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Three Former Cult Members on What It Took for Them to Finally Break Free

Whether it’s a cult based on Christian fundamentalism, Eastern mysticism or female masturbation, getting out in one piece can be tough as hell

Usually, you only hear about cults when shit really goes down. But what are they like from the inside? Why does a man join them? And what is it like to leave them and rejoin the real world? We talked to three guys who lived through three such experiences — and then left it all behind.

“They teach you how to play on people’s insecurities and fears without admitting that’s what they’re doing to you, too.”

Daniel de Sailles, 42, International Churches of Christ: I was in 10th grade and had just moved into my first foster home. I was in a vulnerable place in my life. There was a kid in my homeroom who was inviting everybody out to his church, and I accepted: One of the few things I could do in a foster home was go to church! I went with him to a bible study, and everybody there was, like, really into everything I was into. They all gave me hugs and made me feel really welcome, so they got me — because at this point I’d gone three or four months without touching anybody.

They start off with getting you to go to the bible talk, then they ask you if you want to hang out and study the bible sometime. If you accept, they sit you down and do this thing called discipleship — that’s their first studies. It’s basically just an argument to prove that no matter where you are in life, you’re not a Christian. So they get you to admit that.

Yet, here were a bunch of young people who were really driven, who wanted to change the world. I was looking for belonging and some kind of purpose, and they gave me both — like, turnkey.

The way they got you to sign up was kind of like a multilevel marketing scheme, or pyramid scheme. It’s a religion, but it’s a pyramid scheme because you have to invite a certain number of people a day. There’s somebody over you who checks on you like your own personal priest, and it just keeps on going all the way up the line until you get to the council of elders who preside over everything. When you weren’t able to meet your numbers or invite enough people, you would either lie about it or feel really bad.

Every day of the week there was some kind of church event going on. There were bible talks, bible studies you’re doing personally with people, midweek studies, church service and date night — which was kind of mandated, where you went on double dates, and you had to accept no matter who asked you out. But you’re not allowed to hold hands or kiss, just hugs. So it wasn’t a date-date, it was a double date in the most platonic sense of the word.

Shame plays a major factor. For example, you’d have to sit in a group with the males in your bible talk and your disciple class and confess if you masturbated that week. If you did, you had to tell them so that you’d be forgiven for that sin. They make you feel really bad: “You realize Jesus is watching you jack off,” or, “Every time you’re jacking off, I want you to imagine nails being pounded into Jesus’ wrists.” It was crazy, they really knew how to make you feel like shit just by talking to you.

Money also plays a huge part. Your tithe is strictly enforced: They want 10 percent of your take-home money right off the bat. On top of that, they have a special missions contribution of 40, 50 or 60 times your tithe that you raise through fundraising. There are also special things that come up, like if they’re trying to launch a mission somewhere. I was a foster kid who went to college on a free ride, so I didn’t have a lot of money to give them, but I still managed to give them many thousands of dollars. Any job I had, I gave them 10 percent of that, and you were encouraged to give them more than 10 percent: You get more blessings. Like, if you give 20 percent, God will really hook you up!

I probably spent 20 to 40 hours a week in the church, depending on the week. You can imagine Sunday: All day. Wednesday was four to five hours; bible talk was two to three hours and then there’s all the proselytizing you have to do every day. You had to go out and invite 20 to 30 people a day to come out. Where I went to school, it got to the point where if you walked up to someone and said hi, they’d go, “I don’t wanna go to church with you,” whether you knew them or not. But it was a numbers game, just like a pyramid scheme would be. If you invite enough people you’ll find somebody who just happened to say that day, “God, send me a sign!” You know? And if you happen to get them, you get them.

A couple things made me leave. I was a freshman in college, and religious studies classes opened my eyes. But I also came to realize, when I was honest with myself, that I just didn’t believe in the Christian mythology, period. The fact is that there’s this verse in the bible that says if you ask the Lord with a sincere heart for faith, He’ll give it to you. I did, and it never came. That was really frustrating. So the only reason I was out there subjecting people to this church was that I thought it would help them, but without believing it would, it just kind of fell off for me. I mean, they don’t hit you or hurt you, they just severely limit your social life. They don’t tell you to get away from your family — they tell you to keep trying to convert them.

