The characteristics of a cult leader are easy to spot if you know the person is a cult leader, but it's a whole lot more tricky if you are actually in the cult. Unfortunately they don't have a tattoo, a badge or a t-shirt telling you what you are dealing with. They are usually very good at hiding their true nature from unsuspecting victims.
With that in mind, let's run through what it's like for a new person, let's call her Emma, who is recruited into a cult and how she perceives the cult leader over time. (I am not suggesting that all pilates classes are cults, but some are...)
Emma's friend Lucy started doing Pilates recently but Emma couldn't go because it clashed with her night class learning to play the guitar, which she was really enjoying. Lucy started doing classes one night week but quickly switched to doing two. She started talking more and more about Pilates, about how it wasn’t just a once a week exercise thing, but having good muscle tone and posture meant better health, more confidence, less stress and so on. Emma listened interestedly initially but she began to have doubts.
When Lucy announced that she was going to start eating differently because the Pilates teacher, let's call him Damien, had made some suggestions that would be beneficial for everyone, Emma said to Lucy said she was worried that she might be in a cult. Lucy laughed out loud and told Emma not to be daft. She told Emma that Emma had never been to the group, she hadn't met Damien, she hadn't experienced a class, how could she know anything about what was going on. She invited Emma, again, to a class. Emma said no.
Over the following weeks, Lucy kept rabbiting on about how pilates can fix this and sort that out. There were lots of times when she explained that Damien had said this and Damien had said that. Damien explained things this way and Damien had told this funny story, wait until you hear it, and Damien was so knowledgeable, and Damien was so cool and confident and Damien was 'gorgeous' and kind, and attentive and so aware of so many things. And Damien was successful. He had a flashy car, he lived in a great area, although Lucy didn't know exactly where, and Lucy just knew he had money but couldn't say exactly how she knew. Oh, and he was flexible, too, he was an amazing teacher.
One day Lucy announced that there was a whole day of Pilates on Saturday in 2 weeks time. It was kind of expensive but it was going to be held in a posh hotel just outside of town. Emma had doubts. Lucy did not. She was determined that Emma was going to come along. She said that Emma was not going to miss her guitar class, she told Emma it was a great opportunity to meet Damien, learn about pilates and on and on until Emma gave in and agreed to go along.
When Emma walked into the hotel with Lucy, Damien was there with a group of people around him, hanging on his every word. He called Lucy over and said hello and then turned his attention to Emma. He smiled widely and started welcoming her. Emma felt weird with all of his attention on her. She felt everyone looking at her. She actually felt repulsed by him and wanted to leave but her good friend had invited her and she stayed put. Damien then suggested that they go to the other room and before she knew what was happening, he had his arm around Emma's waist. Now she was definitely freaked out. She muttered about going to the bathroom and moved away from him. He kept his hand on her waist until she had moved out of his reach. She headed for the restroom and looking over her shoulder she didn't see anyone who seemed concerned about what had just happened but her head was spinning. Was she imagining it? Was he hitting on her? Already? Maybe it was just her? Maybe she was being overly sensitive? She decided to give him the benefit of the doubt but she was going to be extra careful around him and she was definitely going to question what he said.
Lucy had kept her a seat in the training room. The room was abuzz. People chatted noisily and Emma felt that they all knew each other. She asked Lucy if there were new people here and Lucy looked around and said that there were a few. Damien sat on a high stool at the front of the room and everyone quickly went quiet. He started talking and mentioned a few logistical things and then said that he was a touchy feely person. Emma froze. Then he explained that he is used to touching people on their elbows and knees etc and during the exercises it's useful for him to move people's limbs to help them with the exercises and so on. He said that if anyone was not ok with that then they were free to leave. Emma glanced around. No one moved. He kept talking. Emma relaxed a bit again but she did not feel very comfortable.
When it came time to do the physical exercises, people arranged their mats in rows. Emma saw a few people looking around and then copying the others. She reckoned that these were the new people. She fixed her mat beside Lucy's. Damien stood at the front and started talking while he demonstrated the initial stretches. He made the occasional comment to someone in particular in the group. Emma noticed that there were only 5 males in the group of about 40 people. The rest were mainly young, under 35, mostly pretty, and reasonably fit.
The stretches then became more difficult. Damien brought someone from the front row up to the top of the class. This person demonstrated what Damien was talking about as Damien walked around the room, making adjustments to people's posture, telling some to push themselves harder. It was mostly friendly, but sometimes quite stern. One time when he raised his voice at someone, Emma glanced at Lucy. Lucy said it was ok, that was a senior person who should have known better, that Damien always is pleasant with the new people. She told Emma not to worry. But Emma was worried. She was watching Damien like a hawk as he moved around the room. She didn't want him near her. Every time he came close, she got nervous.
