/ 23 February 2022

Think you’re in a cult? Here’s an escape plan

Graphic Cult Website 1200px
(John McCann/M&G)

Wolves in sheep’s clothing are hiding in plain sight. 

They hide on social media platforms as influencers, in workplaces as an untouchable bully and most notoriously, in religious organisations. 

When I first met Siva Moodley, the pastor who allegedly died on 15 August 2021 and is at the time of writing yet to be buried because his followers are awaiting his resurrection, something didn’t feel right. 

But society teaches us (especially women) to be nice and give people the benefit of the doubt. That decision to override my instinct would end up costing me three-and-a-half years of my life (not counting the time post-cult to heal from the intense emotional and psychological abuse).

When you tell people that you were in a cult, their eyes glaze over. You can tell that they are silently trying to compute what you’ve just said to them, while simultaneously wondering how you could be so stupid. 

(Yes, people who’ve experienced a cult face guilt and shame for being deceived by someone who was intentionally deceptive. The victim is revictimised).

If you’ve never been exposed to the mind control that happens in a cult, you might wonder “Why don’t people just leave?” This is similar to the notion that women who are in abusive relationships should “just walk away”. 

As someone who has experienced both traumatic realities (spiritual and intimate partner abuse), I hope to shed some light on why it is so difficult to leave an abuser — but it is not impossible. 

Signs of a cult

The thing about cults — and bad guys — that really gets me is that there is no warning sign at first meeting. I wish there was a law that would institute a mandatory warning on the building: “You are now entering a cult — proceed at your peril!” Or for the broken man, a T-shirt that says: “When this guy warns you of his dark side — believe him!” 

Do you suspect you’re in a cult? If you recognise five or more of these red flags, then the answer is a definite, unfortunate yes. 

  1. Love bombing: When you first joined, the leaders welcomed you as if you were royalty. By finally finding this organisation, you have “collided with your destiny” and you are special. 
  2. “Special” knowledge: The more time you spend with them, the more apparent it becomes that the leader espouses a sense of elitism. Other churches are not as special as this one, other leaders are not as holy or anointed as this one. You’re lucky to be part of this select group. 
  3. Sensational experiences: There is a certain rhythm to the services, such as repeated songs or suggestive words that create the environment for intense emotional experiences. This “hype” can feel real and intoxicating and you don’t notice that it becomes the focus of the “show”. 
  4. No accountability: Being a cult leader must be exhausting. Since it’s difficult to keep up with their own lies, it’s easier to gaslight their followers to make them bear the responsibility of trying to figure out what’s really going on. 
  5. Emphasis on money: Cult leaders (religious or not) are con artists. The organisation is their business and so you are simply a purse or wallet to be emptied out to meet their continually increasing monthly expenses. 
  6. Environment of fear and control: What started out in a love-bombing, honeymoon stage slowly descends into being assimilated in constant, exhausting activity. If you can’t give them lots of money, then they will demand all your time. You begin to feel dependent on them for every aspect of your life and that’s just where they need you to stay. They also isolate you from friends and family because, after all, they are your real family now.  
  7. People who leave are ostracised or cursed: It’s easy to join but almost impossible to leave. If you start to question things, you are blamed for not being committed enough. You begin to feel afraid to leave because those who do are shunned and you are told never to contact them, “lest that spirit of rebellion transfers to you”.
  8. Feeling of being trapped: What started out as exciting is now consuming every aspect of your life. You feel a tremendous sense of duty and obligation but there is no freedom — only a deepening sense of fear. 

Oh no! I AM in a cult! Now what? 

It is horrifying to accept that you are in an actual cult. The most devastating aspect of this reality is the sense of betrayal you feel. You trust them. You care about them. You believe that you were part of something real. 

And the truth is, in their eyes, you’re just a number. You’re dispensable. 

Hopefully that makes it a little easier to plan your exit, because, like a woman who wants to leave her abusive partner, you definitely need to have a sound strategy.

When I left Siva Moodley’s pseudo-church, on New Year’s Eve in December 2009, it was my breaking point. I’d started to see the fangs of the wolves in sheep’s clothing from January of that year, when I took on a job to work in the church office. 

Every time I tried to discuss my concerns with them, it turned out that I was the one with the problem and they were innocent and just trying to help me as best they could. It was a nauseating cycle of your word against theirs — and you were always wrong. I found a job in June of that year and it was the reconnection to the outside world that helped me see things clearly again. 

I’d also started having a series of conversations with friends about the crazy things I was experiencing, all the while being wracked with fear because we were warned incessantly about not speaking against Siva and his wife. 

I couldn’t bear another year in “Cultville”. After avoiding the New Year’s Eve service, I did the bravest thing I could do at the time: I didn’t go back the following Sunday. I received an angry phone call and emailed the next day to say that I wasn’t coming back.

It was only after I left that I realised that I had, indeed, met spiritual wolves in sheep’s clothing (like the bible warns about) but honestly, who thinks this kind of thing will ever happen to them? 

Accepting that I had escaped a cult made me look for a counsellor, as I had to figure out what was it that had made me susceptible to spiritual abuse (I had suffered other forms of abuse prior to the cult). 

If you’re ready to leave and take your life back, here’s what you need to do: 

1. Write down the events as they happen: Cult leaders are crazy makers. They will never admit to something they’ve done wrong and will vehemently deny anything they’ve previously said. It’s important to be able to have a journal of what’s going on, so that you can start to see the patterns yourself. 

2. Reconnect with friends and family: You might not want to hear “I told you so” from friends and family but they are most likely worried about you. The most difficult thing to tell someone who’s in a cult is: “You’re in a cult.” You’re primed to dismiss any negative statements and defend the leader without question. Reconnecting to people you trust will help you realise that there can be life after the cult.

3. Be ready for the breaking point: It will take a while for you to sort through the deception and betrayal but one day, something will happen that will be your breaking point. When that happens, know that it’s your time to leave. Cut off all ties, don’t answer their calls and prepare for the feeling of emptiness when the people who once called you family never speak to you again. Healing from this experience will take time. Be gentle on yourself during this process — and celebrate your courage to leave!

Here’s the good news: you can heal from this experience. They don’t need to steal one more day of your life. If I can survive this experience and live to write about it, so can you. You can be whole again.