“This has always been your choice, Jenny,” my mother would say. It was a refrain I heard from her many times over the years before I left the Unification Church.
She would usually wield it when she saw me backing away from a fork in the road that she, and the Church, wanted me to take. Whether I was trying to get out of going on a Church mission that boiled down to living in a van and being labor trafficked as a minor, trying to leave a Church job that paid me $100 a month and had me sleeping in a communal room on a floor, fighting to get out of an arranged engagement with a stranger, or trying to get out of an arranged marriage with a different stranger, the sentiment was always the same: you chose this.
And for many years, I believed that.
Because the Church community laid the responsibility for a choice at my feet, I felt like I needed to stick it out and prove that I could succeed. In the Church we had language like, “overcoming Fallen Nature,” which was lightly veiled to mean that when you struggled with something you were engaging with Satan. If I failed, I was letting Satan win. If I chose to go against the prescribed path, I was essentially aligning myself with evil — or I was evil.
But did I really have a choice? Or was the choice simply an illusion?
Dr. Janja Lalich developed a theory called “bounded choice”, which she delves into in her book of the same name Bounded Choice: True Believers and Charismatic Cults, as a tool for examining and analyzing high-demand environments and cults. The essentials of the theory comprise four dimensions:
- Charismatic authority: This is the emotional bond between leader and followers. It lends legitimacy to the leader and grants authority to his or her actions while at the same time justifying and reinforcing followers’ responses to the leader and/or the leader’s ideas and goals. The relational aspect of charisma is the hook that links a devotee to a leader and/or his or her ideas.
- Transcendent belief system: This is the overarching ideology that binds adherents to the group and keeps them behaving according to the group’s rules and norms. It is transcendent because it offers a total explanation of past, present, and future, including a path to salvation. Most important, the leader/group also specifies the exact methodology (or recipe) for the personal transformation necessary to qualify one to travel on that path.
- Systems of control: This is the network of acknowledged, or visible, regulatory mechanisms that guide the operation of the group. It includes the overt rules, regulations, and procedures that guide and control members’ behavior.
- Systems of influence: This is the network of interactions and social influence residing in the group’s social relations. This is the human interaction and group culture from which members learn to adapt their thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors in relation to their new beliefs.
According to Lalich’s theory, these dimensions form a “self-sealing system,” that is, a social system or society that is closed in on itself and, therefore, sealed off from the outside world.
In the Unification Church, we used the phases “outside world” and “Fallen world” interchangeably, but the language reflects that the community was a relatively sealed system. As a child, I still had dealings with the outside world, because I attended public schools. However, even then I was to maintain a distance from outside people, and the Church community strenuously discouraged me from forming any meaningful relationships with them. After all, even casual friendship could be a threat to the sealed system.
This is one example of what Lalich means when she states that, “Living within the bounded reality of the cultic social system, the cult member encounters no meaningful reality checks and becomes more and more enmeshed with and invested in the closed world of the group.”
The Church indoctrinated us to “cut it off,” meaning to end any relationship that threatened the structure of the group. Whether we were developing friendships with outside kids, or crushes on someone, the directive was the same. We were even cautioned against close friendships within the Church, which leadership labelled as “horizontal relationships.” Leaders, instead, encouraged us to focus on “vertical relationships,” meaning either invest in our emotional relationship with God and the cult leader, Rev. Sung Myung Moon (whom we called True Father), or create deferential relationships with people who were above us in the church hierarchy. My mother even resorted to moving my family across the city of Phoenix, and into a new school district, when I was 14 because she saw I was forming meaningful relationships with people in my high school and determined that they were a threat.
The Need to Conform
Within a system like this, according to Lalich, “the member’s life and choices are constrained not only by the system but also, and perhaps even more powerfully, by the close-mindedness of the individual him- or herself who is functioning in alliance with that system. [L]ife outside the cult has become impossible to imagine.”
Not only is life outside of the group near impossible to imagine, but within these groups many of us are taught that leaving the group is tantamount to spiritual death. As a child, my parents and the Church also taught me that physical death awaited if I left.
When our ancestors were trying to survive in the wild, it was impossible to survive outside of the tribal unit. According to Psychology Today, the need to belong is deeply wired into human biology. Today, it manifests in our desire for acceptance, and to fit in. Because a cult taps into that hard-wired universal human need, we can understand how strong self-sealing systems can be.
Overlaying the bounded choice framework onto the biological need to survive within the human group, we can see that there is only the illusion of choice for people within cultic systems. At every crossroads, where my intuition was screaming for me to not take a prescribed path, my conditioning told me that total abandonment and death awaited down the other path. Even if I was told that I had a choice, did I really?
Death or Freedom?
In the end, I decided to leap to my spiritual “death” in order to escape. It took me years to understand that my freedom was a choice grounded in bravery and resilience. In fact, for the longest time, I carried a heavy weight of shame with me. After all, I had “failed” to walk the prescribed path and chosen Satan.
Once I had spent enough time away from the group and educated myself, I threw off the shackles of perceived “failure.” But I still carried the shame.
Because bounded choice is still something that many people don’t understand. Even after studying it, and digesting it on an academic level, I didn’t fully understand how it related to me and my story.
“After all,” people would say, “no one held a gun to your head. So in a sense you did choose to marry that stranger.”
It took me a long time, and aligning myself with non profits like Unchained at Last and the Resiliency Foundation, which work to end child and forced marriage, that I even started to use the word “forced” to describe my own arranged marriage.
Two weeks I had the opportunity to watch a screening of Knots: A Forced Marriage Story, during a virtual parallel event to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, hosted by NGO CSW/NY. The story follows three women, the coercion they faced that lead their being forced into marriage, and the steps they took in their respective journeys to escape.
Nina, one subject of the documentary, used the term bounded choice and described it as, “you can either make the choice we want you to make, or you can jump off a cliff and die.” I’m paraphrasing, but her words hit me on a visceral, bone-deep level. They were chillingly familiar.
Finally, I understood: bounded choice means no choice at all.
So many of us carry shame-shaped wounds from our experiences within in a bounded-choice, coercive environment. Those environments can look like toxic relationships, abusive families, high-demand religions, and even workplaces. I believe that shame is a residual control mechanism that was wired into us. And I hope that as we come to understand what bounded choice really means, and that the choices we were given were only illusions, we can rewrite our personal narratives. When we replace shame with a deep appreciation for our bravery and resilience, I’m convinced that a deeper level of healing can occur.
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Originally published at https://www.jenkiaba.com on March 27, 2021.