Then there was a change of exercise. Emma struggled to get into the position. All of a sudden Damien was beside her. She hadn't seen him approach her. Before she could react, he had one hand on her shoulder and one hand on her hip. "Stretch here," he said, moving his hands to direct her movements. She let go and did what he suggested. The feeling caught her off guard. It was at once relaxing and very pleasant. "Wow!" said Emma, involuntarily. Damien was in front of her face. She was smiling and he was smiling back at her. "Does that feel good?" he asked. She nodded. "You weren't expecting that, were you?" he continued. "No," said Emma. She realized he was very close to her. "You have to know when to open up and relax," he said. He put his hands on her and repeated the movement. The pleasure increased again. She relaxed and smiled at him again. He smiled back. "This is what I do with people," he said. "Stick around and you can have more of this!" He stayed where he was. Emma realized she was looking into his face and feeling quite nice. He does seem to know what he is doing, she thought. Maybe I was mistaken about him.
He put his hand on her back and turned to talk to the group. Emma's mind was racing again. He was touching her for no real reason, but in her current state, it kind of felt ok. She thought again about relaxing the muscles again and she felt that pleasure once more. Then she realized she wasn’t paying attention to what he was saying. That bothered her, but that thought disappeared quickly because of the pleasant feelings in her body. She saw Lucy glance at her. She had a strange look on her face. Emma wondered if she was jealous. Emma's attention came back to the room. Damien was talking about how he had honed his observational skills over years in order to be able to see where someone's body had to move or rotate in order to be properly aligned. He continued talking about how he could do this and do that but Emma's attention drifted back to the pleasant feelings again.
When he did take his hand away, Emma was suddenly aware that it wasn't there and she wished that he would come back. The earlier thoughts about his touching her were gone, forgotten, irrelevant.
For the rest of the day she felt like she was floating around. She was happy. She could hardly take her eyes off him. She felt very nice inside. She wondered if she was actually attracted to him, but she pushed those thoughts away. That would never work, she said to herself.
Later in the afternoon, they were stretching again. Suddenly he was talking in a very sharp tone. "What do I have to do to get you to do this movement properly?" Almost shouting. Emma whipped her head around to see what was going on. Damien was leaning over one of the girls and he looked angry. She opened her mouth to say something, but stopped herself. "Do it the way I showed you!" he commanded. She tried again. "Not like that, like this!" he chided.
Emma realized Lucy was whispering something. She turned to Lucy and Lucy said, "He hates when he has told someone something and they still get it wrong. But he only does that to the senior people. It'll pass quickly."
When Lucy turned to look at him again, he was making a joke with another girl, all the tension gone from his face, smiling in fact, as if nothing had just happened. Emma looked at the girl who had been shouted at and she was obviously shaken up, her head down, just staring at the floor. Emma thought that maybe that was just his way, perhaps he needed to do that with some people for them to learn.
At different times during the day, when Damien was explaining things, he looked directly at Emma as if he was speaking to her. It made her feel special, important. She felt he was checking that she was ok, keeping up with all the new stuff she was learning.
At the end of the day, people started to tidy up their mats and other gear but very quickly a group of people formed around Damien. They were explaining what a great day they had, asking a few questions, and whenever Damien spoke, they just stood there, gazing at him. Lucy was there. Emma felt left out so she went and stood at the back of the group. Damien flashed her a smile. She smiled back. Again, that special feeling.
Damien suggested that they finish up and that they could continue the conversation in the bar. People moved to collect their belongings.
Damien was last into the bar and when he arrived, someone had already ordered him a drink. Emma realized he didn’t say anything about it, he just knew the drink on the bar was his and he picked it up and took a sip. No thanks, no recognition of anything.
People were buzzing. They were explaining how amazing they felt after learning a particular thing, or stretching a specific muscle. Some were talking about how a brother or a friend should really come to the class because of some problem they have.
Damien asked Emma how her day was. Emma blushed and said how fantastic the day was. She explained that she felt as if she was much lighter, with no tension in her body, all her problems had been washed away. Damien smiled again at her and said that she would do very well in the group, she was a very good fit and match for the work he was doing and she was welcome any time. Emma blushed again. He explained that he had some students who were studying wth him to learn how to teach classes and he said he thought that she would do very well there. Emma was very pleased with herself. He obviously thought she had potential, even at this early stage.
