Aim of this website
This site was conceived to inform interested parties on the nature of Myriam’s work, as she shares her experience of having been involved in a cultic environment and subsequent recovery.
Influence of cults
In today’s erratic and unstable world, many people find themselves attracted to various groups, philosophies and people offering keys to happiness, well-being and a purpose for living. Unaware of the potential dangers of some of these new controversial movements usually led by self-proclaimed modern-day prophets and “enlightened” gurus, some find themselves trapped in a web of deceit, exploitation and slavery of mind, body and soul.
Myriam Declair’s experience of cults from the inside
Myriam has experienced this from the inside, as she joined a “religious” movement when she was only 15 years old, an “End-time” movement that was offering to bring about change and a better future in a tumultuous world. Eleven years later, she found herself alone and abandoned, with four small children to raise on her own in a society which she had shunned and left, having rejected it because of its “ungodly” nature and unspiritual values.
Broken and confused, she struggled to regain her ability to think for herself, make decisions, pursue a professional career and educate her children with no support from those who had misled her and used her for their own deviant purposes.
From the Inside Out: a decade inside a religious cult
© The Courier | October 2015 | Written by Myriam Declair, Interviewed by Jane Cadieux.
In the early 70s, 15-year-old Myriam Declair (a pen name) joined, lived and became an active member of a religious cult for 10 years. She then worked up the courage to leave at great cost both to her and her family. In this interview we learn of her painful journey—going from rebellious teen to single mother of four—abandoned, confused and robbed of the ability to think for herself. Now some 40 years later, after raising her children and rebuilding her life, she lectures on techniques that cults use to indoctrinate, manipulate, and exploit individuals, offers advice to those who may be at risk of joining like-organizations, and counsels families who have been adversely affected by this phenomenon.
What feelings and actions led up to your first encounters with members of this sect?
At the age of 15, I had many questions about the meaning of life and my place in the world. My parents, although very loving and kind, had not provided me with answers to my deep existential questions, such as the existence of God, the meaning of life, life after death, and spiritual guidance. For these reasons, and the desire to affirm my passage into adulthood, I left home, leaving family, school and friends behind. Taking a few cherished items—my guitar, my “hippie” clothes and a record player—I moved into an empty room of a large derelict house where others, like me, were attempting to change society. It was the era of “flower power,” and even though I had no idea what I was going to do with my life, I knew what I did not want to do: a nine-to-five job, (which for me at the time meant a boring life making money), and doing nothing about the world’s injustices.
One evening, a few young people, all part of a large “international family,” moved into our squat. They were zealous, happy and got along well with our group of bewildered idealists. They fixed the toilets, installed electricity, improved the plumbing, and offered free meals to all of us.
I was touched by their smiles, their drug-free lives, and their sincere desire to change the world. They had left everything behind (school, family and even their country) in order to find the lost and broken-hearted, with the goal of “establishing the Kingdom of God on earth.” I was immediately drawn to their life-style and ideologies. I even prayed for the first time in my life. I felt that a profound and spiritual change had taken place within me, and from then on, the only thing I wanted to do with my life was to be a “full-time missionary” with my new-found friends.
I stopped smoking overnight, both cigarettes and marijuana. Because I was only 15, I returned home to live with my parents and went back to school for a couple of years, but I had lost all motivation to achieve any academic goals or professional career. I kept in contact with my missionary friends, and when I turned 17, I moved to London to live in one of their communes. I started traveling around the world, singing and preaching, bringing the “good news” to whomever was prepared to listen. I must say I was quite happy in those early days, as I felt that I was contributing to changing society and making the world a better place.
Your parents warned you to detach yourself from this organization, yet you still wanted to join it. Do you feel that the brainwashing was already having an effect or were you still attributing this to defiance or your desire to serve God?
My parents had read in the newspapers that the movement was accused of brainwashing and exploiting its followers. In the beginning of such an experience, one usually has no notion of being brainwashed. I trusted my motives and the way of life I had chosen, and even told my parents that they were “instruments of the devil to make me sway from what God wanted for me.” The more my parents tried to get me out of the group, the further I ventured into it. When they accused my leader of suffering from some form of narcissistic megalomania, I just quoted Scripture from the Bible back at them. I told them that God wanted his followers to “give up everything to follow Him,” even if this meant severing family ties or giving up an education. I considered my leader to be a modern-day prophet, as well as a representative of God on earth. What he told me to do (or not do), I accepted blindly and without questioning, as God’s implicit will for my life.
Describe the living conditions and rules in the cult’s London community in 1974.
