I have always had a fascination with cults. As you can imagine, I've read a fair amount of books on the subject. Helter Skelter, which tells the story about the Manson murders and was written by the lead prosecutor on the case, is highly recommended. Raven, a deep dive into The People's Temple and the notorious Jim Jones, is another stellar read. Films on the subject, including the recent The Endless, are well worth the watch.

But what makes people join these cults and what would get them to leave?

After Redditor theotherweatherguy asked the online community, "Former cult members, what made you realize you were in a cult and that you had to get out?" people shared their stories.


"My mother realized..."

My mother realized there was something wrong when our head minister publicly called her a wh*re, because she was one of the few women who WOULDN'T cheat on her husband with him "in the name of Jesus." She left, taking us (the kids). My father, the husband she refused to cheat on, stayed in the cult for a couple more years.

ufonyx

"After this got to be too much..."

I was born and raised as one of Jehovah's Witnesses. Got married to another witness when I was 19. Around age 23, I started questioning the intense level of control they have over our smallest choices: What we wear, look like, what we watch or listen to, who we spend time with, etc.

Things really started falling apart when my cognitive dissonance was reckoning with the fact that I've worked with several hundred non-witnesses, and they were every bit as intelligent, compassionate, and loving as the best witnesses I knew, yet the Organization taught me that non-witnesses were selfish, horrible people, and they were all going to die at Armageddon (which has been constantly and urgently imminent for the last 150 years), I'll drop a link to some of their quotes regarding this in case you're curious.


After this got to be too much, I finally decided to research what ex-witnesses had to say. The Organization called them "Apostates," we were trained to be terrified of them and what they had to say, to never listen to them. Once I gave them a chance, it clicked instantly. Our leadership told us to never listen to "Apostates" because they knew the whole time that the apostates were right about everything they say.

My wife was not thrilled, to say the least, but I convinced her that truth stood up for itself, and she had the right to examine all the evidence and decide for herself what was true. We've been happily out for a year and a half, making new friends, having the time of our lives and we are buying a house this week.

https://jwfacts.com/watchtower/salvation-only-for-jehovahs-witnesses.php

https://www.jwfacts.com/watchtower/disfellowship-shunning.php

"I felt insulted..."

They told me I devoted too much of my time studying instead of praying/proselytize/going to gatherings/so-called 'family time.' I even explained that I study because I want to one day contribute to the alleviation of poverty in my country. They confronted me one day. They said that studying is more important to me than God, that it would be better to save myself a seat in heaven, and that all I could do is pray for God to provide for the poor.

I felt insulted because they were Americans and it seemed like their privileged life blinds them from how humiliating it is to not be able to eat. I personally know how many generations that have passed that have prayed for poverty in our country to end. After that exchange, I was so shaken with disgust from what I just heard. It was then that I decided I should get out. I'm a spineless coward, so I composed a letter detailing my leave and handed it to them rather than confront them directly.

Kablaaw

"When they told me..."

When they told me I couldn't leave and if I did defy them and leave, I would be excommunicated.

_chaos_control

"By the time they let us go home..."

In the early 2000's I went to the Church of Scientology as a 20-year-old. My dad was an Evangelical pastor and I was really turned off of Christianity (still am, even more now). I had heard that Scientology was kind of crazy but hadn't heard anything about what we now know their beliefs to be. When I first went, I really liked the idea behind how they viewed it as "tech" and not really religion. They start you off slow and you don't necessarily get into doing auditing right away (unless you have a bunch of money). I also ended up working there to pay for my classes since I was a poor college student. I actually really liked the people there and had a good time for the most part.

After a couple of months of spending a few days a week there, going to classes and working, I got past the intro classes. That's when the crazy started to show itself. I remember having discussions around how basically, you have to follow what Hubbard said to the letter. Well I'm a bit of a free thinker and that didn't sit well with me, but they would just respond with "Well that's how his 'tech' works!".

A week or so after our discussions around following things to the letter, they had a big event. I don't really remember what it was for, but it ended with trying to sign people up to go on a Scientology "cruise." If you couldn't afford it, you'd have to join the Sea Org and work your way through. Being as it was a pretty expensive cruise (more than normal since you were paying for the classes too), they were having a hard time getting people to sign up. They had a quota they had to hit for the meeting and wouldn't let us leave until they met their quota. So they'd hound people in the audience (maybe around 40 of us) until someone would finally relent and sign up. Then they'd do it to someone else.

