Weird Beliefs and Abusive Cults

Every so often I come across warnings about certain people who claim to be reincarnated fictional characters and who use that belief to suck others in and abuse them. Hell, I spent some time in the inner circle of one of those people, and I’ve got the psychological scars to prove it. Cult leader behavior is shitty no matter who’s doing it.

But what I keep seeing is the conversation taking shape around them believing $weird_thing, and not the part where they conned their housemates out of money, or consistently deprived them of sleep to break them down, or gathered the whole house together to berate someone who did something “wrong” (which could be anything from watching a movie without permission to not being social enough with the group). And the people who stand in line to jeer at how obviously anyone with these beliefs is crazy and should be avoided are doing these small-time cult leaders’ work for them.

Most of the people who got sucked in, in my experience, were people who were already dealing with weird shit. Maybe their favorite fictional character is taking up residence in their heads. Whether it’s an alternate personality, a mask their patron deity uses to talk to them, a random thoughtform, a connection to the ideal form of that character off in the creative aether, or even a “past” life1 in a fiction-spawned alternate universe is irrelevant — I’ve given up on drawing and redrawing those lines, because except in the case of the deity thing, it doesn’t much matter. What matters is that it sure is a thing that’s happening. And along come some people who are very enthusiastic about all this, and understand, and don’t judge. And all the people giving warnings about these people? Why, they’re saying it’s because they believe these crazy things — crazy things which our prospective cult member is experiencing for themselves. It starts to sound like these people repeating warnings are just prejudiced against a belief, not concerned about abusive behavior — and that’s how the cult leader will spin it. Things got blown out of proportion. It’s grudgewank. They just hate these beliefs and don’t understand. The group understands, though. They know exactly what their prospective member is going through, and they’re just good friends who want to help.

And then yet another person is propping up a manipulative asshole’s ego, unless they get fed up with the abuse and make it out on their own… where, if they’ve kept their beliefs, they can never talk about it for fear of being ridiculed for not “knowing better”. If they haven’t, they’re likely to go to the opposite extreme, denouncing their former beliefs and anyone who shares them.

I’ve seen a site run by a former cult member literally refuse to honor someone else’s request for anonymity because the person still believed some of the same things the cult did — despite the fact that this person was condemning the leader’s behavior and encouraging her to take some responsibility for what she was doing. But these beliefs are bad and wrong and we must PUNISH people who — wait, is this starting to sound exactly like the cult’s bullying sessions to anyone else? Kind of makes you wonder who’s done the better job of breaking away from the abuse: the person who’s calling the cult leader out while still keeping their personal beliefs, or the person going for the vicious take-downs of the Bad Guys, like good little cult members do to prove how Good they are.

In short: shit is fucked up, and fucked up in a way that hurts the people we should be trying to help the most. We need some tolerance, not for happy fluffy “All beliefs are equally valid!” reasons, but because when someone goes, “You don’t understand!” the response can be, “Look, this person over here? They have similar beliefs, and I think it’s weird as hell, but they’re not the kind of person who keeps you up for five nights running because they’re under psychic attack or whatever.”

You still get to think it’s weird as hell. That’s totally valid. You don’t have to agree with any of it. But if you’re willing to accept that there are people out there who can believe in all manner of weirdness and not abuse everyone around them, it makes things safer for both vulnerable people and abuse survivors.

…Hi. I’m Jaqui, and I believe in some weird-as-hell things, but I have no tolerance for cult leader bullshit. And that’s the important part.

  1. Shared UPG: linear time is for incarnate existence, and doesn’t seem to hold much meaning outside of it, so it’s possible to have your incarnations “out of order”, as it were, or even explore different potential universes based on things being different. This may partly explain the overabundance of Merlins and Cleopatras out there. []

I have no title for this

I made a “culture” category on my blog, because from time to time I like to get my rant on about social issues, the diversity (or lack thereof) in media, and all that happy fun social justice stuff.

And yet, these past few months, when truly horrible things have been happening, I’ve been silent, because it’s just too much. Too horrible. Too terrifying. Too many people… I want to say “dead before their time”, but as someone who honors Hela, I know better: “their time” comes whenever circumstances allow it, and it’s never fair and rarely kind. It just is.

