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The Former Cultist Speaks Out PART 3: When You Know it’s Time to Get Out

By Rachael Drew-Kinuthia

Let’s address more answers to questions on cult life. We already know cults aren’t going to disappear. Cults’ beliefs at some point aren’t going to make sense, so why do cult members keep staying and falling for it? Why do they have no trouble overlooking the “bad behavior” of the leader/leaders? Why is it typically a complicated process to walk away from a cult? How can they move on and stay moved on? This becomes a lot of the discussion centered around former supporters and members of cults whether they are political, religious, or lifestyle based. First, when it comes to joining any cult, I appreciate the written work and studies of Dr. Steven Hassan who has written about cults, recruitment, mind control, and proper exit strategies. His own early life experiences add to his base of knowledge as a psychologist writing about cults. He once said, “No one joins a cult; they are recruited by systematic social influence processes.”

A powerful statement and I can share how a couple of these “systematic social influence processes” created a particular mindset in me while still inside of a cult. In my memoir, The Truth About Change and Awakening, I wrote about my various feelings and experiences I had previously journaled. “As my teen years were coming to an end, the prospect of officially being viewed as an adult carried little weight. I wasn’t particularly excited to become a legal adult. I would be expected to remain a muted smiling version of myself… I must confess, in many ways this would be easy. Part of any teacher’s compliments regarding Jehovah’s Witness children always involved them being well-mannered, cooperative, and a pleasure to have in class. By my late teens, the picture was clear of what the expectation was of women—we would also be expected to display a cooperative and well-behaved manner. I knew how to simply follow suggestions, guidelines, instructions, counsel, and even outright chastisement, with a smile on my face.”

While I was trying to come up with an exit strategy, if I ever doubted some of the authority of the leadership or wondered if I could use my own discretion in making decisions, I got plenty of scary stories from my devout family members. They always told of someone who tried the same and now their life was a disaster. Everyone seemed to be addicted to drugs in their stories, everyone was in prison, had gone missing, turned out to be a prostitute, made victims of never-ending abuse, or they “lost their minds” (completely disregarding all of the Jehovah’s Witnesses we knew having mental health crises). Essentially, the message I received was ‘Beware of joining the corrupt and lost souls of this world or stay and be a good, submissive member of the organization and keep yourself on the right path.’

Black and white thinking was already a part of me whenever I was depressed, and it was a part of the cult’s teaching techniques too. It further compounded my fear of leaving, especially with the power dynamic between the ones in authority and the members, which greatly differed. Cult members have worked awfully hard to divorce themselves from their previous beliefs and lifestyles. They have worked hard to acquire and internalize the new cult belief and the prospect of having to give this all up with no belief system to call their own is extremely painful. On top of this, members who entered during early childhood or were born into that way of life, like myself, don’t have a set of previous beliefs to even consider. This is all they know to be true. Ex-cult members will likely also face the start-up costs of investing in a new life too. I remember thinking it would’ve been easier to stay then to start a new life. I planned for a long time and then I’d change my mind.

Now let’s say you eventually leave and have a support system—which could include a therapist, a family member who either left the same cult or understands how they operate, and a couple of new friends, or coworkers. Sadly, ex-cult members are usually either indecisive or make rash decisions when they finally get out. I had come out of a life where certain TV programs and movies were prohibited, clothing choices were restricted, expressions or phrases deemed superstitious and inappropriate to say, and some things were outright banned for members like voting or joining the military. Once you’re out from under all of that, there is usually difficulty concentrating and thinking analytically about things. It is difficult to transition from the former mind control or thought reform that was used. In most cases, it feels terribly hopeless until you begin either intensive self-help or seek out psychotherapy. In the meantime, making new friends is extremely challenging as a former cultist. It’s kind of embarrassing to admit that you were ever in a cult and account for missing years and activities of your life. The prospect of having no friends on the outside is enough to keep some people in the cult.

Why would someone want to be friends with a person from such a strange or intense background? This is what I used to ask myself constantly. In addition to these doubts, ex-cult members have a mistrust of others as a result of their boundaries being strictly controlled in some cases and in other cases the boundaries were crossed. Former members of the Jehovah’s Witness, Scientology, and Mormon cults have reported a similarity in having family life, school life, or work life all watched from afar. How was this done? Well, each of these groups—as former members shared, had ways to encourage members to report on other members and be taken to task by elders, ethics officers, or any other names their leadership positions are called. For me, there was a feeling of your congregation “sisters and brothers” are always watching. It was really a network of spying between the members, and this bred insecurity and a bit of paranoia in many. A number of former members of cults are likely to suffer depression and may feel a loss of self-confidence once they leave the cult. How do we help them cope with the lasting serious after-effects of being involved with a cult? Will you be able to take anything from their experiences to help ward off possible recruitment, especially of the young and the vulnerable?

Rachael’s creative and biographical writing can all be found at the link below. Paperbacks, hardcovers, and eBooks are available. The memoirs cover starting a new life outside of a cult, mental health themes, surviving breast cancer, living with autoimmune diseases and more. The poetry includes many of these same themes, social issues, and relationships. Paranormal fiction will be coming soon… Click HERE.