Author and cult survivor Alexandra Amor’s story shares ten years of emotional and physical agony. Reading this book made me grit my teeth on more than one occasion.
Cult: A Love Story is the autobiographical tale of a young Canadian woman who, like most very young adults, was wandering through the mystery of her life searching for purpose. Joining a seemingly innocuous meditation class—her mother attended the class with her, for goodness sake, how dangerous could it be?—the lonely young woman slowly but surely begins to feel accepted and guided by the principles taught at the “circle”, and develops a strong attraction to the mysterious meditation group leader, Limori. Amor’s moldable being, so eager and ripe for acceptance, gradually leans further and further in, until she is eventually submerged in the life of a cult member.
The first thing that I admired about Amor was her desire to put it all out there: Every choice she made, good or bad, is told. By doing so, she shows how perfectly human and normal she is, yet how quickly she drifted into danger. Cult members start out just like you and me: They are not weak minded or broken, that happens later, at the hands of the cult. What makes normal people slip into the danger zone undetected is that their manipulator is a just that much better at reading people, a master at their and craft, and able to abuse others while convincing the victims they love or admire them. Like the analogy of a frog slowly and motionlessly cooking to death as water is gradually turned up to the boiling point, the follower believes the manipulator is harmless, even helpful, then is slowly disembowed without even knowing it.
Not many of us are better suited to fend off mind-altering, manipulative advances than Amor was. It’s just a matter of circumstance. Throughout the book, Amor quotes Robert J. Lifton’s Thought Reform and Psychology of Totalism, describing the multiple criteria for thought reform, or the eight ways in which manipulative leaders control their subjects. And it makes the reader uneasy, since it all sounds so familiar: With spirituality, conditioning, environment, separatism, doctrine, purity, secrecy, righteousness or favor, a guru leading followers astray is no different than a dictator controlling a nation through fear, an abusive parent controlling a child, or a church leader controlling a flock. In Amor’s case, the pursuit of deity, faith, acceptance and love were the tools used to entrap then hold her.
I found it ironic that the author’s last name, Amor, means love—because it was the pursuit of love for the Creator that cult leaders used to cajole this intelligent woman to a dark side, all the while convincing her that everything in the outside world was the true dark side. When Limori used God and love as the bait to deceive followers, it reminded me of a line from the movie The Green Mile: Death row prisoner John Coffey is explaining how a rapist was able to quietly and fatally lure two little girls out of their home without alerting their parents in the next room. All the rapist had to do was use love, telling the girls that if one made a sound, he would kill the other, and vice versa. “He kill them with their love, “says Coffey. “With their love fo' each other. That's how it is, every day, all over the world”. Amor and others in the group wholeheartedly wanted to prove their love to God. The sad truth is that they were only proving their love to an imposter who could never be satisfied, and in doing so they were dying a slow death by a million little cuts. Despite cruelties and being subjected to emotional, financial and physical abuse, these people gave up everything they had to try and gain Limori’s—therefore, God’s--favor.
Often, Limori and other leaders twisted Truth, Love and Light so completely that I genuinely feared for their human souls, so appalling were their actions. One sickening account tells of the degradation of an innocent woman who is told to rid herself of her prideful thoughts by stripping naked in front of a room full of followers. Despite clenched fists and tight lips, she complies and is paraded and berated before the group. What makes it more offensive is that none of her housemates defend her, instead joining the leader in humiliating her—as she will likely do herself in the future, when it happens to be them, not her, under Limori’s abusive microscope.
In what I consider the most bone chilling scene, the author describes Limori leading a small group of believers to a cliff side cave on the edge of the sea in Hawaii, purportedly to show them great Truth. Under the guise of working for God himself, she pushes her mind controls to the limit by demanding they acknowledge that she is their living god. “Those of you who do surrender to God, who are willing to offer all of yourselves to His purpose, will bow down before me. By doing so you will show that your pride and your ego will not stand against your service to the Light and to God. If you serve me, you will bow down, on your knees, arms outstretched in submission.”
And they do. Lowering themselves to their knees on the sharp, rocky cave floor, they bowed down to this monstrosity of a human being. I literally gasped out loud as I read that passage, first thinking I would never, ever bow down to a human being as if they were God, but then realizing that in moments of clarity, all of those people would have heartily said the same thing.
Throughout the story, the author does a great job describing not only how she fell into the danger zone, but why. She bravely puts the blame where truth demands it lie: On others as well as on herself. The book delivers the reasons why she and others become so deeply entrenched in loving an abuser, what psychologists and specialists in the field of cults have to say, and how to better understand someone who is being preyed on. It is not merely storytelling, it is also a guidebook of sorts into the world of mind control and thought altering behavior.
So genuinely told is Amor’s story that I found myself forgetting this was not fiction, this was real. This really happened, and continues to happen as cults strengthen their grasp on people throughout the world today. The good news is that ten years and many counseling sessions later, Amor is able to share her story with great honesty and depth, not for sensationalism sake, but to help those who have been abused by cults, and their friends and families, make sense of the madness and find some hope for recovery. She deftly uses other resources to enrich the value of the book, and includes not only a glossary of common cult lingo, but a reference section as well. In the end, Cult, A Love Story left me with the hope that if just one person somewhere reads this book and receives some sort of help from it, then maybe, just maybe all of Amor’s pain and struggle was worth it. Today, her song is much brighter, because she has found that there is, indeed, true love and acceptance after the cult.