It was getting to be around 10 pm and I had to be at my real job at 7 am so I asked if I could leave. They said no, just wait until they finish signing people up. Well, it kept getting later and I kept asking. Finally, after another 45 minutes, I tried to walk out. They physically barred me from leaving. Oh, and not to mention, this entire time they were trying to get me to drop out of school to go. The program I was in had a 2 year waiting period and if I left it would be quite a while before I would be able to get back in.

By the time they let us go home, I hated every person in that place. The people I was starting to like were the ones telling me to drop out of school. I never went back. They called and called begging me to come and talk to them. I finally ended up talking to who had been my favorite person there and explained how upset I was that they were asking me to drop out of school etc. They just doubled down and kept trying to get me to come into the church. At this point, I knew if I went back they probably wouldn't let me leave. So I never went back. Told them never to call me.

I've gotten mailers from them over the years still and they'll find my phone number and start to call. Well, a couple of years ago I had finally had enough of the calls as they would call almost as much as the car warranty scams now. I had already told them nicely to stop calling but one day I lost it on someone. I went ballistic on the phone. I don't remember what exactly I said but they haven't called me since and I haven't gotten anything in the mail.

Paerrin

"They control everything..."

A friend from the same church explained it to me when I was young. They control everything from our money, marriage, thoughts, actions. But growing up in such a church makes it feel normal, you know? I couldn't question it.

eggstoasty

"When I realized..."

When I realized that forcing everyone to legally change their last name, not leave the building, not take pictures and not say certain words was not normal, dude. Also the mandatory viewing and the evening classes for those inexperienced in the cult's niche (paranormal).

MR_System_

"I left when my partner..."

I was in an offshoot of AA for drug addicts called DAA. They treated the AA big book as gospel and they encouraged absolute control from your sponsor (mentor). You had to tell them every grisly detail about your life. They refused to allow people to take mental health medicine.

The group took up all of my time and spent hours trying to go to NA meetings to recruit people. They saw Bill Wilson as almost godlike. At the top of the organisation in London was a figure who subtly placed himself as the cult leader, and took advantage of young newcomers.

I was 17 and had begun questioning the doctrine. When I requested to meet with the pastor of our mega-church to discuss my questions, I arrived to find that he'd brought in several other men to the meeting, leaders in the church, as the doctrine did not allow a man to meet with a woman alone. Again, I was 17, a child, not a grown woman. I was curious about contradictions in the church teachings and wanted to discuss. Instead, the pastor and deacons berated me for questioning "God's Word" and told me I would go to Hell if I did not accept what I was told at face value.

I was expelled from the church for questioning and informed that, because I had questioned, I could not repent. No matter what I did, "God" would no longer accept me into "His kingdom". I could not pray for forgiveness or be baptized again. I was a lost soul.

I went on with my life and my parents left the church not long after. About a decade later, the pastor was accused of embezzling from the church and was hit with federal charges. Even though he had claimed to have a PhD, it turned out he didn't even have an undergraduate degree. He was a con-man and many of his family members, who were in leadership positions in the church, were part of the scam. They'd used millions of dollars of tithes to fund their lifestyles, hired bodyguards and lived in a secret compound.

He's still preaching, sometimes moving to another country when he comes under fire again. I pity the people who fall prey to his and his family's schemes.

MaroonLegume


They cast every problem in your life as your fault. You'd be lacking faith, or not doing the right prescribed cult actions like meditation or writing down your failings in detail and sharing them. Sponsors often told other people what their sponsees told them - there was no privacy.

I left when my partner, now wife, managed to show me what was going on. Unfortunately, she read a lot of my graphic writings about my past and we struggle to repair trust.

I hate them - they prey on vulnerable people and make the cult their lives. If you leave you're isolated and bereft and alone, because your entire life is in there.

Please avoid. Happy to answer questions about them. I'm UK based but they're worldwide.

Elphtastic

"I felt a lot of pressure..."

I was raised in a group that many consider to be a cult. My parents are still involved. I felt a lot of pressure to not finish college and instead do missionary work and so I stopped attending. They kept scheduling me for things despite my no-contact, no-show and they thought I would just show up whenever they said. When no one reached out to check on me or make sure I was okay, I realized I was just being used.

barleyqueen

"But to answer the question..."

