Someone Like Me: Anatomy of a Cult Member

I find this post somewhat embarrassing to write, but they say “our scars become our ministry” and I think God gets all the glory for that.

In this blog I have focused often on cult leaders and what makes them tick, and it seems only fair to turn the lens around and focus on what makes someone a devoted cult member.

Someone like me.

I stayed in a New England Bible-cult for 25 years, only having serious concerns during the last year of its existence. After our pastor was deposed, a church consulting agency which specializes in broken churches interviewed our elders. The consultants said it was the worst case of spiritual abuse they had seen in 40 years of ministry. Hurray for us.

The author at Bar Harbor, Maine, in the summer of 2010. It was in March of that year that the cult he was a member of broke apart.

As an identical twin, I’ve often mused as to why my brother left our cult when we were 17, but I stayed in for another 13 years. What was it about me that made me succumb so totally to the doctrine and practices of our pastor? Why couldn’t I see the warning signs? Might these same characteristics hold true for other cult members? I think they often do.

Here is a cocktail of six characteristics that made me a superb cult member. Do any of these describe you?

1.) Blind Follower.

All followers follow, but blind followers follow at any cost. I was so concerned to invest power in a leader that I idealized and followed even untrustworthy leaders. This made me susceptible to charismatic, confident, or charming personalities.

Since my former pastor demonstrated both confidence and charisma, I handed over the reins to my brain and let him steer me wherever he wanted. I suppose this made me feel safe—my soul was in the hands of my pastor—and I felt that I only had to worry about the details of life. I learned much later that God holds each person responsible for their own soul. No one can believe for you. And I was to follow my pastor only insofar as he followed Christ. Unfortunately, he was a blind guide and I followed him right off a spiritual cliff.

2.) Rule Abider/Legalist.

Cult followers usually have an exaggerated sense of rules and regulations. I sure did. For me, rules provided a rigid framework that helped me make sense of life and appeared to keep me from danger. They were like the lead blankets a radiologist lumped on me before X-rays. Heavy comfort. To me, the Bible was the ultimate Rule Book, and my pastor became the ultimate interpreter of those cosmic rules. Indeed, since my pastor claimed to have special insight into the Bible—and also claimed that God spoke to him personally—I latched on to him as an island of security in the confusing sea of life. When the rules became almost too heavy to bear, I embraced them as the lead security blanket which would help preserve my soul.

Even though I am no longer in a cult, I still give rules undue power in my life. For example, when my wife and I visited the Bishop Arts District in Dallas, we ate dinner and then browsed around looking for ice cream. Across the street from us lay a small ice cream store. The sign read, “Open till 9pm.” It was 8:55. “Let’s go” my wife said, tugging at my arm. I stood rigid—the little red hand told me it was not okay to walk. “But there’s no traffic coming,” she pointed out. No matter. Little red hand speaketh the truth. We waited. The light failed to change. “It’s broken,” my wife said. No, I thought. Little red hand does not lie. The traffic lights cycled through several times, and the little red hand still refused to change. Other people came and went. We waited. Must obey little red hand. You get the picture.

3.) Seeking Belonging.

As an insecure young man, I wanted to belong to something greater than myself. I wanted to feel part of a community of people who would love me well and serve as a buffer against the world. I found such a group in the tight-knit community of my small church. We were in, and everyone else in the world was out. God loved us and had special plans for us; everyone else was doomed.

We practiced love-bombing. Heard of it? It’s when members of a cult shower attention and affection on visitors or new members. It works beautifully especially when the visitor already feels lonely or out of place. Suddenly they feel welcomed—wanted!—and special. When I went to college, church members sent dozens of packages and letters to me. I received more mail than anyone else in the dorm. My heart glowed—finally I belonged.

4.) Low Self-Esteem.

One reason I stayed in the cult even though my brother left was because my pastor offered me cosmic significance. To a young man with rock-bottom self-esteem, this was the king of all carrots. Think of it: if I remained in my church, God would love me and give me an exalted place in his kingdom. If I left, I was damned. Put in these terms, I would be a fool to leave.

But there was a darker aspect. My low self-esteem also made me feel that I deserved the spiritual and verbal abuse inflicted by my pastor. Instead of setting healthy relational boundaries, I coiled into a co-dependent relationship with my pastor and let him run my life. When he criticized me, manipulated me, or shamed me, I agreed with him. I deserved much worse, I thought. How kind of my pastor to persevere with such a wretch as I. My low self-esteem made me susceptible to both claims to significance and abuse.

5.) Lack of Critical Thinking.

Cult members usually lack effective critical thinking skills. When my pastor stood behind the pulpit on Sunday mornings in his ironed shirts and matching suits, he looked the picture of serene self-confidence. And when he told me what the Greek and Hebrew words meant behind the English text of the Bible, I put my life in his hands. I continued to stay in my cult long after my brother left because I refused to call into question anything my pastor said. For me, if he said it, that sealed it. To this day, even years after leaving the cult, I tend to trust whatever a sales-person tells me. My wife sometimes has to step in to ask clarifying questions. My natural aversion to questioning authority figures creates quite a handicap.

