How accurate are the stories told by ex-members about spiritual groups? Having discussed general concepts in Part 1, let us now turn to the case of Bithika O’Dwyer.
In wading into the thickets of the sordid Bithika O’Dwyer controversy, I thought it important to deal first with general concepts concerning apostasy, so-called ex-cult support groups, atrocity stories, and the like. (See Part 1.) This is consistent with the approach taken in understanding any complex phenomenon: First understand the nature of the thing, then see how general principles apply to specific cases.
In Part 1, we spent a long time going over the reasons why someone who leaves a well-organized spiritual path with no history of abuse may nevertheless begin telling over-the-top atrocity stories upon leaving. That is the crux of the confusion faced by many people trying to make sense of the phenomenon, and I daresay we made progress in understanding it, both intellectually and emotionally. Buried within Part 1 is this gem of wisdom from psychologist Sushmitam Rouse which I would like to repeat at the outset of Part 2:
I remember an experience I had when I was quite new on the path — a year or two perhaps. I was overwhelmed by the love, the peace and the experiences of God that I had gained on the path, but at the same time was struggling with some of the lifestyle aspects of the path. I realised at this time that my positive experiences far outweighed my struggles and that I definitely did not want to leave the path. However in dealing with this struggle, I came to the realisation that if anything ever pulled me away from the path, the only way I would be able to bear to leave, would be to destroy in my mind all the positive experiences I had gained — otherwise the grief of leaving would be completely overwhelming. Everything good would have to be made bad, everything pure made impure, in order to justify to myself such an action.
I have seen a number of people leave the centre over the years, and in my experience, it is those, like myself who have had tremendously positive experiences in their spiritual life, who resort to this destructive measure — and often they publicise their opinions, as if to further convince themselves they have left something ‘bad’ not good. On the other hand, people who never got much out of the path in the first place, just tend to drift away.
Lastly, I would like to say a word about the place of therapy in all this! The issue of abuse and therapy is such a complex and controversial one. It is well known in the psychological community that some therapists encourage patients to ‘dig’ for abuse that was never there, and that some patients completely unconsciously project their own impulses and traumas onto others who they then believe ‘abused’ them.
– Sushmitam Rouse from “Question For The Women” (discussion thread)
I also want to repost this passage which I find helpful in navigating the spiritual, psychological, and ethical issues:
When someone studies with a spiritual teacher, the teacher becomes an important part of her life. Even if she ends her studies, her former teacher will usually be someone with whom she needs to live on comfortable terms. A healthy narrative truth emerging in therapy is one which doesn’t attempt to demonize the former teacher or alienate the former student. When therapists violate these principles, this may be seen as abusive, just as inducing Parental Alienation Syndrome is considered a form of parental abuse.
One of the universally recognized symptoms of PAS is lack of ambivalence. Quite simply, the parent from whom the child has been alienated is seen as completely bad and evil. Lack of ambivalence is unnatural behaviour in human beings. Rarely can someone of basic intelligence, maturity and emotional stability support the notion that one person is completely bad.
Yet, when people receive anti-cult counselling or participate in ex-cult support groups, they tend to undergo a pathological inversion of views. They are systematically alienated from their former spiritual teacher, to the point where they depict him/her as thoroughly bad and inhumanly evil. This may be described as Guru Alienation Syndrome, or GAS.
The reason such systematic alienation should be considered a form of abuse is that it effectively robs the former student of all the benefits of having a spiritual teacher, including the ability to interact positively with that teacher, and to enjoy loving memories of that teacher. Unambivalent hatred of the spiritual teacher doesn’t just harm the hated teacher, but also the former student.
While not everyone seeks out a spiritual teacher, for those who do — and who have studied for 5, 10 or 20 years with that teacher — there is an existing relationship which typically has many positive aspects and serves an important purpose in the student’s life. The loss of that relationship is a grievous loss. A wise and compassionate therapist, counsellor, or friend will therefore not attempt to destroy that relationship by circulating hate material vilifying the teacher.
