Well. It’s just over a month since I officially Left, and I feel lots of conflicting and confusing things now, but not one single time have I felt I made the wrong choice. I am more certain than ever that leaving AoL was one of the best decisions I have ever made, and that what good I gained from my AoL experiences are best experienced outside of the group.
I’ve been reading up a lot on cult mentality, and highly recommend Janja Lalich, Margaret Singer and Robert Jay Lifton as companions through Leaving a cult. It helps you feel a little less stupid and a lot less alone. More than anything educating myself is helping me feel stronger and more capable of discerning between cults and relatively benign communities.
Yesterday this came in handy, if only to help me see something beautiful and sad.
I am visiting my sister in the south of france, and yesterday she, her boyfriend and I went for a day trip to a little medieval fort town nearby. After a picnic and a stroll through the local cemetery– all of us reflecting on how we felt the absence of a time and place to reflect on death, mortality, and the shape of life’s cycles in our urban isolated lifestyles–we came upon the quaintest cafe imaginable. It felt just like home– hippy quaint, as it were. They sold home made cookies, whole grains and home grown veggies, yerba mate and a damn good cup of coffee. The entire place was full of that hand-made touch; it felt warm, cozy, special. It felt like all my favorite cafes and boutiques back home.
Best of all was the elderly couple running the place. Miriam and Israel (German and French, respectively) greeted us warmly, pulled up some benches to their service bar and we all started talking over coffee and macaroons. Gradually we learned that they were part of a community of about 15 families, all committed to working living and worshiping together as part of a traditional kibbutz. It sounded amazing– so wholesome, wholehearted and dear. We talked on and on about our ideals of life; Miriam especially waxed eloquent in her truly impressive english all about the deep togetherness and intense love this lifestyle required. She spoke of us each being puzzle pieces, part of a whole, threads in a tapestry that can only be seen in its glory when we all come together and share our lives, our blood our salt our laughter. She nearly brought me to tears; she spoke of meaningful life so beautifully, and I am so hungry for that.
Soon though certain things started to… alert me to the possibility that this was not as it appeared, a tiny utopia hidden in the fortress’ walls. They mentioned other communities, other Tribes in California and England and Massachussetts and, and… She handed my sister a pamphlet on peacemaking, and me a newsletter. They had a plethora of prepared materials, and when I glanced at the newsletter I had this awful feeling, like a cold shudder mixed with heartburn. Lots of capitalized jargon, lots of feel-good words like community and Movement. Lots of totalitarian tidbits, little cult hors d’ouevres, just what a Leaver needs to see to be certain what she’s dealing with. The Twelve Tribes. Well…at least their glorious leader was Jesus and not some contemporary glory hound… at least they look happy, right?
But I need to say this. I need this to be understood.
Miriam looked at me hugging and petting my sister; she saw how I adore her completely and utterly– I even told her how I really feel, that god gave me my best friend for my very first birthday, and no gift could ever compare to that. My sister means the world to me; we squabble often, and I cherish that too. I cherish having someone so close that sometimes it’s too close, so close that sometimes I even resent it. She saw this and she asked us how far apart we are and… this look came into her eyes. A look of tears, a look of deep longing, sorrow and doubt. I knew she must have a sister and must miss her, terribly.
So I asked. Yes indeed she has a sister, and several brothers. But she hasn’t seen them in a very long time– there’s no leaving the group, you see. You couldn’t have a functioning group if all the time this person went off, then this person went for a week over there, it wouldn’t work– she said. And I saw her certainty cover over her grief, like an owl’s second eyelid.
I asked many more questions about her family. It sounds as though they had a hard time accepting her choice but that ultimately they all came to terms with this being her life, and it taking her away from them. I respect that, I respect her choice and I respect her life.
But I still feel it is wrong, I feel it in my marrow that it is wrong to ask a person to choose between family and god, between sisters and service, between earthly and spiritual connections of the heart. As if our sinews were not part of our soul– as if being born to our family was some terrible trick of the Almighty. To separate people from their kin and to program them to believe (as I learned from some research today) that anyone not in your community cannot be Saved, that there has not been a true Christian since the gospel of St. James in AD 44… well my god, what kind of poverty of faith is that? What kind of love can you give to a god so dark and distant? She had that look in her eyes when she talked about love and community, though– I know that look. That was the look of rapture I so often had in my own eyes at satsangs, or when I tried to tell someone else how beautiful my life had become thanks to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. Miriam’s faith and grief are haunting me today.
I know many people are naturally alienated from their families; I believe that one of the wonders of modern life is the families we create for ourselves out of friends and a slow collection of kindred spirits as we forge lives far from the homes we were born to. But I know Miriam loves her sister and misses her, and I know her cult won’t let her go home even for visits; I know that after 30 years she still believes that is right and good, and that after 30 years her heart still hurts. I saw it in her eyes.