All the same, I’m angry because it could have been different. It should have been different. Maybe their deaths would have found them no matter what, and maybe not, but the way those deaths found them is our failure as a society. Most especially, it is a failure of those in positions of privilege to let other privileged people know that this shit will not stand.

And despite all the horrible things that have happened, there are still people saying “we believe the men” and “we support the police” and “it was a parking dispute” and “you can’t prove it was a hate crime” and fucking “God has called our son home” instead of “our daughter took her life due to our mistreatment”. Because too many people with privilege see those without as inherently untrustworthy, and our pain isn’t real to them.

There is nothing I can say to this parade of atrocity, other than this: I am watching. I am listening. I will remember. I will act. And I am so, so sorry.

A is for Abuse (Part 1)

So here I go, attempting to make another start at spiritual blogging with my participation in the Pagan Blog Project. Every Friday, I’ll be posting something about my practice or experiences I’ve had on my spiritual journey. This post is late in coming, and I eventually decided to split it up into two parts, because I’ve got a lot to say on the subject… Part 2 will be up on Friday, on schedule.

If you type “spiritual abuse” into Google, what you’ll find is a dazzling variety of sites devoted to abuse in a Christian context, but Christianity doesn’t have the market cornered when it comes to using spirituality as a vehicle for abuse. Having spent a few years trying to get away from an especially toxic would-be cult-leader, I think more needs to be said about the ways abuse can manifest in Paganism.

First off, some required reading: this excellent post by Melitta Benu. Also, for those who deal with people who are (or claim to be) horsing spirits, this excerpt from Raven Kaldera’s Wightridden is also useful for discerning whether a possession is genuine.

Unfortunately, when you’re in an abusive situation, it’s hard not to go, “Yes, but…”

“Yes, the group I’m involved with meets all the criteria for cultlike behavior, but there are extenuating circumstances!”

“Yes, this possession seems somewhat dubious, but this person was undoubtedly genuinely possessed before, so I should just give them the benefit of the doubt.”

“Yes, this person is awfully controlling, but they were abused as a child, and I should be understanding of how they need to run their household.”

“Yes, people have actually gone so far as to call the group I’m working with a cult, but their criticisms are so full of  judgmental bullshit and ridicule for our ‘weird’ beliefs that it’s hard to take the other accusations seriously.”

And sometimes even well-meaning advice hurts. More than once, I’ve heard that the evil, manipulative people who set up cultlike groups don’t have any real power. After all, if they had actual magical abilities, why would they manipulate others? You know, because power and enlightenment are totally the same thing, and mentally ill people aren’t ever magically gifted… But as ridiculous as that line of reasoning is, it’s part of what kept me in an abusive situation with a woman who had undeniable magical abilities, and who had, on occasion, managed to channel the goddess I was working with. The fact that she then used a poor copy of my goddess’s energy to fake later possessions was something I only realized later, because she didn’t try faking it until she had me so thoroughly turned around that I was doubting everything I felt and perceived.

It is much easier, magically speaking, to mess with people’s heads than it is to mess with probability to get the lucky lotto numbers. This is why we tend to have more stories of love spells gone wrong (*raises hand guiltily*) than money spells gone wrong. It is easier to attract people who have the things you want than it is to attract those things independent of other people. This doesn’t mean it’s easy to get a millionaire in your pocket (I roll my eyes at people who insist they can’t be cult leaders because of their lack of gold-plated limos, because that’s exactly the logic my abuser used while living off her roommates’ funds and getting nearly every shiny thing she had her eye on), but even a small group of frequently-broke people can still be exploited.

Unfortunately, that “Yes, but…” is really seductive. Abusive people have plenty of good-sounding reasons for why they’re acting the way they do, and they frequently believe them, themselves. Furthermore, it’s really easy to get caught up in the cycle of acting as if these things are normal — members of a group that turns abusive can easily find themselves abusing other group members in turn, because it’s easier to join in the abuse than be the target again. (Been there, done that, still ashamed.)

