Thoughts on the Word Cult|
While I was in the process of writing this novel, I inevitably got one of two responses from friends who read early drafts. People who had never had an experience with this kind of group would say, “What a scary, weird cult. Were you in a group like that?” People with whom I had been in a group like that, however, would say to me, “Well, but the group you are writing about isn’t really a cult, is it?”
Since then, I’ve come to understand that the answer to the question of whether or not a group is a cult depends a great deal on who is doing the asking. A person who has found a teacher or a community they feel are helping them will almost never consider that group to be a cult. Their friends and family, if they see that person changing in ways that make them uncomfortable, may well think differently. And if that same person later has some experience with their group or teacher that is not to their liking, they may redefine their experience as a cult one after all. Who’s to say who’s right?
Part of the reason I think the answer to whether or not a group qualifies as a cult is so subjective is because the issue is rarely a black and white one. When most people hear the word cult, they tend to think of organizations with psychopathic leaders who use sophisticated manipulation techniques to recruit members and actively prevent them from leaving. The problem with this stereotype is that it represents only an extreme version of numerous tendencies that can be found in almost any spiritual group. Whenever you have a situation in which a designated leader is working with students to explore something as intangible as the spiritual realm, you have an environment that is ripe for potential abuse.
This is not to say that I think all non-conventional spiritual groups are dangerous or inherently harmful. On the contrary, many of the experiences I have had with alternative spiritual groups were instrumental to the development of my own spirituality. Even those groups I participated in that fell on the more extreme end of the cult spectrum offered me something that I felt I needed at that time.
Without exception, however, every group I was involved with had negative attributes as well as positive ones. Psychological factors like group dynamics and issues regarding power and authority were much bigger players in these groups than any current members were ever willing to admit. Experience of insight, unconditional love and transcendence were invariably mixed with moments of confusion, humiliation, and sometimes outright betrayal.
That paradox is one of the main reasons I decided to write this novel. Slapping a flawed spiritual group with the word cult is an easy way to avoid looking at the many, many complex layers of belief, faith, longing and fear that drive people to participate in and sometimes even create groups like these. In telling Michelle’s story, I hoped to start a conversation that would give people an opportunity to look more deeply at these issues in a way that might help generate some understanding, and maybe even some healing.