually abusing a child. In this environment, perpetrators who were people in religious ministry often had unfettered access to children.

This atmosphere of clericalism not only gives pedophiles “unfettered access to children”, it assures that the children who report abuse are often accused of lying, which compounds the damage. Tragically, even the children who are believed are often counseled to forgive their abusers, because the assaults are considered a moral lapse or a sin, rather than a crime.

Whether or not the child’s report of abuse is believed, the Commission found that, more often than not, the abuse is dealt with “in-house,” for the good of the group’s reputation. Those who insist on going to authorities are often reproached for bringing shame on the organization’s “good” name. Many have been ostracized, shunned, and even threatened with damnation for upholding the law.

Most disturbing was the Commission’s discovery on how children are taught clericalism, across multiple religious and spiritual traditions:

We have heard that children were raised to have the utmost respect for the religious organisation their family was a part of, and were often taught that people in religious ministry, such as priests, were God’s representatives on earth. Some perpetrators used this status to facilitate child sexual abuse.

Pedophiles who have gained any kind of spiritual status in their particular organization have free rein to abuse children with impunity. Shielded by clericalism, they are able to keep abusing over decades, even if multiple victims report them. It comes as no surprise that the Commission determined they had “heard more allegations of child sexual abuse in relation to institutions managed by religious organisations than any other management type”.

We at Open Minds salute the sterling work of the Australian Royal Commission, and hope that their extensive study will lead to positive changes around the world. We hope that religious organizations take immediate action to change the attitude towards authority that clericalism breeds. We must teach our children that, no matter how beneficial an organization, there can always be a wolf in the fold – and we must promise them that we will listen, even – and especially – when they accuse a shepherd of abuse.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about clericalism that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

Teens and Online Grooming – Do You Know Someone in Danger?

Online grooming is a dangerous form of undue influence. It is likely that someone you know is being groomed. Online grooming hijacks a person’s loyalty and separates them from their usual support systems. It happens for many reasons: Internet cults divide people from their families; health gurus sell useless or harmful potions; sex traffickers groom youngsters; pedophiles search out victims; and tricksters groom would-be entrepreneurs into pyramid and Ponzi schemes destined to empty wallets and wreck lives; terrorist groups recruit idealistic people of all ages to perform suicide missions. Online grooming is not unique to teens.

But, while we are all vulnerable, we are at our most vulnerable to predators during profound changes in our life – and a teenager’s life is all profound changes. Much of a young adult’s social interaction will happen on the Internet, where the opportunities – and the people offering those opportunities – will be virtually endless. Many opportunities will be good, and most of the people honest. However, a predator will not look any different – at first – from any other new friend, and a dangerous group will do its best to seem like it’s the safest place you could possibly be.

So how can you tell when a friend is in the clutches of an online predator? There are some tell-tale signs. Remember, just one or two of these don’t necessarily mean that your friend is in trouble, but enough of these red flags occurring together might well be a sign that something isn’t right.

1. You’re worried.

You feel that something is not quite right, but you can’t put your finger on it. This is completely valid: we’re bombarded by sensory input from all directions, and most of it slips in below our conscious notice – including dozens of warning signals. If those subconsciously perceived warnings didn’t manifest as a gut reaction of danger, our species would have died out long ago. So, explore that hunch that your friend’s gaming buddy is creepy, or that your sister’s Bible Study group is becoming a bit too intense – then look deeper to find out why you feel that way.

2. There’s no time for anything else.

One of the chief hallmarks of any abusive group or relationship is the way they drain away your time; former cult members agree that they were often simply too busy to think about anything else. An exploitative Bible-based group may keep its members rushing to “perfect” themselves before Armageddon; multilevel marketing groups push their agents to use every moment to sell, sell, sell; a sexual predator will use emotional blackmail and the pretense of jealousy to keep a victim from spending time with anyone else. The concert or party that you and your friend have looked forward to for months is no longer important; the only thing that matters now is this new person or group.