Also, I started dating a girl. I was a virgin when I joined, and you aren’t having sex once you’re in there until you get married, so losing my virginity at 19 kind of opened my eyes! I wanted to go experience life. They steal a lot of your life by doing work for them. I didn’t go to a regular prom, didn’t have a lot of the rites of passage that a normal teenager would. It wasn’t like Scientology or one of those crazy Waco kind of cults — it was just really lame. The people were boring, you were accountable for everything in your personal life and it was just exhausting.

When I quit I was very honest with them — I just said, I’m not going to do this anymore, and then they marked me. They have one leader sit down with you and basically say, “Oh, you’re leaving? Well, I’m not going to have anyone in my ministry talk to you anymore. Leave us alone unless you want to come back.” I was upset because this had been my life for three years, and it’s tough when you already have issues with abandonment, now having this entire church turn its back on you and kick you out. Like, I can’t even talk to you or be your friend? I knew that was going to be the price of it, but it was worth it.

I had a lot of fun after I left. I got into Jack Kerouac, started doing a lot of low-budget traveling. I’d take Greyhound across the country to different places and visit people I’d met online. It was a lot of fun! I did a lot of acid and smoked a lot of weed, too. At first I felt like I had so much free time, but it filled up quickly with stuff I actually wanted to do. I had plenty of time for homework. I could work a regular job. It was great.

Being in there taught me a lot about myself, and taught me a lot about people. They taught you how to market something that people didn’t really want to buy. When I first went there it was called love bombing: Whatever you’re into, well, whatever it is, they find a way to make it seem like they like that too, and like it’s the coolest thing ever. So I know how to do that now. I can have a conversation with anyone and really be into whatever they’re talking about and build some kind of rapport right there, which works great in sales. The flip side is that it’s kind of manipulative — they teach you how to play on people’s insecurities and fears without admitting that’s what they’re doing to you, too.

“We were all pursuing ego death, trying to completely subvert ourselves so that something more could come through, that meant we had to do a lot of weird stuff.”

Joel Pitney, 40, EnlightenNext: My ex-wife’s family had been involved in Eastern enlightenment traditions since the late 1960s. Her parents were hippies and instead of getting into drugs, they went East. They went to Rishikesh in the Himalayas while the Beatles were there and ended up connecting with this ashram on the banks of the Ganges in the jungle, and lived there for a few years in the 1970s. My parents were both Methodist ministers: Very liberal, not evangelical. I had no kind of guru upbringing and the whole thing, to be honest, when I encountered it, was off-putting.

There was a point at which my ex-wife’s family’s guru wasn’t able to come West as often because he was getting old. He recommended this guy Andrew Cohen, a Westerner and founder of EnlightenNext. He’d had his own awakening in Rishikesh and a lot of interaction with Swami Krishnananda. They recommended going on a retreat with him. My ex-wife went and got really fired up by Andrew’s teachings, which were called “evolutionary enlightenment.” I was very suspicious of it in the beginning and wanted nothing to do with it. Andrew turned me off — it seemed like a cult to me, and he had this weird cackling laugh that was really irritating. But I did read one of his books. He talks about spirituality embracing heaven and earth — it’s not just a transcendental, leave-the-world-behind philosophy, it’s about transforming the Earth here, which resonated with me.

We went on our honeymoon in India to meet my ex-wife’s guru. We lived in that ashram for two months, and right down the road, there was a center for Andrew Cohen. We’d study in the mornings, and in the afternoon go over to Andrew Cohen’s center and read magazines and watch videos. My ex-wife was a lot more serious than I was. If it wasn’t for her I wouldn’t have opened myself to it, but I didn’t want to lose her. I trusted her, and eventually, it grew on me. After a couple years, we went all in and moved into the community in the Berkshires, called Foxhollow. I got a job working for the magazine, and we lived in the community for about eight years.

I think a lot of people are looking for something to give themselves to, and that was me. I always wanted to make my life count and give something to the world, and that’s what this gave me.

I had some unbelievable spiritual experiences. Whatever you believe a spiritual experience to be — some people believe it’s basically like taking LSD, or you’re connecting to a higher power, pulling back the veils of an individuating self and merging with God — I had a lot of those experiences and they were very powerful. They permanently broke something in me in a positive way. I always had an existential itch to scratch when I was young: I always wanted to know more, my place, and I don’t have that anymore. Those are very positive things that came out of it.

