07 July 2013

Her & I: A Cult Story

I suppose this is an odd story to be telling on a blog, but it's one that has been with me for awhile and just recently gained some closure. 

My best friend in college joined a cult and it really sucked. 
I met this hippie chick named Liz* at our campus bar about two weeks after I transferred to Beloit. That night her house had been having an "Animals in Formal Wear" party and she was wearing a sequined frock with bunny ears and a bow tie. We sat at a sticky wooden table drinking New Glarus beers and talking all night. The next week I discovered she was in my creative writing class, and we began hanging out regularly.

Liz was unlike anyone I had ever met; she felt like something out of a Sofia Coppola film. 

I was drawn in by how untouched by the world she was without lacking worldly depth. She was like a secret: in a school filled with punk and bohemian wannabes she was effortlessly cool and seemed to have no idea. She owned only two small suitcases that carried a few special novels, a watercolor set, a candle she had bought from a street market in China, some sweaters and skirts. She was bright and witty and I really thought she would be someone I’d always know.

But something was missing about Liz. She just had a hole inside of her. Things never seemed to make sense or sit right with her, almost like she didn't want to fit in. People confused her. She hadn’t lost her virginity yet. She was very impressionable. Nothing made her feel sure... except for this scarf-wearing, clove-smoking hipster, Jack*. 

Liz introduced me to Jack and though he was very good-looking and charming, I knew something was off almost immediately. I’d had a manipulative boyfriend in high school and Jack reminded me too much of him for me to be drawn in as much as Liz was. But, he and Liz both were great friends to have. They were a year or two older and quite mature even for that age. They held dinner parties where we drank wine casually, and talked about real things. Any time I spent with them felt meaningful and productive. I valued them as friends, but Jack just seemed to have a hold on Liz that I couldn’t ignore.

The better I got to know Liz, the more of a mystery she became to me: she spoke about her parents like they were casual acquaintances. If her housemates were annoyed with her, she never cared or could understand their reasons. I watched her date and dump three guys within four months and she wasn’t affected by any of them. She was somewhat out-of-touch in all of her relationships... except with Jack. When she spoke about their friendship, her face lit up and she was sure of herself. She understood Jack’s place in her life and she let him have as much room as he wanted in it.

I guess that would have been okay, but Jack was very manipulative of Liz. He made himself very easy to talk to, but often used strong language when telling her how she should “live her life”. He often called her choices “cowardly” and accused her of not being true to herself. I watched her adapt to his thoughts and drop classes, dislike professors and people, change her style, all because of things Jack would say.

I ended up telling her how I really felt about him on a sunny day on her porch during the last week of school. Her anarchist housemates were giving each other stick-n-poke tattoos and when I said Jack’s name, they all stood up and walked off. Liz listened intensively and took everything I said seriously. But a week later I got an email from Jack telling me I was “psychotic” and “evil” for trying to turn Liz against him. I gave up and just remained good friends with Liz. We never spoke about Jack again and he and I ignored each other in our ten person poetry classes.

Summer came and went. I had been living down in the cornfields with friends and when I came back to the city, Liz was one of the first people I saw. But something was clearly different. She was angrier. More driven to find “truth”. She talked a lot about people being “fake” and “passionless”. While we sat on her porch drinking Bellini’s, she told me in a voice drenched in bitterness how difficult it was for her to smile and be polite with customers at the cupcake shop where she worked.
            “I just want to scream at them, ‘BE AUTHENTIC! Don't just say 'thank you' because you have to, say it because you want to!’”. I nodded slowly, but her behavior was odd. She also mentioned that Jack had begun taking her to see his “mentor” who he’d been with since he was 17. The mentor had an odd animal name and Jack had a tattoo of lions on his shoulder, which was representative of the name his mentor called him.

When we arrived back at school for our junior year, Liz, Jack, and some of their friends began leaving school during the week and driving to Chicago (about a 90 minute commute). I tried asking Liz about it, but she was very distant. She told me she was still seeing Jack’s mentor and I left it alone. We still spent a lot of time together and on my twenty-first birthday (which tragically fell on a Monday during finals week and my celebrations had to wait four days...) she took me out for white wine and cheese and we stayed up all night talking. During winter break we hung out in Wicker Park with moody writer boys and I was still very grateful for her friendship.

But then things began to change more quickly. She began leaving school more and more to see the therapist and rumors began to swirl around the college about a cult. I began seeing her writing “Blue Dolphin” in places her name should have been. She was caring less and less about school and more and more about her “mentor” and the way “he thought” she should be living her life. She grew increasingly angrier about how “fake” everyone was, the masks they were wearing, how in genuine they were living their lives, etc.

