The Attraction of Cults

 

Tonight, I attended Jesse Mu-En Shao’s play, “The End Times,” a play about  an extremely cultish Christian community. The play had  great resonance for me.

When I was a junior in college in Spring 1981, and still fancied myself destined to be a great actress, I had a friend in acting class named Wendy.

Wendy and I were doing a scene for  our acting class about these two little old ladies who sold lemonade on the side of the road. In the scene  it is eventually revealed that the lemonade is spiked, and the two become hammered during the scene. Wendy and I had the brilliant idea that if we made some pot brownies and ate one before rehearsing the scene, we would achieve the effect of getting high like the little old ladies in the scene. Smart, right? Sounds like a couple of dopey college students – no pun intended.

I had been given some extremely strong pot butter by one of my older brothers, and I brought the green jar over to Wendy’s dorm room, where we made a pan of brownies while discussing our “approach” to the scene.  I had also wanted to talk with Wendy was because I was taking a GE Religion class, the topic of which was Religion or Cult, and I had elected to write a paper about the  E.S.T. movement, by “infiltrating” a training and outing it as a cult. I knew that Wendy had already taken the training.

From Wikipedia:
“The Erhard Seminars Training (est), an organization founded by Werner H. Erhard, offered a two-weekend (60-hour) course known officially as “The est Standard Training”. The purpose of est was “to transform one’s ability to experience living so that the situations one had been trying to change or had been putting up with, clear up just in the process of life itself.” The est training was offered from late 1971 to late 1984.”

So, as the brownies baked,  Wendy proceeded to reel me in, and I prepared to  test my hypothesis that est was a cult, not a religion.

The brownies finished, cooled, and we cut the pan’s contents into 12 squares. We each ate one, and then rehearsed the scene. 15 minutes later, we looked at each other, and shrugged. Nothing. No high. We each ate another brownie. After another 20 minutes, nothing, so we ate a third each. After finishing a third pass at the scene and still feeling no ill or good  effects from the brownies, I left Wendy’s room, having decided that I would attend an est training in a few weeks, and went back to my room, where I proceeded to have a nightmarish  and hallucinogenic reaction to the brownies. Wasn’t pretty, and it was pretty much my last exposure to pot.

In a few weeks, Wendy drove us to the est training, located in a non-descrip industrial park in New Jersey, in a conference room  filled with about 200 chairs. Est ground rules dictated that the trainings were each 12 hours long, and there was one lunch break in the day, and very infrequent bathroom breaks. The philosophy was that difficult emotional discoveries  could not be avoided by a sudden urge to go to the bathroom if you were not allowed to leave the room. As a result, in addition to “getting it,” I have a bladder of steel and can sit through 6 hour meetings without breaking a sweat.

The thing about infiltrating a cult is that you need to do more than one visit to get the full 360 on it, and the thing about doing more than one visit is that you are in danger of getting sucked into the cult. There is intimacy in sharing a spiritual quest with others that binds you to the group.  It makes you enthusiastic about the work and about sharing the experience. That is what cults count on – that the people who come seeking spiritual sustenance are hungry for intimacy, for fellowship, and will gladly share their experiences with others.

When I had taken two trainings, and several workshops with the Werner Erhard and Associates group, I invited my Mom to come to Princeton for a workshop. She was, at the time, getting her Master’s Degree in Journalism at Columbia University, and she drove down to Princeton at the end of a long day of classes. All the poor woman wanted was a Manhattan and dinner with her daughter. But  I had an alternative agenda -to share with her this transformative experience. We went to the meeting, and there, I watched my intelligent, journalist mother look into the hollow and haunted eyes of one of the est participants. Only then as I watched her asking logical questions of them was I able to see the folly of my search for a spiritual identity. It was not going to happen in the bosom of est. Getting away from the group was not easy, again, as Jesse’s play described. I eventually left college and changed my address, even moved to Europe for a year, effectively breaking the bond with the denizens of the “human potential movement.”

The “getting away” was painted in dark hues in Jesse’s play tonight.  Listening,  we felt exhilarated by the religious fervor of the characters, then claustrophobic , stifled by the constraints of the group’s irrational rules; what was the most devastating thing was the limited  alternatives for the  characters who sought to escape the group, and the abysmal success rate of doing so. Kudos to you, Jesse Mu-En Shao. Thank you for sharing your powerful play with all of us.

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