Today we’re going to speak with Marlene Winell, psychologist, author and educator. Marlene has spent her life trying to help people recover from lives that have been torn asunder by religion and religious indoctrination. She has made it her mission to help people feel better about themselves, and their choices and to begin living their lives again.
Marlene runs retreats, one of which is actually happening this weekend. You can read about her and her work on her website by clicking HERE. If you or anyone you know could benefit from speaking with her, please don’t hesitate to contact her. For now, please enjoy this interview with her about her book, work and experiences helping people recover from religion.
What got you interested in the work you do?
I find people fascinating and it is very rewarding to be of help. I come from a missionary background so it is natural to be in a helping profession, but this is very different because I assist people in developing their own resources from within, not an external source.
Please tell me about your book, Leaving the Fold.
My book is Leaving the Fold: A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving Their Religion. It’s the only self-help book for recovering from harmful, restrictive religion. My own story is one chapter. The first half names and describes the important issues in recovery, along with many examples from my interviewees and clients. The second half is about concrete steps for recovery with exercises to do.
How about a word about your retreats?
“Release and Reclaim” retreats are small group experiences where we spend a weekend together telling our stories, getting support, and doing healing activities together. It’s a powerful experience because you are with real people who understand. Past participants have described it as a big turning point in their recovery.
Who are they designed for?
People who have decided to leave their religion and need some help and support.
How often do you have them?
For the last 3 years, it’s been twice a year, but I’d like to do more, particularly in other areas of the country. I could use some help organizing them.
What do you hope to accomplish at the retreats?
“Release and Reclaim” refers to letting go of old, toxic beliefs and systems and then reclaiming one’s life and one’s self. The biggest area of healing is overcoming the fear that has been conditioned at a deep level. People then learn to trust themselves again and reconstruct their lives based on their own inner wisdom instead of external authority.
What kinds of techniques do you use to accomplish these goals?
We use discussion, writing, guided imagery, art, movement, and group exercises such as psychodrama. It’s a combination of both intellectual and emotional methods.
What kinds of religions are people when they come to you?
Mostly Bible-based groups – Christian fundamentalists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Seventh-Day-Adventists. . . but also Eastern religious cults. The key is an authoritarian mindset.
What are their largest issues with their religions?
They have grown to realize that their religion has it wrong – intellectually, emotionally, morally, socially – and that it is possible to give it up and move on, despite the fear. Many have been hurt in some way.
Are they generally still embedded in their religions when they come to you or have they already left their religion and are now lost and in need of guidance?
They have already left but they haven’t worked through all the issues and some are afraid of letting go entirely. The phobia indoctrination is very powerful, which is why the group dynamic is also so helpful. I have a beginning retreat and more advanced retreats. At the first one, people are often pretty terrified; they need to tell their story and get support for their new insights about what was wrong. Later on, the groups are helpful for people reconstructing their lives with confidence and self-love. We also have participants who have been out of their religion for quite a while but have deep-seated “left-overs” they want to address.
What are your personal thoughts about religion?
I think people do need to have a framework of values and beliefs to use in approaching life, but it does not have to be a religion. An organized religion with rigid dogma is not good because it robs the individual of the responsibility (and the privilege) of critical thinking and forming one’s own conclusions.
Despite the difficulties you see that people experience with religion, do you believe that religion has certain benefits or a certain value? If so, what are those/is that?
A group which provides community and a place for shared values that serve human needs in a tolerant, inclusive manner can be a good thing. Churches that emphasize the more humanitarian teachings of Jesus rather than his death on the cross provide better guidelines for how to actually live. But belonging to any group should always be done responsibly, i.e., never give away your right to think and feel for yourself.
What do you do for people after the weekend retreat is over to help them maintain what they’ve learned?
We have a confidential online support group with monthly conference calls. People also make friends at the retreats and stay in touch on their own.
Do people ever lapse back into old religious patterns or is this generally a turning point in their lives?
We have never had anyone return to their same religion. Some have retained a personal spirituality or belief in God but on their own terms, which I encourage. I have an article about this.
The retreat is most definitely a turning point for many people. I have followed up with past participants, many of whom have told me this. One man who traveled here from New York had been isolating himself in his apartment, overwhelmed with guilt and fear, never venturing out except to go to work. He was terrified when he arrived at the retreat and very quiet at first, afraid to tell his story. Then with the warmth and acceptance of the group, he shared and participated. On the last day, he gave everybody big hugs, and left smiling. About two months later, I spoke with him and he said the burden of his abusive religious past had lifted thanks to the retreat. He had new friends, was going out, and was also back into playing music he loved. Returning to his religion was simply not an option and he felt free for the first time.
A woman who came to the retreat was leading an outwardly successful life with career and family but had secret fears about the “Rapture” that would shake her up despite being irrational. The retreat helped her let go and even laugh about the idea for the first time. Two years later, we talked and she said the retreat was a turning point for her – she had had no more anxiety attacks.
What do you think is most important about the work you do?
I provide a safe, therapeutic place where it is okay to question religion first of all. In terms of healing and growth, my approach is to empower people, and I think I have found good ways of doing that!
What advice would you give to people who are struggling with their religions but who are unable to attend your retreats or work with you?
Don’t be afraid. Read everything you can. Trust yourself for a change and don’t believe the self-serving lines you have heard from your religious group about how sinful and dangerous it is to question. Get support of some kind. On-line forums can be good – stay away from the ones where religious people try to shame you. Take baby steps into the larger world and find out what’s going on and how other people are approaching life. Try new things in small ways and learn to enjoy life here and now. Congratulate yourself often for your courage.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Working with me may not be as hard as it seems. I talk with people on the phone a lot, and it works well. We can make the cost affordable. The retreats also have affordable options, so don’t rule it out. The investment is worth it considering the time, effort, and money it can take to get therapy, or the loss of living fully if you don’t get better. I’m open to traveling if someone wants to organize a retreat in their area too.
That was wonderful, Marlene! Thank you.
If you’d like to read past interviews with ex-cult members, please click HERE and HERE. If you have any questions for Marlene, please feel free to ask them in the comments or contact her directly with more personal matters.
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