I’d like to introduce everyone to Tifany Lee. Tifany is currently a musician preparing to record her third album. You can check out the first two at her MySpace page or her website tifanylee.com and look forward to the third. She is also the editor of Heroine Magazine, an excellent publication that she is bringing in part to her new blog at tifanylee.wordpress.com. Tifany’s fascinating experiences in a cult make her this week’s guest blogger. I hope that you enjoy what she has to share with us and take the opportunity to ask her questions about whatever you’d like. Without further ado…
What’s the name of the cult you joined?
Trob (The Realization of Being)
How old were you when you joined?
Why did you join?
I was a freshman in college at University of Washington freaking out about what I was going to do with my life. I had made some questionable decisions and my romances had failed miserably. My sister was having issues of her own – my mother had taken her to a medical doctor and a shrink to no avail. I told her about the mother of my best friend who I had known since middle school and a strange school that she ran. I suggested she try that as a last resort. When I came home for the summer a month later, my sister was transformed. She was completely over the crisis, but more than that, she was happy. And she had never been happy her whole life. She was always kind of mopey. But now she was confident and friendly and I was sold immediately. I started the work and became a more focused student than my sister ever was; she would touch in from time to time after that.
What did the cult offer you that your life wasn’t giving you?
Did the cult fulfill its promises?
Yes, for a while.
How long were you in the cult and why did you leave?
I was there for 11 years, till I was 31. Then, the founder had a stroke and her right-hand woman – the president of the school – began to make accusations about the founder. There was a fight for power and it left me sick to my stomach. It was a positive thinking cult with a dash of scare-you-with-the-devil kind of stuff and she started to accuse the founder of being manipulative. Actually, evil. She told us that we had been a cult all along. This infuriated me. I had defended the school to everyone in my life for not being a cult. It took me a month to sneak out because I had so many responsibilities at the school, but when I finally did, a mass exodus occurred. I had been kind of the star of the school. I was going to make the school famous when I became famous – that’s what they told me and believed. I read cult recovery books that say that members rarely get out. People escape if one of three things happen: an authority figure dies or gets sick, there is a power struggle, and something else that I forgot because it didn’t pertain to me. I recognized the cult tactics on every page: public humiliation to break you, build you back up with their ideals. It’s kind of like building a robot. I think our cult was a mild version – we weren’t physically sequestered from society we were only encouraged to have relationships that didn’t interfere with the school. It was all hidden behind a veil of love and support. That’s how it was all done – with love.
Do you still feel that certain things are missing in your life that the cult claimed it would have given you?
It was a miserable failure. I have spent the last years repairing the rift with my family who, though they never threw me out of the family or anything like that, thought I would never leave the cult – ever. But I did find my music there. I’m not sure if I would’ve ever written a song if I wasn’t in the mindset of being free to live any dream I wanted. And the president worked tirelessly to make me a better performer and made me take risks that, while they were for the good of the cult only, I marvel at now. I wrote, produced and starred in the biggest fundraisers for the school – these improv musicals that we ran at 7 Stages, 14th street playhouse, the woodruff arts center. we would rent them out and run ads on the radio and in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution and pack the house. So, I have a strange gratitude. My struggle with my work now is that everything I did back then was steeped in the teachings and now I struggle with what I believe in.
How many people were in the cult? Was it local, national?
It was based in Atlanta with international students – my sister is in Brazil until she quit several years before I did, there were a few Hong Kong students, French, people scattered across the States, but for the most part it was Atlanta. There were about 500 peripheral students, and 40 hardcore, of which I was one. It was a fast growing organization several years before I arrived – they were renting out the civic center for events with messages of positive thinking and had about 2000 students. Until the president/my best friend’s mom became a leader and introduced reasons why people were not getting what they want. The founder said “you are a precious adorable angel” and deserve to have whatever you want. The President introduced psychology with the Devil as to why people didn’t materialize things.
Did the cult had a particular leader? Was this person particularly charismatic?
They were the sweetest people I had ever met.
Did the cult have weird doctrines and teachings?
Pretty standard stuff for a cult – we approve if you follow us and you are evil if you disagree. The bulk of the work was all the positive thinking stuff that Oprah is covering lately. I guess you could call it the re-packaged brand of bullshit that all religion has been peddling since the beginning of time.
Were there any doctrines about end-times?
My best friend (who was also the resident reincarnation of Satan because she always spoke her mind) took the revelations class where they studied revelations in the new testament but she didn’t understand much and it caused her anxiety about dying.
Do you think that the people who began the cult did so out of conviction or to manipulate others?
Absolutely not. And I still feel that the founder is sweet and true. I think that either the president got drunk on her power over other people’s lives or she went crazy. or maybe she was crazy. She believes everything to this day and touts herself as a life coach on the internet, riding on other people’s success. One of her students – the Hong Kong one – made millions of dollars over the years so the president gets the credit.
Did you have to pay to be in the cult or give up anything like contact with friends and family?
You had to pay for privates (one on one sessions – the most coveted and expensive way to learn), the group classes. There was the 7 emotional attachments that you had to let go to be free and then you could move on to the advance classes when J or L got the word from God. We all could talk to God but we all trusted J and L more when they listened. And you were expected to tithe, of course. I bartered most of the time I was there – I helped out in the office. My duties as teacher (I taught the children and teen classes) and producer were volunteer.
Are you a religious person? How so?
I have never been a religious person. I was baptized Presbyterian because my Ma liked the idea of predestination. But my parents aren’t religious either (though my Ma is falling into a primitive Baptist cult now).
Do you believe in God?
I did while I was in the cult, very much so. Before and after that, not so much. It was comforting when I believed that he was there. But my belief evaporated. It materialized and evaporated almost on its own.
Are you a spiritual person? How so?
I have been searching since adolescence. I explored my Cherokee background and learned about the Native American way of life – my 2nd cousin is a medicine woman and named me. I got into new age stuff after that – crystals, tarot, drugs have been a spiritual journey for me.
What else can you share with us about the experience of being a cult?
When I got out of the cult I saw how much everything is a cult. Everything we choose to identify with shapes our thinking. This war seems absurd to me because it is just cults fighting cults. But I do know the power of faith and what lengths a person can be manipulated to – there is no limit. The most hope I see in the present is that the person who wrote the manifesto for Al Qaeda has renounced his belief that violence is the answer – literally the guy who wrote the book. I forget his name damnit. When I read that I knew that Al Qaeda’s time is limited. It will be destroyed from within; maybe that’s the only way.
What advice would you offer others about being in a cult?
Think for yourself.
What did you think about South Park‘s Super Best Friends episode?
The Super Best Friends episode was obviously a take on Scientology and the weird alien where everybody killed themselves. But, surprisingly close in the premise at the beginning – tell people they’re unhappy (not really hard to convince them in the first place) and then don’t let them leave without talking for it so long
that they get tired of arguing and decide to stay.
Of the super best friends – the mormon dude? Really? He’s a cult leader, or at least I always thought so. In that case, David Blaine will soon join the superprophets. The joke they made about Buddha not believing in
evil – funny, and true. I most identify with Buddhism after leaving the cult because they don’t really believe in God either. It’s kind of like 6 of this, half dozen of the other – so ambiguous that it can never be wrong.
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