47 years ago I was at the end of a month in the wilderness planting trees, living communally, reading Krishnamurti and smoking way too much cannabis when something snapped. I wound up in a psyche ward dosed daily with Thorozine. I believed I’d been damned by God, that I’d died. The psychologist diagnosed me as lazy and irresponsible, a malinger who just needed to get a job. He never connected my collapse with the abuse, trauma and cult experience I’d had as a kid.
To escape the locked confines, I tried to line up the molecules of my body with the spaces between atoms of the wall and run through. Splat! More Thorazine. But after 2 weeks, I feigned recovery, brushed my teeth, combed my hair, took my meds and declared in therapy that henceforth I would take responsibility for myself. I convinced the pompous psychologist I would get a job if he would let me go.
Fact is, I couldn’t work at all. My panic was off the charts. I was dysregulated and dissociated. My “job” was to find a way to save my soul. I set out looking for a man of God, someone that could intercede for me, commute my sentence of eternal damnation and save me from the wrath of hell.
What I found was a perfect recreation of my father, a brilliant Rasputin-like guru who was gathering together a group of disciples who would save the world.
To belong to the group, I had to believe that the guru was essentially God. He demanded total obedience no matter what he did or said, no matter how insane or contradictory, how much he drank, which woman he wanted to sleep with, how hard he worked us or how much money he made off our labor.
Everything he did, which to the “outside world,” would have been recognized as bat shit crazy, I rationalized as the will of God. Who was I, a psychic wreck, a carpenter without work, money or a home, to question the inscrutable wisdom, love and motives of a famous guru, avatar, and visionary?
To survive in the group, I learned to thought-stop my doubts, wash away my fears, drown my rage, deny my grief and most importantly, work myself to death. I neglected my daughter, abandoned my dog, rejected my family and turned my back on my friends. My marriage failed. I sacrificed the prime of my life and twisted myself into Gordian knots in the vain hope that the guru would “see me” and save me from damnation. I became a fanatic, aggressively defending the guru against all criticism, no matter how stupid it made me appear. I doubled down on loyalty. All else was irrelevant. I spiraled helplessly into the black hole of a new age spiritual cult.
For 12 long years I ran like a rat through a twisted maze of emotional abuse, 16-hour days, megalomania, and divine double messages before I could admit that my “Man of God” was anything but. Then one day the guru, who often bragged how nothing happened in his business that he had not orchestrated, publically blamed me for the failure of his biotech research project. That broke the spell. Within weeks, my daughter, my fiancé and I escaped to Hawaii. I was shattered, my trust seriously damaged. But what I gained was the love of my life and a “Come to Jesus” moment when I could finally ask, “How in the name of God had I been attracted to a cult in the first place?”
In Hawaii, I dug into my past. I hadn’t known anything about Pierre Janet’s theories of dissociation or Freud’s “compulsion to recreate” trauma. I had no language for negative imprinting, attachment disorder or dysregulation. I never heard of “complex PTSD,” how survivors of chronic physical, emotional and religious child abuse have already endured being prisoners of a war most people can’t even imagine. I didn’t have the facts that 1 in 4 or 5 women experience sexual abuse before the age of 18 and 1 in 7 or 8 men. Most of all, I couldn’t understand how supposedly smart people like me could be brainwashed, surrender their will, become clones of a charismatic leader. It seemed incredible to me that men like my guru could speak like God and act like the Devil.
By the time I was orphaned at age 12, I’d already had enough trauma to last a lifetime. But the legacy of trauma is that it recreates itself, fueled by the false beliefs that one is damaged goods, never enough, abandoned by God, cast out of belonging, voice stolen, denied of a right to thrive. Abuse convinced me that I deserved punishment. Normal to me were the words, “You disgust me.” I grew up without boundaries, believing I had to sacrifice myself in favor of someone else. For me, terror was the lurking feeling that one misstep would plunge me into hell fire and damnation.
Abuse precipitates feelings of worthlessness, shame, paralysis, hopelessness, depression, and violence, either acted out on oneself or externally on others. With all that baggage, I was a ripe target for the lies of a cult leader.
