In her best-selling book about escaping Scientology, actress Leah Remini revealed the question she is most often asked since departing the cult: “‘How does someone like you get involved with an organization like Scientology?’ Or some people may phrase it more like ‘How the f— did you get into some crazy sh– like this?’”
She tells readers, “Scientology offers a clearly laid out scientific process that helps you overcome your limitations and realize your full potential for greatness.” How does one get drawn into such a group? What’s the sell? She explains: “You walk into a Scientology church… They offer you food, listening to what you have to say. Maybe you talk about how your parents are not supportive of your endeavors, and they respond, ‘Wow, that is not cool. You can achieve your goals in life’….You feel vindicated. This person understands me. He or she is my ally. This group believes in me. In the real world you may feel like you are nothing, but here you are treated with respect.”
The tales of how seemingly intelligent and strong men and women become involved in cults and abusive organizations are all remarkable in their similarity. It’s the same reason why people become involved in relationships with individuals unworthy of their time, love and attention. They provide something that is otherwise missing in these individuals’ lives.
The New York Times broke a scintillating story this week about a cult in New York that managed to draw in powerful and successful women and even went so far as to brand them. You read that right. Branded: like livestock, and willingly. Women signed up to have the initials of a man they were not romantically involved with literally burned into their flesh. They signed on because they were lured into “[entering] a secret sisterhood they were told was created to empower women.” One former member, Sarah Edmonton, told the Times of how a coworker got her involved: “She said it had been formed as a force for good, one that could grow into a network that could influence events like elections. To become effective, members had to overcome weaknesses that Mr. Raniere taught were common to women—an overemotional nature, a failure to keep promises and an embrace of the role of victim.”
This idea of empowerment is widely appealing; but those who join organizations like Scientology and Nxivm, the group the Times profiled, were especially vulnerable. People who receive even a modicum of positive reinforcement and love elsewhere in their lives aren’t usually the targets of these groups. Jezebel profiled another member, and the story sounds the same as that of Edmonton and Remini, “A few years ago, as Ashley Cantley will tell you plainly, she was in a pretty bad place. She was unemployed, her relationship with her boyfriend was strained, and she had no one to turn to for advice.”
The tragedy for these women isn’t just their involvement in a group which left them scarred, physically, emotionally and financially; it’s that they were so profoundly vulnerable that they signed up for the experience in the first place. The bombshell stories in the Times and Jezebel were widely read, as was Remini’s memoir and her subsequent A&E series profiling Scientology defectors, because we’re all curious: How does one get so low that that becomes appealing?
Most stories about those who were members of a cult feel incomplete; the “why” question is never sufficiently answered. The focus is so often on what happened to the victims when they were inside, the “what” “when” “who” questions are all answered, and usually the “how” as well, as Remini does in her book, instead of the forces that drove them to join a cult in the first place.
Cults aren’t a new invention; Jim Jones and the cyanide-laced Kool-Aid he doled out to followers of his Peoples Temple cult (killing more than 900 people, 276 of which were children) was one of the biggest stories of the late 1970s. Remini’s family became involved in Scientology in the 1980s. There have always been vulnerable people, and there unfortunately will always be those who are willing to take advantage of that vulnerability for profit and gain. Given the fascination the public has with these groups there is another tragic dimension: there will always be those (myself included) who can’t help but be hooked by their stories, voyeuristically interested in learning every possible detail of the horror they have experienced. The best we can do is try to remember that behind the weird rituals and often-violent behavior of these cults are real people, most of whom, unfortunately, never find their way out.
Image: By PictorialEvidence (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons