After leaving the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) conference held in early July, I have an increased desire to learn about dysfunctional groups, the results of being involved in such groups and how to heal from involvement in them. These desires have led to searching and more time spent reading. As sometimes happens when I am reading more than one book at a time, the ideas in each resource begin to cross-pollinate and relationships are noticed between the materials. As mentioned in the previous post, I am reading- “Rebuilding Shattered Lives: Treating Complex PTSD and Dissociative Disorders” by James A Chu, (Copyright©2011 by John Wiley and Sons, Inc. Hoboken, NJ ISBN- 978-0-470-76874-7). The author focuses on treatment models for adults who have experience abuse in their childhood.
At the same time, I have been reading – “Cult Survivors Handbook: How to live in the Material World Again” by Nori Muster. (Copyright©2010 by Nori Muster, published by Blurb.com, www.norimuster.com) Though I have not completely finished either book, I need to share the understanding that has come so far. [As a disclaimer, by quoting these works I do not assume any endorsement by either author of my conclusions or my work on this blog. ]
In this post, I will provide resources supporting the title and relate the findings to the high-demand faith group, Word of Faith Fellowship (WOFF), which I departed in July of 2008. I will also quote from Chu’s work in describing the results of child abuse as seen in adults. My contention is that the perfectionism in WOFF has highly detrimental effects on its members and requires dishonesty on several levels in order to remain a faithful member.
“Nori Muster has been a journalist and writer since 1981 and holds a master’s degree based on creative arts counseling. She writes fiction, poetry, personal essays, and recovery books. For an index of her writing, go to norimuster.com. Her first book, “Betrayal of the Spirit: My Life behind the Headlines of the Hare Krishna Movement” (University of Illinois Press, 1997), documents her ten years in ISKON, the Hare Krishna organization.” (page 115)
Muster begins in the first chapter describing some general characteristics of dysfunctional groups. The narrative is full of what I believe are very accurate statements about high-demand faith groups, though Muster does not make an exclusion to just that type of dysfunctional group.
“The worst thing about a dysfunctional group is its tendency to perpetrate abuse.”(page 17)
“Dysfunctional systems are populated addicts, codependents and victims. Addicts are those who must abuse substances (alcohol, drugs or food) or processes (work, sex, money, gambling or relationships) to feel whole. They are generally self-centered and uncaring about the emotional abuse they perpetrate in the drive to satisfy their addictions.
Addicts tend to make faulty decisions, exhibit personality disorders, and perpetrate dishonesty and abuse. Having an addict in a key position can lead a family or organization to disaster. In the group I belonged to, the leaders were either blatantly addicted to drugs or they exhibited process addictions to money, power and sex.” (page 18)
As a former member seeking to make sense of the WOFF experience and resolve the past with the present, I can only tell what I know and have seen and heard. When first reading about “process addictions,” the concept made sense and depicted what I witnessed during my WOFF days. As far as I know, I did not see or hear of the leader or leadership addicted to drugs. However, reflecting back and applying the term “process addiction” to my memories, I must conclude that strong addictions to power, money and the CONTROL of sex were present at WOFF. Let me explain.
The dynamics of the pyramid structure centralized power at the top with the leader. How could this be argued? Ultimate control of all money and resources in WOFF rested where the power vortex was – with Jane. Why should it be a surprise that control of relationships and intimacy would reside anywhere else but with the leader? Previously on this blog we have chronicled the control of sex between members by the leader and leadership of WOFF. In referencing this practice, we need to place in the larger framework of WOFF. For the couples married before they enter WOFF, group leaders effectually ease into controlling the intimate times. Concerning the couples married inside of WOFF, the control begins earlier. Though it would be denied, Jane orchestrates the relationships of the young folks and many a time I heard her say, “If you don’t get a breakthrough, there will be no wedding.” So, the manufactured relationships produce marriages under the control of the leader. Controlling the intimacy is the next logical step in the life of WOFF couples.
