NOTE: This post talks about a fictional cult and an abusive relationship. If these are triggering topics for you, please do what you need to do to take care of yourself.
By Badseed – Own work, Public Domain, Link
The thing about gray areas is that they are gray. Gray can be dangerous.
There is a young woman named Kristina on General Hospital 1 who is in a toxic and terrible new-agey cult led by this gross, smug, pseudointellectual guru named Shiloh. Kristina’s family has been increasingly alarmed by her involvement in this cult and arranged for her to be kidnapped out of the cult 2. Her family is now holding Kristina hostage in a safe house and they have a therapist 3 working to deprogram her.
This story line has been of great interest to me, because I have a personal investment in the welfare of young women—real and fictional—at risk of being preyed upon. Kristina’s story has been unfolding over several months now. And when watching the show a few nights ago 4, I was especially struck by all of the vulnerabilities that made her susceptible to this cult leader. She’s a bit of a misfit black sheep in her family, for one thing. She has struggled to find her place in the world and figure out who she is. And Shiloh took advantage of every single one of those vulnerabilities. Cult leaders are deliberate in how they seize and prey on vulnerable people.
I was never in a cult. I was, however, in a relationship when I was young with someone who deliberately and purposely took advantage of my vulnerabilities. It is important to note that I am willing to state this now plainly and unequivocally. It is important to note that I’m not trying to explain away or minimize or gray-ify any of this. “He didn’t deliberately try to mislead me.” NOPE. “He didn’t purposely coerce me.” NOPE. “His lies and manipulation weren’t really a big deal and I’m making a big deal out of nothing.” NOPE. Since the ways he took advantage of me were more subtle, it’s easy to dismiss them. He wasn’t a cult leader. I wasn’t in a cult. And I can think of various examples from the relationship where it seemed like he truly loved me.
But what I’m realizing now, really and truly and unequivocally, is that a predator’s strategy includes doing loving and caring things for their prey in order to make them believe that they are loved and cared for. And this manipulation is part of what keeps a vulnerable person hooked on the predator. Shiloh on General Hospital (whose smug face I want to punch whenever he’s on screen 5) has been gradually and insidiously sinking his horrible claws into Kristina over several months, and now, after having been removed from the cult, Kristina is frantically and desperately trying to justify why Shiloh is amazing and why her parents are terrible for not understanding and accepting this. I can relate to her frantic arguments, her panicked rationalizing. To see the truth, even just a tiny little glimpse of it, will crush her entire soul into oblivion. On some level, she knows this, and she is terrified.
The harmful, coercive, abusive 6 relationship I experienced ended over 20 years ago. I am currently working to untangle all of the ways that this clusterfuck still affects my life. I’ve been seeing a therapist for almost four years. At first, I had a weekly session, and then an occasional second session per week, and now I have two regular standing sessions each week. So this means I go to therapy twice a week. I’m stating this clearly and candidly and without shame in an effort to help banish stigma.7 The harmful, coercive, abusive relationship is one big giant thing on my list of traumas to tackle. It is not a short list.
I am trying to remain resolutely in the “I was taken advantage of” stance, which has taken me a long long long time to claim. But I found myself drifting from this stance a few days ago, and I only just now realized that this is probably because I had a conversation with someone who engaged in gaslighting so subtle that I didn’t see it at first. The person I spoke with and the topic in question are entirely unrelated to what I’m writing about now. But the experience of having someone mess with my mind–not in an overt cult leader way but more insidiously–leaked out into everything else. It made me drift from black and white to gray.
It isn’t revisionist history to look back at your life and see things differently and with a new perspective. People do this all the time. It’s normal. I do not have time for anyone who tries to claim otherwise. I don’t have time for anyone who is threatened by my insights and pursuit of liberation from the toxic soul-crushing garbage that has been suffocating me for decades. My bandwidth is low enough already. My therapist told me about the concept in homeostasis in families, how when one person disrupts the status quo, it freaks everyone out and they’re like, Hey! You’re messing everything up! Go back to how you were! I’m not necessarily talking about my family specifically here. I’m speaking generally about internal and external resistance to change. It is scary and unsettling and disorienting to confront my own personal status quo and re-see something I’ve believed to be true for over half my life.
I don’t have to have escaped a cult to see things in black and white. My story doesn’t have to be extreme. And your story, whatever it is, is enough. You can resist the pressure to rationalize it into gray. What happened to me is real. What happened to you is real. I believe you.
1. I have watched it off and on since I was a kid. My mom watched it. I remember watching Luke and Laura’s wedding.
2. Kristina’s mob boss father, Sonny Corinthos, has ways of making things happen.
3. The therapist is actually a psychiatrist, who are not usually therapists, and he is terrible. But this is neither here nor there.
4. My wife and I watch it on Hulu every day. She, too, grew up watching it. It was one of the first things we talked about when we met.
5. And I’m not a violent person.
6. It is a huge deal that I’m using these words without equivocation.
7. I am extremely fortunate to have very good insurance, a well-funded HSA, and an excellent therapist. TBTG.