But for many of us, getting out of a totalistic household required a literal escape, when guardians were away or with a large group of supportive friends.
Independence was discouraged. Freedom required a personal revolution.
Many of you have read the UnBoxing Project series recently crossposted on Homeschoolers Anonymous. The UnBoxing Project is the network Cynthia Jeub and I formed after we both left our dysfunctional households.
Since 2012, we’ve helped nine friends find new lives outside their cages.
But this isn’t just about our little group of friends in Colorado Springs. We’ve realized that we’re part of something much bigger. Informal networks like ours have formed in other states in other homeschool communities.
For our next open series, Homeschoolers Anonymous invites homeschool alumni to share their stories about leaving cults and controlling households.
Most of us never believed our own parents would bar our attempts to grow up and find freedom by emptying bank accounts, withholding identifying documentation, or taking away our means of transportation. Others were stalked by parents or fellow church members after leaving.
Some were kicked out by their parents because they wouldn’t comply with unreasonable demands.
We would like to hear your story.
As always, you can contribute anonymously or publicly. Please let us know your preference when you contact us.
* Deadline for “Escapes and Rescues” submissions: Friday, November 16, 2015. *
Stalking is usually applied to a romantic relationship gone bad.
This is why people hesitate to believe me when I say I’ve been stalked by my parents.
After I moved out, my parents showed up unannounced at work or on campus, asking me to reconsider and go to Bob Jones University. The first time it happened, I was walking down the sidewalk to visit a new church since I had no car. A car drove up behind me honking, my family rolled down the windows, shouting, “Just remember, Bob Jones is still available!”
They often bring gifts: sandwiches, keychains, homemade soup. They seem to think this proves they are good parents. They say this is how they show me they love me. The professor who was my supervisor when I tutored on campus saw them do this. He said their behavior was abnormal, intended to wear me down and make me give in.
I’m not the only one. Other homeschool alum have had parents drop off identifying documents at work without asking, another told me her mom found her between classes and gave her a gift card and sent a sheet and towel to her apartment. She hadn’t told her mom her class schedule or her address.
I don’t know what their motivation is.
Maybe it’s guilt. Maybe they think I’ll be brought back into the fold with organic baked goods.
This is how my parents demonstrate that they love me.
My first apartment was unfortunately near the church that shunned me. My parents drove by often to look for my car, texting me “did you sleep at your apartment last night?” I explained my roommate and her boyfriend invited me for a movie night and I slept there. My mom told me it was inappropriate to sleep at a single guy’s place. Never mind that we had a couple of drinks during the movie and I wasn’t safe to drive.
Being honest and open about my decisions only provoked criticism. And they wondered why I stopped telling them things.
In summer 2013, my dad parked outside the nearest stop sign when he knew I would get off work. When I drove by, he jumped out in front of my car so I had to stop. He wanted to change the air filter in my car. He didn’t understand I was startled and angry, that I was afraid I could have hit him.
My parents barged into the middle of a staff meeting for the student newspaper in fall 2013, handing me a parking permit. My dad didn’t wait for me to buy one myself.
I told them I thought their actions were inappropriate in group counseling.
I wrote, “If anyone else who I wasn’t related to followed me around the way you guys do (leaving me random sermon CDs in my bicycle bag when I’m in class, etc), it would be considered really creepy and stalking. Think about it.”
My mom replied, “I do not think it is creepy if we are coming by UCCS from a doctor’s appt., and leave a gift for you in your bicycle sidebag. Sorry you took it that way. We are not checking up on you.”
Last October, my dad showed up at my apartment around 7:30 am, calling me over and over during an exam. He was upset that I didn’t answer right away. He wanted to trade out cars because he was afraid I wouldn’t get maintenance done, even though I’d asked him to let me learn how to take care of my car myself.
And they showed up at my work again last weekend, asked a coworker on his smoke break to bring me a package.
They don’t understand acting like this makes me feel incapacitated.
Fundamentalism doesn’t teach consent, it teaches you to respect authority. Control is normal, so you should be grateful for what they do, even if they don’t respect your wishes.
I don’t feel like an adult when my parents do this. I start to feel like a powerless small child whose parents are always going to check up on her, like all my independence has been taken away from me.
They think this is how to show me that they love me, but I just feel the walls close in.