I share this because a lot of what we are seeing in America is so much like the cult I escaped, frightening and dangerous. It’s a political one for sure, but it comes with saints, warrior-disciples, a QAnon gospel, and a Guru. The rules are the same. Obey the leader absolutely or you are out. The dynamics are simple: Who’s the most loyal, who does Father love best? To keep suspicion off themselves, members seek to purge those who shelter the slightest doubts. They turn viciously upon anyone, no matter what their previous contributions, whose devotional displays are not ardent enough. The “true believers” compete to show who is most ruthless. They threaten, ridicule, shame, condemn and banish, performing modern versions of public stonings. This is what you see now as some Republicans are forced to endure censure, step down or leave the party. My guru described this dynamic proudly by saying we were a spiritual mafia.
In many ways, I was no different than any of the apologizers in the cult of Trump. I idolized Ronald Regan because my Guru supported him. I prayed to his picture, tearfully believing he was Father of our nation, a saint. I tithed my miniscule paycheck monthly to the RNC while my daughter did without. I white-washed, ignored or denied every inconsistency. Truth is, I was terrified. I felt my life depended on my loyalty to the guru, no matter what. I became a casualty in cult domestic violence.
In my experience, the giving away of one’s power to an external authority has its roots in childhood histories of abuse, indoctrination, of not being allowed to question authority. It’s a psychological law that whatever we repress, we express. Squeeze one end of the sausage and it pops out the other end. I found that whatever I denied within myself metastasized into a cancerous solid shadow I then projected out as evil. To save myself from the terror of the powerful demons of my own repressed shadow, I desperately sought a savior, someone who, in exchange for my devotion, promised to rescue me. It’s no surprise then that I became willing to do and believe anything to win the approval of my savior in order to get the salvation, protection, and belonging my abused inner child had never received.
By now we know that most if not all demagogues, psychopaths and malignant narcissists were themselves abused as children. Their core identities were virtually murdered. The tortured become the torturers. What remains inside is a fragment of their authentic self. To protect their destroyed integrities they resort to inflation, lies, blame, and revenge, acting out on entire societies the damage they once endured. They ensnare us by exploiting our need to belong and by giving us permission to turn our own self-hatred upon “the evil other.”
We easily fall prey to the idea that the ends justifies the means, that our righteous cause entitles us to weaponize the letter of the law to destroy the spirit of the law. We proudly delude ourselves thinking we are saving the world, that we are gladiators for God, righteously restoring the big T truth against the corrupt satanic forces “out there.”
This is the modern version of the Anti Christ, the false narrative of salvation that enables us to project our misplaced rage as gospel, to feel persecuted like Jesus and thus justified in unleashing the next pogrom on the terrifying evil shadow that is actually our own denied rage, terror, grief, and shame.
Given a platform or pulpit, this collective psychic infection becomes a pandemic of the mind with the potential to sweep through whole populations. It is a narrative that repudiates love as weakness and mocks the great truth that everything is connected, that whatever we do to the other, we do to ourselves.
Today, we stand at the threshold of new future. Behind are the tired old stories of fear and rage that have never worked, warning us to turn back. These are the stories that scream, “This is my country not yours.” “Fuck your feelings.” “We are the superior race!” “God, Guns and Trump!” These are the not-so-subtle threats about being prepared to employ “the final solution” once again.
In front, urging us forward is an entirely different narrative, one of love, cooperation, equality and a conviction that our collective destiny path involves claiming our place as a keystone species with an essential role to play in restoring heaven on earth. It is a narrative of our sacred earth, a salutation of “I respect you, I thank you, I accept you, I love you.” It is the original story, “I am another yourself.”
I know now that despite past trauma and pain, I am gifted with the power to self-correct, the power to choose authenticity over falsehood. I am not alone in realizing that I have agency here, to decide once and for all which story to give my attention to, which to support. It should be a no brainer really. Even so, standing at the crossing, the guardian of the gate issues a perpetual challenge: “Will you believe what you see or believe what you are told to see?”