Cult Is As Cult Does

ICSA Today, Vol. 2, No. 1, 2011, 10-12

Cult Is As Cult Does—Post-Conference and Third-Generation Thoughts

Gina Catena, MS, NP, CNM

Having just returned from 2010’s annual conference of the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) in New York, my friends at home inquire what I found the most impactful from this year’s conference.

My conversations with those who study destructive cults and coercive persuasion around the world are the most rewarding aspect of these ICSA conferences. Over the years, some of us have developed warm, “hot-chocolate” relationships. Some attendees are researchers and writers on long-term effects of destructive cults; others are peripheral in the field. Still others consult to governments and publish on the seduction methods of charismatic destructive groups. Not all attendees have direct cult experience; some are therapists, academicians, and attorneys who work with these issues professionally without ever having been directly involved. Their humility, knowledge, and commitment are inspirational. There is comfort to be with a group that does not judge others because of an unusual history.

The majority of those who attend ICSA conferences are intelligent, humble, respectful, accomplished, and committed to supporting personal freedoms. Through various languages and our multicultural exposure, attendees apply obscure backgrounds and studies to have a positive impact on and protect others from devastating mental manipulation.

Over the years, a few attendees have impressed upon ICSA and cult experts that those raised in cults have different issues than do former cultists who joined and left. After all, those of us raised in cults lack a “precult identity” to which we can return after we leave a totalitarian ideology. Thankfully, ICSA now offers special recovery workshops and conference tracks for second-generation adults (SGAs).

Now to my personal highlight of the conference—an in-depth conversation with a woman I’ll call Susan. Susan and I initially met a few years ago, over dinner at an earlier ICSA conference. Once again, we found ourselves sitting together at dinner on July 4th, 2010. Cult is as cult does, beyond the façade. We know that. Yet, it was still surprising for both Susan and me to learn that there are many similarities in our current lives as we casually chatted over a fabulous multicourse meal, fireworks, and New York City’s skyline reflected on the nighttime river.

Susan was raised in a polygamist group in the Midwest. Like me, she left the group with her children, obtained an education and career. Her children are now self-supporting. She remains single.

Susan was raised with the small-town support of large families. Everyone dressed simply and worked hard, with an agricultural and manual labor-based economy. When Susan was 12 years’ old, her father took another wife, who was 14. A strict interpretation of Christian and Mormon scripture provided their overriding life guidance.

I was raised in a global setting that eventually settled into small-town Iowa, with a Hinduesque flavor; devout women wore sarees, and men had assigned colors for their suits. Many were employed outside the cult. Celibacy was the highest calling for the spiritually devout. Our daily routine had strict rules. Guidelines about diet, clothing, sleeping, and even architecture developed over time. Occult-esoteric spiritual beliefs guided life decisions. Many lived physically away from the group in which I was raised, but remained governed by Maharishi’s occult dictates. Years after my children and I left, I also remain single.

Both of our groups support a spiritual hierarchy with peer pressure for ritualized practices. The economic basis of towns that surround our respective groups is dependent upon the groups’ contribution to the larger local economy. As Susan said,

Local law enforcement and others won’t interfere with polygamist society because the outsiders are economically dependent upon the contributions from polygamist groups. Many of the sheriffs attended school with the polygamist men. They are old friends and won’t interfere. There have been mixed marriages between those raised in polygamy and outsiders. No one will address the problems directly. The entire larger community is complacent with the polygamist lifestyle.

I concurred, saying,

The same situation exists with Fairfield, Iowa. Even the current town mayor is “Governor of the Age of the Enlightenment”; his son had been arrested with a group of other TM-raised kids in a huge, illegal, marijuana-growing operation after the kids moved to California.[1] The TM mayor does a good job managing the town. But the Transcendental Meditation group believes that its meditation reduces crime, so the community avoids fully addressing certain situations as members arise to find practical solutions for the future. There are long-standing friendships between locals and TMers, shared community projects, and some intermarriages. Locals are reticent to publicly address misrepresentations, damaged psyches, or financial deceptions inherent in the TM Movement’s programs.

The lagging economy of Fairfield, Iowa was revived through the influx of, and remains dependent upon Maharishi’s followers.

While the larger communities surrounding both our groups are well aware of various child neglect and repressed activities, economic dependency and fear of social stigma halts intervention.

Critical thinkers from both of our communities who can no longer tolerate the larger dysfunction usually relocate to create lives elsewhere. Both cult mentality and the surrounding mixed-cult mentality repress free expression and political activism. We suspect this must be common with communities adjacent to other sect groups.

