How Boy Meets World Introduced Us To R Kelly’s Cults

Alan Matthews takes on the Pied Piper

Like the rest of the country, I recently watched the Lifetime docu-series titled Surviving R Kelly. I was stuck in the house due to a thunderstorm and wound up watching all six parts in one night (part six just happened to premiere an hour after I finished part five. If that wasn’t a sign, I don’t know what is). The special thing about this documentary is the common effect it had on most people — or at least most of the people I spoke to. Whether I was talking to family, friends, or reading people’s reactions online, I was bound to hear/read someone say “I knew he messed up but I didn’t know it was that bad” or something to that effect. It really opened people’s eyes to just how disgustingly sick an individual we had playing on our radio stations for decades. The documentary really begins that eye opening process in its last two episodes. The first four parts of the series detail Kelly’s early struggles with sexual abuse — both as a victim and a perpetrator. The last two parts delve into present day where we learn that he has been operating a sex cult. Us, as viewers, watch as women who escaped detail what life in his cult was like, parents relive their anguish to producers, and one incredibly brave mother travels a long distance to rescue her daughter from his grips. Seriously, watching all of that unfold over a two hour time span was an emotional roller coaster scripted scenes could never come close to putting you on.

After I finished the series, I was discussing it with my brother who didn’t even know that it existed. At one point, I said to him that I didn’t even know cults operated like that. “The most I ever knew about a cult was The Centre on Boy Meets World”. That’s when it me:

Mr. Mac is just like R Kelly (more or less).

Mr. Philip Mac

For those of you that don’t know, Boy Meets World centers around a young boy named Cory Matthews as he grows up and meets all of the challenges the world has in store for him. Cory’s best friend, Shawn Hunter, is probably the most unfortunate TV show characters to be a mainstay on one of these wholesome family show lineups. Shawn grew up being judged by the other kids for living in a trailer park, still got judged by the his high school peers for living in a trailer park, had his mom walk out on him, his dad left him in order to chase after his mother, and he wound up living with his teacher until his dad decided to give up and come back home. That’s basically where we leave off by the time the episode “Cult Fiction” comes into play — and Shawn couldn’t be more of a prime target for a predatory cult leader.

Shawn Hunter — primary target

As this episode plays on, there are some many instances where Mr. Mac may as well be called the pied piper that it’s almost scary. Just to list a few:

He Has Other Kids Do His Bidding

In the docu-series, one of Kelly’s alleged victims claims that, after beginning her sexual relationship with him, she was then set up to be “trained”. Trained in what? Being a sex puppet. She would be staying at one of his homes in either Chicago or Atlanta and become accustomed to doing demeaning and calculated acts such as: asking for permission before doing ANYTHING, referring to R Kelly as “daddy” at all times, engaging in sexual acts whenever he wanted and with whomever he wanted, and cutting off contact with her friends and family back home — only speaking to them with his permission. None of this training was done by Kelly himself, by the way. He had his “top girl” handle that. Now, Boy Meets World was a family show so they weren’t going to get that graphic; but Mr. Mac conducted recruitment in a very similar manner. Whereas Mr. Mac didn’t have his iconic status to lure people in, he did have other means. Shawn, while somewhat of an outcast due to his home life, was his grade’s womanizer. A joke at one point in the series was that all Shawn had to do was run his hands through his hair and he caught the interest of a random girl in the hallway. It would come as no surprise, then, that the person who caught Shawn’s interest and introduced him to The Centre was a pretty girl in his class. Now, chances are that Mr. Mac didn’t specifically tell her to go get him; rather he most likely told them to bring in anyone that they saw were “being judged”. Speaking of judgment, that was one way in which Mr. Mac “trained” his newcomers. He taught them that the detractors in their lives were judgmental and that The Centre was a judgment free zone; as well as a place where everyone hugs to express love for one another and they personalize their conversations by using your name incessantly.

Shawn being recruited.

He Targets High School Kids

This one is an obvious, no brainer connection. The only difference really is the why — and even then there are still some similarities. The difference between the two is the sexual component. R Kelly, and I’m not exactly going out on a limb by saying this, is attracted to High School aged girls (at the very, absolute least, he enjoys being around them a great deal). That’s where the differences really end in terms of their preferred targets. While Mr. Mac didn’t want to have sex with any of the kids, and he didn’t exclude male members, he was specifically looking for young High School kids. For him — and I suspect R Kelly as well — it was about control. Teenage kids are at a weird point in their life where they are rebellious against the adults implementing rules and routine into their lives which makes them much more open to an adult that presents himself as the opposite. Mr. Mac, with his “no judgment, be who you want to be” presentation speaks directly to the teenagers he’s preying on which goes into my next point.

