One of the core mandates of Harvard’s new Program for the Evolution of Spirituality is to look honestly at both the positive and negative dimensions of emerging spiritual movements.
We are keenly aware that the abuse of power is a sensitive topic. Open discussion of past experiences of abuse has the potential to be re-traumatizing. Organizations that abuse power exist on a broad spectrum, and it is important to acknowledge differences and ambiguities as well as recognize that each person’s experience is a complex mix; abuse of power can be entered into intentionally or unintentionally, and many of these spaces present the potential to be greatly empowering for people who have been disempowered in the past. Simultaneously, it is equally important to be forthright in naming those realities that are unacceptable.
On February 25, PES held a virtual panel with four panelists to foster a complex conversation on power dynamics in emerging and alternative organizations. This event was co-sponsored by the Center for the Study of World Religions.
- Amber Scorah, writer and media activist living in Brooklyn, NY. She is author of the memoir Leaving the Witness, published by Viking Books.
- Margaret Smith, who currently holds the position of Director of Trauma Healing and Community Resilience at the Institute of World Affairs, Washington, DC.
- Helen Zuman, author of Mating in Captivity (She Writes Press 2018), a memoir of her five years, post-Harvard, at Zendik Farm, a cult with a radical take on sex and relationships.
- Souki Mehdaoui, a documentary director, writer, and cinematographer based in Denver. Her work can be seen on Netflix, HBO, the New York Times, A+E, Yahoo and Refinery29.
So welcome to our webinar on the abuses of power in spiritual and cultural organizations. On behalf of Harvard Divinity School, the Center for the Study of World Religions, and the programs of the Evolution of Spirituality. We welcome you to our conversation today.
I am joining you from Cambridge, on the lands of the Massachusett people. And I have the pleasure of serving as the Assistant Director for the Program for the Evolution of Spirituality. And I'll just say a few words about the program.
So a new program here at Harvard Divinity School was created in 2019 to support the scholarly study of emerging spiritual movements, marginalized spiritualities, and the innovative edge of established spiritual traditions. We have a particular mandate to create programming that fully includes people who are personally committed to alternative spiritualities. And that fully includes people who have experienced harm from alternative spiritual communities.
This is a delicate balancing act and we are still learning how to do it. Today's event, which centers on the voices of people who have experienced harm, is one part of that balancing act. Next year we will be sponsoring a larger conference on ecological spiritualities that will continue this conversation and also bring many more voices of current participants in alternative spiritualities into the conversation.
We hope that all of you will be inspired to continue learning from us and with us as our work evolves. So my name is Natalia Schwein. I am a second year master's in Theological Studies student here at Harvard Divinity School, as well as the Assistant Program Director for the Program for the Evolution of Spirituality here at HDS.
I am also the organizer for Harvard's animism reading group and I am practicing herbalist. Thank you so much for being here, again. And thank you to the Study of World Religions here at Harvard Divinity School for cosponsoring this event.
All right. So thank you for joining us for our virtual panel on the abuse of power in alternative and spiritual and cultural organizations. We understand that this is an extremely complex and sensitive subject. Persons and organizations that abuse power exist on a broad spectrum.
And it is critical to acknowledge ambiguities and variances in each person's experience. Many of these spaces represents and provide the potential to be greatly empowering for those who have been marginalized or experienced some other form of dis-empowerment.
And abuse of power is not always intentional. Virtually every spiritual path has both positive and negative consequences for it's participants. Simultaneously, however, it is equally important to be forthright in naming those lived realities that are unacceptable and to provide spaces for critical discourse and healing.
I have the honor of introducing our wonderful panelists today and we are so grateful that they have agreed to join us and to speak about their experiences and share their insights. So please welcome our first panelist, Amber Scorah. She is a writer and media activist living in Brooklyn, New York, as well as a master's in Theological Studies student here at HDS.
She is the author of the memoir, Leaving the Witness, published by Viking Books, which documents her life with the Jehovah's Witnesses and her exit from the religion. Our second panelist, Helen Zuman, is the author of Mating in Captivity, a memoir of her five years post Harvard, at Zendik Farm, a cult with a radical take on sex and relationships. The book was published by She Writes Press in 2018 and is sold wherever books are sold.
Our third panelist, Margaret Smith, currently holds the position of Director of Trauma, Healing, and Community Resistance at the Institute of World Affairs in Washington, DC. Before becoming an academic, she worked for 17 years with the international NGO Moral Rearmament, now called Initiatives of Change.
This group, which was called the Oxford Group in the 1930s, is perhaps best known these days because it's spawned Alcoholics Anonymous. But it has a long track record of Christian based interfaith reconciliation work on all continents.
And finally, Souki Mehdaoui is a documentary director, writer, and cinematographer based in Denver. Her work can be seen on Netflix, HBO, the New York Times, A&E, Yahoo, and Refinery29. Please find more information about her and her work on her website, which I will post below in the chat, along with links for the other panelists.
Souki is a survivor of NXIVM, a well publicized and recently dismantled cult that claimed to be a personal development and marketing company. And finally, if you or someone you know has been adversely affected by high control groups or organizations, we encourage you to visit the International Cultic Studies Association's website for support and counseling resources.
OK. Let's go ahead and get started. We'll begin with Amber. Thank you.
Unmute myself. Hi, everybody. Just a little intro, I'll first give a background of how I got into the Jehovah's Witness organization. For me I was born into the Jehovah's Witness's religion. I was third generation. My parents and grandparents were Jehovah's Witnesses and almost everyone in my family are Jehovah's Witnesses.
I was taught from my earliest memories that the world was ending. As a child, I used to have nightmares about Armageddon and whether I was good enough to survive this apocalypse. And we were taught, as Jehovah's Witnesses, that we were the chosen ones and that only Jehovah's Witnesses would be saved, and that anyone who wasn't part of the group would be killed by God in this impending doomsday.
So our role in life was to preach and we weren't allowed to go to college and we were discouraged from getting a career, because what was the point of building a life in this world that was Satan's world and was about to be destroyed? And then the end goal would be, we would all live in paradise on Earth, just the Jehovah's Witnesses.
Now to exit the organization, the process is not easy. It's not the kind of religion where you can just slink out unnoticed. And especially, I was very high profile because I was a missionary in mainland China, which was something that-- Jehovah's Witnesses are banned in China. So I worked underground and it was highly unusual for someone doing that to leave the group.
So when I left, I was branded an apostate, shunned by all of the family and friends I had who were in the group, which was basically my whole community. And then because I was in China, I was all alone. No longer had a purpose for being there nor did I have a career or an education or any idea of what to do with my life. And I was already 33 years old.
So after that, I moved to New York City, but that's another story. Anyway, so what kept me in the group was that Jehovah's Witnesses have created a whole narrative about the world. And to leave that group would be to lose your entire sense of what is actually real and what matters, and also who I was in the world, and also all your relationships.