3. They become a “parrot.”

When 14-year-old Breck Bednar was being groomed by the man who would eventually lure him to his death, he often frustrated his mother by refusing to do as she asked, using his Internet mentor Lewis Daynes – his murderer – as the reason for his disobedience. “Lewis says…” became the standard opening to many of his sentences. We normally quote people who make us think, but ideally, more than one person should be offering us answers. When your friend begins quoting an Internet guru (and nobody else) with every other statement, this is clear cause for alarm.

4. They’ve become someone else.

Young adulthood is a time to try on many different roles and adopt all sorts of new ideas. However, if a teenager, in trying on a new identity, and completely breaks with their old “self,” this is cause for concern. Any healthy philosophy, religion, or romance allows for a weaving together of the past and the present; the mentor, lover, or religious leader who demands your complete detachment from everything and everyone in your “previous” life is never going to be a good influence.

5. They show symptoms of psychological abuse.

This can be a tricky area: any or all of these signs can occur just because your friend is a teenager, let alone a teenager in trouble. Just as with this list in general, while one or two of these signs can be safely dismissed, more could mean your friend is in trouble, if they:

  • display extreme changes in eating and sleeping habits
  • have rapid changes in weight or appearance
  • become uncharacteristically violent, fearful, or negative
  • lose interest in activities they once enjoyed
  • suddenly have expensive items like cellphones or high-ticket clothing
  • suddenly display an uncomfortable amount of knowledge about sex, weapons, or drugs
  • become passionate about a certain religious, political, or philosophical viewpoint and dismissive of all other views

The most important words in this list are “extreme” and “sudden” – we all change over time, but abrupt, excessive shifts in personality and behavior are usually the best warning that something is wrong.

6. The person or organization seems “fishy” to you.

A groomer will drive a wedge between the victim and their caregiver, so sometimes a parent will be the last to know what is really going on. As a friend, however, you can see details a parent will not. Is this new person controlling? Do they make grandiose claims and promises? Do they constantly criticize your friend’s family, their former beliefs, your school, or your teachers? Do they give your friend expensive gifts, or buy them things teens can’t buy for themselves, such as drugs, alcohol, or adult-rated video games? Do they demand secrecy from your friend? If your friend sneaks around to take part in a new relationship or organization, this is a giant red flag; in normal circumstances, no honest person or group needs to hide from public scrutiny.

So What Can You Do?

As a young adult, there’s no better time to learn about confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance. Just as your parents’ disapproval of your new boyfriend or girlfriend only strengthens your commitment, telling your friend that you think they’re in danger simply won’t work. You want to maintain the connection, and we all tend to avoid people who constantly criticize us. Be friendly and listen: being argumentative and judgmental will not help.

You might not be able to tell your friend anything, but you can keep asking open-ended, curious questions, keep encouraging them to engage in activities that have nothing to do with the new group or relationship, and, above all, you can be there for them, as a friend. It is also a good idea to remind them of good times with family and friends before the new relationship began.

You can find a more definitive list of do’s and don’t’s here, but simply letting someone know that you care, no matter what, speaks volumes: when things go wrong, your friend will turn to you for the help they finally know they need.

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree?  Do you have a story about online grooming that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!

Healthy Skepticism and Freedom of Belief

Healthy skepticism has always been an important part of my life; I was raised to be a skeptic while still in a religious family, and consider myself to be spiritual, while not accepting magical thinking or false conclusions in order to have “the answer”. Yes, it is smart to be skeptical, but healthy skepticism still leaves room for those of us who want to have transcendent moments, a sense of spiritual connection, and religious beliefs.

To me, having an open mind means leaving the door open to the possibility that there are many answers to the same question, that there is no one correct belief; you have the freedom to choose which answer feels right to you at the moment, without being pushed in one direction or another, by anyone. I say “at the moment,” because I know that some people want and need certain answers, but these answers can change over time as their lives change and as their emotional needs wax and wane.

