When my mum lost her dad in her early twenties, she was looking for answers and a soft place to land. It was the early 1970s — a confusing time to be human, amidst the Vietnam War, the continuing struggle for equal rights, and the disruption of all kinds of traditional values.

She found sanctuary in the Worldwide Church of God, an American fundamentalist religion that offered a road map for the meaning of life, infused with a little self-help theory and some healthy eating tips.

Aside from its conservative dress code and ban on makeup, the church was full of fairly normal-looking people. At its peak, it boasted millions of followers — families big and small, rich and poor joined from almost every country in the world.

The 1970s were a time of huge upheaval of traditional values. Photo by John Olson/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Every cult has its currency — ours was fear

The first ten years of my life were dominated by apocalyptic biblical predictions. The fear of these catastrophic events kept church members focused and contributing — emotionally and financially.

As a child, I believed I would never have time to finish high school, marry, or have children of my own. We were always just a year or two away from global famine, pestilence, and World War III. The church taught us that when the end times finally came, we — “the special ones” — would be whisked away to a “place of safety” in the Middle East for three and a half years, until Jesus Christ finally returned.

This was prophecy pre-Google, and, given few alternatives to focus on, my childish mind reluctantly accepted this environment as reality.

Not exactly a chilled-out perspective to grow up with. Even so, my main concern as a kid was whether I’d be able to plug a curling iron into a mud wall in our Middle Eastern hideout.

This god we were so invested in seemed like an off-centre, unkind sort of character with a bleak outlook on life.

My own flawed human heart seemed gentler than the god we prayed to — a rebel thought I didn’t allow myself to nurture in case it attracted worldly punishment. In reality, my view of “god” was shaped in the image of our narcissistic cult leader.

Cashing in on the human need for faith

The Worldwide Church of God was created by Herbert Armstrong, an advertising man who lost his job in the Great Depression and turned his promotional talents towards religion. A few decades on, he was leading a successful multinational religious corporation worth many billions of dollars in today’s value. Not a bad turnaround for a broke copywriter from Oregon.

Armstrong funded the operation by levying a 30% tithe on the gross incomes of its members. The wealth generated by the church allowed this self-titled “Last Apostle” of Jesus Christ to live the life of a celebrity on palatial grounds in Southern California. It was part religion, but mostly business. Armstrong became a religious media mogul: he ran an international radio, TV, and publishing business, and founded a college that eventually operated three campuses in the U.S. and U.K. He even circled the globe in his private jet discussing world peace with presidents and prime ministers.

By the time Herbert Armstrong died at the age of 93, church membership had reached dizzying heights. It was a coup in persuasive communication. The TV and radio shows were a great funnel. There was no door-knocking; recruitment was subtle and mostly peer-to-peer.

Much like Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, Armstrong had the gift of imagination on his side. While Hubbard was a science fiction writer, Armstrong was an ad writer. Their words and worlds were compelling and persuasive enough to entice millions to hand over a huge percentage of their incomes to the church coffers.

This god we were so invested in seemed like an off-centre, unkind sort of character with a bleak outlook on life.

As in most cults, there was a gnostic aspect to the sharing of “truth.” Our church masters cautioned us against divulging church secrets to school friends, neighbours, or other outsiders — they were privileged truths that could only be revealed when someone had been properly “converted.” As a consequence, I kept my mouth closed at school. Later, I was often labelled mysterious and secretive. It took me years to realise this was not an intrinsic part of my nature, but something I had developed in an attempt to not draw attention to myself.

This was prophecy pre-Google, and, given few alternatives to focus on, my childish mind reluctantly accepted this environment as reality.

Niceness is next to godliness

Another characteristic of cult life is the absence of authentic self-expression. Cults have a powerful unifying mono “cult-ure.” In ours, the members were magnetically friendly.

“Everyone is so…nice!” was a comment I frequently heard from my neighbours, school friends, partners, or anyone else who had a brush with someone from our church group. It felt like heaven on earth for new recruits, many of whom were in a vulnerable position, having been battered and bruised by the tribulations of life.

The indoctrination process was actually the highlight of being in the church. New people were invited to dinner, quizzed intensely about their past, offered home-cooked meals and support around the home, and had their calendar filled with social events. They were love bombed.

The niceness prompted initiates to let their barriers down. Which meant the appropriate boundaries weren’t in place when members were eventually made to feel uncomfortable. But that seemed a small price to pay to fit in. In a dog-eat-dog world, who doesn’t want to be part of an intoxicatingly friendly community — or any community, for that matter?

