Thirty-three Years Out|
by Nori Muster
I got out of my cult a full thirty-three years ago. That's more than half my life because I'm sixty-five. I spent one decade plus six months in the group, starting at age twenty-two. Although it was so long ago, that decade defined and shaped the rest of my life, as well as the way I look at my whole life.
I grew up in Los Angeles and had a privileged childhood, living in a house with my parents and little brother. We had a good school, a school bus to pick us up, good teachers, and lots of friends. My father was brilliant and hard working, and never missed a day of work. He did well for us and was generous with us, after he grew up as an orphan during the Great Depression. His mother, his last remaining parent and guardian, died when he was nine. Dad made it part of his business to impart wisdom to me, and over my lifetime, up to the time I left my cult, he was a huge influence in my life. As a child I used to watch him build things, like the wooden fence he built around the backyard. He also worked on electronics and I remember watching intently when he would take something apart to fix it.
Also in my childhood, and extending throughout my whole lifetime, I had four best friends, and several favorite relatives. My first best friend is Jan. Our mothers met in the maternity hospital when we were born, and stayed in contact to swap parenting tips and share babysitting. Jan and I remain as close as any twin sisters. My best friend Jolie and I met in first grade, playing in the sandbox. My other lifelong friends, Kerry and Kyle, were neighbors. I knew them since grammar school. I have other close friends too, Diana, my high school friends, Don, John, Jim, Kathryn, and Paul, and college friends Jeanne, Patricia, Marianne, Janet, John, and others. These were the people I clung to and dreamed about during my years in the cult, even though I rarely saw them. After finally leaving, I worked hard to rebuild our friendships, and many of them are still in my life, or they are deceased, or distantly in my life. I am grateful for their love.
Even though I came from stable beginnings, I was one of those people who needed to search for god. My mom and dad were atheist and agnostic and didn't teach me anything about life in that sense. My mother believes that when you die, you're gone, like putting out a candle. My father didn't have any set beliefs to share, but the questions were brewing inside him as well.
In college, my Western Civ professor got us to read a lot of books contemporaneous to the times we studied. For ancient civilization, we read Saint Augustine and parts of the Bible. From this reading, I came to believe in god. Some people might think that's good, but it was not good for me. About two years later, when I graduated, I moved into the Los Angeles Hare Krishna temple. The Hare Krishna recruiter, now an ex-member and one of my dear friends, noticed my search for spirituality and used it to lure me into the group. At the time, he thought connecting people with the group was a good thing. Since then he has apologized.
Part of my Hare Krishna experience was helpful. I had a new family to belong to and heal any wounds left from my younger upbringing. I met a remarkable man and we married. I felt close to Krishna, and that satisfied the craving for a spiritual connection. If not for my husband and father, I would probably still be in the group, chanting on beads and dressing like a Hindu woman.
So what went wrong, why did I decide to leave? It was a conflict trajectory - as one of my friends outside the organization put it. At first the organization helped me, so I was on an upward trajectory. However, the organization was on a downward trajectory. They had a criminal element and a cohort of greedy gurus who were brigning them down. About eight years into the experience, my upward trajectory crossed with their downward trajectory.
My father, husband, and I were a threesome. We worked together to produce the ISKCON World Review. ISKCON stands for the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, and our newspaper was our service to ISKCON. We published it once a month over eight years. The newspaper shared the organization's stories from around the world. It was supposed to be encouraging and upbeat, but the three of us observed ISKCON's downward spiral and decided our newspaper could do something to help. My father encouraged us to be journalists, and report the real news. That would include factual reporting, interviews with the leaders concerning ISKCON's problems, and editorials.
My father was a marketing genius with a bachelor's degree in journalism he earned on the GI Bill in 1950. He helped ISKCON devotees promote the organization over the years, even giving talks on how to write a press release, and brainstorming with leaders about how to promote their projects. Like my husband and me, my dad thought ISKCON was pretty good. Then all three of us noticed the downward trajectory around the same time, starting in 1986. My dad said he trusted ISKCON because my boss and my guru seemed like pretty good people. However, in 1987 the guru dropped out and moved back to live with his parents in New York. After that, all three of us knew at some level, something was wrong.
My husband was on my dad's side, while I kept doing my diehard optimist thing, trying to convince myself we could change things for the better. I threw myself into the ISKCON World Review, under the fateful wish I could turn the organization around if we just brought out the truth.
As it turned out, the leaders liked things just they way they were. They didn't see the downward spiral because they were riding it. They didn't want the secrets to come out, and they had way more secrets than I could have imagined at the time. So what did they do? They shut down our newspaper.