However, just as divorcing parents sometimes play tug-of-war with the child, in anti-cult circles one often encounters manipulative people who want to play tug-of-war with the former spiritual student. They feel the only way for such students to prove their newfound loyalty to mainstream secular values is to loudly proclaim their hatred for the spiritual teacher. Circulating vilification material is one of the tactics used to fan such hatred; and willingness to publicly voice such hatred becomes a kind of loyalty test or perverse indicator of “cult recovery.”
These quotes help set the stage for Part 2.
Part 2: Bithika O’Dwyer
I would like to say at the outset that I wish Ms. O’Dwyer every happiness. That doesn’t prevent me from taking pains to correct the public record where she has acted purposefully to sully or confuse it by posting false and lurid depictions on the Internet.
Please recall from Part 1 that apostasy is not a private, personal decision. The apostate makes a great public show of her newfound rejection of faith, and actively seeks to persuade or influence others to join her in rejecting faith. The apostate “atrocity story” is a public relations tool used by anti-cult groups to vilify minority spiritual groups, leading to harassment or diminution of rights for such groups.
In the case of Bithika O’Dwyer, we have someone who followed a spiritual path for 35 years, wrote many detailed articles about her positive experiences, and was videoed and photographed participating in activities like singing, sports, fun excursions, etc. She’s an intelligent person and gifted writer who wrote clearly and unmistakably about the benefits of the spiritual life, its many challenges, and how she faced them with the help of her teacher, of whom she spoke glowingly. Her positive accounts during that 35-year period were viewed by her friends along the path as being accurate and commendable. Those positive accounts were written both before and after Sri Chinmoy’s death in 2007.
Yet, upon leaving Sri Chinmoy Centre in 2014, she gravitated towards an Internet based ex-cult support group started by attorney Joseph C. Kracht of the Lawton law firm of San Diego. I have been critical of Mr. Kracht for conducting Internet show trials of deceased spiritual figures where he is both judge and jury, exculpatory evidence is suppressed or ignored, and no genuine defence is permitted.
When Bithika O’Dwyer became associated with Joe Kracht’s ex-cult support group, she soon began churning out boilerplate anti-cult material which can only be described charitably as absolute bollocks. It simply doesn’t jibe with her own extensive prior accounts, with the accounts of close friends who knew her over a period of decades, with the available evidence, and with scholarly research on the spiritual movement in question. This raises a number of factual, ethical and legal issues which I may deal with elsewhere; but see (for example) this post discussing the problem of false accusations of a teacher in relation to the film Term of Trial.
One of the troubling features of the pop psychology movements of the 1990s (some of which survive today) is the belief that objective truth no longer matters. A person can create a new identity as a victim or survivor, and provided this is done in the context of counselling or a support group, the question of truthfulness is thought by some to be irrelevant. The ultimate indulgence of the Gen X’er is to claim: Whatever I feel emotionally is true. Don’t slow me down with the facts.
In the real world, however, to enjoy the luxury of painting oneself as a victim also requires that one fashion an abuser. The “memory wars” of the 1990s were fought over whether claims of abuse which seemed strange, farfetched, and at odds with reality should nonetheless be taken seriously enough to convict someone in a court of law, or in the court of public opinion.
The answer, in brief, is no, not without objective evidence. After a great many people were wrongfully accused (and eventually cleared), there emerged a recognition that people claiming to be victims — particularly in a polarized social, political, or legal context — often turn out to be victimizers. This includes former spiritual seekers who tell so-called “apostate atrocity stories” as part of their newfound anti-cult advocacy or return to secular society.
Not everyone who tells a false tale of abuse is an outright liar. The point about abuse-themed books, support groups, and counselling sessions is that they tend to wreak havoc with a person’s sense of identity. People begin to experience life so subjectively that what they feel emotionally becomes what they claim factually. In other words, they confabulate; and within the support group they’re emotionally rewarded for confabulating, because their claims ratify the underlying social and political beliefs being espoused, e.g. that all fathers are abusers, or all purported “cult leaders” are abusers, or all kindergarten teachers are secret Satanists.
