Panel 4: "ADHD & race"
Flipped webinar (9/Jul/21): 'Intersectional Approaches to Disability and Race' (here)
‘Only normal, successful, intelligent people join cults’: The susceptibility of the multiply marginalised and neurodivergent to coercive indoctrination and the erasure of our experience in cult survivor media
Inclusion London; Co-founder and presenter 'ADHD &…' podcast
There are many who, dissatisfied with life, find themselves drawn to ‘self-improvement’ organisations offering introductory courses which boldly promise life changing results in just a few days.
But not all will then get enmeshed into these large group awareness training programs (LGATs) designed to make destructive cults look legitimate. Nor will all suffer significant long-term damage to wellbeing, health, finances and relationships, or experience PTSD, psychiatric breakdowns, institutionalisation or even die due to being triggered by their participation.
Those that can be most vulnerable to this, I believe, include many multiply marginalised people like me: a queer, biracial, neurominority, gender questioning womxn with anxiety, CPTSD, and whose ADHD and Autism were only recognised after I emerged from two cults in my late twenties.
Our vulnerability heightened by the inaccessibility of oversubscribed and institutionally racist mental health services and schools that misdiagnose or neglect neurodivergent Black children. So we can often feel alone, lacking reliable support networks, real understanding of our issues or self-advocacy skills.
Moreover, dependence on these groups for quick fixes to deep psychic wounds caused by systematic discrimination, attachment issues and intergenerational trauma often leads to further re-traumatisation, shame and self-blame.
Setting the stage for cult indoctrination
It’s important to understand the background factors that were there before I even knew what the ‘personal development’ industry really was.
My undiagnosed adolescence and twenties were spent in a cycle of self-blame, self-hatred and alienation, finding it nearly impossible to maintain meaningful employment despite my MA in journalism. My ‘intensity’ also scared partners away and made me feel like I was never truly accepted.
With something fundamentally ‘wrong’ and no idea how to fix it, I internalised what my parents and others said (or implied) about ‘trying harder’, being less ‘selfish’ and more like a ‘conventional’ woman.
What Maté says of older undiagnosed adult ADHDers resonated, whilst living with my parents in my mid-twenties: “Their self-esteem is lost in some deep well...their problems are the result of a basic, incorrigible flaw in their personalities.”
Without real understanding of systematic oppression, I still knew early on that my differences made life a relentless struggle.
The default whiteness, heteronormative assumptions and toxic positivity that so many cults have also foreclosed any real examination of this until I was able to regain my freedom in my late twenties.
It was in this state of identity crisis that my mother, having been recommended by a friend, not knowing what to do and desperate to help me, signed me up for The Landmark Forum (in short The Forum) – i.e. the first course in Landmark Education’s (now Landmark Worldwide) so-called ‘curriculum for life.’
It was only years later, despite an attempted family intervention, that I realised this was the start of my indoctrination.
My descent into an LGAT
Landmark was founded by Werner Erhard, originally as Erhard Seminars Training (EST) in 1971. Erhard, an abusive twice divorced used-car salesman, borrowed heavily from the likes of encounter group therapy, Dale Carnegie, Scientology and Heidegger.
It originally allowed no bathroom breaks and consisted of hours of verbal abuse from an authoritarian ‘leader’ with no therapeutic training (leaders still have no discernible qualifications). EST changed to the Landmark Forum in 1984, after a controversy around Erhard forced a rebrand and leadership change.
It was now an educational training which promised to redefine ‘what’s possible’ and produce ‘permanent, positive shifts’ in quality of life.
I was sceptical but I also didn’t think I had much to lose.
Indoctrinating queerdos like me
The Forum turned out to be only the start of spending five years doing course after course, ‘assisting’ (their lingo for volunteering) on many of their events and courses, trying to convert others because why wouldn’t I want loved ones or anyone I met to have the ‘breakthroughs’ I had?!
So how does this relate to my marginalised identity?
Firstly, ‘mind control’ is much more likely to be effective if the person is in a state of ‘depression’ or ‘transition’ or, as Margaret Singer notes, is “rushed, stressed, uncertain, lonely, indifferent, uninformed, distracted, or fatigued,” especially when they are being offered “appealing answers and seemingly a way out of their difficulties” (see Cults Inside Out, Ross, 2014).
Landmark seemed to offer a simple solution to my sense of helplessness by seemingly making success or failure a mindset choice so that ‘anything becomes possible’ if we just stop being ‘victims’. And I desperately wanted to feel less overwhelmed and more in control.
