There are many different cults around the world, all with their own unique set of rules and beliefs. Cults range from small groups of devoted disciples to something much more sinister. Regardless of circumstances within a particular cult, it is still universally difficult for members to leave.
Here, former cult members bravely discuss what it was like being in a cult and what eventually led to them to leave.
I was a Jehovah’s witness. They found my mum when she was vulnerable (22 with 3 kids under the age of 5 and in a borderline abusive relationship). We where raised in to believe in ‘the truth’ and to not speak to anyone at school because they were worldly. Also to not stand up for ‘Oh Canada’ which led to a lot of bullying.
They forced my mum to marry my step dad, knowing full well that he was abusing us all. I finally stopped going when I was 17 and I realized that the one person I had told about my rape (by a worldly ex boyfriend) had told everyone in the congregation and I was shunned for having a boyfriend at all. So I meet my now fianc and booked it outta town as soon as I could.
It didn’t end there though. Two years later I found out that the elder who I viewed as a father figure was being charged with assaulting a minor with three other victims stepping forth as well. It was then that I realised he was only so close to me because he was grooming me and if I had stayed worse things would have happened.
Now I find it hard to believe in any God figure and I find myself hating God for letting it all happen to countless others like me.
It’s not a cult per-se, but I joined Hezbollah when I was 17, and left when I was 22. I’m a girl so I didn’t fight or anything, but I did recruit a lot of other girls. I joined because a lot of my friends were doing it. Now, they are not your everyday terrorists. A lot of our activities concentrated on the concepts of jihad and martyrdom, but they offered a bunch of other stuff. A lot of it was educational (because women can’t be uneducated, they are half of society and they raise the other half). They give university scholarships, offer free additional classes for those with learning disabilities to help them, and eventually they even made job offers. We also had outdoor activities, trips to tourist sites, hiking, picnics, etc. They also organized “cross-religious” activities, especially with Christian organizations, those were meant to teach us tolerance. All in all, they were very nice people.
The reason I Ieft is that I didn’t feel I fit in, they are EXTREMELY religious. I’m religious too, but not to that level. They also started judging me for the way I dress, for having male friends, and for being “too brainwashed by the western media”. Also, I was too surrounded by women, which led me to discover I’m bisexual, this is something I’m still struggling to accept. I felt I needed to get away from all these women before I lose my mind. I’m still friends with many of them though.
I didn’t initially think it was a cult but during a senior trip (private Christian high school) we met the group Bound 4 Life. I went to college in San Diego and joined their local chapter. After joining I was heavily encouraged to not cut my hair or shave and to fast for 21 days (any liquid was fine). The meetings either in front of the court house or in an office building. You were expected to stand for 4+ hours 3 days a week with tape over your mouth in silent prayer then 2 days a week there were meetings designed to make you feel like you weren’t doing enough for “the cause” and that you were not praying or participating enough. You would get calls on a daily basis from the leader “checking” in on you. It was very well organized focused on making you feel inadequate mentally, physically and religiously.
Something just clicked in my head and I stopped responding to their calls and since they could not get past the main gate on campus they just left me alone.
I was in a cult.
I was at a homeless shelter having dinner and this guy struck up a conversation with me. He told me about this “program” that would feed me, house me and get me clean and sober for free. It was the dead of winter and I was in a very bad spot. I was willing to try anything to get clean and get my life sorted out. I told him to give me a night to think it over. The next day I called him from the courtesy phone in the hospital and he drove me out to this property in the marshland just off the highway in a town I’d never heard of.
I didn’t realize it was a cult until I’d been there a day. By then, the guy who drove me in was gone. But they fed me and I got a warm bed and a friendly welcome. This could be an entire novel but I’ll pare it down to the main points.
Some of the rules:
No women. No nicotine/caffeine. They U.A.’d for both. No white bread (Yeah, weird). No reading material that was not assigned. No phone calls. No outgoing mail.
No leaving the (fenced) property unless supervised by a cadre or escorted by a phase three or higher. I heard that someone got kicked out because they were on the bus and their escort saw them talk to someone they recognized.
Easily the strangest thing was “webcast”.