Eleanor Skelton blogs at eleanorskelton.com, is the news editor of the UCCS student newspaper, and is majoring in English and Chemistry. The following was originally published on Eleanor’s blog on April 7, 2015, and is reprinted with permission.
I came from an upper middle class, well-educated family. I was privileged.
I moved out as a college student with a couple of jobs on campus after my parents emptied my savings account. Most of the people the Underground Railroad helped were in similar circumstances.
Our counselor friend Sandra, who was in graduate school when I moved out, talked to me a week after I left. I didn’t have a car and was bicycling everywhere. She taught me how to take care of myself when I was broke.
These resources helped all of us stay independent on a low-income budget.
One day my friend Josh issued me a challenge: go to a dollar store and see what they sold. It was so eyeopening that now I take other refugees there, showing them what a dollar can get in a pinch.
Here in Colorado Springs, we have the Arc and Goodwill, and places like Promises Resale Boutique that benefit disadvantaged teens resell the leftovers from bigger thrift stores even cheaper.
Our little band of cult refugees all needed jobs, but I didn’t know what temporary agencies did until one winter when I was down to only one of the three jobs from the summer. Then I got a call from Front Range Staffing.
They’d found my resume on Monster and wanted to hire me for a receptionist position at a pharmaceutical company, something related to my chemistry degree. They also gave me odd jobs like hotel housekeeping for extra money, enabling me to support myself.
Housing / utilities assistance
Most cities have section 8 housing. El Paso County also has LEAP, which provides heating assistance in the winter.
We wrestled with anxiety, self-harm, PTSD, and survivor’s guilt. But we found counselors on campus and in the community who worked on a sliding fee scale, who wanted to help us heal most of all. Due North Counseling was one of the local places that helped us.
We also found many organizations in Colorado Springs had resources also.
The 24/7 crisis line (719-633-3819) offers advice to abuse survivors, although they mainly deal with intimate partner violence.
“When our biological family puts a brake on friendship, we must look for friendship elsewhere. This year, I am no longer defaulting to blood and legal relatives as my ‘ohana. They will not lock me into a family orphanage until I conform to their demands. No. My family has become my Chosen Family, for we cannot live as orphans (John 14:18).”
A theme that resurfaces in the dialogue about spiritual abuse is Christian fundamentalism’s idolization of family values over the well-being of the individuals within the family. The family unit’s survival becomes the trump card, enabling denial of abuse.
We learned we could all find freedom together.
No, we couldn’t save each other or support each other–we all had to ultimately find our own way because all of us are broken and hurting.
But we knew we weren’t alone.
Sometimes a hug, a shoulder to cry on enabled us to just keep walking, to not give up.
Even if we were outcast, we believed our experiences were valid, we grasped for something better.
And we wanted to share this new life, this freedom with others.
R. L. Stollar, one of the founders of Homeschoolers Anonymous, wrote:
“I learned that Jesus of Nazareth was not content with 99 sheep when 99 sheep means that one gets left behind to suffer in silence and solitude. [….] But Jesus dealt with human beings, not statistics. Human beings are what I want to deal with, too. […] Us “bitter apostates” will be out in the wilderness, searching for the one you abandoned.”
Eleanor Skelton blogs at eleanorskelton.com, is the news editor of the UCCS student newspaper, and is majoring in English and Chemistry. The following was originally published on Eleanor’s blog on April 6, 2015, and is reprinted with permission.
The backlash is one of the most difficult things we all faced in leaving our cult-like churches and controlling families.
One morning in my apartment, right after Racquel and Ashley left the church, Racquel’s phone rang. She stepped into the next room for a private discussion.
She came back out looking troubled.
Ashley asked what was wrong, Racquel said Sister H. from Louisiana just called.
Racquel started crying.
“Sister H. told me that the pastor may be wrong, our parents may be wrong, but not to give up on the Pentecostal church. But I just can’t do it. I can’t.”
“Did anything like this happen to you when you left, Eleanor?” she asked.
Yes. Yes, it did.
One of the pastors and his wife at our old church in Dallas called me and tried to convince me to attend Bob Jones University. They agreed with my pastor in Colorado Springs, said the only way to honor my parents was to do this one thing, to obey them.
My friend Anna called me a few weeks after I moved out. She said she’d gone back to the church. The pastor and his wife took her into the office, asked her about two of my Facebook posts she’d liked and commented on. One was lyrics from “Keep your eyes open” by NeedtoBreathe (they believed all syncopated music was of Satan). The other was heychristiangirl.tumblr.com. They said didn’t see the humor, they said it was sacrilegious.