And things get even fuzzier when you’re not dealing with a proper religious group at all. “But we’re just a group of friends” was one of the frequent excuses in my case… never mind that, despite not being any kind of a formal magical group, new people were lured in with stories of how magically vital they were to the group, how we’d all had past lives together, how they were needed, how much better their lives would be if they’d just move closer… oh, they don’t have an apartment yet? They can stay with everyone else, no problem… And then a few months later, they’re being encouraged to lie to their families to get money for Important Magical Items, or being cast as the villain in the Drama of the Week with no idea of how to get out.

Listen: sometimes, people are mentally ill in ways that hurt you, and you’re not obligated to stay with them. Just because their illness isn’t their fault, it doesn’t mean you should engage with them when doing so is damaging to you. And sometimes they may be wonderful and helpful, while other times, every interaction is toxic. When someone is being toxic, sticking by them without complaint will not help either of you; just because a person is your friend, your lover, your roommate, your covenmate, or someone you’ve shared umpty-bazillion past lives with, it is still not your job to fix them. It is their job to seek help from someone outside their intimate circle. If they try to convince you otherwise, they’re manipulating you, consciously or not, and you need to get the fuck away from them.

So here’s the thing: if you’ve read the resources linked, you already have some helpful guidelines for whether someone is faking a possession, or setting up an unhealthy group dynamic. But here are some things you really, REALLY need to keep in mind when the “yes, but…” feeling starts creeping up on you:

  • If you’re scared of upsetting someone all the time, whether or not they’ve had valid spiritual advice for you in the past, you’re in a bad situation and you need to get out.
  • If they make you afraid that you’re going to offend your patron deity/your pantheon/every god EVER with every decision you make, you need to seek a second opinion from someone who isn’t close to the person who’s giving you dire warnings. Preferably, this person should be someone who is not a friend of yours, and is a devotee of whichever Powers you’re afraid you’ve offended. Yes, it’s possible to fuck up pretty badly and offend the gods. (I’ve done it, and I’m still paying off some of those debts.) But claiming you’ve offended Someone can also be a means of control. If every “friendly visit” or “important talk” turns into hours of someone claiming to be your patron deity and screaming at you? You’re in a bad situation and you need to get out.
  • If you’re being pressured into re-enacting past life relationships in the here and now, you are probably in a bad situation and need to get out. The key word here is “pressured”. Sometimes consensually exploring an old dynamic can help you get a better handle on how you relate to each other in this lifetime, but glorifying the past at the expense of the present isn’t likely to help either/any of you and, again, can be used as an underhanded means of control.
  • If someone claims to know your feelings better than you do yourself, and constantly accuses you of lying when you try to express yourself, you are in a bad situation and you need to get out. Even if you realize later that they were correct about your motivations, you still need to get out. Using insight as a weapon is Not Okay, and it’s easy for that “insight” to become manipulation once you’re used to accepting someone else’s judgments about how you “really” feel.
  • If you’re promised training that never materializes, but people still insist you’re somehow magically necessary, you’re in a dubious situation, and you should take a long hard look at just what it is they need you for.
  • If you are being encouraged to lie to friends and family members, especially for the purposes of making them give you money for whatever the group leader needs most? Again: bad situation. Get out. (Note: If you’re a closeted Pagan, in some circumstances people may encourage you to lie about where you are and what you believe out of concern for your safety. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about things like, “Just tell your dad you’re going back to school, and you need some money to make ends meet,” with the money in question actually being spent on shiny trinkets Important Magical Items, or worse, drugs and alcohol.)
  • If the person who is acting as your spirit worker/shaman/priest(ess) starts passing along messages from gods/spirits/whatever that imply you need a closer relationship with them (becoming their lover, moving into their house, etc.), and discourages you from seeking a second opinion, you’re in a really bad situation, and you need to run the fuck away right now. I’m not kidding.

Yes, you could really be Doing It Wrong. Maybe you’re a metaphysical menace. Maybe the gods really do want you to be closer to that person, or to contribute funds toward that Shiny Magical Thing. And perhaps you really did offend members of five different pantheons. And especially if the person telling you these things is someone who knows their shit, metaphysically speaking, that bit of doubt can be enough to keep you in a bad situation.

