Recovering From a Political Cult
I spent the decade of the eighties trapped in a leftist political cult. The terrible irony of this experience was that, looking for a socialist utopia, I instead embraced a form of fascism. But one of the things I gained in those lost years was an understanding that penetrates my bones: a sure knowledge of power abuse, of what democracy isn't. I learned, from the inside out, what it was I'd always wanted to fight against. Talk about learning the hard way-this class in the School of Hard Knocks involved giving up my own human rights and participating in totalism, the very system I'd dedicated my life to destroying.
I have since written a book telling the story of my ill-fated entry into, and eventual escape from, this political cult. My escape was made possible by a long-awaited break in my isolation and made all the more urgent by a growing fear for my children's well being. In this brief essay, however, I want to share some thoughts on how I recovered from this experience.
At the age of 36 I walked away from the cult and found myself submerged by both practical problems and paranoia. Where would I live? Where would I work? How would I navigate my cult-arranged marriage-my husband still in and shunning me? How would I fight off his cult-ordered attempt to gain sole custody of our children? How would I sleep each night when I imagined every nighttime noise to be our cult leader coming after me with a shotgun? He had, I'd discovered as I left the cult, killed a man in one of the cult houses I'd lived in. How would I choose what clothes to wear, now that I no longer had to wear the dictated uniform of our group (a kind of Midwestern-housewife garb strangely unsuited to my radical past)? How would I get through the shame and terror that weighed on me so heavily? How the hell could I have been so stupid?
But luckily I came out with a small group of other cult members. We looked after each other, ate good meals together, assembled the scattered pieces of the puzzle (each of us holding only one isolated piece for all those years). We drank enough alcohol to relax and laugh after years of unremitting tension. I slept and I slept. Hours and hours of sleep to catch up on the years of too-short nights. I sat and did nothing. I watched nature unfold as Minnesota thawed into spring. I was so glad I came out in spring! I communed with the lilac bush in my backyard, watching it unfurl as I unfurled.
With the help of Free Minds and Answers Inc., two local cult education groups, I found, first, books that described and explained my experience and then, people who had shared it and could understand the rebuilding of self and life that I now faced.
The more I learned the less shameful I felt. I realized I'd been psychologically raped, and why should I blame myself for that? Perhaps I'd been guilty of gullibility, of insecurity, of a romantic dedication. But did that mean I deserved to give up ten years of my life to my cult leader's desire for unlimited control and obeisance? I began to make the political connections. I, who had idealized Mao Zedong, began to see how much mind control (or thought reform) had been an integral part of the Chinese Revolution and the subsequent Cultural Revolution. Memoirs of that time were added to my reading list.
And I started to write. I needed to drag a fine toothcomb through the lost years; to fully understand what had happened to me and, as I discovered, to so many in the Left. My cult, the O. (as in, The Organization), an underground group that, improbably, came out of the Twin Cities food co-ops, was certainly not the only weird left group around. I researched the fragmentation of the Left that occurred in the seventies and read memoirs of that period. From Fred Newman of The New Alliance Party, to black nationalist groups like the African Peoples Socialist Party to the Democratic Workers Party led by a radical lesbian, there were many examples of cultic left groups. They each used the techniques of mind control including isolation, deception, physical and psychological exhaustion: the same methods used by the myriad cults-including right-wing militia and racist groups (cults thrive on any extremist ideology)-now growing towards the millennium. In my search to understand the dynamics of power abuse and mind control, I identified other points on the continuum: domestic violence, therapist and "professional" abuse, power problems in the workplace, gangs, even schoolyard bullies.
As I wrote I relived my cult experience and despite the painful nature of so doing, I am convinced that this was a critical part of my recovery: that I went back over all that ground where I had so little control and analyzed the moment to moment loss of power, and, equally, the moment to moment slow regaining of it as I began to think again, to break the isolation, to regain my self. My writing began to shape itself into a book, and completing each of its three drafts became both a structure and a core of meaning during those chaotic years of rebuilding.
I became active in the cult awareness movement. I helped others who were leaving cults. I shared my story and listened to theirs. I gave talks. I talked to anyone who would listen, ad nauseum sometimes. But it helped so much: to take this terrible experience and now use it to prevent, even just one other person, from going through anything similar. I did, however, take on some new perspectives. I gave up the idea that I could, or should, change the world. I took on, instead, the proverb: Each one teach one. That seemed manageable. When possible I chose to do only those things I wanted to do, and when I felt afraid or claustrophobic in groups I got up and left. I no longer fulfilled every commitment I made. I became almost cavalier. Cartoons about cults made me laugh. But I also cried when I watched Waco burn or read about the cult tragedies that sell newspapers and make people say, "That could never happen to me!"