Anna said the pastor and his wife asked her if she agreed with me moving out, if she’d aided me. They said they didn’t want her to influence their children to move out without their approval.
I caught my breath. I could see it now.
They can’t stand to lose one of their own, because that’s losing a soldier in the culture wars. You take one step back and now you’re one of the outsiders, one of the “lost” they evangelize. And they need your soul.
So when I hugged Racquel while she sobbed, I could say, “Yes, this happened to me, too.”
This is why leaving these churches, these homes is leaving a cult. And this is what it’s like to be a conductor, to walk beside abuse survivors and seek freedom.
As a conductor, I’ve had months of watching and preparations. I keep an emergency cellphone with an unlisted number in case a controlling parent blocks my regular phone. I carry pepperspray and a rape knife, both legal on my campus, so I can protect myself and those who ask for our help.
Our network discusses alternate scenarios, backup plans. We plan for the worst while hoping that one day this won’t be necessary.
Here’s we learned about helping people move out:
Take the essentials, but stay safe.
TESSA, a non-profit in Colorado Springs that offers advice and support to spousal domestic abuse survivors, has a checklist.
Clothes to last a week
Cash and bank information
Keys to car and work
Important paperwork and records
Personal items like photographs and jewelry
When Ashley moved out, five of us showed up because we knew her father was armed, he’d wrecked the car and the apartment, and we didn’t know when he’d return. I learned anyone who feels threatened can request police protection while moving their possessions.
Sometimes we left something behind we valued.
I couldn’t take my heirloom violin from the 1890s or one of our family dogs I’d bonded with. Ashley left her dog Sasha and her bed because we couldn’t fit it in the van, and Racquel sold her horse when later she couldn’t pay board and her own living expenses.
We lost diaries, mementos, and valuables.
We decided our freedom was worth losing those things or that lifestyle. We realized the important thing was keeping ourselves safe and learning how to heal.
Eleanor Skelton blogs at eleanorskelton.com, is the news editor of the UCCS student newspaper, and is majoring in English and Chemistry. The following was originally published on Eleanor’s blog on March 15, 2015, and is reprinted with permission.
Rescuing people from cults is not an item to check off of a to-do list. It’s a process.
While we worked together on the UnBoxing Project, we learned this through our own exhausted time and money.
We didn’t just need to free people from church attendance and their abusive, controlling homes. In little funny moments and frustrating conflicts, we watched them free their own minds and personalities.
Moments like when Racquel wore jeans for the first time. We’d told her that she had a lovely figure that didn’t need to be concealed under long, wide skirts, and she didn’t believe us until then.
Moments like when Eleanor first moved out, I recommended dry beans for cost effective meals, and she didn’t know how to cook them.
Moments like the Socratic dialogue with Michela in a reclusive university meeting room, establishing that safety was possible.
After my friends and I got out, we struggled with various levels of PTSD, depression, and anxiety from the emotional, physical, and spiritual abuse we’d endured. It would be difficult enough to hold a job while dealing with shock and recovery, but many of the people we helped didn’t have any experience in the workforce.
I believed in self-sacrifice, and I didn’t care if I wasn’t well enough to help other people. Nobody else was going to do it if we didn’t. I told Cynthia Barram this, and she gave me a graphic image: She said to picture a woman in a place where food was scarce. The baby still sucked at his mother’s breast, but she had no nutrition left to give. At this point, the child was just eating blood.
We needed stability and resources ourselves, but with our parents gone, we only had each other. Like the undernourished mother nursing, we gave more than we had to give.
Many of us had to drop classes because taking care of extra people was so stressful. Eleanor ended up paying more than her portion of rent for the house she got with some of the people we’d rescued.
We realized that we weren’t heroes, and we didn’t have the strength to be heroes.
The question was, at what point do you let people learn for themselves? Our own limitations answered for us: we didn’t have the means to support other adults who had so little experience with the outside world.
We all decided that if we needed to rescue people, we wouldn’t be able to share finances with them, like cosigning on a lease. Getting out of a cult left these adults without survival skills, and we were young and broke, too. For the first year after my parents kicked us out, my sister and I rented from a family whose children were grown.
