The Cult Was Almost Glorious

***Please note that some details have been changed to protect confidentiality and preserve my safety. The core truths are intact even if a few details are altered.


Every once in a while, I remember the cult and wish I had joined. Just for a while, you know, until they asked me for money. I could have gotten away with it for a month or so: they have a free introductory class. As soon as they asked me for “tuition,” I could have scrammed—and, at that point, I would have had an inside scoop. And that might have been amazing. When else will I get the chance to join a cult for a whole free month?

OK, can I be honest? My longing goes beyond snagging insight for the sake of knowledge and writing material. I just loved the whole idea of the cult, at least until I realized it was a cult and not a glorious alternative school that embraced students forever, with no graduation in sight. It was presented to me as a group of friends learning together, with a wise but humble leader who was also a student: he would grow and explore along with everyone else.

Supposedly, everyone in these intimate classes was bright, alive, and giving. It was a special group, handpicked for depth and sensitivity. They might have offered a home base for someone like me; I was looking for some way of belonging in the world despite my aversion to traditional family life and professional niches.

It could have been paradise if it hadn’t been a cult. But since when is something that seems wondrous actually wondrous and not, you know, a cult, or whatever?

It all started as a simple friendship, though, thinking back, signs of the cult peeked through from the beginning. The public high school right near my Cambridge, MA home was hosting an evening of Turkish music, dance, coffee, and food. The highlight was a performance by whirling dervishes: dancers whose craft expresses spiritual insight from Sufism, a mystical path within Islam. I’d been to Turkey a few summers before and often remembered my time there with happiness. So when I saw this event advertised on a flyer at a local coffeehouse, I planned to go.

When I arrived, I found myself on line behind a quietly attractive, middle-aged, tallish woman with reddish hair, a slight smell of tasteful perfume, and one of those feminine, silky scarves that suggest “well put together female.” She turned around, smiled, and introduced herself as Alice. Immediately, we got to talking, and the conversation flowed with ease.

Alice told me the event interested her because she was writing a novel set in Turkey. Then she started discussing her interest in philosophy, particularly ancient Greek thinkers like Aristotle and Socrates. When she told me their writing spoke to her in a deep, almost mystical way, I decided to open up about my spiritual quest.

Alice was fascinated. She asked me all kinds of questions about the groups I’d explored, my possible mystical experiences, and my desire to compile it all into a book. We got our food and ate tasty Middle Eastern treats together, immersed in conversation about our projects.

It dimly dawned on me that Alice had a jealous streak: if I caught someone else’s eye at the table, she would steer my attention back to her in that classy way she had, softly but sharply speaking just when my attention began to wander. But I didn’t mind. I was actually flattered that she wanted my attention so badly. I mean, she was that tall, graceful, scarf-wearing type; it was intriguing that she wanted to talk to me, of all people.

The show was a rich bonanza of music played on traditional Turkish instruments and powerful spiritual dance. Afterwards, as we ambled outside into the slightly cool summer night, Alice suggested we exchange contact information. I noticed she didn’t offer her last name: she scribbled “Alice B” with an email address and phone number on a small card. I had a quick thought that this was very strange, but I figured judgment would only lead to sadness.

The next morning, I answered a phone call from an anonymous number and heard Alice’s soft but insistent voice: “Stephanie. Hi. I so enjoyed meeting you last night and keep remembering your questions about the soul after death. I would just love to see you again and hear more.” We decided to meet the following evening at a café here in Harvard Square.

Our conversation was both easy and deep. Alice listened with rapt attention as I told her about my spiritual quest and my longing for immortality of soul. I found out that she lived in an affluent suburb near Boston, and that she had two children who attended their local public high school. She worked as an administrator at Harvard, so she spent a lot of time in my neighborhood.

When I told her I taught at nearby Tufts University, she was intrigued, and started asking me about selective liberal arts college admissions. I heard raw hurt in her voice as she told me: “I went to an art school, so I really can’t help my kids here. I’m trying to learn as much as I can so I can be there for them when they start applying. My family wasn’t supportive, and I never got to study at a strong academic college.”