I don’t even know why they called it that and I learned not to ask a lot of questions because that could land you in the “hot seat” (more on that later.) “Webcast” was essentially a big room full of chairs, like a chapel, called the “fellowship hall”. There were big speakers and a giant projector screen on the back wall. When “webcast” was announced over the P.A. everyone filed into the hall and the lights went down. Then a video would play, but it was mostly giant words flashing up on the screen for a moment and then being replaced by more words. This was accompanied by a loud male voice doing a weird narration. The first one I ever saw said approximately, “You’re in a cage. There is a being outside the cage. [The word CAGE flashed on the screen.] There are two men in the cage with you. The being opens the cage and you’re FREE. You run into the DARKNESS. You remember the two men in the cage. You have to turn back and SAVE them. SAVE them. You run back to the cage but….”
On and on like this. It was like a parody of a brainwashing scene from a Warner Brothers cartoon. I remember realizing that I’d gotten myself into something. I wasn’t scared. Not of the other guys at least. There were about sixty of us. The cadre would always joke(?) that we were living with sixty of our best friends. What scared me was the idea that the ridiculous attempts at brain washing would, over time, actually have a effect on me.
You couldn’t leave the property unsupervised for nine months of “black out”. Then you could transition into being a “phase”. A phase could escort men to town and back and were allowed to listen to the radio and sometimes one of the cadre would take you to a concert or a movie but usually he would take you on hikes where he would blow this stupid horn intermittently and no one could talk. Anyway, I was able to keep it together and not become like the others. They were just anchored very deeply in their beliefs (a far-off cousin of Christianity).
Punishment was not extreme but it was actually very unpleasant. When you intake, you are assigned a color. Green is new. Blue is higher, then silver, then purple and then you became a “phase”. If you messed up, you were yellow and you lost privileges. No seconds during meals, early bedtime, extra chores, etc. It went all the way to red before you got kicked out but orange was the worst. If you were orange, no one was allowed to talk to you. At all. And you had to spend an hour in the “hot seat”.
The hot seat was a chair in the middle of a small room. The cadre would bring in all the men that they knew you were friends with (not the ones that you weren’t) and they would sit in a circle around the room and take turns telling you what they didn’t like about you. And they HAD to have something. It would go round and round until time was up. Then you were free to go. I never sat in the hot seat but I sat in on two hot seats. Both men cried.
I’ll spare the bulk of the story but I was in the program for a year (I never saw the guy who brought me there again). I was in transition for three months and had just become a phase when I got kicked out. The “exit” was pretty straight forward. You were escorted out to one of the vans (you couldn’t get your things from your room) and driven into town where they would just drop you off and leave. No one was allowed to talk to you or they would be exited too. Then you were on your own to get out of the middle nowhere.
I’m still surprised that I entered and exited a cult. But I’m still clean and sober and I have a much better life now so I guess it was worth it. And I got a couple of stories to tell.
I accidentally joined the World Mission Society Church of God () which is a Korean cult that believes in a man named Ahn Sang Hong () as the second coming Christ, and the current leader is a woman who he selected as his ‘spiritual wife.’
Typical lavish affections and gifts at the beginning of the process, and slowly they start to infiltrate your life. Once I realized it was a cult (they left out a lot of details in the beginning and started slowly letting on) I started to distance myself. It was very hard because a few of them had really become close friends to me. Certain members followed me to my school buildings and waited for me outside of my classes. Two of the girls called me crying begging to go to heaven with them. It was so tough to say goodbye. They really believed what they were preaching.
Then I moved to the states and only receive an occasional email from them. They still remind me of my “Life Number” just in case I want to ever go back to a church in my region and need to fill out any forms. (A life number is what you receive the first day that you are baptized into their cult.)
The organization received an award for philanthropy from President Obama a few years ago. Genuinely kind people. Always helping the poor, needy, doing volunteer drives, etc. HUGE presence in poorer countries in South America. They also have expanded pretty extensively into Southeast Asia and China. But I ain’t about that cult life.
On the bright side, if it turns out that if really is the second coming Christ, I still remember their prayers so I’ll be all good, I guess…
I was part of a fundamentalist Christian cult known as ATI/IBLP. Recent scandals have hit the news about the cult leader Bill Gothard when over 50 women came forward with allegations that he sexually harassed them. But that’s only scratching the surface. Let me tell you my scariest experience – and just keep in mind, I’m far from the only one.
First off, throughout my childhood my father and sisters abused me sexually. Since the cult taught a strict familial hierarchy, with the father being top dog, then mother, then children in order of birth, as the youngest I was bottom of the totem pole. My father would twist Bible verses to justify rape, death threats, and more. Because ATI is a home school cult, it was really handy to cover up the abuse from any prying eyes.