Some former members I speak with feel embarrassed that they still believe in God, or follow some non-mainstream beliefs like astrology, Tarot, or psychic ability. Sometimes, these people feel they need to hide their belief from me, or even from others at my former-member support group, as though this belief is a sign that they haven’t made enough “progress”. Just like before they left their controlling environments, they live in fear of being found out, of having their secret revealed: they feel they can never be truly open about themselves, that they are different from the others around them. These worries about being seen as different or gullible only reinforce the alienation, secrecy, shame and isolation they already feel because they were involved in a cultic group or abusive relationship.

The whole point of recovery from a high-control situation is to be free to be genuinely yourself, without someone telling you how to be and what to believe. But many people are still stuck in an unfortunate mindset: they often think that if they left that “one right way to believe” because it turned out to be false, they now have to make sure to only believe the “right” way, as though there is still a wrong or right way to believe. This maintains the black and white thinking of cults. Beliefs come in many forms, none less valid than the next, but the important part is to be able to choose your belief, the ability to change your belief if you wish, and the freedom to believe differently than those around you without fear.

For more on this topic, check out Jon’s blog on science versus religion. -ed.

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about healthy skepticism and belief that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!

 

 

A Rude Awakening: Dissociation Under the Grip of a Predator

Editor’s Note: This story, although true, is admittedly on the unconventional side of what we would normally offer; this example of dissociation, although extreme, serves nonetheless as a textbook portrayal of the phenomenon. For all those who do not understand why those in the grips of an abuser don’t “simply walk away,” for all those who cannot fathom how a parent could abandon a child, for all those who are unable to comprehend how a young idealist can go from spiritual seeker to suicide bomber, we present this illustration of just how far those under the grips of undue influence can lose their own identity. Not all cult members dissociate, but it is a common enough happenstance, even in much more conventional settings than the one presented here.

“Sophia!”

I huddle beneath the threadbare blanket, trying to convince myself that I do not hear the voice of my tormentor, the man who, just last night, as a “spiritual lesson,” gave me the bruises now spreading over my shoulders and upper arms.

“Sophia!” Nightmare calls again, his voice directly above me now. A rough hand shakes my shoulder. “Sophia,” he snarls, the cruel fingers tightening on my bruised flesh, “do not pretend to be asleep, Wife. Awake and face the consequences of thou actions.”

The arrogance in his voice, combined with the stilted, high-school theater delivery of his words and the misuse of ‘thou,’ is enough to flip a tiny switch in me, and I decide to go into hiding, in the only way I can. In a futile to escape the inevitable humiliation, I will dissociate from my physical sensations and retreat into my inner world.

If I try hard enough, I can almost believe it’s actually happening: I imagine myself surrounded by a cool, prismatic shell of pure crystalline ice, with the filigree gold setting just visible beyond. In my mind’s eye, my husband is just an indistinct blur behind the safe walls of the diamond in my wedding ring; when I am inside this stone, he can do me no harm.

I convince myself I do not feel his fingers squeezing harder. In my Empire-cut sanctuary, the violent jostling of my shoulder is just a gentle rocking. There is a slap to the top of an uninhabited head; clumsy enough to be passed off as a ‘slip of the hand,’ but hard enough to make me wince, although I am not there.

I am not there, no, not there at all. Absolutely not squeezing my eyes shut harder, and certainly not tensing my muscles, I imagine the prison of diamond grow harder around me. I am safe in protective custody.

“Sophia! I can tell you’re faking it! Awake, stupid girl, and attentive me.”

Attentive me?!? It’s all I can do not to burst out laughing. This idiot is the incarnation of Poseidon, Lord of the Oceans?

