IT HAPPENED TO ME: My Father Chose a Cult Over My Family

I struggled to understand how my father was taken in by this group that was excising him from the life that he’d built with my mom, my sisters, and me.
Publish date:
January 28, 2016
cults, family drama, fathers, estrangement

“We need to have a family meeting.”

A what?

We were not a family-meeting type of family. We didn’t have long sessions where we talked about our feelings or our days.

I was home on break during my first year of college and just wanted to count down the minutes until I was back in my dorm, hanging out with my friends. Reluctantly, my sisters, my mom and I gathered at the kitchen table, smiling nervously and staring down at the yellow legal pad my dad had on the table. He looked like a man with the answers — like he’d found the fountain of youth or the meaning of life.

That was the first time I heard of the organization.

I have come to think of this organization as the most insidious kind of cult as they actually refer to themselves as a development, growth, and training company. However, I am by no means the first and only one to call them a cult. Their path of destruction stretches across the world (and the internet). The basic principle is the idea that you are the only one in control of your happiness; if someone is trying to hold you back, they should be removed from your life so you can reach your full potential, even if that person happens to be your spouse or your child, apparently.

We all went to an introductory session to try to understand more. The Stepford-like humans running the thing shared all the organization could offer us; it could help us “take the past out of our future.”

I looked over at my dad, who was enthralled by what the leader was saying, and I was only more bewildered. I struggled to understand how my father, a lawyer, a man who taught me reason and practicality and how to win an argument, was taken in by this group that was excising him from the life that he’d built with my mom, my sisters, and me.

I left even more confused than I’d been after our “family meeting.” My past had made me who I was. Why would I want to remove it from the future? And what did that even mean? The past can’t be in the future — that’s the definition of an oxymoron. Of course, everyone has a past that they need to deal with and move on from, but isn’t that just part of life? Isn’t that the unbearable joy of figuring out who you are in the world?

I refused to take the next step and go to the seminar weekend because the idea of it totally freaked me out. Since that first night, I’ve read pretty much every article that’s been written about the seminar. The basic components happen to also be the basic tenants of brainwashing: windowless rooms, long sessions with limited access to food, drinks, or bathrooms, florescent lighting, and a constant barrage of people “discovering” who is holding them back in their lives (complete with yelling and tears) on their way to a transformation.

Many people attend the seminar and go on to live completely reasonable lives, but my dad is not one of them. For all four years of college, I tried desperately to get through to my dad, but he kept getting farther and farther away from me. Instead of reaching out and leaning on his family, my dad retreated into his home office, choosing to spend his time and money on the organization. He started attending sessions on Wednesday nights ($150), then a weekend every few months ($900 per weekend). He’d stay up late into the night talking to people who fed into his ideas of his own happiness and reinforced the fact that he didn’t need his “unsupportive family.”

I tried everything to pierce the wall that had come up between him and us. I would cry and choke out how sad I was by his distance. I would threaten to cut him out of my life completely. I would scream so loudly that he would leave the room (and one time threatened to call the police). I begged, I pleaded, I tried to find the silver bullet that would wake my dad up and bring him back.

Nothing worked, and in the middle of my senior year, he told my mom he wanted a divorce. My mom, sisters and I spent the next Thanksgiving in my mom’s new apartment, just looking around at each other in semi-darkness, wondering how we ended up there.

For a while, I stopped trying. Then, when I was in my early 20s, he called me on Father’s Day while I was out at a bar with my friend. I hid in the bathroom listening to him promise to do better and say all the things I had been waiting for him to say for so long. We made plans to have dinner a few weeks later and I was so excited to see him again. It felt like he was coming back to me.

But then a month went by without a word from him, then two, then six, and I felt like an idiot. How could I have believed he would change back to the person he’d been?

That same scenario played out a few more times: a call on Father’s day, a dinner, and then radio silence. After years of the back and forth — of having my heart broken over and over again — I realized that I had to let go. I couldn’t keep putting myself through that abandonment. I had to begin mourning the father I’d had so I wouldn’t feel so much. I had to turn him into a different person in my mind. That made it easier to hear from him once a year, or read my three-line birthday email that always ended with “daddy loves you,” which never failed to cut me.

As I grieved, I had to make peace with all of my childhood memories: his presence and his absence. Yes, he had taught me to be rational. He taught me how to play backgammon and “meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same.” (a quote from the Rudyard Kipling poem, “If”; my dad used to say it to me every time he beat me at backgammon and I wanted to be a sore loser.) Indirectly, my dad was one of my best writing teachers I ever had, never hesitating to rip to shreds an essay I’d worked on for a week the night before it was due. I would cry as he tore into my work with a red (or black, or blue) pen, but it made me a better writer. He taught me how to understand the streets and avenues of Manhattan, which I was begrudgingly appreciative of the entire time I was at NYU.

At the same time, I had to come to terms with the fact that those lessons are snapshots that don’t represent the full picture. My dad worked from home when I was a kid, but his home office was off limits — he preferred we think of him as “not home” even when he was 12 feet away from the kitchen table. There wasn’t room to just go in and chat with him. He wasn’t the one driving us to after-school activities or hanging out with us on the weekends. He was a physical presence, but I realized, as he actually did leave us, he had been doing so for a lot longer than any of us thought.

In the last 15 years since my dad joined the organization, my decisions have been governed by the idea of future regret. The biggest decision was whether or not to invite him to my wedding, since I knew having him walk me down the aisle was out of the question. I didn’t think he’d care one way or the other, but I invited him for me. If ever he decided to be a father to me again, I didn’t want to regret not having him there. The only thing that decision got me, though, was an extra-special glimpse into how far gone he was.

In the ensuing fight about the fact that I didn’t ask him to walk me down the aisle, I was shocked to learn that he didn’t think he’d done anything wrong. He didn’t understand why I thought he abandoned me.

That was the end for me; that was the final stage of grief. I finally accepted the fact that my father was really gone. The man on the other end of the phone, yelling at me about the fact that what I believed was simply “my truth” (definitely a phrase he picked up from the organization) was really and truly a different person now. It was the last time my dad devastated me. After that, I was free of all of my sadness about him.

I still get emails from him on my birthday and sometimes on holidays, but they don’t bring with them any sense of yearning or even grief. He’s just some guy I used to know.