So it's definitely not easy to get out. It definitely is something that keeps you in those bonds. Eventually, what brought me to leave, was as I mentioned, I went as a missionary to China and I became immersed, for the first time in my life, in first of all, another culture, and another language, because I learned Mandarin in order to preach to try to convert people there.
And also, because our work was done underground in China because it was illegal, it was the first time I had been outside of my community. In a community like that, everything is very self-affirming. Everyone believes the same thing. And even if you have a doubt, when everyone else is telling you that doubt is irrelevant, then you tend to just tamp it down.
So being in this new environment and more on my own, more independent and making relationships with people for the first time who weren't also Jehovah's Witnesses, started to just make me slowly question the things that I had been raised with. And it wasn't immediate. It wasn't like this epiphany happened.
But slowly doubts started to creep in. When I would interact with Bible students I was trying to teach my religion to here in China, I was the white woman coming here, basically telling them that their thousands of years of history were irrelevant and that my 100-year-old religion was somehow the truth and superseded everything that they believed.
And I started to realize how dumb that sounded and it made me question. And then ultimately, another person I became close to began to challenge my faith and argue with me. And that actually really helped and eventually brought me to wake up.
As far as the organization, the aspects of it that were destructive and life-giving, we thought about this, talking earlier. I think that what was most destructive in this group was teaching you that your life, this life, is not the real life. We were taught that over and over again.
And also the othering of people on the outside to create this distance or this separation between the chosen and the ones who would be destroyed, I thought was very destructive. And you're also kept emotionally hostage. This idea that you can't choose to leave your religion that you were born into because you find new information, without losing everything you have and all the people in your life, was very destructive. And still, there's repercussions for me to this day from that.
And the question of being life-giving, I try not to be negative, but ultimately I think that the only life that this organization really offered was a fake life. It was a fantasy life. Which in the end, I think was the most destructive thing of all.
Wow. Thank you for sharing, Amber. All right. I'm going to pass the mic over to Helen. Thank you.
Hi. Thanks so much, Natalia, for organizing this and thanks to everyone for being here. My name is Helen Zuman. I spent five years at Zendik Farm. I arrived there in 1999, stayed until 2004. Zendik Farm, I call it a neo-hippie cult because it came out of the back to land movement, the counterculture, started in 1969 by a couple named Wulf and Arol Zendik, out in California, moved a few times.
When I arrived in '99, it was in the backwoods of Western North Carolina near Asheville. It was homestead. There was farming. There was art. How I got in-- so when I graduated from Harvard, I received a fellowship to explore intentional communities that homesteaded, that farmed-- that's was I was interested in-- all over North America.
And I went to a few places over the summer, nothing really clicked for me. And then I found Zendik Farm, as I had found other communities, in a book called The Communities Directory, put out by what's now called The Foundation for Intentional Community.
And what attracted me to Zendik in particular, was they said that it was mostly young people there. And I was fresh out of college and looking for belonging. That they did farming, but also art, and I wanted to learn skills that I had not learned in school, but I also wanted to continue my career as a writer and artist.
And they had structures for bringing people in. They had apprenticeships. They were looking for new people. Another couple things, they talked about something called the big lie. They said everyone in the outside world was lying all the time. I was at a point in my life where that rang true to me. I felt like I was living in The Matrix.
I had just graduated from this place where people were-- my peers were going off to careers in banking and consulting and so on, and keeping the world eating machine going, as I saw it. And I didn't see a place for me, for what I cared about. So it was very attractive to believe that I wasn't screwed up. Actually, the whole culture was.
So that's what got me there. Then what got me to commit, once I was there, part of it was the structures around dating. When I arrived, I was a virgin. I felt totally inept at the mating and dating game. And Zendik had a structure for that. They had a third party system, where if you were interested in someone, you would ask a third party to hit that person up for a walk or a date and then you would get together with that person.
So in a sense, this was very structured and controlling. But for me, it sounded great. It was a way out of my ineptitude. Something else that kept me in was I had arrived with this grant money. I had spent very little of it. About two weeks after I got there, I handed it over. It was about $13,000.
Part of why I did this was out of a desire to know these people my entire life. You know, I really had a very good impression of all the people I was meeting. They all seemed very competent, rugged, good at farming, good at all kinds of things I had no idea about. There were plenty of hot guys. That was great, too.
And they all seemed to know what they were doing and what life was about and I didn't. So I wanted to be part of that. And I thought, well, maybe this is me. Maybe this is it. Maybe I have found the place to be. I found the people with the answers.
In the same way, I only applied to one college and I got in. Well, maybe I'm right about this, too. And then once I gave the money, of course, I didn't want to be wrong. And once I was in, then the story of Zendik was very powerful in keeping me there.
The story was, we were creating a culture based on honesty and cooperation. We were going to save the planet from lying and competition and ecocide. The outside world was a deaf culture. Those people were all lying, all the time. They were sending the planet over a cliff. So if I left, I would just be stuck in that deaf culture.
In terms of leaving, I was actually kicked out. I was exiled. This was fairly common at Zendik. It was a way to remind those who remained that they had better work harder or that could happen to them, and also a way of making those who remained feel like they were more chosen. Because look, they had made it when these other people couldn't.
And there were proximate causes having to do with not making enough money on selling trips, having to do with giving up on my dream of lasting love. But in a way, it was kind of like my lottery number had come up. As far as life giving and destroying, the number one thing that was life destroying was surrounding my self-trust and policing myself. I believed in thought crime.
I would get very upset about anything any idea I had that went against the leader. I learned to look to Arol, the leader, for answers as to what was right and what was wrong. In a sense, yes, I just didn't fully feel like myself. I negated the wisdom of my body.
There was a lot that was life-giving. I mean, one aspect was just living in a village with 60 people. We all had a job. We were all good at things. There was the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker. Also trying the variety of the sexual experience. There was control involved, but there was also the chance to experiment and learn and create intimate relationships.
Also a number of those relationships were cut off by the leader way before they were done and that was very difficult. And then a lot that was life-giving happened after I left, after I understood what Zendik really was, that it was a cult, and started to compost the experience. I have found tremendous fertility in that process. I have learned a ton and many of my very dearest friends are my fellow ex-Zendiks.
Thank you, Helen. Thank you very much. Margaret, I'm going to pass the mic over.
Thanks, Natalia. OK. So I'm speaking today about my experience with the Christian Social Movement, the Oxford Group, which came to birth in the late 1920s, changed it's name in 1939 to Moral Rearmament, and now is known, as of 2001, as Initiatives of Change.
It grew out of the evangelical world of the early 1900s in the United States, which at the time was more representative of mainstream American Christianity than the word evangelical would be today. This circle included many who went overseas as missionaries to China and other countries.
