Video: Follow-up Panel on Abuse of Power in Alternative and Emerging Spiritual and Cultural Organizations

April 20, 2021
Abuse of Power in Alternative and Emerging Spiritual and Cultural Organizations
The Program for the Evolution of Spirituality supports the scholarly study of emerging spiritual movements, marginalized spiritualities, and the innovative edges of established religious traditions.

In the wake of our February 25 Virtual Panel, “Abuse of Power in Alternative and Emerging Spiritual and Cultural Organizations,” many people have expressed a desire to continue the conversation. Therefore, we are launching an ongoing discussion on our platform around this complex and sensitive topic.

We plan to host monthly colloquia which will feature a variety of speakers, including practitioners, scholars, survivors, and activists, who will come together to talk about their experiences around power dynamics, both positive and negative, in emerging and alternative spiritual and cultural organizations.

We hope these conversations will be productive, illuminating, and empowering as well as a source of education on creating structures of accountability. 

On March 25, we hosted this follow-up virtual panel and the first of our colloquia, which featured the same four panelists to address the questions that we were not able to discuss at the original event. 

Panelists were:

  • Amber Scorah, writer and media activist living in Brooklyn, NY. She is author of the memoir Leaving the Witness, published by Viking Books. 
  • Margaret Smith, who currently holds the position of Director of Trauma Healing and Community Resilience at the Institute of World Affairs, Washington, DC. 
  • Helen Zuman, author of Mating in Captivity (She Writes Press 2018), a memoir of her five years, post-Harvard, at Zendik Farm, a cult with a radical take on sex and relationships. 
  • Souki Mehdaoui, a documentary director, writer, and cinematographer based in Denver. Her work can be seen on Netflix, HBO, the New York Times, A+E, Yahoo and Refinery29.

Full Transcript:


DAN MCKANAN: Hello, everyone. And welcome to our second webinar on Abuses of Power in Spiritual and Cultural Organizations. On behalf of Harvard Divinity School and the program for the evolution of spirituality, thank you for joining us today, and thank you for supporting and being interested in this new program.

My name is Dan McKanan. I'm joining you from Summerville on the lands of the Massachusetts people and on the Charles River Watershed. And I have the pleasure of serving as the Founding Director of the program for the Evolution of Spirituality.

I'll say just a word about our program before handing over to today's moderator. After our last panel, which took place on February 25th and featured the same speakers who are joining us today. Many members of our audience expressed a desire to continue this conversation on accountability and power dynamics both positive and negative in emerging spiritual and cultural organizations.

So we agreed that we would host a monthly colloquium on this topic. In the future, we expect this colloquium to feature the diverse perspectives of practitioners, ex-practitioners, scholars, and activists. Our hope is to cultivate a better understanding of why things go wrong and how things can go right in evolving spiritual organizations.

This colloquium on power dynamics represents just one aspect of our programming. The overarching mandate of the program for the evolution of spirituality is to support the scholarly study of emerging spiritual movements in a manner that fully welcomes practitioners, and ex-practitioners, as well as neutral scholars.

Whether you are a committed spiritual practitioner, someone who's been harmed by alternative spirituality, or maybe even a little bit of both, we hope that you will feel welcome to participate fully in our conversations.

We hope you'll participate in this colloquium in the ones that come in the months ahead. And we also hope you'll join us in person next spring when we will be holding our inaugural conference on the theme of ecological spiritualities.

You can find more information at the Program for the Evolution of Spirituality website. And now, please welcome today's moderator Natalia Schwien.

NATALIA SCHWIEN: Thank you, Dan. Thank you, everyone for joining us today. Thank you to our panelists for being here again with us.

My name is Natalia Schwein. I am a second year MTS student at HDS studying ecology and spiritual practice. I am also the Assistant Program Director for the Program of the Evolution of Spirituality here in HDS. And I am joining you from Cambridge on the traditional lands of the Massachusetts people. Welcome.

As I said in our last panel, we understand that the abuse of power is an extremely complex and sensitive subject. And I would like to reiterate that the capacity to abuse power exists in every spiritual and cultural organization. Not every organization is structured in the same way, and not every harmful power dynamic is intentional or systemic. It is critical that we acknowledge ambiguities and variances and each person's experience.

If you were able to join us in February, then you will already be familiar with our panelists today. But since we have some new folks during tuning in, I will briefly introduce them before we get started.

So please welcome our first panelist, Amber Scorah. She is a writer and media activist living in Brooklyn, New York, as well as a master's in theological student here Theological Studies student here at HDS.

She is the author of the Memoir Leaving The Witness published by Viking Books which documents her life with the Jehovah's Witnesses and her exit from the religion.

Our second panelist Helen Zoomin is the author of Meeting In Captivity, and a memoir of her five years post Harvard agentic form, a cult with a radical take on sex and relationships. The book was published by She Writes Press in 2018. And you can find it wherever books are sold.

Our third panelist Margaret Smith currently holds the position of director of trauma healing and community resilience at the Institute of World Affairs in Washington, DC.

