All of my “spiritual journey” to this point was reasonably normal. Various flavors of Christianity, followed by exploration into Wicca and assorted other Earth-based or Eastern-influenced faith paths that were not entertaining or enlightening enough to blog about. I was not ready to accept my own non-belief; the idea that there wasn’t a God felt too empty. Without an alternative, once I’d exhausted all the “normal” options, there was no choice but to go abnormal.
It’s hard to even know where to begin, so lets start with establishing a definition of a “cult,” which is more difficult than you’d expect. It’s a loaded word with a lot of meanings, ranging from “bad movies people adore and dress up for midnight showings of” to “religious nuts with killer Kool-Aid.” I’m going to use the International Cultic Studies Association definition as related in Take Back Your Life by Janja Lalich and Madeleine Tobias, a book that was immensely helpful in my own recovery.
A cult is a group or movement exhibiting great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing, and employing unethical manipulative or coercive techniques of persuasion and control (e.g., isolation from former friends and family, debilitation, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressures, information management, suspension of individuality or critical judgment, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of leaving it), designed to advance the goals of the group’s leaders, to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families or the community.
You know it’s something fucked up when the definition of a four-letter word is a paragraph long.
I had been suffering from untreated depression for some time, and after graduating from college and marrying M, I sank into a rut that only made things worse. My marriage wasn’t terrible or abusive, but I don’t think there was much love there from either side. We got married because it was the next thing to do, and there just wasn’t a whole lot of spark. Deep down, I knew before the wedding that it wasn’t going to last, but I also decided, at twenty-two, that this was the best I could do. Once we lost the distraction of college classes it evolved into just playing house. But that playacting in place of a real relationship let my depression flourish. The only times I felt much of anything was when I’d go to the movies with my girlfriends. Every time I came back from the theater, I felt like Dorothy returning to Kansas.
When Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring came out, I was blown away. I can’t explain why; I’d read the book (that week) and found it pretty dry. Maybe it was the visuals, or the music. Maybe it was the way the cast and crew had such passion. Maybe they’re just good fucking movies, and good movies get your blood going. Whatever it was, it stirred my emotions in a way nothing had for a long time, and it left me desperate for more.
I was thrilled to find a fandom almost as passionate and far-reaching as Trekkies, and pretty quickly wrapped myself up in the Rings community. Fandoms are full of unsatisfied adults seeking escape, and they form quick and often incredibly loyal cliques. And it took me a very short time to find mine, in a sub- sub- sub-level of people who are specifically into hobbits.
I loved it. I’m a talkative geek and I made lots of friends, one of whom was an incredibly charismatic young person who, for convenience sake, I will call Jordan (one of his many aliases.) Normally something as simple as a name doesn’t require explanation, but that’s how fucked up this was. Jordan is trangendered, and when I met him, he was female. As he predominantly lived as a male when we were together and is currently still doing so, I will use the male pronoun. Jordan’s gender identity wound up becoming a huge issue as things progressed, but we’ll get there in time.
He was a gifted writer and could just draw you in with his stories. He kept a tight group of fan/friends around him, and I quickly became part of the inner circle. Even before we met in person, he was spinning enthralling webs for us select few. He claimed at that time to be the apprentice to a high priestess, and that he was a “Paladin,” or spirit warrior, who also could communicate with the dead. Sure, that sounds crazy when I write it out, but it’s not exactly that out there. I mean, look at John Edward.
It was towards the end of M’s and my marriage when Jordan flew out for a week-long visit. In that week, I was exposed to the full force of his charm and charisma. He knew me so well so fast (or so it seemed). I felt comfortable. Excited. Important. Loved. And oh, so special. Most important, I was feeling things, which in the fog of depression was a light in the darkness. During that week, he also stepped up the magic from communicating with the dead to actually channeling them. Again, not that far out there. People still follow Edgar Cayce’s work, and it’s a common enough feature in movies and TV.