Susan and I both gave birth at home within our respective groups. We both had been raised with a generalized distrust of the medical profession. We both left with our children; the oldest child was ten years’ old when we left. We both raised our children largely away from group dictates and social support. We both went deeply into debt to obtain education while working and raising children on our own. We’ll probably never fully catch up financially. We both made blunders as we learned to function socially and professionally without background training. We both made it!

We both love many people from our cult-based families. We recognize their good intentions and naïve devotion, while we reject such restrictive lives for ourselves. Some loved ones from our past maintain contact; many reject us for leaving and even more so for publicly revealing the underbelly of our respective heritages.

We also discussed how many cult “experts” don’t understand our mixed allegiances and the ongoing effects upon our daily lives. We cannot completely leave the group-think in our past because our families continue to carry multigenerational effects.

We found that we are strong because of our choice to leave a seemingly secure and narrow worldview. Now we each conduct active personal and professional lives unrelated to our cult families.

We both have experienced intimate relationships that are threatened by our history. Having tried to deny the past, despite ongoing family influences, we both agree that it’s not worth denying our past to maintain a relationship. If we pretend that the early decades of our lives never happened, then our identity is not whole. We’ve tried; it doesn’t work. And thus we remain single.

Susan said,

I love the 14 year-old my father married when I was 12. Not that I agree with that lifestyle, but she is part of my family. I recently ran into my ex-mother-in-law (still living in polygamy); she said she misses me and still loves me. That must have been hard for her. We were happy to see one another!

I explained my aging parents; my father died last year, still in fantasy-think. My father believed he must have been a terrible person in a past life, that his decades of crippling pain were punishment for past-life transgressions, not due to his stubborn refusal to obtain proper medical care. He spent thousands of dollars on Maharishi’s various mystical treatments.

As the next of kin, Susan and I try to keep our elders safe despite the challenges of their fantasy-based realities. Yet we simultaneously keep an emotional distance to protect our own sanity.

Susan and I discussed what we called the third-generation effects in our respective families. Our adult children are divided between their post-cult lives and influences from idealistic, well-intentioned, cult-think family members who accuse us: “Your mother is blaming others. She’s not taking responsibility for her life.” At the same time, we attempt to explain to our respective children the limiting effects from a cult lifestyle and beliefs.

Both Susan and I were the only family members who explained the awkward past to our children; we apologized for our contribution to continuing the legacies when we were still sorting our own psyches. We absorb justifiable anger from our adult children. We hold a family base and acknowledge the larger families’ confusing mixed messages and our errors in judgment. We give as we can personally and professionally to prevent such future abuses. Our part-time activism seems to keep the wounds open for our adult children. We’ve learned to tread lightly on the topic at home, while using our history to help others.

On a lighter note, coincidently Susan and I were both born in New York City, before our parents’ involvement with extreme sects. The New York conference was a shared homecoming, to more innocent childhood times and to exploring the city we loved but had not previously learned to navigate. Susan and I were equally surprised to find the extent of our commonalities, when our backgrounds appeared to be so different—a daughter of polygamy and a daughter of Maharishi devotees.

At the conference, we had similar conversations with others from around the world who cope with mixed cult influences on children. While ICSA and others in the cult-studies field begin to study and publish about SGAs, time marches onward. Many SGAs are now middle-aged and older. We brainstorm among ourselves how best to support our children, the third-generation adults. We try to provide straightforward communication about difficult topics. Another woman raised in polygamy told of her grown son’s insight. Out of the blue he said, “It will take several generations to get this out of our family, won’t it?” Her son is correct.

Highlights of participating with ICSA? It can be simultaneously rewarding and exhausting to connect with others with similar eclectic interests. One friend said, “We are bonded by a shared pain. We are also bonded by shared victory!”

My children ask how involvement with an ICSA conference differs from Maharishi’s various advanced courses around the world. ICSA is not a destructive group. There are neither political nor religious belief requirements, nor are there lifestyle or sexual-orientation mandates. There is no charismatic unaccountable leadership. There are no practices that alter one’s mental state to raise susceptibility to suggestion. There are no secret inner teachings for which one must earn access rights, nor are there mystical ceremonies (operating AV equipment was a mystical rite for me!).

ICSA is a group, as any honest human group, with a common purpose. ICSA members rejoice in shared common purpose; we don’t always agree. We share, discuss, agree-to-disagree, and then return to our private lives. Those of us from a cult background believe in using our past to advance the common good. For those of us who live with ongoing cross-cultural influences, connecting and learning from one another is invaluable.

[1] Welter, G. (2009, February 12). Huge pot grow raided. Chico Enterprise-Record Article ID 11685597 (Source:

Fairfield Ledger. (2009, February 19). Five arrested on drug charges in California. (Source: