Imagine the life of a woman living as a sacred prostitute to help support the leader of a religious cult that controlled her existence for 15 years. Or a woman restrained for nine years behind barbed-wire fences under 24/7 security watch at a cult’s desert headquarters with no phone or computer access while she and other staff labored to support the cult’s celebrity membership. Then ask yourself, What was the likelihood that these two women would manage to break free of captivity, where their essence—their individual creativity—was thoroughly oppressed, and start over, finding meaningful and joy-giving work in the world outside their cults?
Why focus on creativity when we’re talking about cults or the squelching of “inalienable” human rights? After all, a healthy self-identity and freedom of creativity may seem less important than dealing with the wanton disregard of basic human freedoms. But we should not underestimate the importance of creativity. Creativity fuels an attitude of “anything is possible” and cultivates the belief that solutions are always within reach. Random House defines creativity as “the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations; originality, progressiveness, imagination.” In a healthy environment, an individual can harness her idea-generating powers and problem-solving abilities to make her life her own masterpiece. But while she is under the control of a perpetrator—a cult leader, a dominant spouse or abusive parent, a bully boss, an oppressive religious leader, prolonged contact results in a special kind of relationship, one of coercive control that oppresses creativity.
Judith Lewis Herman, M.D., author of Trauma and Recovery, says the special relationship of coercive control is found within the public sphere of politics; the private sphere of sexual and domestic relations; and when a victim is taken by a combination of force, intimidation, and enticement, such as in the case of religious cult members, battered women, and abused children. In varying degrees, an environment of coercion reduces one’s ability to think autonomously and creatively. The perpetrator seeks to destroy the victim’s sense of autonomy (Herman, 1992, p. 77) or “sense of separateness, flexibility, and self-possession sufficient to define one’s interests, and make choices” (Herman, p. 134).
Dr. Herman describes perpetrators’ methods of establishing control over another person that are based upon
…the systematic, repetitive infliction of psychological trauma. They are the organized techniques of disempowerment and disconnection. Various methods of psychological control are designed to instill terror and helplessness and to destroy the victim’s sense of self in relation to others. (p. 77)
Women trapped within coercive control, such as battered women, prostitutes, cult members, or prisoners, develop the capacity to restrict and suppress their thoughts and limit them to the present. Thoughts of the future stir up yearning and hope that are unbearable, so an oppressed woman will narrow her attention, focusing on extremely limited goals. “Making it all the way to tomorrow is a victory” (p. 84). Her future is reduced to considering the next few hours or days.
Breaking free from a cult or other controlling circumstances—much less leaving something that is familiar, regardless of how destructive that familiarity may be—might appear to be impossible, or, at the minimum, is a difficult decision to make. A woman subordinated to coercive control will experience varying degrees of constriction in initiative and planning when she thinks about escaping. If she possesses some creative thinking abilities, she can review her circumstances and plan a means of leaving as well as a destination. If her creative abilities are completely broken, she will be unlikely to think of ways to escape; instead, she will think of how to stay alive, or how to make her circumstances more bearable. For example, a prostitute may imagine ways of hiding money from her pimp; a cult member may figure out how to secretly find and enjoy moments of personal time uncontrolled by leaders; a battered woman may scheme ways of hiding when another attack is imminent.
Until a woman finds the inner courage to sever ties with a cult—or with any circumstances to which she is subordinated to coercive control—what keeps the embers burning that prevent her inner creative self from being snuffed out forever? Once out of the cults, both of the women mentioned above earned college degrees, built new careers, and became published authors. Both women claim that their “secret creative self” that stayed kindled for years under the smoldering ruins of wrecked lives is what ultimately enabled them to break free of the oppression.
One of the women is Miriam Williams Boeri, Ph.D., a former member of the Children of God (COG) and author of Heaven’s Harlots (1998). I am the other woman. I’m a former 16-year member of the Church of Scientology International (CSI). You can read my story at www.karenpressley.com
If you read Miriam’s and my stories about living inside and then outside two different cults, you might wonder, Why did we get involved in those groups? And why didn’t we just leave when we wanted to? Neither one of us woke up one day and decided, “Hmm, I think I’ll joint a cult today.” After reading our stories, as well as other stories of former cult members, you might understand how easy it is to miss the signs that could have prevented a bad experience.