6.) Performance Orientation.

What does a performance orientation look like? It looks like playing Capture the Flag in gym class in fifth grade. It looks like the Prince Memorial School in North Yarmouth, Maine—you can look it up if you’re ever in the area. Gray walls, cracked pavement, sand berms and pine trees behind the tether-ball poles. My gym class lined up along the softball field and the gym teacher appointed two captains. Both boys were my friends. But when they picked teams, I was picked last. Bummer. So I captured the other team’s flag. From zero to hero? Not quite. The second time, I was picked almost last. So I captured the flag again. This time, I was picked first. Even a fifth-grader learns what the benefits are to performance.

I remained in a cult because I longed to measure up through my own performance. Our pastor told us that if we tried hard enough, God would save us. I truly believed that if I just worked a little bit harder, God would pick me for his team. But of course, performance does not make a person valuable. People are valuable because they are made in the image of God. They are valuable because God says they are valuable. I still find this hard to accept, but I’m so grateful that God picked me for his team through sheer grace.

These six characteristics combined to make me a perfect cult member. God’s grace overruled to bring me out.

He saved someone like me.

13 comments on “Someone Like Me: Anatomy of a Cult Member

  1. Great, great article. Thanks for being so transparent!

  2. This is a wonderful insight!

  3. Incredible article!!

  4. Wonderful. Very meaningful.
    Question – would you have stayed with this church and pastor, had it not been disbanded? Were you already taking steps toward self-rescue when the pastor was deposed, or would it have continued?

    • Thankfully, I had reached a tipping point where I realized that my pastor was controlling. The primary emotion I felt toward him was fear, and I knew that wasn’t healthy. I was in the process of writing a letter to my pastor about concerns I had with the church when I learned that the pastor had been removed. The timing was remarkable and unexpected. I fully believed as I wrote my letter of grievances that I would be excommunicated. Instead, this man was removed. I still have the beginnings of my letter on my computer, as a reminder. My wife can testify as to how it all went down.

  5. My dear 53 year old friend got caught up in an online cult 2 years ago and has cut off anyone (including her 2 sons) who don’t accept the leader’s interpretation of the Bible. I miss her friendship so very much. I am so angry at the leader that I am bitter if I think about him for any amt of time…so I pray. Is prayer the best thing I can do for her? Is it the only thing I can do? I send her loving texts and try to avoid discussion but I am angry! Thank you so much for sharing your experience and for being so open, honest and transparent!

  6. I was raised in a high-demand group. I was told we were the one true church, at the end of time only people of our denomination will be saved, and we were very performance-based. I graduated from one of their colleges with a BA in English. I later taught in Asia at their schools. I was often treated like dirt as a student in their school system which I attended from grades 1-8 and again in college. I was treated like dirt as a missionary as well. I put up with constant emotional abuse from them. I finally realized I didn’t believe in their theology anymore. I am now trying to pick up the pieces after all this. I have also had very low self-esteem. I couldn’t say “no” to people, I let my family run my life, and I had no confidence. I know that God does have something else in store for me. I am now back in school in my 30s and happy to be free from that bondage.

  7. I appreciate your sharing your experiences in your blog, very much so. I am someone who has a beloved family member in a cult (my son), and have read several of your articles this morning.
    So much of what you have written, has both enlightened me, as well as having increased my understanding, about my son’s situation. Previously, I have been nearly completely baffled, as to my son’s gradual yet consistent decline and then eventual separation from sound thinking and logic. The deterioration of his mental state has been extraordinarily painful for his friends and family to watch, over this past 8 years. 2 years ago, he ended contact with his only sibling and did the same with me, his mother, 6 months prior to his cutoff from his brother. My eldest son has no extended family contacts, either, and his separation from family has dwindled down to only one so-called “relationship” – a minimal and time limited, superficial contact with his father, on the average of once per year. What our family has went through as a result of all this, is enormous.
    Your blog is a light, in this darkness that I struggle with. Reading about your personal experiences, and your reflections since leaving your cult, as to the how’s and why’s, has not only increased my understanding, it has also aided my compassion toward my son, which in turn deflects my anger, as I am far more empathic about my son’s plight.
    So I thank you – and want to encourage you in continuing to share your personal experiences, as what you have shared, has blessed myself and my family, in dealing with this traumatic situation.

  8. What an honest and beautiful article. Thank you for sharing what you have learned so far from this world and God. Words are very powerful and so are you. Thank you.

  9. […] his article, “Someone Like Me: Anatomy of a Cult Member,” Steve Smith talks about what made him an excellent cult member for 25 years. Being a blind […]

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