If only we knew some people who were older than us, who had the financial stability to own a house and rent out a room. If only we knew people who could teach a young adult, between the ages of 18 and 25 or so, how to keep a job and pay the rent.
Unfortunately, most of the people in the networks we had were similar to our own parents. That’s what isolation does – it limits the people you know.
We’re still looking for people who can help with temporary housing in our Unboxing Project, perhaps who have more stable living conditions than those of us who needed to escape, too.
We need places. People who are willing to take a young adult into a guest bedroom, and help them prepare for life outside. Help them find and keep a job.
Those of us who were abused aren’t very demanding. We generally don’t take up much space and we shrink at the thought of imposing on anyone. Just let us know we’re welcome, and let us know that it’s okay to talk about what’s going on. We need therapy to deal with what we’ve worked through.
Can we ask you to do that? Because we can’t do it ourselves.
Eleanor Skelton blogs at eleanorskelton.com, is the news editor of the UCCS student newspaper, and is majoring in English and Chemistry. The following was originally published on Eleanor’s blog on March 14, 2015, and is reprinted with permission.
Cynthia Barram was the first friend I met in college who helped me start my own moving out process before helping the others. Here’s her perspective.
Lesson Number One: You can’t help anyone else if you don’t take care of yourself.
When several homeschool girls came to me, oppressed by churches and controlling parents, I helped them realize that sneezing would not condemn them to hell. They could kiss boys, get their ears pierced, and maybe even listen to some decent music without fear of the ground opening up beneath them.
But I didn’t realize I was trapped in my own cage, despite my involvement in disability activism. As the revelation hit me, I felt as though I’d been cut down from a whipping post.
My body sunk. My face went numb—unsure whether to react with joy or rage or some unholy spawn of the two. The revelation was the first of many from my support group. Long story short, the cage I had been living in due to the restrictions of my disability accommodations for the past ten years no longer existed, if it ever really existed in the first place.
The iron bars that burned when I touched them, the iron bars that held me fast to a life of poverty and escapism now crumbled and snapped in the hands of my mentors like dried reeds. One support group meeting did that, and afterwards I wandered the streets disoriented and moaning—drunk with the wine of freedom in all its bold bittersweet, soon to be very real possibilities.
But what was I to do without my chains? Like Jacob Marley on parole, I was now confronted with the equally real problem of how to get on without them.
So I understand the ones I’ve helped move out, the ones who have looked to me. Because I, too, don’t know how to handle so much sudden freedom.
Cut to support group a few weeks later.
“I love my friends,” I told them, “But rescuing two of them called me out of a final exam. I took an incomplete in a class last semester because we had a suicide attempt and dealing with it messed with my head, and now this.”
“No wonder you haven’t been yourself,” they said. “That’s way too much for anyone to carry, but we’ll help you.”
They then proceeded to divvy up my business as if it was their own.
I made a promise to the rest of the group members to keep our meeting days clear from other appointments, free from stress, and when I figure out who I am without my chains and graduate college, I promised to let everyone know.
That’s the trouble with witch work as I often call it.
If you were born a witch (and I mean the green nasty one from the 1943 Wizard of Oz film, not Wiccans) like I was, you get used to that icky-sticky-kind-of-cool-but-on-your-own feeling.
On the one hand, you swear you must have three breasts, and are understandably and almost perpetually embarrassed.
On the other hand, you get used to hearing things like “Ever try to put a jet engine on that power wheelchair?” and “I’ve never been friends with a black person before,” and “You never wear feminine clothes.”
(Never mind of course that dresses get caught in my wheelchair!)
I heard many of these statements repeated again in college from formerly homeschooled people I met at college, like my friend Eleanor and the people she was helping.
When I first met Eleanor, she told me her homeschool textbooks taught her to sit or kneel when talking to people in wheelchairs, but I found the action too intimate for a casual conversation.
The only people who had done that to me without it being offensive were my first boyfriend and my childhood hero.
In other words, what the hell?
You laugh as if the jokes are funny, and offer up starters to the almost obligatory culturally informative conversations that follow.
You get so good at doing this on a small level that eventually you take on bigger game like formerly Christian homeschooled LGBT folks trying to move out when their parents have guns and women self-harming and ending up in the ER.
I didn’t seek out these people who asked for my help.
No, these homeschooled girls with braids and glasses, dressed they were going to the Little House on the Prairie fan convention from hell, found me out on campus, at Bible studies, after church services. And I couldn’t scare them away, either.