Cults also engineer these states of distress, but I was already in this state perpetually and many of the vulnerability factors read like an unofficial list of ADHD symptoms. So, I was even more susceptible to coercion through relentless gaslighting messaging which, moreover, already played into internalised oppression.
Mind control includes putting people into hypnotic and trance-like states through guided meditations and exercises designed to generate “strong brain chemicals that not only causes a state of dissociation but also creates a ‘high’ similar to that produced by drugs and other addictions” (see Combating Cult Mind Control, Hassan, 2018)
ADHDers crave high stimulation due to a chronic lack of dopamine and perpetual restlessness causing unease. Maté notes that we may “attempt to satisfy the lack of human contact we crave by various other means such as addictions…or perhaps fanatical religiosity.” And these intense experiences deliberately create identity with the group.
Tthe cult provides a strong sense of higher purpose, structure, clear rules (even if they change) and steps for progression (Ross, 2014).
The idea of having a timetable, knowing what’s expected of you and what your group is ultimately working towards, can be a huge relief to a neurominority who, when unemployed, lacks motivation and, when alone, can lapse into indecision, despair, boredom and panic.
Meanwhile, a group of people who think you’re amazing and act like a surrogate family is compelling to someone who spent a lifetime feeling rejected and unloved.
Even if staff can be demanding and bullying if you can’t always follow their rules, like being on time, or when the Introduction Leader Programme timetable consists of sitting in an office and trying to get strangers, friends and acquaintances to do their Forum course and ‘assisting’ for about twenty hours every week.
Even when told by one of those strangers that their partner died because of being triggered on the Forum.
The thought of losing that community and being stuck again with yourself and your problems can be terrifying and unimaginable.
Eventually all this sent me into an unsustainable state of exhaustion and after five years I finally left, but without properly processing what happened to me I then joined another cult...
Erasing my experience
When I finally got out of the second cult and did start unpacking things, I realised that that there was no information that really represented the marginalised neurominority experience.
I had seen so many people in both cults that were neurodivergent or seemed to meet much of the criteria for ADHD and/or Autism.
Many were sensation seekers, habitual oversharers, loners, intense creatives, emotionally sensitive ‘empaths’, and traumatised intellectuals who didn’t care for social conventions and just wanted to make a difference or prove their worth.
Eva A. Mendes also notes that Autistics can “be more naïve…vulnerable and emotionally younger” than neurotypicals and “more susceptible to being taken advantage of.”
What I found instead was repeated assurances from cult experts and websites that:
“By far the majority of people who are recruited into cults are in fact normal and healthy...have average to above average intelligence and are well educated, idealistic people, with no prior history of mental illness.” (Cult Information UK)
“Researchers, clinicians, practitioners...have concluded that cult members must be dysfunctional, mentally ill, or coerced by charismatic but insane leaders. The purpose of this book is to contradict these simple formulations and to advance a theory that explains how normal, intelligent, educated people can give up years of their lives...” (see Take Back Your Life, Lalich and Tobias, 2006)
Hassan (2018) even claims that “cults generally avoid recruiting people who will burden them.”
These are sweeping generalisations, given the many I’ve met who had been suicidal and I know at least three people who died as a result of triggering in both cults.
LGATs like Landmark have been mired in legal suits due to participants having psychiatric breakdowns, getting institutionalised and triggered into suicide as a result of their coercive methodology since they started in the 70s.
Even if most people appear mentally stable – given a lot of people (especially marginalised people) have undiagnosed psychiatric conditions, have learned to mask, or are unable to understand when they may be triggered – this can’t be easy to know. Further, Landmark provided zero training on how to screen for mental health issues.
To destigmatise and normalise the cult experience and insist that it’s a myth that cults are full of: ‘scatter brained kooks’ and ‘stupid, weird, crazy, weak-willed, or neurotic’ people is to prioritise raising awareness around cults to middle-class, white and seemingly neurotypical people.
It further alienates and shames those of us like me, who may actually need the most help to recognise abuse and indoctrination. And who are more likely to suffer severe psychological damage and not have support networks in place or access to specialised treatment.
If cult experts are really committed to raising awareness of the vulnerability to coercion, then we need to stop erasing intersectional perspectives so that we don’t end up recreating the white supremacist ideology of the dangerous organisations we are calling out.