Now I'm done with my book. It's not published yet*, but there's a line of people waiting to read it. I feel satisfied that I've turned those bitter years into something valuable. That is my recovery and my payback. I'm involved in political work for the first time in the seven years since I've been out. But now my politics are of an almost shapelessly broad kind. I'm working on building a community based alternative newspaper. Yes, I'm working in a group, and I sometimes refer to we, as in: "We don't know if it'll actually get off the ground yet, but our process has been fun, democratic and moderately competent. We don't think we have all the answers; we aim to be inclusive and complicated, not easily reduced to clichés. Our discussions are open-ended and we don't particularly want to close off debate." This I can deal with.
Recovery takes time. Life comes back. You get to see how things feel to you (at least in those few moments when the practical crises of rebuilding life aren't too all-consuming) and you get to make personal decisions. My children now have two loving homes and parents who are free of the cult. Life has become complicated again, and reappearing beyond the black and white poles of absolutism is a gloriously messy paintbox of color.
*2002 published by Northstar Press, St. Cloud, MN: Inside Out: A Memoir of Entering and Breaking Out of a Minneapolis Political Cult (to be available through the AFF bookstore, www.cultinfobooks.com)
The Story of O: Life in and out of a political cult
On a sunny balcony in New Orleans, Alexandra Stein and her mother listened to jazz and feasted on freshly fried beignets. Stein's mother had flown all the way from London to vacation with her daughter.
But when Stein called home to check in, her roommate was irate: Stein's trip had not been authorized by their O. contact in Minneapolis. She must return immediately.
"I didn't know there was a rule," Stein said. "From out of the blue, I was in trouble." Rattled, she concocted a story for her mother and flew home.
Through the 1980s, every aspect of Stein's life -- her work, friendships, conversations, housing, what she read and when she slept -- was dominated by a revolutionary Marxist-Leninist group known as the O. It arranged her marriage and tried to dictate when she had children. It cut her off from relatives and friends, who had no phone number or address for her -- only a post office box.
Today at 48, Stein has vivid memories of a wasted decade marked by panic attacks. The day she left, she began writing down her experiences, compelled to understand how a bright woman like herself could be seduced into joining what she now says was a political cult.
Stein's riveting new book, "Inside Out," is the first detailed insider account of O.
The O. started in Minneapolis during the co-op movement of the 1970s. Perhaps 100 to 300 people passed through it during its heyday, yet it was so secretive that its existence was known only to members, the FBI and local leftist opposition groups that encountered it in its violent early days.
Even after '70s activism faded, the O. continued to thrive in Minneapolis as an underground collective of perhaps 30 true believers. Like Stein, they wanted to change the world.
Stein was 28 and living in San Francisco when she first heard of the O.
Personally and politically, she was at a crossroads. The co-ops and women's groups to which Stein devoted her life had become splintered and ineffective. Friends moved. She and her boyfriend split up. Stein was lonely, frustrated and at loose ends when she met an O. member from Minneapolis.
He described a group whose tight organization and seriousness seemed a marvel compared with the haphazard hippie ways of conducting business.
In 1979, Stein spent six weeks in the Twin Cities to check out the O.
Perhaps she should have been alarmed when her O. contacts put the telephone in the refrigerator and turned the radio up full-blast before talking.
But at the time, the FBI was infiltrating leftist groups. Black Panther leaders had been killed. If you believed that revolution was coming -- as Stein did -- it made sense to limit how many O. comrades you could name, to keep cells separate and go by code names. Hers was "Claire."
"Secrecy isolates," she said. "It also creates an aura of specialness."
To join, Stein first had to prove herself. So she returned to San Francisco and became a machinist and then a computer programmer -- as a stream of O. memos instructed.
Weeks before she was scheduled to move to the Twin Cities, Stein received a far more personal directive from her O. contact -- someone she had never met and knew only by the initials P.S.:
"Claire," the memo began, "It has been seen that you should engage in an organizational PR [personal relationship] with the strategic aim of having a child. This will be a critical step in your development. At present it is suggested you establish a PR with Stan" -- code name for a Minneapolis man who repulsed Stein.
Stein wrote back to say that she didn't relate well to Stan but was attracted to his roommate, Ted. She recalled Ted's wit, warmth and the guileless way he brushed his sandy hair from his forehead.
"I was lucky because I got in a marriage with someone I actually was attracted to," Stein said. "Others weren't so lucky."
Later Stein discovered that she was Ted's consolation prize for his giving up a lover outside the O.
The real thing
On May 1, 1982, International Workers Day, Stein packed 10 years of belongings -- personal journals, the complete works of Mao Zedong, feminist books and a quilt from her mother -- and drove to the Twin Cities.
"I was very nervous and very excited," she said. "The excitement is that you're dedicating yourself. This is it. This is the real thing. The old life had its problems. But you're leaving all those behind."