In a Salon article and interview, Meredith Maran begins to get at the flavour of this gradual subjectivizing of experience until it becomes false:
“The lie that tore my family apart”
“Interview with Meredith Maran”
What she’s saying is that social cliques and feel-good psychological theories can make liars of us, especially if telling the truth that we were not abused would cause us to lose friends or loved ones who inhabit an abuse-centered universe.
A problem with reliance on emotional reality to the detriment of factual reality is that emotional reality can be extremely unreliable, especially when people are going through a whirlwind of changes in their lives. The causes of their unhappiness are complex, and may include having made poor choices reflecting ethical lapses — yet there can be a controlling figure (such as a counsellor with his or her own agenda) urging them to assign blame for their unhappiness to some external factor or person. This can lead to such stereotyped claims as: I joined a cult and me fanny fell off. Like me on Facebook!
It’s sad to see Ms. O’Dwyer join the ranks of such comic strip characters. Her motives are familiar to me in that I’ve often encountered apostates who feel a strong need for self-justification, and who hope to expunge any guilt associated with having left a respected spiritual movement by trying to make that movement appear outlandish and odious. Of course, many people leave spiritual movements, but most move on without the need to attach excessive blame, which can easily develop into a psychological complex.
My impression is that Joseph Kracht, on whose blog Bithika O’Dwyer’s bizarre “testimonial” appears, acts as a kind of Svengali figure for people (particularly women) with emotional problems who’ve somehow been persuaded that venting on the Internet is a valid form of therapy. It is not. I view Mr. Kracht as a kind of faux Sir Lancelot or White Knight who may actually harm the women he purports to be helping, by taking them public with stories which later turn out to be inaccurate. (Shades of Alton Maddox and Tawana Brawley.)
Most former members of spiritual groups quietly take their leave without much fanfare. A few may have unresolved conflicts about their participation, and may try out different retrospective narratives in order to arrive at a personal interpretation which satisfies them. This type of thing is sometimes done in therapy or a support group; and the reasons most therapists and support groups conduct their activities in true (offline) privacy are manifold: The material which comes up in therapy/support is often highly charged, and is not meant for public consumption. Privacy allows people to experiment with different narratives, including some which may place excessive blame on friends, family, colleagues, or mentors.
In a private therapeutic setting, the situation is manageable, and does not pose legal problems such as libel. But in a public setting, or any setting where anti-cult operatives are trolling for “atrocity stories,” the narratives constructed may undergo radical distortion due to social influence, and may bring participants into conflict with the law.
I doubt Mr. Kracht apprised Ms. O’Dwyer of the full ramifications of joining the “cult wars” — or what little remains of them in a world which is naturally evolving toward pluralism and religious tolerance. Acting wilfully to earn a reputation as someone who betrays former friends and colleagues and posts hate material on the Internet is really not so helpful to one’s C.V. Spiritual people are not the only ones who value loyalty. Secular people and business people also look for consistency and loyalty when considering whether to hire, befriend, or form a lasting relationship with someone who’s recently put themselves “on the market.” How one has treated one’s former friends and colleagues is likely to be an important consideration, and such consideration is reasonable.
By (possibly) following Mr. Kracht’s questionable counsel (whether personal or professional), Ms. O’Dwyer has burned her bridges not only behind her, but also in front of her, limiting rather than expanding her future options. Surely mature people preserve their options.
This is important, so forgive me if I should repeat it: As we move through life, if we are mature and ethical we act loyally toward those we have befriended and who befriended us. Our beliefs may change, but loyalty remains a constant. This is so because our beliefs — and the social groups to which we belong — may often change in the course of a lifetime. In maturity, we recognize that there exist a diversity of beliefs (especially in a spiritual context) about what is right and true, and what practices are beneficial. We move gracefully from social group to social group, from belief to belief, always trying to learn what we can and become better people. Others are doing the same, so there is no reason to demonize them for imagined wrongs.