That sense of community was the thing I missed acutely when I left … and studies show this is a big reason why many people who exit one cult end up joining another.

The niceness prompted initiates to let their barriers down.

This niceness nirvana cannot be comfortably sustained. There was a “Stepford” feeling to our community — our emotional kaleidoscope had a limited spectrum. And some feelings were believed to be more spiritual than others: self-reflection, sadness, and anxiety were encouraged and rewarded with praise, while anger, joy, and celebration were considered self-indulgent, ungodly. Birthday celebrations — the pinnacle of self-centredness — were banned, along with the “pagan” celebrations of Christmas and Easter. That caused me no end of embarrassment at school and prevented me from forging deep connections with my peers outside of the church.

Tragedy was considered purifying for the soul, suffering a prerequisite to spiritual growth. As a consequence, people attracted it. Wallowed in it. And rarely questioned its cause.

Cults rarely withstand the second generation

Cult life didn’t suit me. As a child I longed to stand up in the middle of the two-hour Saturday sermons, where toys and talking were forbidden, and scream “Stop!” at the top of my lungs.

As a teenager, I suffered silently in the sheer boredom of repetitive behaviour. I had an intensely curious mind and dreamed of becoming a journalist — a truth-seeking occupation the church would never have tolerated. Journalists work on the sabbath so it wasn’t an option, I was told.

Because everyone in our small community felt like family to me, I wanted to date people outside the group. That was also forbidden — a rule I broke repeatedly, at great risk. I remember having nightmares about marrying my brother — a symbol of the lack of chemistry I felt towards those in my church peer group.

I had another recurring nightmare where I was stuck in a black-and-white maze that never led anywhere and that I could never escape from. Looking back, it seems obvious that it represented the emotional imprisonment of the group.

Like most teenagers, I had a wild period. But mine was short-lived because the consequences were terrifying. Despite my rebellious heart, I knew leaving would have an impossible price — it meant turning my back on my family, my childhood friends, and my perception of any form of security.

That’s the thing about cults: they are life-stealing.

Instead of allowing myself to grow out of my rebellious phase, I put a lid on it completely. I went off to a religious college to study theology and tried to tame my wild heart.

Exiting the group

There are a number of factors that snap people out of cult mind control. And the great thing is, oftentimes once you find a loose thread on the jumper, the whole thing unravels.

Books were my main connection to freedom of thought — I read at least three a week, often staying up until the small hours to finish them. One day when I was 20, while browsing in my favorite bookstore, I spotted a book called Combatting Cult Mind Control, by Steven Hassan.

I loitered by the shelf and flicked through the book, my heart thumping so hard it was difficult to even read. I quickly found a page listing the 12 traits you are likely to experience in a cult. That pulled me in. The traits listed were things such as: the group becomes all-consuming, leaving you no free time for yourself; they actively discourage spending time with your family and former friends outside the cult; and so forth. It all sounded very familiar.

It took all my courage to walk to the counter with the book in hand. “Don’t be stupid — you’re not in a cult. Get the travel book instead,” my conditioned self told my curious self.

Back at home, I read it cover to cover, staying up until I finished it at 3 AM. It was frightening, overwhelming, but most of all, intoxicating. I knew my life was about to change fundamentally. I was about to have a life.

That’s the thing about cults: they are life-stealing.

In the Worldwide Church of God, the brainwashing was subtle and the signs of dysfunction were mostly beneath the surface. There were no sacrificial goats, wild sex romps, or witches’ hats in the forest. We didn’t wear tie-dyed clothing, live on a hippy commune, or chant in the street. And that’s the point, really. Some of the most insidious cults can appear normal from the outside.

Cults encourage big life questions on the way in. Once you’re enrolled, they slam the door on questioning.

If you’re in a cult you’re probably not reading this. But if you are concerned about someone who may be, I highly recommend reading Combatting Cult Mind Control.

Why do “normal” people join cults?

Few people consciously join a cult. Cults are beautifully packaged to look like something quite different from the outside. By the time people figure out what they’ve actually bought into, their whole life is committed to serving the cult community.

I never signed up to be in a cult. It was my parents’ choice: I was two when I entered the group and 20 when I found the courage to leave.

My dad was a classic candidate. With two young children, he reluctantly followed my mum into the church just to keep the family together. Loyalty to the group was so extreme that “unconverted” partners and even children were often left behind. God (aka “The Church”) came first. Always. My aunts and uncles voiced their concerns, but their voices were pushed down deep beneath the surface.

