Mike Force

My parents were afraid that if I went away to college I would join a cult. So I did. Briefly.

My parents were strict Catholics. I was impressionable, intensely repressed, and bent on having life experiences. My beacon blinked a steady green light to bamboozlers—like the boyfriend who talked me into joining the cult. That's how I ended up one Sunday sitting in a circle of misfits in the parlor of a Victorian house. The cult was based on two Russian philosophers, and everyone in the circle was awkward and bookish.

I remember a woman anxiously fingering her skirt pleats while asking us all which Alice in Wonderland character we most identified with. A bearded man asked which sage I thought was wiser, Walt Whitman or William Blake, and I said Blake. The boyfriend was a physicist who had abandoned his country of origin. I was disenfranchised from my family. We both so badly wanted to belong.

The treasurer asked for a sacrificial sum of money. We were also instructed to change our names and to take up new hobbies, abandoning whatever was once precious to us. My boyfriend had been a successful jazz pianist. They told him to stop playing piano and take up the viola. The cult branch director also asked us to cut ourselves off from our families, and to stop using contractions. I couldn't. I tried, but the exercise isolated me from classmates and friends. As my boyfriend and the quirky cult people became a shrinking circle of safety, I felt a split occur—like a fast-paced canyon forming—in my mind. On one side was my emerging cult-shaped identity; on the other side was my old identity with my history, family, and friends.

The split hit a crisis point in a Shakespeare class. I got stuck trying to answer a question about A Midsummer Night's Dream. I loved that play, but I couldn't maintain a connection to the subplots, to the professor, or to my classmates while also trying not to use contractions. I finally told a friend (I had been avoiding friends) about the language exercise, the cult, my boyfriend, and the Grand Canyon feeling. She was worried that I was in danger. She didn't trust my boyfriend.

That was a sufficient dose of reality to break the seductive spell. I quit the cult. The boyfriend was changing so dramatically—you don't realize this yet, but people in their 20s change dramatically—that breaking up with him was easier. He'd become stoic; he'd shaved off his thick unruly hair and beard. He dressed in three-piece suits and spoke in awkward sentences. He tried to draw me back into the cult. He was desperate and angry. I asked him to leave.

I suppose I'm prone to experimentation and curious about others who follow winding paths. I also once helped a friend escape from the Moonies, a popular cult church in the 1970s and '80s under the leadership of Reverend Sun Myung Moon. The Moonies recruited new members at airports and other transitional places. The friend lived for months in a station wagon parked in my driveway while she decompressed. She had changed her name from Mary to Wysteria and given up her dancing career to learn how to cook for large groups of people. She had also followed a boyfriend into the cult, anticipating finding a loving family. She ended up returning to her real family—and her Communist, activist parents—who welcomed her home with "Geez, you could have just joined a sorority and saved yourself some time, hon."

Her idealistic quest had been caught up in a longing to break out of an oppressive family structure and find open space. Just like mine had. Unfortunately, being brought up in families where self-exploration wasn't encouraged made us more susceptible to being subsumed into other repressive structures. We wanted freedom but were terrified and unprepared for the responsibility that comes with it.

Late teens and early 20s are a time when our brains are still establishing and pruning synaptic pathways. We tend to think in absolute, idealistic terms. We're passionate. We take risks, sometimes playing with danger. Most of us crave social connection and belonging at the same time we're caught up in the task of individuating. In America, we insist we're original even if we're avoiding gluten and watching the Seahawks just like everyone else. It's hard to keep hold of one's own mind in the midst of intense social and internal pressures.

So be careful of the groups you join. Be as reflective as you can about why you're joining them. It's good to be suspicious of pyramid schemes and anything that requires members to merge into one collective identity. Don't abandon your critical thinking skills. There are better, less expensive ways to belong, or to make a new family if you need one. recommended