You become so brilliant at this in fact that you tie yourself with chains to the greater good and wait for this or that friend with this or that crisis to—effectively becoming more worn out than any of your mentees are.
That is, until the cross disability support group at the Independence Center on Fridays, until the smashing of chains and the breaking of cages, until a group of people who swear on their lives to keep your secrets, and who feed you as you feed others.
Sometimes you need to crash on somebody else’s couch, figuratively, after you’ve hosted several refugees, or you lose yourself.
And that support group has got to be there before during and after anyone is even considering doing this work.
It has to be there, or the psychological slavery that you work so hard to liberate everybody else from will find a much better mark in you than it ever did in your charges, and this slavery comes customized complete with your own set of flashbacks, nightmares, panic attacks, and mood swings, trust me.
The support group has to be there or you will contemplate crazy shit—drinking bleach, stepping in front of a car, shooting yourself in the head, and when a woman in trouble holds your hand and begs you to tell her why you are alive, you will not be able to answer her.
I cannot stress this enough. The support group in some shape or form has to, has to, has to be there.
And no matter the strength of the freedom fighter, no matter the clarity of his or her vision or the strength and purity of the intentions behind it—anybody, anybody, anybody can find themselves worn out by the difficult and delicate process of freeing people to follow their dreams.
Cynthia Barram is a senior English major at UCCS and former president of the Disabled Student Union on campus. She petitioned for the Colorado Springs City Council to not cut funding for bus routes in 2008, which was covered by the Gazette and the Independent. Cynthia is involved with the community at the Independence Center, which sponsors disability activism in the city.
Eleanor Skelton blogs at eleanorskelton.com, is the news editor of the UCCS student newspaper, and is majoring in English and Chemistry. The following was originally published on Eleanor’s blog on March 13, 2015, and is reprinted with permission.
I met Shelby while working for the student newspaper, and she mentioned that the homeschooling population seemed to be understudied in academic literature. Here is her perspective.
I, personally, have come into contact with a handful of homeschooling experiences in my lifetime.
I had three friends who had been homeschooled, two of whom entered semi-public high schools for reasons I do not know.
My friend Mary took a GED test and attempted to take a few online college courses, essentially continuing the homeschool experience as a college student, before realizing she would be better off on an actual college campus. I also had six cousins from my aunt on my father’s side, most of whom she homeschooled.
Mary’s parents were incredibly controlling. Her older sister used her body for her rebellion: she got her belly button pierced, got haircuts her parents considered strange, and dyed her hair unnatural colors. Mary rebelled in other ways, and she eventually moved out, although she is currently living with her parents again.
My aunt had four boys and adopted a young boy and girl from Russia. She homeschooled her four birth children and the girl she had adopted, but the boy was born with fetal alcohol syndrome. My aunt did not bother to try to understand his learning needs, and rather than alter her own teaching, she sent him to public school.
She was very abusive. She eventually kicked him out, and he tells stories of eating rats at the park when he was homeless. He is now in a transitional program.
I got my bachelor’s degree in sociology and women’s and ethnic studies, and I spent a lot of time learning about domestic violence because I had experienced it from a boyfriend in high school. It was not until recently that I realized how common my cousin’s story is.
While the details of the situation vary, abuse seems to be common in families that homeschool.
When researching domestic violence and volunteering at a local shelter, I have found very little about children, even adult children, escaping abusive homes and even less about children of homeschool families. One of the only things I have heard is that the majority of homeless teens are escaping abusive homes, though this tells us little about the circumstances surrounding these escapes.
Little academic research has been conducted about abuse in homeschool environments, and the research that has occurred is necessarily incomplete.
Even surveys like the annual survey (part 1 and part 2 and part 3) conducted by the Homeschool Alumni Reaching Out (HARO) rely on a volunteer sample from the Internet, although it gathers much data that other organizations have not yet attempted to collect and analyzed. Informal surveys are not accessible to people without Internet access, and rely on snowballing (people take it and share it with others from the same population), which tends to yield a more homogenous sample.
Further academic research is needed to determine risk factors for homeschool environments.
Part of the reason so little research has been conducted is because it is simply difficult to properly conduct. Homeschool policies differ based on the state and sometimes even the school district, and record-keeping may also look very different on a state-by-state basis.
