The Melancholy Post

I’m not sure where to begin today. I feel the urge to write, my creativity sparking in a way that it hasn’t in a while…but about what?

I have undoubtedly been dry this semester. I couldn’t even bother figuring out how long my break from writing needed to be or what a feasible schedule for posting might look like since weekly seemed so out of reach.

I’ve been struggling with how orphaned I feel lately. I knew that cutting off my parents would come with its own version of existential abandonment, but the way that is expressing itself hasn’t been in the way I expected.

I realize I long for a place to put roots down—a place to belong. I don’t want my family back, but I want to be part of something that I can truly invest in.

Graduate school has been that for me for three years. I’ve felt accepted and valued by the faculty and students. I’ve found in them an organization that truly feels like a healthy system and people who have my back.

But I’m getting ready to graduate, and I am taken aback by how painful that thought is.

I want to graduate. I want to get my degree and start my career.

But I don’t want to lose what I found there. I’ve had a glimpse of being part of something where my autonomy is respected, my mind stimulated, my safety maintained, and my whole self truly loved. To have that and then lose access to it, in some ways, is more painful than letting go of a biological family where I didn’t have that.

My school has come to feel like my family, but I know I can’t belong there forever.

I’m afraid that I won’t find it again.

There’s a wounded part of me that feels like I will always be “moving on” and never quite settling down, that I’ll always be a temporary fit but never able to quite stay where I want to and unwilling to stay in other places.

I know there are other ways of looking at my life’s trajectory, but currently the one I am feeling strongest is the series of “walking away.”

It makes me wonder if there’s ever a sense of family that can come for us “emotional orphans.” If we don’t find it with the people who raised us…can we ever really find it? Or do we just go through life feeling a perpetual outsider?

I’m beginning to crawl my way out of this dark hole. Give me a few weeks, and I’ll probably feel differently. Nevertheless, I’m coming to realize that perhaps the sense of displacement never fully goes away.

Incidentally, this song from Evita perfectly captures my current mood.

 

Surviving 1984: Understanding Mystical Manipulation

Picture this: You walk into a room full of people waiting to see a magician. The loud speakers are pumping with a dub-step based song with voiced-over inspirational statements from the upcoming presenter interspersed. The crowd is excited, and it’s hard for you not to feed off that excitement.

When the magician finally comes out, there are flashes of lights and a puff of smoke. He seems to appear out of nowhere. The crowd goes wild. With a wave of his hand, he quiets them down and as the show progresses, he demonstrates a seeming psychic clairvoyance about people in the audience and playfully induces a few to cluck like a chicken on stage for him.

You leave the venue awed by the magician’s seeming omniscience and omnipotence.

This scenario would be an illustration of the second criteria that Lifton identified in working with survivors of thought control: mystical manipulation. It can take many forms, but it generally has to do with the manipulation of consciousness or experience to produce a certain effect.

Within the illustration above, there are several techniques. The music before the performance was designed to pump up the audience emotionally, getting them excited. The beat of the music could induce a slight trance-like state, decreasing the critical thinking components of the attendees and increasing the suspension of disbelief.

Even the energy of the crowd was a manipulation in itself, encouraging your body and emotions to sync up with theirs.

During the performance, various things from knowing information about others (whether it was pre-gathered or they were actors in the audience is hard to say) and hypnotizing and manipulating the behavior of some (again, real or acted?) increased the sense that the performer was godlike or at least had powers beyond the audience.

Was this man an entertainer or conman?

To some extent it probably depends on the context.

Mystical manipulation is not, in and of itself, exclusive to cults, but consent plays a big part in the ethicality of how it’s used.

When you know that you’re going for that, you probably don’t mind. Buying tickets to see a magic show, for instance, involves a certain amount of consent and expectation and a willing suspension of disbelief. You expect to be wowed—for the magician to seem all-powerful/all-knowing—while also realizing that the magician is just working a fancy trick on you.

If you go to a church service and this is happening, you’re not warned about how it will affect you, and the person on stage is using this to gain your allegiance or to actually convince you that he is as magical as he claims, the manipulation becomes nonconsensual and potentially dangerous as demands are made on you to commit to something or give money towards something while your critical thinking skills are impaired.