That is why the most important lesson we can convey is that if you ever do end up in oppressive circumstances, always ask yourself, Did I miss the signs that led to my entrapment, or did I ignore them by compromising what was right for me?
Fortunately, just as there were signs leading to my unhealthy group involvement, there were also signs that pointed to a road of recovery once I left the oppressive group. I’ve learned that recovery from heavy control is highly dependent on the empowerment of the individual through creation of new connections in various aspects of life. Creative thinking plays a strong role in this recovery, particularly “the recreation of basic capacities for trust, autonomy, initiative, competence, identity, and intimacy” (Herman, 1992, p. 133).
Connecting with Miriam and then with other scholars and professionals who encourage me in my work serves to empower me and propel me into my career. The outcomes of these productive and encouraging relationships include my accomplishments of finishing my undergraduate degree, starting a new company, pursuing a master’s degree, getting a literary agent, and writing several new book proposals on top of the book contracts I’ve already received.
I also learned a broad-reaching principle about starting over: Many well-meaning relatives or friends of faith may offer to help, but “no intervention that reduces a woman’s power or creativity can foster her recovery. A woman must be the author and arbiter of her own recovery” (Herman, 1992, p. 133). Here are a few more nuggets of wisdom that you might find helpful:
Staying true to basic instincts of what is right for you will help you avoid compromise. Compromising can lead to reduction of autonomy, entrapment, and relinquishment of self-sovereignty.
Turning points pile up in the mind like weight on a shelf. Enough weight, and the shelf breaks. At the breaking point, you have to say, It’s time to get out of the unhealthy situation, or you will break (Lalich).
Reclaiming sovereignty over your own thinking, autonomy, and decision-making will restore your creativity and can even cause a personal renaissance.
Empowerment comes from the convergence of autonomy and support from your environment. (Herman).
Higher education can help make sense of past experiences in new ways and lead to resurgence of self and restructuring of critical-thinking skills that trigger creativity and productivity.
Finding meaning in your experiences will help you to recover as well as transcend the limits of your tragedy (Herman).
It’s always easier getting into than getting out of oppressive relationships or organizations. But I hope that the above suggestions and life lessons about the importance of creativity offer a helpful solution for you and any woman you know whose creative self is obscured to any degree by unhealthy relationships. Of course, personal gain can also be costly.
Price of freedom: Women who find themselves trapped in an oppressive relationship or an environment of coercive control may harbor the desire to reclaim sovereignty over their free will and creative abilities. But the idea of making the break and starting over again may be so daunting that they decide to remain where they are, despite the costs.
What are the costs? Speaking from my experiences, the costs of staying in the cult included my loss of self-identity, free will, creativity, and ability to flex critical-thinking skills, to name just a few. The costs of getting out included the loss of my husband of 20 years, accepting that I had made substantial errors in judgment, and facing the overwhelming task of starting over.
But the benefits of the blessing field I inherited in my new life outweigh my losses. I rejoined my family after 16 years of estrangement, purged my old beliefs and vocabulary, rediscovered my opinions and shaped a new world view, got a job without having much of a resume, rebuilt my career, and decided that I, too, could be successful in marriage again and took that leap. The constraints that once choked my initiative are now unleashed. It seems that everything I touch—every opportunity that comes my way, every new friend I make, every element of my life that I develop—is a special gift. People who know me well know of my hyper-exuberance about school and professional opportunities, and my hyper-gratitude about everything I’ve inherited as a result of gaining my freedom. And each gift comes with a blessing, a special measure of opportunity to make the most of what I regained. With the freedom to pursue my education, every book I crack, story I read, and fact I learn, every essay I write or project I do, serves as yet another explosive opportunity, a new discovery, a milestone, the promise of more new growth, another gift.
Boeri, M., and Karen Pressley. Creativity and cults from sociological and communication perspectives: The processes involved in the birth of a secret creative self. Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 9, No. 1, pp. 173–212.
Herman, J. L. (1992). Trauma and recovery. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.
Lalich, J. (2006). Take back your life: Recovering from cults and abusive relationships. Berkeley, CA: Bay Tree.
Random House Webster’ s Unabridged Dictionary. (1997). New York: Random House, Inc.
Williams, M. (1998). Heaven’s harlots: My fifteen years as a sacred prostitute in the Children of God cult. New York: William Morrow and Company.