Before becoming an academic, she worked for 17 years with the international NGO moral rearmament now called Initiatives of Change. This group, which was called the Oxford group in the 1930s is perhaps best known these days because it spawned Alcoholics Anonymous. But it has a long track record of Christian based interfaith reconciliation work on all continents.

And finally Souki Mehdaoui who is a documentary, filmmaker, director, and cinematographer based in Denver. Her work can be seen on Netflix, HBO, the New York Times, and Yahoo, and Refinery29. Find more information about her and her work on her website, which I will post in a chat.

Souki a survivor of NXIVM, a well publicized and recently dismantled organization that claimed to be a personal development and marketing company. So let's get started.

So as we were debriefing from our last panel and processing the different overarching, issues, and themes that we discussed in the panel, and in our previous conversations, we talked about the complexity of exiting. And whether or not that word is even a helpful term.

Difficulty in finding space to figure out what happens and how you felt about it, difficulty in finding acceptance, and projections of the outside world put upon you, such as the label of cult survivor, which may be a label that any of our panelists identify with or don't identify with as, anyone who exits an organization may identify or not identify with.

So I would love to talk about navigating this process. And I'm going to pass on Margaret with the question. How are you able to articulate the complexity of your experiences with the outside world? And how are you able to navigate stigma projected upon you and your experience?

MARGARETH SMITH: Thanks, Natalia. I guess we discussed whether exiting is a useful term. And I feel like it truly is a useful term. But we have to understand that it means different things for different people.

And indeed, each of us has gone through some experience of deciding to separate ourselves, or remove ourselves, or distance ourselves from a group may discover over time that the meaning of that is actually turns out to be different than it seemed at the outset. And certainly it's a recognition that something isn't working, and it's maybe be a moment of saying, no, which is a very fundamental human experience.

And it may be connected with a moment of crisis. And so that moment of crisis might become the thing we fixate that the moment that we depart.

And we spend a lot of energy thinking about that moment of crisis, and how we came to the moment of crisis, and how we handled the moment of crisis. And all of that makes it a little harder to see the big picture.

And it's also true that one we're exiting, the first thing we have to do is create some ground to stand on. And so finding a job, finding a place to live, figuring out how to generate an income, how to generate friendships, all those kinds of things is really all about survival in some ways.

And so thinking about what it is that we've left behind, and why, so and so forth may inevitably get put down on a lower level of priority. But I certainly would say for myself that even if that did seem like a lower level of priority, I was always thinking about this question. Always sort of writing the book in my mind trying to understand, how would I frame what happened here? And how would I frame the meaning of my decision to depart?

I think in this group, I represent the departure from a group that isn't really extreme. People were not talking about Armageddon. People were not indulging in strange versions of sexuality.

And so it was a lot easier to imagine a departure, where you still remained in contact with the people in the group. Possibly taking some of the values with you. All of those kinds of things, which actually led to greater ambiguity really about what was exit.

But I certainly felt that none of the people who were in the group showed all that much interest in my reasons for departing, or the struggles that I had after departing and trying to create a life after having been so immersed in that group for so long. And I felt that some of that was because they couldn't handle it in some way. But we never had open conversations about that.

I don't want to say a lot. But I do think that exit is linked with confusion, and disorientation, and that comes as a big surprise because we think that by leaving clarity will descend. And I think in the end, it is an existential experience that's open to anybody in the world of discovering what it means to be a lone traveler in life. So I'll stop talking right now because I want to hear what others think saying.

NATALIA SCHWIEN: No, that was well put. Thank you, Margaret. And that leads us perfectly into the question, which is an aspect of exiting that you've all brought to the table in our conversations, which is around community responsibility and the complexity for caring for your former community, the feeling of responsibility to dismantle the narrative, and to care for those who are still in the organization while not wanting to disrupt lives. You projects your own experience onto everyone else's.

And I'm going to direct this question towards Amber first, and then Souki. So first, Amber, you've mentioned the feeling of failure that lingered as you exited the Jehovah's Witnesses. And I'm wondering how are you able to process this feeling.

AMBER SCORAH: Yeah. I think it's interesting because I did for a long time feel like I was a failure. And it's on two fronts because these organizations set you up you're thinking up that way already. And that if the dynamics in a group like this, that if you don't live up to a set of certain requirements, then that means you're a failure in God's eyes or in your peers eyes. And the consequences of that can be like excommunication and being thrown out of the group.

So I think what happened for me was that when I came out into the real world, there's all these bars that are-- I was already in my early 30s. And so there was already all these bars that I hadn't met. And it was really easy for me to feel like a failure.

And also I think it was easy to feel like a failure because I did fail at so many things at the beginning. Because as Margaret said, you're coming out into this world that you don't really understand it's an exit. But it's also an entrance onto the stage, where I have personally lived on the periphery. But not really engaged fully in the world or played by its rules because I thought the world was ending.

