Why Didn’t You Just Leave?

Hello and welcome to my least favorite question in the entire world. It’s one I’ve heard more times than I care to count, and sadly I think that’s something many cult survivors can relate to. In the past that question used to make me clam up and spiral into shame, or mumble, “It’s not that simple.” But in those days I didn’t fully understand the coercive control mechanism that were used to keep me, and so many others, trapped.

This is also a question that many survivors of domestic abuse/intimate partner violence are faced with. As a survivor of both, I want to spend a little bit of digital space drawing a direct line between cultic abuse and domestic abuse. Because the more that we understand how these systems of control are similar and how they function, the better we can understand and support survivors.

Understanding Coercive Control

Coercive control is a term that has recently come into the popular lexicon, and defining it can help us understand how cultic and domestic abuse exist on a spectrum, and why it is so difficult for people to leave those environments.

The UN defines domestic abuse as “a pattern of behavior in any relationship that is used to gain or maintain power and control over an intimate partner.” A recent New York Times article shared the stories of Congresswoman Cori Bush and the musician FKA twigs, in which they describe how coercive control trapped them in abusive relationships. In the article, coercive control describes the dynamics of domestic abuse, and acts like creeping isolation, entrapment, denigration, financial restrictions and threats of emotional and physical harm, including to pets or children, were described as a means to strip victims of power. The recent allegations of Rachael Evan Wood against Marilyn Manson detail similar abuses including sexual assault, psychological manipulation, and/or various forms of coercion, violence, and intimidation.

In the UK, the government defines:

  • Coercive behavior as an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim
  • Controlling behavior as a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behavior

When we look at definitions of cultic abuse, we can see that the definitions are eerily similar. ICSA, a cultic studies research and educational nonprofit organization, published this definition accepted by many researchers:

Cult — A group or movement exhibiting:

  • great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing, and
  • employing unethical manipulative or coercive techniques of persuasion and control (e.g., isolation from former friends and family, debilitation, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressures, information management, suspension of individuality or critical judgement, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of leaving it),
  • designed to advance the goals of the group’s leaders, to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community.

Excerpted from Cultic Studies Journal, 3, (1986): 119–120.

The underlining is mine to emphasize that we see similar language to describe the same behavior in both environments. The cycle of abuse is also the same:

Image from https://littlebirdflies.wordpress.com/2017/01/20/are-abusers-and-cult-leaders-similar/

Domestic Abuse and Cultic Abuse Exist on the Same Spectrum

Now that we understand coercive control is utilized to manipulate and control victims in both cultic groups and in abusive relationships, I think that it’s important to understand that these environments are essentially the same. The only thing that differs is the scale. With intimate partner violence or domestic abuse, the scale is 1:1 or in smaller family environments. In cults, the scale can involve hundreds or thousands of people.

In an article on Psychology Today, Mark Banschick M.D. stated “that abusive relationships have a lot in common with cults. In both, victims feel completely demoralized, injured and trapped.” He went on to say that both domestic and cultic abuse involve the loss of a person’s sense of power, and the victim is trapped because they are afraid of the consequences of leaving.

Growing up, my mother used examples of people who died in tragic accidents or of awful diseases to illustrate the consequences of leaving the cultic group. Similarly, when she tried to leave my abusive father, he used physical, emotional and economic abuse and said things like, “Just see what happens if you…” and we could fill in the blank with whatever behavior he was trying to control. In both cases, we were held hostage by fear, and our environments were controlled to the point where we did not know how to escape.

In both a cult and a controlling relationship, the abuser systematically robs victims of their agency and their belief in themselves. According to Banschick, abusers in a cultic system use the following tactics to ensnare their victims:

1. First, there’s usually a charismatic leader who draws you in. The abuser is often very compelling. He cares about you, and may be quite vulnerable himself. You feel an unusual sense of bonding with him; but this sets you up for a dependency that will hurt you.

2. Next, the leader sets up an in group vs. an out group. You are cut off normal life. He beats you; or she berates you. She wants no one to know about her power over you. Slowly, your social life dwindles to a world that he can control.

3. Control is maintained: Abuse keeps in you line, as well a love and praise. He will tell you that he loves you. Many abusers do, in fact “love” their wives (or husbands), only to abuse them when frustrated or when under the influence. Your child mind hopes the storm will be over soon. And, he’ll hurt you if you stand up for yourself.

4. To leave is to be cut off or put into danger. An order of protection is no guarantee of safety. Abusers often act out in desperation. They have dependency needs too, but manage it by control and dominance. Many women are frightened of coming forward for fear of retaliation. And, often they have something real to worry about.