Cults are beautifully packaged to look like something quite different from the outside.

If the group offered women emotional solace, safety, and an inbuilt “supportive” community, it gave status, discipline, and predictability to men. “Good” behaviour was rewarded with increased authority. This system saw some of the most unlikely individuals climb to heights of leadership. A thirst for power and a willingness to do the church’s bidding was all that was needed. Those who asked more questions or focused on their own interests tended to remain in the middle layers of the system.

A high-achieving professional before he joined the group, my dad didn’t really fit the mould. But all competing old habits are destined to be broken in the world of a cult: eventually his ego crumbled and he took his place amongst the rank and file.

Fitting in was paramount. Our group celebrated Old Testament festivals and holy days, including a Saturday sabbath. That sabbath put an end to many professional ambitions: my dad’s 60 hour a week CEO role was quickly surrendered to a low-status sales job.

Because volunteer work was critical to staying in favour with the group, he soon lost touch with friends and family. Those annoyingly skeptical brothers and sisters of his were squeezed out by all the replacement weekend activity. “He lost his personality,” my dad’s brothers and sisters told me years later.

Cults encourage big life questions on the way in. Once you’re enrolled, they slam the door on questioning.

The burning life questions that led people into the church group were actively discouraged once you were inside. Members were required to channel their reasoning and their curiosity towards a “greater cause”: saving the world, and ourselves, from future spiritual destruction. Years later, I realised how this childhood programming had fuelled a sense of missionary zeal within me, yet simultaneously cultivated a deep sense of pointlessness and futility.

Even after leaving, I retained an unfortunate blindspot for arrogant, egomaniacal, nonsense-peddling hypocrites. My first job after leaving the church had a cult-like quality — including a culture which pivoted around an obsessive, narcissistic, dictatorial and delusional leader. It’s taken me years to unravel the effects.

Yet I am strangely grateful for the experience — here’s a few reasons why.

What growing up in a cult taught me about real life

My experience growing up in a cult made me sensitive to manipulation and a strong defender of basic human freedoms. In particular, I strongly support the right to freedom of identity — a right beyond freedom of speech, which the world is only now coming to terms with.

Through this life lens, I can spot cultish behaviour in many areas of everyday life — the corporate world as a prime example. I especially see it reflected within startup culture, where people are often enrolled in organisations that barely pay their way. These recruits align themselves slavishly with the company culture, sacrificing much of their free time under the promise of future opportunity, which typically only arrives for the founders and early-stage investors.

Question everything. Don’t obey the “should” — only subscribe to things that make sense and feel right.

These are some of the values I have learned to live by:

  • No rules or customs are sacred. Question everything. Don’t obey the “should” — only subscribe to things that make sense and feel right.
  • Feel everything and don’t let anyone tell you how to feel.
  • All feelings are equal. No feelings are “superior”: all have value and are worthy of acknowledgement. That doesn’t mean we should rush to act on all feelings — it just means we shouldn’t override them. Identify, acknowledge, reflect, seek information, and then respond.
  • Everyone is intrinsically unique, and that should be respected. You don’t need to prove that to anyone, least of all yourself.
  • Be wary of elitist groups — everyone is equal.
  • Don’t check your identity at the door , wherever you are. You have a right to express your unique self in any environment.
  • Birthdays are important. This may sound trivial, but your birthday is the one day a year when you get to focus on the value of you and your life. Celebrate it.
  • Check whether you are intensely compelled to do things simply because you are unconsciously repeating an unpleasant or unresolved childhood emotional experience.

POSTSCRIPT

I have received an overwhelming number of responses — in the many thousands — to this post. Thank you to all who have responded to me in public and in private — the feedback has been very moving. Most former WCG people seem to concur with my experience and point of view. However, a few are concerned that I haven’t mentioned the “good stuff” that was part of this group — in particular, the friendships that were formed.

This post was written to help people understand cult life, and how it has the potential to trap anyone. That is the lens I am writing with, and the references I have made are aligned with that perspective.

Of course I made great friends, and I did have fun times growing up. I also had extraordinarily dark experiences within this group which I have not shared. However, in my mind, neither of these aspects are any different from ordinary life — there are friendships and fun and there are dark experiences that are simply part of the human condition. Great people and abusive people are everywhere in life.

I have tried to focus instead on the cultish aspects of this group, because I believe few understand the impact of that kind of experience — and because there are cultish behaviours around us in everyday life that can be difficult to spot.