He Preys On Their Vulnerabilities

With any sort of manipulator, this is almost like some weirdly natural instinct. They know how to spot people’s vulnerabilities and play on them in the most effective way possible. In the docu-series, one of R Kelly’s accusers said something to the effect that she and Kelly had conversations where he inquired about her personal life — particularly aspects relating to the strength of her support system. In a very spot on interview, she said (more or less) that she was a draw for Kelly because of her lack of just that. It made it that much easier for him to convince her that she had no one while simultaneously presenting himself as her only option. Mr. Mac does this in a slightly different manner. Instead of propping himself up, he plays on the resentment the kids have for the adults in their lives. Once he has them on his side, he starts feeding them thoughts and opinions on those people as he prepares them for the inevitable attempts those kids will face from those wanting to dissuade them from joining a cult. After Shawn shirks off the the concern from his support system, he verbally confirms that Mr. Mac prepared him for this attempt, prompting Mr. Feeny, his long time teacher turned principal, to assure Shawn that he is aware Mr. Mac has given him a thought for every occasion. To Mr. Mac, this is covering his bases. To Shawn, this is just further proof that Mr. Mac knows what he’s doing, but, of course, that is because Mr. Mac has had plenty of practice.

“Don’t judge us”

Everything He’s Doing Is In Plain Sight

Perhaps the most frustrating part of ending to the Surviving R Kelly series came in the last episode. Angelo and Alice Clary, parents of Azriel Clary, go to look for her at one of R Kelly’s studios in Chicago. They got word from one of his former captives that he was having her stay there at the moment. Her parents are relentlessly knocking on the studio’s door, screaming their daughter’s name, and doing anything they can to get the attention of someone inside. At one point, they see someone shut the curtains and turn the lights off in one of the second story windows. Unsure if that was their daughter, they call the police. One of the officers says “we have two options: they can either open the door or we can ram it open” only to immediately follow it up with saying “but we can’t ram it open without probably cause”…which was needlessly cruel. At this point, the police leave claiming there is nothing they can do since Azriel has not stated she is being held against their will and no one at the studio wants to open the door. I kept watching waiting for a resolution for the parents only to realize I was waiting for nothing. R Kelly, who spent years denying that he enjoyed the company of underage girls is allowed to house several of them at two different estates. R Kelly, who is in his 50’s, is apparently doing nothing wrong in the eyes of our justice system.

That same frustration and confusion came from watching Mr. Mac conduct his business. Of course, Mr. Mac had his own explanation and description of what The Centre is. A warm, welcoming place and a judgment free zone to escape all of the pressures other adults put on you. “We’re just a place for people who need love in their lives,” he says at one point. Yet, the fact remains that these are high school kids (ages 14–18) who move out of their homes (at the age of 14–18) and live in a building run by some strange adult who tells them that he is the only one who will allow them to live free of judgment (while they are ages 14–18). Yet Mr. Mac is allowed to go about his business unhindered as well. Mr. Feeny at one point makes it known that he is well acquainted with The Centre and has spent years trying to get it shut down. Unfortunately the fact remains that if you have a bunch of young kids at or past the age of consent, they’re seen as being autonomous in terms of their living situation — regardless of whether or not the adult in question got to them when they were young and impressionable.

Eric tellin’ it like it is.

He Puts Parents In A Situation Where The Onus Is On The Kids

This piggy backs off of the last point but it is probably the hardest obstacle for a parent to face when it comes to removing them from a manipulator. You see, as previously stated, predators such as Mac and Kelly need to make sure they have plausible deniability. Part of that — probably the largest part — revolves around the law. This is especially apparent in Kelly’s situation where you see that he went from pursuing fourteen and fifteen year old girls to putting himself around girls aged seventeen (the age of consent in Illinois) and up. This change in preference “coincidentally” came about after his trial in which he was acquitted of having sex with a fourteen year old girl, prompting nationwide discussion about his affinity for being around girls that young. All of this leads to a situation where, by law, police cannot forcibly remove the girls from Kelly’s residence. They have to want to leave. Just like in Boy Meets World where Mr. Mac — faced with pretty much every member of Shawn’s support system — looks them all in the eye and says “that’s up to Shawn” when responding to the assertion that he couldn’t bring Shawn back to The Centre with him. Of course, both Mac and Kelly make sure their teenagers are well groomed so as to greatly minimize the chances of them even wanting to leave if given the chance. At the end of Surviving R Kelly, we find out that the girl who escaped with her mother (her name is Dominique Gardner) went back to R Kelly just three days later. In Boy Meets World, Shawn has ample chances to leave The Centre and stay with his best friend while his dad is out of town but chooses time and time again to go back. There is even a scene where he is visiting his teacher and former guardian at the hospital after a motor cycle accident where Shawn physically feels he cannot even face it without Mr. Mac. With manipulation that strong, I’m sure a parent can feel helpless in a situation such as this.

Shawn finding his faith.

At the end of “Cult Fiction”, Shawn suddenly finds his faith and inner strength which allows him to confidently walk away from The Centre and Mr. Mac. That begs the (rhetorical) question: what about the kids that couldn’t restore their strength and inner resolve? What about the kids that Mr. Mac accurately targeted because there was no way they would be strong enough to detach themselves from his grip? Well, then we have the ending of Surviving R Kelly. An ending where the black screen comes up only to have bad news after bad news fade in telling viewers that there a parents still trying to get their children to return home. Fortunately, we did have one parent rescue her daughter; but, unfortunately, as Mr. Mac said, “there are many more just like them”.