What I described is probably a bit over-the-top when, in actuality, milder forms of manipulation are all over society.

Advertisements are notorious for using “peripheral” persuasion, subtle ways of using association and emotional induction to convince people that certain products will produce happiness, create beauty, provide sex, and do a bunch of other things that the company could never explicitly claim for its product.

You’re walking through a store and you suddenly think you NEED such-and-such a product and you don’t know why. The idea seems to come from you. No one is standing there telling you to buy it.

But in reality, you’ve been primed to think of that particular brand first and to associate that product with desires and drives beyond what the product does.

Mystical manipulation can also be used through more common spiritual or cultural practices. Margaret Singer describes the way that chanting or panting (or any exercise that decreases oxygen supply sufficiently) can induce a physiological reaction in a person which can later be interpreted by a group to indicate a spiritual experience that verifies their beliefs.

In reality, it’s a physiological trick akin to pressing the backs of your hands against the door jamb for thirty seconds and then feeling them involuntarily rise when you stop.

Other types of manipulation can be more subtle but just as effective. I mentioned priming earlier in regard to advertisements, but there is also prophetic priming whereby a person such as a fortune teller, preacher, or some other figure claiming to have knowledge beyond others will declare something along the lines of, “Something tragic will happen in the coming weeks. And when it does, you will remember my words and know that what I am saying is true.”

The trick is that it’s vague enough that it’s impossible for it not to come true; when it does, the speaker has already primed the person to associate the incident with a prophecy, once again lending that sense of omniscience and omnipotence to the “prophet” or their message.

Mystical or unusual experiences can be an important part of connection and meaning making, but they can also become weapons used to convince a person to join a cause without sufficient information or surrender their autonomy to someone else.

Being aware of how mystical manipulation can play out is a major component of not being blindly influenced.

If you walk into a venue with the scene described above and you know that the pumping music and emotional crowd will likely affect you, you’re prepared for and informed about the changes that may happen. You don’t suddenly think it’s because the person coming on stage is so damn wonderful, powerful, and all-knowing.

Being aware that you’re feeling the way the environment is designed to make you feel frees you to think critically about whether you consent to that environment and what the agenda of the people involved might be.

For further reading:

Robert Lifton: Though Reform and the Psychology of Totalism

Margaret Singer: Cults in our Midst

Videos on the effects of music in regard to cults/recovery

Compliance Psychology

 

Surviving 1984: Resisting Milieu Control

I have written in the past about some of the red flags that might alert someone to a toxic group, with the presumption that the person hasn’t been hooked into the Matrix just yet.

But what if you find yourself in a situation where you start to suspect that you might be already part of a totalistic group? What can you do?

Invariably, one of the strongest controls of the group is the control of the environment and information. Some groups actively isolate people on compounds separated from the rest of the world. Others merely create a cage of fear that prevents members from fully participating with society even as they live and interact in it.

Thus, for me, one of the most important steps to take in breaking out of a cultic group—or even merely testing whether you might be really in one—is diversifying access to information and knowledge.

Some cult specialists like Steve Hassan talk about isolation and information control as somewhat separate concepts. That’s helpful to an extent because isolation doesn’t always look like physical isolation. Within the IFB, I never lived separate from the world, but my schooling, textbooks, social interactions, and all were strictly controlled by the IFB, which was as effective as if I had been physically isolated.

But Robert Lifton’s criteria seems truer to the relationship of how the two interact.

Milieu control is what Lifton uses to refer to the control of the environment—which includes control of the external environment such as who people can contact and what kind of information is allowed to infiltrate as well as control of the internal environment, referring to the sense in which people will start to police themselves and control what they talk about or think about, who they talk to, and what information they seek—which is a perfect description of how I could have access to the Internet but obediently stay within the confines of expectations about what I read and researched.

External control is effective only so much, but if the people themselves will voluntary self-censor out of fear or guilt–well that’s far more effective.

But here’s the thing. Lifton also doesn’t believe that there can ever be a perfect control of the milieu.

There will always be doubts that will float to the surface of consciousness.