And so it was easy to feel like a failure. And I think for me part of letting go of that feeling was to be able to find an independent way of defining myself. So that would be outside, the definitions that my religion put on me, which was when I left. I was branded as this evil apostate by all my best friends, all my family that were in the group.

So there was that label. And then when I came out into the real world, there was all of these definitions of society of how a life should look. And you mentioned the stigma. It wasn't that bad.

But for example, just like when someone you get introduced to someone and they talk about your m people automatically their mind goes to, oh, she's like an x cult member. So there are these ways that you are being defined by everything external.

And so I think it just took time for me to after losing like the former world of entering to this new world view. The one advantage was that you have this blank slate because you don't really fit in any way, anywhere, I mean.

So I think that once I had stopped being told what to do with my life, and then I came into this world, where I didn't really fit in, it gave me this ability to sort of figure out who I was, and what I was without any intermediaries. And I think that there is something that was really freeing about that because you can learn how to define yourself in the ways that are truly you and authentic.

And I think it can lead to this really deep way of living with integrity because I found that in time, it took time. But I did find the way to self define rather than. Because we have all these labels thrown on you. It's almost you develop an immunity to other people's definitions of you.

NATALIA SCHWIEN: It's really beautiful. Thank you. I love that.

Souki, I have a similar question for you, which is in that same space. So navigating relationships around other ex-members. And you personally dealt with the media in your process of exiting. But also dealt with the same how to care for people who were still processing, or still at the beginning of the process of trying to exit, trying to understand their own experience.

So he'd be willing to speak about that. We'd love to love to have to dive into it.

SOUKI MEHDAOUI: Yeah. I just love this group of women so much. And Dan, obviously. But this is great.

First of all, Amber, what you were talking about in terms of the resilience that you get from having to negotiate and navigate this sea of labels is absolutely in line with my experience of leaving. When I left NXIVM, I wasn't entering into a world even that had some ancillary knowledge of a group.

And it was an association of that's weird. But I don't really understand it. And it's on the fringes of major religions.

So it's like, oh, I can understand it from the standpoint of like a major religion. NXIVM was just the weird stepchild that no one understood. And the media I think and I was a part of that because we wanted to-- when I left, I just didn't know which way was up.

But I had a lot of voices speaking to me about my responsibility in telling the story and narrating the story of what was happening. Because otherwise, no change would happen.

And that's a lot of responsibility to put on somebody. Not from any one person's intention, but I think from this collective desire to bring an exodus and an end to the Reign of Terror.

I then became a functional piece in the machine of trying to pull people out. And at the time, I didn't have a mastery over my own narrative. Similar to what Margaret was saying you lose a narrative.

And so you're grasping at straws for what is my story and what is my relationship to myself in this larger story. That you just lost. And it's like you're reaching out for this thing that you once had. But it's just not there.

And then people are demanding an answer. And it's like you're grabbing for whatever is close to you. It's like Alice in Wonderland falling down the road. And you're like chair, cup. I don't know.

And I think the narratives that I was grabbing onto. And the world was filled with them was like sex call, sex call, sex call. And that's a lot to handle.

In one mind when you're processing your trauma, you're trying to figure out, how do I listen to guided meditations without freaking out? Because that would be nice. I'm these triggers in the world.

I had this added challenge of feeling like I immediately had to be a spokesperson about my story. And for the purposes of getting people out, which is already charged and biased. And for the purposes of bringing in accountability and a justice to this, which of course, I wanted.

But I think at the time, I didn't understand the stakes of it. I didn't understand the violence that I was also enacting on myself in stuffing my story into a closet like with one foot and being like get in there.

This reductive way of looking at my experience took a long time for me to unravel. And I'm so grateful for it because it's crystallized how I actually feel about it because I've actually-- like what Amber was saying, I've had to wade through the murky swamp of what everyone thought I needed to experience through this. The story that other people thought that I should be relaying or performing.

And yes, I felt bits of victimization. And I felt a lot of rage. But there's also parts that I didn't. And I just felt confused, and sad, and guilty, and shameful, and happy.

And the waves of PTSD, and the waves of loss, and having somebody say like what you went through was wrong. But then when you feel like you miss the human beings that you built community with.

What do you do with that feeling when it's contradictory to the narrative that is assigned to you as the emotional scope that you should have about this experience? And in the exiting process, it was made more challenging by the fact that it was a very inner out mentality. It was almost as if the dogmatic black and white inside the group was just then carried into the outside world.

And I realized this isn't endemic to this organization or this community. It is what we do as humans. We want there to be an enemy. We want something to blame.

We want something to point a finger to and say you did this to me. Why did you do this? And anyone who follows you is being brainwashed and is being convinced.

And it's not that that's not true. But I think you lose all of this gray, and you lose all of this nuance that actually can allow you to help connect with people and understand why it is that they're doing this and what is it that it draws them to this practice, whatever that is.

So my practice of connecting with members I think after and learning how to build a relationship with myself and my narrative after even in the media blitz. And it took a very long time. And it's still taking a long time is continuing to affirm the nuance that I feel in relationship to this narrative and affirming the nuance that others feel in relationship to theirs.