One may suspect or wonder if there is some kind of vicarious pleasure for those who administer the control and monitor the process. I can’t say for sure. However, let me put controlling the intimacy into the larger picture of WOFF-life. Eventually, some couples will conceive and have children. The next level of control and addiction to power applies here. The children of these couples “belong to God” according to Jane and she alone speaks for God. So, she administers control over these infants and if you doubt- cross her. She will tell you, “This child doesn’t belong to you, and he belongs to God!” That all sounds real spiritual. But, in the years to follow the parents, who stay in WOFF, will not have parental rights enjoyed by others in our nation. That should not shock anyone. The control Jane exercises goes beyond a simple process addiction. She seeks to own the next generation as she has declared she feels “personally responsible for them before God.” By noting her actions, she apparently believes her salvation has much to do with how others behave and “follow God.” This twisted aspect of the intense religious perfectionism in the leader and thus in the sub-culture of WOFF can’t be overlooked.
For more information on process addictions- look here.
Muster continues: “Cults often have individuals or teams of individuals who go around encouraging other members to refuse to refuse to acknowledge what is really happening.
Getting others to believe a denial-ridden assessment is an example of dishonesty. Denial and dishonesty are central to the ways cults function. Once the traits are accepted as normal, members believe that the organization would not survive if it were honest. Therefore, members are willing to protect the secrets.
Dishonesty is the result of perfectionism. The illusion that everything is perfect can only be maintained if conflicting information is suppressed. Thus cult leaders become obsessed with denial and dishonesty, even in matters that are inconsequential, since they want everything to appear perfect.” (page 21)
As I read this description; events, statements made by leadership and Jane Whaley were brought back to my remembrance. One obvious “denial-ridden assessment” was one leader exhorting us to NOT read the local paper’s account of Leigh Valentine’s bankruptcy. The post was titled “Don’t Read That Article! July 2006.” (link)
How safe was it to believe that we should not tell outsiders what we were doing- they would not understand. Looking it back, it should have been a big sign of something amiss. Then there was the service where Jane directly told us to NOT tell outsiders- “The Church Service No One was to Talk About” link
Simply by the predictable changes in church services when visitors were present made it obvious that at least at some level, Jane was trying to have WOFF appear as something we were not. Was this dishonesty as a result of perfectionism? Why did Jane not want visitors hearing her blast and openly rebuke members for simple infractions of unwritten rules? Would this have seemed to visitors as less than a perfect place to live and raise a family? Jane’s preoccupation with presenting a perfect place to live seems to motivate the cover-up and dishonesty. Yet, Josh Farmer, as spokesman for WOFF says- “…we have nothing to hide…”
In previous posts, we have reviewed the legalism evident by the many numerous rules of conduct at WOFF. Driving these rules, I believe is perfectionism in Jane and in her leadership. However, until recently, I did not know there were three types of perfectionism. The following excerpts come from resource articles with links included.
“Perfectionism The Enemy of Everything”– by Amanda Neville – www.forbes.com- link
In this article the author writes about perfectionism in the work place. She provides a brief description of the three kinds of perfectionism:
1. Self Oriented – in which individuals impose high standards on themselves
2. Socially prescribed perfectionism- where individuals feel others expect them to be perfect
3. Other oriented perfectionism- where individuals place high standards on others
Her resource link is – “The Dark Side of Perfectionism Revealed” by Rachel Rettner- www.livescience.com —link
“The researchers found socially prescribed perfectionism was associated with poorer physical health, which in this case meant individuals experienced more symptoms of health problems, had more doctors visits, took more days off work, and gave themselves low scores when asked to rate their health.”
In my thinking, “socially prescribed perfectionism” would include religiously motivated perfectionism when considering a “church” or other organized peer group. More from this article:
“Those who feel others expect them to be perfect might also experience declines in health as a result of distancing themselves from other people, and any support from friends and family.