My husband and I went to see my father and he came up with a solution. He encouraged us to write an editorial policy that would allow us to print the truth, and convince the leaders to let us go back into print. This worked. We were out of print for six months, but soon got funding and the go-ahead. During these months, I began to write outlines and scenes for a book that would later become my memoir, Betrayal of the Spirit.
We published the ISKCON World Review for two more years, then they shut us down again. This time we were getting too close to a minefield - the organization's history of child abuse in their boarding school system. When I tried to talk sense to the head of ISKCON's board of directors, he called me a "get all the dirt out journalist" and said I was not welcome.
At the editorial meeting a couple of days later, my husband and I presented our letter of resignation. Everyone was stunned, including the board president. Nobody had ever considered I would quit. They probably could see my husband's disillusionment, but if he left, they probably figured I would stay. But my father was dying of cancer and wanted us to move in with him.
The final days, saying goodbye to my father, were bitter sweet. He had helped me through ISKCON, and now I was out of the temple. I bought some jeans and t-shirts, folded up my saris, and put them in the closet. I was out, and now he could die in peace. This was before hospice was widespread, but we wanted to keep him home at the end. His oncologist came by and shook his hand. He said, "Today's the day, just let go." Then his estate attorney came over to say goodbye. All throughout the last few days, people stopped by. Even my mother came out from Arizona. They had been divorced for nearly twenty years. Old friends came to see him off. One dear friend brought his wife and newborn baby. The baby was fascinated with my father and the feeling was mutual. They stared into each other's eyes and touched hands.
My cousin and brother were there. My friend who explained the trajectory theory, now a psychologist, was there. He had gotten his degree and helped my father connect with god during the last two years of my father's struggle with terminal cancer. Another friend from the temple, a mortician, filled out the death certificate and called the funeral home. He and the psychologist wrapped my father's remains in a sheet printed with Sanskrit mantras. And we waited. I cooked. Our psychologist friend raised a toast "to Bill Muster, wherever he is now."
That is how I left the temple for good. Over the years since leaving, I wrote my memoir, got it published, and pursued my dream, helping others whose lives were changed by cults.
After my memoir came out, I found out lots of people grow up in cults, and growing up like that can be harsh. My childhood had its problems, but nothing like the child abuse many second generation, or multi-generational children suffer in their groups. I have empathy for people who joined groups as an adult like I did. But the children of cults deserve extra compassion and a hand up.
We can't stop cults completely, since it's human nature to devolve into a system of coercion and control. Uneducated people think forcing and threatening are the only way to extract cooperation. It's not true, but if you have an incapable person in charge of a group, that's how they will run things. They may hold out carrots, like they will lead you to god, to enlightenment, and to love. But instead they just draw people in and then abuse them. That's why education is important. As ex-members we need to educate ourselves to know when a situation is going sideways, and when to get out.
From what I've learned, we have a whole system in our gut and heart to alert us when we're in a bad situation. Those are two important organs in the subconscious mind, which is located in every cell in our body. In the cult, or maybe earlier in life, we learned to shut off signals from our subconscious mind. We learned to ignore our conscience, also located throughout the body. Instead of sensing something is wrong with the people controlling us, we may have thought something was wrong with ourselves. We may have learned to beat up on ourselves, or blame whatever target the incapable leaders presented. Bad leaders might turn their followers against women, against people of color, or just simply hate everyone who is outside the group.
If I had never joined ISKCON, I could have been a real estate agent. I've had my license, and real estate instructors license, since 2006 and 2010, respectively. I sold houses for a few years, then the market crashed, so I started teaching. If I had gotten my real estate license after college, I could have had a career at it.
I could have gone to work for my father. I worked in his office several summers during college, and could have stuck around, learned the business, and bought his company when he died.
I could have gone to graduate school, and back in the 1970s, tuition was cheap compared to now. My dad would have put me through grad school to get a degree in law or counseling. I could have been a scientist, or a farmer. I could have gotten married and had kids. I could have learned lots of languages, or become a freelance writer like my mom. I could have become a photographer and travel writer like my father. There are dozens of things I could have done with my life. However, I chose to search for god inside a Hindu-like group.
Finally, at age sixty-five, I like where I ended up, but it took a long time to come to peace with my life story. On one hand, there are so many things I could have done, and so many things I didn't do. On the other hand, I chose this path, and got wisdom to help other people who chose this path and got burned like I did.
For some people, the bad cult experience just goes away, or they keep it somewhere way at the back of their minds. For me, I've welded it into my life, as a structure that I now understand. It's like an art piece that gives me a feeling of satisfaction. I built it, I refined it, I wrote about it, I came to peace with it. I use it to help others who are searching for a way to put their experience to rest. I have done it: I have put the past to rest. I accept it, I cherish it. Loving the past makes it a lot easier to live with it.