And I will say the dialectical behavioral therapy made a big difference in this because it allowed me to hold the multitude of emotions that I had, the multitude of orientations that I felt in relation to the organization and myself and my story in relation to it. It allowed me to hold it with like, oh, I can miss people and also be really angry at them. I can feel ashamed about my experience, and also be very grateful for the strength that it gave me.

And to own each of those little parts in the rainbow that they presented. And that took a very long time. And it wasn't easy because of the pressure of both ex-members and the media to make it easy. But very grateful for it.

NATALIA SCHWIEN: Thank you, Souki. That's helpful. The nuances are, I mean, that's a big part of what we've discussed is how complicated, and how sensitive it is, and how often an experience is projected upon you.

And so that actually brings up another aspect of what we've discussed, which is cycles of trauma. And looking at healing and recognizing that it's not a linear process. And that the mental schema of how allowing time and space to process and experience.

But also recognizing patterning patterns of thoughts, loops, and acting experiences in new groups, new relationships, new experiences as you step outside of or as you've exited, and realized that's a complicated word. But exited an organization. And how can you discuss the complexity of trauma, and the way that it creates cycles?

And I'm wondering, how did you go about recognizing and identifying patterns and thoughts that resulted from your experience with Zendik?

HELEN ZUMAN: Yeah. I think of my life in relation to them as moving in spirals that the primary challenge of leaving Zendik was claiming my self trust having surrendered it largely when I was there. And I've noticed that this challenge keeps coming up in different ways usually gentler ways.

But the fact that I had this experience to such an extreme degree at Zendik, has created this sort of body of resonance I think. Meaning that I'll have an experience.

And I'll feel a bodily connection between this thing and something that happened that Zendik. And that'll send off an alarm like Oh something's wrong what is it for example when I looked at Zendik, I was periodically under threat of being kicked out losing everything, home family, cause, et cetera.

And eventually, that actually did happen. I did get kicked out. And after I got kicked out, I felt doomed for a while until I got the call memo.

Not so long ago when my husband and I were having intense disagreements, I noticed the same feeling. The feeling of doom.

What if he leaves, and I lose my home, and my family? He is my family. And then I was like oh. And I had those thoughts at Zendik. That's how I felt at Zendik too.

But maybe it's not true, and maybe there is something I can learn here. And another spiral has to do with crying. When I was at Zendik, I cried uncontrollably fairly often.

When I lived there, I didn't really understood I didn't really understand what that meant. It just felt like something I couldn't help. But then after I left, after I had fully freed myself, I stopped crying in that way.

And so that clued me into the fact that this uncontrollable crying, it was simply a signal. It was a bodily reaction. The reason I cried at dentek so often was I wasn't actually sad or grieving, I was actually infuriated. I was enraged. And that was the only way to express it.

And so I started to see this particular crying as a key. Like when I cry this way, when that form of crying eventually did reappear in my life post-Zendik I could see that's a signal.

I have given up my power. I have surrendered my autonomy in some way in some part of my life. And I will know that I have righted that problem when I stop crying.

So there are so many ways. There are so many ways that living at Zendik has helped me to address coercive patterns that anyone might come across.

Just one more thing. One time years ago, shortly after I left Zendik, I answered a Craigslist ad. I was living in Brooklyn. A lady on the Upper East Side wanted help moving stuff in her apartment. I went there. She told me to do something with her DVD player, and I didn't immediately understand.

And she spoke to me very peremptorily, like, why don't you know how to do that? And I had this shock in my body. And I was like, this is how I used to feel when Arol, the Zendik leader, used to yell at me. OK, something's wrong here. And I knew that all I had to recognize was that something was wrong. And I just had to stop it. And I could.

And so I stopped. And I said that was rude you can apologize or I can leave. And I believe that since then to just know like when I have this feeling, I don't have to be able to explain to the person what they've done wrong or convince them. All I have to do is step out of that person's story.

But I want to add something on that healing front to. Just that I think that sometimes when you leave, there's a lot of pressure can be put on people that you need to heal. And I feel, I mean, I've been out for more than 10 years.

And I think what a conclusion I've come is to not think of it that way because I think that there are some losses that it is not possible to heal from. And I think that losing years of your life. I lost 32 years of my life to something living for something that wasn't true. And I wasted my life essentially on it.

So I think that one thing that is really important to think about is that you cannot make the past go away Because the repercussions are real. The repercussions for me are still cascading to this day.

But I think that what helped me was to just learn to live with the things that I couldn't control and to not blame myself for it, or even necessarily blame anyone else, but rather to be able to find ways to find joy and gratitude in the way that my life is now despite the fact that, yes, there's some things I wish were different and there's mistakes that I made as a result of being in it. That still have repercussions for me.

But I think that just finding a way to embrace the ways that you're different and move forward without feeling I need to do something to get rid of this pain. You just have to find ways to incorporate it into the story of your life and learn to live with it. And I think that's important to emphasize.