“We know social support is a huge indicator of physical health. If you tend to have strong bonds with people, good family life, good friendships, you tend to be healthier,” Molnar said. “And we know socially prescribed perfectionists, they tend to have this sense of disconnection with other people, so it would make sense that one of the ways they would experience poorer health is because of this sense of social disconnection from others.”
Stopping here and reviewing the information on perfectionism. In my opinion, the leader of WOFF would score high on all three types of perfectionism. Members may have a degree of all three and more of the socially prescribed perfectionism because the legalism inside the group. This would help explain the stress levels inside the group and the health issues which have beset several members and former members. Stress is a killer and living in an intense perfectionist environment brings loads of stress! Does this make sense? And there is also the tendency to DENY the stress and be dishonest about the real conditions in a dysfunctional group. Add to this dynamic the religious aspect and having your eternal salvation hinge on your ability to be perfect and in the Name of Jesus you have been set up for stress waves and emotional earthquakes! WOFF members never fulfill the perfection that Jane demands based on her interpretations of Scripture.
In keeping with the resource- “And we know socially prescribed perfectionists, they tend to have this sense of disconnection with other people,…” Living inside of WOFF could be a lonely time as you could not share your imperfections or doubts since to do so only bring public rebuke, blasting and other forms of discipline. The struggle was in knowing you were expected to “hear God every moment” and knowing you couldn’t and knowing only Jane could and knowing she would tell you so to make you look far from perfect, which you knew you already were. The longer you lived inside of WOFF, the more you realized relationships were based on the lie that Jane was perfect and you were not – but, you were expected to act like it especially in front of visitors and outsiders. That was the catalyst for the anxiety, stress and loneliness that pervaded many lives at WOFF. The conflict: Do you continue lying to yourself to stay in the group or do you stop the dishonesty and recognize the dysfunctional system for what it was- a construct where the purpose was to feed Jane’s idea of her cherished perfection. This was all part of the conundrum of living inside of WOFF or groups like them. Do you want to join, yet?
I believe another reason for the struggle in living in perfectionist environments is that most people desire to be honest and true. Strike it up to my naïve nature, but I believe most people want to do the right thing and tell the truth about themselves and others. At the root of membership of WOFF and many other high-demand groups comes the requirement to lie about something, someone or worse– you and your family. This was a formula for internal conflict. These lies were many times covered over with spiritual sounding reasoning and the “loaded language” of your group. These terms are meant to stop critical thinking and desensitize the faithful member to the realities going on before them. On one hand the loaded language creates a social bond and on the other hand it serves to numb members to abuses and the realities of the results of the dynamics inside the group.
For instance, when a person is on discipline and shunned by other members- this is “God setting them apart to speak to their heart.” The truth is it is meant for the member to bend their will to the will of the group or group’s leader.
When Jane tells members she knows if they are tithing because she checks the records. This is meant “to make you realize how much she loves you to make sure you are not robbing God and bringing a curse on yourself.” The truth is it is religious extortion. As a faithful WOFF member you must go along with the dishonesty or you will be ousted for “rebellion.”
From www.psychologytoday.com – “Pitfalls of Perfectionism”- by Hara Estroff Marano- link
And relating perfectionism to a child’s development:
“Concern with mistakes is a reflection of what Frost calls the core issue in perfectionism, the unspoken belief or doubt that arises in a child’s mind: “I’m incompetent or unworthy.” It leads to hypercriticalness and the rigid adherence to strict standards of performance under all conditions. It is the element of perfectionism most linked to psychopathology. And it comes about because a child has been made to feel that approval is contingent on performance.
The conditionality of love doesn’t have to be stated. It can be communicated in simply “the way the whole environment is structured,” says Frost. “If the parent is enthusiastic only when the child accomplishes something or spends a lot of time working at something, then it’s unspoken yet demonstrated by the environment.”