It included John Mott, the founder of the YMCA. The origins or the streams that fed into this movement were quite well known in Christianity in the United States. Frank Buchman, the founder of the Oxford Group was initially interested in effective personal evangelism. And then focused his life work on the question of how to connect personal transformation with social and international political problems.
After World War II, with the name Moral Rearmament, the group concentrated on building new relationships among the countries that been affected by the war. It's contribution, along with that of others, to the Franco-German reconciliation that assisted the foundation or creation of the European Union subsequently, has been well documented.
The organization also addressed post-World War II relationships between Japanese and Korean and Japanese and Filipinos. It was active in bridge building efforts that attempted to smooth the way to decolonization in a number of countries. And it has a long track record in contributing to better labor management relations and greater understanding in race and ethnic relations.
How did I get involved? My grandparents became involved in the movement in 1933. My parents met and married within the movement. And I was born and brought up entirely within it. At the age of 17, I abandoned a place reserved for me at Edinburgh University and devoted all my time to the movement until my departure when I was 35.
It was a powerful world to grow up in. We lived our lives against a backdrop of global events, constant travel, and collegial friendships with a host of people from many countries. I found this exhilarating and romantic. There really is nothing quite so glorious as working alongside others for a great cause.
The axiom of absolute unselfishness that the movement proposed meant that teamwork was pretty good, though the movement certainly had it's share of conflicts and schisms. All participants were expected to meditate daily, to write down and obey thoughts that came, and to frame this meditation as a search from God's plan for themselves and the world.
I was a natural searcher and believe this formulation of spirituality deserved the fullest possible exploration. But there were also negative aspects of the movement that held me in. The group proposed that if you want to see the world different, you must start with yourself.
This implied to the young and naive, including the children growing up in the group, that the crises of the world would not get resolved unless ordinary people like us changed our ways and lived sacrificially. It was hard for me to consider any alternative life because I had been indoctrinated with the idea that the world would fall apart if people like me didn't put our lives on the line to save it.
The call for absolute unselfishness succeeded in getting many of us to work ourselves to the bone. The movement taught me to belittle or suppress my own feelings. As I say in the book I have been writing about this, by the time I was 35, I could not feel myself in my own story.
Our family never had a home of our own as I grew up and we have lived in many cities and countries. As a result, I had grown up with no real sense of where I came from. I thus had no picture in my mind of where I would withdraw to if I were to depart.
During my childhood, because my parents traveled so much and left me in the care of others, the organization itself functioned for me like a third parent. In my case, the third parent was far more predictable and present than my real parents. My real parent's absence deprived me of the necessary early childhood experiences associated with maturation.
On top of this, my mother's depression and my father's insecurity caused me to feel some responsibility to fill the gaps in their lives. As I got older, I felt more and more that the best way to love my parents was to do better in the movement than they had been able to do, in order to prove to them that their decision to pit their lives with this endeavor had been meaningful and legitimate.
How did I leave? I experienced, over time, an increasing sense that nothing I was doing in the organization was leading me to a sense of satisfaction or a sense that I was on a good path. A medical crisis, followed by extreme depression, created for me a radical break with the way I had been living my life and allowed me to be serious about embarking on a different life.
It was easily said that people worked for the movement voluntarily. And nobody would stand in your way if you decided to leave. But the strongly disapproving comments about those who had departed and the tight co-dependent family system of the movement meant that, particularly for a young person who'd grown up in it, it was hard to leave.
That said, when I did finally decide to leave, nobody tried to stop me or persuade me to stay. I was fortunate that I had some family money. I knew that colleagues who might wish to do the same had much less financial freedom than I did. So as I see it, the most destructive aspect of the movement was that it had, from the outset, shunned leadership structures.
So-called collective leadership opened the way to hidden hierarchy's opaque decision processes, and at times, ugly power-plays often using moral shaming. The presence of large numbers from the same families and intermarriage led to an elaborate power network that took a lifetime to understand.
Newcomers had a huge challenge in finding their way in this. Nobody was being paid, which meant that some people were surviving on very little, while those who had already worked and saved or who had money from the family had far more financial freedom.
There were no forums that invited true critical thinking and debate. The lack of intentional project development or hard nosed discussions of the purpose of any enterprise, the lack of clarity about job descriptions, and the absence of mentorship led to vagueness about the value and results of any endeavor.
Life-giving aspects, I think I've described some of them at the beginning. But I find myself saying that in spite of all of the above, there was and remains something remarkably compelling about participating in a loosely defined global community who are putting their shoulder to the wheel to nurture change makers in their cities and towns through friendship, through training programs, through joint undertakings, and with an undercurrent of spirituality.
Thank you, Margaret. Thank you. Souki, pass the mic to you.
It's really hard to follow up on that. Come on, Margaret. Now I'm just really going to blither through this and I apologize for everyone else has to listen to my dithering through after Margaret's incredibly prosaic story.
So I'm Souki. I'm really excited to be here with all of these incredibly wise and intelligent women. I am new to the cult exiting game, if one can be new to it. I came in backwards to this organization than most people, actually-- even within the organization, come in. So I have a bit of a strange entry.
Before I even get into my cult entrance, I had a really lovely upbringing. I grew up in Morocco. I grew up on a farm. I came to the states when I was seven, barely spoke English, and kind of muddled my way through this language. And we moved around the country every few years. My family was very like, exploratory with different faiths but also careers and jobs. And we really just floated through the world, experiencing different adventures.
And I ended up landing in Brooklyn after college and really, was striving to become a filmmaker, specifically in documentary, and kind of working my way up the ladder. And I had reached a particular period in my career where I was very burnt out.
I came in so doe eyed and bright eyed and naive to the world of production. And I went from feeling like documentary was going to save the world to feeling like I was just stuck in these grinding commercial jobs and in this rut of financially doing well for myself but feeling very empty inside and very purposeless and very lonely, even though I had lots of people around me.
I just felt very purposeless and I didn't know what I was doing. And then I decided that, in order to get my life together, I wanted to make a documentary about something that I was passionate about. And I was very interested in sustainable agriculture and so I decided that the best way to ignite my passion again for the craft was to make a film about a female urban farmer.
So I was kind of on the hunt. And I found a woman who was willing to speak with me. She was graceful and beautiful and kind and was a few years older and she was from Harlem and super cool. And I just really felt like-- immediately looked up to her and felt this connection to her.
And she was the woman who pitched me DOS, which was this internal onion inside the onion of NXIVM, like many layers deep. But I didn't know anything about NXIVM. I didn't know what it was. There was no connection to the outside onion of personal growth classes that NXIVM purported to sell.
And I had a familiarity with neurolinguistic programming, which is really a field of psychotherapy and communication that looks at the effectiveness of communication. Some people have used it as pick up artists but other people have used it really well in different forms of psychotherapy to get through more challenging internal conflicts.