NATALIA SCHWIEN: Yeah. Very important. Thank you, Amber. That's it. Really important point to make.

Souki, and Margaret, before we move into our question and answer session, but either of you like to address that question as well? Do you have anything you'd like to add to trusting yourself moving through the process and navigating that level of complexity?

MARGARETH SMITH: I'm so grateful for all the ways you've articulated that, Amber. And you've done that beautifully.

For those of us who are actually born into the environment that we eventually left, the idea of discovering what is my self? How do I trust that?

One of the big principles of the group that I was in was actually unselfishness. And that seemed valid, it seemed Christian, it seemed like something that one shouldn't really question.

And at some level, I'm grateful for having grown up in an environment where people's egos were not so incredibly highly developed. That we didn't know how to work, and teamwork, and things like that.

But it did make me feel unsure how to actually trust my gut, how to be in some relationship with me as an entitled individual person. What is that? And can I still have some faith in the transcendent even if I acknowledge myself more?

So I've got to work on that. Come up with a different understanding of God as a God within rather than a God who gives orders, or something like that. So that was one thing.

I also understood over time that choice, which is something the existentialists write about a lot. But that choice always involves a loss and that it also requires of us a decision to put our will into the choice.

And there's something about doing that gives you a stronger sense of self, a stronger sense of autonomy. And I didn't get that at the beginning.

So when I was making decisions, I was always trying to look for signals from God that I was making the right decision. But actually, doesn't work like that.

And so that was an important discovery too. And then I think, for me, really a decision to thank God for the wilderness to actually decide that it was always going to feel like the wilderness.

And so this is life. And I can't say that didn't feel painful at times. It has often felt painful. But it has also made me feel that I'm in touch with some real threat in what life is all about.

NATALIA SCHWIEN: I love it when you talk get. All of you guys. OK. There's so many points to that I just want to pick up on them.

SOUKI MEHDAOUI: I think this notion of what is the boundary between self and other. That has to be renegotiated. And in the process of reorienting in the world, especially if you're an empathetic person who's also been trained through these organizations to have as little boundaries as possible.

Because in the philosophical understanding of selflessness, the less ego I have, the more helpful I can be to the world around me. There is a real just thinning of the barrier that is, where do I end and another begins? And where do I have an autonomy and a choice to enact my will upon this situation?

What am I? But a speck in the universe. And I will let the will of those who are in higher authority move me around the world.

That's a really difficult. It's like building an egg. And oftentimes, this process of creating the show is tied to a moral because of these groups.

They're tied to a moral valuation that by creating boundaries, and by creating a show, and by making decisions that don't always please people. You're actually doing something morally reprehensible, which is a very hard program to change.

And one of the things that just to continue on with this idea is there's a lot of beliefs and narratives in these spaces that are just very human. And you can find them in any institution, and they can be incredibly healthy.

And the ways in which they're weaponizing I think in these organizations and in author and media that speaks about it and includes us. I was the subject of a documentary and the experience of having those same patterns represented not by people who had any bad intention, but still in their irresponsibility enacted the same behavior.

There's a reformatting that you have to do in sifting through. Almost it's the needle in the haystack, but the opposite. It's you're sifting through all of this just needle in the haystack.

You're exploring all of these stories and narratives and looking at them. And saying like, is this something that I want to bring into my life again? And you can't do that all at once because it's an entire barn of all of your beliefs, and narratives, and understandings of the world.

And so I have found the process of sifting through the stories that were-- I don't even know how to explain it. The stories that I believed.

I had to basically work my way through each of those narratives to find where the bad code was, to find where the sharp sticky unhelpful narrative was. And even in some moments, I would pick it up and be like this doesn't feel good. But I guess in certain contexts, I could see how it's true.

And then I have to stop myself. And just be we're going to put that on the table and not think about it right now. And one of those narratives is the narrative of being selfish.

And it's the narrative of playing the victim. It's also the narrative of this sense of survivor's guilt and responsibility that you have to save people.

In this negotiation of being the truth teller or the notion of betrayal and betraying these people who cared about. And then in some transactional way because they helped give you all of this wisdom, you talk. You can't speak about the negative because you owe them.

And so all of these little narratives that are embedded in our stories thread in the cloth that's tied together, in this process of healing feels like pulling the threads out and trying to be OK with letting some things go and choosing to just keep the good for yourself.

NATALIA SCHWIEN: Thank you. It's really helpful. So we have about 20 minutes for questions for the audience.

Our first question is from Aaron prophet. And she says this question is for any of the panelists who wish who wish to answer. You made a choice to leave your group.

Does the group still exist? And if so, do you think that can be beneficial to any of those who remain in it? Or do you think or do you have the view that it can't benefit anyone?

Also, prior to leaving, did you make an effort to reform the group? And how do you feel about those efforts?

Now, so this builds off of what we were just talking about. But yeah, I'm curious how would you respond to this.

SOUKI MEHDAOUI: I just want to steal the microgrid. To steal it. Snatch it.

