Cults All Around You

posted by Madame Bubby

I was doing my usual scrolling on Twitter the other day, and I came across a news item on a cult I had never heard of before, which masked as a theater company!

According to the link above and other sources, the leader of this cult is a former actress, Sharon Gans, who starred in the 1970s film Slaughterhouse Five. In 1978, she and someone named Alex Horn ran out of San Francisco a theater company called Theater of All Possibilities, but it folded because of scandals and later resurfaced in New York City in 1980s as an outfit called Odyssey Study Group.
 

Gans cult articles
Gans cult articles (Source: A Cult Survivor's Handbook)

The Odyssey Study Group still puts on theatrical performances, but its members primarily focus on following the teachings of philosophers George Ivanovich Gurdjieff and his protege P.D. Ouspensky, who believe that the path to self-development involves labor and intentional suffering. The philosophy one could characterize as a form of gnostic dualism, as it claims most persons are living in a “sleep state” until awakened by learning esoteric principles taught by an elite persons, in this case, Gans, who is practically worshipped as someone one who gained a higher level of consciousness.
 

P.D. Ouspensky
P.D. Ouspensky

The link details the all too familiar verbal, physical, and financial abuse of members characteristic of cults, but after doing some research on Rick Ross' excellent cult education website, I also discovered that the cult does not allow African-Americans or LGBTQ persons. Apparently they aren't “pure” enough, though I did not find out the exact reasoning. Thus, if a member of the group attempted to recruit me in a coffee shop (the typical first step), I would be instantly rejected.

Why am I bring this point up? Cults are certainly in the news these days, especially if celebrities are involved. I am thinking specifically of the NXIVM pyramid scheme/sex slave cult, even more notorious because of the involvement of Allison Mack. Yet, what is really fascinating and also frightening is how these cults mask as other types of groups and ideologies, transmuting them into times and spaces of abuse.
 

NXIVM cult
NXIVM cult (Source: meaww.com)

I've come very close to cults, because cults prey on those they see as vulnerable to their “I/We alone can save you” mission. When I was in high school, a girl approached me and asked if I wanted to go to a movie. I thought she was asking me on a date, and to be frank, I was shocked, social outcast I was. When I asked where the movie was playing, she said it was being shown at some youth group. I asked my parents if I could go, and they said yes. I possess very little memory of the incident, other than persons sitting in folding chairs holding Bibles and giving the group money. On the way home (I got a ride home from the group members), I began to feel violently ill. Perhaps I sensed something was off. When my parents found out I had given the group money, they called the girl's parents. No more "youth group movies" for me.

I also briefly in college joined a Catholic charismatic group after a recommendation by a nun (she is no longer a nun, by the way; she left and got married). Catholic charismatics speak in tongues, claiming that it is a gift of the Holy Spirit. I remember lots of psychological manipulation in an "inner healing" session, and I noticed that persons in the group, called The Children of Light, tended to hang out only with others in the group. I got the sense this group somehow thought they were special, or "the elect" in a kind of antinomian way, as opposed to those mundane Catholics who were not so gifted. And what is even more frightening: one of the president's Supreme Court judgeship picks, Amy Coney Barrett, was associated with a community called People of Praise, which started out as one of those charismatic groups.
 

Speaking in tongues
Speaking in tongues (Source: Northwest Catholic)

And, I found out as well, what looked like yet another yoga place in the Clark and Diversey neighborhood, Body & Brain Yoga (now closed), which taught a Korean physical exercise philosophy called Dahn Yoga. The Dahn Yoga organization, among other abuses, charged exorbitant fees for retreats and even was involved in a wrongful death suit.
 

Dahn Yoga CNN report
Dahn Yoga (Source: CNN.com)

And then there was a meeting I went to with a friend from college and someone she knew, which in hindsight I found out was some pyramid scheme. I remember being hectored to take a course which would change my life. The friend of a friend gave them a lot of money that night. By that time, I had wised up. I knew I was vulnerable because of my sexuality and socioeconomic status, but I also was educated enough academically and experientially to both know and intuit the specific time and space of a cult.

The problem is many persons do not wise up, especially in situations of personal anxiety, or, particularly in the current cultural situation, public anxiety. And many persons are what I would call seekers, looking for an ultimate answer, a total experience, where struggle will end, but never really finding whatever they are looking for. Cults and cult leaders prey upon their fears and insecurities, usually offering a dangerous us vs. them mentality that justifies the abuses.

My experiences, and the experiences of others (as seekers and the sought), have shown me that possibilities for spiritual growth and experience exist, but no one person or one idea is all possibilities, and making something possible does not make you better than others and thus give you license to do harm.

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