Andrew was a king — he was a guru, he wasn’t just a dude who’s in charge. In Eastern cultures where the guru plays a central role, they’re revered — they’re a conduit between you and God, so you can connect to God through your relationship with the guru. It’s called “the guru principle,” and it’s because that person is so open to God and they’ve had such a deep realization that they’ve almost become a channel through which you can have this relationship. They’re basically a mirror through which you can see your own depths.

But one of the drawbacks of the community is that the guru role got superimposed into literally everything. He wasn’t just in charge of our spiritual lives — he ended up being in charge of everything. A big part of being a student there, no matter how big you were (we had Hollywood stars and Harvard valedictorians as part of our community), the minute you stepped into that community, you were a servant to Andrew, which really meant being a servant to God. So part of the practice of humbling oneself and subverting one’s ego was to serve him. I don’t think he set out to get a bunch of people that would take care of his every need, I think he got addicted to that later and had a hard time any time that was challenged. But really, this was a vessel for us to serve God, and we ended up doing everything for him. There were people who’d cook his meals, walk his dog, pay for his hotels and flights all over the world. People wanted to give — we all wanted to, as silly as that seems. That would happen in the most menial of tasks, including selecting movies for him.

The reason he needed someone to pick movies for him was he traveled all the time. He spent half the year traveling around the world giving retreats, and he loved to watch movies, as most people do. So there was usually one person — for a while, that was me — filling up his iPad with all the latest movies. That was an elaborate process. The quality and dedication of your service was a reflection on the quality and dedication of your commitment to God. That was the context for everything, from making a cup of coffee to selecting movies for the guru. Andrew prided himself in having exquisite taste, and there were high stakes because if you fucked up you got in trouble — and also, he’d seen a ton of movies. So we constantly had to find the greatest movies. But eventually, and most people have experienced this, you fuckin’ run out of movies! You’ve seen them all. I got pretty good at it, but what does that even mean? Good at picking movies for the guru!

Early on, he developed the Supreme Rating System, which was basically a way of measuring the quality of a movie on objective criteria. So oftentimes the reason you’d get in trouble is you thought something was a rating that it wasn’t, and you didn’t show enough humility to admit your mistake and change. One time, some friends and I went to go see the Matt Damon movie Green Zone in the theater. We thought, like most critics did, that it felt like a two-hour anti-war infomercial.

Months later, the guru and I are looking through new releases to download. He comes across Green Zone and is like, “That looks great!” I’m like, “No, it really sucks.” He says, “Here’s what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna watch this movie on the plane and let you know what I think of it.” And he has this smile on his face. Twelve hours later he lands, and I get an email: “Watched Green Zone on the plane, was fantastic, I don’t get why you didn’t like it.” Now, this isn’t a normal thing. This is my guru! I can’t say, “Huh, weird — I didn’t like it.” You have to give a full response! And it has to be immediate, because the longer you delay, the longer you let your ego get into it, which is distorting your relationship with God, which is your relationship with life.

So me and my buddy Steve stopped everything we were doing, rewatched the movie, ordered a bunch of flowers and had it sent to his hotel room, and after watching the movie, we wrote this really long email about how he was right; we now saw how distorted our perspective was — it was a real compromise of my integrity, actually. We would have to make these choices in all different contexts: In order for me to stand up for my opinion I would have had to have the fight of my life. Oftentimes it’s easier to say, “Fuck it, I’m going to bow before him, fake humility and give acknowledgement.” I have probably a hundred stories of doing similar things, everything from writing an article to making a cup of coffee to not cleaning the kitchen well enough to not inviting him to a Memorial Day barbecue.

This is why it’s so hard to understand. It just sounds so fucked up, like we were these mindless sheep, cult followers who were getting manipulated by this man, and what were we possibly thinking? There’s probably some truth to that. But the philosophical, theological context around what we were doing was significant: Our interactions with him were interactions with someone who was holy, not a normal human. We were all pursuing ego death, trying to completely subvert ourselves so that something more could come through, that meant we had to do a lot of weird stuff. You do it in this context of, “I’m gonna turn off part of myself for a while, and I’m just gonna go with it.”

In the end, I didn’t really leave. I probably would have, but I don’t actually know. I have recurring dreams about this, probably because I never had a chance to leave. The community fell apart, so I didn’t have to leave. My ex-wife left. That’s why we got divorced — because she left and I didn’t want to leave. But still, a part of me that was being suppressed was starting to feel too suppressed. Any time Andrew’s authority was challenged, he’d turn people against those challenging him. He was really good at that. If anybody stood up to him he’d say, “That must be ego,” and he got people to turn on the person. This was all in the context of spiritual evolution, so we had to trust him fully.