So I think one of the most interesting conversations we had when we were all getting together in our private cloud was this notion of if the group is continuing, and if the group lives on, if you're not a part of it. It has a very different feeling in your relationship to it if it's kind of closed and not really in existence anymore.

I find that it's really interesting because the next item months had such a public explosion, where just a blow up in so many ways. There's shows about it. There's two shows about it.

And yet there's also interviews that are ongoing with a group of people that I know very well at least from when I was there standing up for and speaking about how this really a falsehood and they had a very different experience. It's the strong and loyal few who remain standing.

And I will say that there's a respect I have for that. Because I'm like, wow, despite all of the narratives and information being presented to you, that you're just so loyal. And there's something about that dedication and about that loyalty that I just don't think that I see in the world.

And so in some ways, I'm like, well, maybe it worked. Because like that loyalty is what we were training for. We were learning about it. How to be disciplined, how to stand up to adversity.

And in some ways, I think it's pointed in the wrong direction. But is it working in terms of their ability to be in a world that is looking at them and in some ways cannot understand or fathom how these loyal few are advocating for someone who did what Keith did?

But the strength that takes is insane. We have to respect how courageous it is to get up on morning. Good Morning America News, whatever.

And say even though this man has been convicted to 120 years in prison, or whatever, that I still believe that what happened to me wasn't bad. That is a lot of courage and a lot of strength to do that.

And so in some ways, that's beneficial. Do I believe that the actual belief or the content of that belief is incorrect? I mean, that's my opinion Yeah. I don't think that's correct.

But I do believe that there are certain-- maybe that the byproducts of something that is not intended. I believe it has made a lot of people stronger. But I wish it on other people in the future know.

Do I wish there was a less toxic version of this that actually existed in the world to help people develop that? Absolutely. But it's hard to parse out because the group is also closed. It's eating itself. And the community remains.

And so I was very interested in how the different women here related to their organization or their group. I think it would be very different if NXIVM was still happening. I would feel really differently about that.

And I did. I was like hungry to stop the madness and stop the trauma from continuing on. But if it's still out in the world, there's an anxiety and an insecurity that I was really interested in hearing about. Yeah. From these different women.

AMBER SCORAH: One thing that I find interesting though is this question about whether it comes up a lot whether the group benefits people. And it's funny when I think about the people who are in the group. Jehovah's witnesses are a very large organization. Not going away any time soon.

But it's fascinating to see the way that people do feel that there were benefits when they're in it. And it's not until you get out of it. And the reason you think it's beneficial is because you have no perspective. That is the only life you know.

And you're taught every week, every day that this is the best way of living. And that living in the outside is going to be hell and awful.

So it's only when you leave that you actually realize that any benefit you perceived was subject to all kinds of things that were detrimental and just basically made you live a life that was inauthentic. And at its core if what you're living for is false.

If you ask me this question like, sure, I miss the people. I had a wonderful community. But I don't think of that as a benefit when it is built on something that is not true and causes you to not live as the person you are. And if you do, you face losing all your family and friends.

And as far as reforming the group, it's really interesting too. Because it same kind of principle applies. And that people don't want to reform.

People that only want to reform if they how to put it. You have to want to reform. You have to want to see that something is wrong in order to reform.

And when you're in it, it's difficult to explain to people how little you can actually understand what is wrong. And if you do, you mentally block it because there's so much to lose. And so it's very difficult I think in my experience to reform groups like this also because the power structures in place to just kick you out if you try and isolate you.

SOUKI MEHDAOUI: And also, just to note on that is there's also interesting hook in if you see a problem, then you can help us make it better and it creates. I think it can create a false narrative that you're actually making a change in a community. When you're not, it's just lip service.

And that was the experience that I felt when I left one of the hooks to try to get me to stay. And was oh, well, if you have problems with just, and if you have problems with what's going on, you can be responsible for like spearheading the better version.

And it took a lot of mental organizing to be like, no, this isn't what you want. There's nothing you can do to make this better. It's founded on master slave relationships. There's nothing to reform.

And so that idea of the architecture of power it's already solidified, it's calcified. And what is reform but just moving the furniture around in a castle that is never going to change. And the illusion of freedom that is given I think to participants that they can in some way make things better within the system. I think it's just a false narrative. And it's making didley.

Just keep them busy. So I think that can be really, really hard.

NATALIA SCHWIEN: Helen, did you want to add to this? And then I have another question that I think ties in really well what we're discussing.

HELEN ZUMAN: Sure. Yeah. So I left and the farm in 2004. And the group lasts another nine years. So for the first nine years after I left, then Dick was still around.

I didn't think that anyone who was living there other than maybe Airline her blood family was getting a true benefit out of that. And when I was in the group, I was too trapped in the story of Zendik to be able to even start down the road to trying to change anything.

I wasn't even able to acknowledge what was wrong. And when I did have little blips of that's not fair or error will just change your story or something, I immediately dismiss them as thoughtcrime.