But this is what you have to remember: even if you’ve done something wrong, staying in a situation where you constantly feel scared and harassed isn’t going to help you make amends. In my experience, the gods and spirits are more interested in getting you to fix your mistakes than They are in beating you over the head with them, and keeping you perpetually guilty and miserable is counterproductive. Furthermore, They’re not restricted to just one means of making Their will known. If you’ve angered Someone, you’ll have ample opportunities to witness Their displeasure, and not just because one person yelled at you a lot.

I’ve never known the gods to get hung up on one messenger: that’s a human thing. They’ll use any available means to get Their message across. This means that yes, sometimes the scary abusive person will give you a genuine message if they happen to have the wiring for it… but if you get away from the scary abusive person, the messages will keep coming until you take the hint. And no message is worth dealing with someone who makes you feel scared and miserable on a near-constant basis.

Up next: Abuse Part 2, in which I talk about getting away, identifying lingering damage, and taking the first steps toward recovery.

Sunna and Mani

I feel like a bad Northern Tradition person, because it’s Memorial Day, and it really makes more sense for me to be writing about the Einherjar today. As it is, I’ll likely be pouring out a libation for the dead warriors in my family later on, but this is what wanted to be written, so I’m going with it, rambling and incoherent as it is.

I had thought, coming from an eclectic Neopagan practice that had its roots in Wicca, that it would be strange, shifting from a view of the sun as male and the moon as female to the Norse view, which is the other way around. After all, being female, I was supposed to be in tune with the obviously feminine lunar cycles, through my very own menstrual cycle.

I could admire the idea of sun and moon as female and male, respectively. After all, the menstrual connection aside, there was something annoying in the idea that the sun — the warm, projective source of life and symbol of intellect — was inherently male, and the moon, cold, receptive, and tied up with the murky depths of the subconscious, was inherently female, fit only to take the masculine sunlight and reflect it back at us, and fuck about with our watery feminine natures. And as much as I love the tarot, don’t even get me started on the symbolism behind the Sun and Moon cards and the gender associations I keep seeing there. Just don’t. I may start to froth at the mouth.

This isn’t to say that I think these associations are wrong, mind you. I’m not going to argue with all the sun gods and moon goddesses out there about their existence. I try not to be that stupid, really. And obviously, those associations work for a lot of people, and are powerful, important things. Diana is an awesome lunar goddess, for one, and a wonderful, empowering being for women to work with. But I really dislike the idea that certain archetypes belong inherently to one specific gender. The sun is male because masculinity means x, and the moon is female because femininity means y (though, when it comes to chromosomes, perhaps it should be the other way ’round?), and of course this is the natural order of things, blah blah blah, excuse me while I bash my head against the nearest wall.

Just because I don’t wear my own rather ambiguous and shifty gender stuff on my sleeve these days, it doesn’t mean the overwhelming gender dysphoria of my late teens early twenties was just a phase I outgrew. I’ve become a lot more comfortable in my own skin, but I still have days when I’m more Jacque (or Jack) then Jacqueline, though I’ll still answer to Jaqui, either way — and yes, dropping the c is deliberate, because that’s how it looks right to me. On those days I tend to stare blankly when people use female pronouns for me, and then remember that, oh yeah, I have boobs.

So yes, I can get touchy about gender associations, and how lunar energy and the presence of a uterus seem to go hand in hand in modern Neopagan practice, as well as what seems like every fantasy novel ever. (Really, you guys? Really?)

All the same, I was somewhat wary of the switch, especially given the menstrual associations. Queer as I am, did I really want a male deity in charge of my female reproductive cycles? Was that even more heteronormative than the inverse? Would it just be vaguely uncomfortable, dealing with that shift in perspective? It’s one thing to say that a certain symbol set is limiting, another thing entirely to actually switch one’s worldview around.

And yes, these seem like awfully silly and irrational things to worry about. Typing this out, I’m laughing at myself. But gender issues are a big part of my spirituality, and that’s not changing in the forseeable future.

Of course, the thing about gods is that, no matter what symbolism you choose to hang on Them, it doesn’t change the fact of Their existence. Moon goddesses are still there, no matter what we think Their existence may say about us, and some of them are quite happily subverting what we tend to think of as traditional ‘feminine’ lunar associations. The same goes for sun gods. And yes, this applies to moon gods and sun goddesses as well.