If we exchange the word “leader” with “abuser” and “cult/group” with “relationship”, it’s very clear the systems of control are the same, with scale being the main differentiator.

Why We Should Stop Asking the Question

When we ask a survivor why it took them so long to leave a high-demand situation/relationship, or why they didn’t just leave, it reveals a fundamental lack of education and empathy around the issues that the survivor is dealing with. It also blames the victim, putting them in a position of having to defend themselves and their choices. The word just is highly problematic, because it implies that the choice is simple and that the ramifications are small.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. Once a person is in a high demand system/relationship, their resources and relationships have been curtailed or removed to the point where they feel they have no safety net if they leave. Sometimes escape can be deadly. Women, especially, are at risk when trying to escape controlling relationships.

A 2019 UN report on femicide shows that every day, 137 women worldwide are killed by their current or former partner or a family member — 64 percent of all victims killed by partners or family worldwide are women. Women also account for 82 percent of victims killed by their partner or ex-partner. While not every person who leaves a cultic environment faces the same threats, there have been enough instances in the news of people escaping cults and then being stalked or threatened by members. Not only is this behavior designed to intimidate the people who have left, it also acts to keep doubting members in line with fear as well.

Solutions Moving Forward

The question that we should be asking is how do we, as a society, help others escape these environment or avoid them at all. The first step in helping current victims and survivors is developing an understanding of what coercive control is, and educating ourselves about why it is so difficult for people to leave these environments. Unfortunately, much of the discourse in our society has a victim blaming bent to it. Most of the advice, especially to victims of domestic violence, is for the victim to change their behavior. All that does is amplify the psychological abuse they are suffering from.

In the cult when we were suffering, we were told that it was our fault. When my mother was abused, both the cult and my father told it her it was her fault. So if society and our laws reflect that same kind of blaming back on the victim, it makes it that much more difficult for them to find the support that they need.

A second step could be developing more legal framework to prosecute coercive control. In some countries like England, Wales and Australia, there are laws against coercive control on the books. In the United States, both California and Hawaii passed anti–coercive control legislation. However, according to an article on The Cut, coercive control laws have the potential of harming survivors and their communities in the process. This is because, according to Heather Nancarrow, the CEO of Australia’s National Research Organization for Women’s Safety, “the implementation of those laws […] has resulted in criminalizing women, and particularly First Nations women.”

In order for the legal framework combatting coercive control to be effective, we need to invest in education and preventative resources. Scotland is considered the “Gold Standard” for its implementation of anti–coercive control legislation. According to Nancarrow, this has a great deal to do with the design of the country’s legal system, part of which is set up to connect victims to social services and economic resources. Authorities in Scotland are also required to undergo extensive training to ensure that they understand the nuances of nonphysical violence.

The summer of 2020 in the United States saw Black Lives Matter protests sweep the country, and one of the rallying cries was “defund the police.” While some organizations were indeed calling for the outright abolishment or dismantling of police altogether, other organizations pressed for reducing police department budgets and redistributing those funds towards essential social services, such as housing, education, employment, mental health care, and youth services. Redistribution of some of those funds could have a positive impact for multiple intersections of society, including those who have been victims of coercive control.

Audacia Ray, the director of community organizing and public advocacy at the New York City Anti-Violence Project, which primarily serves the LGBTQ community, told The Cut that “we really believe it’s much better to shift […] resources toward preventative measures — housing, health care, education — in order to keep people safely housed and fed. That’s more effective in the long term than prosecuting violence in the short term.”

Further Reading

Because solving this issue requires educating ourselves and our representatives in government, here are some resources for further reading. If you have any additional recommendations, please reach out to me and I would be happy to add them to the list:

The book Take Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships by Dr. Janja Lalich details what leads people into these kinds of situations, provides guidelines for assessing what happened, and gives victims and their families tools for healing. The book also has a resource list, as well as numerous personal accounts of survivors who have healed.

If you have been in ANY high control group or religion, share your story with the hashtag #igotout. Share on your own platform OR if you need to be anonymous and / or would like support, there are resources at the I Got Out website.

When you see a survivor share their story, let them know they have been heard. This is such a meaningful part of the movement. We all need to know we’re not alone.

If you know someone who has been harmed by a high demand group, share #igotout posts you think would help them.

Together we can bring awareness to how many of us have been harmed by high control organizations and end the shame or stigma we might feel about our experiences.

Tell your story.

Impact lives.

Change the world.

Find out more at igotout.org

Originally published at https://www.jenkiaba.com on March 13, 2021.

Artist, Educator, Childhood Cult Survivor