It is impossible for a researcher to gather demographics of the homeschool population with inconsistent records or use these records to gather a good, random sample.
Without resources like time and money, a researcher will have difficulty conducting research with homeschool families, especially if they are reluctant to allow a person to question their motives, tactics, and overall situations.
There are increased difficulties in trying to conduct research with minors; for example, parents who homeschool their children are under no obligation to provide consent for their children to participate in a research project, even if said children would like to participate.
Many, though certainly not all, homeschool families are connected to a church, and the church may be involved in hiding abuse occurring within these families. Many families feel deep paranoia and are not willing to participate in research if they do not perceive the researcher as an ally in some way, such as a member of their church or at least the larger denomination.
The homeschool population is not easy for researchers to access, which is likely one of the primary reasons there is so little research about this population. It is also possible that researchers lack awareness of the problem. They must be made aware that there is abuse in the homeschool population before they can consider researching it.
My recent awareness of the abuse in the homeschool population has sparked my interest in researching it, but I know there are many struggles to overcome in attempting to reach this population. I also know there are only so many resources available to a person with my current education level, and I may have to set aside this potential research project until I am further educated and perhaps even employed in a university or other research institution.
I can only hope by the time I am fully equipped to conduct this research, others have already done so.
Shelby Shively is a sociology graduate student at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, and former columnist for the student newspaper, The Scribe.
Eleanor Skelton blogs at eleanorskelton.com, is the news editor of the UCCS student newspaper, and is majoring in English and Chemistry. The following was originally published on Eleanor’s blog on March 12, 2015, and is reprinted with permission.
In July 2014, Ashley came over to my apartment to visit one Saturday morning.
Then Ashley got a text message from Gissel, one of her friends from the Pentecostal church she’d left six months ago.
“Hey, can you come pick me up? My dad kinda went crazy and kicked me out. I dont have anywhere to go… can I stay with you?”
Gissel was on her lunch break at work, so Ashley and I drove over to get her.
On the way to her dad’s house, Gissel explained she already planned on going to live with her grandmother in Texas.
The night before, she’d stayed out with her boyfriend and a group of other friends until past midnight. She discovered her dad had locked her out when she tried to come home, even though he’d never enforced the curfew he set for her older brother and his girlfriend.
Gissel kept asking why it was different for her as a girl, why she was being punished.
One of Gissel’s younger sisters let her in the house so she could get her suitcases already packed for her move. We put them in the trunk and drove to Ashley’s house.
The rest of her siblings watched us from the window, huddled together.
Ashley told Racquel what had happened and that Gissel would be staying over for the rest of the week until she flew out of town. Gissel went back to work for the day, and we picked her up that evening.
She was quiet. Reality set in.
Silent tears slipped down her cheeks. There was no home to go back to now.
We hugged her, asked her if she was ok or needed to talk. Told her it was ok to be sad, ok to cry.
Later she sat next to Ashley on the couch while we watched anime and the first Pirates of the Carribean movie.
Ashley helped her dye her hair that week, another thing that the church deemed sinful. Gissel started wearing a crucifix her dad gave her. He’d told her if she was going to leave the church and wear jewelry now, she might as well wear that.
After Gissel left for Texas, we kept in touch. I asked her last fall how she was doing and if she would like to share her story.
Now she is free, free to live outside the cage.
I thought once Racquel and Ashley and the others that we’d moved out were free that excitement would dissipate, that everything would start to go back to normal. That the Underground Railroad wouldn’t need to keep operating.
But Gigi reminded me that so many more are out there, waiting.
Gissel studied social work at community college and works in a healthcare center in Texas. She also now cohosts a YouTube channel called Gen and Gigi.
Eleanor Skelton blogs at eleanorskelton.com, is the news editor of the UCCS student newspaper, and is majoring in English and Chemistry. The following was originally published on Eleanor’s blog on March 11, 2015, and is reprinted with permission.
Aaron and the rest of us moved Ashley out of her parents’ house. This is his perspective.
It’s hard when someone you care about is stuck in an abusive environment. It’s worse when you feel like you could and should be helping them to get out of said abusive environment.
Unfortunately, that’s often not up to you.
Fundamentalist cults use brainwashing techniques to make people think there is no way out. Effectively, they remove their members’ autonomy and consent.
When you’re trying to get someone out of a cult, the temptation is to pressure them into it – after all, they’re stuck there, right? They need your help to get out!
