what’s a smart girl like you doing in a place like this?
Coming out of fundamentalism is like waking out of a sleepwalking nightmare. The further you get away from the craziness, the more outrageous it seems that you ever found any of it credible – nevermind that you built your whole life around it. For me, the process of deconversion began quite slowly and then suddenly, an avalanche of hard-on-their-heels revelations picked me up and whisked me away, landing me with a surprising but liberating bump on the outside.
For those who’ve never lived inside fundamentalism, I imagine it would seem that anyone who gets caught up in a cult must be incredibly stupid or gullible and probably both. I understand. Those people, then, may find it difficult to accept that I am neither, and nor were the majority of the women I knew in fundamentalism. But that’s not to say that there isn’t something broken somewhere inside us that made us susceptible to the cult’s siren call. In my view, we have something very badly broken indeed. In fact, from where I stand now, I can identify a few of the characteristics that assisted my own entry into fundamentalist Christianity. I’m still nutting this out but here’s a start on explaining how it looks to me today:
The water you swim in
My parents did the very best job they knew how to do. Both came from families dominated by abusive men – my mother’s father was volatile and violent, my father’s father, a flagrant philanderer who sexually assaulted his only son almost daily for many years. Raised with such terrifying men, both my mother and my father grew up suppressing their emotions. By the time they came to have a family together, they had virtually expunged emotion from their consciousnesses altogether. We just didn’t do emotions at our house – except for anger, but only the adults were allowed to own that. My sisters and I learned very early that emotions were bad, and good girls didn’t go spoiling everyone’s mood by letting them out. And the best way to avoid that was not to have them at all. As far as the germs of emotions went, our home was absolutely and completely sterile. I have no memory of my parents telling me they loved me or of receiving any kind of affection from them whatsoever. Although as an adult, I have no doubt that both loved me very much in their way.
As a little girl I used to lie in bed at night and cry and wish I could do something that would make my parents love me. By the time I was a teenager, I felt ashamed to think I had ever been so weak. My disconnection from my own emotions was now approaching Hindu guru status: I was impervious to the pain of the dysfunctional relationships that surrounded me, and in complete denial about my need for – or right to – love and affection.
I now believe the true root of my emotional dissociation, the real monster lurking in my family, is probably best described as co-dependance. With each family member doing victim/aggressor/rescuer dances in turn, our lives were a continual cycle of manipulation, bullying and deceit. Complex rules and expectations were ‘understood’ within the culture of our family and everyone knew precisely what part they are supposed to be playing depending on the subtext present at any particular time. Our parents generally held the more powerful position and we kids learned how to behave in order to stay out of trouble as much as possible.
My parents were not bad people. In fact, they had a lot of excellent qualities. And despite statistical probability, they didn’t physically or sexually abuse us. They didn’t mean to hurt us at all…they just didn’t know any other way of doing life. They came from a long line of co-dependants – doing the dance was all they knew. It wasn’t their fault they did it, and it wasn’t mine that I ended up with a lot of issues either. When our personalities were forming, they got all bent out of shape. That’s the nature of the monster.
From where I stand now, I see few families where this sickening pattern is not the norm. Indeed, co-dependance seems to be something of an epidemic. And apart from being dreadfully damaging to a child’s psyche and screwing up any chance he or she will be able to enjoy truly healthy adult relationships, co-dependance is an excellent preparation for entry into the abusive relationship that is life in The Church.
Here’s a list of some symptoms of co-dependancy from Mental Health America. Read them with cult membership in mind and it’s not difficult to see why co-dependants enter fundamentalist communities in droves. MHA says that co-dependents tend to have:
- An exaggerated sense of responsibility for the actions of others
- A tendency to confuse love and pity, with the tendency to “love” people they can pity and rescue
- A tendency to do more than their share, all of the time
- A tendency to become hurt when people don’t recognize their efforts
- An unhealthy dependence on relationships. The co-dependent will do anything to hold on to a relationship; to avoid the feeling of abandonment
- An extreme need for approval and recognition
- A sense of guilt when asserting themselves
- A compelling need to control others
- Lack of trust in self and/or others
- Fear of being abandoned or alone
- Difficulty identifying feelings
- Rigidity/difficulty adjusting to change
- Problems with intimacy/boundaries
- Chronic anger
- Poor communications
- Difficulty making decisions
You’ll notice some of those characteristics seem contradictory. That’s because co-dependants act out of that victim/aggressor/rescuer triangle in different ways at different times in different relationships. But it’s all part of the same ugly, messy ‘disease’.
The most horrifying thing about co-dependancy is that, because you’ve never known life any other way, it’s like water to a fish: you just can’t see it. Indeed you aren’t even aware of its existence. Coming out – and finding an excellent post-cult therapist – opened my eyes to the truth. I remember the shock of realisation that I’d been swimming around in a pool of my own shit for 45 years; not happy, but never imagining either that there were fresher puddles elsewhere. Now, when I’m with my extended family, I can see the strings – it’s actually quite astonishing to watch them all dancing as they’ve always done – but I’ve snipped my own strings away. My family members can tug and tug but I no longer do the dance. I’ve had some extremely ugly responses from those who are not comfortable with the new rules but, understanding boundaries as I do now, I’m not too worried about the shit storm on the other side of my fence. I hope they’ll get used to the new me in time but if not, I can’t help that.
Looking back I realise the churches I attended were just bursting at the seams with co-dependants: aggressors bullying victims, rescuers with saviour complexes feeding off solving everybody’s problems, victims whining and snarking but never plainly asserting their right to be treated as human beings. But however miserable it became, and however frequently folk had to change churches in order to survive, the moral ‘rightness’ of the system, the belief that there was no other way to live, combined with the complete absence of a normal, healthy, internal guidance system, kept us from ever actually considering the possibility of giving the whole thing up as a bad deal. It’s a hideous puppet show played out in a maze of tangled strings. With every little tug, each figure dances in precisely the way he or she has been programmed to from childhood. We lived paralysed in the thick of the FOG of Fear, Obligation and Guilt unable even to understand why our lives were such a mess, much less act to change them.
Obviously there are a lot more co-dependants in the world than there are religious cult members. But there’s more than one way to participate in a cult-like lifestyle. Those without religious or superstitious tendencies may build themselves other forms of controlling and controlled lives that are just as screwed up as mine was; the Church does not have a monopoly on ugly bullies or pathetic victims. But I think it is true to say that the Church has managed to institutionalise co-dependancy and give the roles of bully, victim and rescuer a whiff of supposed holiness which makes them all the more disgusting and infinitely more dangerous – particularly to children raised in its perverse embrace.
Entering a cult is not a journey reserved for stupid people. My therapist has commented that, in light of my family background, there was almost an inevitability to my entering fundamentalist Christianity as I did. With her help. I’ve uncovered several false beliefs that I had unknowingly held all my life – until I reached the place where I began to see the water and its filthy contents. Those beliefs affected my every decision, every relationship, and indeed every single thing in my life. I believe they are largely responsible both for my entering Christianity and for my staying there as long as I did. I’d like to talk about those beliefs – big fat lies really – in my next post.