Likewise, over a lifetime our goals may change. We can move from Goal A to Goal B without having to demolish or annihilate Goal A (and everyone associated with Goal A). To move between goals in a non-destructive manner is the mature, ethical, and psychologically healthy way to do so.
This approach also offers hope that we might one day integrate our spiritual experiences into our daily lives, even if we’re now living closer to the secular world. The anti-cult POV, which typically involves discrediting past spiritual experiences (and the teacher who engendered them), is not psychologically healthy, and doesn’t lead to a well-integrated personality.
When people join anti-cult groups (including Internet based ones like Joe Kracht’s deceptively-named “Abode of Yoga”), they’re inclined to forget these simple truths under the heady influence of social pressure. This includes pressure to unquestioningly accept and act on stereotypes which dehumanize minority faith groups, thus invalidating the ethical obligations that one would normally feel toward one’s fellow human beings.
Indeed, in hate groups a pathological lack of empathy develops towards the targets of the hatred, such that Joe Kracht claims his former church “might as well be burned to the ground.” However, to outside observers (such as potential employers) who have not steeped themselves in anti-cult ideology, the meanness and spitefulness of posting hate material on the Internet is thoroughly apparent — all the more so if the targets of the hatred have a reputation for volunteerism, healthy living, and doing good.
These questions concerning loyalty and ethics tend to be paramount in the minds of people making personnel decisions, because such people are keenly aware that most human relationships (including employment relationships) have a beginning, middle, and end. Trashing one’s former friends and colleagues on the Internet thus suggests a person who is immature and is unable to conclude a relationship in a civilized and responsible manner, without acting vindictively or destructively, and without intentionally causing embarrassment or harm. That’s certainly the impression one gets from Bithika O’Dwyer’s guest column on Joe Kracht’s blog (and the iterations appearing on other venues).
Now, why are anti-cult counsellors typically so obsessed with pushing people over the edge, getting them to publicly recant their faith in a dramatic and finalized manner that would tend to reflect poorly on their good judgement, and to limit their future options? Are such counsellors really acting in the best interests of their clients or protégés? These are questions I hope to tackle in future postings.
In the meantime, let us return to the theme of marriage and divorce introduced at the outset of Part 1. Why would one ex demonize the other? Sometimes to assuage strong guilt feelings, or to relocate blame for the failed relationship. Dr. Lonnie Kliever writes:
[T]here are some voluntary apostates from new religious movements who leave deeply embittered and harshly critical of their former religious associations and activities. Their dynamics of separation from a once-loved religious group is analogous to an embittered marital separation and divorce. Both marriage and religion require a significant degree of commitment. The greater the involvement, the more traumatic the break-up. The longer the commitment, the more urgent the need to blame the other for the failed relationship. Long-term and heavily involved members of new religious movements who over time become disenchanted with their religion often throw all of the blame on their former religious associations and activities. They magnify small flaws into huge evils. They turn personal disappointments into malicious betrayals. They even will tell incredible falsehoods to harm their former religion.
– Dr. Lonnie Kliever, “The Reliability of Apostate Testimony About New Religious Movements”
When one spends years following a spiritual path, it becomes like family. Then, if one chooses to leave or is asked to leave, it may feel like a ripping away. I am perhaps 1% spiritual, but one thing I know about seekers is that they are still human beings, with an emotional self and feelings that run deep. Our emotional selves also have defence mechanisms which kick in when the pain becomes too great. At the most hellish moment of a marital breakup, one partner says to the other: “You don’t love me. You never loved me. And I never loved you. I’ve hated every moment I ever spent with you. I hate you, and all your family and friends. What’s more, you abused our children.” Next comes the ritual burning of photographs, the running of the car off a cliff, and a neatly typed note to the spouse’s employer suggesting termination…
We are all too human, tragically human. And so when we leave a spiritual path, sometimes this slash-and-burn mentality kicks in as a defence. Then too, the world wants us to pay a tithe to be accepted back: “Many members of our church or temple were lured away by this Indian rogue. We all know that meditation is bad for you. We’ll accept you back if you just say you were abused or brainwashed. Then you can get on with the things that really matter, like career and dating…”
Someone who has sincerely followed a spiritual path for a few years will often have sublime experiences locked in the depths of their heart — experiences they told themselves they would never forget as long as they lived. Then, when the same person leaves that path, you see them try to perform a radical guru-ectomy on themselves. The light they saw, the joy they felt, these things never happened. It is a defence mechanism, like amnesia. However, amnesia is a purely involuntary ailment. It takes some conscious will to go on the Internet and malign someone.