How it ended was, there was a group of senior men — Andrew was coming down on one of them, and they all refused to turn on him. They held. This is actually one of the more significant things that’s happened with cults, because they were able to break through the ultimate cult dynamic, which is seeing the emperor has no clothes. I wouldn’t say Andrew is a charlatan or a fake — I’m still friends with him — but there’s an element of that. He didn’t want to give up power or release control. He was infantilizing them. But they held formation, and when they did that, it broke the cult dynamic. It was incredible.

The minute I found out about this standoff, there was something in me that thought, Oh my God, there’s a way to get out. It wasn’t a fully formed thought, but it was an impulse in me. There was this whole element to the group that I loved: Friendship, the practices. And there was this other element that was tired of putting up with shit, day in and day out. There was no future in it.

Until then, if anyone ever thought about leaving, the ultimate consequence was that you’d lose all your friends. Your entire support structure would turn on you overnight, and you’d be a lost sheep drifting around in the world. Most of us had turned our back on family and friends to some degree already, so you’d have nothing. But when the community fell apart, everyone realized that wouldn’t be a consequence, so what started as a trickle soon became a raging flood. The news of that conflict broke in May 2013, and by June, we were all out. A community that had been around for 22 years was gone in three weeks.

Getting back into the real world was crazy. I would almost do it again just to have that experience, just because it was so unbelievable. First I went home and spent a month with my parents. We went camping, reconnected, shared experiences, cried, laughed, hugged each other, all that. My current wife, who was part of the community, we moved to New York City together. For at least a year she and I we were just stunned at the simplicity of life — the fact that we could walk down the street to the grocery store without telling anybody where we were going. We could spend a Saturday doing whatever the fuck we wanted. We’d go walk in Central Park, or we’d have a beer at 2 o’clock because we wanted to. Before, there was no time off from the service of our own evolution, even when you were sleeping. All of a sudden, we had all the time off in the world. I was reconnecting with old friends and family, and there was healing and forgiveness.

I don’t have any anger anymore. I’m not bullshitting — I don’t. I did for a while. The majority of that is time. My wife and I don’t actually talk about it that much anymore. It used to be such a huge part of our experience. Now weeks go by without us mentioning it.

“Women would ask me to stroke their genitals before they told me their names.”

Ruwan Meepagala, 30, OneTaste: At 18, I was a self-help junkie who watched a TED Talk every lunchtime. The one the founder of OneTaste gave was very unique: It was about sex, it was about spirituality and it was very intriguing.

Five years later, I was out of college, living in New York City. I hated corporate work, and I wanted to break free of boring, monotonous life. I was in an existential crisis — maybe that’s overdramatizing it, but I just felt kind of lost — and here’s this organization whose media I’d already consumed which had this sex thing that was interesting, had a spiritual thing that was interesting and it oddly mirrored a lot of what I imagined utopia was like: A more matriarchal society, a little more egalitarian and based on connections instead of one-upping each other, which is the way I saw New York City at the time. It just felt like, here’s a bunch of authentic people who were interested in the things I thought were important. It was exactly what I was looking for at the time.

OneTaste wasn’t overtly spiritual. Instead, they were full of magical thinking. Ultimately, they took the word “orgasm” and twisted it around to mean all sorts of things including God, the Tao and the way of the universe. That was one of their biggest things, changing the definitions of words, which I think changed the reality for people inside the organization. I Googled them early on, so I knew there were some cult-like things. I didn’t think I’d be affected negatively by any of that though, and I thought they had so many positive things to offer me. Even the negative stuff was like, well, this will be an adventure!

People get hooked because they take the $99 class, the clit-stroking practice, and most people’s lives do change positively in some way. Then they buy into the more expensive programs, which are less valuable than their cheap programs, but that’s how marketing works. I actually stand by their practice: It’s super legitimate, and most of their claims, though they might be exaggerated — what it does for men is, it teaches them to have an extremely long attention span. It develops into intuition that can make us feel our body more. This might sound crazy, but all the benefits I get from doing yoga I definitely got from doing this practice. I got to be more in my body and got good at paying attention to a really small object in a meditative fashion. It made my sex life a lot better, too.

