‘Cultish’ Author Amanda Montell Reflects on a Toxic Relationship

When bomb love to begin with, I was very young and my cheeks were still as round as snowballs. I met him two months after my 18th birthday and two months before graduating from high school. When I say “he,” I mean my toxic ex. I tried coming up with codenames for him, for his own anonymity but also because saying his real name still makes me nauseous. Recently, I have adopted the pseudonym “Mr. Backpack,” because he’s outdoors but also because our relationship still weighs heavily on my shoulders and I look forward to the day when I can finally take off my clothes, take off my shoes, open a cup beer, and wistfully recounting the time when I slipped and nearly fell off an emotional cliff.

Mr. Backpacks is 29 years old, with a keen intelligence and aloe green eyes. He is my friend’s sibling, so naturally, I developed feelings. He had a matted beard and white Scottish skin, had more tattoos and scars than baby-faced boys my age, and those eyes, those crinkled eyes as he spoke to me that I am special, a “genius”. He swore that I had something important to tell the world and he would help me figure it out.

Our flirting started when I was finishing my senior final and he was working on a movie set in California. I stole Mr. Backpack from my friend’s phone at a sleepover party and text him some silly joke; even after the texts evolved into all-night phone calls and Skype chats, I never considered it to be anything other than an unlikely friendship. After all, why would a 29-year-old man with a job and a life 3,000 miles away want anything more from someone whose greatest life accomplishment had something to do with an AP exam?

A few weeks later, Mr. Backpack told me that he was romantically interested in me. My bowels plummet because I really don’t see it coming. To save face, I pretended that I had been in our love for a long time. He flew to the East Coast to sneak me to a hotel room for the weekend, where we made love for the third time in our lives. Drunk with half a glass of champagne, I tried to be experienced, sober, but not hidden: I was a kid, and that’s what he liked about me. Naive and easily impressed, I just thought it was great that he could legally buy alcohol and book hotels alone.

The first time he told me he loved me, I was completely lost in my depths: At 18, I’d never been in love before and I barely knew how to handle a pile of clothes , much less than the physical body of a complete adult. and emotional needs. I don’t know what love feels like, and losing the chance to experience it turns me to stone. So I told him I love him back. Soon, we “realized” that if we had the chance to work, I needed to move from New York City – the big electric island where I had always planned to spend my adult life – to Los Angeles. , where he lived, as soon as I finished college. After all, he spent his whole life there. And he hates New York. In three years, instead of doing the usual college stuff on weekends and mid-semester breaks, I would fly to see him. I even graduated early so I could join him for a long time.

Looking back, it’s clear how “difficult” our motivations were: Excessive attention, vain promises, blind trust, withdrawal from my old life. I don’t think Mr. Backpacks intended to turn a teenage girl’s life upside down — I don’t think he seriously considers power imbalances at all. But he liked the feeling of being worshiped for not doing anything extraordinary.

a couple holding hands walking on a collage colorful background

Khadija Horton

When discussing beliefs, the term “love bombing” describes what in predatory relationships might be called “grooming”. “Brainwashing” is the cult term reserved for “psychological abuse” or “igniting.” With insults, you hear about “financial exploitation,” “mind control,” and “isolation,” which essentially mean the same as “domestic theft,” “thought control,” and avoid”. We call cult leaders “charismatic masters,” while we call abusive lovers “seduce narcissists.”

As I got older and more confident, the power scale changed, and Mr. Backpack became simpler and more reserved. I’ve become so used to phrases like “make love to yourself” and “do you hear how stupid I sound?” which eventually just convert to white noise.

I tell myself that pain comes with the territory of a relationship like this. I simply feel fortunate that a wise older man has chosen me. Following him seemed to be my purpose, the answer for the rest of my life. And the longer I stayed, the more difficult things became, the more I put my trust in him. I was finally 25 years old before defecting.

Only about three and a half years later, I am living a new life that feels very personal to me. I did a literary work in California: I published my first book, Wordslut, in 2019 and I published my second, Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, last month. This book studies the social science of cult language in groups from Heaven’s Gate to SoulCycle and social media experts.

I have always been attracted to leaders who abuse power and the followers they attract, in part because I think I have nothing in common with “those people”. I believe in the stereotype that people who form groups like Moonies or The Manson family despair, confusion, or intellectual deficiency. I imagined myself immune to the malevolent charms of prestigious masters.

Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism

After that, I started researching about Cultish and quickly discovered that these claims of pagans were not only superficial assumptions, but also obscured the fact that the influence of cults manifests in places we might not think of. – such as our relationships – and none of us are up there.

The labeling is different, but the conditioning and coercion techniques are more or less equivalent. Toxic relationships are just a cult of either. And for those who stayed in these situations the longest, their fatal flaw was not despair: It was optimistic, the idealistic belief that this person – this choice – is really the key to fulfillment. And if you are unfortunate enough to suffer, stay strong and try because your situation will be better.

The questions viewers tend to ask cult survivors sound like the ones people sometimes ask me about my relationship with Mr. Backpack: “Why did you join in the first place? Don’t you see the star signs? ” and then, “Why don’t you just leave?” I was aiming for True Love, but youth made me vulnerable, and I was too green to understand the difference between romance and control, between passion and toxicity, between adventure and chaos. All I know is that Ba has a sage look and a lot of promise, and I feel brave in pursuing a love that others may not.

For seven years, I waited for my relationship with Mr. Backpack improved, forever telling myself that as long as I get through it for a few more months, we’ll finally be happy. Then while writing Cultish, I learned about loss aversion, a behavioral economic theory that states that people in general feel losses far more deeply than gains: We convince ourselves to stay in negative situations. , from bad relationships to lousy investments to teachings, with the belief that victory is right around the corner.

couple walking on collage background

Khadija Horton

Sometimes I confide in a friend about the whole experience, and they ask why my parents didn’t try to stop me. I think, Well, their hands are tied. Trying to control me will probably only push me away. Like a parent watching their 18-year-old run away with a bunch of spirits around, they hoped I would get what I needed from him and one day return home safely.

I Won’t even tell my teenage self not to start dating Mr. Backpack, because, first of all, I’m stubborn, so there’s no way that advice would work. Second, I think being too careful in life will prevent you from experiencing the most important parts of it. I’ve interviewed survivors of some of history’s most notorious cults, and almost all of them tell me they don’t regret their experiences forcing them to bask in every ray of sunshine. life on the other side. I started to feel that way.

However, what I would tell her is that it is okay to be “disloyal” to the person who is hurting you. You can stop and ask at any time during your relationship: Who am I giving this power to? How much power are they taking from me? And what are they doing with it?

Whether it’s a lover or a master, it’s never too late to cut your losses: To lift the burden off your shoulders, leave it in the mountains and go back, because the scenery is so majestic. you hope isn’t there, and it’s not worth the climb anymore. It’s okay to forgive yourself – we all have our baggage – and build a life that is free and yours, as if you had never lost anything.

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https://www.cosmopolitan.com/sex-love/a37026117/toxic-relationship-cult-similarities/ | ‘Cultish’ Author Amanda Montell Reflects on a Toxic Relationship


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