There will always be something that can happen in the environment that interrupts or threatens the carefully constructed façade.

That’s important because challenging a reality that is so tightly controlled requires access to information from the self as well as from the outside.

Presumably, if you’re reading this and you suspect you’re in a cultic or totalistic place, you are already beginning to listen to the internal glitch in the milieu control. You have doubts or worries that you’re not ignoring or pushing down.

That’s good!

Listen to those doubts. Actively look for the contradictions that tell you your internal experience doesn’t match up with what the group tells you is happening.

It is important after that to seek out different sources of external information where you can.

There will probably be certain “approved” sources, and the tricky thing is that they may range from outright lies about things that have never happened in the world to biased accounts of documented events. Regardless of which, it’s pretty safe to say that if you feel pressured or forced to stick within the bounds of certain pre-approved sources, they’re probably not giving you the whole picture.

It’s ok to read those and consider them, but they shouldn’t be the sole sources of information. Find ways to seek independent sources with different perspectives. (Don’t just read cult sources that summarize what the “other side” says—actually read the other side). Challenge yourself to truly try to see from the other perspective.

Can you understand how someone might reach a different conclusion?

Does one perspective seem entirely reliant on ignoring certain pieces of information?

Do multiple sources, independent of each other, reach similar conclusions based on their own investigations?

Does the source use so much biased information that you cannot form your own opinion about the evidence alone?

Note: this is also important in the battle against ‘fake news.’ Are reporters reporting on their own investigation of a situation as opposed to merely regurgitating a single source over and over? Are there multiple news sources reporting this happened or one obscure source? Does the language seem impartial or over-the-top and click-baity?

The lack of multiple sources isn’t, in and of itself, indicative that the information is false, but it’s a strong warning to be especially careful to corroborate what that source is claiming or to maintain the understanding that it can’t be corroborated and is, therefore, open to doubt.

Which brings me to an important quality that needs to be developed as you begin to test the boundaries of the milieu control in which you may find yourself—tolerance for ambiguity.

Cults thrive on the desire for certainty.

It’s universally scary and threatening to have one’s worldview challenged. People all over the world react in strange and sometimes violent ways to protect their sense of knowing how the world functions—to feel “right.” (See research on Terror Management Theory for more information about the universality of this)

But cults especially tend to have a low tolerance for deviance, questioning, disagreement, and the like. Part of the reason why people will self-censor is because it’s just downright scary to think, “What if I’m wrong?”

And the fear of that question is notoriously effective at making people ignore information that contradicts their perspective and seek out information that validates it.

Questioning a cult often means questioning deeply held beliefs that carry tons of fear about all sorts of bad things that might happen if you don’t believe the right way. In order to challenge the outer milieu control effectively, you have to be able to tolerate the discomfort of not knowing the truth.

That doesn’t mean complacency with not knowing. There’s a difference between, “God said it; I believe it; that settles it” and “I don’t know the answer yet, but I’m searching.”

The world is seldom as black and white as cultic groups paint it to be; thus, questioning and searching often means coming across different or conflicting perspectives. Being tolerant of ambiguity will strengthen the ability to engage with those perspectives openly and curiously to learn from them.

The more you expose yourself to different perspectives with openness and the more you practice thinking critically about information you come across, the better you’ll get at making informed decisions about what to believe.

Ultimately, if the cult doctrine/party line/whatever-you-want-to-call-it is true, it will be able to stand up to scrutiny, including the scrutiny of those critical to it.

I would strongly recommend that those interested in Orwell’s 1984 also read Lifton’s Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. Real-life accounts of an Orwellian world and how people recovered.

Reluctant Villain: A Poem

I’m not sure I’m ready to be back blogging, but I decided to share a poem I wrote recently. When the people writing the story get to cast themselves as the hero, standing with my principles doesn’t always allow me to be labeled “one of the good guys.”

Reluctant Villain

It’s not a role I relish.
All I want is to be well-liked
By everyone.
I never intend to hurt
Or offend.
But, you see,
I’m out to infect the world—
With respect
With love
With peace
With human rights for all…
And if the hero of your story
Doesn’t stand for those values,
I’m prepared to be your villain.
Somebody has to.