So I was familiar with the work, when she started telling me about NXIVM. But her first pitch was really a pitch about being a part of a global secret network similar to the Stonemasons, the Freemasons. It was like this community of powerful women that were going to change the world. Not publicly, but sort of privately, through this network of holding ourselves accountable to our goals, our dreams, and not letting ourselves off the hook, and creating this feminine society, this secret society of women.
And I was like, that's cool. I want to be on that. And there were obviously all of the red flags. There were all these things that, if you weren't already feeling pretty empty and purposeless, that maybe wouldn't appeal to you. And if you already had like a very entrenched social group that you felt really connected to, I think it might have been different.
But at the time-- she also heard about a lot of my challenges with female friendships in the past, female relationships, my own internal struggles with my career. And she very much tailored the pitch of the organization of DOS to my own weaknesses, to my own fears.
And this is indicative of how they sort of operate most of the organization, is it is very personally tailored to each human that comes in and it's sort of like an involvement and a commitment to working within this organization. It is a commitment to working on yourself.
And so similar to Margaret's story, it was founded on the belief that by working on yourself, you change the world. The world can't be changed from the outside as this big mass, but every person working on themselves will actually lead to a groundswell of change.
Not really with any belief system around a God or what is a faith through the traditional aspects of religion. It was much more a belief system around principles and a belief system around ethics and holding ourselves accountable to those ethics and principles in a very aggressive and strict way, but yet, it was it was for principles, to uphold a principle in the world and strengthen that principle's existence.
And there was something that felt really powerful about that, even though there were a lot of red flags and we had to get through-- the early process of the thing that kept me inside was collateral. And collateral so interesting. Because it's kind of like those memes you see, like Pinterest memes of like what you think it's going to look like and what it actually is.
And collateral was supposed to be this commitment to yourself and it was a commitment to your own growth. It was a commitment to your higher self, I think, in some ways. Your more principled self, the one who wakes up and follows all of your promises. And it was a commitment to being a better person in the world.
That was the positive motivator that ended up leading me to stay there, even in moments of doubt. Because there was something really powerful and noble about offering myself, just as a person, not even fighting to push myself in the world, in society, through my career and career ambitions, but actually working to build something more powerful.
And with a community of people that were really cool and also very powerful in their own right. I was working with and getting to know people who were multimillionaires, CEOs of companies that ran companies you have heard of. And people who were consultants and were incredibly brilliant in their field and authors and actors.
And it was just a really inspiring environment, I think, to meet people in. Especially if it's a collective focused not on just getting more material goods in the world, but building a better society, building a better world for us all to live in.
So of course, this was sort of the noble part of collateral, the noble part of the organization, is this mission driven attitude. And then the dark side, I mean, the leader got 120 years in prison. And so it'll tell you a little bit about the dark choices that he made in the head of the organization.
But outside of those salacious details that many people have seen in the media, the things that I found were the most destructive within this, very similar to the other women here, was an architecture of power that purported to be one thing and was very different in practice. And the resource of power being something that was claimed to be democratized through this process of deep and intense self-criticism and also just interrogation of our own emotions, that we were building power, we were literally empowering ourselves.
But what we didn't realize or didn't want to look at for a really long time, is that as we were empowering ourselves, we were giving up that power just as quickly to those who were higher up in the chain. And I myself experienced it in a very intense way, more than other people who joined NXIVM, because DOS, I was a master, slave relationship with someone who is absolutely the higher up. And you had to do what they said.
And so for me, that architecture of power was so clear that I literally was a pawn in somebody else's desires. Whether it was good or bad, I had to learn to quiet everything in me, all of my intuition, all of my sense of self. Similar to so many of the women here, I just learned to shut down over and over and over again, these things that are the precious indicators of our own well-being and our own sense of safety and sense of belonging in this world.
I went from being unhappy but still self driven person to performing this joy all of the time and eating very little and being on an incredibly strict diet, having to be accountable to somebody 24 hours a day. I had to be on call.
I was running errands for other people. I had to do acts of service. And all of those things, on one hand, were really incredible. It was an incredible structure for discipline. But the consequences on the other side was, this blackmail that you've created, which is collateral, could be released at any time. And you don't really have a choice.
And also, if you go against anything that we say, you are morally betraying yourself. Because that vow isn't to us, it's a vow to yourself. And so I think the overarching lessons that I experienced within my participation in NXIVM was both very much a deepening of my sense of purpose in the world, a deepening of my understanding of how mission drives people and how the subconscious drives you and a real sense of connection with people who were fighting for something similar.
The dark side of a loyalty to a group of people that you're building something with, building a society with. And the dark side was all of the ways that you take power away from yourself and you give power constantly and unendingly in a way that then you have nothing left. And you are just merely a foot soldier. You are a shell of the person you once were.
And you're just giving and giving and giving, but you just don't know why anymore. So I think those are the larger pictures. And my exit was really because the organization imploded from the inside out. I met another woman, we shared our experiences, and it was in the midst of NXIVM completely just breaking apart.
And so it was because certain members spoke out and decided to get people out. So yeah, I think that those are sort of the big pieces of entry to exit and the things in between. But there's so much to explore. That's just sort of the larger picture. Thanks, Margaret, for making that really hard for me. Really appreciate you for that. Thanks.
Souki, you weren't rambling at all. So don't worry about it. And thank you for sharing. Thank you all so much for sharing. These are such complex, complicated stories. And as everyone has mentioned, there are life-giving aspects, just as there are destructive aspects. And it's important to name both within a process of healing and of dismantling an experience.
So thank you very much. And thank you all again, to our audience members for being here. So I think we should-- let's turn to some overarching themes that we've highlighted in our conversations together, both today, but also through our previous meetings, around the abuse of power in these kinds of organizations.
So I would first like to bring up structures of accountability and structures of power within a group or lack thereof. One of the fascinating points that Margaret has brought up is the capacity for any community, really, to exhibit similar high control characteristics, toxic work situations, et cetera, similar to the groups that you've mentioned today.
The intention behind these organizations is usually to empower people. But there seems to be something off in the structures of accountability and power dynamics within these communities. And so those so-called checks and balances don't function in a way that protects the community at large.
So I'm wondering if we could speak to that a little bit. And I'll pass the mic over to Helen first.
Thanks. Yeah so, I would object to the terms of the question. I don't think that in cults there is an intention at the beginning to empower people and something is off. I would say-- this is my hypothesis, that the desire to control and have power over, is in the DNA of the group.
I believe that was true at Zendik. It was started by a couple who originally controlled the land. They started out by gathering a bunch of other people around them and setting the terms of engagement. When I lived there, when I first arrived, there was an articulated hierarchy. Each of us wore a wristband of a different color, signifying our place in the hierarchy.
The people at the top were called the family and they had purple wristbands. That hierarchy was officially dismantled about a year after I left. We had a big meeting with a big catharsis and ripped off our wristbands. But the pyramid stayed very firmly in place.