There was, naturally, an added dimension to make it more interesting. Jordan built all of his personal mythos around Lord of the Rings characters. It isn’t actually that hard to make the jump from fiction to history with that fandom; it’s not even that uncommon an opinion. Many cultures have versions of the “little people” (leprechauns, gnomes), and a belief in angels (or other tall, otherworldly human-like beings) are frigging everywhere. It actually seemed more plausible to me that there was a prehistory with few surviving artifacts, particularly when the “real” story Jordan was “revealing” could match up fictional locations (like Rivendell) with real places (like Stonehenge).
The saying “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof” is all well and good, but Jordan seemed to have proof. He’s a master manipulator and extremely adept at altering his story mid-stream to elicit the reaction he wants. Saying “I talk to ghosts” only brings in a few people. Explaining that what most people call “the afterlife” is actually an alternate dimension by using String Theory and quoting Michio Kaku isn’t the same thing, by a long shot. I felt smug and educated, because it felt like I really knew how the world worked. I was privy to the great secrets of the universe! Granted, his explanations don’t hold up to close scrutiny–the “science” is out of context, twisted, or quoted incorrectly–but when you’re in the middle of these tremendous discoveries, all it takes is just enough almost-fact to shut up that little voice in your head that says you sound like a fucking lunatic.
I was unsurprised when I was laid off a few weeks after Jordan’s visit. The company I worked for had been bought out, there had already been two rounds of layoffs, and about four other people lost their jobs the same day. Often, there wasn’t enough work to even fill my days, once I’d finished the backlog of office projects. Furthermore, before I’d been hired, one girl was doing my job in addition to hers. It was just a matter of time. With the loss of my daily obligations, I lived for my time online with Jordan. I barely even saw M anymore; since we’d bought the house he had pretty much moved into the garage, which was a LAN party with his buddies several days a week. He would come home from work and go straight to the man-cave, often staying out there playing video games or role-playing until after I’d gone to bed. I was even starting to pull away from Karaoke Friday and Mall-And-Movie Saturday, which were my only real-world social connections. Jordan (and the rest of the fandom) was becoming far more real to me than the rest of the world. I felt alive when I was online.
Jordan decided to move out to Oregon, so with M’s full consent he moved into our spare bedroom while he looked for a job. That didn’t help the marriage, but by then it was beyond salvaging anyway. It finally ended when we lost our house. I had been just handing my unemployment checks to M; I couldn’t bear even thinking about the finances, and M said he was paying the bills. I don’t know what happened to the money; I think he may just not have bothered to do anything with it. I do know that I told him the marriage was over the day I found out he hadn’t paid the mortgage or any bills, and I only saw him twice after that; once when he moved out, and once when we signed the papers. I don’t blame him for cutting ties, but we were equally (ir)responsible. Either way, with a house that was going into foreclosure and no job, I invited a handful of friends to move in. By then, I was in Jordan’s thrall twenty-four hours a day. Always, the mythos was building. Now he could channel a person who was still alive, provided they were able to astrally travel otherwise. Astral projection is as common a concept in worldwide mythology as dragons. Each step into the belief system was reasonable.
This may seem like a lot of unnecessary personal detail, but I think it’s important to establish how I was drawn into the cult. Because I absolutely believe is what Jordan did; I think that moving in other friends was a tremendous step forward for him. He didn’t have time to be the storyteller online once he was living with me, but now he could gather people in a concrete location, which he (through manipulation) completely controlled. Our housemates were a sheltered young woman who was just leaving her strict Christian upbringing. a vulnerable and tender tough guy who wanted to be loved, and a fourteen year old girl, staying with us (with her mother’s permission.)
Perfect new recruits. Jordan was very skillful at letting other people draw conclusions that he controlled. With time and perspective, it was a clear and obvious pattern. He’d spend as much time as possible isolating his next target, taking extended walks and talking for hours and hours. Eventually, he’d start weaving in all the supernatural stuff and then suddenly someone else “had figured it out.” Which, of course, was more proof; they hadn’t been told, they had put it together independently. And once we believed, we believed. Even when it started to be waaaaaaay beyond normal. Like that the original, female inhabitant of his body had died, and been replaced by the duplicate soul of Elijah Wood.
To be continued…