My home was a prison for 11 years until my dad died of a massive heart attack. And that’s not even the scariest experience.
Fast forward 2 years. I’m 13, with a mother who’s frantically fixated on me being a “troubled child” because I dared resist my father’s advances and argued against the abuse I was suffering, gaining me the reputation of ‘Rebellious’. Also, I’m severely depressed because I’m a freaking rape victim and depression is considered sin, and I asked too many questions as to WHY we believed the things we believed – you don’t ask questions, needless to say.
So she calls some cult members here and there, pulls some strings, and long story short, she gets me placed in a secretive program called the “Log Cabin” program. They tell her very little details about it, and she tells me even less. All I know is I’m about to move to Oklahoma for a while to be fixed by “nice counselors” because I’m a dirty sinner. Wednesday, July 11th, 2001. I’m dropped off at a locked-down compound in the middle of nowhere near Skiatook, Oklahoma called “Eagle Springs Training Center”. They pose as a “residential childcare facility” for appearances sake. This means my mother literally signs over custody of me, her own child, to a bunch of strangers in a compound in the middle of nowhere, and leaves me there and goes back home far away. They assure her I’m in good hands.
For the next two years, I am tortured, brainwashed, starved, sleep deprived, threatened with a shotgun, punished, humiliated, interrogated, and terrorized.
I lose 40 pounds in the first month or two. They take me off my medications (believing it is wrong to take them) cold turkey; I exhibit severe symptoms of withdrawal and they go ignored.
I am worked grueling hours, sent on aimless hikes and marches, scrubbing floors on my hands and knees until my knuckles are cracked and bleeding from the bleach, punished with hard labor until I’m near fainting. They had fun coming up with new and strange “punishments” (this implies that it is deserved, when in fact they are instructed specifically to break their students’ will whatever it takes).
One was a forced vow of silence: You were told never to speak for days or weeks on end – if you do, you are punished further. I was given tasks designed to fail (for example, extremely short time limits on difficult tasks) in order to be punished and humiliated. I was forced to grovel and confess humiliating sins (existent and non) in front of the 30-or-so members in the compound.
I was given spoiled, undercooked foods, and even chemically-treated water that burned my throat and left me horribly sick. I was placed in solitary confinement for 2 1/2 weeks, while they blared music to torture me (the song lyrics went, “Trust in the Lord, he makes no mistakes, he knoweth the end of each path that we take – for when I am tried, and purified, I shall come forth as gold” — basically it was a blatant message…you’re being tortured because God loves you and he’s going to put you through fire to melt you into gold) and gave me endless confessional papers to complete detailing what a terrible sinner I am. I was interrogated for hours on end, as well as hypnotized. I was screamed at and “exorcised” for hours on end. I had no privacy, even going to the bathroom they would stand outside the door. I could go on and on and on. I was there for TWO YEARS.
The scariest part of all of this is that I am far from the only one. The Log Cabin program was run in Oklahoma, Indiana, and I believe an alternate version for Russian orphans was done elsewhere (either Indiana or Illinois). All of these programs secretly tortured and brainwashed children and teenagers. Many of them were so-called “delinquents” (they had committed minor, petty crimes) who were ordered by judges to be shipped to these compounds and held against their wills. This runs very deep. It has never been accounted for and probably never will be.
They tried to investigate alarming allegations of child abuse (some of which included beatings) in Indianapolis, IN and the whole thing got swept under the rug. The only thing you got to hear about on the news was Gothard feeling up a bunch of women. You never hear about his systematic child torture programs. Bill Gothard and IBLP simply have their fundamentalist hands in too many pies. They will probably never be caught.
In 1993, I joined ISKCON, also known popularly as the Hare Krishnas.
In the late 80s to early 90s, they recruited heavily from the punk rock and hardcore scenes. I had a very unstable family life, and had practically been raised in another cult-like religion as it was (Pentecostal/Assemblies of God). I was under a ton of pressure, and decided to tell everyone to screw off by dropping out of society in a radical way.
I was involved for about a decade. I lived in various temples, and spent a few years on a compound.
I left because it broke my heart. I felt betrayed in every way a person could be betrayed. It was so much about control. There was so much lying, fraud, scamming. Women and children were treated like subhumans. I was pressured into marriage as soon as I turned 18, to a serial rapist. It lasted a year. I ended up remarrying at 21. We left the compound together. Quietly, gradually, we pulled away. We went to the temple regularly, then less regularly. Then we moved to a city with no temple and told no one where we were going. He and I ended up divorcing after 8 years of marriage. My moment was realizing that I was absolutely nothing to the people I stood in so much awe of.