It was simply wrong to even think those things. And as far as the benefit that maybe did get from the group, I would really give the credit for any benefits accruing to former Zendiks to those ex-Zendiks themselves and not to the group.

I mean, there were plenty of people who spent time at the farm. Maybe they learned they learned about organic farming, and they went off and did that as a career. Good for them. But that wasn't really something Zendik gave them. That was something they cultivated and something that they took.

And for myself, of course, I drive that tremendous benefit from composting the experience. But I don't give Zendik credit for that.

Yeah. And how can you live on in an intentional community now as well that you're still involved in a new space?

Well, I mostly live at home with my husband. But I do spend time whenever I can at an eco village in North Carolina called Earthborn. So yes, I am still involved in that world. I mean, very different.

NATALIA SCHWIEN: Right. Exactly. But I think that's a really important is to think about how we evolve our relationships with spirituality and with spaces like the villages after leaving organizations that have been harmful. Because it's heartbreaking to think that then you wouldn't be able to have a relationship with land in the same way or relationship with whatever your spiritual space is your cosmology is in a deep and meaningful way as a result of the harm done through a high control group.

And that leads to this question that we receive, which is I have had a similar enough experience that I have had a hard time connecting to spirituality any more at all.

Every instantiation seems to be triggering. I've had trouble building my own sense of spirituality again. And you wouldn't have any positive experiences with this.

And I think that fits in with what Margaret has spoken about. But it also fits with developing a new relationship with the new space and with this land as you would saying, Helen. So if either of you would like to lead us into that question.

HELEN ZUMAN: I think having been at Zendik just made me very aware of what wasn't going to work. And so at Earthaven, for example, everyone is in charge of their own finances. And I've heard people who don't live there criticizing them for that. Why don't you work together more or whatever?

But from my perspective, from my experience, I can see that is really healthy, that it's actually really healthy to have a balance between cooperation, and people helping each other, and so on, and playing the role of extended family.

And then having individual responsibility, especially when it comes to money. Because if you have your own money, well, you can leave. You're not stuck there in financial captivity.

NATALIA SCHWIEN: So in some ways it has to do with structure, and with power dynamics, and how those are an activist group.

HELEN ZUMAN: Yeah. And at Zendik used to make fun of Twin Oaks and East wind for having bylaws to talk about or they have a binder that are interesting all their rules, whereas we just follow our hearts and we just know what the right thing is to do.

At Earth haven, there is an actual structure. It is clear how do you become a member. How do you gain the privileges, and powers of membership? How do you get to sit-in the council and help make decisions?

So I could see that's really valuable. And it's a sign to me that this group is not pulling the same old bullshit as Zendik.

NATALIA SCHWIEN: Thank you. It's really helpful. Margaret, would you like to speak on the spirituality aspects of this?

MARGARETH SMITH: Of course, well, that's a big question because it's about how do we find meaningful spirituality in our lives. And secondly, if we've been somehow let down or disappointed, how can we build some sense of trust of ourselves?

I'm thinking of one book that I've read on the-- I'm blanking on who wrote it. But it's called Leaving The Fold, which is about leaving strong evangelical Christian communities written by a psychotherapist just given a lot of workshops.

But she does put a lot of emphasis on learning how to actually feel our own feelings. And that's, of course, in line with contemporary spirituality anyway, which is much more about an inner experience than a religious framework.

That we live in an age where we're giving more space to recognize that people's feelings are valid, that they are important, and they are in some sense a bridge to our understanding the transcendent. But it is true that many of us in these groups actually got into the habit of ignoring our feelings for a very long time.

And so it's quite a big leap to get to a place where you can really trust your gut, or even hear your gut, or even figure out where your gut is in some ways. And so I think that inner experience, which is often what is addressed in psychotherapies is also one that seems to me is very clearly a path towards a different spirituality that is more trustworthy.

I think that I've been very interested in Eugene Gendlin's ideas about focusing, which is really all about teaching people how to respond to their gut. So that's currently my area of reading in this department.

NATALIA SCHWIEN: Thank you, everyone, for your notes of gratitude. And encouragement is very great.

Amber, Souki, you both answered questions within the last few minutes. So either of you like to voice either of these questions for your responses?

AMBER SCORAH: Mine was on the one about spirituality. Because I wrote an answer. But you can speak to that too.

I really wrestled with that after I left my religion. Because I didn't become an aide. I couldn't be an atheist even though I believe so fully in this God. I have been taught about.

But then I got from the other side and realized it's all false. But I still just couldn't quite bring myself to not believe in anything.

And I think that what really helped me. Not that I'm plugging Harvard Divinity School. But the academic study of religion really helped me.

And that could happen anywhere. It doesn't have to happen in a university. But just through reading different perspectives over the course of centuries and across cultures, it really helped me get out of this framework I was in where I thought that there were a, but there was a truce like a truce out there, one truce, which is like a really dangerous thing because the reality is that everything is extremely complicated.

And the reason why there are so many religions and even harmful religions is that we have a very difficult time accepting that these questions are not-- some questions are not answerable right now.

