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Becoming Prey to Cults

09/28/2013 10:23 am ET | Updated Nov 28, 2013

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

Before last year, I was one of those people who assumed, "Never could that win me over, never." The "that" was a cult, any cult at all. My favorite subject in the arena of emotions had become what is known as the "shadow", what Carl Jung named as the parts of us too scary, too dangerous, too angry or too tender for our conscious minds to handle -- all the stuff that jumps up and explodes all of a sudden -- or blame other people for the feelings inside we just can't take.

I had actually begun to be convinced that the courage and the supports to get to know our own shadows, could help us in hating less, in scapegoating less. If we could embrace being imperfect, well, we might let in information that could be inconvenient -- hard to take at least at first. Then about a year ago, the "shadows" expanded for me: I was reading about cults, and oh-oh, I have had to work on one more spot inside of me, that felt not all that sweet to say the least.

The "what, me, never" has changed. If we are all capable of violence and submission -- especially when we are out of touch with our own shadows (and how could we tame them if we don't even know what they are?) -- then I too could be vulnerable to a cult. I didn't like realizing this, but it has made me more humble, more generous even to those who sink, more aware too that people in cults sometimes have parts of their authentic being involved -- and this needs to be understood, not violently rejected.

Last year I read The Good Little Girl by Annette Stephens; it is about her years in the Kenja cult in Melbourne. She had left her children and husband and nearly drowned, emotionally speaking. I read the book because she was my friend and yes, I was fascinated. I read the first 50 pages detached, sorry for Annette. The next 50 had me involved and wanting to scream out to her not to let the mad invader invade her whole self. I read the next parts of the book in tears, in tears of identification, of connection, of sadness -- both for all the losses but also for the quiet compassion she found from her mother whose tenderness was so very touching.

Annette's story added to my motivation to write more on codependency and cults, as the yearnings for belonging and even completion can also seem crucial ingredients in cult immersion. My interest and concern didn't stop there. I came to feel how not only are we all susceptible but how dangerously we may already be in the sometimes subtle ingredients of what cults actually are.

I have come to see most of us as emotionally congested, to one degree or another frightened and/or ashamed of facing our shadows. -- Carol Smaldino

Cults involve a terrible fear of leaving them, sometimes physical restriction or even abuse, and sometimes the dread and guilt of betraying cult members and causing harm to oneself or even to the world. In a cult there is no critical thinking allowed, merely the "circular rationalizing" Diane Benscoter refers to in her TEDTalk "How Cults Rewire the Brain." She, herself an ex Moonie, expresses hope for science helping us in our capacity to think critically, which she sees as more probably since the key dangers of cults have to do with our internal processes more than outside dangers.

I have come to see most of us as emotionally congested, to one degree or another frightened and/or ashamed of facing our shadows. As such -- if we are emotionally blocked -- it is difficult to think straight. If this is so, we may not even be able to tell if we are congested, both because (to my mind) internal pressures and the outside pressures to conform, to be normal, to succeed within the norms surrounding us.

If this is so, and not "circular rationalizing", we also need to lead to external pressures to conform as extremely powerful, both for young people and those older. Scientists are people too (right?) and they also have to be motivated to look for answers to questions they have to see. Yes,we need help from them, but we also need to be ready for the information they may bring us.

We can afford to think critically only when and if we can afford to examine our assumptions, our belief systems and our ways of defining the world. So, I am hoping that we can see and work towards greater emotional safety, on finding ways to become safer on the inside, without completely collapsing or hating another group or even the messenger of difficult news.

In the end and in the beginning, we are all vulnerable to needing to feel known, to feel understood, to feel special and to belong. If we miss this, any of us can go along with what was out of habit. Or we can become prey to cults that often come in sheep's clothing.

We could also start to practice thinking critically without crawling into the fake safety of making believe that anything is simple -- anything at all.

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