And when that happened, when the wristbands were done, and we were told now we're all equal, you all better stop complaining because you're all equally responsible, I knew that nothing had actually happened, that the pyramid was still there. And the pyramid was kept in place, on the one hand, through social structures. Arol would just scream at people, just eviscerate them in public.
And then going down the pyramid, we did that to each other, as well. And then there was the panopticon. We believed in thoughtcrime, although we didn't call it that, and we were watching each other all the time. However, underlying those structures of power, I would say were two very basic things, very prosaic things. There was who controls the money and who owns the land.
Arol and her family controlled the money and own the land. When I arrived, I had money. I gave it away. That was a condition of membership. Eventually, everyone had to do that or you were going to be asked to leave. And so it wasn't easy for me to just head out when I felt like it.
I'm going to contrast Zendik to another organization that I am part of now, called Earth Haven. It's an eco-village, also in North Carolina. It's an actual intentional community and not a cult. It was started in the mid '90s by a group of, I think, 12 different founders. All of different religious beliefs, all put up the money to buy the land, and created a council structure of governance from the beginning. It's in Earth Haven's DNA to allow people to cooperate and trust themselves and have their own power.
Fantastic answer. Thank you, Helen. It's really helpful to contrast what's really at the heart of the organization. So thank you. Margaret or Amber, Souki, is there anything you'd like to add or respond to what Helen has given us, has offered?
I have to say a couple of things because I do think the group I was with was a little bit different. And so we have to be careful about our generalizations. I think back in the 1930s, people had a much less well developed understanding of what empowerment of another individual actually was.
And so they might have been believing that they were helping people to grow in some way that nowadays, as we look at what they actually did, we would say they really didn't get it. So I don't think that they came in with a desire to control people, which it sounds like they did in the situation that Helen was in.
But I think that when you don't have leadership structures or you haven't been insightful about thinking about the way a group dynamic is going to form, that leadership structures are there to actually take some control of that process. Because group dynamics otherwise, can be quite harmful. So there was a sort of refusal to recognize that by deciding not to have leadership structures you were lending yourself to some of the negative aspects of group dynamics. This was the problem.
And I can recognize-- just because, the purpose of this gathering is really to raise some red flags for newly developing groups that are coming along. And we live in an age that's increasingly democratized, increasingly we see these groups forming and they really want to be communal. They want to give everybody power and so on and so forth.
And so they might come in with the same kind of naivete, that the people in the group I came from came into, and thinking, we don't want to have one big shot who's the leader here. We want to make all our decisions together. Which is understanding that some of the ideas about how you create common governance are really important to think about as you start off with a group like this. Otherwise, it will actually create power structures that you don't like.
I was also going to add that what I find really interesting, is that the Jehovah's Witnesses started in the late 1800s, I think it was. And they didn't have a hierarchy. Their whole goal was to be different and that everyone was equal and that we were trying to find truth together.
And what was really interesting, is that sometimes I think I've noticed a pattern, that the very survival of these groups as they grow, it starts to require an organization in order to proselytize or to just keep things from falling into chaos. And then what I've noticed happens is that the organization then takes over the humanity. And then once a group that started with good intentions, so often they start with good intentions, turns into this organizational machine, it loses its humanistic qualities.
And that's why you can see with the Jehovah's Witnesses, even if you look at the Jehovah's Witnesses 20 years ago versus today, they've become more and more extreme. Because the organization needs that for it's very survival. And I think that what I see is just a real problem, in that when it shifts to that a bureaucratic structure, the compassion, the humanity, the whole vision falls apart, and it becomes about the survival of the organization.
And I will also jump in on that. Within NXIVM, there was a real intentionality in power structures. It was very clearly laid out, the significance and importance of earning. Like earning your keep, earning a status. I mean, they had a whole system of colors to sort of indicate, based on what sashes you wore, what level. And it was a big deal when somebody got promoted.
And it would happen at different celebrations, but there was a real-- I think people really connected to a sense of that earning. For them, it actually meant more than a job promotion or meant more than a graduation because there was something tied to their morality about it. And I don't think that that's necessarily-- I think there's some things that are mostly dangerous in not having accountability in a chain all the way up until the very top.
And at the very top, if there is no accountability, and a check and balance for the person who's at the top of the pyramid, you're basically just relying on someone's capacity to handle power. And we know power corrupts. And whether that's something that is inherent to that person and their desire to control and govern, which tends to be the nature of people who want to lead a large organization, or if it's somebody who doesn't have that inherent nature, but still can be corrupted by the nature of being able to have so much power and no consequences for whatever you do.
And so I think now we're seeing it within organizations, like ombudsman, and people who are essentially outside of the organization that provide a kind of check and balance for those who are leaders. It's not flawless. But I do think that creating-- putting just as much energy into constructing checks and balances for those who are at the very top of the pyramid, as is created for the soldiers, essentially all the way up.
That's really helpful. Thank you. Thank you all. Those insights are really important. Thank you. So our next question, which has to do also, I think, with some of the questions that are popping up on our Q&A feature, has to do with tools for deconstructing your experience and how to process that exit and how to process moving on with your life. And Amber, I think let's go ahead and start with you, if you're comfortable with that.
Sure, yeah. I think that in my case, I had never known a life outside this organization, which is different than maybe some of the others here. And so for me, it was just so disorienting to leave the group. I got to the point where I knew I couldn't stay in it anymore because I realized how much was wrong.
But I also still had these residual beliefs and fears that had been ingrained in me. And the other thing was that I didn't know how to live in the real world. Jehovah's Witnesses live in the world, but they live in their own world within the world. You don't really fully participate in the world. And I didn't really understand the culture.
And someone I know is doing research about this and how you're almost like a refugee, in the sense that you are completely thrown out of environment where you've built a life, and you don't understand this new world that you're going into and you have to completely start over again. And so for me, that resonated, in a sense, because I felt like I was still living in the same place, but I didn't know exactly how people lived.
So one thing that I think first of all helped, was that I read a book by Alexandra Stein recently, who talks about-- she's an expert in cults. And she talks about how one of the foremost ways that people can get out, especially if they were raised in a group like this, is to have a close relationship with someone on the outside.
You need to have someone can trust. Because people would tell me things are wrong with the Jehovah's Witnesses all the time. And it doesn't enter, because I've been told that's all lies. But I slowly developed a relationship with someone who slowly got through. And because I trusted him, I would let it sink in just a little. So that was a real first step.
But that was just the beginning. Because I still was scared that Armageddon was coming. I mean literally, up until probably five years ago, I got out in 2008, 2007. I would feel like I was totally over it. But then I would hear like, a thunderstorm, and the first thought would be like, it's Armageddon, they were right. It's like it's still wired in your brain.
