Hijacked Hearts

The most recent episode of Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath features the story of Mike Rinder, who was a member of the cult for much of his life and served it in many different capacities as a part of the Sea Organization. It is a heartbreaking and incredible story of the lengths that scientology will go to in order to shut down a critic of their policies and procedures. Mike Rinder is someone who can speak with great authority on the subject, because one of the jobs he did for the cult was to take action against their designated “enemies”. Also, Mike was a dedicated member when he was in the cult, and when he left he lost everything that had made up his life to that point — his parents and siblings, his wife and children, his friends and colleagues, his home and employment, his church and religion. He also had to leave behind his ideas about what he had been doing as an active member — the belief that as a scientologist he was one of the most ethical people on the planet, and as a member of the Sea Org he was dedicating his life to saving mankind from the worst in ourselves. This is what Leah Remini speaks about at the beginning of the program when she explains why it took time for her to see the truth about her religion by saying “I didn’t want to believe that what I had been doing my whole life was a lie.”

Near the end of this episode, “Fair Game”, Leah and Mike are talking and she says to him “You faught for the church because you believed in what you were doing.” Mike affirms this. “You are fighting, now, against the church because you know, ultimately, the truth. And so you’re on the right side of that fight now.” Mike affirms this a bit more reluctantly, and then talks about the guilt he feels about leaving, because of the impact on his family. I think this is a crucial point to remember, when you see and hear these stories of how terribly the cult treats its members, and wonder why they would join and why they would stay. The people who join a group like scientology are generally trying to do good in the world. They have a heartfelt desire to make a difference or to do something meaningful for others. They put their hearts into what they believe and what their beliefs call them to do, and those hearts are hijacked by an organization with malicious intent and a singular agenda — to make as much money as possible and to protect the source of that money. By the time they might realize what is going on, they usually have a deep personal investment in the group and it is not so easy to just walk away.

I have been a scientology watcher for decades, and over that span of time i have had the opportunity to know a few people who were former members or the child of members of the cult. I think, when looking at the cult and speaking out against it, and listening to others who do the same — as well as those who have left the cult because they grew disenchanted with it or grew up and determined it was not for them for some reason — it is important to remember one simple fact. Not everyone who joins the cult, leaves the cult. There are some people for whom it remains something they feel the need to be a part of. This can seem incomprehensible, once you have spent time talking to former members and hearing their accounts of what life in the cult is like. It is easy to assume that anyone who is still in either has not been exposed to the truth, or refuses to confront it for some reason or another. Sometimes it is because there are risks or losses involved in leaving that make it unthinkable — losing your marriage or your children or other family connections, losing the ability to conduct business because customers or co-workers disconnect from you, losing your faith and sense of purpose when you realize you have been living a lie. Scientology does not hesitate to use leverage to keep their membership intact, but outside of that how could anyone ever want to stay?

That is the way that many scientology critics and watchers see it — that the only reason people stay is because of that kind of emotional blackmail, or because the church holds secrets over their head, or maybe because they are too dumb or too evil to walk away. But that is not an accurate assessment of the situation. The reality is, sometimes people choose to stay, and not merely because they don’t know any better or aren’t capable of critical thought. When Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist Lawrence Wright referred to the “Prison of Belief” in regards to scientology, this is what he was talking about. The nature of mind control is far more insidious than just withholding information and applying peer pressure or group-think momentum to get cooperation from reluctant members. It is something much more subtle and profound than that. It is also elusive, and difficult to discern, because the mechanisms of control used within the cult are built on the mechanisms of influence that are already extant in our larger culture, and that makes them hard for all of us to see clearly. The tendency to jump to the conclusion that people who join a cult must lack some kind of intelligence or awareness that you yourself possess, as a way of explaining how some people join cults and some do not — that is an assumption based largely on a lack of self-awareness as members of our own society and as subjects of the influence of our culture.

This quote is from an interesting source — an article in the AV Club, a review of an episode of the TV show “The Simpsons” entitled “the Joy of Sect”:

The thing I keep coming back to as this episode’s most trenchant observation is the fact that brainwashing really has little to do with preying on the dumb or the gullible. Cult members aren’t idiots. Rather, they’re people like you or me to whom very clever, very manipulative assholes said precisely the right things at precisely the right moments to puncture their defenses and turn their worldview on its head. “The Joy Of Sect” best illustrates this with how it treats Homer and Lisa. The episode is more explicit in how it subverts audience expectations with Homer, setting him up as the highly suggestible type and then revealing he’s the last of the session attendees to break, albeit for the very dumbest of Batman-related reasons. Lisa, by contrast, is the likeliest character to bring down the Movementarians—as previous episodes have made clear, she’s both an iconoclast and a skeptic—yet the prospect of getting a bad grade, even in a Leader-obsessed curriculum, is enough to win her over. Lisa finds the whole cult thing utterly ridiculous and disgusting, right up to the moment they offer her the peace of mind she so desperately craves.