The O. cadre lived in renovated houses in inner-city neighborhoods of Minneapolis and St. Paul. In addition to their day jobs, members worked in O.-owned businesses: the People's Nutritional Bakery, the Working Woman and Man Bookstore, the Eastside Day Care Center, Dependable Computer Programs, a car shop, a food co-op and a print shop.
Stein moved into the study of a drab Minneapolis duplex with Ted and three other O. members. Three weeks later, a distant Ted suggested that it was time to share the same room.
In bed that night, Stein reached for her diaphragm. Why would she be using that, Ted asked, when their objective was to have a child?
"I was not a woman who normally would have ever let anyone make that choice for me," she said. "It was an act of great submission."
Everything about Stein's nights and days came to be dictated by faceless leaders and memos on beige paper.
Many longtime members hadn't met and couldn't name leader Theophilus Smith. As a result, they fantasized about the organization's size and scope. Some thought it was an offshoot of the Black Panthers or the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Others believed it was a nationwide collective run out of Detroit, Chicago or Oakland, Calif.
Secrecy was so tight that Stein didn't know that O. comrades lived on their block. Correspondence was kept under lock and key. She wasn't certain where Ted worked. It was a security breach for them to discuss their work or answer each other's phone calls. Friendly conversation with nonmembers -- even workers in the O. bakery or day care center -- was also a breach.
Stein got a machinist job -- as directed -- until she found a better one as a computer programmer at Lee Data in Eden Prairie. There, she dressed in dowdy button-downs to look inconspicuous, dashing after work to shifts at the bakery; it meant that her workdays lasted 18 to 20 hours.
She existed in a kind of weary netherworld, marked by freeway drives across the city at odd hours, mass-produced sandwiches hurriedly grabbed from the freezer and stolen snatches of sleep.
"Most of us were just too tired to think properly," she said. From work she made cult-related calls. "I'd be whispering into the phone about buying a panel truck for the bakery and hoping no one was listening."
She wasn't allowed to visit her family in England, except for the time she was directed to raise money from her father.
"I remember once Ted telling me not to write to this person in San Francisco -- that it was a relationship that was holding me back."
When Stein didn't immediately conceive, the O. leadership through Ted pressured her to undergo fertility tests. Exhausted and depressed, she asked for a break from the O.
After a withering cross-examination, her O. superiors agreed. She could leave -- but without Ted. Stein moved to an apartment in the Uptown area. Visits by O. members were forbidden.
After three months, she returned in total submission -- but not before superiors rebuked her, telling her that "the revolution isn't a dinner party."
She and Ted adopted two children -- a boy and a girl from Central America. For the next decade they would be her only reliable source of joy.
"We squeezed the happiness and joy and laughter out of life. And good food. And friendship. And love. All those things that are part of life -- for the greater good."
Fierce maternal instincts
For all the O.'s tough talk and self-denial, the underground revolutionaries looked and behaved more like middle-class drones. Stein had done nothing to organize the working class or change the world.
But for her to grasp how deeply she was enmeshed and devise a plan to get out took years. The first major step came in 1987, when O. discipline grew oddly lax. For an entire year Stein got no memos.
She and Ted started a computer consulting business. And they began raising money for the African National Congress (ANC).
Stein's passion for save-the-world politics had been born in South Africa, where her father was a prominent antiapartheid journalist with connections to Nelson Mandela and the ANC, and London, where her family's four-story Victorian home teemed with liberal writers, artists and politicians.
Now, through the ANC, Stein met revolutionaries doing dangerous, and what she perceived as historic, work. Yet they laughed, gossiped, ate well, danced and made friends outside the ANC.
"They were changing the world. And that was a wonderful model for me."
Only later did Stein learn that during that year of relative freedom, Smith had been in jail for manslaughter. The year before Stein joined O., Smith had shot and killed a man on the green shag carpet where Stein's son later learned to walk. By the time Smith returned to reestablish control, Stein and other members with doubts were talking.
But it was a series of upsetting events involving her children that pushed Stein to do for them what she couldn't do for herself. Three of the children's favorite teachers were suddenly purged from the O. day care center. Then their son was barred from playing with an O. friend after they were caught pretending to be Ninja Turtles. Both came on the heels of O. memos criticizing Stein and her husband for their children's free-form play.
"My idea of a happy child did not involve controlling their every move," Stein said.
Stein challenged the firings, only to have her criticisms turned back on her. Instead of supporting her, Ted crumbled. So when Stein plotted her exit, it was without Ted.
Leaving the O. was like stepping off a cliff.
Stein's belief system was shattered. She feared violent O. reprisals. She was undergoing a separation from Ted and fighting to keep her kids. And while she was lucky to have a decent income, she and Ted were splitting the computer business.