The Hermit

hermit-rider-waite

The Hermit from Rider Waite Tarot. Public Domain.

My card for this month is The Hermit, a card that indicates a time of withdrawing from society, self-exploration, emotional healing and self-care. It’s actually dreadfully appropriate to what I feel I need right now as I grapple with the death of my grandmother.

I kept up with my blog during my grief following August 2015, but I honestly have no desire to do that again so soon. I’m weary and angry and feeling extremely complicated emotions. I’m generally also pretty burnt out and fed up with social justice concerns, as I wrote about in my last post.

Therefore, I’ve decided that the best thing I can do this month is follow the leading of my tarot card. I will be taking a break from blogging for the time being. I hope when I return that I will be brimming with things I want to talk about.

Right now, I need to turn inward.

My Wounded Activist Heart

I’m not a Trump fan by any stretch of the imagination, and I’m as eager as anyone to see him discredited, dethroned, impeached, jailed, etc.

But I draw the line at attacking his wife.

Since the election, I’ve seen an upsurge of Facebook posts suggesting that Melania’s former work as a nude model makes her unfit to be the First Lady, disparaging her for being an immigrant, or negatively comparing her with “classy” first ladies like Michelle Obama or Jackie Kennedy.

As a liberal, feminist, bi activist, I cannot participate in those efforts in good conscience because they conflict with my values.

How Melania has expressed her sexuality shouldn’t matter. No woman deserves to be ridiculed and shamed for how much or little of her body she has shown. Having a history as a porn model or sex worker should have no effect on whether someone is qualified for political office, much less on whether she’s qualified to be the wife of someone in political office.

On a similar note, her former work shouldn’t imply that she’s less “classy” than other First Ladies because claiming such would require a view that sex work is shameful and debasing–a premise I adamantly reject.

Ironically, I have periodically heard people try to justify these attacks on Melania by claiming that it is no different from how Michelle Obama was treated.

But in my book, turn about is not fair play.

It’s not making people reconsider how they might have talked about Michelle Obama. It’s not preventing Melania from being the First Lady.

It’s not even hurting Trump because he unquestionably demonstrated that he had no problem taking jabs at Melania at the Al Smith Charity Dinner, despite his visible discomfort with any jokes directed at himself. Melania is expendable to him, only useful insofar as she feeds his need for power and prestige.

But I have another reason for my refusal to make sexist attacks on Melania. She is the first First Lady that I have worried about her treatment at home.

Trump is publicly emotionally abusive to virtually everyone he dislikes, particularly towards women. He has been accused of rape and sexual assault from more than one woman, including an accusation of marital rape and domestic battery from a former wife.

I have no confidence that he suddenly becomes a docile teddy bear in private with Melania.

It’s hard enough to get out of a toxic relationship in normal circumstances, but when your husband is suddenly the Commander and Chief with the secret service at his disposal and an ego as fragile as a butterfly wing…I don’t know about you, but I’d probably keep my head down and beg people not to make him angry as well.

Ultimately, I see attacking Melania as more than a direct conflict with my values; it’s potentially heaping yet more mistreatment onto an already mistreated woman, demonstrating to her that those who claim to be “on the side” of women are hypocrites, neither a safe haven nor living example of respect for her.

But standing true to my social justice values has resulted in some unexpected conflicts. Others that I would have previously assumed shared my values have reacted with hostility towards my discomfort with the treatment of Melania. I’ve found that people are willing to resort to prejudice and then claim oppression when I speak out against that prejudice. Just yesterday, I was accused of being a homophobe and a white supremacist because of this stance.

It’s a discouragement I didn’t expect to face as I headed into a Trump presidency. I’m not only contending with the horrible realization that sexism, racism, and despotism won the election, but I’m also having to face the reality that it’s infiltrated what I would have considered “my turf” and poisoned those I would have called “my people.”

Trump has said and done some truly awful things that shouldn’t be ignored…but if the attempts to oppose him sound more like something he would say, I’m not sure that’s a movement I actually want to be a part of.