Doing that will only make things worse. You’re emulating the same techniques as the cult, which means your “convincing” is only going to last as long as you’re around. It also destroys trust – how can someone who has been abused using brainwashing and consent-destroying abuse trust someone who uses the same techniques?
And before the cries of “But we’re doing it for their own good!” begin, the cult leaders say the exact same thing. They’re just trying to save the person’s soul, after all.
So what are we to do? It’s the hardest thing – you have to let the person make their own decision.
As people, we tend to think our decisions are just a little bit better than anyone else’s – after all, we don’t let our judgement get clouded, amirite? But for someone to successfully get out of a cult, and stay out, they have to know their support system isn’t just more of the same brainwashing, only from the other side.
We’re talking about informed consent here. So let your friend know you’re there for them. Let them know what options are available. The cult tells them no one outside the cult will help them; you need to show them that’s a lie. The cult tells them they’re all alone outside the cult – show them they’re not.
Notice it’s show them, not tell them. Cults love to change the meanings of words: It’s not abuse, it’s “discipline” because we “love” you. You aren’t a “captive”, we’re holding you here out of “love.” There has to be action with this, and it has to be action that is diametrically opposed to the actions of the cult.
It’s difficult – you’ll be stuck just waiting sometimes, feeling like you can’t do anything for your friend. And yes, sometimes people will choose the cult, and choose the abuse. But if those helping them are taking away their consent, how are we any different than the people currently oppressing them? We have to be different, as different as it is possible to be. Otherwise they’ll be exchanging one oppression for another.
There’s a caveat, though: If there is physical or sexual abuse happening, especially if the person in question is under 18, absolutely call the authorities (Child Protective Services or the police). That may cause them to lose trust in you for a time – but it’s better than them dying from the abuse.
I’m not going to sit here and tell you that everything will work out, that everyone chooses to leave abusive and manipulative situations. It’s just not true. Sometimes, the person chooses the cult. And that sucks. But sometimes people shake off the manipulation, the brainwashing, and the abuse. And that is the reward.
Aaron K. Collett blogs at aaronkcollett.wordpress.com. He graduated from UCCS with a bachelor’s in communication in fall 2014, and he was a reporter and opinion editor at the campus newspaper, The Scribe.
Eleanor Skelton blogs at eleanorskelton.com, is the news editor of the UCCS student newspaper, and is majoring in English and Chemistry. The following was originally published on Eleanor’s blog on March 10, 2015, and is reprinted with permission.
I introduced Racquel and Ashley to my friend Cynthia Jeub shortly before they left the church. Here is her perspective.
Mouth shut like a locket Like you’ve nothing to say Speak your mind up, Come on, baby, free yourself… Don’t let nobody try and take your soul You’re the original – Switchfoot
I met Racquel over the phone. She explained that her best friend, Ashley, was being kept from attending her college classes, and her parents had taken away all contact to the outside world – no Internet, no cell phone, and she couldn’t drive.
“We can get her a cheap cellphone,” I said, “One she can hide, and use in case of an emergency. It’s dangerous if she won’t be able to contact anyone.”
Racquel hesitated. “I’m not sure if it’s really that big of a deal. They’ve only done it a few times, and it made her get behind at school, but I really trust our pastor.”
It would be several weeks before we met in person. We had an argument. Her church was a large congregation of Protestants who spent most of their Sunday meeting time meditating and speaking in tongues. She told me that the pastor could always tell if your spirit was in the right place or not, based on his communication with the Holy Spirit. I asked if the pastor had any accountability, but she found it unthinkable that he’d say anything that wasn’t true.
Racquel said that though she loved horses, she wasn’t allowed to enter any competitions. She agreed with the church doctrine, she said, because it kept people humble. Winning competitions, or even trying to be good at something or to look good, was distracting from drawing attention toward God and away from oneself.
That conversation bothered me because it was so backwards: I was taught to pursue excellence, because it brought glory to God, and I was a living sacrifice.
We lived on two sides of the same degrading self-deception.
It was early 2013, and I drove an hour to the airport to pick up my dad from one of his events. He asked about school and life, and I confided about the exciting things going on: I was rescuing abused adults from cult-like fundamentalist families.
The first person who got out was Eleanor.
I wasn’t there when she moved into her first apartment, but I was part of the group of friends that gave her support as she adjusted to life away from home for the first time in her early twenties. After that, Eleanor did most of the networking for what we called the “Underground Railroad.”
