Point of View – Q&A (Part 2)
William Goldberg, MSW, LCSW
A few months ago I left a cult after being a member for 4 years. Now I need to apply for jobs, but I don’t know how to explain what I did for the past 4 years. I don’t think anyone would hire me if I said that I was in a cult, but I don’t want to lie on the job application. I feel that I wasted 4 years. What would you suggest?
I agree with you that it is unethical and unwise to lie on a job application. However, you’re under no ethical obligation to go out of your way to highlight the fact that you were in a cult. You probably became involved with your cult because you were under the impression that it was a valid organization of some kind. For example, did you first view your cult as a church organization, philosophical movement, psychology program, or meditation group? Did you think that those involved were simply participating in outreach to the community? What were your tasks within the group? You can describe all of this without labeling the group as a cult. For instance, you might say that you worked in a missionary organization. I recommend that you first focus on the skills that you gained while you were there. For example, you may have been involved with childcare, or you may have coordinated large meetings. Did you run youth programs or tend a garden? Did you write press releases, or were you involved in money management, such as bookkeeping? Did you do any public speaking? Did you travel and learn how to relate to a variety of different age groups and nationalities? Did you learn a foreign language? Did you work in a cult-related store or restaurant? All of these skills are marketable.
Your years in the group may have given you the chance to develop other personality traits that employers will find desirable. You probably learned that you could work for long hours and fully devote yourself to a task until it’s finished. You worked hard to achieve a high standard of performance. Your friendliness and adaptability may have been personal assets that you developed further.
If none of these factors seem to pertain to you, you may consider going to school or interning to learn a particular skill. When employers are looking for individuals who can fill a specific notch, they will be less interested in what you did before you learned the skill than in how proficient you are now that you have this ability. If you aren’t sure about what direction to pursue for your employment, you might want to become employed in a temporary job while you work out a good direction for your future. Remember that, in contrast to the cult, you can try out new areas; and if they don’t work out or you don’t enjoy them, you can easily change gears and begin to pursue something else.
The main thing that I would emphasize to you is that, although you were sidetracked for years while in the cult, your time there was not simply “wasted.” Although your learning was at a painful cost to you, this learning can bring you to a better future in which you need not completely reject the past, but instead can begin to integrate the best from your experience to create a better future for yourself.
My sister and brother-in-law are members of a group that is listed as a cult on several Web sites, but not on others. They’re totally dedicated to the group, which, according to the Web sites, has many strange beliefs. However, I’m not sure that I would call their behavior fanatical. For example, after many attempts to get me to attend one of their meetings, they only occasionally bring the subject up now. They still come to family functions, and they appear to lead a pretty conventional life aside from their weekly meetings. On the one hand, I don’t want to panic unnecessarily about their membership in this group; but, on the other hand, some experts have labeled it as a cult.
It would be a mistake to determine whether your sister and brother-in-law are involved in a problematic group based solely on someone’s defining that group as a cult. I suggest that you base your assessment of the situation on your observation of their interactions with others. Do they have friendships with people who aren’t members of the group? Are they able to be involved in activities other than those of the group? Have they shown interest in other aspects of their lives? Can they make major decisions without checking with the group’s leadership first? Are they willing to listen to other points of view? Are their lives well-rounded? Are they able to miss some activities of the group without fearing retribution? Can they contemplate leaving the group without feeling that something terrible will occur? The more Nos there are in response to these questions, the more problematic their involvement in the group may be.
Sometimes individuals are only peripheral members, and their devotion to the group or to the leader doesn’t rise to the level at which their membership is problematic. Others may be members of a group that sounds benign, but they’re so cut off from other influences that the group becomes a destructive cult for them.
Part of your assessment of whether or not you should be concerned can include speaking to individuals who are current members of the group and to individuals who have left the group. Asking these people the kinds of questions outlined above might help you to make a more thorough assessment of the situation.