“Are you laughing at me, Wife? I shalt teach thou verily to laugh.” Another slap to the head, and the rising swell of anger in my mind festers and solidifies. The involuntary curve of my laugh becomes a sneer; like shrugging on a coat, I slip into another set of mannerisms, a different vocabulary of facial expressions, an internal shift of posture from prey to predator. The shivering body curled into a fetal position becomes the crouch of a tigress ready to spring, the sneer widens into a snarl, the helpless trembling becomes quivering rage.

I open my eyes: the glint that shines there is not mine. “Yes, I was laughing at you,” I tell the slovenly boy before me, my voice much deeper than my normal tone (but it is not my voice; I am not me, I am still within the diamond upon my finger, and I cannot hear what is going on so very, very far away). “I was laughing at you because you still mistake your daughter for your wife.”

The expression of blank incomprehension eventually shapes into a simpering play of compassion; his voice softens, the line of his mouth forms the parody of a warm smile. “Pumpkin?”

My eyes darken and I hear the voice fill with scorn, as my body raises itself up into a sitting position on the grimy ‘twin’ mattress we sleep on in this shoddy upstairs room. “Not that daughter.”

If I was really me, I would enjoy the look of confusion on Nightmare’s face as he rummages in his tiny brain for the names we’ve given to our future children, who exist, potentially, in an alternate universe, waiting for us to get our marriage “back on track.” As it is, our youngest imaginary daughter smirks openly at her father’s stupidity; they “have will never once” get along, as our leader Sequoia so charmingly puts it.

Finally, he manages to pull a name from his cannabis-clouded skull. “Malice,” he sighs. “Where is your mother?”

“Where is your self-control?” The Demigoddess of Revenge asks sharply. “I’ve only been in this body five minutes and I can feel the bruises you’ve given her. And less than half of them are from what apparently passes for sex with you. Just what ‘spiritual lesson’ were you teaching her this time?”

“That’s between thou mother and I,” he proclaims stiffly, drawing himself up haughtily, all five foot four inches of scrawny, filthy, couch-surfing drifter covered in threadbare clothes from the clearance racks of Hot Topic (by way of Goodwill). Malice sums up her feelings for her father in one disdainful glance, and, theatrically looking around for where her mother hid the last pack of cigarettes, retrieves them and lights one up.

“It’s ‘thy mother and me,’” she says on the exhale. “If you’re going to insist on using archaic language, at least get the right usage. And get your modern grammar right, too.”

“And what wouldst thy know,” he snaps, “about grammar?”

“Enough to know that it’s ‘wouldst thou know.’ It’s not just one or the other; you have to know which to use when, kind of like forks at a formal dinner, if anyone invited you to any formal dinners.”

“We are the Lord of Atlantis. And what wouldst thou know about grammar, then? Thee is not a denzien of this time and place.”

Malice rolls her eyes. “‘Thou art not a denizen,’ Father, not ‘denzien.’ And if you’d be troubled to rack your aged brain a bit, you’d remember the formal dinners in Atlantis involve slaves carrying vomit buckets and people throwing chicken bones across the table. In any case, the grammar expertise is in Mom’s memory engrams – four years of hard grammar, university level. So just give it up and talk like a normal person from your century.”

Nightmare’s eyes blaze dangerously, and I realize he thinks he’s caught me in a trap. “I thought we got rid of all the engrams from that body’s ego.”

I puff casually on the cigarette, thinking quickly as I take a long drag. But I am not here – I am still in the diamond, safe and so far away ….

But still, a daughter must do what she can to protect her mother. Malice, Demigoddess of Revenge, laughs derisively. “Not the informational ones,” she says lightly, even breezily. “I mean, how would you expect Mom to remember how to drive a car or do her mundane job? or even how to digest her food?”

With a sinking heart, I can see that Nightmare has seized on a fault he can use against me. My husband’s eyes glint menacingly. “Still, we might have to do some exploratory surgery again to see that there’s no emotional attachments to these engrams.” He does his best to look calculating and intelligent, but only captures calculating and brutal.