These are some of the issues surrounding apostates and their accounts. These issues in turn point to functional problems concerning descriptions of spiritual groups which appear in the popular press, and which tend to be disproportionately shaped by apostate accounts. (See also James A. Beckford, “The Mass Media and New Religious Movements.”)
When I say “functional problems,” I mean something different than a simple question of “whom do you believe.” Apostates act in certain fairly predictable ways; the mass media also act in fairly predictable ways. The end result can be a skewing of data leading to false depictions. (For one example, see “Can Salon Learn From Rolling Stone’s Mistakes? Part 1.”)
In most Western nations, there is a secular sphere and a religious sphere. These two spheres ideally work in harmony, but in our present period there is often war between them. Apostates are typically people who’ve crossed over from the religious sphere to the secular sphere, and now seek to mobilize the secular sphere against the religious sphere. There’s a broad sense in which their reports constitute reports about the enemy during wartime, or characterizations by the secular sphere about what goes on in the religious sphere. Such reports are inherently prone to inaccuracy and bias.
These factors underscore the late Dr. Bryan Wilson’s imperative that “The first duty of those who wish to present a fair picture of a religious fellowship is to seek the views of those who are faithfully committed to it and to undertake a first-hand study of their lifestyle.” However, the mass media usually don’t have the time, interest, or resources to conduct such a study, and often can’t even be bothered checking with bonafide religious scholars. Therefore, the view of minority spiritual groups we get from the mass media is often little more than a crude stereotype. This in turn creates problems in society, such as harassment of spiritual groups, or the inability of people with genuine spiritual needs to connect with a group which could benefit them.
When individual apostates publicly hurl false allegations, this is similar to people throwing rocks at church windows. One might like or even love someone who does grievous harm, but it’s difficult to forgive them while the glass is still tinkling and people are checking themselves for cuts and bruises. As I discuss in “A Question of Forgiveness,” it’s easier to forgive people when their wrong actions have ceased and they show some signs of remorse. Hate the sin, not the sinner is good advice; but when compassion fails, justice-light is sometimes needed to solve a problem which endangers others.
Bhakti yoga is a very emotional path, and some people can easily be storm-tossed by their emotions of the moment — whether love or hate. Some problems may benefit from more steady reflection leading to insight, rather than simply choosing sides based on friendship or which in-group one hopes to join.
Within ex-cult support groups, codependent relationships may develop, with the women becoming faux victims, and the men becoming their “valiant” protectors. These assumed roles reflect a need to create an artificial world in which the apostate is viewed as an heroic crusader rather than a (possibly failed) spiritual seeker. If the person’s own conscience is telling them they could have acted better, could have been truer, donning the garb of victim or protector may be a salve for the conscience.
Unfortunately, this leads to a state of affairs in which some men will go to the wall defending a story which is absolute bollocks, and which contradicts their own knowledge and experience acquired over many years. Whether in a courtroom trial, or even the type of sleazy Internet show trials conducted by Joe Kracht, truth shouldn’t depend on who’s sleeping with whom.
People who are misled by false accounts often want to be misled for the same reasons that these accounts were formulated in the first place: because some people wrongly feel that they can only build up their own ego by tearing down their former spiritual path.
