I was an unhappy teenager, among lonely people, in thrall to a charismatic leader – had I joined a cult?

Broken by my parents’ divorce, I was all too ready to be remade by Margaret and her circle. But the ‘training’ was brutal and demeaning

The Guardian, UK/November 2, 2022

By Sarah Duguid

It’s 1994, I’m in a school gym, 16 years old, examining the intersecting lines for basketball, badminton and tennis because it feels less confusing to stare at the floor than watch the spectacle unfolding in front of me. A woman, who I think is very old but who is probably in her 30s, is sweating and yelling: “I am sex. I love fucking.” People are clapping, cheering, telling her she is beautiful. She hollers at the ceiling, thrusting her pelvis. I feel repulsed. Nothing is more gross to a teenager than an adult thrusting, especially in public.

I had ended up there because I was depressed after my parents’ bitter divorce. I had stopped going to school, spent all day in bed, mainly in tears. Around then, an old friend of my mum’s from the 60s – whom I will call Margaret – resurfaced. They revived their friendship, and Margaret started helping my mum through the emotional fallout of her divorce. “Sarah might benefit from being trained,” she said.

I first met Margaret in a high-rise city-centre car park. She almost flew across it, arms outstretched, pulling me in to an embrace with such warmth and affection that I had to stop myself from crying. My saviour, an angel with long blond hair, driving a white Rolls-Royce. She took me back to her house where I felt as if I had been admitted into a wild and colourful world full of love. She described herself as a white witch – a guiding light – yet always kept you guessing as to what she really believed. She would make a proclamation one day, only to contradict it the next. She called herself a strict vegetarian, yet sometimes ate meat; she could afford all the things she wanted, yet loved shoplifting hats. She would just walk out of the shop wearing one, as if the hat already belonged to her. Being with her felt thrilling, like spinning in a magical whirlpool.

The first few days of being trained were brutal. Thirty volunteers in the room assisted the nine trainees. Each of us was given a badge, with a demeaning nickname on it that was used to taunt us. I remember standing on a small stage while the adults told me I was nothing: you’re bolshie, spoilt, self-centred. When I said my father was prone to violent outbursts, I was told to stop being manipulative. I was cajoled, mocked, picked apart until I felt completely broken and yet the thought of walking out never crossed my mind. I can’t remember whether the door was locked or not, but it didn’t matter. This was going to be my cure. There was going to be a before and an after.

One day, the lights were dimmed. We sat in a circle, closed our eyes, for confession. Who has been raped? Anyone cheated on their spouse? Murdered someone? Tell me about losing your virginity. We were working towards writing a new life contract, at which point the demeaning name badge was removed. This was followed by a death/rebirth ceremony where each trainee dressed up as a fantasy version of themselves to be carried around the room. All the time, they belted out songs by Whitney Houston and we danced about madly. One trainee was dressed up as Shirley Temple, sucking her thumb, yelling: “Fuck you, Hitler!”

“I love you,” Margaret said, staring intensely into my eyes. I looked back at her and wanted to have that feeling for the rest of my life.

The training took place in two five-day bursts. The final day felt like the climax of all this “work”. It is difficult to describe how I felt. It was as if my mind were gaping open, as if it had been voided. Perhaps because I was still a child, I experienced this more intensely, more literally, than the adults around me. I watched the ideas of the training physically enter me, take root within my brain, then rise like water through the egg-shaped space of my mind. I felt rebooted, reprogrammed, as if the old version of me had been erased and a new version implanted.

Margaret often peppered her conversation with references to Freud, and the central theory of the training seemed to come from the Freudian notion that accidents aren’t accidents but rather expressions of an unconscious desire or motive. If you spill coffee on your computer, is the real reason because you are unable to speak up about feeling overworked? However, for the trained, this idea became an extreme doctrine, a mad, megalomaniac belief that we create everything that happens to us. The sick create their illness (through anger or negativity), the abused create their humiliation, the dead created their death. A bride might reflect on why she created rain on her wedding day. A daughter might examine why she created her mother to abandon her. Margaret told me about a young girl she knew who was raped. “It was tough for her to get her head around the fact she created the rape in her life,” she said. “She just really, really wanted to be a victim. We worked hard with her.” When Margaret was mugged, she reframed it, said she had given her jewellery away to a man with a gun whom she didn’t know. The whole terrifying experience slid off her like oil. I was asked to ponder why I had created violence in my life, which I gratefully did because this was the thing that would set me free. What had I done to get my father so out of control? In Margaret’s eyes, the aggressor became the victim and the victim the aggressor.

With this new knowledge, alongside a mishmash of popular psychology, new age ideas, Buddhism and anything else that sounded good, my world was tipped on its axis. I lived with Margaret for two months and went everywhere with her. We went shopping, to the hairdresser, to markets; we would stop to eat wholefood lunches and, as she spoke, I inhaled her knowledge as if it were more sustaining than the air that I breathed. Margaret’s house was often full of visitors, the lost and the lonely, the people who wanted fixing, but while they only visited, I was part of her inner circle. It felt like a privilege, but either way we were all equally dependent on her.

