by Radhia Gleis
I spent twenty-five years of my adult life in a cult, under the influence of a narcissistic sociopath. You may suspect your spouse, family member, or boss is a narcissist; or you may have niggling doubts about your spiritual or political leaders and find yourself in a complicated set of circumstances, wondering why and how you got involved or how to untangle yourself from the narcissist’s web of deceit and control. You are far from alone.
The following are lightly edited excerpts from my newly released book, The Followers: “Holy Hell” and the Disciples of Narcissistic Leaders; How My Years in a Notorious Cult Parallel Today’s Cultural Mania. This is a story about 150 men and women insulated within our own small, clandestine community. We called ourselves the Buddha-field. One member, Will Allen, even made a movie about us, called Holy Hell. After twenty-some years it came to light that the teacher was sexually abusing many of the members. What a surprise! It’s a tale as old as civilization: Narcissistic leader turns community of idealistic followers into a cult.
It took me years to recognize and escape the psychological prison of cult life. In the writing of this book, I set out on a journey to explore these questions: How could I have believed this guy? How could I have made the moral compromises I did, and for so long? How could I have failed to recognize a classic narcissist? I’ve since read extensively about cult mind control, propaganda techniques, the pathology of narcissists and sociopaths, and the innate human urge to belong. All sources, scholarly and otherwise, point to one conclusion: Narcissists and their followers operate on a constantly reinforced message of perceived “specialness.” Narcissism demands to be fed; and when fed it grows, eventually subsuming followers in a toxic tidal wave that forces them to sink or swim for freedom.
How can we recognize when we are under the spell of a narcissist? The fundamental common trait of a cult leader, or of narcissists in general, is they believe they are superior individuals who should be listened to, obeyed, and envied. Almost all cult leaders are pathological, even sociopathic, narcissists. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-V), the standard used by mental health professionals. The…