The cult experience is a paradox. It is both completely unique and thoroughly unoriginal. Only those who have lived it can truly say what it’s like, and yet the experience itself differs so slightly from one cult to the next that the personal story of any one survivor can seem familiar, even if the specific beliefs or practices of his or her cult contradict your own.
The documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief had been getting press for months before it finally premiered last night on HBO. Last week, writer and director Paul Haggis, who spent thirty-five years in The Church of Scientology, wrote about his own personal response to the film. I find that his thoughts mirror my own and that his words speak for me, giving an intelligible voice to the regret, anger, and embarrassment I now feel after having wasted a decade or so of my life in ISKCON.
I’ve reproduced nearly all of Paul Haggis’ words below, replacing some relevant pronouns and organizational details with those specific to ISKCON. These are not my words. I did not write this. But I could have.
If Paul Haggis or Tony Ortega or anyone at The Underground Bunker would like me to remove this post, I’ll readily oblige. Nonetheless, I think they would be able to recognize its value as an expression of the cult experience and “the prison of belief.”
“I was very involved in ISKCON for most of my adult life. While I thought the Vedic astronomy madness, I enthusiastically followed the regulative principles and performed the daily practices of Krishna consciousness — so much so that it took several years after leaving to actually question the many practices, behaviors, and thought patterns that I had learned and used. The slow indoctrination process is as subtle as it is dangerous — largely because you truly believe that you are thinking for yourself, when in fact you are discouraged to do anything of the sort.
“Paradoxically, there is great pride in belonging to a stigmatized group. It’s like being in love with a narcissist. All your friends will warn you that you are just being used. You understand why they think what they think, but you believe in your heart that they just don’t see what you see. You just tune them out. For that reason, when I did discover what many outside ISKCON knew, I was truly shocked. While some of the information had been out there for many years, like all devotees ‘in good standing,’ I refused to look. Yes, I was told not to, but I didn’t have to be. This was my group and I knew there to be many people in the world who were bigoted and close-minded, and when I was told that we were ‘under attack’ in Kazakhstan or Siberia or wherever, instead of looking for the reasons, I assumed this to be the case.
“It makes little or no sense in retrospect, and it’s very hard to understand unless you’ve been a part of a marginalized group. While my doubts were a constant thorn in my side, questioning philosophies I thought unjust, it never crossed my mind to voice my concerns outside the organization. In fact, even after I had left the organization I maintained a great fondness for ‘the old man.’ Yes, Prabhupada was a kind of revolutionary, and he might have lost perspective later in life, I thought, but I still mistakenly believed he was a genuine mystic who legitimately represented an authentic religious tradition. Even then. I might have been outraged by injustices I witnessed or heard about, but I dropped the blame at the doorstep of the GBC and Prabhupada’s ‘immature’ disciples.
“It took years after leaving to understand that these practices I railed against had always been at the core of ISKCON — that the GBC was just very faithfully, if clumsily, following Srila Prabhupada’s cruel playbook. The reason this was hard to believe is exactly because of the duplicitous nature of Prabhupada’s writing. He wrote and spoke about the practice and necessity of not ‘following blindly’; how nothing should be accepted without ‘intelligent inquiry.’ But it is advice given to the brainwashed. All these high-minded teachings are useless when you factor in the things you are never allowed to question — ‘Srila Prabhupada,’ his teachings, practices, and leadership.
“Somehow devotees are able to accept those incongruous and contradictory thoughts. For example, they truly believe that only ISKCON can save the world, and that they are making major strides in this direction every year. They hold onto this belief despite the fact that there isn’t even a modicum of evidence that they are having even the tiniest impact on any problem in any part of the globe. Devotees simply accept the assurances of their gurus and the GBC that it is so. To the contrary, volumes of compelling evidence from unimpeachable sources that their organization has done and is doing serious damage to thousands of people is dismissed before it is ever inspected.
“That’s what will happen to sites like The Hare Krishna Thing and blogs like Hare Krishna Truth Out. At least that’s what ISKCON hopes happens. Without even reading any of it my former friends will condemn it as lies. You see it happening already. Understand that many of these devotees are damn smart people; many of them truly lovely and caring. But they are the same people who will not hesitate to cut their closest friend or family member out of their lives if they commit the ultimate crime of criticizing Srila Prabhupada. You could do anything else and they would stand by you; commit any crime and they would be there to defend you. But not this.
“I believe this is because somewhere in the back of their heads they know, as I did, that the very act of questioning could bring down their entire belief system. They have been slowly but surely trained to believe that if you don’t agree with something that Prabhupada wrote, you just don’t understand it. Questioning anything means questioning everything. Even the slightest crack in that belief system could spread into a fissure. They cannot afford or allow the smallest doubt, because if it took root, their perfect world — a world where there is an answer to every one of life’s questions — could fall apart around them, and they would be left, like the rest of us, searching in the dark for their own answers in an uncertain world. Which brings to mind something a true genius wrote: ‘Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack, a crack, in everything. That’s how the light gets in.’ For the sake of my former friends, many of whom I loved, I hope that sites like Kuruvinda.com are the first crack, that they will read essays like Steven Gelberg’s ‘On Leaving ISKCON’ or ‘Oh! The Things I Learned,’ and the light will slip in.”