When I joined this commune, life was very strict and remained so for many years. Our schedule was dictated and imposed on us: early rising, spiritual readings and exhortations, simple meals, 8 to 10 hours a day preaching and distributing our prophet’s writings in the streets, and turning in written accounts of our daily activities to our leaders, whom we called “shepherds.” We were not allowed to go to movies, or read newspapers and books that were not “approved by leadership.” We did not earn a salary (this was considered “serving Mammon and unchristian”); however, we did accept donations which is how we financed our activities. Sometimes, if we did not distribute our quota of brochures or did not bring back enough money, we were deprived of the evening meal. I remember at one point being called a “shiner” (as opposed to a “shamer”), for having distributed an incredible amount of literature in a very short time. This was due to my fondness in meeting to people, coupled with my intense and sincere desire to serve God.
You reluctantly returned to Geneva at your parents’ insistence, (and at the cult’s insistence to show they were not keeping you against your will), and eventually joined the cult’s Geneva group, married a fellow member, and had children right away. Then, some of the doctrines changed. Can you elaborate?
When I first met the group, sexual relations between non-married couples were strictly forbidden. One had to have permission from our leader just to go for a walk with a member of the opposite sex. Women and men slept in separate dormitories and life was very strict: no sex, no alcohol, no drugs. (I would not have joined, had I known what was to follow!)
After my husband and I had our second child, our spiritual master, whom we some- times called “Dad,” suggested that since God could trust us with sharing His love with the world in a spiritual manner, He was now asking us to share His love in a physical way. This meant that we were expected to cater not only to the physical needs of others like food, clothing or shelter, but to their sexual needs as well.
At first, this “revolutionary doctrine” was difficult for me to apprehend, let alone implement in my own life. But because the group had led me to a certain faith in God, and to other doctrines which I considered to be the truth, I did not question these latest revelations. I obeyed, albeit with difficulty, because I believed this would make me a freer, happier, more selfless person, and especially a more dedicated Christian. Scriptures were taken out of context and twisted to suit the teachings of the leader, and members who did not have a solid background of biblical understanding, were convinced, even against the voice of their conscience.
After having experienced several instances of what we called “sharing,” I became increasingly uneasy about this practice. I think my upbringing and education—to remain faithful to one spouse until death—resounded very strongly within me. This radical practice was meant to prove, however, our obedience to God, and willingness to make “the ultimate sacrifice.” Engaging in sexual acts with other people (even if one was married) was demonstrating that God loved them, and through this practice, one hoped to “bring a soul to salvation”, and sometimes even into the movement.
When did you start to doubt?
After a while, I began to see the devastating effects in the lives of many members, including myself. I recall for example meeting a woman with six children, all of them from different fathers, struggling to make ends meet, with no support from them whatsoever. This is when I started to doubt. I began to wonder whether this was really what God was asking of us.
You spoke out against these practices to your superiors. Can you tell us how they reacted?
This was a very difficult time in my life. Everything within me cried out that it was wrong to do these things, yet I was coerced into believing that if I did not do them, I was a bad Christian, and that God would punish me. I was threatened with excommunication a few times, and beaten when I did not comply. I was afraid of standing up to my leaders for fear of losing everything: my husband, the happiness I once had in the movement, and the bonds I had established with other members. These had been my security for many years, and deciding to leave was like sitting on a branch and sawing it, not knowing where or how I was going to land. It was very frightening…I had been taught that the world out there was evil, that leaving the group was equivalent to leaving God, and that He would surely punish me for my selfishness. But by then I had discovered what the Bible really had to say about purity and faithfulness within marriage, for I had started to read the Bible for myself, apart from the group’s influence.
How did your husband react during that time?
My attitude towards the leader’s suggestions and orders worsened, causing a real problem for my husband. He was ashamed that his own wife was “not revolutionary enough” to adhere totally to the group’s doctrines. He started drinking, became unpredictable and even violent. This frightened me even more. I sensed a real need to protect myself and my children. We had only been married four years and already had small children and a complicated relationship. I am not sure that we married out of love. Looking back, it was more of an “arranged” marriage, in order for him to obtain a residence permit and a strategic place from which to operate within the organization. I wouldn’t say that I had no feelings for him, but as I later discovered, our relationship was far from passionate, loving and faithful, which is what I had always hoped for in a marriage. When I finally felt strong enough to stand up to my superiors and to my husband—letting them know that I no longer wanted to participate in the group’s activities, especially those that seemed unethical and even destructive—that is when my husband decided to leave. He calmly packed his bags one day and announced that he was wanting to “serve God and was never coming back.” In his mind, I was not a true believer, and God was calling him to a higher cause and he would receive eternal blessings for making this choice. At that point, his loyalty to the group was stronger than his love for his family.
This was by far the most painful event of my life. I will never forget the shock I felt and the grief that followed, not just on that particular day, but, indeed, to this day.
After leaving the cult—which had been your home and ideological foundation for 10 years—how did you begin to get your life back on track, and who were the people who helped you the most?
