A Note about this blog post: I am pleased to present this guest blog by Cult Awareness Educator Gerette Buglion. Gerette creates retreats and presentations for people affected by cultic abuse. Her home, Dream Haven Vermont, is a short distance from the beautiful Green River Reservoir State Park in Hyde Park Vermont.To learn more about Gerette or to contact her, please visit her web site.: www.dreamhavenvt.com
No Matter What, Hold onto Your Values
Celeste, the colorful protagonist in A Dream to Die For is caught in a complex web that is far greater than the typical ‘who done it’ murder mystery. Author Susan Ritz skillfully shows the reader how Celeste’s psyche is enmeshed in a controlling group that has established a kind of authority over her free will and that of others in the group and led to some devastating consequences. ‘Controlling group’ is another term for cult - one of those taboo words in the English language that is fraught with variable meanings and is often avoided altogether. In this article, I am referring to destructive cults, those that can harm members through a variety of abuses and mind control.
In her latest book Women Rowing North, Mary Pipher states, “Freedom is the ability to make conscious choices in accord with our deepest values.” This fertile sentence, written to inspire resilient and graceful aging in our later years, can just as easily be applied to the potential perils of power dynamics as they manifest in groups. Freedom of religion, freedom of thought, freedom of expression are values that many Americans hold near and dear. But what exactly are values? I like this definition, that surprisingly comes from The Business Dictionary: “Important and lasting beliefs or ideals shared by the members of a culture about what is good or bad and desirable or undesirable. Values have major influence on a person’s behavior and attitude and serve as broad guidelines in all situations.”
We humans are defined by our individual values and those golden threads of morality that are passed on to us from our families, our communities, our churches, our ancestors and the groups we choose to participate in. These personal values can be challenged and transformed within groups, a natural part of evolution and personal growth. But what happens when a group or the leader of a group, minimizes your values and strives to replace them with values they deem more important? Although this happens to varying degrees in numerous situations, it is always something to watch out for. Because if it coincides with the surrender of one’s autonomy, it is the beginning of mind control.
For years, I was part of a spiritually oriented self-help group that I dedicated enormous amounts of time, inspiration and financial resources to. I did not know to watch out for the gradual stripping away of my personal values. I was taught, for example that “God does not care if you recycle - what He cares about is how you do it.” This teaching, combined with a dualistic ideology, a strong set of given values, and a compelling inspiration for the spiritual freedom of “becoming a true woman of God”, sent me down a difficult, dark rabbit hole where I became a victim of mind control and was profoundly dependent on the group leader.
I believe the slow stripping away of my values, separating me from the core of my essential self, was one of the most damaging aspects of my eighteen years in this destructive group. Early on, I surrendered one of these core values: a deep and respectful relationship to the Earth and her resources. I grew up on a farm, was an outdoor educator and passionate about recycling and energy efficiency before joining the group. While in it, I learned to dismiss my instincts and judge others for their “frivolous sentimentality and arrogance” [Direct quote from the leader of the group.] for driving a Prius or compulsively separating glass bottles from the trash. I trained myself to not wince when loading a truck full of trash, including hundreds of pounds of food waste after a spiritual retreat. In this way, I relinquished the freedom to fully be myself, was encouraged to suppress my capacity for making conscious choices and was therefore more vulnerable to manipulation. Whether intentional or not, by diminishing and replacing my core values, the group leader broke down part of the very fabric of my soul self - that which defines me and guides me ‘in all situations’.
Since leaving the group five years ago, I have been engaged in a healing process that supports me to reckon with the abuse I experienced but almost more importantly, to dig deep into my resilience and re-discover who I truly am. From this place, I now have the freedom to make many conscious decisions each day, arising from my core values. Since leaving, I have experienced many ‘re-awakenings’ of values that still define me to this day. One such awakening occurred through a patch of Forget-me-nots - the delicate but hardy spring time flowers that re-appeared in my yard the spring I broke away from the group. In my post-cult life, these serve as both a playful reminder and stern warning of what I had forgotten. And they inspire me to share with others the importance of holding on to one’s values, no matter what.
You can learn more about Gerette or contact her at http://www.dreamhavenvt.com/about.html