So it was through just exposing myself. And the most healing thing if you want to talk about actually killed. Even though I said I don't think that's possible.

But the thing that's been most helpful also is just learning, and opening up, and broadening my perspective. Because I think that these groups thrive on narrowing your perspective and cutting off information that would actually challenge your belief or the beliefs that they hold to be true.

So I think that to me the best way to try to it's just to keep your mind open and keep searching for answers and listening to what other people have said on the topics. And I think eventually, for me, I landed somewhere that feels right to me.

And it's not that I feel that I have the truth. In fact, I thought the truth that I have is that there is no easy answer. There's going to be mystery.

And that in itself is a really satisfying answer. Accepting that there's things that are magical and mysterious. And that's wonderful if you really embrace it.

So I really related to this question that because it took a long time for me to get to the point, where I could even not have a visceral revulsion. And if I thought about these things religion or anything related.

SOUKI MEHDAOUI: It's so interesting because I'm working on a documentary right now. And it's all of my stuff is coming up. Like all the stuff that I was like I've solved this. I have it. It's totally fine.

The world throws you popcorn like caramel popcorn. That you're, like, what a surprise? I didn't remember this flavor.

And sometimes you take a bite of the apophasis that sour. One of those things is this approach to what Amber was talking about is the primal revulsion of anything that is less spirituality, but more like group spirituality.

And I can do and could do this like personal relationship and rebuilding trust and all of that. There is a safety in being able to worship, and/or pray, and/or meditate, and orient oneself to what is spirit in your life now outside of the narrative that you've inherited or been told you're morally tied to.

Like in that relationship of self to bigness. The relationship is still private, and it's unmediated by somebody else. And there's a deep vulnerability and still a deep wound that I have not figured out how to heal, which is that of group dynamics in relation to something that feels spiritual.

And any time it gets close, I notice that I create a border or a boundary whether that's bringing a camera into the situation. Whether that is telling a story about it through writing so that I filter it, or creating a narrative in my head will be careful this is something that you don't want to engage in.

Because there is something so raw about what it means to open up to the big mess with other people. And in a space that is it's just ripe for abuses of power because it has to do with belief and it has to do with who is the most evolved who is the most connected access to source, whatever that source is.

And when there's a closed group dynamic, I get skittish. And even having a friend of mine, the other night he was sharing his experiences in a very positive way with a church that he has been going to.

And I couldn't even see or hear what he was saying. Because all that was coming up was this trigger of he's trying to recruit me. I can't do that. I can't do that. I can't do that. Get me away from it. That's not what I want.

And that sensitivity and feeling it took me so long to be able to go to a yoga class. It took me so long to do anything that was in a group that had anything to do with something that wasn't corporeal grounded on this planet.

And I still have a real. I'm writing a show about it right now this new age personal growth community that has a lot of these elements of shared group practices, community connection. And I see the boundaries that are being crossed.

And I'm like you guys. It's the same thing. But internally, I can't even let go of the guards that I have of group think and recruitments and just being a zombie in a community together and losing your sense of self and autonomy in that.

I don't know when I'm going to get that back. I don't know if I will be able to share in a communal experience of spirituality because of the ways.

As Amber said some things you just don't come back from. Not because even that you can, just don't want to. I'm sure if I really spent the years doing it. I could get through that hump.

Do I need that right now? No. I have so many other things I want to do and things I want to explore. And these other women push so many ideas in the world that I'm fascinated with.

I don't need to put myself into a position of re traumatizing myself in relation to a group at this stage in my life. And so I think the question of, how to heal from that spirituality? This big question I'm having is like, do I need that? And is it OK to just accept that?

There's some scar tissue that I'm just going to carry with me and will hopefully soften over time. But to just have some self compassion that in these moments when those blocks come up to just put a bomb on the wound. And be like it's OK. You don't have to go there.

It's all right. And to do the soothing self care to remind yourself you're not back in that place of trauma. You don't have to worry about being brainwashed or falling into groupthink.

But it's OK to not go there also. Maybe that's OK.

NATALIA SCHWIEN: Self compassion is really critical and important and poignant. Thank you, Souki. We are out of time for today.

But I want to give Helen a chance to respond as well if she'd like to add anything before we close out.

HELEN ZUMAN: Well, I'm thinking about just this idea of healing, and holding yourself with compassion. I didn't think I would ever get to the place of wanting to live in any communal situation with people outside my immediate family. It wasn't something I wanted or needed. It just wasn't even on my radar.

And when I finally did find myself ready for it, it came as a delightful surprise. So miracles can happen.

I love that. And on that happy note, thank you. Thank you all for joining us today. Thanks to our panelists and to our audience.

We encourage you to subscribe to our newsletter for future events including upcoming colloquia and our inaugural conference on ecological spirituality in April 2022. You can find more information about it on our website.

And the next talk in this series will take place in late April. So please stay tuned for an announcement about the topic, the date, and the time.

Thank you all so much again. Wishing you health and safety, and a very happy spring. And we'll see you next time. Thank you.