One day, I walked up behind her at the campus coffee shop and saw her feverishly writing. When I asked her if she was working on a poetry assignment that was due for our class later that night, she quickly gathered up all the papers and said she was writing down everything she had ever done wrong in her life. I saw written on one paper something about her afraid to have sex. I started getting worried.

When I confronted Liz about what she was involved in, she shut down. She told me I was a coward and wasn’t living truthfully. I told her she sounded like a brainwashed version of Jack. We stopped speaking and she and Jack (and a few others) missed finals week to go on a Zen retreat in the Southwest with their mentor. The rumors about the cult were getting stronger. People started googling the mentor’s name and found his “teachings” online. The editor of the school paper rushed up to me one day and asked if I knew anything so he could add it to a story he was writing.
            “I don’t know, it’s a fucking cult,” I told him, angry that I didn’t know much more than that.

The last time I saw Liz was at her Senior Reading with Anna (see link below). Anna read a poem sarcastically calling the college out for claiming to be open minded, but accusing her and her friends of being in a cult. Liz stood next to her nodding and glaring out past the stage. I shrunk back in the dark, ashamed. Maybe I had been wrong? I felt like my concern had turned into gossip and I stopped talking about it entirely. Liz blocked me on facebook and she, Jack, and Anna all graduated early to move to Chicago.

For quite some time now, I have wondered about the mysterious mentor were and when I was writing my Honor’s Thesis my senior year, my mentor and professor asked me what my relationship was like with Liz. He had seen our relationship wilt into passive aggressive “critiques” in our last writing class together. I finally just burst the whole story out and sat in his office until the sun went down recounting every detail of the whole thing. How Liz had gone from being my dreamy best friend to a brainwashed follower of someone who renamed her after an ecstasy pill. When I finally vomited everything out, he said what any good writing professor would say: write about it.

“I can’t Shawn,” I told him, shaking my head. “There’s no ending. It just feels like bubbles in my head—I don’t even know what I’d say about the whole thing.” At the time, these were just friends who came, shook me, and then disappeared.

Nothing made sense about it all until now. The only person (from the cult) who kept me as a facebook friend was Liz and Jack’s friend Anna (we were acquaintances). A few weeks ago she posted a link to a podcast interview with a caption along the lines of, “Some stuff has been going on in my life for the past two years and I want you to know about it.”

I rolled my eyes as I clicked on the link.
Maybe she’ll admit she’s in a cult, I thought, knowing they were all too warped to ever do so.

But two minutes into the podcast, that’s exactly what she did. I screamed, ripped off my headphones, told Ben to put down his MCAT book and the two of us listen to this.

I can’t really explain the kind of closure this gives me, or the kind of sadness it brings. Anna and I have been emailing a lot in the past few weeks and we’ve been able to talk about Jack and Liz in a way I have never been able to with anyone before. It’s been comforting to know that my suspicions were correct, but it’s difficult to know that people I know are involved in something really heavy. The cult is based out of Chicago-where I’m originally from-so I do know of a couple people who have been attending the meetings.

I’m going to end this now with Anna’s interview, which I think, is a great story. I’m so happy she’s out of it all now and I like the message she has at the end of her interview. I hope you’ll listen.

*Names changed.
**I don’t feel comfortable calling out the cult leader, but if you live in Chicago and want to know if your therapist is trying to brainwash you, you can email me. ; )


  1. this was really interesting to read, it sounds so strange and sad to lose a friend like that x

  2. That is the freakiest story ever, I lived in Arizona for a while and met a lot of weird people in quasi new age hippie cults. Very weird altogether.

  3. wowzers, that must have been a hard thing to see happening to a friend. I can't say I have ever lost a pal to a cult, but I can imagine it causes you grief in a way - seeing the person you had such a fondness for disappear. I am happy for you that you have managed to be in touch with Anna - and that she found the strength to leave!

  4. Sheeeesh, I can't even imagine. So well written, Lisa!

  5. Wow, crazy sad story. I don't know much about cults and luckily have never had to deal with a friend changing in the way that yours did. But it's heartbreaking to read. Thanks for sharing this very engrossing story.

  6. This is incredible. I think it took a lot for you to write this and I'm so glad you shared. A really moving story/experience. I can feel so much of my own high school and some students in this.

  7. Wow! You are amazing to write about this. It is so sad when a relationship with a friend changes. This is an extreme example about of that. This has to have been hard to hit to publish button on. Thank you


  8. Such a well written and fascinating story. I'm pleased that Anna has found her way out, but it's a sad and confusing way to lose an important friendship. x

  9. Such a crazy story. I feel like you should write every detail and turn this into a book.

  10. this is crazy!
    glad that anna found her way out.


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