So I decided to start actively looking for Sunna and Mani when sitting outside, instead of dicking around with theory and my own gender issues. My personal practice tends to rock the UPG, and since there’s not a whole lot about either of Them in the lore, the sensible thing to do was go out and see what happened.

It was easiest to get a fix on Mani — I tend to be nocturnal, despite (or perhaps because of!) seasonal depression on my part. Daylight is safe and happy-making, so I want to curl up and sleep in the warmth and safety and contentment. And, seeing as how I’m a hermit by nature and not living alone for the first time in years, nighttime is good for being alone and destressing, without having to worry about unexpected people getting their energy all over my space. But I digress.

Mani was surprising. I sat outside, staring at the moon, remembering the childhood ‘man in the moon’ references. Seeing a face in the moon was easy enough, but as part of my Wiccan teenage years (before Silver Ravenwolf ever wrote trendy books about being a Teen Witch), I’d trained myself to see a woman’s face instead of a man’s. Consciously shifting my perception back to a male face there was difficult, but it seemed as good a place to start as any. I sat and watched the moon, feeling my way around the twist in perception, and just as the pattern of craters on the moon’s surface resolved itself into a male face, He was there. Or rather, He’d always been there, and I just hadn’t known how to look for Him.

For all that I’d tried to tap into the vast well of feminine lunar energy, the actual sense of Presence when I tried to do so always seemed rather remote to me. “Okay, yeah. Here’s some energy. Now run along and play.” Mani was completely different — He was very strongly present for me. I don’t remember if words were said; unlike Loki, He didn’t seem particularly chatty. He was just there with me, while I sat out on the front porch. He was… lovely, in the sense that appeals to the emotions as well as the eye. Quiet, too — I almost want to say ‘shy’, but that tends to be linked with social awkwardness, and it very much wasn’t that. The impression I got was of someone who doesn’t share much of Himself on short acquaintance. He was there, and He was friendly, in His quiet way, with a remarkably soothing presence, and that was enough.

I very much wanted to hug Him.

…Yeah, so much for “BOYGAWDTHINGEH MESSIN WIF MAH UTERUS? DO NOT WANT!” I feel silly now, and not just because I rendered that in lolcat.*

Of course, I’ve only scratched the surface where Mani’s concerned, and I know it, but the anxiety is entirely gone.

Sunna, on the other hand, was a different experience. Not the drawn-out sense of presence I got with Mani, but then, here in Texas, She tends to come on rather strong, and I overheat easily, so long periods outside during the day aren’t very good for me. Also, staring at the sun is generally considered a bad idea, so I couldn’t quite do what I did for Mani.

With Her, especially given my need for sunlight to keep from going into a rather nasty depressive cycle, it was more an impression of warm hands on my shoulders, and a strong feeling of, “Look, it’s not so bad. See? …If you need to sleep, by all means, but if you just need a little boost, here. Now you can go out and do things.” Not to say She spoke to me in those words, but that’s the best translation I can give for the way She felt. She was warm and friendly, but in a very indiscriminate way. My time spent tuning into Mani’s particular energy felt a lot more personal. Even so, She had that same sense of solidity to Her that Mani did; she clicked with me very strongly.

For all that I’m not completely cut off from other pantheons — it’s a big universe and there are a lot of different beings in it; it’s silly to expect me to only have to deal with one pantheon’s worth — the deeper I get into this, the more I seem to have a ‘reserved for:’ sticker on my perceptions. There really is a tangible clicking sensation, and the Northern Tradition gods and wights come across more strongly, while the others are… still there, but more distant. That’s Sunna up there for me, not Helios, for all that I could probably reach Helios if I tried. But unless there’s a specific reason for me to need to deal with Him, if I just reach for ‘solar energy’, it’s Sunna that’s on the other end.

It’s very reassuring, in a way; I know where I fit, and who I need to be learning from, and that’s a kind of spiritual security I haven’t had since my days as a wee Catholic.

Some people would find it strange that I’d get this sort of security from Loki showing up in my life, but it really does seem natural for me, and I can’t thank Him enough for this. It’s more than a bit frightening at times, but I’m so very, very grateful, all the same.

* Yes, I enjoy cat macros far too much. This leads to things like the nagging desire to translate the Poetic Edda into lolcat, as is being done with the Bible.