The next week, Emma attended classes 3 times in the week with Damien. And the same the following week. At the end of each class she noticed that some of the girls gathered around him to ask questions. She started to do it, too, and she realized she also wanted his attention. In these groups, they would drift away one by one until there was only one person left talking with Damien.
Then one day, she realized she was the only one talking to him. Suddenly he said to her, "You know what? You are doing great. You are really coming on in leaps and bounds." He held his arms open to give her a hug but he hadn't moved closer to her. She stepped in to hug him. He held her tight. She felt fabulous. Then he lifted his head up and kissed her forehead. She smiled. He then gave her a quick kiss on the lips. She was kind of caught off guard, but she smiled again. He kissed her on the lips again, but more slowly. Emma kissed him back. He pulled away just a tiny bit. He asked her was everything ok. She nodded. He offered to stop if it was too much. Emma said that it was ok. He kissed her again. Then his hands were roaming all over her body. She froze for a moment, unsure. He asked again if it was ok. Emma said yes. He hadn't stopped touching her and it was kind of a turn on, even though she wasn't 100% sure about it. She stopped thinking and paid attention to what she was feeling. cTake your clothes off," he said. She did.
It was all over in about 4 minutes. She got dressed while he went to the bathroom. She felt a strange thrill. This was bold, naughty, but exciting. She felt special, desirable, wanted. As they walked out, he spoke about how he liked to open women up to their power, as well as using sexual energy to rejuvenate himself and something else that Emma couldn't remember.
That was a Tuesday. At the end of the Thursday class, Emma went to ask some questions at the end. the group began to dissipate. Emma was left with Damien and one other girl. Damien was talking intently to the other girl. Emma began to feel a bit awkward and self conscious. After a few minutes of this, she decided to go. Obviously it wasn't going to happen today. Damien never said anything specific to her but she just got a feeling.
The following Tuesday, she tried again. This time it happened, She was the last one. As soon as the others were gone, Damien started kissing her and very soon they were naked on a pilates mat. A few minutes later, they were leaving. Again he mentioned about opening up women to their power, using sexual energy as a way to rejuvenate and also how he thought sexual freedom was a very important value. Emma remembered that the sexual freedom idea was the third thing he had also said that last day but she had not been able to remember it.
Emma quickly figured out that Tuesday was her day. And also that he was most likely doing the same thing with other girls in the group on other days. She decided to ignore that part.
Emma continued to attend a lot of classes during the week. Damien was giving advice not just on pilates, but on diet, exercise in general, sleep, relationships, family issues, work and decision making in general. Advice that the group members took seriously and acted upon.
Emma came to see him as worldly, wise, having answers for almost everything. He was never stuck for words. He had an opinion on everything. But she told herself that he knew so much about everything too, because he was always reading, learning, paying attention to things and pondering the world, the universe and everything.
Emma's whole life was now organized around the pilates classes, or more properly said, around how Damien thought she should be living her life. Whenever she had a decision to make, she would ask herself, "What would Damien say?" In this way it was obvious to her what she should say and do in many situations. Life seemed easy. It was clear to her what she needed to be doing at any moment. And what she was doing in the present moment was the most important thing to her. The past was somewhat irrelevant and what she was attending to now was significant because she was actively creating the future of her dreams.
Time passed, Emma used to look forward to her classes, especially those on Tuesday. However, the encounters with him became disappointing. She left afterwards feeling that he wasn't actually paying her much attention. It was all about his satisfaction. There was nothing really exciting about it anymore. He did his business, went to the bathroom and he came back fully dressed and she was expected to be ready to leave immediately.
When she was heading home, she began to feel used in some way. But she really wanted his attention. She wanted to be important to him. She wanted his approval.
She began to notice that at times he felt really cold. Like there were no emotions coming from him. It felt weird but she dismissed it, after all he was helping so many people to improve their lives, sometimes sacrificing his time for others. It was probably that he was distracted, he must have had other things on his mind.
Up until this time, Damien had seemed perfect. If anyone had asked her to list any faults that Damien had, she would not have been able to respond. If anyone criticized Damien she had immediately jumped in to defend him. She literally could not tolerate hearing anyone say anything bad about him. But now she began to have doubts. She realized it was ok for her to express concerns to others, but it made her feel bad to hear people say negative things about him.
She also realized that she couldn't speak badly of him to others in the group because they defended him and tried to shut her down!
