So, some of you wanna talk cults, eh? Okay. I’m game. It’s a pretty broad, yet very specific topic. I’m by no means an expert and this piece is purely based on things I’ve experienced firsthand, learned, and formed opinions on. You are totally free to take or leave whatever I posit here. As always.
The Word “Cult”
I don’t know about you but when I hear the word “cult” it conjures up a few images. Sometimes it’s the image of a bald dude wearing a maroon robe handing out flowers on a busy city street (I saw this on an episode of Three’s Company once). Sometimes it’s Charles Manson and his harem of LSD babes. Or Jim Jones in Guyana filling Dixie cups of cyanide-laced Flavor-Aid (it actually wasn’t Kool-Aid). Some folks have even said well-intentioned groups like AA are cult-like. For me, a very specific religious organization gives birth to that cult image.
Right? Wrong? Good? Bad? Well, cults are defined as 1): a particular system of religious worship with reference to its rites and ceremonies, 2): great veneration (I love that word) of a person, ideal, or thing with a body of admirers, and 3): a group having sacred ideology and a set of rites centering around their sacred symbols. I feel the last definition can be applied to most groups. The second one could, too, but for what I’ll be addressing in this article, let’s stick with the third.
I was raised in a religious, doomsday cult. Like, for real. If you’ve read Train Gone you know I’m not bullshitting. When I was in middle school, a kid who wanted to “go out” with me (which really just meant holding hands in the hall between classes and meeting up at someone’s locker for a quick kiss) called me up to ask me out. When I told him my religion (and parents) wouldn’t allow it, he said, “You’re in a cult, Bek-Bek.” To which I vehemently replied, “You know, everyone says that, but it’s just not true.”
I’m gonna stop right here and say this: the first rule of a cult is to make sure those inside know how and when to use a rehearsed line of defense, then follow it up with “it’s not a cult,” if and when someone on the outside says “cult.” The second rule of a cult is to ensure those inside can convince themselves that it’s not a cult.
Both of those rules were challenging for me because at a young age, very quietly and secretly, I knew it was true; I was in a cult. I just didn’t have the language (and let’s be honest, the permission) to articulate what I was experiencing.
Fast forward to now, and I–at forty-four years old–have very unsurprisingly been involved in a couple of other cults that didn’t reveal themselves as such right away. In one particular group, I–relatively quickly–succumbed to their ideologies, rites, and specific language. I venerated those farther ahead than me and idolized people with celebrity-like status. I dismissed the ick factor for a few years until the patterns were just too obvious to ignore.
Once I started to see this group, this Multi-Level Marketing (MLM) company, in their full glory (at their summer convention) everything felt very off. I noticed that phrases, habits, prescribed reading, physical activity, and food choices were standard for–and expected from–all coaches. And suddenly, even seemingly harmless brand iconography resembled cult-like symbols to me.
I also noticed that what I was experiencing resembled what I’d already experienced growing up: rites, symbols, conventions to attend, admiring those at the top of the food chain, prescribed reading, and the biggest one for me: the language.
Culty Catch Phrases
Language was an easy one for me to identify. When I unwittingly slid into “coach” status with this MLM, it was to get a chocolate protein shake at discount prices; at least that’s how it was sold to me initially. Once I was officially in, I was instructed to perform several tasks every day. Some didn’t have specific lingo tied to them, but some did.
“Read inspiring, personal development books.” (Not too jargon-y).
“Post a sweaty selfie after your workout.” (I don’t really wanna, but again, not too language-specific).
Wait, what? Invite people? To do what?
“To join your next challenge group.”
My next what?
That’s when an inner, tiny, sharp stick jabbed at my side. Invite people to join my next fitness challenge group. Huh. Instead of fleeing, like my gut told me to, I kept at it for a few years while more specific language cropped up. Terms like: upline, downline, active, inactive, club points, team volume, and summit entered my vocabulary. The three words that got to me most were: invite, active, and inactive–they hit me right in the boo-boo. Why?
Culty Catch Phrases Defined
Invite because what I did to remain in this MLM, eerily resembled my years of door knocking as a Jehovah’s Witness (J-Dub). “Pop into people’s inboxes and invite them” sounded an awful lot like “Informally witness to someone, then try for a bible study.” For me, both of those things presented “challenges,” alright. Soliciting. Ew.
Active because to remain active in this MLM, you (and your “downline”) have to purchase the company’s products equating to a certain number of volume points. As an active J-Dub, similar “points” are tallied on a tiny preaching spreadsheet; the more publication placements (and bible studies), the higher the tally. And some “points” are given via approving head nods if you attend the Kingdom Hall regularly for meetings and preaching.
Inactive because if you weren’t purchasing company products and earning those volume points, you didn’t qualify for company perks, which were sometimes gifts from your upline sponsor or your name proudly displayed on a virtual board, showcasing your team’s volume. As an inactive J-Dub, approving head nods turn into sympathetic wrinkles on the forehead and private chats in the back of the Hall, and sometimes, privileges are taken away.
Removing myself from the equation and looking down at all this from the highest mountain I can (I didn’t have to go too high, like, I get it), I see that because of my upbringing I have become insanely aware of anything that resembles a cult. Sometimes I’ll joke and say, “Uh-oh! A group of three or more! It’s a cult!” Cheeky I know, but being raised how I was it’s no surprise why I’m leery.
It’s also no shock that I’d slide into other cult-like organizations. I was trained to subject myself to rigid structures from a very young age, of course I’d be inclined to accidentally find a couple in my adult years, fitting into yet another cult mold. Thankfully, I left the fitness MLM in 2018, right after that summer conference.
I dive deeper into this particular MLM–and one other organization I was involved with that was not a destructive cult (there is a difference)–in my next book (and even more in the next, next book). Like journaling, writing and sharing my experiences helps me see things and correct course. Maybe it helps you a bit, too.