The cult I was in never acknowledged it was a cult but after reading up on how cults operate I'm convinced that it was one. It was located in a farmland area of Tennessee and called The Farm. Here's why I felt it was cult like.

Both me and my husband and our daughter were forced to either change our names (me spelling only) or completely (former husband and daughter).

The amount of shame heaped on anyone who snuck off the property and broke dietary rules was insane. If you went to town and drank a cola or a candy bar it was a breach of conduct and public shaming occurred. If you wore glasses for nearsightedness that was called something- I can't recall but mine were taken from me. People were always confronting you about any you said or did that they thought was not copping to the vibes.

There was a pervasive mindset and a ton of jargon that you couldn't shake off even after leaving. But leaving for me was the most controlling event. I got very sick from bad water and had been forced by my husband into a 4-way marriage. I didn't want it and was outvoted so I went along for a while, just getting more and more disgusted by the sexual relationship with this second husband and watching my husband and the other wife, so I was told I could leave but never to return. That felt ominous.

I went to the guru at the head of this disaster and said I wanted to leave. A plane ticket was bought for me after extraction of a promise to repay it. Since I had nothing but the clothes on my back I agreed. Thinking at the time that my parents would reimburse it since I had nothing, not even a pair of shoes or a coat and when I got home my dad said no effing way will I pay them a cent. So the group wrote cajoling letters which I ignored. Those were followed by threats of legal action and finally a visit from my husband begging me to either cough up the bucks or return. I countered with a divorce. I never saw this as a cult until I got home, to be honest, but the jargon and group think tactics made me feel crazy. I got counseling. It helped me see that my 19-year-old self was in no position to stand up to a quasi-religious spiritual system.

But to answer the question I felt it was a cult after I left because I was expected to act, eat, procreate and work according to the dictates of the leader. I was not permitted to question the rules or authorities. And when I got hepatitis from polluted water I was told it was all my own doing.

PowerfulSize1444

"They called anyone outside the group..."

I was part of a South Korean Cult called Shincheonji. They called anyone outside the group betrayers and destroyers, even one's close family and friends. They also demonise internet and prevent us from reading news especially during the pandemic when the church was exposed. They keep a tight schedule for us; we need to recruit almost everyday, and meeting and gathering to a point that we only have 4 hours sleep. I realise it's a cult after they changed their doctrine a couple of times in order to control its members. They talked about how Korea is going to be the centre of the world and everyone is going there to see the Founder - Lee Man Hee. Now the founder was charged with embezzlement, however, this information is controlled and people inside have little knowledge of it.

FreSample

"When there were rumors..."

When there was rumors going on saying the cult leader was in a relationship with an ex-member although they were both married. Also, notice that the doctrine kept changing. There was zero compassion and love there. I was constantly monitored and controlled. Also, after I left the cult the leader was arrested for embezzlement. I was in Shincheonji a Korean cult very present in the U.S.

RunAway1128

"The missionaries..."

I was struggling with my religion (raised as a Mormon) for multiple reasons throughout high school and things only got worse after I came out as gay, including my mother trying to set me up with a man that was five years my senior as soon as I turned 18. The missionaries were teaching my Sunday school class and the very next Sunday after I came out to my parents they taught a lesson about the Family Proclamation and started attacking the LGBT community. I managed to drown out the majority of what they were saying but the damage was already done. A couple of months later, I cut my hair in a style that I had been wanting for months but my parents wouldn't let me even though I was 18. When I came home my parents were furious with me. My mother started telling me that if I kept going down the path I was on, I would never be able to see my deceased family members ever again. That completely broke my shelf and after that point, I refused to go to church for any religious activities.

TaeganSky

"Once I learned about the true history..."

I went door to door trying to pressure people into joining my cult. We were explicitly taught to target vulnerable or lonely people in ways that are textbook predatory, psychological manipulation. I slowly realized that 90% of the "lies" all those "anti-Mormons" tell were 100% true, and it was the people I had trusted my whole life who had been lying.

Once I learned about the true history and evolution of a church founded by a con man, the spell was broken. I tried to get answers from their best apologists, but quickly learned that they were intellectually sleazy and obedience was valued, not the truth they claimed to hold. I realized it was a fraud, despite the shiny veneer of goodness, and I walked away.

It was quite the existential shock to have your whole reality turned upside down like that. To add insult to injury, you're then completely shunned as an apostate by all the people you've known your entire life.

DocSaysItsDainBramuj

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