The walls of my diamond refuge shimmer, and I feel Malice’s confident façade crumbling. Great Mother, I can’t do this …

She’s gone; I’ve lost Malice, but still I dare not venture from my mineral fortress. Instead, I go with weakness; rage is replaced with anxiety, the insouciant smile melts into a trembling lower lip, and the rebellious gleam in the eye becomes a helpless, silent plea for mercy.

The Demigoddess of Sea-Foam gazes helplessly up at her father, her whole posture and manner begging to be nurtured and protected. For some reason, our ‘oldest’ daughter manifests far younger than the adult personas of our other future offspring: Effervescia, my husband’s favorite child, is always barely out of toddler-hood, her voice wispy, ethereal.

“Daddy,” she whispers, “why do you have to hurt Mommy?”

Once again, Nightmare’s stony glare grows soft. Only years later will I wonder who it was he thought he was protecting in this strange playacting dance of ours. But now, only the smallest shadow of my original self is present to squirm at the twisted caricature of a concerned parent that sits down by my side and wraps his arm round a pair of shoulders still bearing bruises from his fists; the rest of me is far away, and yet literally at my fingertips. But still, an icy layer of super-hardened carbon, protected by a gleaming web of gold filigree, protects me from the poisonous murmurings of this horrible, horrible man.

“Now, Pumpkin,” he coos in a sickly-sweet voice, “if Mommy is malfunctioning, I’ll need to –”

“She isn’t malfunctioning!” the child screams, hysterical tears burning to sudden life in her eyes. “You’ve been hitting her!” The rage is spent as rapidly as it arose, and once more Effervescia crumples into a tiny ball, shrinking away from her father’s frightening embrace. “You’ve been hitting her,” she repeats in a tiny, far-off voice. “And you’re not supposed to hit her.”

Nightmare’s voice grows angry again, as he repeats his constant refrain when challenged on anything: “We’re supposed to work in tandem.” Only later, when I leaned the term thought-stopping phrase, would I understand just how he was always able to shut me down; even if I had snapped back to “myself” to argue the point, it would now be about the definition of working in tandem, rather than a discussion about his inability to keep his temper. And working in tandem inevitably meant that I must do as I was told.

Instead, I give the imaginary child free rein to plow through the whole mess, allowing myself to dissolve into a vapor of tears, my cries of protest growing ever more incoherent until they trail away into sad little hiccups of bubbling froth. Like water draining out of a tub, I envision the spirit of Sea-Foam leaving my body, spiraling away, back into the realm of unrealized potential from whence she came. Again I focus on the hard shell around me, and envision it becoming my outer body, growing to fill the space where once there was vulnerable flesh. But like the diamond on my finger, this body is harder than anything in the room, even my husband’s voice as he realizes that the favorite daughter is gone and only his wife’s hated body remains, the body he despises, the body which, he tells me constantly, disgusts him so much that sometimes he is forced to abuse it, if only to push its odious presence further from him – he loves his wife, but the body she has chosen for this lifetime simply repulses him.

That body does not feel anything now, not when Nightmare shakes the bruised shoulder roughly again and again, not even when he “accidentally” kicks a shin as he gets up from the mattress with an angry, simian grunt. The sound of heavy footsteps across the creaking floorboards does not register; a body made of diamond cannot hear.

And yet I manage to hear what the pathetic headbanger I’ve been married off to would call a ‘Pythonian shot,’ as he turns and delivers a final threat.

“I know you can hear me in that ring of yours, Sophia,” he growls. “If you’re not out in the kitchen to make breakfast for us in five minutes, I’ll send Pain in to wake you up.” There’s a sickening pause. “Remember, Brother Pain doesn’t mind hurting … children,” my husband finishes with a dark chuckle. Even though I am not there to hear him, I can envision his sneering face. “I’ll leave you to work it out,” he says, and closes the door softly behind him.