Emma also began to notice that everything had a dollar value to him. She had always felt that he was caring and attentive, a real people person, someone who was extremely concerned for the welfare of others. She considered that he had helped her, and many like her, tremendously. He had changed her life. But there was always money involved somehow. When he was talking to a group member about setting up a new class, he wanted to know how many people would be attending to know how much money he could expect.
People paid him for everything, classes, private sessions, individual coaching sessions, if he did a favor for someone, there was always some form of payback. At the same time, he paid for nothing. Someone ran his web site for him, for free, another girl designed his logos and business cards, for free. Group members gave him gifts, food, trips in their vehicles and so on and he never made any indication that he owed anybody anything. In fact, quite the opposite, he acted as if he was owed, he made it clear that he expected special treatment. If people were not looking after him, they were doing something wrong, because after all, who wouldn't want their teacher to be in the best form possible so that they get the best education from them?
And then there was that temper. She had seen it the first day but her friend had explained it away. Emma had seen him erupt a few times, too, when he was with the advanced members. It was sudden, vicious, and seemed to be out of all proportion to what was actually going on. And then it disappeared just as quickly as it had appeared. He then acted as if nothing had happened, but those around him were in emotional turmoil for some hours afterwards.
He was always right. He had an answer for everything. He had opinions on many things and he expected the group members to adopt his ideas. Disagreeing or criticizing him was not allowed. Anyone who did so got the sharp end of his tongue. He would rant and rave at the person in class who had challenged him in some way and Emma realized that he was making an example of them. Take him on and he will make a show of you in front of the class. The new members quickly learned that asking many types of questions brought ridicule and humiliation and so it didn't happen very often.
He made all the rules. He might ask people for their opinion but he did what he wanted to anyway, very often in spite of whatever suggestions have been made by the group members.
He also changed the rules whenever he wanted to. He may decide one thing one day and the next day he would change his mind. This was always for his benefit and while he was allowed to do this, nobody else was. Once someone had made a commitment to him, he would ensure that they stuck to it. He, however, had not sense of responsibility or obligation in keeping his promises.
Many of the group members recognized these traits but they just accepted them as, 'that's the way Damien is.' They absolutely believed that he was helping them and cared about them and these beliefs were strong enough that they downplayed, ignored, forgot about or even denied his egocentricity because it went against their ideas and beliefs about him.
Emma began to have thoughts about leaving the group. There was nothing that she could put her finger on as a strong reason to leave. It was just a nagging doubt. Whenever she thought of leaving she immediately began to think of all the positives she gained from knowing Damien. Her life was better, her job was better, her relationships were better, her health was better. One day someone asked her how she knew things were better and she quickly responded that she felt better about all these things.
But later on she asked herself the question again. How do I know? She was sitting at home. It was a Saturday night. She was alone. How do I know? The first thing that popped into her head was that she was having a fantastic life.
She paused. She was alone. She had no place to go and nobody to go out with. She couldn't actually afford to spend money right now either because she didn't have any. She hadn't spent much time with her family for the last few years. In fact, she didn't even feel much like even phoning them now. Maybe life wasn't so fantastic? She felt very confused. Her beliefs were clashing with reality.
"I will do some pilates and Tuesday is not so far off," she thought. She went to get her pilates mat. But then she stopped. She wondered if pilates was the problem. She was spending all her time and money on classes. She felt that she had neglected her family and her friends because she had chosen to go to classes instead. Had she gone overboard with the classes? She had spent 4 and a half years at this. Maybe it was time for a change. Then she had a great idea. She would talk to Damien about it. He would understand. And he would know what to do about it. That helped ease her anxiety and she decided she would talk to him as soon as she could. She put the TV on and slouched back on the couch.
Emma sent Damien a message on Sunday saying she had something important that she needed help with. She kept a close eye on her phone, waiting for a response. She waited and waited. About 5 hours later he replied that she should hang back after class on Tuesday. She was annoyed, this was important and he was going to make her wait. Then she went backward and forward in her mind about whether she wanted to be physical with him or not after the class. She wanted answers first to her predicament. It was Monday afternoon before she eventually decided that she did not want to be intimate with him. She just wanted to talk.
Emma was apprehensive all day on Tuesday. She could hardly concentrate in class. She was practicing in her mind how to say what she wanted to tell him. Then the class finished and she hung back. There were several women asking him questions. They were all staring at him, transfixed, while he spoke. Then they started drifting away until there were two left. Emma approached the three of them. He left her standing for about 10 minutes while he chatted to the two girls. Suddenly Damien turned to face Emma and said gruffly, "About that thing, why don't you give me a ring in the morning, about 11, and we can chat then?" He turned back to the two girls and continued talking.