I loved Alice’s openness and wound up discussing myself in an intimate yet casual way. She asked me if I lived alone, and I told her my last roommate was way back during my first year of college. Since I felt a friendship brewing, I wanted to be honest and forthcoming, so I shared that I had no interest in pairing up or raising children, and that sex was not my thing. I told her my goals centered around my spiritual quest and my writing; she grinned and said: “That is just fabulous.”

Earlier in her life, she suspected she wouldn’t wind up married—that lifestyle wasn’t anything she’d dreamed about in her younger days—but, somehow, she met her husband, who turned out to be a devoted spouse and father. “It just kind of worked out this way, but it was very unexpected,” she explained. “I could have been just as happy in your situation.”

Alice steered our conversation towards finances, asking pointed questions like whether I rented or owned my apartment. Though I found this slightly surprising, I didn’t mind. I shared that I owned a small condo and led a simple, debt-free lifestyle, always making sure I had more than enough money to meet my needs. She thought that was wonderful and told me she was very similar.

I left our meeting feeling joyful. It’s not every day that I make a new friend so easily: someone who so clearly appreciates me, my personality, and my values.

Two days later, Alice called again, wanting to set up another meeting. I told her I needed to check on some obligations and would get back to her soon with convenient possibilities. She became a bit agitated and asked if we could set up a tentative time right away, with the understanding that we could always change it if necessary. This struck me as odd and rather obsessive, but I am not exactly calm, cool casualness myself. I understood: she wanted to be sure we had something in place. She liked me, and was very serious about seeing me. How nice.

We met two more times, and, during our third meeting, Alice told me about her special group of friends: “We meet at a school of philosophy, but it’s a very private school. You won’t find us anywhere online. You shouldn’t even try to Google us; you’d just be wasting your time.” This didn’t bother me one bit: I liked the idea of a private, intimate gathering.

She looked at me and smiled, quietly holding my gaze for a minute or so. “You could meet with us for a month. We’ll have a new class starting up soon. You can see how you like it and then decide whether you want to continue. Look at it as an experiment.”

I loved the idea of an experiment; it somehow fit with the life philosophy I wanted to move towards: seeing things a bit more casually, seizing opportunities without too much hesitation or doubt. It was just an experiment. If I didn’t like it, I never had to go again.

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Then Alice pushed her face a bit closer to mine and warned me not to discuss these sessions with anyone. “It’s between us, the group of us in the class. Other people won’t understand. If you discuss it with people who aren’t part of the experience, you won’t learn what you should. You’ll be wasting your time.” She flashed me her charming, classy smile, and, right in that moment, I felt I wanted to trust her, just go with it for a month and follow her instructions.

The next morning, Alice called to set up a meeting with her two teachers. I had a two-week trip coming up in just a few days and was overwhelmed with planning and packing for it: I just couldn’t think about the philosophy class right then. I told her I would love to meet her teachers, but would prefer to make definite plans after my vacation.

I could feel her agitation. Don’t ask how, but it was palpable to me through the phone. She remembered that I was leaving on Thursday, and asked if I could meet before then. I told her I couldn’t and felt proud of myself. I did want to meet these teachers, but only at a convenient time.

Throughout my trip, I didn’t think much about Alice. The really weird part: I didn’t even mention Alice or her group to anyone. I tend to ignore rules when they don’t involve success for me in a professional situation, or basic safety. And I love to discuss my goings-on with my parents and friends. Ordinarily, this Alice character and her “philosophy class” would have gotten hashed out and analyzed several times.

But I kept it all to myself. Alice asked me not to tell anyone, and I would respect her wishes. If I followed her advice and saw this as an experiment, I wanted to have the full experience of the group, and that seemed to involve leaving non-group members out of it.

Soon after I returned to Cambridge, Alice called me to touch base about meeting her teachers. By this point, I wasn’t surprised by the obsessive tinge to it all: the fact that she remembered when I would be back in town and called the next day. I told her I was happy to meet her teachers, and she said she would let them know and get back to me soon.