The storyline of this episode of the long-running series revolves around a spoof of a cult that is very much like scientology. It even features a “leader” that seems as if he could have been modeled at least in part on scientology creator and founder L Ron Hubbard. On the surface it appears to be simply a funny play on the tropes of cult membership and so on — space opera, elusive and mysterious gurus, silly garb like robes, silly lingo and insider language, and lots of manual labor at a secure compound after giving up all of your worldly goods. But the thrust of this review underscores a point I have made over and over to others in the critics and watchers community. The assumptions that people make about why and how someone becomes a victim of thought-control and influence are woefully misinformed and self-congratulatory. Misinformed as to the nature of brainwashing, and self-congratulatory in the sense that they give themselves far too much credit for the fact that they have not joined a cult themselves. Attributing that to being “too smart to fall for such things”, or something similar.

I feel that I must take a moment to touch on something much more basic here, and remind everyone that life is hard, and we all tend to feel like we don’t really know for sure what we are doing or how to be in control of the outcome of our life and our efforts. Yet the vast majority of human beings long for just that kind of feeling of control and certainty. That is undeniably a part of human nature, but we try to deny it anyway. A lot of our culture and it’s standards for success and wellness and validation as a worthwhile part of society is predicated on the appearance of control and certainty. Being confused, being at a loss, being subject to uncertainty and the whims of fate — that is regarded as a state of affairs that must be dealt with and remedied, when in fact it is the inescapable foundation of our experiences. What this means is that we are all walking around with an impulse to control and a need for reassurance that is mostly unconscious and unacknowledged. More than that, we build defenses against acknowledging this, we tell ourselves there is no such thing and proceed to organize our thinking and filter our perceptions to confirm exactly that idea. It is in this area of our psyche that you will find the vulnerabilities that allow those who wish to exploit and control us to get a hook in and pull one way or another.

It is a familiar concept, certainly. But I find it necessary to remind watchers and critics, over and over, that we all fall for something, sometimes, and when you stand in judgement of someone else’s weakness and blind spots, it is only by turning away from your own. This is an important point, because one of the things that keeps people in a cult long after they realize that it is a cult, is the fear of being judged and condemned as a fool or a dupe. Many former members express relief and gratitude when they find people to share their stories with who will not judge or dismiss them as foolish. The more understanding the general public is, the easier it will be for more people to leave a cult like scientology and face the truth of what they were involved with. More than that, it is important in terms of the larger goal of steering people away from abusive cults and groups like scientology. The simple fact is, as long as you are in denial about your own vulnerability to promises and lies, you are that much easier to capture and control with promises and lies. As soon as someone is telling you what you want to hear, you will be hooked, and it will never occur to you to pause and ask yourself if you are being manipulated because you just “know” you are too smart for that. There is no easier mark than someone who believes that they can never be an easy mark. Yet it is the normal state of affairs for most people to believe that about themselves, because human nature is to deny and ignore our own shadow, the dark side of our nature where our vulnerabilities reside. To quote the Jungian psychologist Marion Woodman; “Facing our dark sides is painful. It is easier to know so much and no more. It is easier to turn away from our own swamp of anguish and aggression and say, ‘It doesn’t matter, I’ve got friends. I’m well adjusted to my job. Everyone likes me.'”

Scientology and other cult groups of the same type get away with what they do because they offer a kind of out from this dilemma. A way to continue to evade that self-confrontation while cultivating the appearance that you are in fact far more in command of yourself and your needs, impulses and blind spots than most people. The irony is that cults like scientology are most appealing to those who are curious and attempting to live an “examined life”. People who I would say are living with a lot more awareness than the average person, or at least feel the desire to do so. A religious or psychotherapeutic cult is a specific kind of predator that feeds on the idealism and hunger for consciousness that can otherwise allow a person to grow beyond the limits of habit and culture in their relationship with themselves. In fact, you could say that a person only becomes receptive to the kinds of grand promises and huge lies offered by a cult when they are seeking for answers on that same large scale. Cults make big promises and present themselves as having access to considerable power or control or security, on a transpersonal scale. It is only when a person is already asking questions of that nature that the answers offered by a cult will ring true or seem credible or plausible. When someone sneers at the grandiose nature of the ambitions and ideals that are sold by cults to their marks, it only indicates the limitations of their desire to explore themselves and their lives. It is a reflection of the scale of their own imagination and their own thinking.

Taking a more humble and compassionate perspective about victims of cults such as scientology is the better choice, in my opinion. There are not enough people in the world who are truly willing to commit their lives to self-improvement and to the betterment of mankind. This is the sincere and genuine motive of many of those who join scientology, and certainly of all those who become dedicated members of their Sea Org, and work outrageously long hours in very harsh conditions for pennies a day. They do it because they want to be a part of something good and beneficial to others, or in search of a sense of meaning and certainty about life, or they want to think of themselves as good people who serve a purpose beyond themselves. They put their hearts into it, bringing family and friends along, and raising their children to serve the same purpose — all of this because of a desire to create positive change. Cults like scientology engage in a kind of spiritual abuse, hijacking the hearts of the most altruistic among us. Those people are exploited and abused, broken and burned out, and then discarded as “degraded beings” or “suppressive persons”. They do not deserve to be dismissed as weak or foolish, or condemned for the things they were manipulated into doing. The only difference between such people and the rest of us is a matter of what it is you are willing to fall for — what the hook is that gets you to sacrifice more than you should, to pay a higher price than you can afford.

-Watch episodes of Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath here

-Read Mike Rinder’s blog here

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