That Time a Cult Survivor Attended a Winter Solstice Ceremony and Survived

I worked up the courage to go to a solstice ceremony this past week. I haven’t been to an actual religious ceremony in years, mostly because I can’t stand being in churches or church-like buildings–but a good portion of that also stems from the distrust I carry.

Since the ceremony was taking place outside, that removed the problem of the setting being an unnecessary trigger.

I have been curious about some of the public sabbat ceremonies held in my area for quite some time, and with the help of a new friend, I finally convinced myself to check it out.

Much of it was familiar enough from reading Starhawk that I could understand what was going on. I think it was good that I had that map because I might otherwise have been too insecure to stick it out.

There was the opening of the circle and calling in the four directions, followed by a short soliloquy about the symbolism of the solstice from who I assume was the High Priestess.

I was jumping out of my skin with apprehension, but I also found it really powerful to be in the company of people who honored nature and who didn’t deny the integration of darkness with light.

It was similar to church in some very small ways, but it was also significantly different from church—more than any other type of ceremony I’ve been to. Even when I checked out a Buddhist meditation, that felt more “churchy” than not. This one felt like the “churchy” feeling was residual for me, not due to the ceremony itself.

After the High Priestess finished her piece, people were invited to bring a stick up to the central fire and burn it with their solstice intention.

My readers who come from the IFB will probably chuckle or cringe to read that. A symbolic stick-burning was a very integral part of the indoctrination experience at the summer camp we would often be sent to. Four days after being separated from everything and everyone familiar, being run around ragged, and listening to sermons on hellfire morning, afternoon, and evening, The Wilds would “invite” us to throw a stick in the fire to represent surrendering our lives.

Summer after summer I would be pressured into showing my submission after being systematically terrified of dying on the drive home if I didn’t, so I fully expected to be freaked out of my mind when I heard the invitation at this ceremony.

But it was, again, different. No one was asking me to give up anything in the process of participating. I was setting my own intention. I could share it or keep it private.

And it was actually beautiful to hear the things that people were wishing for the world—things like peace, love, and healing. Even for a ceremony that acknowledged and embraced darkness, there was none of the “darkness” of the hatred and judgment and othering of the IFB.

Then came the dancing…and that’s when my participation meter maxed out.

I wanted to dance. I loved the idea of dancing as part of a religious ceremony. I was desperately cold by then and would have appreciated the warmth of dancing near the fire.

But I’ve also spent too much time studying the ways that people are influenced by cultic groups. I know that dancing in a group or singing in a group can be a subtle way to create a lack of oxygen, decreasing critical thinking and potentially even stimulating a trance-like state. Group participation increases the conformity and belonging drive. The combination of all of that can be a vulnerable mix.

Not a bad mix, per se. Dancing, singing, chanting, etc. can also be used to stimulate spiritual experiences that are entirely healthy.

However, I couldn’t know what would happen during or after the dance. I was new to this group and needed to keep my wits about me. I needed to know I was safe, that someone else wouldn’t try to make demands or interfere with my process while I was in a vulnerable state.

I simply couldn’t know that about this group the first time.

I felt awkward dropping out to the edge of the circle and watching. Part of me was afraid that it would be considered inappropriate, but I also knew that dropping out would be a good test of the safety of the group. If someone tried to coerce or pressure me into participating, that would tell me that my own limitations weren’t respected and that there may be more toxic elements to this group.

Spoiler alert: that never happened.

I was able to withdraw and stand at the edge, watching, without any interference. Moreover, I was able to observe, with my critical thinking, observing mind, that those who participated in the experience had nothing to fear regarding others trying to influence them during that process. No one tried to recruit new members to join the group. No one tried to pressure attendees to give money.

After the dancing, the dancers regrounded their energy. I was able to rejoin for the closing of the circle and farewell to the directions.

And that was the end.

In some ways, this feels like a huge milestone for me even though all I really did was go to a public place and stand at the fringes of a group, barely participating. What was happening inside was far more significant than it seemed on the surface.

I was healing and teaching myself that I can hold my boundaries in group situations that are unfamiliar.

Ultimately, I was able to face down some of my own fears and participate in something truly lovely while respecting my limitations and enjoying an actual ceremony that didn’t feel at all cultic.

It was a lovely Solstice gift to myself.