Margaret didn’t advertise her training – word simply spread. Each week there was a breakfast where women would sit around the circular dining table to talk, a pot of coffee and bowl of boiled eggs between them. Curious, I would hover at the bookshelf, pretending to read. It seemed so grownup, so sophisticated. They talked about men and sex, illness and death. They analysed each other, sometimes accepting the other’s perspective with grateful humility; at other times the analysis met with resistance. Arguments would erupt. But when Margaret spoke, everything seemed to stop. Heads turned towards her like sunflowers seeking the sun as she calmly pronounced her thoughts in a deep, authoritative voice. Once or twice the women made advances towards me to join in, but I avoided it. I was intimidated; and anyway, I just wanted Margaret.

Occasionally, there were odd coming-of-age ceremonies, or pagan weddings officiated by Margaret, her version of marriage far more exalted than anything the corrupted soul of the state might offer. Even more occasionally, Margaret could be vicious. If someone crossed her, they would be cast out of existence as surely as God expelled Lucifer.

Eventually, my time was up. I had to go home, return to school and to being the rebellious, argumentative girl who was failing academically and constantly under threat of expulsion. But back at school, that rebellious girl didn’t reappear. I became a straight-A student. I was organised, punctual, hard-working. “You’re so helpful,” my English teacher cooed as I trotted back from the photocopier with the Shakespeare handouts still warm in my hands. To anyone on the outside, the training saved me. But underneath, it felt like an out-of-body experience. I had no idea who I had become. My belief system was so off the wall that I didn’t fit in anywhere. I just had to pretend.

At the time, I was studying for a sociology A-level. In my A4 folder, jotted down on lined paper, was the definition of a cult: a group whose beliefs are seen by most of society as being strange or unorthodox, and whose members show unusual or excessive devotion to some person, idea or thing. I had been educated to know better and yet still … whatever situation I was in, I would always think: what would Margaret say? What would Margaret want me to do? I used to call her and for the hour or so we spent on the phone, I would feel normal again, as if I belonged somewhere.

Over time, the effects faded. Eventually, I even mocked being trained, made fun of some of the sillier “processes”. But I kept in touch with Margaret. We could spend hours on the phone. When I was starting out as a writer, she even let me move in with her for a time, rent-free. She was kind and generous, yet I also began to see more of her darker side. People were either her friend or her enemy. A couple of times she sliced me open with her words, but I wasn’t deterred. It just made me work harder to stay in the fold.

Twenty years after I had been trained, a relationship ended so brutally and unexpectedly that I found myself falling apart once again. I poured out my sore, angry heart to Margaret. I let her read all my private emails. I wailed and moaned, told her everything. But then I received a phone call from the man in question who – knowing how to get to me – had also been on the phone to her. He repeated the nasty things she said about me and with delicious, palpable pleasure made it clear she had exonerated him and laid the blame on me. He was even more gleeful because, after all, weren’t her words the very words of God to me? I felt eviscerated. I was stunned, speechless. I had been trained. I had submitted. He hadn’t. Why would she turn on me when I had done everything she wanted?

“Well, she always did prefer men to women,” a former friend of hers said. All of a sudden Margaret, with her boringly conventional gender preferences, felt disappointingly human.

The betrayal shook me so deeply that it took me to a small cell-like room in the basement of a church, facing a psychotherapist. “It was a cult,” the therapist said. “My mum wouldn’t have taken me to a cult,” I said. “It was a cult,” she kept saying. “And your mum was taken in by it too.” But why would I join a cult? “Perhaps Margaret offered you the feeling of a family, just as you’d lost your own.” The therapist also gave a name to the vivid, physical experience I had in the training room: brainwashing. Even so, I never told anyone. I certainly didn’t discuss it with my mother.

By this time, I thought the experience was behind me but I realised I was far from free. The indoctrination still formed invisible threads that silently guided my actions, shaped my perception of the world. It took years but gradually I disentangled myself, came to realise the thing I felt in that school gym most certainly hadn’t been love. It also took years for me to realise how angry I was with Margaret, but I never told her. I didn’t know where to begin. I feared my hurt would simply slide off her. Instead, I just stopped speaking to her, as did my mum.

A few years later, Margaret died. By this time, I had small children. The logistics of going to her funeral were complex and expensive, but I made the plans. “Why are you even going? She was horrible to you,” a friend said.

At the funeral, strangers told me in soft, reverential tones that they had managed to visit Margaret on her deathbed, to receive final words of guidance. At that moment I felt sorry for her, needing to do all that as she lay dying. I wondered who needed whom the most. But as the service got under way, I surprised myself. I shed genuine tears, felt genuine loss and for a few hours it was as if I were back there, reliving those weird two months in my teens.

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