Nothing in the entire cult was meant for me. It was all written for men. And not just men– for a religion that spouts off about “we are not our bodies”. They have a hell of a lot of racism, sexism, classism. All the -isms. My presence and participation were, at best, peripheral.
I ran away from home at 16 and joined this weird spiritualistic cult. They didn’t have any gods but they believed a lot in spirits and ancestors and stuff.
We all lived in this big house owned by the leader guy who’s name was Johnathan, Jonathan had a special kind of connection to the spirit world or whatever. They were all super good people, they took me in, gave me food and clothes and stuff, one of the guys gave me a job in his company. They had a lot of rituals and stuff we all did, with a huge emphasis on community and common good and honoring the dead. It wasn’t a bad thing so does that make it not a cult? Not sure.
They did require a lot of dedication to the group and stuff, I believe 5% of income had to go to the cult, to help Jonathan with rent and so they could all buy food and stuff. I lived with them for a few years, they got me through high school and without them, I never would’ve gone to college. That’s the reason I left and where I am now.
They call themselves “American Buddhists”. Cult led by the late Frederick Lenz, Jr., AKA Atmananda AKA Zen Master Rama.
No actual relation to Buddhism. Pushed students into high paying careers, and then made sure to extract as much as possible out of them.
Back in the early days of the internet, I started asking around online about him. He caught wind and called me out on the carpet, with his body guards in full force. I played good little meek student there, but afterwards realized it was all about control.
I just stopped going, but they didn’t try to keep me in. It was an opt-in sort of cult.
Frederick Lenz committed suicide in 1998. Not to put to fine a point on it, he had his students lie on their resumes. When I say they gave him money, they would sleep four to a room, on the floor, while working software development jobs.
EAt the time I joined, they had an age cutoff. They didn’t want anyone over 29. I figure there are two reasons for that. The “good” reason is that by 30 we’ve acquired enough baggage that spiritual development is more complicated. That actually implies laziness, at best, if they don’t just adjust training methods depending on age. The “bad” reason is that young people are a lot easier to manipulate. I was borderline at the time, having just turned 30. I think a combination of being just past that malleable phase, and general bloody-mindedness, are what made it possible for me to leave.
I was in a cult when I was a teenager. What was weird is that it wasn’t one of the typical ones. It was just a Christian church, but ran like a cult. Here’s a few rules, “children had to attend their school to avoid corruption, temptations and science (yes, science was evil)”. “No care should be given to appearances to avoid vanity or sexuality. (This included jewelry, hair products and even perfume)” “Girls should not talk to boys or men without other people present lest we tempt them to sin.” “All music must glorify God or it cannot be listened to.” “You must donate 20 percent of your income.” “Everyone must donate at least 10 hours a week to the church (we had food banks, hot dinners for homeless, and charity clothes shop).
It was weird. You didn’t even realize it was a cult until you were so far in. Friendly people, lots of charitable works and sermons straight out of the bible made it seem normal and even good. Hey, join the school it’s private education for free! Except it was a horrible education. As an excellent student previously they had me teach for the younger kids instead of me learning anything. Don’t be vain or dress slutty! Sounds fine, until you’re told as a teen to switch brands of body wash because the smell of you is tempting.
Luckily my parents and I started to question things at the same time. I can’t imagine being trapped in something like that.
I grew up in a cult. I wasn’t born into it– my family converted when I was 9ish. I remember everything about my life changed. We went from a seemingly “normal” family with no religion to suddenly everything was a sin. Everything was wrong.
The “prophet” WMB was born in 1909 and died in 1965. To this day, there are people who still believe he is going to magically come back to life and preach tent meetings around the world.
I left the cult and my family the night before I turned 18 with the help of my now ex husband (another story for another day). My family finally realized about two years ago that they were brainwashed and left the cult. They’re still trying to find what “normal” is for them. Many things have gone back to the way they were before they converted– music selection, etc.
In that environment, women are a doormat. We have to be submissive to our husbands in every way. Women are supposed to stay home and basically be child dispensers. I knew from a young age that I was child free, so this never appealed to me. While I enjoy doing all of the “wifely” things (cooking, cleaning, etc.) I knew that there was more for me.