So I had to get rid of that fear. And what I did was I just embarked on a program of just learning and reading. And I enrolled in college because we weren't allowed to go to college. And I just started to see how much bigger the story of the world was than what I had been taught.
And for me, the biggest thing that got those structures, that made them dissolve eventually, loosed the hold on me, was because I just took in enough knowledge where what happened over the years was that the Jehovah's Witness world, which had been the entire world, slowly shrunk into insignificance because I realized there had been so much data and so much information and so much I had no clue even existed. And that's why it makes sense why they don't let you go to college because you probably would leave if you did.
So that was really important, just learning. And then the other thing was to form friendships with people who were normal people. Of course, almost all my friends are weird, so I won't say normal. But people who were not from my background, in a way, was really helpful. Because it would make the things that I thought or said sometimes, would come out so jarring. I could sense it because I could pick it up, that it slowly taught me how bizarre what I believed really was.
And I had a therapist once, I remember this was very therapeutic for me. I was sitting in her office and I was telling her, this was early on, I have this fear that I'm going to die, that Armageddon is coming. And she burst out laughing. And then she was horrified. She was like, that was so unprofessional. I cannot believe-- I really apologize to you for laughing.
But the laughing actually helped me. Because it just made me realize how ridiculous it was. So for me, that was the things that helped me lose the hold that those beliefs had on me.
Thank you. I love the power of laughter in those moments. It's wonderful as a tool for deconstruction. Margaret or Souki or Helen, do you have anything to add?
I do. So when I left Zendik, I was still a true believer. I was kicked out. So I just thought, well, I've just lost everything. I had a little bit of a spark of excitement because for the first time in a long time, I was going to be able to eat and sleep and do as I pleased without the eyes on me, without everyone watching and judging. So there was little spark of excitement, but mostly I just felt utterly devastated.
However, I was told to leave, so I did. And it actually took me more than a year to get the cult memo. So I had my physical departure, happened in September 2004. My mental, emotional departure didn't really happen until early December of the next year. It was, in a way, it was gradually happening that entire time, because since I was out in the so-called culture, I did have to rely on other people for food and shelter and warmth and companionship.
And so to a degree, I did start letting people in and I did notice that they actually treated me better than the average Zendik, but I still carried the story that I had failed and that I was doomed unless I returned. However, about a year after I left, I actually hitchhiked out to California from West Virginia and traveled around the world, came back to New York, finally got a chance to relax, and started just thinking and writing and allowing myself to have questions.
And one thought that really helped me was the idea that the universe is vast. In this universe that is so vast, it is not possible that there are only two choices, go back to Zendik or be doomed. So there were cracks appearing in my Zendik armor. And then I had a watershed conversation with a friend who'd also lived at the farm and left after I had.
She had gotten the cult memo and we had this incredible conversation one night, in which we simply retold the story of Zendik, changing the premise from, we are screwed up people because we didn't make it there, to actually, we're fine, it was a screwed up place.
And that after that, as soon as I got the cult memo, I decided, I'm going to write a book about this. I think I had always been kind of a frustrated writer and this was just like, OK, now you have to do this. And certainly, the writing process helped me compost the experience.
I also started writing about it on the internet. And this is interesting, in relation to the idea of accountability, because when I lived at Zendik, I never disagreed with Arol. I never said, Arol, you're wrong. After I left and got the cult memo, I started writing on the internet about Zendik as a cult. And I wrote an FAQ about Zendik and so on, which became kind of the go to source of information for people who wanted to know about Zendik beyond the party line.
So I kind of became a source of accountability for Arol after I left. And I was told years later, I did actually have a role in making life a lot more difficult for them. But that was really important for me, in terms of, I went through a period of intense anger.
And I went ahead and allowed myself to be angry. And then over time, especially through writing and conversing with fellow ex-Zendiks, I got to the point of asking what my soul was up to in this whole experience and what I was looking for what I got and didn't get. And kind of integrating the experience into the whole arc of my life, making myself the protagonist of my own story.
Yeah, that's powerful. The protagonist in your own story seems to be a theme through all the experiences that you've shared today. In the interest of time, I'm going to move on to the next question. Commentary and assumptions you've encountered since leaving the organization, which goes along with what Helen was saying about becoming a source of accountability after exiting the group.
And Souki, I'm going to pass the mic over to you.
Thank you. I'm actually going to blend the two questions because I think they really speak to each other for my experience. So I left NXIVM and the month later I met the filmmakers of The Vow. It was like-- and maybe a few months later, I was part of an article that came out in The New York Times. And it went very immediately from-- I was still processing my experience. And I immediately had to go into storying it.
Like I went directly from experiencing the thing, trying to come to terms with it, not knowing what just happened, being very much in a state of shock, to having to frame it in a way that could be both digestible to people. And I had a sense of, essentially like a sense of responsibility. My story, my experience, was filtered through this feeling of responsibility I had to two groups of people.
One, it was the people who were still inside NXIVM, who did not actually know what was going on and what happened. These are my community members, my friends, who also didn't know what was going on with DOS. And so many different narratives and stories were flying within the organization of what was happening, who was responsible, what was actually true.
So I felt this sense of responsibility to truth, to them, to the people who didn't know what was going on and were being told different versions of my experience. And a responsibility for people on the outside to understand what was happening, because in the media, I don't know if you guys remember, it was like, sex cult everywhere.
How do you process something where, you haven't even-- you're barely just getting to the place where you can call it a high control group. And sometimes putting a label on it, sure, it helps, but then you just feel the stigmas, you feel all those things that are just going to lead into the public opinion or the perception of it is-- it's just really salacious. And it feeds into, I think, to our soap operatic desire to learn more about these high control groups where you've given up your authority, but also, it's sexy, and also it's dangerous. And it's just like a crime thriller.
And so you have this public hunger. And I think we all have it, but there's this very intense-- when there's a media explosion about these sort of cults, whether it was like Wild, Wild Country or especially NXIVM, there's this real hunger for the salacious dirty details. And the people who actually, I have found in my personal experience, the people who have been the most traumatized are the ones that are more unwilling to put things into a black and white frame of bad and good, and I was traumatized.
Well, actually I'm going to change that. Depending on what people's experiences with the public, I think there is a trajectory in which those who have been really badly hurt become deeply motivated to take down the sources of pain and take down the organization and structure that caused the pain, which I think is a powerful instinct and a powerful motive. And I felt that motive to bring justice, create some sense of balance.
But I also had this other side of me, which was an understanding of the nuance and kind of an internal inability to say it was all bad or it was all good. But the public's opinion of many of these situations is that it is all bad, all good, they want it to be all bad. They want to know all of the worst things about it.
And so I think something that I've just been processing so much in my time, post media explosion, post experiences with the documentary, is in what ways telling your story helpful and generative and nourishing, and in what ways does it become re-traumatizing? Because you're storying your experience in a way that is filtered through other eyes.