Emma froze. "What!?!" She had just been dismissed. He was more interested in getting it on with these two new girls than in helping her out. She was angry, frustrated, hurt, let down, disappointed, humiliated and belittled but she couldn't show that in front of him. That just wasn't done. One of the girls turned to look at Emma and gave Emma a dirty look. Emma scowled back, being careful to make sure Damien didn't see. She turned around and grabbed her bag and left. She went to her car and burst into tears. She needed to talk to him. She wanted his help. She felt that he was the only one in the world who could help her. She wanted to be special to him. She felt intense jealousy towards those two girls. She screamed with frustration in her car, not caring if anyone heard.
The next day, she swallowed her pride and called him. He suggested that he was driving close to her house and he could drop in. He had been there a few times before, ostensibly to talk about pilates but they had ended up having sex on her couch. She didn't want him in her house again but she thought that if it meant that she had his attention then she would put up with it.
He arrived 5 minutes later. As soon as she shut the front door behind him, he launched himself at her. His hands were all over her, he was kissing her roughly and she knew exactly what he wanted. She tried to pull away and he got offended but angry at the same time. ¨I came all the way over to see you and this is how you treat me?¨ She blushed and stammered about not being ready because she had wanted to talk. He was still holding her close. She apologized and started to kiss him back. But she couldn't keep it up and she pulled away again and asked him if they could talk first. He let her go. She went to the kitchen and he followed. While she was making coffee and managed to say the things that were on her mind.
He listened for a bit then he began to make reassuring noises for her about how this was perfectly normal and someone as talented and committed as her would naturally want to learn quickly and the best way to do that was to immerse themselves in `the work´ as much as possible initially. Then later comes a time for rebalancing their lives and she had arrived at this point. He suggested that he could get her involved in some other classes in a teaching role where she could make more money. In other words she could make money while still following her passion. He said that they could have some private sessions around rebuilding relationships with friends and family even though they were not necessarily interested in pilates. He suggested that he could teach her how to tolerate the family's lack of interest, or even better he could give her ideas on things to say to them to get them along to a class.
When he started talking, she felt better. The things he said seemed to make sense and it relieved her anxiety. He made it sound like this was all normal, he had dealt with it before and it would all even out.
He asked her if she had any other questions. She said no. He smiled at her. She smiled back. He stood up and asked her if she was happy with the plan. She said she was and he moved towards her again. She knew he was going to try again. He had helped her feel better about her situation, he had driven over here, he had given up his time to be here, she didn't think she could say no...
A few weeks went by and Emma heard nothing more from Damien about the situation. She wasn't staying back every Tuesday and she was afraid that she might be losing out because of it, but she felt it was better this way. She realized she was afraid to ask him any more about his plan for her.
Eventually Emma realized she was going to have to ask. She broached the subject during a break in class, and straight away Damien said, "Ah, yes, I have been thinking about you. There is an advanced class that I have been working on and I will be doing it in about a month. I think it would be of enormous benefit for you and after that you will probably be ready to do the teaching stuff. I will let you know when I have organized this special class.¨ Emma nodded and smiled. He had been thinking of her. It made her feel good about herself.
The following weekend, however, Emma found herself alone at home again. She realized her situation was actually not one bit different after having spoken to Damien. No new classes, no change in her relationships, no private sessions to fix anything. ¨He always gets what he wants, now! I have to wait. It´s always in the future. After the next class, after the next program, after the next training, next month, next year I'll get what I want.¨
She knew that he could string this out for months if he wanted to. Always promising things in the future that never materialize.
She decided in that moment that she was not going back. And straight away the doubts kicked in. But maybe I am losing out on something major... Pilates has changed my life, what would I do without it? But all my friends are in that group... What will Damien say? Will he be upset or angry at me? What if I am making a major mistake?
But I can't go on like this...
But I love pilates. It's a major part of my life.
I know, she thought, I will just find another group!
A major problem occurs when someone leaves a group but they don't realize it's a cult. The beliefs and ideas have been installed with such strong influence techniques that the cults ideas don't disappear just because the person leaves. They persist, acting as a master program for the ex cult member, tainting their decisions, their relationships and their perception of themselves.
Would you like to talk to someone about your situation?
If you think you are or have been in a cult or a destructive relationship, or a friend or family member might be in a cult and you want to talk to someone, send me a message on the Contact page and we can arrange to talk. All communication will be treated in the strictest confidence.
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