Before I joined, I was living with roommates in the East Village and partying a lot, but trying to get out of the party life. And here was this: OneTaste had communal residences, which mirrored my theories about how economic societies should be, where everything is shared. They had penthouses Uptown, and they packed two to four people in each room. Everyone gets up at 7 a.m. to do the Orgasmic Meditation practice where you stroke women’s genitals. You also mediate, eat breakfast together, do this 12-step exercise for mental clearing or go to yoga. It was very holistic and mindfulness-intensive. I was freelancing at the time, and I eventually lost my last job because I was doing this 24/7. In the beginning it was like Pleasure Island: Fun conversations, intense people, more women than men, plus sexually open women, which to a 24-year-old is very cool — not just sexually but also intellectually stimulating.

Many of the qualities of good sex I learned at OneTaste. And more than just the sex piece of it — the sex is the fruit off the tree of mindfulness, presence, mind-body, being secure with who I was. One of the catalysts for me to really take a dive with OneTaste was my anxiety and disconnection from my body — emotional repression, which led to erectile dysfunction for a period. That was a symptom of my greater emotional angst, but I was like, okay, I need to do something about this. I hear from guys all the time about this. It’s kind of an epidemic among millennial men.

Normal morning practice was two Orgasmic Meditations in the morning — that was for people who lived in the residence. In the evenings, usually two or three times a week, it’d be evening practice where people from the greater community, maybe 500 people, would come. I’d go to those often, but when I was on staff and didn’t really have a job other than stroking women’s genitals, sometimes I’d stroke 10 women a day. Women would ask me to stroke their genitals before they told me their names.

I started working for them when I lived in the house, and that was also amazing — until the team stopped making money, and we stopped getting paid. There was all this other drama as well, and I started to see that making money was a huge focus of the organization, more than the teachings. My savings were gone pretty quick: I paid for the $15,000 coaching program. They got people like me, who didn’t have 15 grand, to put it all on credit cards, and they got people like me, who didn’t really have a job, to continue not having a job and living off their credit cards, which is why I left with a pretty hefty sum of debt.

My dad had an intervention at one point. He had a PowerPoint presentation and explained to me this and that, and I said, “You’re telling me everything I already know. I chose to do this because I weighed the pros and cons.” But knowing how alcohol works doesn’t stop you from getting drunk. I could see how they were using all these principles from Cialdini’s Principles of Persuasion — yet they still worked on me.

Getting back into society was rough — I basically got excommunicated. The first year I lived in their house, and the second year, I started my own house in Brooklyn and was a leader in a subculture within the culture. It was my life. They were my friends, we spent time together, we meditated, we stroked genitals every morning. That was my life. And all of a sudden I was ejected into society and it was really lonely.

When I first left OneTaste, my mentor, my mother figure in the cult, got me a job with a woman who owned a restaurant who was in the OM community but not deep in it. She was my boss and she was stressed one day. It seemed totally normal to me to offer to stroke her clitoris in the middle of the workday. I didn’t even question that, but it wasn’t a normal thing to do.

In the real world, I realized all group realities are loose cults. Conventional society is a group of norms. We all agree that the U.S. has these borders and that guy in the White House is our leader. A critical mass of people decided it’s true, and that’s what makes it reality. It’s the same thing in cults, so coming back into conventional reality felt like it was just another cult. The fact that people care who the mayor is, or what’s on TV or the Jets wining on Sunday made me think, Fuck, this is a boring, disorganized version of what I was in. And that was hard, because it felt like there was no real world to come back to.

Once someone leaves, shit gets talked about them, so my friends who stayed in were hard to connect with. After a Bloomberg article came out, which I think caused OneTaste’s business to change if not fall apart, I did get harassing phone calls from a private investigator they hired. My parents got harassing phone calls too.

Nowadays I’m a life coach. I work on personal development, I have online courses — because of my OneTaste background, a lot of my coursework has to do with sexuality. I primarily work with men who want help with dating, sexual problems, sexual performance, intimacy, things like that. Or embodying masculinity on the more spiritual side of things. Self-actualization, if you will. I really love my life now, and I wouldn’t have the life I have if I didn’t go through what I did. I look at OneTaste as grad school — I went into debt over it, I spent a lot of time doing it, it was difficult and it set me up for my life, so I’m grateful for the experience.