So sort of like, we see this in the Black Lives Matter movement. Like Black narratives being filtered through this gaze of whiteness. Or feminist narratives of women wanting to tell their stories, but it's filtered through the male gaze. And I think that cult narratives, like ex-member's experiences are really unique. And even within this group, we have such different relationships to the organizations in our experiences, and yet it is funneled through this filter gaze of cult member.
And you feel like you're cramming yourself into this box, which is helpful for people to understand, but it also can be very damaging to even processing your own experience because it doesn't leave a lot of room for gray. And so I think, in the spirit of just wrapping everything up, I think that the assumptions I've encountered since leaving the organization have varied widely.
But the biggest one is that the story was simple. Instead of, it was complicated and it was nuanced and it was challenging and I went through waves of accepting it, hating it, loving it, crying over it. And that people want you to be like the victim, and what if you're not? What if you have suffered at the hands of controlling mechanisms and abuses of power, but you're not a victim.
You were just a human who has gone through them. And your experiences of them are very, very unique to you. Yeah. So I think that's all I'll say about that, if anyone else wants to chime in.
Thank you, Souki. Speaking to the particularities of each experience, I think it's very important. The nuances and the ambiguities, it is, as we mentioned at the beginning, it's a delicate balancing act, talking about these experiences. So thank you for sharing.
And I think that fits in really well with our last question, which I'm going to pass to Margaret, which is on, who was able to break through feelings of isolation after leaving the organization? And how did they approach connecting with you in a way that was different or more effective than some other commentary that was further isolating?
Yeah, I wanted to say a couple of things, just to point out or clarify what strikes me as I've listened to the last few comments, is that you walk away from this world that you've been so embroiled in and possibly spent your entire life in. The first thing is to create some place to stand.
And that is perhaps going to be all consuming at the beginning. Or at some level has to be, but all the time underneath, you're asking yourself, what just happened to me? But anyway, creating a place to stand and then acquiring some life experiences that you really missed out on.
Things that would have been normal for other people that you really haven't had. And so all of that is necessary to gradually create a different sense of yourself in the world. And so that is another thing that's going on. And then thirdly, this thing of how to create connection with others and this question of how much to even talk about the world you came out of. Or is that actually going to deep six any possibility of a relationship with the person that you have in front of you?
I must say that of course, the people I look back to who were the most important to me were the ones who assured me of a friendship that went beyond superficialities. I think we live in a country where people talk a lot about relationships and about the need to protect themselves. And so many people are kind of OK about talking to somebody who's a stranger, who has a strange friendship, and they listen, but then they walk away and they seem not to actually develop any real traction in the relationship.
And so people who would actually invite me to their home consistently over a period of five years, that was different. That signaled to me somebody who actually liked my company, who liked listening to what I had to say, who saw me as a person that they really wanted to have as a friend.
And there were three or four people like that over time, but it took time. I would say, for the first three or four years, I didn't find anybody like that at all. Then I also had this experience with a psychotherapist, and I should say, I didn't even go to therapy for the first several years. But then I did. But again, I experienced psychotherapy as a problem because again, I felt there was this kind of mask or this self-protection thing going on from the therapist.
Which was actually not breaking through my self protection. But I felt that-- there was one moment when a psychotherapist actually cried at something I said. And it made me recognize that actually, she felt this almost more deeply than I did.
And so it was a jolt into a different emotional state. That's all I'll say.
I think it's interesting that yours cried and mine laughed. And it both helped.
Mine laughed, too, and it definitely helped.
Thank you. I love the complexity of those reactions. It's amazing. All right. We're going to move into our Q&A with our audience members. Thank you so much for those of you who've submitted questions. Just due to the amount of time that we have, we're meant to end in about 10 minutes, we're going to limit the questions that we're able to answer today.
So the first question that we're going to respond to is from Helen Berger. And she asked, all of your stories are also gripping and describe well high control groups and the many ways in which they control those who are members.
My question is, why use the term cult? I have a problem with it. And I wonder if it adds to your thinking or analysis. Those who study marginal religions have written extensively about the problem with this term. So I'm wondering, passing it over to you, how do you feel about that? Why is that term so important in the way that you describe your experience?
I can speak to that. When I learned about the cult pattern-- and I define a cult, bullet point, as an interlocking set of patterns that combine to strip the individual of self trust. When I got the cult memo, and I learned about this set of patterns, and I saw that Zendik was not unique, but fit this pattern, that was incredibly, tremendously freeing.
So I am absolutely grateful to the word cult. Also, the word cult is usually defined by association. Association with Waco, Jonestown, whatever. And that's a problem, because it encourages people to cast the cultists or the ex-cultists out of the ring of human understanding. In that way, the term is very problematic.
But as something that has freed me from my old story of Zendik as revolution, I find it incredibly useful. And also I think it is useful to have a word that signals warning. Calling the group a cult is shorthand for, no, I wouldn't advise you to go there if the group is still extant. And no, overall, it was it was not a healthy place. Not that it was all bad, obviously.
But I think that, as a person who was in a cult, I don't regret the experience, but I wouldn't repeat it, and it is useful to be able to signal that with one word.
I just want to jump in real quick, real quick. It's just-- so in that, I really love your definition. And I want to say that it really has felt to me like it kind of depends on who you are, if it's helpful. If it's a term that is helpful for you, then it's so generative. Because like Helen said, it is identifying a pattern and being able to recognize you're not alone.
It's like, for certain people, diagnosis for mental health is very helpful because it helps them identify with a larger pattern and not judge themselves so intensely. It can also be used as a crutch. So I think in that sense-- and I will say that within NXIVM, we used it all the time to make fun of people's judgments of NXIVM.
And so I think it can also be weaponized within the organization to make it like, oh, it's so funny. They think we're in a cult, but we're in a cult of positivity. So I think that for that reason, for me it actually didn't mean anything, because the organization itself stripped that word of meaning so that once I left, I didn't really have anything to grasp onto.
And even in my understanding of cults, I was very reticent to use the word for a while because it had been-- the meaning itself had been changed and manipulated within the organization. So I agree. And I agree that it can cast someone outside the realm of human understanding. I love that framing. I also think, if it's helpful for people to identify those patterns, it's really wonderful.
Thank you, Souki, and thank you, Helen. Our second question comes from Jennifer. Knowing what you know now, would each speaker give a question one should ask an organization if one is thinking of becoming involved? And with that organization, what kind of information should that organization offer to make a discerned choice?
I would say that you can't really trust the answer you get from that organization, necessarily. Because I think about the Jehovah's Witnesses and I know that if you ask that question, they would be like, oh yes, you can leave any time. It's your choice. But what you probably should do, is talk to people who have left and ask what their experience is. Because anything can be painted in a certain way but you're not necessarily going to be given all the information up front. You have to do, I think, external research.
