When I first joined what I thought was just a martial arts school, I was 25 years old and struggling with typical mid-twenties issues. I had trouble finding compatible men to date. People in some of my social circles acted like they were still in high school and excluded me. I was sensitive and took these matters to heart, thinking there was something wrong with me.
Music was very important to me at that time. I had taught myself to play the piano starting at age nine. I had taken four years of classical singing lessons. I was performing in local Gilbert and Sullivan productions. I was writing songs, but didn’t have the courage to perform them in public venues.
The martial arts school was unusual in two ways: the “Grandmaster” was a woman, and the “spiritual” side of the art was emphasized. Both these aspects appealed to me. And the students were really, really nice. I signed up hoping I could become a strong woman, gain insight, and make friends.
I quickly became dedicated to the martial arts school. I admired the senior students and wanted to be like them. So I listened to anything the Grandmaster said about how to advance both physically and spiritually. She said, “A rabbit can dig only one hole before the sun goes down.” She implied that to be truly dedicated to her school, I needed to give up competing priorities.
I had few close friends. I wasn’t serious about my boyfriend. My relationships with my family, especially my mother, had always been strained. I wasn’t very materialistic. None of the escalating demands that were made of me as I prepared to move in with other students seemed like a sacrifice. There was one exception: my music.
I remember crying all the way home from my last voice lesson. While in the group, I could play the piano that was for show in the house I lived in, when I had time. I was occasionally asked to sing the National Anthem or a Christmas carol, or play classical music at a special event. I even wrote simple songs for the group. But I made no progress, and my own musical self-expression languished.
There were good things about this group, which I now view as cultic. I enjoyed learning about and teaching the martial arts. I earned a black belt. I learned new social skills from living in crowded conditions and promoting the Grandmaster to all kinds of people. When I worked for the associated computer company, I traveled to Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Taiwan, and Korea on business.
There were also bad things that I tolerated or tried to overlook. The Grandmaster dictated everything about the lives of her closest students, including roommate assignments, who could date whom, how we were to act with our families, how much sleep we got, what we ate, and how we spent our time. If we varied from our typical schedules, we had to tell the Grandmaster or a senior instructor where we were going, what we were doing, and with whom.
Then there were what I called the humiliation rituals. If someone broke a rule, or even merely disagreed with the Grandmaster, the person was called out in front of the other students and criticized until he or she broke down.
I received several wake-up calls, two of which had to do with music. A new student came in with a newly completed CD, and the Grandmaster praised it lavishly in a typical recruitment bid. I watched, enviously, and was disgusted by the irony. Months later we all went out to the movies, and I heard Peter Gabriel, an artist I’d long admired, sing on the soundtrack. I felt acutely homesick for my own music.
I decided to spend Sundays playing the piano and writing songs. This didn’t go over well with the Grandmaster. She maneuvered to get me into a conflict with another student, playing us both, so she would have a reason to threaten to kick me out. When she delivered the threat, this was my cue to beg forgiveness and offer to do whatever she wanted. Instead, I called her bluff and offered to leave. So I left what I had considered my home, family, friends, religion, job, and fiancé, all at once.
I joined a songwriting organization and took lots of classes. I started playing at local openmics and booking small coffeehouse shows. Eventually I wrote songs that won local songwriting awards, I was featured on local independent radio and TV stations, and I almost got a song or two into Nashville.
I have written a few songs having to do with cults and spiritual abuse, six of which I present here. Only “Playing God” is obviously and specifically about following a cult leader. The rest are about controlling relationships, secrets, or disillusionment. Former cult members have told me they relate to these songs. “Only I Know Me” made one former member cry and helped her work through her grief.
What I find more surprising is that people who have no knowledge of cults beyond the news also relate to these songs. It seems everyone has had a bad boss, demanding teacher, manipulative lover, or other person in his or her life who is like a cult leader writ small. A man who was abused as a child told me that listening to “Scars” was part of his healing process.