Opinion: The dangers of manipulative student organizations and how to spot them

Graphic by Maria Nevada

Kaytlin Epperly

Cult, the word stings, frightens and angers. People may deny, distort and ignore the truth, but reality is that cultish behavior exists right here on University of Nebraska at Omaha’s (UNO) campus.

Common characteristics of dangerous and unhealthy groups, according to author Janja Lalich and psychologist Michael D. Langone, include “unquestioning commitment to its leader,” the use of “shame and/or guilt,” “preoccupation with bringing in new members,” “preoccupation with making money,” and the expectation of members “to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group.” The list of criteria goes on. Simply put, if an organization is controlling you, making unreasonable or intrusive rules for you, or telling you how to live the details of your life that should be up to you—it is an unhealthy group.

Having grown up with faith as an important part of my life, I wanted to join a Christian organization my freshman year. Without much effort I found an on-campus faith-based group. After attending the first meeting of the year I never looked back—until the next semester, anyway.

When the average person thinks of cultish behavior, he or she likely recalls extremes such as the KKK, Jim Jones or scientology. Images of people living in faraway villages and committing mass suicide may come to mind. However, oftentimes cultish behavior is subtle and inviting. A common tactic used is something we all want: Love, or more accurately, love-bombing.

During my first visit I was swarmed by strangers, showered with phone numbers and coffee dates. I was bombarded by invites to various small groups and church. At the time, it seemed I was met with relentless, unconditional love by strangers who genuinely wanted to know me. Though overwhelmed, I was immediately drawn in by their acceptance and insistence.

A few months into my involvement, my parents became concerned with how much time I was spending with the group. Events filled my week and many of us were burdened and burnt out from pressure to attend as much as possible. This significantly limited my life to their schedule. I unknowingly began prioritizing the group over my family, academics, interests and faith.

That group was spiritually abusive, psychologically harmful, controlling and manipulative. While my involvement was not nearly as traumatic as others’, it was not without difficulties. Shame, guilt and comparison shaped me into an inauthentic version of myself. Their monopolization of my time secured my life within the confines of their standards and control. And their persistence led me to alter my opinions in favor of their distorted views.

During my time in the organization, I was encouraged to invite as many people as I could. Praise was given to those who got others to attend. Why? They were preoccupied with gaining new members. This is common among many organizations, but not to this degree. Their insistence on attending and returning is intense—to the point of members knocking on people’s doors.

Despite the oddness of some of their beliefs and practices—such as the strict separation between men and women, the insistence of a male to receive permission from the pastor before pursuing a female, or the regulation of how to spend time with God—nobody seemed to question anything. An unhealthily obedient commitment to the leaders existed.

After realizing all this during the spring semester of 2017, I made the decision to leave. I never returned. And the unconditionally-loving friends I had gained when I stepped foot in the door? I lost them the minute I stepped out.

The past one and a half years I’ve been out have introduced me to an entirely new world of independence I didn’t know before. I learned to make all aspects of life—my faith, friends, academics and passions—my own. I learned to think for myself and not rely on pastors or leaders. And I certainly learned the difference between a healthy church and a manipulative group.

Nobody’s college experience should be controlled by a church or any other group. These years are meant for exploring our own ideals, interests, beliefs and preferences and learning to have answers for ourselves. It’s important to be wary of harmful groups and their tactics.

It’s crucial to recognize that dangerous groups do not tend to be dangerous. In her Huffington Post article “What is a Cult? Recognizing and Avoiding Unhealthy Groups,” Jayanti Tamm explains that the “word ‘cult’ is explosive, loaded with connotations of brainwashing, lunatics, and mass suicide—not exactly an ideal marketing strategy.”

Tamm goes on to explain that “events are welcoming; attention is lavished on the visitor with the intention to create an environment that feels inclusive, nonthreatening, and safe. The visitor is warmly encouraged to return, to step in closer” and that it “is not until later, often much later, that one may look around and, with great surprise, discover the strange terrain upon which one now stands.”

The damage caused by cults and unhealthy groups is avoidable. This is the time in life to discover who you are, not who someone tells you to be. Consider how you’re spending your time—you have only one college experience.