Years later, I learned that disassociation is a normal reaction to bullying in destructive relationships – those who are abused retreat into an imaginary world until the predator’s attention moves away. Back then, I just thought I was either a gifted “channeler,” or just going insane, depending on how much I believed the fantasy world our leader kept spinning around us.

How much did I really believe all of this? Over two decades later, I honestly don’t know, and the point is moot, anyway: back in that grubby apartment surrounded by the cornfields of northwest Ohio, we were ensnared in the net of a narcissistic leader who made us pawns in his megalomania, promoting himself as the “Magnus of the Eon,” who would utter the magickal spell to bring the world into a New Age – to disobey him was to risk catastrophe for the entire Cosmos. Even spelling “magickal” without the “k” could have dire consequences.

Now I can see that I had been cowed into subservience, skilfully manipulated into believing the crazy scripts of this narcissist. It might seem hard to believe that I was taken in by such insane fantasies, but I know through my work that the grip of undue influence is worldwide and pervasive, and that millions of people in all strata of life are currently living under the spell of exploitative persuasion – from coercive control in the household, through pseudo-religious cults and on to whole nations – like North Korea – all of them caught up in the fantasy of a narcissistic predator.

As a final note, although it was hard for me to dredge up these unpleasant memories of long ago, they are a valuable reminder of how much I have survived and how far I have come. I know, because I’ve lived it, that we humans are amazingly resilient creatures, and although we can be ensnared in a net of undue influence set for us by a narcissistic predator, we are also able survive, to escape, to help others out of the trap, and ultimately, to flourish.

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about dissociation that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

FAKE NEWS at its Best: “Armageddon Is Just Around the Corner”

Poul judgment day must wait coverBregninge launches his exceptionally well-written must-read book, Judgment Day Must Wait – Jehovah’s Witnesses: A sect between idealism and deceit, about the American-born religion, Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs), by stating that religion can be a force for faith, hope and love. But, not with this group! His impeccable research chronicles a 138-year history best described with words like “denial”, “suppression”, “superstition”, “masters of manipulation”, and the overriding fake news: “Armageddon is just around the corner“.

Poul’s treatment of the movement’s history, members’ experiences and disquieting statistics are eye-opening, to say the least. The 600-page book is “sometimes academic, often documentary and an endlessly human examination of a wholly manmade theocracy and its apocalyptic crimes of ideology and religious folly[1].”

Poul alerts us early onto Watchtower’s culture by reporting:

“Psychologically speaking, the movement’s own self-understanding is enormously exaggerated. From a world point of view, it is largely inconsequential. As a phenomenon, the JWs are hugely well known—far beyond what the movement’s size warrants! But, their history is at the same time extremely interesting, fascinating and frightening.

“JWs find themselves in a conceptual world characterized by delusions, making it impossible for them to grasp the gravity of their situation. The systematic subversive and detrimental influence, to which they are constantly exposed, causes their real ‘I’ to be overlaid with the weight of organizational matter, absurd doctrines, and unreasonable rules, all of which are done to keep them detached from anything considered normal by the rest of society.”

For all that Watchtower has done to champion “freedom of religion”, it does not practice what it preaches. Poul does a masterful job of showing readers just how difficult Watchtower makes it for members today if they want to leave.

The organization has become a “giant”, with neither heart nor sense. Members stay with the group because of family and social ties, the threat of severe shunning if they leave, and a phobia-induced fear of Armageddon.

Poul’s book clearly illustrates how foolish people can be when they too strongly and uncritically engage in a utopian ideal. And, he concludes his story with: “We now find ourselves in 2016, more than 100 years after the Day of Judgment failed to materialize. But in spite of it all, and once again, according to the Witnesses, we are nearing the end of the road; Armageddon is just around the corner.” Their “good news” is the ultimate in “fake news.”

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Poul’s book? Do you have a story about the Jehovah’s Witnesses, their history, or ‘fake news’ that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

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[1] Dawn M. Johnson

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