And, at 36, she had no social life.
Stein recalls being at a gathering that first year and blurting out her bizarre story to a transfixed circle of strangers.
"You're around normal people. But you don't feel normal. You've got this great tidal wave behind you of roiling emotional upheaval. You're in the middle of a divorce. You've out of this cult that you discover was led by a murderer. And here you are in this Loft class and people are writing about their summer vacations."
Electric shock memories
Twelve years after leaving the O., Stein lives with her children, both teenagers, in a comfortable north Minneapolis home, warmed by a pot-bellied stove and lively South African art. Her children are doing well in school.
Ted left the O. a year after she did. And though their efforts to hold their marriage together failed, they cooperate well when it comes to the kids.
Starting with 10 people who left the O. in 1991, Stein built a wide circle of friends. She loves rolling up her living room rug and dancing, laughing and eating good food. She dates less than she would like.
"You should see the looks on these men's faces when I tell them how I got to Minneapolis. Or what I studied in school. Or what my book's about."
Odd things trigger electric-shock memories of the O. -- driving by the old day care center or placing nonwork calls from her office.
Stein parlayed a peer-reviewed journal article she wrote on mothers and cults into admittance to the University of Minnesota's master of liberal studies program. She is working on a doctorate in sociology and researching the social psychology of extremist groups. But she feels she was robbed of the most productive decade of her life.
Occasionally, Stein is asked to counsel families that have loved ones in a cult.
"I say you have to keep trying. My family didn't know to even try. But I think if they had tried to reach me -- if they'd figured out there was a problem and what it was -- I would have come out much sooner."
The O. fits classic definition of a cult, expert says
People tend to think of cults as primarily religious, but the O. fits the classic definition with its clandestine structure, charismatic leader and all-controlling environment, said Janja Lalich, author of "Captive Hearts, Captive Minds." Lalich is an assistant sociology professor at California State University-Chico who has studied the O. She considers it a cult.
Once in a cult, a person's deep personal convictions mesh with group manipulation, Lalich said. Members are shamed into staying and getting more involved, until the cult becomes their whole world. Behavior that appears crazy to the outside world becomes the norm.
"Even when intuition told us that leadership wasn't making the best decisions, we still felt that we had the Truth, like a gold nugget, concealed in our pockets. It was ours," said Lynnette Wells, who with her husband, Bob Malles, was in the O. for 17 years. "And as cadre around us disappeared one by one over the years, we hung on even tighter because the Truth was all we had."
Most former members are embarrassed to talk about what Malles calls a "bizarre and painful experience." While he lauds Alexandra Stein's description of the O.'s lure and its gradual indoctrination process, he questions whether it was a cult. It was more like a failed experiment to transform people and the capitalist system, he said.
"The experiment blew up in the lab, so to speak, flinging the research staff far and wide," Malles said.
Minneapolis City Council Member Dean Zimmermann, who was briefly an O. member, agrees. "People wanted a dramatic change in our society. And this co-op organization with the left-wing dogma exploited that deep, burning desire to transform our society in a way that would make it better for all and not just the privileged.
"We looked to Cuba, which had health care for everyone. We looked to China, which eradicated starvation. We thought we could transform our society and eliminate the chasm between the rich and the poor," Zimmermann said.
The O. started around 1974 as the C.O. (Cooperative Organization), a Marxist-Leninist group, and operated for more than 25 years. Longtime members who left speculate that fragments of it may exist today.
At its height, the O. probably had 100 members, but was so secretive that even well-connected people in the Twin Cities political left were clueless about its inner workings, said Craig Cox, author of the 1995 book "Storefront Revolution" and executive editor of the Utne Magazine.
What they did see was an amazingly destructive force as the O. infiltrated existing food co-ops, antiwar and feminist organizations in the 1970s.
"These people were incredibly driven by ideological purity," Cox said. "They believed that to allow the co-ops to be this elite hippie, anarchist thing would detract from their own work. They were fairly ruthless in their desire for business gain."
Although the O. started its own businesses to prepare for the coming revolution, its leaders viewed the growing food co-op movement as an economic opportunity, Cox said. Late one Sunday night in May 1975, O. members armed with iron pipes took over the People's Warehouse, which distributed food to all the co-ops, fomenting Minneapolis' "co-op wars," Cox said. O. members later firebombed an opponent's truck and were believed to have a cache of weapons stored on the South Side of Minneapolis, Cox said.
The O. divided what had been one of the nation's most vibrant co-op communities, leaving it in disarray.
"I know people today who are still bitter about what the C.O. did to them and the co-op movement, and that was 30 years ago," Cox said.
None of the O.'s co-ops survived, Cox said. "The revolution that they wanted to create never happened."