Somehow, at that moment, my thoughts started to shift. Could this be a cult? The persistence was almost unreal—far beyond what you might see when a kindred soul reaches out in friendship. I posted the situation on Facebook, asking people what they thought. The overwhelming and convincing response: Yes. A cult.

I laughed, but I was also bruised and shocked, despite my growing suspicions. I was really looking forward to Alice and her group. I even envisioned little fantasies: sitting around a table with my classmates, enjoying their revelations, sharing my thoughts and problems and finding caring pals whose desire to help was passionate and genuine. Alice and I would sit next to each other, and, every once in a while, we’d exchange a special glance. “Isn’t this amazing?” she would say—not in words, but through some kind of quick telepathy. “They are here for you. I am here for you. You have a place now.”

But, in the end, I had to laugh at myself. This wasn’t a place for me. I mean, maybe it was, but it was a cult.

Finally, I discussed the situation with my mother. “This sounds like a cult,” she commented after I’d shared maybe two sentences about Alice. Leave it to her: a half hour later, she called me back, all excited, saying she was pretty sure she had found Alice’s group online. “I just plugged in certain things you mentioned and there it was,” she said. I followed her lead and she was right: an ex-member has a whole blog about her mostly nightmarish experiences. She even met Alice at a local supermarket. Trust me, it had to be Alice; I have no doubt.

Turns out that Alice and her husband are big machers in the cult: they are constantly on the lookout for new members and have been very successful luring people in. After the first month, membership fees are steep, and the elderly woman who started the group with her husband back in the 70s has become quite wealthy as a result.

This cult is active both in New York and in Boston, and the regulations for members are chilling. They are not even allowed to recognize fellow members outside the group: they’re supposed to walk right past each other, as if they were strangers. (They don’t live on the premises, and they do have outside lives and jobs: necessary to keep the money flowing in.) Group activities begin to take over lives, with expectations to help with ever-increasing events and obligations. Tales of teachers verbally abusing students who don’t follow the rules are common, but the students tend to accept it all because they’re in deep. The group is the center of their lives, and if they leave, they’ll feel stranded.

A bit of Googling turned Alice up with an indisputable picture from her administrative job, and her online work profile included her bachelor’s degree from an extremely selective liberal arts college. She’d given me a false name, but her real one popped out soon enough when I started researching the cult. (“Alice” is my own fabrication; I’m keeping this anonymous.) Though she’d told me she had no clue about selective college admissions because she hadn’t attended that sort of school, here she was, online, clearly active in her elite college’s alumni activities. People lie and fabricate all the time, usually to make themselves appear more successful, more intriguing, or younger. But the motivation behind this particular lie seemed obscure and unsettling.

When Alice called me next, I laced right into her. I told her I knew all about her group and mentioned specific names, just to be sure she knew that I was onto her.

“You’re so wrong,” she said, quietly. “I told you our group can’t be found online.”

“Oh, it’s findable all right.” I mentioned some more specifics and told her I found her real name through Googling about the group. “I know where you went to college, and it wasn’t an art school.”

She was silent for a moment, then said: “Just remember, and this is a pointer for you in general, not just for this situation: Horrible, horrible things are said online. Things that aren’t true.” Then she said she hoped we could meet again, in pure friendship, nothing to do with the class.

I was angry, but was I so enraged that I would refuse to see her again? I figured she was a victim of the system, in so deep she couldn’t control her actions. She seemed so open, kind, and empathetic. Those traits had to exist somewhere beyond the cult: I could feel it.

“Sure,” I said. “Let’s meet again.”

She promised to call back when she had a better sense for availability. I never heard from her again. Of course.

One of the cult’s membership criteria is dissatisfaction with current life. I am always dissatisfied: always reaching out, hoping for a change. My disappointment is profound, but so is my hope. When I think about the cult, I don’t just laugh it off, thanking the universe that I discovered the truth before I lost much. I wouldn’t have lost much: as soon as they asked me for money, I would have scrammed. This I know. I am scrupulous about saving my resources for my own projects and skeptical towards anyone who seeks them for any other purpose.

I just wish the cult hadn’t been a cult. If only it had been something like those scenes my mind concocted when I pictured Alice, her friends, and me. But that’s never how it works.