Pushing for perfection clashes with children’s developmental needs. If a child’s sense of self comes to rest on accomplishments, they buy into the idea that they’re only as good as they achieve. Driven from within to reach that impossible ideal, perfection, they become compliant and self-focused…
The truly subversive aspect of perfectionism, however, is that it leads people to conceal their mistakes. Unfortunately, that strategy prevents a person from getting crucial feedback—feedback that both confirms the value of mistakes and affirms self-worth—leaving no way to counter the belief that worth hinges on performing perfectly. The desire to conceal mistakes eventually forces people to avoid situations in which they are mistake-prone—often seen in athletes who reach a certain level of performance and then abandon the sport altogether.” (emphasis added)
After reading this, I began to incorporate the idea that abuse of a child is not just physical, but emotional and that emotional abuse is sometimes brought upon the child through the parent’s perfectionism or as in the case of WOFF- the dynamics of the child’s environment in a closed community. Inside the WOFF-culture, certain children are allowed to exercise abusive discipline on other children to exact punishment for not measuring up to the perfectionist standards. This added layer of abuse requires intervention at the earliest possible moment. Measuring the intense damage done to the child-victim in this case would be difficult. These evolving abusive dynamics are why the following description in Chu’s work correctly describes some of those inside WOFF and some of those who suffered for years inside as children and are now out.
From “Rebuilding Shattered Lives”, in the section titled: The Therapeutic Challenge,
“This volume is about the treatment of adults who have grown up bearing the scars of severe and chronic childhood abuse. These persons cannot simply go on with their lives; this kind of abuse cannot be forgotten, disregarded, or left behind, and it continues to have profound effects in almost every domain of their existence. Severe and long-standing trauma introduces a profound destabilization in the day-to-day existence of many victims. They feel unpredictably assaulted by unwanted thoughts, feelings, and reminders of abuse. They are tormented by chronic anxiety, disturbed sleep, and irritability. They have symptoms that alter their perceptions of their environment, disrupt their cognitive functioning, and interfere with a sense of continuity in their lives. They are subject to powerful impulses, many of which are destructive to themselves or others. They have explosive emotions that they cannot always control. They experience emotions that they cannot always control. They experience self-hate and self-loathing and feel little kinship with other human beings. They long for a sense of human connection but are profoundly alone, regarding other people with great mistrust and suspicion. They want to feel understood but cannot even begin to find the words to communicate with others about their most formative experiences…”
My contention is that WOFF and groups like them are foundries for production of abused children AND adults. True, not everyone suffers the same level of trauma. However, enough of them suffer that it requires attention. Children and adults can be resilient to some degree to the dynamics inside a controlling group. However, the constant presence of intense drama/trauma means we can’t label these groups as safe. The damages may not be known during the time inside because of the dishonesty resulting from the religiously oriented perfectionism. This dishonesty is used to divert the accurate depiction of the day-to-day circumstances. Maladjustments may be labeled as “devils” and treated with more drama/traumas. The WOFF religion and its practices require the member to believe the denial-ridden depiction in order to quell the doubts and the questions. The dynamics of the dishonesty often go beyond detection until a crisis point is reached and honest assessment begins. Overcoming the dishonesty which is in the fabric of the sub-culture is a hurdle for those leaving groups such as WOFF. Survivors can leave the perfectionist environment and begin a journey of honesty and adventure in learning who they want to become and how to get there.
Thank you, for taking time to visit and read this blog. Please, consume the information on this site responsibly. The author is not a licensed mental health professional and encourages those that need professional help to seek it. The intent of the material is to inform and be a resource. Be sure to tell every member that you know at WOFF about this blog. There are readers at WOFF. Jane told me and Josh confirmed it.
Comments are invited from all readers, including present or former members. Polls are not scientific and no private information is gathered.
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Scripture references are Amplified Version unless otherwise noted. (Copyright © 1954, 1958, 1962, 1964, 1965, 1987 by The Lockman Foundation ) This is post number 488.