So I would say, if it's a group of people living together, the question to ask is, who controls the money and who owns the land?
Excellent. Good responses. Souki, Margaret, do you have anything to add to that?
I would just ask, how the community is organized, how the leadership structure works. Issues around money, also around decisions about people's actual work experience and mentorship and what am I actually going to be doing here and how is that we're going to be judged? All sorts of questions around that. I suppose, coming into this of course, one of the problems for many people coming into this, they are a bit naive about how power actually functions, and hidden forms of power.
One thing that, of course, Helen has mentioned a lot, but hasn't come up generally, is how sexuality is handled in the group. I guess Souki went to that, too. But that, very often, is a category that needs to be explored in a group like this. Certainly money and certainly leadership.
And I feel like-- I also tend to be less trusting of external barometers, only because it's sort of like, OK well, it looks like a duck, acts like a duck, it's probably a duck. But in terms of the real signs for me, it feels more like an internal orientation towards somebody else having the answer.
So I think yes, you can look from the outside and see the ways that power is organized, but I would say, probably the biggest indicator is if you speak to somebody who is a member of that organization and you ask them, OK well, how are decisions made? And how do you know what to do and what is good and what is bad? Like, who decides?
And if that orientation is not centered within one's self, but is actually turned towards an external, whether it's one person or a few people that have the answer, that for me, is the biggest sign that there's a dynamic difference. Because you're basically just being trained to seek authority from someone other than yourself, from somewhere other than your own internal compass.
But that requires speaking to someone about it and having a human relationship, which is ideally what we're trying to do, is build these subjective human connections with people on the inside, versus just objectifying like, how do you identify a cult from the outside? You could also just talk to someone and figure out, where is their orientation of authority? And how do they see power within the organization?
That's really helpful. Thank you. Our next question is from Caroline. Those of you who have written or are writing or creating a public statement of some sort about your experience, can you talk about your process of choosing how to present your stories?
And Souki, I think also, in relation to the documentary that has a lot of problematic aspects to the way that they interacted with their subjects, how do you find empowerment again and the ability to tell your story? How did that process come about?
I can speak to that. When I first wrote the story that became my book, it was just a long chain of everything that had happened to me that was emotionally resonant and there was a shade of, oh my god, you wouldn't believe what happened to me. And then over the next 12 years that it took me to complete the book, it turned more in the direction again, of what I was up to and my choices and how I moved the story forward.
And at some point along the way, I came across a maxim from a writing teacher. She said that the job of the memoirist is to tell the whole truth with love. And I took on that mission, to make sure that as I was telling my story, I was not making anyone appear worse or better than they actually were. Anyone, including me.
And to really do my best to understand. To understand Arol, where she was coming from. And yes, to tell the whole truth with love.
Yeah. That's well put. Thank you. Amber and Margaret, you've both written quite a bit about your experiences, as well. And Margaret, you still work in a space where you're dealing with trauma and healing. And I'm wondering how this process has impacted the way that you present.
I could say that for me, when I started writing my memoir about this, it was kind of interesting because I always felt like there was a divide in my life, the before and the after. And literally, no one who knows me since 2008 is anyone that knew me before 2008.
And I'm really a sentimental person and I found that really hard. I felt like the same person. It wasn't like I felt like my identity completely changed. I kind of, in fact, felt like I was a better non-Jehovah's Witness than Witness. Like maybe I had found what I was always meant to be, like an apostate. I don't know, it was just better for me.
But there was this disconnect that felt uncomfortable and kind of traumatic. And I didn't really think about it much until-- so when I started to write the book and I started to revisit all that stuff, it almost felt like this way where I was able to bring back my history and incorporate it into my life now.
And in a sense, it was very healing for me. And then, of course, what happens after you write a book like that, is that suddenly, especially because there haven't been many books by Jehovah's Witnesses who have left, suddenly I just heard from thousands of people-- and apologies to everyone in the world that I never wrote back. But you realize that those people would write me and say, I feel so much less alone, to have read your story, it was like as if I was reading my own story. But I also felt less alone.
And so in a way, that was a byproduct, both of those things that I just hadn't expected would happen from writing about the experience.
I'll just quickly say that as I embarked on writing the book, perhaps the thing that I thought was going to be the most difficult was that this world I lived in was so very particular. And I wasn't sure that this would resonate with other people. And so I was wondering how you do that. And as I went along, I realized that in fact, my story is-- and the same with Helen's story or Amber's story, Souki's story, is that it says something about the human condition.
And this thing about a cult is a specialized word and I understand the point of using it and I understand points about it, in some situations being careful about the way it's used. But the real point is that group dynamics are there and the tendency to give power to other people is there. And all these things are part of what it is to be human.
And so our story speaks, as all good stories do, to something very particular and also very universal. But certainly, being on this panel has been remarkable. Because here we are, each of us is talking with three other people who had similar but also, in some ways, dramatically different experiences. But a lot of similar themes have emerged. And so that is another thing that is reassuring as we go forward to tell the story.
I'll just say one thing to that. When I left, the biggest struggle for me was not-- in some ways, giving the authority of telling my story to other people, also. Like I continued the theme of giving up authority to someone else and saying, oh, you want to tell my story, you probably know better.
And so giving up that power and that authority also, and the last few years for me have really been about re-empowering myself to tell the story that I want to tell from my perspective, whether that's autobiographical in a book or whether it's like a screenplay for something that's fictionalized and it's different and I get to play with all of these different characters.
I feel like the most important and healing part of the story is owning it for yourself and doing it for yourself. That it's coming from you, not being authored by others. And I believe that if it is governed, owned, designed, and driven by you, then that is the most important thing. That there's a personal claiming of that version of things, not for anyone else, and not out of a sense of responsibility to changing anyone's mind or to doing it for other people, but for one's self, that is so life-giving and nourishing.
And it's so wonderful. Margaret, I'm just so amazed at the ability we have, once we do own that story, to come to a table like this and communicate that with one another. It's so inspiring. So thank you, Natalia, for putting this together.
Very welcome. Thank you all so much for being a part of it. We are out of time and I want to be mindful of everyone's very busy days and busy schedules these days. So I want to thank you again so much, to our panelists, for joining us today and for sharing your complex stories.
And thank you to the CSWR, for co-sponsoring the event. Thank you to our audience. I apologize for the questions that we weren't able to answer. Please feel free to reach out to me at email@example.com if you have any follow up questions.
We encourage you to subscribe to the Program for the Evolution of Spirituality's newsletter for upcoming events, including our inaugural conference on ecological spiritualities in April, 2022. You can find more information on our website. And finally, again, if you or someone you know has been adversely affected by high control groups or organizations, like those discussed today, we encourage you to visit the International Cultic Studies Association's website for support and counseling resources.
Thank you all again, so much. Wishing you health and safety and warmth throughout the rest of the semester. And we'll see you next time.