I am now 28 and a successful businesswoman. Sometimes I do still struggle with the cult mentality. Some of those things never leave you. It wasn’t until recently that I thought of myself and my partners as equals– two people on the same team working towards the same goals.
Funny thing is that my previous pastor (Daniel Gissendaner) was actually arrested for DUI last year. It’s hilarious and awesome but also sad to hear about all of the corruption in the church and cult. I can’t understand how so many otherwise intelligent people can be so brainwashed.
I’m sure people can debate the “cult” label, but I was raised in a pretty extreme Christian church. They were obsessed with angels and demons and spiritual warfare. We thought for sure the end times were coming any day, and the Antichrist was going to force everyone to take the mark of the beast. We’d have to choose, and if we chose to take it, we’d be condemned to hell, but if we didn’t, the government was going to starve us and hunt us down and cut off our heads.
When I was 12 or so, the news broke that an abortion doctor had been shot, and my Sunday school teacher talked to my class about how maybe it was God’s will for us to shoot abortion doctors.
The group had a sick fascination with beating kids for even the tiniest of infractions and loved to talk about different methods for doing it. Parents traded tips and did demonstrations for each other, using the children as models to be beaten. It was somewhat ritualistic and almost a religion in itself. They thought they were saving and purifying the children. My childhood was punctuated with violence and threats. It messed with my head pretty badly, still does.
I left because when I became an adult, I thought about raising my children like that and it sickened me. I “knew” god wanted me to hit them, but it went against all my instincts. That made me want there to be something bigger than the god that I knew, a god that seemed more and more evil. Or, I wanted there to be no god, and I could live according to my own conscience instead. The idea that I would rebel against god by not hitting people sparked a journey that ultimately led me to atheist, years later.
I was in a cult called Sukyo Mahikari, which is a cult based out of Japan. Mahikari prefers to be called an “organization,” and not a religion, but around the world, they enjoy tax exempt status. They are classified as a cult in some countries.
My parents joined when I was 5, so it was pretty much the religion I was raised in, and was expected to join fully once I reached 10. My parents had both been raised Catholic, but they had fled that mess before I was born. My dad was (is) a chiropractor and had been sort of in Scientology prior to me being born. Needless to say, he had a predisposition to outsider beliefs.
My dad found out about Mahikari in the early 1980’s from some other fellow Scientologist chiropractors, and introduced my mom to it. She had been searching for something since she had left the Catholics, and really clicked with Mahikari. Eventually, she came to head up the center in my hometown.
I moved away from it in my late teens, as my mom got more deeply involved with running it. When I was 18-19, I realized that I wasn’t going to live a heterosexual lifestyle, and that didn’t sit too well with my mom and the cult. They viewed homosexuality as spiritual disturbance, akin to possession by an attaching spirit. And as I started to have a life of my own and date, my family and their religion were increasingly a liability.
I got far away from my family once I was in my early 20’s, and my mom and dad finally broke away from it when I was around 26, after a big power play in the organization saw my mom lose her position at the Center. I wish I could say that was the end of it, but people from the cult still have a way of popping up out of nowhere from time to time. However, my parents and I are reconciled, and I’m back in my hometown.
I grew up in a UPCI church until they weren’t conservative enough. so our church decided to leave the organization and only associate with other extremely conservative Pentecostal churches. For example we weren’t suppose to fellowship with anyone, who didn’t have the same “holiness standards” as us. Examples of these standards: Women weren’t allowed to cut their hair, wear pants, makeup or jewelry. No TV was allowed or internet in your homes. Men couldn’t wear shorts and everyone had to wear long sleeved shirts. Certain reading materials were prohibited, no alcohol was allowed to be consumed. Any music that wasn’t suitable for Sunday morning service wasn’t allowed to be listened to, including contemporary christian music. Some people weren’t even suppose to communicate with their family members.
I eventually left the cult after learning about science, history, religion and archaeology at college and online. I also learned about sexual abuse, embezzlement, emotional and other physical abuses that had taken place over the years at the church. After confronting the pastor, who may never be questioned about such matters. I was pretty much excommunicated about two years ago. I’ve been doing better ever since then, but I still suffer from having being brought up in a cult. I managed to also rescue my sister from there a few months ago and we’re much happier now. I still lost a lot of my friends, but l’ve been able to make new ones. I’m now more atheist/agnostic than religious.