Those who have returned to worldly life may need a certain type of ego build-up, but this is achieved by doing good things, not by becoming obsessed with “proving” that one’s former path or teacher were “bad.” One doesn’t have to look far to see people who left a spiritual path over 35 years ago, but are still trying to discredit their former teacher in order to feel good about themselves. This type of false ego build-up has turned them into extremely troubled and unhappy individuals. Someone like Bithika O’Dwyer who’s only been at it for 2-3 years might learn from such old profligates that this is not the right way to proceed, and does not lead to either worldly happiness or spiritual happiness. Better to adopt a live-and-let-live attitude, and get on with one’s life! Better also to leave all one’s bridges unburned and passable, so that one might freely choose any option in the future.
In the final analysis, to become embroiled in the controversies fomented by apostates is a losing proposition for sincere spiritual seekers. It is like quicksand which constantly draws people in until they’re in over their heads and cannot escape from all the concentrated negativity that apostates generate.
If you’re following the path of love and devotion, then it is your devotion, not somebody else’s devotion (or lack thereof) that will sustain you. You will gain strength by looking to those who are more devoted than you, not less so.
Suppose you have gone to a shop for many years. The shopkeeper has always been nice to you and has given you the things you need. He is very kind, though he does have a few rules about what goes on in his shop. Then you meet someone who tells you the shopkeeper is the very worst! He cheated them, he treated them unkindly, he is simply unbearable. Well, you do not know what transpired between the shopkeeper and that person. But he has always treated you fairly. So there is some sense in remaining loyal to that shopkeeper, based on your own experience.
No spiritual teacher, no matter how good and great, is immune to the proverbial “barking of the dogs” of which Swami Vivekananda spoke. Sri Chinmoy has said:
A real genius is not bound by any convention. A genius is a genius. He has to go forward like an elephant, without paying attention to the barking of the dogs. Swami Vivekananda used to say that when an elephant is on the way to the market to eat bananas, the dogs bark and bark. But the elephant does not pay any attention. He goes to the market and eats the bananas and then he comes back home. The dogs are unable to enjoy the bananas.
– Sri Chinmoy, from A Mystic Journey in the Weightlifting World, Part 1, Agni Press, 2000
Combating false views prevalent in society is like trying to straighten “a dog’s curly tail” (Vivekananda) — it just curls up again. There will always be people spreading hate material. Sometimes they’re good at demagoguing an issue, and may have more funding and resources than spiritual groups, so their message is easier to hear. They can temporarily drown out the true message offered by sincere spiritual teachers.
Yet, spiritual genius that he was, Sri Chinmoy continued to move forward confidently, offering his precious Darshan to those seekers who approached him with an aspiring consciousness. What is said by critics is largely, ahem… irrelephant.
By studying the writings of apostates or disgruntled former members, we don’t get any enlightenment. For that we need spiritual practice, such as prayer, meditation and service.
The more we study doubt, the more we will experience confusion-mind. Doubt does not have the power to dispel itself. Only faith has the power to dispel doubt, just as Light dispels darkness.
There are many tracts criticizing people who study under the guidance of a spiritual master and join in the life of a spiritual community. The authors usually advocate secularism, individualism, rationalism, and a pragmatic view of life. To them God is just a mental hallucination, or a remote deity who deserves no more than Temple on Friday or Church on Sunday.
Yet, when one sincerely meditates with a teacher of Sri Chinmoy’s calibre, one has deep inner experiences which prove their own reality in the fertile field of the aspiring heart. One discovers a living God ever present in the temple of one’s heart, a God who is one’s own highest Self, and therefore one’s constant companion.
This is a discovery rooted in faith, not doubt. And so there comes a time when one closes one’s ears to doubt and criticism, and tries to proceed only through faith, finding this to be a higher teaching. (Perhaps doubt is the kindergarten of the spiritual life, and faith the advanced doctoral work?)
As spiritual seekers, we can learn to value Light more. When we become lovers of Light, this will lead to right views, and such views will eventually transform society, lessening the hatred and intolerance which arise from a wrong understanding.
Those who take the negative approach don’t travel far, and ultimately bring suffering on themselves, if not the entire world. Just look at Judas!
Bithika O’Dwyer (bottom row, left) with friends from the Cambridge Sri Chinmoy Centre on a fun excursion to Thetford Forest, 2009
The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization. See my About page for further disclaimers.
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