This was a real challenge. I had not had contact with the outside world for many years, and had no solid education or qualifications. I could not even begin to understand what had happened to me, much less make sense of it. I found myself alone, bewildered, without financial support, and with four children under the age of six. For a while I struggled with thoughts that perhaps the group had been right after all; specialists call this the “floating time…” and when an unpleasant event took place in my life, I was tempted to think that it was because of my disobedience and exit from the group. The organization often threatened deserters with potential “judgments from God”.
I did not know where to begin. I was in a total state of confusion: psychological, emotional, spiritual, and even physical, (medical consultations in the group had been banned as they were considered “unspiritual and showed lack of faith”). I was very lucky that my parents were there to support me, even though they were not always sure of how to help. Neither of them had any strong religious convictions, and I did not want to abandon my spiritual path entirely. This led at times to some animated discussions with them about life, even though I was now much more tolerant of others, willing to adapt to society and attempted to make my comeback to the “real world.” I was able to attend university for six years, (all the while taking care of my children), and managed to obtain two degrees in music teaching, which enabled me to work and regain some of my self-esteem.
How did the (conventional) church help?
When I attended a conventional church for the first time, most people there had a difficult time understanding what I had gone through. I seemed to have come from another planet. I was often misunderstood and had difficulty understanding the language of conventional Christianity. In the cult, the writings of the Bible had been so distorted that it took a long time for me to “sort the wheat from the chaff”, and to learn to appreciate a more conservative interpretation of Scripture. I was lucky enough to have a kind and patient pastor, who painstakingly took the time to go over the group’s doctrines with me and point out its flaws. This was one of the best things that happened to me in my post-cult years. Without this discerning exercise, I am sure I would still be scrambling to make sense of important theological issues. The distorted and insane beliefs of my former prophet were now being replaced with the accepted authority of the Bible, and the Bible only.
Cultic movements usually hold to their own personal interpretations and “revelations,” and often put their writings on an equal footing with the Bible. This leads of course, to all sorts of deviances from the original meaning.
How long did it take you to “de-program” from the cult’ thinking?
It took quite a long time for me to be able to think for myself again. It took me quite a few years to realize that I had been a victim of someone else’s delusions, and a good ten years to heal from the whole experience. It was not easy to find a therapist to deal with such issues. Ex-cult members are lucky if they can find someone who is compassionate and who understands what they’ve been through and to help them process the whole ordeal. I was lucky to have met such rare professional people. It is not always easy to understand how indoctrination works, and how individuals can commit acts they never would have performed in their right mind prior to the recruitment. This constitutes the essence of mind-control, manipulative persuasion, and psychological coercion.
What kind of relationship do you have with your children today? How have they come to terms with the life you led and the life in which you raised them?
For the most part I enjoy normal relations with my adult children. After I left the cult, I wanted to raise them in a conventional Christian setting. During their adolescent years, I tried to explain what we had experienced as a family. I struggled to give explanations to my children when they would ask: “Why did Daddy leave? When is he coming back?” It was quite difficult for my children to come to terms with the whole ordeal, and to understand that there were good and sincere believers, as opposed to abusive and manipulative ones.
Today, I personally still believe in God, (although my faith has been “revised and revisited”!) but my children, now adults, tend to put everything in the same basket.
They reject my present faith and assume that all beliefs are irrational, fanatical and destructive. This is painful for me, especially since I feel that it was in discovering the true meaning of the Bible that I was able to detach myself (and my children) from the erroneous and destructive ways of the cult.
How have you used your past experience to help others today?
I am a firm believer in preventative education. Today I off advice to victims of cultic abuse and their families, and have written a book (in French) on the topic of sectarian deviance. I stress the importance of choosing one’s own path and beliefs, in accordance with one’s own conscience; to cross-check “new religious movements” and examine carefully any group, leader, or organization. For the past 25 years I have been giving talks to young people, religious leaders and various other circles. I network with governments and other charities in the fight against cultism worldwide. Most people find the recounting of my life story educational, even though for me, the effects will long outlast the events. But my hope is that it will inspire people to hold dear and protect their right to autonomous thinking and freedom of belief, speech and behavior. I also want to say that: There is life after the cult!
You made a very poignant statement in your book—the cult had left an indelible mark on your identity and you wonder what you would have become had you never joined. Do you still wonder?
Without my experience in the cult, I think I probably would have become a music teacher and social worker, as I had this fiber “in me.” But the sect took the best of me and used it to serve its purposes without regard for my own personal fulfilment Today, I must check with my inner self and desires to make sure that my decisions are in line with my personal needs and aspirations. I used to see the world in black and white, I now try to see it a bit more in color…but to answer your question, yes, I sometimes still wonder…