She didn’t go looking for these people, she just found them everywhere – in her classes and at work, she found people in the many cult-like churches of Colorado Springs, adults still living at home, adults with weakened self-confidence, adults with limited skills and resources, all trying to get out, all trapped and afraid.
In our little group, I earned the title of “the logical one.”
Eleanor, and another girl named Cynthia Barram, turned to me as the no-nonsense anchor. When Eleanor found someone who was in a bad situation with their church or family, she’d connect them with me, and I’d check the facts. Then we’d find small solutions – things like helping people get a car, cellphone, job, or place to live. Many people were trapped because their parents wouldn’t even let them get a driver’s license.
I networked with the homeschool families I already knew, and asked them if they could provide “stations” in our “railroad.” I wanted parents who were good homeschoolers, not abusive, who had experience with adoption, and could demonstrate that homeschooling could be done in a way that wasn’t harmful. If such parents had a guest bedroom, we could send homeschooled alum there to pay rent, while still having parental figures who could provide support without the intense control their own parents used.
The homeschooling community could respond, I thought. They could prove to those who’d been abused that it wasn’t all this bad.
It surprised me to find so few homeschooling parents who were willing to help.
I related all of this to my dad, and he quickly shut me down.
“Don’t get between rebellious kids and their parents,” he said. “I do not support this. You don’t know the families and the full stories. You shouldn’t get involved with this at all.”
“Daddy, I think these situations are…different. There are some rebellious kids…”
I didn’t say Alicia, because my older sister’s name was so taboo in our family that it was always implied, and I didn’t want to hurt my father’s feelings.
“But there are also some very controlling churches and families, and they don’t ever let their kids, especially daughters, grow up. Even if they’re adults.”
He grunted severe disapproval, signaling that the conversation was over. That was the most we ever argued, because I always succumbed. I turned up some of the classic rock music he’d introduced me to, and let it drown out any awkwardness in the car. I decided I cared too much for those girls I’d met to just leave them in those suffocating situations. This was just one more thing I’d stop talking to my dad about.
Eleanor and our little crew kept working to help people.
We helped a girl escape from an arranged marriage, and gave resources to people whose parents kept them from contact with the outside world. Mostly we talked to our friends who were in cults about their aspirations and personalities, and helped them see their controlling churches as obstacles to what they wanted out of life.
The common theme was that we all had our own problems to sort. I thought there weren’t any problems with my family, but then I needed to fall back on our group more than once. Our friend Aaron supported me when I got drunk for the first time in my life, a few days after my parents kicked me out. Eleanor was frustrated with how Racquel and Ashley couldn’t see that their church was a cult, but she still kept in touch with her own overbearing parents.
We’d all lost the trusted older-generation adults in our lives, so we leaned on each other, but we were still young and inexperienced and unstable.
I posted an article on the Huffington Post about my frustration with freeing people. I couldn’t control them, but I also knew they wouldn’t stand up for themselves. I was tired of waiting.
I found out later that Ashley used a code name when she talked about me to her mother, because she was afraid her parents might find my writings and deduce that she was planning to leave.
In December, Eleanor sent out a distress signal to the group.
Ashley’s father discovered she was dating a guy outside the church and said he was kicking her out.
Around 6 a.m. on December 16, 2013, Ashley’s father texted her that he was dumping her possessions out at 3 p.m. Eleanor and Racquel left with Ashley to collect her things in Cynthia Barram’s van while her parents were at work.
When Aaron and I arrived, her bedroom furnishings were strewn about.
Racquel drew our attention to the picture frames. Her father had removed the family photos with Ashley from the walls and laid them face down in a corner, a symbol that her family had already disowned her for rebelling against the church.
Her father had also damaged the car she drove by tearing off the rubber lining in the door. And dumped out her purse in the car.
Racquel’s parents were less strict, and she moved out on slightly less dramatic terms.
Eleanor was living in a two-bedroom apartment, and she now housed three extra refugees there, including another girl who worked with us at the school newspaper. It was too small for all of them, so they moved into a house together, sharing costs.
Cynthia Jeub blogs about philosophy, religion, and growing up in a homeschool family of 16 and their television show at cynthiajeub.com. She studied communication and theater at UCCS, and was a reporter and culture editor at the campus newspaper, The Scribe.